Visual Rhetoric at Work

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I wonder how many teachers of writing are getting tired of the word “optics”? I know I am. The word has been around a long time—it popped up several times during the Carter administration in the ‘70s, and it’s familiar to Canadians, who use the related French word optique. But its use seems to me to have grown exponentially during the Trump administration, with the emphasis so much on how things look, what “looks” get ratings up, and most of all on how things are perceived—as opposed to what they really are.


In such a time, visual rhetoric comes to the fore, or to the rescue! Certainly we have a plethora of examples of “optics” for students to examine, explore, and evaluate. Many writers remarked on the fairly stunning optical contrast between the Republican and Democratic “aisles” during the 2019 State of the Union address, where the Republican look was decidedly white, older, and male and the Democratic look was anything but. And the President, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi—practically glowing in all white—right behind him and a veritable sea of suffragette white-clad Congresswomen seated together in front of him, actually lost the spotlight when the women in white jumped up to clap and cheer and shout when he mentioned the large number of women now in the House. A video clip from that event would provide very fertile ground for rhetorical analysis, as would a series of still images. Optics indeed.


I was also fascinated earlier this week by the President’s rally in El Paso, Texas, where he got the crowd chanting “finish the wall.” Supporters, also largely white, wore uniform red MAGA hats, so viewers saw a sea of red at that rally. Just across and down the street, Beto O’Rourke held a counter-rally, beginning precisely as the President’s rally launched, and again the “optics” were fascinating. The President behind a podium, in a dark suit, white shirt, and bright red tie, shook his fist and scowled, speaking in sound bites that resemble his tweets. Across the way, O’Rourke, collar unbuttoned and sleeves of his shirt rolled up, strode back and forth across the stage, earnest and impassioned, speaking both English and Spanish. Examining just the body language of the two speakers would yield a rich rhetorical analysis, as would looking closely at the crowd responses, and at the self-presentation of the speakers and of those who introduced them. Finally, I think students would get a lot out of looking closely at the styles of delivery on display at this rally and counter-rally, both in terms of content (what the two were saying) and attitude/stance (how they were saying it). Certainly this event provides ample opportunity for practicing close reading and rhetorical analysis.


Over 30 years ago, Kathleen Welch startled her audience by declaring that delivery, the final and long-neglected canon of rhetoric, was by far the most important of the five (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery). She was prescient in that announcement, which has proven to be dead accurate. And since we are living in a time of image saturation, of “optics” wars on every front, this is a very good time to focus on delivery and on analyzing how it works to persuade (or dissuade) listeners.


Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 720677 by skeeze, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.