I’ve been trying to process a lot of material from a variety of sources and theories lately. My natural tendency is to want to sort of smooth the rough edges and make them fit together in a meaningful way. I’m forever trying to compose. What usually happens is that when I try to fit things together into a meaningful argument, I find that the edges don’t really fit and I have to force them. The last few years have left me well convinced of a few things, and it is so frustrating trying to translate what I see in all this into something that I can write.
It’s easier to be creative. You don’t have to worry about answers or rebuttals. What you’ve done is simply present in the world of things. People can read as much or as little as they like into the underlying structure. Creation isn’t totally centered on communication—it’s about making things, not describing or explaining them. You don’t have to convince, you only have to persuade people to look.
When I was a kid, and perhaps all the way into my thirties, I would get a particular phrase stuck in my head: “I thought I saw something.” It was like a bit of a poem that I just couldn’t let go of, and the line never turned into anything meaningful for me in either prose or poetry. But I’d wake up in the night and think, “I thought I saw something.” I feel that way again, but now it’s different. I read and re-read essays and books, and think that I’ve seen something in there that caught me like a flash. It seems to take the form of a necessary connection that no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to get to work. When I just talk about it, I can be really persuasive. Some people seem to think I’m going somewhere with it. But then it just sort of drifts away when I write and get lost in the minutiae of it all. For the last two years, it’s seemed like a definitional problem.
I was more than a little surprised to find out two years ago that they had given a name to the pudding I wrestle with—they call it visual rhetoric. There are only two problems with that label—the visual part, and the rhetoric part. What I am most interested in are images which have a “reference” rather than a purely symbolic value. Visual is too broad a word to describe the relatively narrow field of images that interest me. I couldn’t call it photography either—because the work of most photographers doesn’t interest me. It’s a very narrow subset that I’d like to talk about—not necessarily amateur, not necessarily artistic, not necessarily scientific either. I have in my head a certain “model” of the features that matter most to me. “Language photography,” as Chris Sullivan names it, comes closest.
Then there is the rhetoric part. While the term most often interchanged with rhetoric is persuasion, I’m actually most interested in what C.S. Peirce labeled “speculative rhetoric” or methodeutic. He classed this under the normative sciences rather than the humanist pursuits. It is the aspect of science that studies interpretation rather than reference. But it is not interchangeable with hermeneutics. The aim of Peirce’s methodeutic is to know how meaning is constructed through interpretation, rather than the humanistic goal of hermeneutics to describe and explain how meaning is constructed. I want to know how some images can convince us of things rather than purely persuade. This can also be labeled as visual argument, though I’m not entirely sure if that fits well either.
This distinction which I can’t really describe well is built from an innate resistance to “cultural studies.” I feel like they have their place, but if I read one more article that purports to reveal the hidden “base” or ideology behind a particular image (especially amateur or documentary ones) through a pointless exercise in materialist hermeneutics I think I’ll cry. Or, if I read one more utopian proclamation about the ability of the visual to transcend the limits of language, I’ll probably hurl. It’s far easier to just make images than to talk about them in any really meaningful way. I mainly want to know how images work to communicate things that we can’t really communicate any other way.
I don’t see an intractable gulf between word and image. Instead, I see a generative space where things happen in fascinating and miraculous ways. It seems strikingly similar to what Grice called “implicature.” Implicatures are not entirely relative or arbitrary. We read things into images because we are predisposed to. There is inevitably a social and contextual component to this as well as a perceptual one. None of these parts are reducible to the others and they do not explain each other. There are also preferred interpretations which are dependent on both of these factors. The perceptual, in the sense that I use it, is intensely personal and not reducible to the circumstances of an image’s production.
Marguerite Helmers and Charles Hill introduce the essay collection “Defining Visual Rhetorics” by saying, regarding the definitional terms:
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 people are more interested in writing about or reading about specific scholarly projects than in lengthy arguments about definitions. (x)
I have several problems with this. First, in deciding what one will research, one has already picked a set of data that they want to look at. This is a definition of sorts. To talk meaningfully about a particular data-set, one must have some sort of “model” of what the data represents to construct theories about it. That is also a form of definition. I also wonder what planet they are from if they think that the inquiry into visual rhetoric is new? The only thing new about it is the terms, and the cluster of concepts around those terms (largely inherited from cultural theory) that most rhetoricians choose to write about.
I’ve been intensely querying my own definitions for several years now. The data-set I have chosen is too broad, at this point. As my definitions narrow, so will my data-set. It seems positively ludicrous to think otherwise. But I’m getting tired of thinking and writing about definitions. Simply put, “I think I see something.” It would be easier to make more pictures. Arriving at a meaningful way of talking about what I see is the hardest part.