The growing field of visual rhetoric explores the communicative and persuasive power of the visual artifacts that surround us. This relatively new branch of rhetoric emerged in the late 20th century, disrupting a discipline that was traditionally concerned with the spoken and written word. The artifacts studied through the lens of visual rhetoric comprise visual images and objects that are human created and culturally meaningful. They include two-dimensional images, such as political cartoons and video advertising, and three-dimensional objects such as museums and murals. Visual rhetoric can also include the analysis of embodied performance and thus examine the body as argument. Although much of the scholarship focuses on the power of images in shaping people’s understanding of the world, there is also a recognition of the power of looking. Meaning does not reside in the images around us; we participate in its construction. To better understand visual rhetoric, it is important to review its emergence as an area of study, its definitions, and some of the recurring themes in the scholarship.
Zazil Reyes García
Visual Rhetoric (VR) is a field of inquiry aiming to analyze all kinds of visual images and texts as rhetorical structures. VR is an offshoot of both visual semiotics, or the study of the meanings of visual signs in cultural contexts; and of the psychology of visual thinking, as opposed to verbal thinking—defined as the capacity to extract meaning from visual images. The basic method of VR, which can be traced back to Roland Barthes’s pivotal 1964 article “The Rhetoric of the Image,” is to unravel to connotative meanings of visual images. The picture of a lion, for instance, can be read at two levels. Denotatively (or literally) it is interpreted as “a large, carnivorous, feline mammal of Africa.” This level conveys informational or referential meaning. But the image of lion in, say, an advertisement or music video invariably triggers a connotative sense—namely, “fierceness, ferociousness, bravery, courage, virility.” The key insight of VR is that connotation is anchored in rhetorical structure, that is, in cognitive-associative processes such as metaphor and allusion, which are imprinted not only in verbal expressions, but also in visual images. So, the image of a lion in, say, a logo design for men’s clothing would bear rhetorical-connotative meaning and affect the way in which the clothing brand is perceived. This same basic approach is applied to all visual expressive artifacts, from traditional visual art works to the design of web pages and comic books. VR is showing that visual objects are rhetorical objects and that, therefore, they can be used to influence and persuade people as effectively as rhetorical oratory, if not more so. Given its simple, yet effective method of analysis, VR is spreading to various disciplines as a technique, including psychology, anthropology, marketing, and graphic design, among many others, affirming how visual images tap into a system of symbolism that is interconnected with other forms of symbolism and representation.