English 5376 Online Publications

Sue Henson

Response Paper # 2

Visual Rhetoric and the Restructuring of Consciousness



A Shifting Rhetoric


Visual Rhetoric


The College Curriculum




Works Cited





Tracing the historical development of oral cultures to literate ones, Walter Ong argues that the transformative powers of print technologies produced a restructuring of consciousness. That same effect, he predicts, will be multiplied with advances in electronic technologies. “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word” (82).


Understanding the power of language to transform thought and recognizing the power of technologies to transform language, Ong’s predictions seem logical and imminent. Many dramatic changes in just about every field of study have altered humans’ perspective and opened up areas of knowledge and research only imagined before technological advances.


In some fields, however, such dramatic changes are not only unwelcome but feared. Many scholars in academia are skeptical that electronic technologies’ can positively alter the ways in which we think and communicate. They fear that moving from print to electronic technologies will somehow diminish our capacity for complex thought and deep analysis. These fears are ungrounded, and the skepticism rests, in part, on the devaluing of visual forms of expression in favor of verbal ones. This doesn’t make sense in light of the fact that print culture arose as a visual contrast to the oral culture on which it is based.


Ong explains, “Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, [writing] transforms speech and thought as well” (85). It would seem obvious that a  recognition of the power of the visual element in print technology should carry over to electronic technologies whose nature is even more suitable for its expression.


I am keenly interested in the relationships among visual literacy, epistemology, and the restructuring of consciousness. And I sense that we are indeed at the dawning of a new epoch of discovery and enlightenment because of rapid advances brought about by technology. Fifteen years ago, Richard Friedhoff and William Benzon explored the connections between the pre-conscious physiology of the human visual system and the development of conscious thought, of thinking that is distinctly visual. In the Introduction to Visualization The Second Computer Revolution, they explain.


“When we visualize through the use of external means such as computers, we restructure a problem so that more of it is processed by the pre-conscious part of our brain—the visual system that is our silent partner. In this way, consciousness can be devoted to the highest levels of analysis and synthesis.”


With an undergraduate education in Speech, Communications, and Theatre, and graduate work in literature and composition, I have always understood the connection among the communicative arts and the interplay between verbal and visual rhetoric. That is why Lanham’s The Electronic Word had such an impact on me, because it reinforced the value of the traditional focus of the arts and letters and shed light on rhetoric’s failure to keep up with developments in its sister disciplines, especially in terms of new technologies.


The impact of visualization on knowledge, its expression as a component of culture, and its application (or lack of) in the college writing curriculum is the focus of this paper. A unifying assumption underlying each of my points is this: to affect the ways students write and think about writing and to equip them with the communicative skills they need in a technological, globally-oriented, multicultural society, we must broaden our instruction in rhetoric to include visual rhetoric and electronic technologies. In addition, we should structure a multidisciplinary approach incorporating courses in communication and the arts which complement the freshman composition course.


To be effective teachers of rhetoric depends on our understanding of how new technologies have changed the forms of rhetoric, the nature of knowledge, and the learning styles of students.


FORM                     THINKING                 CHARACTERISTICS         NATURE


Oral               poetic                        fixed in the present                verbal


                                                         present perspective


Literate           philosophical                      fixed in time and space         visual-one

                     linear                           private                                 dimensional

                                                         historical perspective


Electronic    multidimensional       intransient in time and          verbal, visual,

                     associative                space                                  hypermediated


                                                         present perspective



 A Shifting Verbal  Rhetoric


Before diving into a defense of visual rhetoric and electronic technologies, it is instructive (or at least it was for me) to understand the reticence among scholars toward technology and their dismissal of the visual expressions and components of rhetoric. The disagreement centers on two areas of concern: content and methodology. Many authors cite the ongoing debate in academia over whether the established canon of literature of the Western tradition should be revised to include works from a broader multicultural base, works from related disciplines, and works from popular culture. Sven  Birkerts is concerned about the debate over content, over technology’s influence on the reading and writing public, and over education’s response to these developments.


