Monday, January 24, 2011

The Scene of Classical Rhetoric

Phryne in Greek Courthouse
At least half of scholars in Defining Visual Rhetoric take a deductive approach to visual rhetoric; in other words, they appeal to longstanding concepts from the classical rhetorical tradition in order to frame and justify their engagement with modern and contemporary visual artifacts.  In the collection's first two essays, Blair abides by Aristotle's notion that the proper concern of rhetoric is rational persuasion via propositional logic, while Hill, in investigating the rhetorical force of "representational images," applies the classical view that language serves as a window to reality.  In both cases, the authors end up acknowledging but quickly dismissing images that do not fit neatly with the assumptions of traditional rhetorical theory.  Blair dismisses the bulk of recent advertising on the basis that it does not attempt to make rational claims (therefore it's not persuasion, therefore it's not rhetoric).  I want to give more attention to the kind of image that Hill (more subtly) dismisses. 

To Hill's mind, "the rhetorical situation" generally denotes an speech-centric environment quintessentially exemplified by the courtroom:
most rhetorical situations are complex, and often involve two or more advocates stating their respective cases, attempting to win adherence from audience members who are simply trying to determine what they should believe and how they should feel about the issue at hand. (27)
The rhetor, according to Hill, hopes to craft his argument such as to render his most important claim or piece of evidence with the greatest degree of presence in the audience's minds.  If the audience can accept the rhetor's central claim (because of its blatant presence for them), then they will "not stop to think about issues such as the relevance or actual importance of the evidence" (29).  Hill himself seems to be performing this principal in his own essay, just a paragraph after introducing it.  In making his case in favor of the serious study of rhetorical images, Hill champions the indexical presence of filmic/photographic images.  Because filmic/photographic images constitute a "captured reflection of an object or person that actually exists or existed at one time," they are for Hill an acceptable object of rhetorical study--they represent a possible truth in the same way that linguistic claims do from a neoclassical standpoint.  Images should be brought into the classroom and utilized by students as vivid bits of reality meant to supplement and/or intensify the rationality of their verbal arguments.  The presence of this point, Hill hopes, will subdue any objections its 'relevance or actual importance' for our contemporary visual culture.

Evidently, Hill harbors at least some anxiety about the reach or validity of his approach as he asks his readers to momentarily forget about the digital image: "(Let us bracket, for the time being, any discussion of the new digital image manipulation techniques that make such an assertion far from certain)" (29).  Why does Hill wish to bracket any discussion of digital images?  I suspect it is because digital images--by no means indexical--do not propose to unconditionally represent truth, reality, or anything; and yet, the flexibility of digital manipulation can simulate/approximate the perception of the real with even greater precision than the indexical image.  As such, the digital is (neo)classical rhetoric's worst nightmare.  The digital image is the new Phryne in the courthouse of neoclassical rhetoric.  (Follow the link in the picture caption above for a brief summary of the story/myth of Phryne.)  Like the Greeks do with Phryne, Hill, in his parenthetical remark, merely acquits the digital image.  It does not fit the logic of the courtroom, which appears and reappears as the paradigmatic scene of (neo)classical rhetoric and stands in as the prototypical rhetorical situation on which the rhetorical tradition is founded and geared toward.

If the courtroom speech no longer functions as the scene quintessential to contemporary visual communication, then what could we consider to be the paradigmatic scene of digital imaging?


No comments:

Post a Comment