The Aesthetic Image

There are two authors from class that I will discuss in this final section: Hill and Barthes (and a bit of Berger). Hill gives us something very near the lines of what I was just suggesting Wittgenstein’s theories can help us with, an explanation of how images work so that we can better understand how to work images to effect persuasion. Barthes puts this into practice, by describing advertisement (in a method that admittedly deals with a great deal more than advertisement) to give examples of the processes involved in multi-modal compositions. I will make a brief case that these will loosely hold in almost all types of multi-modal compositions, and not just those involving text and image.

Berger gets a brief mention . First, Berger is one to point out how plastic images are. Words can be snipped out of context to make them sound like something entirely different, but in general a written composition has more explicit meaning tied to it than does an image. Even if we imagine something that seems to be very explicit, like a Nazi with his boot on a man’s throat, we could conceive of two utterly different purposes based merely on the subtitle. One would read, “Glory to the Fatherland,”; the other, “The world will be thus without YOUR help.” Berger gives the example of van Gogh’s Crows over Cornfields, first the plain image, and second the same image subtitled, “This is the last picture van Gogh painted before he killed himself” (Berger, 27-28). It serves to illustrate that an aesthetic feeling is distinct from a rational explanation, and that images and their aesthetic feelings in conjunction with text—joining elements of the left and right of the continuum—produce powerful effects with an economy of motion, a matter of rhetorical interest and importance.

Hill’s article, The Psychology of Images, winds up with similar conclusions that we found in Wittgenstein. To wit, on page 3, “[S]imply applying methods and concepts designed specifically for verbal language to persuasive images is not the most productive or accurate way…” And further in the article, on 5, “[U]sing terms like heuristic processing almost seems like a strategy to avoid discussing the difficult concept of emotions.” We determined previously, this is because a causal chain that is appropriate for locating the meaning of most verbal language fails to account for the way images affect us. Aesthetic feelings do so prior to reason.

Hill continues on to talk about presence, defined as, “the extent to which an object or concept is foremost in the consciousness of the audience members” (Hill, 28). ‘No press is bad press’ plays on this idea, and while this might not be entirely true for rhetoricians who wish their audience to both think of a specific situation and come to a particular conclusion about it, presence is undeniably valuable to the business of rhetoric. All the logic and arguments in the world are futile to dislodge a belief if that belief takes up the whole of a person’s attention, and Hill points out that for a majority, their beliefs are not formed on considered reflection and strict logic, anyway. The potency available to a rhetor with a recipe that can evoke very powerful feelings, either positive or negative, and then direct them, is clearly to be preferred over purely verbal arguments (Hill, 28).

This is not news to advertisers and marketers. These men (and women) have been putting these rhetorical devices to use since widespread use of images became possible. The show Mad Men may not be wholly accurate, but gives a general idea of the art involved in rhetoric—our continuum runs from belles lettres to logic, and pictures are now a part of it. Although I placed pictures on the far left, where intuitively I believe most of us would place them, advertisers have figured out how to join them, in a way that “the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional… the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic.” (Barthes, 270). Barthes employs a more sophisticated and nuanced analysis of images in advertising, one that I eschew because his more basic points bring to bear everything of significance for our present case.

Fig. 1

What should truly interest us is the way text interacts with images to make their meanings concrete. Barthes gives us three different messages in his advertising picture (and in advertising pictures generally, if not in almost all visual media in mass communication). The linguistic message, the text in an image, is one—the caption, title, or linguistic clues present in the image itself. Then there is the contextual information present of the actual image—in this FedEx ad (Fig. 1), we see the culturally commonplace shipping box with a vase being passed through it. The ad relies on our cultural knowledge (an extremely broad language game we play, but ads will almost always rely on the broadest sorts of clues to reach the widest number of their target audience). The fact that this expensive and fragile antique is being passed hand to hand through the box signifies the care taken at FedEx to keep your property in one piece. But there is a third message, this one uncoded. The second relies on cultural knowledge of both shipping companies and the stereotypes of rough handling and broken broken goods. But there is the fact of the image itself; hands, a vase, a box, and a grey background. That message is completely uncoded, and thus relies on the other two levels of messages to convey the surface message (Barthes, 271-272).

So advertisers manipulate both the articles in the image and the text of the image to produce the desired rhetorical effect using two functions, anchorage and relay. Anchorage isolates one particular perspective or interpretation; in my Nazi example above, both of the messages would serve to anchor the meaning of the image in a particular way; in the case of anchorage, the image narrates a great deal more, hence (I would argue) the whole composition would be more oriented to the left side of the continuum, toward gut reactions and aesthetic emotion (Barthes, 274-276).

Relay, much less used in single images like ads, relies on the words more to tell the story and images as a sort of backdrop. Cartoon strips were Barthes’ example, although the covers of science fiction books came to my mind as examples of relay. In these cases, the words, and so narration, coherent facts and rationality take precedence over the image (Barthes 274-276).

And for my conclusion, you can click here.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Rhetoric of the Image. URL = < content/uploads/2011/06/barthes_rhetoricofimage.pdf.>

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.

Hill, Charles A. “The Psychology of Rhetorical Images.”Defining Visual Rhetorics. Eds. Charles Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Print.


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  1. Against the Science of Aesthetics « benjaminhunteraustin - April 26, 2012

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