Speaking the Vernacular

Gradually finding my way back to things, I’m trying to put my finger on why I have serious problems with the idea of “image vernaculars,” as opposed to the much more common construct of “vernacular images”. I didn’t have the time to go into this when I first commented on the RSA panel “Visual Rhetoric and Visual Culture.” While this was one of the best presentations I saw, it was troubling on a number of levels beyond the issue of novelty.

The other presenters were Robin E. Jensen, “Reading Sex: Progressive Era Image Vernaculars and Sexual Education Campaigns,” Kassie Lamp, “An Innocent Face: Image Vernaculars in the Murder of Helen Jewett and Trial of Richard P. Robinson” and Katherine Mack, “Victims and Perpetrators Look Back: The Visual Rhetorics of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Each of the panelists (including the previously mentioned Michelle Gibbons) were guests at a special visual rhetoric workshop at Northwestern hosted by Robert Hariman (the panel’s chair), which included Cara Finnegan (the respondent for this panel) and Kevin DeLuca. The research presented was novel and important; the theoretical framework is what seemed anemic to me. Note the recurrence of “image vernaculars” in the paper titles. I was going to apply for this workshop, but the opportunity presented itself to teach a photography class—a time conflict. I learned a lot teaching that class, but I suspect the workshop would have been really fun too.

I’ve delayed writing much about the panel as a whole because I wanted to revisit Cara Finnegan’s article “ Recognizing Lincoln: Image Vernaculars in Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture” to be clear on just what “image vernaculars” are supposed to be.

What makes this rhetorical construct confusing is its proximity to Gerald Hauser’s Vernacular Rhetorics, a concept that (surprisingly) seems to share almost nothing with Finnegan’s usage. I found this surprising, since Picturing Poverty mined similar ground in her exploration of the multiple deployments of the same photographs in different vernacular [in the sense of indigenous or “popular”] contexts such as US Camera, a photographer’s magazine, versus Look, a mainstream title. The concept of multiple “vernacular publics” is central to Hauser, and it would seem to Finnegan as well. But as far as I can tell, “image vernaculars” deviates significantly (at least as these panelists used it) from its populist roots. Finnegan’s “vernacular” does not intersect significantly with “popular”—and cuts so broadly that it hardly seems specific enough to be useful at all. This became glaringly apparent when the concept was employed to paint a backdrop for each of these papers as a sort of “one-size-fits-all” brush. Returning to the foundational article by Finnegan, the confusion emerges from the best of intentions.

Finnegan stands upon the platform that “we should neither ignore or assume that we know” what a particular era’s visual culture is: “Rather, the construction of rich rhetorical histories requires careful, situated investigation of the social, cultural, and political work that visual communication is made to do” (33). Fair enough. Her point regarding the Lincoln photograph she explores is that it “tapped into myths” which were circulating, and was tied more to (in Michael Bandaxall’s words) “‘visual skills and habits’” than it was Lincoln the man”(33). This point is easily granted. Where I have difficulty following is into the abyss constituted as “enthymematic reasoning.” What is unstated in this leap is the idea that photographs can be treated as bearers (or exciters) of propositional content—content, that in this case, goes unstated.

Stepping back from the abyss for a moment—what Finnegan attempts here seems admirable. It grants a “middle ground” for rhetorical agency that is not simply the product of ideology, or the excitation of a psychological/physiological appetite. Images can provide “tacit topoi” for arguments (34). But how do we isolate this aspect from other imaging (or imagining) conventions? The first elaboration of this would probably be Roland Barthes’ separation of the denotative and connotative. Because an image (in the view of an interpreter, almost always separated by space and time from the original “image-event”) presents certain connotations, does this automatically suggest tacit topoi? Not necessarily, and each panelist was careful to build a nuanced case. The repetition of certain visual conventions inductively suggests that their reading would have been correct within the framework of the social situation of their particular images. The repetitive and systematic nature of the images proves that they were not supplemental, but central to the mode of argument produced. But are arguments necessarily involved in conveying ethos (central to Finnegan’s article and Jensen and Lamp’s papers)? Is it possible to speak of character as a product invested in propositions? I don’t buy it. The net cast is too coarse, and tossed way too far. I’m looking for more specific theory.

Perhaps it might be productive to think of “image vernaculars” as an associated set of commonplaces. The tropes of physiognomy, or the stances of the elocutionary movement were meant to make physical a particular mode of being—not to voice any sort of proposition. But then again, “an associated set of commonplaces” is precisely how Max Black defined metaphor. To state it in this way is to return to an imprecise and vague way of dealing with the power of images— a mire of metaphors. If there are “visual skills and habits” and mythic modes of representation that images excite, then there must be more nuanced ways of differentiating how they work instead of lumping them together as “commonplaces” or generic topoi. To be more useful, explications of these myths and habits must be pointed and systematic.

I’m pretty sure that the term vernacular might be important in understanding what’s happening here, but not in the shape of “tacit topoi.” There are multiple levels of convention at work. Argument might be one, but I’m convinced that there are many others. To be fair, none of the other panelists using “image vernaculars” invoked much in the way of enthymematic argument to constitute their claims; most asserted that understanding vernacular aspects of visual context enriched our understanding of visual culture. I agree. But without the aspect of tacit topoi that is deeply important Finnegan’s article, the discussion hardly improves on Barthes’ notion of denotation. What seems lacking is any sort of system to tease out the elements of visual culture with.

In contrast to the other panelists, Katherine Mack did not talk about image vernaculars at all. She spoke about the power of metonymic connections forged through images of the body (and its remains). She presented an interesting reading of Jillian Edlesteen’s Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It deserves much more than a cursory comment; maybe I’ll manage that later.