In “The Gutenberg Elegies.The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,” Birkerts fears that educators (encouraged by those money-grubbing publishers)  will respond to the changing cultural and technological influences on today’s students with pre-packaged, commercialized content constituting a kind of  pedagogical relativism.  “American education will begin to tailor itself to the aptitudes of its students….Is the what of learning to be determined by the how?”


Birkerts predicts three negative consequences of technology’s influence on the reading and writing skills of education’s client population: the erosion of language, the loss of privacy, and the flattening of the historical perspective. In  discussing the  erosion of language, he claims that as students become more immersed in the familiar and vernacular environment of Internet communication, they will become less contemplative and less skilled in the use of standard English as “complex discourse patterns” become fragmented and lose their power under  “layers of mediation.” He laments, “Simple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing” and that the richness of language is being replaced by the “simple ‘vision thing.’”


These passages invite several points of contention. First, how is it that ambiguity, paradox, subtlety, and wit belong only to the print domain? Although I too have noticed among my first-year students a declining aptitude for analytical thought, I am not so sure that it is the fault of technology. A terribly mismanaged and ineffective educational system combined with poor parenting would be first on my list of suspected causes. Birkerts excludes the possibility that closer scrutiny of electronic discourse may reveal more complex patterns of discourse than what one observes in face-to-face communication; students may have internalized subtleties of expression, in the context of electronic space, that we are not yet aware of. The iconic style of language evident in chat rooms and Instant Messaging environments is visual,  communicative, and social.

Emoticons are important in communicating the spirit of a message and in preserving social cohesion; expressions like CUL8ER (see you later) convey both the meaning and playfulness of a social construct. Lanham explains: “Stylistic decorum measures how we look alternately AT and THROUGH a text (or a painting), first accept it as referential and then refer it to a reality beyond. The same measurement is then mapped onto behavior as a social decorum. Every stylistic balance models a social one”(113).


Educators can take advantage of students’ multi-tasked, multilayered, multisensory  experiences in hyperspace to guide them in an exploration of the symbols and constructs of social interaction, thus engaging them in deep analysis and critical thinking and cultivating their ability to see AT and THROUGH rhetorical styles.




Rhetoric and  Knowledge


The second point of contention concerns Birkert’s attitude toward “the vision thing.” He mistrusts  visual elements of rhetoric as being simplistic or superficial and compares the development of the notion of visual rhetoric to that of postmodernism in the arts, which he characterizes as irreverently unhistorical , dismissive of cultural hierarchy, manipulative in its appropriation of  stylistic signatures, referential to the surrounding culture, and primarily associative in perspective.


Birkerts believes that electronic communication and multimedia provide only information while print media foster understanding through close reading.  He believes that multimedia packages of content promote “the illusion of access”, a set of knowledge he describes as “collage” at the expense of deep thought and critical analysis. In describing the act of learning, he suggests that “every lateral attainment is purchased with a sacrifice of depth.”


This perspective strikes me as quite narrow. Learning technologies that appeal to a variety of the senses create a perspective which is broad, relational, and holistic. He does not seem to give credit to the notion that learning in one field adds depth, dimension, and perspective to learning in another field.


He uses as his example, a student learning Shakespeare through a multi-faceted approach including a  knowledge of Elizabethean politics, the construction of the Globe theatre, etc. He claims that such a collage approach to learning will distract the student from the more “serious” study of the text, interfere with her ability to concentrate on complex passages in order to explicate their deeper meaning, and appreciate the nuances of the language.  This indeed seems to me not only an elitist approach to what constitutes valid knowledge, but also a narrow understanding of how students learn.


Lanham tells us that computers and new technologies have made it possible for the teaching of rhetoric and literature in a much more expansive way than ever before, involving the other arts. Because literature is orally-based and self-consciously rhetorical, he believes, its “repurposing” through electronic media which shares those same characteristics, “can reveal to us aspects of our greatest works of art—literary, artistic, and musical—that we have never noticed before” (131). Lanham  asserts that digital media have created a conceptual world which is “dynamic rather than static…participatory rather than authorial, [and] based as much on image and sound as on word” (133). Such an expansion  of thinking and perception certainly opens up new possibilities for the study of rhetoric.



