Kenneth Burke famously defined rhetoric as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.” Although the use of visual rhetoric in mass media has an extensive history, the development of new visual networks in the 20th century changed the face of mass communication: film, television, and the world wide web all rely heavily on the interplay between visual and linguistic information. Inverting Burke’s definition of rhetoric, this class will analyze how symbols work as a linguistic means of communication. The images of our everyday life—from memes, Instagram, and Vine to film, tv, and photojournalism—will serve as our primary texts as we explore the fascinating landscape of 21st century visual rhetoric.
As we work together to expand our understanding of this rhetorical landscape, we will practice three basic approaches to reading images: visual rhetoric as a way to do something, visual rhetoric as a way to know something, and visual rhetoric as a way to be or become something. We will begin by examining how images function as public address. How do we communicate with each other using images? What are these images meant to signify, and how is communicating with images different than communicating with spoken or written language alone? We will build on that understanding by looking at what sorts of assumptions and understandings different media rely on. How do the codes, clichés, and conventions of the visual communicate to an audience via a system of informal logic? Finally, we will read visual rhetoric as not only descriptive but also constitutive in the composition of our every-day lives. How does visual rhetoric shape our perceptions, our identities, and our communities? To answer these questions, we will produce both visual and written compositions that help us further our understanding of how visual rhetoric functions as a powerful communicative force in our society.