Visuality, "Readability," and Materiality Carole Blair American Studies University of California, Davis

 

My intention here is to acknowledge two problems that I believe all scholars of "the visible" will encounter at some point in their work. Both showed up early in my research on commemorative artworks, but I suspect that they crash everyone's party at some point. I have no "solution" to these problems, but I believe they should, actually must, be addressed in work on visual rhetoric. The first, "readability," is both a practical and theoretical problem having to do with the possibilities of interpretation in visual culture. The second, which I'll simply label "materiality" for the moment, has a presence in numerous arenas beyond the study of visual culture, but remains nearly unaddressed and nearly unacknowledged in rhetorical work on visual images.

The first party crasher, "readability," probably makes its presence felt in all of our venues at least occasionally, but it haunts our work all the time. At the simplest and most practical level, readability is a hermeneutic problem. But it is a special problem of interpretation, not just the "same old" questions that come up in any work involving the production of signs and meaning. We try very hard to reduce the special problem to the same old problems, as evidenced by terms like visual, media, and computer "literacy." The question is this: What makes us so confident that our "readings" of visual signs are legitimate or defensible? Okay, that does sound a whole lot like the "same old" hermeneutic questions, but I don't believe it is the same in the case of visual rhetoric as in spoken or written discourse. Or at least, it doesn't seem the same, given the degree of skepticism registered by readers and students about interpretations of visual signs. Leaving aside for a moment the possibility that my interpretations just aren't very good and that that's what's provoking this response, our own colleagues and my students seem to pose far more and greater challenges to such interpretations than they do to those of a speech or a written document. For them, apparently, even in the wake of deconstruction, natural language seems safer, easier, and more stable in its capacity of meaning generation than does the visual image. I wonder why that is the case, and particularly so in a culture in which "seeing is believing" and a "picture is worth a thousand words."

It is possible, of course, that this is an idiosyncratic problem, but I doubt it. I think it even probably has a traceable history--to the rather diffuse and non-specific kind of response to aesthetic objects that has been privileged in Western art history for centuries. Art is experienced rather than understood. It is appreciated, not interpreted. Its influence is aesthetic, not political (even though, ironically, art does traditionally have the capacity to moralize). And so forth. How one might experience without understanding, appreciate without interpreting, or neatly divide the aesthetic from the political are practical and theoretical mysteries to me. In other words, our traditions of seeing probably have blinded us; we lack a hermeneutics of the visual. And yet, demands for visual, media, and computer literacy seem to depend on it. In rhetorical scholarship, the most common response to this inadequacy is to simply adopt theoretical nomenclatures and methodological approaches invented for spoken/written discourse for use in study of the visual as well; that seems to be the case even with most rhetorical studies of film--a visual medium for which more semiotic work has been done than for most, if not any, others. That adaptive response has its virtues, but they are limited. The limitations should be clear; the rhetorical resources of spoken languages are different from those of photography, film, painting, and so forth. The question is whether we (or others) can ever have as much confidence in our interpretations of a brushstroke or a camera angle as we do in our readings of a word or argument.

So far, I have assumed the possibility and desirability of a hermeneutics of the visual, an approach or set of approaches that might allow us to interpret with more confidence and conviction the things that we see. Perhaps the problem is with the assumption, though, and the set of contradictions that seem to pervade our simultaneous dependence on and skepticism about the visual. It has been suggested that language, text, discourse, etc. are inadequate models or analogues for visual rhetoric. As Homer points out, "Image versus text has become the central issue among advocates of . . . the new visuality (7). Or as Barbara Stafford has argued, "we need to disestablish the view of cognition as dominantly and aggressively linguistic. It is narcissistic tribal compulsion to overemphasize the agency of logos and annihilate rival imaginaries" (7). As painful as the sound of her words may be to rhetoricians, they have a certain intuitive appeal as well. But before we completely abandon the linkage between text and image, it seems fit to remind ourselves that that linkage has provided some very useful and productive kinds of insights, e.g., it has allowed us the capacity to explore the politicization of the aesthetic, not to mention the much-discussed aestheticization of the political. If we move beyond "text" as a metaphor for the seen and "reading" as a metaphor for seeing, we must at least be careful to not reenact the old saws of experience versus understanding, appreciation versus interpretation, and aesthetics versus politics. Since I don't know quite how to do that, I'll leave that as a possible item of discussion and move on to the other intrusive figure.

The second uninvited conceptual guest to my party on commemorative art has been "materiality." It's a cousin of the readability problem but puts a considerably different twist on it. In the case of public memorial art, much of which is made of stone or metal, it becomes impossible--and undesirable--to ignore its material character. Certainly, visitors to memorial sites look at the focal artwork, but they do more than that. They walk around it, touch it (if it can be touched without breaching barriers, etc.), sometimes listen to it (e.g., if it incorporates water or some other audible feature), etc. They experience and are affected by other people doing similar things. These are "unavoidables" of studying these sites; I do not mean to imply that I would like to avoid them or that they should be avoided. Rather, I think they teach us something about the rhetoric of these places and probably about rhetoric in a broader sense.

One of the effects for my own work on these obviously material places has been to try to think through the differences their materiality makes. Or, more precisely, I have been trying to figure out what difference their particular kind(s) of materiality makes in relation to that of written or spoken discourse, or film or television or painting or cyberspace. All of these rhetorics are material, but they differ in a multitude of ways in their materiality. Of course, they differ in other ways too, but their particular brands of material character and force, I think, are definitive and perhaps partly determinative of conditions of meaning and influence. For example, what difference does it make that one may return to a memorial site but never to an oral speech? What difference does it make that commemorative places and movie theatres are populated (although with audiences who act very differently) and that television viewing is often solitary? What difference does it make that memorial sites may interact by sight line with other elements in its geography, while written works are more likely to reference or be textualized with other written works? But even then, what happens when a speech or written text speaks of or describes a place, and what happens to that place for a visitor after s/he has read or heard about it in another medium?

Some of these questions are reducible to what a whole host of post-Cartesian discourses have already said about the body. And to not attend to those discourses is indefensible, in my judgment, not only for those of us who study non-traditional "discourses," but also for those who study written and spoken texts. However, there is even more relevant work on the horizon that I believe offers an opening to address some of these questions and others that arise from rhetoric's materiality. It is represented most forcefully and recently by Ron Greene's essay, "Another Materialist Rhetoric," but is evident in works by Dana Cloud, Celeste Condit, Robbie Cox, Fred Corey, Sharon Crowley, Michael McGee, Raymie McKerrow, Tom Nakayama, Kent Ono, Ed Schiappa, Jack Selzer, John Sloop, Julia Wood, etc. I'll end with a slight variation on Greene's injunction: to block "the rush to a politics of representation which risks dematerializing . . . rhetorical practices" (31). There may be some possibility here, in other words (although I'm far from certain), that the first problem--of readability--may be resolved or at least addressed by the second--materiality. But I'll leave that for discussion.

Works Cited

Greene, Ronald Walter. "Another Materialist Rhetoric." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15 (1998): 21-41.

Homer, William Innes. "Visual Culture: A New Paradigm." American Art 12 (Spring 1998): 6-9.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

 

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