This article published in Hypatia, Rebecca Kukla explores the rhetoric of several American breastfeeding campaigns that attempt to intervene into the infant-feeding choices and behaviors of mothers. Modern health care, according to Kukla, views the mother as having the primary responsibility for the health of her child. Kukla points of that breastfeeding campaigns often present breastfeeding, which scientific studies have suggested is the healthiest method of infant-feeding, is a civic duty, and ethical practice, and a practical method of feeding. Before beginning the analysis of the images, Kukla reviews the rhetorical exigency for breastfeeding campaigns. Breastfeeding is widely viewed as the best method of breastfeeding for a number of reasons; however, breastfeeding rates in the United States fall below target rates. She explains that breastfeeding advocates were confused about why mothers choose not to breastfeed despite the fact that it is well known that breastfeeding is very beneficial and a pleasant experience. Breastfeeding advocates assumed that the reason that mothers were not breastfeeding was because they were not getting the messages. Rather than examining the reasons that mothers were not breastfeeding, in 2004 the Department of Health and Human Services decided to hire the private advertising agency the Ad Council to design a slogan and breastfeeding promotional materials. By examining the advocacy campaign through the lens of semiotics and analysis of the ethics of the campaign, Kukla examines what the campaign reveals about the culturally situated nature of breastfeeding. Kukla explores the cultural factors that make breastfeeding difficult: sexualization of the breast, codes dictating appropriate public and private behaviors, barriers for working mothers. Kukla points out that many images of women breastfeeding show women wearing nightgowns or robes, suggesting that breastfeeding is a domestic act. The narrative about breastfeeding suggests that it is easy and joyful. Women who have difficulties with breastfeeding are seen as “deviant and unmotherly” (169). Mothers who have difficulty feel “unmotherly, shameful, incapable, defective, and morally inadequate” (170). Rather than helping mothers overcome these barriers, the DHHS campaign reinforces the notion that breastfeeding is private by include pictures of objects mean to represent breast (ie. an ice cream sundae with two scopes each topped with a cherry). The text accompanying the images reminds mothers why choosing not to breastfeed may harm children, which was a change from past advocacy campaigns that promoted the benefits. Kukla argues that this campaign was harmful because it painted mothers who face barriers to breastfeeding as harmful to their children. Kukla claims that the DHHS campaign and similar campaigns are “unethical assaults” and campaigns that focus on risk in this way are normative (175).
This article is beneficial because it helps us think about the rhetorical situation and the ways in which visual design can reveal and conceal. Though the discussion of visual analysis was played a relatively minor role in the article compared to discussion of the intended message and reception, it is important to pay attention to the ways in which visual design can be problematic when the producer or active participant fails to understand the needs of the receiver of the message. In this case, while the design was meant to send a message to mothers, it conceals the real problems. Ironically, in rhetorical analysis, this concealment of the real cultural barriers reveals problematic views of the nature of women’s experienced with breastfeeding and a lack of understanding of the barriers that many mothers face. In my own research, this essay will be helpful as a starting place for seeing how breastfeeding campaigns have been characterized in the past. In this case, there were no mothers shown in the images. More recent campaigns have featured mothers, but some have posed a new set of problems because of their contexts.
I have to admit I have been having a bit of a hard time deciding how to respond to the Kress and Van Leeuwen other than to make connections between the theory of grammar of visual images that they are cultivating and then connect it to rhetorical concepts that I am a bit more familiar with. After some initial disappointment with myself, I decided that making those connections is perhaps one of the most valuable things that I should be doing with this text.
One of the first things that struck me as I was reading Kress and Van Leeuwen’s Reading Images is that their characterization of the semiotic potential is very reminiscent of the idea of the rhetorical situation. The discuss working with the available means of communication, which they call “available forms” and “available classifications.” As in the concept of the rhetorical situation, semiotic potential “is defined by the semiotic resources available to a specific individual in a specific social context” (9).
It is interesting to me to compare some of the concepts that Kress and Leeuwen discuss to concepts that I am more familiar with from rhetorical theory. When they discuss the relationship between participants moderated by vectors, I immediately thought of the connection to the concept of agency. Who has agency in the rhetorical situation? How does the communication mode allow for agency? According to Kress and Leeuwen the actor seems to have the agency, as the vector departs from the actor. While some interactions contain no transaction, others do. It is interesting to see so much focus on reaction, because I feel that in many rhetorical analyses overlook such a strong focus on the reaction. While the rhetorical situation needs to be understood, a very important part of the rhetorical transaction is the audience reception of the message.
This discussion of the narrative design in which action moves in a transaction from the actor outward, and perhaps to a receiver to reciprocates, is reminiscent of Atzom’s discussion of narrative plot. Atzom was somewhat vague about the potential structures of such interactions, saying that “design narratives are typically constructed of layered interconnected meanings that are articulated in a holistic fashion both in the physical form of design artifacts but also in their processes” (xiv). Kress and Leeuwen, on the other hand, provide some visions of what those interactions look like. I personally find Atzmon’s discussion of layered and interconnected meanings to be more appealing because in some ways I find Kress and Van Leeuwen’s approach to be limiting. Atzmon’s description of layers and interconnectedness makes narrative seem less of a linear flow and more of an awareness of the ambient environemnt, and it also allows for deeper discussion of what may be concealed or revealed.
I’ve worked with social semiotics before, but I found it the discussion of the basic elements of the metafunctions of social semiotics to be very helpful in my thoughts about my own project. Kress and Leeuwen have said that all semiotics modes must have an ideational metafunction, an interpersonal function, and a textual metafunction. Of these metafunctions, I think that my weakest understanding was of the textual metafunction. The notion of the anchor is helpful for me to understand that concept.
Like Atzmon, Kress and Van Leeuwen argue that artifacts are understood through examination of their historical context. The articles in Atzmon’s text “decipher cultural themes in the creation, form, or use of artifacts that offer insights into the historical contexts in which these artifacts were created and used” (xxvi). While Atzmon calls this a rhetorical approach, Kress and Van Leeuwn claim that “scientific realism” views reality through the eye of a beholder, and that beholder has “had cultural training, and is located in a social setting and a history” (158). It seems, then, that to understand a design, we must not only understand the historical context of its production, but perhaps we should also understand the context of the reception. Birdsell and Goarke address the notion of meaning and how meaning is successful, or not, by saying “The meaning of a visual claim or argument obviously depends on a complex set of relationships between a particular image/text and a given set of interpreters” (313). Those interpreters, it seems, determine the way in which the image is seen or received.
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