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I honestly wish I had read Kress and van Leeuwen account on semiotics before trudging through Barthes and Arnheim. Their chapter “The Semiotic Landscape” helped to clear some of my confusion about the theories posited by these canonized semiotic scholars. Thus, I made my most cohesive reading connections with Barthes “Rhetoric of the Image” and Arnheim’s “Pictures, Symbols and Signs”. Unsurprisingly, the main crux of Kress and Leeuwen’s critique was how both Barthes and Arnheim could not conceptualize the image as possessing the ability to have an encoded meaning in itself. To Arnheim, the image was always an abstraction that could only reference things rather than be the thing. Barthes followed a similar school of thought, arguing that the image must needs be always tethered to the linguistic in order to be legitimated. Kress and Leeuwen trouble this idea that the image is completely dependent on the verbal text and argue that “the visual component of a text is an independently organized structured message” (18). Consequently, these authors seek to separate themselves from the linguistic messages earlier semiotics relied so heavily upon and create clear distinctions between visual communication and language.
Thought Provoking Ideas
I was really pleased with how Kress and van Leeuwen framed their work as being bound by Western Culture. This move was particularly aware since one of their arguments is that “visual language…is culturally specific” (Kress & Leeuwen 4). In other words, images gain their meanings in the vortex of a location’s politics, histories, mores, religion, ethics, etc.. Furthermore, Kress and van Leeuwen acknowledge how power to name plays an important role in how images are culturally framed, a concept I think they address beautifully in the chapter on narrative representations. They argue that how the story of a picture is told depends on who is telling the story. Or, in their words, the actors and the vectors change according to the narrator. This brings me to Kress and van Leeuwen’s idea of of the “interactive participant”, an idea that includes both producer and viewer. According to the authors, both parties wield certain defining power over the image and can articulate wildly different representations of said images.
While Kress and van Leeuwen attempt to escape the linguistic dominance of Barthes and Arnheim, I have to ask whether or not this is fully possible. If so many people can “define” an image, how do we escape what Barthes calls the “polysemous” nature of an image? Or is the grammar of the visual found in the messiness of this multiplicity? Finally, should we even confine the ever hybrid, ever moving nature of the visual to a grammar or do we need to use new language to frame visual communication?
Gries, L. E. (2013). Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies. Computers and Composition,30(4), 332-348. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2013.10.006
Gries starts her exploration about iconography and circulation by highlighting what is arguably the most ubiquitous image of the 21st century: the Obama Hope poster. However, the author does not define the uniqueness of this Shepherd Fairey piece in terms of worldwide fame but rather by its circulation “across form, genre, and medium” (Gries 332). More specifically, Gries is concerned with culling out the rhetorical dynamism inherent in the movement of images and subsequently founds her work on circulation studies-“an interdisciplinary approach to studying discourse in motion” (333). While she praises the potential of circulation studies as a means of redefining and updating how rhetoric is studied, Gries laments its lack of a disciplinary methodology, at least in formal scholarship. Drawing upon definitions of methodology from Louise Wetherbee Phelps (2011) and Gregory Ulmer (1994), Gries argues that without an established, systematic methodology, the means to study circulation will remain unclear. In response, she proceeds to take on the onus of crafting a methodology for this area of research and introduces “iconographic tracking”- a method that merges “inventive digital research and traditional qualitative strategies to account for an image’s circulation, transformation, and consequentiality” (333).
Recognizing the impossibility of expounding upon every detail of iconographic tracking in one article, Gries provides the frames of her methodology in four sections: “Circulation Matters”; “Iconographic Tracking in Theory”; “Iconographic Tracking in Action” and “Research on a Micro-sale”. As its name implies, the first section mainly consists of Gries explicating on the importance of studying circulation’s role on an image. One important move she makes is to define circulation as the “spatio-temporal flows, which unfolds and fluctuates as things enters into diverse associations and materializes in abstract and concrete forms” (335). In Gries’ view, an image is always in some aspect of the above definition; it is always becoming, never still. Hence, she troubles our tendency to contain the visual inside static linguistic parameters and encourages us to develop new language that moves with images. Gries admits to the messiness of such an endeavor as it involves, in large part, a reconceptualization of both time and space. Instead of running from the muck and retreating into the relative safety of theoretical stasis, Gries urges scholars to use iconographic tracking as a means of embracing the messy work of circulation studies.
After explaining the necessity of his method, Gries delves into its pragmatic aspects. First, she defines iconographic tracking as an empirical method that tabulates “how images flow, transform, and contribute to collective life” (Gries 337). According to Gries, this method uses qualitative approaches such as surveys, questionnaires and interviews to collect and organize data. After the coding stage, Gries suggests researchers should apply the Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) to deconstruct how their collected images continually develop nuanced rhetorics through interaction(s) with both “people and technologies (337). The bulk of this work, Gries posits, is done in digital spaces like Google Images, Twitter, and Zotero. Combined together, these theoretical and pragmatic elements of iconographic tracking form a new materialist approach largely concerned with images rhetorical happening(s). Gries fleshes out said approach in the next section, cataloging her own trial experience using iconographic tracking to study Obama Hope. She began the project by simply collecting data in Zotero, using the tool’s folder and tagging functions to organize patterns. At this stage, Gries did not conduct any sort of microanalysis but rather focused on gathering as much data as possible. She notes the importance of tenacity at this stage; the more data a researcher has, the more thorough her analysis will be. Drawing on her initial data, Gries then placed his narrowed search terms into a myriad of digital forums. After creating a robust data set from this step, the author then set about doing the recursive work of “assembling and reassembling” various iterations of Obama Hope (Gries 340). According to Gries, the most important finding in his study cannot be quantified in any concrete measure. Rather, the purpose of this process is the continuous act of discovery that moves in the same incongruous ways as images.
