Rhetoric and Visuality Research Paper

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If visuality is understood broadly as the practices, performances, and configurations of the appearances, then the relationship between rhetoric and visuality is as old as the art of rhetoric itself. The ancients tied rhetoric to the world of mimesis, or the appearances, rather than to the realm of philosophical truth; this relationship has often unfairly relegated both rhetoric and the visual to subordinate status in the Platonic regime of knowledge (Kennedy 2001). Yet in the ancient tradition the visual is constitutive of rhetoric in a number of ways. The canon of delivery references visuality in its emphasis on gesture, movement, and performance (Kjeldsen 2003). The trope of ekphrasis (literally “bringing-beforethe- eyes”) and Aristotle’s notion of phantasia reference the ability of rhetoric to create images in the mind and cultivate affective grounds for judgment (O’Gorman 2005). Sight is framed as a powerful influence on persuasion by Quintilian, who divided images into the categories of pictorial images and mental images, and argued that the best orators created visions (visiones) in their listeners’ minds (Scholz 2001; Kjeldsen 2003).

A contemporary discussion of the relationship of rhetoric to visuality would position itself in relation to the rise of visual culture studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The concept of visuality emerged in the 1980s as a key term of the poststructuralist turn in art history. Hal Foster’s germinal collection, Vision and visuality (1988), which featured the work of scholars such as Jonathan Crary and Martin Jay, notably framed visuality as the recognition that vision is socially constructed and historically constrained; how we see is not natural but tied to the historically specific ways that we learn to see. Jay (1996) usefully lists a range of concepts and theorists associated with the study of visuality, most importantly the gaze (Laura Mulvey), surveillance and panopticism (Michel Foucault), spectacle (Guy Debord), scopic regime (Christian Metz and Martin Jay), the mirror stage (Jacques Lacan), and the pictorial turn (W. J. T. Mitchell). The concept of the pictorial turn has been of particular interest to rhetorical scholars because it encourages scholars to revisit relationships between image and text, and marks a growing recognition that the visual is not reducible to the operations of language or text (Mitchell 1994).

In the field of communication, scholars’ attention to the rhetorical aspects of visuality in this poststructuralist sense is relatively recent, though attention to the rhetoric of visual artifacts goes back several decades. The 1971 Wingspread Conference “Report of the Committee on the Advancement and Refinement of Rhetorical Criticism” famously argued that rhetorical critics should pay increased attention to visual artifacts, performances, and media. While scholars after Kenneth Burke accepted the notion that rhetoric was best conceived broadly as symbolic action of all kinds, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a critical mass of scholars began conducting case studies of visual artifacts such as murals, posters, documentary film, television, political prints, and memorials; their interests are reflected in Martin J. Medhurst and Thomas Benson’s (1984) edited collection, Rhetorical dimensions in media. Partly as a result of the growing disciplinary acceptance of rhetorical analysis of visual artifacts, and partly as a result of the rise of attention to visuality in the humanities more generally, by the late 1990s what was coming to be called “visual rhetoric” had begun to coalesce into a recognizable sub-field of rhetorical studies in communication departments. Scholars not only continued their decades-long interest in exploring the rhetorical aspects of historical and contemporary visual artifacts, they also began to attend to issues of visuality more explicitly. Today, communication scholars working at the intersection of rhetoric and visuality concern themselves with a wide variety of theoretical, critical, and historical questions, including the practices of visibility and invisibility, the role of spectacle in the public sphere, rhetorical histories of viewing, the role of image appropriation and circulation in public culture, and the complex relationships among rhetoric, the body, and cultural performance (Prelli 2006; Olson et al. 2008).

See also:


  1. Foster, H. (ed.) (1988). Vision and visuality. New York: New Press.
  2. Jay, M. (1996). Vision in context: Reflections and refractions. In T. Brennan & M. Jay (eds.), Vision in context: Historical and contemporary perspectives on sight. New York: Routledge, pp. 3–12.
  3. Kennedy, G. A. (2001). Imitation. In T. O. Sloane (ed.), Encyclopedia of rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 381–384.
  4. Kjeldsen, J. E. (2003). Talking to the eye: Visuality in ancient rhetoric. Word and Image, 19(3), 133–137.
  5. Medhurst, M. J., & Benson, T. W. (eds.) (1984). Rhetorical dimensions in media: A critical casebook. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
  6. Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  7. O’Gorman, N. (2005). Aristotle’s phantasia in the Rhetoric: Lexis, appearance, and the epideictic function of discourse. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 38, 16–40.
  8. Olson, L. C., Finnegan, C. A., & Hope, D. S. (eds.) (2008). Visual rhetoric: A reader in communication and American culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  9. Prelli, L. J. (ed.) (2006). Rhetorics of display. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
  10. Scholz, B. F. (2001). Art. In T. O. Sloane (ed.), Encyclopedia of rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 52–57.

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