Visual Rhetoric: Before you can deconstruct

Several years back, when I was just beginning to start my graduate career, I had one of my favorite conversations ever with Scott Russell, the coordinator of the Marian E. Wright Writing Center. I had started tutoring there not too long before, and while I can’t remember for the life of me how we got there (one can rarely remember the beginning of conversations with Scott – usually you’re left staggering with yet another sobering readjustment of your understanding of The Way Things Are), I can recall this was when I realized the perfect storm that is academic momentum: in order to change academia, you have to prove yourself to academia, and in order to prove yourself to academia, you must play long enough by academia’s rules that when you have finally achieved enough power and privilege to critique the structure, you are less likely to do so because you’ll be tearing at the very foundation of your own authority. Thus begets and sustains the revolving door of firebrands being tempered into the same tools that maintain the system they set out to tackle. A few strays make it through with their convictions intact, but they are now too few to institute the radical sweeping change they once thought themselves on the cusp of. The cycle repeats.

I started my reading of Delagrange linearly with chapter 1, and was quickly reminded of this conversation above. While there is a handful of “non-traditional” publications that offer limited resistance, Delagrange’s point stands: “Unadorned text, written in plain style and organized in a way that can readily be outlined, has long been the paradigm for scholarly performances and it has been presumed to fit all ‘legitimate’ academic scholarship. Legitimacy, however, is a conservative, hereditary principle that protects the interests of those who claim it” (10). Sound familiar?

The reason we continue to see the visual mode of Text On A Page perpetuate – even to the point where most online only publications still release their editions formatted to look like a physically printed volume in order to appease the academy’s expectations as defined by The Way Things Are (something else Delagrange notes). The catch here is that I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more appetite for this change to take hold buried beneath the surface in everyone who’s playing by the rules, but we’re all waiting on each other to flinch first.

Anyone who makes it far into the academy realizes quickly that significant scholarly inquiry is defined not by the window dressing, but by the substance of the ideas and discussion created. It’s just a matter of time before the academy changes to stop the privileging of black ink on off-white paper, right? We’re all waiting for that change to take hold. While we wait for the winds to change, however, we’ll just submit our next publication to a traditional outlet. Just this time, so we can add it to our C.V. without having to be defensive. Next time we’ll try another more “unconventional” outlet.

I’m still at a point where I haven’t been published (except for a book review), but I can see that pressure at work on my future, and I can see how easily this publication cold war with the academy will stretch out. Thank you Scott – and damn you, Scott – for helping me achieve so pragmatic a POV so early. I’ll do what I can to help tear down the wall.

Just lemme get something published in a traditional journal first.

Visual Rhetoric: So you can

Barthes’ rhetorical analysis of image of a pasta advertisement naturally got me thinking about other advertisements. I have recently had the curse (on my sanity) and boon (for this application) of seeing a handful of the same commercials multiple times and in rapid succession. Because we’re cordcutters, my wife and I watch 99% of the TV we consume through streaming options like Netflix and Hulu Plus. As we are doing at the moment, we occasionally tear through a TV series in rapid fire (in this case, reminding ourselves of Community’s better seasons before the plummet of season 4).

If you’re familiar with Hulu Plus, then my plight is clear: I’ve had the joy of seeing a specific credit card commercial dozens of times in the past few weeks, and had already noticed some of Barthes’ visual critique.

Chase Sapphire Ad

Much of what Barthes notes in a pasta ad is relevant here. The BBQ restaurant Chef Nobu visits is awash in images that denote the immediacy of his experience: the restaurant is crowded, so we know he’s gone someplace popular; numerous large cuts of meat are roasting in converted steel oil drums, so we know it’s authentic; Nobu is invited back to see the grills with the chef, so we know he’s connected with people. It is implied that he is connecting with his peer, but an interesting image precedes this: Nobu’s hand laying down his Chase Sapphire card. The very next image is the chef’s invitation for Nobu to join him, so the message is clear: this credit card gets you access. This theme of access and enablement is referenced throughout the voiceover of the commercial, the narrator beginning many statements with “so you can.”  This implication of access is tied directly to the credit card, connoting that adventures await you when you wield this little piece of plastic.

We can also see textual signing in this ad. A literal sign is visible after Nobu has left the restaurant to stand outside with the jovial proprietor: never fully visible behind the other man in the restaurant’s window is a sign that can be assumed to read “sold out.” The textual denotation is literally that the restaurant has sold through its stores for the day. The textual connotation is, when joined with the image of Nobu laughing outside this door with the chef, that the credit card prevented him from missing out on something great. Finally, the credit card’s mantra of “so you can” closes the advertisement, and the narrative is complete. Use the Chase Sapphire card so you can go on adventures and get to see things you otherwise couldn’t.

As Barthes reminds us, these scenes are manufactured, not captured as they happen organically. The base premise, that an internationally renowned chef who owns a chain of exclusive restaurants needs this credit card to have this experience, is of course preposterous. He has the means, with or without this card. The imagery and textual cues brute force the discordant message into the viewer’s mind, glossing over reality. Taken for its rhetorical choices, you can admire the advertisement for somewhat subtly crafting its message.

If only the season 4 writers of Community had maintained a grasp on such subtlety, Chase would have a score or more chances to sell me on this amazing piece of exploration-enabling plastic.