I really enjoyed Gries’ article because it gave me perspective on how visual rhetoric could actually be applied to objects of study, a concept I have been struggling with. While I value theoretical scholarship, it is refreshing to read a work that focuses solely on the action aspect of academic labor. While I am not directly using circulation studies in my study, I think exploring a methodology made specifically to extrapolate rhetorical meaning from visuals will benefit me in my own study about delivery.
Design: What is it made of?
Representation: What could the picture potentially represent? What sort of icons are imbedded in the image?
Tone: What sort of reactions does the image conjure up? Is the image’s message subtle or overt?
Context: What context(s) does the image operate in?
History: What are the histories surrounding this image? How do they narrate each other? What is the hierarchy of said historical narratives?
Constructs: From what sort of cultural constructs does this image emerge? What sort of constructs does it possibly create?
Values: What and whose cultural values does the image represent? It is attempting to persuade the viewer to subscribe to any particular value?
Ethos: What sort of ethos does the image appeal to?
Delivery: What does the image embody? What sort of economies is the image exchanged in? With whom does the image interact?
In this article, Wysocki unpacks how composing with both words and images shape “kinds of identities and bodies” (26). She founds her investigation, in part, on Stuart Hall’s theory about the significant role text production has on identity formation. He argues that it is the very act of composing that gives us the identities within which we operate. Wysocki complicates Hall’s claims by pointing out that the selves we produce through writing are already existent. In short, since we compose with words and pictures that have cultural histories, the identities that we adopt from this process are similarly historically and culturally laden. Wysocki seeks to deconstruct these histories in order to make room for more liminal selves disencumbered from our current binaries. She subsequently uses comics for their synthesis of words and pictures to demonstrate how “certain kinds of visible identities-and questioning of identities and understandings of bodies-are possible” (Wysocki 26).
Wysocki’s approach is more historical than anything else; rather than looking at one specific comic, she rather focuses on the trajectory of discourses surrounding the genre since its inception. The author contextualizes comic’s history by the more macro narratives Western society has had about images and written text. Using Marshall Mcluhan and W.J.T. Mitchell, Wysocki hones in on some of the key distinctions made between the two. Words, she reminds us, have often been associated with manhood, logic, thought, eloquence, and the mind. Images, on the other hand, have been described as womanly, mindless, and bodily. Comics have always managed to defy many of these conventions, often merging the aforementioned characteristics together. Not surprisingly, privileged classes seeking to maintain their position of power remain leery of the potential impact these texts possess. As Wysocki writes, these demographics do not fight against comics for “not being serious enough” but because they are “too serious” because they always echo the mores of our society (30). At their most problematic, these texts have reflected some of our society’s most unsavory attitudes about race, sex, gender, class, etc. At their best, comics have represented othered bodies in sensitive and powerful ways. Either way, they have made “visible cultural beliefs about the places and representations….and embodiments” (Wysocki 37).
However, Wysocki remains dissatisfied with even the most positive imagery in comics because it still fails to take into account that someone may not fit into any pre-inscribed bodily categories. She decides to use Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic as a potential blue print for how images and pictures can be used to work across dichotomies and create new identities. Wysocki praises the graphic novelist for subverting labels such as male and female thus complicating gendered performance. Yet despite Bechdel’s commendable attempts to steer clear of tropes, Wysocki notes she can not fully escape identity binaries. Even though she might cross categories, Bechdel, like the rest of us, still composes “in response to them” (Wysocki 41). The question I have for Wysocki then is can we ever truly compose free from established binaries in order to produce new selves?
Despite feeling a little jaded by the ambiguous ending of Wysocki’s article, her work resonated with me. As I continue to locate how delivery functions in visual contexts, Wysocki’s arguments about embodiment help me rethink about how identities are articulated. Although I am constantly on the lookout for how othered bodies are visually and textually composed, I had not really considered how I draw upon binaries to write both myself and others. Wysocki challenged me to think about the invisible and non-uttered selves that exist in/outside the interstices of established dichotomies. To acknowledge the unknowable aspect of embodiment would be to also re-imagine delivery because so much of that canon hinges on the body.
Unfortunately, due to some technological malady my computer suffered for the better part of this week, I was not able to post…well anything. Anyway, my image is making an argument about the powerful role the archive has/continues to play in the Black experience. The left side of my image is the cover for The Book of Negroes, a book recently converted into a mini-series on BET. The main character, Aminata, is a former slave who is asked by the British to create a record of Black people who aided their cause during the Revolutionary War. If they could prove their service to the British, these Blacks would be given freedom and land in Nova Scotia. Aminata gets to work and gives voice to hundreds of disenfranchised people while creating an archive that legitimizes their experience.I came up with the idea for the left side of my image as I live tweeted The Book of Negroes. (For those of you who may not know, it represents Black Twitter). While tweeting and retweeting, I began to think about how Twitter functions as an archive where marginalized people can find their voice. I then started to wonder about how these groups carve out spaces of their own on social media, and immediately thought about Black Twitter and framed it as a new book of Negroes. So while the technology has changed from Aminata’s time, I argue that the purpose for Black people archiving ourselves has not.