Visual Rhetoric


Dr. Robert N. St. Clair teaches in the Department of Communication at the

University of Louisville.  In a discussion of “Structural Epistemology,” St. Clair explains the role of visual metaphor in the construction of knowledge.


Knowledge is revealed by structure. These structures may be in the form of language, music, or art. The concept of structural epistemology allows one to go beyond language in a rhetorical culture. It brings in other forms of knowing in the form of visual and resonance metaphors. Structural Epistemology has to do with the expression of sign systems and Structural Hermeneutics has to do with the interpretation of various sign systems within a knowledge framework.


Through visual metaphor, Robert N. St. Clair contends, cultural knowledge is expressed and preserved. Verbal metaphors are characteristic of the Western tradition and print culture while visual metaphors figure prominently in oral cultures. St. Clair explains, “Visual metaphor is a term that designates how visual space is organized as a means of sharing cultural and social knowledge” (85).


St. Clair explains that print and oral cultures provide distinctly different ways of knowing, and this is a critical concept for teachers, both in terms of what we expect students to know and how we think they come to know it.  Focusing only on written language ignores, if you’ll forgive the pun, the whole picture. Despite what we have learned from left-brain right-brain theory including the recognition of visual and relational modes of cognition, St. Clair says, research has not focused on how the brain processes and constructs  visual information.


Knowing that oral traditions were the predecessors of literate ones and that visual rhetoric is the foundation of the oral tradition, it is surprising that research  has ignored this component and that higher education has not incorporated it as a fundamental subject of study. The influence of visual thinking on styles of cognition and on communication should be an important rationale for examining the way we teach Rhetoric and Composition and the way we structure the college curriculum. Lanham suggests that visual rhetoric is concerned with not just “ornamentation of a preexisting rational argument but with an expanded sense of human reason itself”(125).


St.Clair contrasts Western print culture with Native American oral culture:

“Where one sees words, the other sees visual patterns, shapes, colors, and moods.” He contrasts the Western tradition’s focus on analysis with the oral tradition’s focus on relatedness. “The analytical mode is sequential and highlights rationalism and the use of logic, whereas the relational mode is concerned with the emotive or affective aspects of a simultaneous presentation of imagery.”

Ignoring a substantive and substantial mode of thought and expression in the college curriculum seems to me to be cultural bigotry.



The College Curriculum


Lanham argues for a restructuring of the college curricula, focusing on the reunification of rhetoric and the fine and performing arts, the historical  arts and letters, which have become gradually and increasingly fragmented and compartmentalized in academia. Much of what I have read, studied, and observed in the last couple years has brought me to the same conclusion.


Perhaps this kind of restructuring—the “rhetorical paideia”-- would reinvigorate English studies. Perhaps if we recognized the significance of visual as well as verbal imagery, we might conclude that our students’ shorthand style of internet communication is not a denegration of language but a reinvention of it as visual and symbolic. 


Perhaps we would recognize that visual metaphor is an important teaching tool, not just for analyzing the persuasive appeals in advertising but for understanding how cultures organize thought and transmit meaning and experience.


Perhaps attention to visual metaphor and visual thinking will add another dimension and greater depth to the rhetorical analysis of texts.


Craig Stroupe argues, as does St. Clair, Lanham, that rhetoricians and English departments need to examine their cultural biases that exclude, devalue, or deny the importance of visual discourse. Stroupe argues for a hybrid approach to the teaching of English composition, an approach which incorporates verbal and visual literacies in a more powerful rhetoric(609).


Stroupe believes that a hybrid literacy is a natural transition and desirable return to the idealogy of elaborationism in rhetoric: “a set of cultural, pedagogical, and technical practices based on the idea that the formal composing or reading processes can produce more critical forms of consciousness” (609).  Stroupe explains that elaborationism…crosses not only the visual/verbal border, but also the boundaries that politically polarize and artificially stratify the discipline into curricular dichotomies of poetic and rhetoric, high and low, literature and composition.”


