Visual Rhetorics: Second Annotated Bibliography

Prelli, L. J. (Ed.). (2006). Rhetorics of display. Univ of South Carolina Press.

The introduction to the text Rhetorics of Display by Lawrence J. Prelli theorizes display as rhetorical because they “the meanings they manifest before situated audiences result from selective processes and, thus, constitute partial perspectives with political, social, or cultural implications” (11). Prelli claims that we can analyze rhetorics of display by examining how they reveal partial perspectives by concealing other perspectives. Prelli claims that rhetorics of display may be the “dominant rhetoric of our day” (2). Our very reality (or realities), he claims, are mediated by a variety of displays “that surround us, compete for our attention, and make claims on us” (1).

In order to offer a theory of the rhetorics of display and to address the question, “How do displays function rhetorically?” Prelli makes several rhetorical moves. While the book contains seventeen texts that use a variety of theories and methodologies to explore the rhetorics of display, Prelli attempts to articulate what the hold in common: they view displays as situated, and while they view displays as revealing, they also conceal. To provide a background and contexts for the rhetorics of display, Prelli historicizes display. Beginning with Aristotle and ending with Burke, Prelli attempts to trace how theories of display have shifted over time. Display was theoretically divorced from the notion of proof by Aristotle. Roman rhetoricians viewed it as a type of proof, and sophists viewed all discourses that shape culture as display. Renaissance humanists viewed display as aesthetic and moralizing rhetorical performances. Enlightenment era rhetoricians viewed the visual as the primary form of proof. In the twentieth century, Perelman, McKeon, and Burke theorized display as the foundation of communication and the filters through which we view the world. Prelli then provides a literature review to examine recent studies of the rhetoricity of display. He then introduces each section of the text and how the particular articles in those sections theorizes display through the examination of a variety of displays.

While the introduction to Rhetorics of Display serves as an introduction to a larger body of work by a number of scholars, it is an important text on its own because theorize an under theorized area of rhetorical studies and it has been treated as a foundational text on the theory of display. A key idea in this work is that the audience plays a pivotal role in meaning making in the rhetorics of display. Through display, the rhetor reveals and conceals, but the members of the audience interpret the display according to their values and attitudes. Rhetorics of display are an important area of analysis, Prelli claims, because we live in a time of conflicting values, ideologies, and attitudes, and because display is everywhere, it has become the dominant rhetoric of our times.

Though I referenced this article in my previous annotation (the article used Prelli’s theory), I thought it would be relevant to write an annotation on Prelli’s introduction because it is the foundation of the argument that I am making in my analysis of pro-breastfeeding campaigns. Prelli claims that displays, which reveal some perspective and conceal others, are our dominant mode of communication. I intend to use this theory to explore how pro-breastfeeding campaign images have been constructed to reveal perspectives about the nature of the female body, the nature of breastfeeding and the mother-child relationship, and the place of breastfeeding in society. At the same time, those images have been constructed to conceal or pose a challenge to the dominant views on those issues.

The text is very relevant to discussions in the course about whether visuals make an argument because Prelli claims that “reality is constituted through multiple displays that surround us, compete for our attention, and make claims upon us” (1). Rhetorics of display may be “vocal enunciation, textual inscription, visual portrayal, material structure, enacted performance, or some combination,” and they are “ubiquitous in contemporary communication and culture, and thus, have become the dominant rhetoric of our time” (2). The implication is that the rhetorics of display exist within our ambient surroundings; therefore, I would argue that visuals rather than asking if visuals make an argument we should accept that they do and focus our attention on the ways that they do.

Visual Argument Reflection

As it turns out, my argument was not successfully conveyed as I had hoped that it would be. I think that this is the result of an omission on my part and because I was attempting to make a complex argument more along the lines of feminist invitational rhetoric than purely persuasive rhetoric. The argument that I was trying to make is that infant feeding activism (as a form of visual rhetoric) is contextually dependent upon. The exigence for infant feeding activism is different in developing countries where the water supply is often contaminated and formula fed babies die of dysentery at a 25% higher rate than breastfed babies. For infant feeding activist in those countries, activism is directed against predatory marketing of formula because formula feeding increase the infant mortality rate. The most prevalent infant feeding activism in the western world recently has been focused on the right to breastfeed in public and the normalization of breastfeeding. I was trying to craft an argument that was descriptive and comparative rather than prescriptive-an invitation to consider how terministic screens shape rhetoric. Maury Brown invoked this idea when she said that “The argument is that this idea that formula is poison is widespread, but especially in poor, non-white countries, where the formula becomes seen as unnatural and aligned with corporate values.” Summer Glassie said that “The disparities between the pro-breastfeeding cultures is astonishing as it comes down to the “right” to breastfeed versus the “need” to breastfeed.” Charlie Stark recognized that there “is a large battle going on against formula and breastfeeding- though in 3rd world countries, mostly against /not/ breastfeeding.” The majority, though, interpreted the visual as an anti-formula or pro-breastfeeding argument, and it is that certainly because the activism shown is generally anti-formula or pro-breastfeeding.

