Visual literacy as applied skepticism

For better or worse, we live in a visual era, one in which images are ubiquitous. These images, and their messages and/or arguments, compete for our time and attention. I think of it like this: just as Penelopeendeavors to remain faithful to Odysseus and to keep her 108 suitors at bay in the Odyssey, we must fight off the inescapable images that endeavor to distract us.

That’s not to say that all or even most images are worthless, of course. Far from it. We’re surrounded by and bombarded with images, in both the physical and the virtual world. That’s just a fact, not a value judgment. And many of these images make claims of one sort or another. We can “read” them as texts, so to speak. Sometimes these arguments are subtle and nuanced, intended to unconsciously nudge us towards a certain perspective or stance on the issue at hand, while some are heavy-handed in their rhetoric, unmistakeable in their intention to persuade. Arguments made by images appeal not to our reasoning skills or to our intellect, but to our emotions.

The study of the arguments and messages conveyed by images is referred to as visual rhetoric. Each semester, I discuss visual rhetoric in my rhetoric/composition courses and encourage students to “read” images, analyze them, practice skepticism towards them, and to determine their message and/or argument. Whether you greet the visual era with optimism, see it as the downfall of western civilization, or something in-between, it’s difficult to deny the importance and necessity of visual literacy.

Upon first encountering the concept of an image as a text and of  ”reading” and/or “uncovering” an image’s implicit meaning and/or argument, I imagine that most of us think of visual advertisements. And while it certainly is important to analyze and practice skepticism towards the claims of advertisements, I think that most people are aware of that and already do so, at least to some extent.

As such, I believe that it’s more important to focus on images that are not advertisements, and to analyze how and why these images attempt to persuade us to feel, think, and/or act in a certain way. Images are symbols to which we ascribe meaning and value (this concept is referred to as “the symbolic perspective” or “the symbolist perspective”). In visual rhetoric, audience is key. The way that we react to images determines both their meaning/argument and the effectiveness of that argument. As Keith Kenney explains in “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric” (PDF), because of the symbolic nature of visual rhetoric, “understanding the intentions of the communicator is less important because meaning is now the result of an audience’s efforts as much as, if not more than, whoever created the message” (66).

Extending our visual literacy beyond advertisements equips us with the necessary tools to analyze, think critically about, and be skeptical of the claims presented by all sorts of images. In the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, William Nothstine and Martha Cooper explain that “the symbolist perspective centers on the notion that all persuasion is really to a significant extent self-persuasion, involving the active participation of an audience” (509). Visual literacy empowers us to decide whether or not we will “buy into” the message or argument presented by an image. When we analyze images and their arguments, we question, we think, we reflect, and we become an “active participant” in our decision making. In other words, we apply skepticism.

Ultimately, viewing images as persuasive “texts” can help us to apply to images the same skepticism that we already apply to written rhetoric and to oratory. Visual literacy is an empowering tool because it is a practical tool. It doesn’t matter whether or not you welcome the increasingly visual nature of our culture, as we must apply skepticism towards the world we have, not the world we wish we had, and visual literacy is one of the easiest and most useful ways to apply that skepticism.


Works Cited

Cooper, Martha, and William Nothstine. “Persuasion.” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from  Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. 509. Print.

Kenney, Keith. “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing From Rhetoric.” Journal of Visual Literacy 22.1 (2002): 53–80. Print.

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