My own colleagues are divided into two camps concerning the teaching Freshman composition. Some treat it as essentially a sophomore survey of literature, claiming that the goals of critical analysis and writing can as easily and effectively be taught with a literature focus as with a focus on traditional argument and current issues.


These approaches illustrate philosophical differences in teaching writing as a literature-based tool versus writing as a communication tool. I think this philosophy is what Stroupe calls the “dismissal of the popular, predominantly visual discourses of magazines and advertising as well as the more iconic media of movies, television, and the internet” (610).


Stroupe distinguishes the term iconic, which refers to a style of expression that is characteristic of popular culture and thus not deserving of serious academic study(according to traditionalists), from the term iconoclastic, which characterizes modern and postmodern art’s style of expression that is complex and elaborationist.  “Indeed, works that emerge from the culture of elaborationism typically value complexity, irony, connotation, and deferred meanings, achieved through an awareness of the medium itself, whether visual or verbal.”


Stroupe’s intention is to foster the perspective toward composition and computers as one in which expression is enriched and ‘elaborate” because of a hybrid literacy of verbal and visual rhetorical techniques.


He argues for a dissolution of the imagined borders “between ordinary discourse of the workplace or popular culture and an ideal of elaborated discourse as a special province of literary artistry or critical literacy” (629).





I think instructors of rhetoric need to develop and incorporate in their teaching visual reference points for texts so that students’ reading comprehension and writing skills increase as they discover both verbal and visual strategies. Visual literacy complements verbal literacy, and training in both may develop cultural literacy as well.


We might begin with simple illustrations of rhetorical patterns. The following four examples are starting points for the development of hypertextual visual aids. In the first, I added highlighting, links, and a key to a paragraph for analysis in a freshman composition course. This paragraph, a favorite of mine, contains metaphors and cultural allusions which are lost on my freshman students. To further develop this example, I would add hypertext links to short passages that provide a cultural/historical context for the passage. The second example is an illustration of using transitions for coherence from The Little, Brown Handbook, 6th ed. to which I’ve added highlighting. The third is a commercial illustration in the Teacher’s Guide to Perspectives on Argument, and the last example comes from a course web page by Professor Albert Rouzie at Ohio University’s Department of English.



·              Visualizing metaphor, allusion, cultural knowledge

·              Visualizing paragraph structure, organization

·              Visualizing argument


o                                     Structure


o                                     Toulmin logic


As I said before, these examples are only starting points. But if we experiment with ways of making texts more visual, if we take an inter-disciplinary approach to  genre study, if we incorporate visual as well as verbal metaphor in the analysis of text, and if we incorporate hypertextual strategies in student research, perhaps we will cultivate visual, verbal, and cultural literacies that significantly expand the consciouness of our students and make our discipline more vibrant and relevant in their lives.



Works Cited


Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber 1994.


Friedhoff, Richard and William Benzon. Visualization The Second Computer Revolution. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc.1989.


Heim, Michael. “The Theory of Transformative Technologies.” Electric Language, 2nd.ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic word. Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of ChicagoPress 1993.

Ong, Walter J. “Print, Space, and Closure.” Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen &Co.1982.


St. Clair, Robert N. “Structural Epistemology.” Personal Web Page. 30 Nov. 2005. http://www.louisville.edu/~rnstcl01/


---.“Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the New Rhetoric.” In John Reyhner, Louise Lockhard, W. Sakeswtewa Gilber and Joseph Martin (editors), Learning in Beauty: Indigenous Education for a New Century. Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University Press. 2000.


Stroupe, Craig. “Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web.” College English May 2000: 607-635.



Future Reading List


Brooks, Kevin. “Reading, Writing, and Teaching Creative Hypertext: A Genre-Based Pedagogy.” Pedagogy:Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture.  2.3(2002): 337-356.


Warnick, Barbara.Looking to the Future: Electronic Texts and the Deepening Interface.” Technical Communication Quarterly.  Summer 2005: 327+     or 14.3 (2005): 327+.


Zappan, James P. “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory.” Technical Communication Quarterly. Summer 2005: 319+.