As we thought about the definitional problems surrounding the study of visual rhetoric, it became immediately clear that the appropriate response was not to try to “nail down” the term, to stipulate a set of definitions that all rhetoricians would agree to abide by (a na�ve notion, to say the least). Rather, we thought it would be more interesting and productive to have scholars working with visuals discuss the definitional assumptions behind their own work, and to exemplify these assumptions by sharing their own rhetorical analyses of visual phenomena. Our own assumptions behind this approach are two-fold. First any discussion of definitions from which one is operating is necessarily post-hoc; that is, one discovers such definitional assumptions through the work, rather than explicating them (even to oneself) before approaching a scholarly project. Second, at this very early stage in the contemporary study of visual rhetoric, we assume that people are more interested in writing about and in reading about specific scholarly projects than in lengthy arguments about definitions.
Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmer, introduction to Defining Visual Rhetorics (2004)
As usual, I’m behind the curve—this is precisely the opposite of what I’ve been up to. I’ve been interested in definitions. I put my entire project on hold, as a matter of fact, while I worked on reading image /text theories to come up with a more workable framework for discussing their interaction. I’m tired of reading endless analyses of visual phenomena written from poorly fitted theoretical frames.
Starting with my studies in William Blake (now three years gone) I was really dissatisfied with most of the existing frameworks—and a better one really didn’t leap out at me while I was studying the work. I was never able to look back at the 60-70 pages worth of unfinished text I generated and say “oh, that’s what I was doing!” What it was, (in case you’re curious), was an attempt to do visual/textual analysis based on the gestural rhetorics of the nineteenth century. It was as inconclusive as most things written about Blake generally are. I think it suffered most from a lack of definition.
When I started dealing with photography (more comfortable terrain for me) I was even more dissatisfied with the traditional cultural/Marxist frameworks. That’s when I started digging more into linguistics and the semantics/pragmatics interface. I found in linguistics a more rigorous frame with more precise definitions. Though there is as little consensus in linguistics as there is in rhetoric, at least the terms seemed to translate better than the loaded vocabulary of cultural criticism. The Hill / Helmers collection is one of the best I’ve seen to date though—it at least takes notice, through the variety of its contributions, of the multiplicity of preexisting theories on the subject. I don’t agree that visual rhetoric is new at all—but it certainly is a stranger to coherence.
In the linguistic theories I’d like to bring to bear on the problem, there may not be agreement—but at least there is coherence. Unfortunately, now as I edit the 90 page manuscript, I find that I spent very little time really talking about pictures. That makes me sad. But hopefully, I’ve got a few years to work on that problem—now that I have definitions that I am comfortable with.