Brooke Notes – Sonja Foss, “Theory of Visual Rhetoric” – 2/27

Foss, Sonja. “Theory of Visual Rhetoric.” Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media, edited by Ken Smith, Sandra Moriarty, Gretchen Barbatis, and Keith Kenney, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005, pp. 141-52. 

Summary: Foss provides a brief history of visual rhetoric’s place within the larger collection of rhetorical theory. She argues that visual rhetoric has two meanings–communicative artifacts, and the scholarly perspective used to study the communicative artifacts. She goes on to argue that visually rhetorical artifacts must showcase symbolic action, human intervention, and an authentic audience, while the visual rhetoric perspective seeks to understand an artifacts nature, function, and evaluation. Ultimately, Foss argues for a more inclusive understanding of rhetorical theory that not only recognizes verbal discourse, but visual discourse as well.

Keywords: visual rhetoric, images, symbolic action, human intervention, audience, perspective, communication, nature, function, evaluation, deductive, inductive


  1. “Although a natural affinity appears to exist between rhetoric and visual symbols, the inclusion of visual imagery in rhetorical study has not been the seamless process that the above narrative suggests” (142).
  2. “That the study of visual images continued and, indeed, now flourishes in rhetorical studies is because of a number of factors. Primary among them is the pervasiveness of the visual image and its impact on contemporary culture… To restrict the study of symbol use only to verbal discourse means studying a minuscule portion of the symbols that affect individuals daily” (142).
  3. “The study of visual imagery from a rhetorical perspective also has grown with the emerging recognition that visual images provide access to a range of human experiences not always available through the study of discourse” (143).
  4. “As a result of nascent efforts to explore visual phenomena rhetorically, the term visual rhetoric now has two meanings in the discipline of rhetoric. It is used to mean both a visual object or artifact and a perspective on the study of the visual data. In the first sense, visual rhetoric is as product individuals create as they use visual symbols for the purpose of communicating. In the second, it is a perspective scholars apply that focuses on the symbolic processes by which images perform communication” (143).
  5. “Not every visual object is visual rhetoric. What turns a visual object into a communicative artifact–a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric–is the presence of three characteristics… The images must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience” (144).
  6. “Visual rhetoric as a theoretical perspective–or what might be called a rhetorical perspective on visual imagery to distinguish it form the other sense of visual rhetoric–is a critical-analytical tool or a way of approaching and analyzing visual data that highlights the communicative dimensions of images” (145).
  7. “A rhetorical perspective on visual imagery is also characterized by specific attention to one or more of three aspects of visual images–their nature, function, and evaluation” (146).
  8. “Description of the nature of the visual rhetoric involves attention to two components–presented elements [design choices] and suggested elements [interpretations based on design choices]”  (146).
  9. Function, as it is used in this perspective, is not synonymous with purpose, which involves an effect that is intended or desired by the creator of the image” (146).
  10. “Whatever criteria are used, scholars who adopt a rhetorical perspective on images and choose to focus on evaluation are interested in improving the quality of the rhetorical environment by discriminating among images” (147).
  11. “Scholars who apply a rhetorical perspective to visual imagery deductively use visual imagery to illustrate, explain, or investigate rhetorical constructs and theories formulated from the study of discourse” (147).
  12. “A second approach to the application of a rhetorical perspective on visual imagery is the investigation of the features of visual images to generate rhetorical theory that takes into account the distinct characteristics of the visual symbol. Scholars who pursue this round begin with an exploration go visual images and operate inductively, generating rhetorical theories that are articulate about visual symbols” (149).
  13. “Visual rhetoric, as communication data to be studied and as an approach to those data, suggests the need to expand understanding of the multifarious ways in which symbols inform and define human experience and constitutes a call to expand rhetorical theory, making it more inclusive in its encompassing of visual as well as verbal symbols” (151).


  1. This chapter was published in 2005. Have visual rhetoric scholars engaged Foss’s call for uptake in the past decade? Do we now have a more inclusive collection of rhetorical theory that not only recognizes but prioritizes visual communication?
  2.  In WRTG 540, we’ve talked about the importance of text production, not just interpretation. That is, a visual rhetoric class cannot only showcase Foss’s understanding of the visual rhetoric perspective, but must also include the generation of communicative artifacts. How do other rhet/comp programs make peace with this balance–particularly programs that emphasize visual rhetorics?

Further Reading:

  1. Foss, S.K. (1994). A rhetorical schema for the evaluation of visual imagery. Communication Studies45, 213-224.
  2. Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic actionL Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.