Big Ideas 2/27

“Conceptualized as a communicative artifact, visual rhetoric is the actual image rhetors generate when they use visual symbols for the purpose of communicating” (Foss 143). “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 image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience. (Foss 144).

Visual Rhetoric Glossary 2/26

 2/ 26  Glossary 

Inductive investigation of visual image is when scholars use visual imagery to explain theories formulated from the study of discourse. They begin with rhetorical hypothesis and theories and then they use them to guide them through the visual artifact. This approach assumes that visual images have the same characteristics that discourse/speech symbols have. [SK]

(Foss, Sonja K. “Theory of Visual Rhetoric.” Handbook of Visual Communication: theory. Mehtod, and Media. Eds. Ken Smith, Sandra Moriarty, Gretchen Barbatisis, and Keith Kenney, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum. 2005. 141-52.)

Deductive investigation of visual image is the investigation of the features of visual image to generate rhetorical theory. Scholars in this approach begin with features of visual image to generate theories. Scholars in this approach believe that visual images are different than discursive/conversational symbols. [SK]

(Foss, Sonja K. “Theory of Visual Rhetoric.” Handbook of Visual Communication: theory. Mehtod, and Media. Eds. Ken Smith, Sandra Moriarty, Gretchen Barbatisis, and Keith Kenney, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum. 2005. 141-52.)


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.

Stop-Write 2/13

Dillard describes her failing drawing compared to her family’s successful portrayals as a lack of being able to see the “artificial obvious.”  She explains that “The point is that I just don’t know what the lover knows; I just can’t see the artificial obvious that those in the know construct” (Dillard 3). Her family seems to understand the artificial obvious, whereas she was unable to identify it while drawing her “lame” horse.
What is the artificial obvious? How does one recognize or construct it on a daily basis?

Bibliography 2/13

Anderson, J. (2015). Understanding cultural geography: places and traces. New York, NY: Routledge.

While searching Google Scholar for citations of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I found Anderson’s book, Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces. Anderson’s work discusses the intersections of place, identity, culture, and power. The book examines how individuals experience and understand space through their cultural identities. [LW]

Casebeer, D. (2016). Border Crossings and (Re) crossings: The Post-representational Turn in Social Cartography (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

I found this dissertation while searching Google Scholar for those books and articles that cite Drucker. In his dissertation, Casebeer discusses the implications of mapping places and space. He examines the culture of cartography and discusses new methods of cartography pedagogy that teach the ways in which societies create knowledge in relation to space. [LW]

Eisner, E. (2008). Art and knowledge. Handbook of the arts in qualitative research, 3-12. Retrieved from

I found Eisner’s chapter while searching Google Scholar for citations of Dillard’s book. In this chapter, Eisner examines individual and cultural perceptions and the ways in which such perceptions influence knowledge. Eisner also explores ideas of familiarity and strangeness, and how these ideas influence knowledge construction. [LW]

Jackson, P. W. (2000). John Dewey and the lessons of art. Yale University Press.

I found Jackson’s book, John Dewey and the Lessons of Art, when searching for citations of Dillard’s book in Google Scholar. Jackson examines human experience, particularly, the ways in which humans experience art. In his book, Jackson examines an influential work from the 1930s, and studies the contemporary examination of culture, experience, art, and nature. [LW]


Murphy, P. D. (2009). Ecocritical Explorations in Literary and Cultural Studies: Fences, Boundaries, and Fields. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

I also found this book while searching Google Scholar for those books and articles that cite Dillard. Murphy’s collection discusses the ethical implications of cultural definitions of place. Murphy examines the ways in which place and space is represented in literature, and troubles these usages in his discussion. [LW]



The German art school Bauhaus was mentioned a couple times in Graphesis. For a little fun, I wanted to post a song by the post-punk goth band from the early 80s who shared the same name.

Reading Question 2/13

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 8)

The term “gesalt” refers to groupings and our tendency to see patterns whenever possible. Human perception isn’t literal. We will close gaps, see motion, make partial shapes into whole ones in ways that are surprisingly predictable” (Johanna Drucker, Graphesis, 57)

Gesalt diagrams

Annie Dillard suggests there are two types of seeing which she  describes as walking with a camera and walking without (8).  These two ways of encountering visuals and understanding images around us makes me think of Johanna Drucker’s discussion on Gesalt diagrams and how human perception isn’t literal. She describes this further and goes on to say ” we don’t simply see what is in a mechanistic way. Instead, what is seen is what is made (57).

Is this type of seeing Drucker talks about “walking with a camera or walking without?” How do we make sense of the two types of seeing both Dillard and Drucker describe?

Big Ideas (2/13)

Perception is something we come to individually, but we need to be mindful as we progress through life. Though what we expect and/or wish to see might not always be accurate, we still need to look, perceive, and explore reality’s potential. Annie Dillard discusses several examples of the perception of newly sighted people and the struggles they face when tasked with seeing for the first time. Some of the participants chose self-imposed blindness over actually seeing. As such, perception doesn’t easily change in our society, but if we spend time in the mindful, our abstractions can become somewhat clearer. [MAP]

Big Idea 2-13-17

“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simple won’t see it” (Dillard 8). “All I can do is try to…hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes” (Dillard 9).

Our ability to notice certain details can be hampered by how well we are able to name and describe something. Our expectations of how something should look can prevent us from “seeing” something that is outside of that norm. [RN-J]