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.


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