I do think that the responses show that it is possible to present a verbal argument, because everyone did identify an argument, and the majority agreed on the nature of that argument. On the other hand, it seems that argument is understood as being primarily persuasive (perhaps because rhetoric is generally thought of as an attempt to persuade others to a point of view. It seems less likely that complex arguments that invite consideration can be easily conveyed. I think that it would have been possible if I had done a better job of constructing the visual.

Moe, P. W. (2012). Revealing rather than concealing disability: The rhetoric of Parkinson’s advocate Michael J. Fox. Rhetoric Review, 31(4), 443-460.


This article by Peter Wayne Moe examines the Parkinson’s research advocacy rhetoric of Michael J. Fox through Prelli’s theory of the rhetoric of display–particularly the notion that language may conceal as it reveals and that rhetorics may reveal but they also may conceal–in order to show that the rhetorical display of the disabled or revealed body challenges traditional notions of rhetoric and affirms the visual body as a powerful tool in the rhetor’s arsenal. Moe relies on Lawrence J. Prelli’s introduction to the collection The Rhetorics of Display (2006)to serve as the theoretical foundation of his argument that the physicality of the rhetor can be powerful as the text or speech of the rhetor. Prelli claims that language mediates what we see, thus language, rhetoric, and the visual are connected (445). The disabled rhetor, claims Moe, is pressured to conceal the disability through views, expressed in the Classical period by Quintilian and Cicero, that the ethos and efficacy of the rhetor is tied to the rhetor’s physicality, thus the rhetor should be healthy, strong, and capable of steady speech.

Moe’s object of study is Michael J. Fox’s 1999 testimony before the Senate subcommittee for the purpose of urging the Senate to increase funding for research into Parkinson’s Disease. Fox made the rhetorical decision to go before the Senate unmedicated so that the full spectrum of his symptoms were on display. Conservative political commentator and radio host Rush Limbaugh was Fox’s most visible critic, claiming that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms and attempting to manipulate the audience.

Moe contrasts Fox’s advocacy rhetoric which reveals his disability to past examples of rhetors (Roosevelt, King George, and Thomas Eagleton) who attempted to conceal their disabilities in order to shape their rhetorical ethoi. Moe compares Fox’s revelation to metaphorical coming out of the closet of LGBT persons (447). The content of Fox’s speech, according to Moe, was a simple three-part argument explaining the prevalence of the disease and that there is no treatment other than symptom management, a complaint at the lack of funding for Parkinson’s research, and requesting that the Senate provide funding. The speech was powerful, according to Moe, because the delivery, with the lack of motor control, jerky movement, and shaking accompanied by a reasoned argument and steady voice (which some Parkinson’s patients do not have). Fox used metaphors of war, calling himself a soldier and referring his advocacy of Parkinson’s research as a fight against the disease. Moe claims that Fox challenged traditional notions of who can be a speaker by rejecting the audience’s preconceived notions about speakers while also anticipating that his delivery would be an emotional affront, which risks reinscribing such responses as normal. Fox undermines the way in which disability has been associated with deceit and femininity by showing that the deceit in this case is the medicated body and he revealed his true bodily state by not using medication. By using war imagery and exhibiting mental acuity, he challenged the view that disability because disability is embodied.

Moe concludes by arguing that in revealing his disability, he has strengthened is rhetorical efficacy and he has shown that that the disabled or revealed body is a site of rhetoric and that there is a strong relationship between rhetoric, language, and the body.

I chose this article because I plan to use Lawrence Prelli’s Rhetorics of Display as a theoretical grounding for my research project focusing on whether the use of visual activism in pro-breastfeeding campaigns undermines attempts to normalize breastfeeding as Brett Lunceford contends. Moe’s exploration of Michael J Fox’s bodily rhetoric is an example of the use of Prelli’s theory in the examination of a rhetorical performance. It challenges the position that Lunceford takes that revealing bodily activity that is normally concealed from view makes that activity a spectacle and therefore undermines the notion that the activity is normal. For those working in the field of visual rhetoric, the article provides an example of an essay focused on rhetorical delivery, an underexplored area of current rhetorical scholarship.



Works Cited

Moe, P. W. (2012). Revealing rather than concealing disability: The rhetoric of Parkinson’s advocate Michael J. Fox. Rhetoric Review, 31(4), 443-460.

Prelli, L. J. (Ed.). (2006). Rhetorics of display. Univ of South Carolina Press.