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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Rediscovering the Visual in Rhetorical Tradition: Persuasion as Visionary in Suasory Discourse (Petra Aczél)

← 68 | 69 →

Petra Aczél

Rediscovering the Visual in Rhetorical Tradition: Persuasion as Visionary in Suasory Discourse

The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs […] Among the most interesting and complex versions of this struggle is what might be called the relationship of subversion, in which language or imagery looks into its own heart and finds lurking there its opposite number.

(Mitchell 1986: 43)

Given the definition of imagery and language as an array of relationships, it might be easy to conclude that language and imagery are essentially the same.

(Fleckenstein 2002: 13)

1.  Introduction

In recent years the struggle Mitchell points to has been tamed and transformed into a common academic interest blooming in accordance with the ubiquity of visual information in mediatized human communication. “The growth of scholarly interest in visuality marks a cultural reality: that images have become a predominant means of transmitting information in the 20th century and may be even more so in the 21st,” Scott Heller emphasizes (1996: A8). Thus, there seems to be no more need to fiercely fight for the ‘rights’ of the pictorial in human cognition and communication. Without risking suspicion from academia, one can easily state that the visual plays a dominant role in sensing-cognizing the world, in constructing and concerting meanings, in human coexistence and communication. The prevalence of images has apparently won over the scepticism of science towards the non-verbal and thus we can claim that no thinking, learning and speaking is conceivable without the pictorial-visual taken into account.

Nevertheless, rhetoric, a faculty that has long been identified as organically verbal still owes a lot to the rediscovery of the visual. Although a noticeable paradigm of visual rhetoric (Helmer–Hill 2004) has been built upon the assumption ← 69 | 70 → that the lexicon of rhetoric is applicable to the pictorial, one may still doubt if this is the main visual potential the discipline of persuasive speech has. Rhetoric is at hand when the source of persuasion in pictures (structure, visual proofs, visual tropes) is to be explained; however, discussions of the visual within the rhetorical, and the visual drive of rhetorical force, stay disperse and remain non-mainstream.

The present chapter is one that endeavours to highlight rhetoric as visual (and not visual as rhetorical). Sixth in a line of discussing the visual capacity of rhetorical communication this paper focuses on persuasion as visionary in suasory discourse. Debated as it is, persuasion is at the heart of rhetorical practice. Though it has been “one of the great continuing mysteries of rhetoric and related discourses” (O’Keefe 2001: 575), we can state that persuasion manifests the capacity of communication to attract attention, move minds, evoke emotions, alter attitudes, facilitate actions, transform people and change situations. Its power has widely been attributed to either the rational (logos) or the emotional (passions) proofs. This misleading duality has led to the political suspicion toward and academic dismay of the non-argumentative rhetorical speech and the overestimation of cognitive thinking and speaking.

With a well-supported audacity we shall claim that behind rhetorical persuasion there is a non-abstract, sensual communicative existence to which visual is the source of knowledge, experience and expression. Founded in the culture of orality, rhetoric has an original connection to seeing. Rhetoric and the rhetorical style is persuasive because of its visionary – making audiences to see, to feel, to enact – potential that is rooted in the speaker’s visual-sensual encounter with the world.

As the extensive analysis of rhetorical treatises of two millennia cannot be aimed at here, I limit myself to bring up some of the core ideas and terms justifying this claim. The quest for the visual in rhetorical persuasion will be pursued without chronological rigour – rather, with an eagerness to identify intellectual nods in classical and modern rhetorical tradition that can further center critical contemplations.

As part of a series dedicated to the topic, this present paper strives to highlight relevant elements of the rhetorical system after already having dwelt on ars memorativa (the semi-conventional, picture- and space-based system of remembering texts), phantasia (the inner sense of the speaker and the listener, that entails imagination, cogitation and memory), ingenium (the creative force in meeting, cognizing and expressing the world), enargeia (the energizing force that guide orators to create vivid descriptions and to make their audiences to picture what is said in order to persuade), ekphrasis (the rhetorical description that unfolds ← 70 | 71 → before the audience’s eyes) and acumen (the sharpness in speech that represents and triggers sensual and cognitive discovery). Following the path into the treasury of visual tools in the garden of rhetoric, the function of wonder (thaumazein), the connection between the verbal and visual and between the visionary and the persuasive-charismatic will be investigated. Nota bene, this path sometimes leads us to the margins of rhetorical tradition, a place where logic is replaced with energy, the concrete is preferred over the abstract, and the verbal blends with the visual. It is a place where great authors and grand efforts (like Vico or Condillac) are wasted because of the domineering canon. This is what can make this quest even more invigorating, and hopefully, inspiring.

2.  Honeycomb

Rhetoric, in the most general sense, can be regarded as a form of mental or emotional energy imparted to a communication to affect a situation in the interest of the speaker. […] So understood, rhetoric is a feature of all human communication […]. Even when thought of as the theory and practice of public address in a literate society rhetoric is not solely a western phenomenon. The earliest known rhetorical handbook is The Instructions of Ptahhotep, composed by an Egyptian official sometime before 2000 B.C.E.; it gives advice about how to speak and when to keep silent if brought before a judge or ruler. Some of what is said resembles precepts in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 16: “Pleasant speech increases persuasiveness […] Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Kennedy 2007: 7).

Rhetorical language is bound to times, places and personalities; it is situational and subjective.

Working with images and metaphors, rhetoric “make[s] manifest,” revealing relationships through sudden and ungrounded insight into the data, issues, and questions philosophy and science approach rationally. It supplies the inventive capacity rational language lacks, the “firsts” without which rational language cannot get under way. Rhetorical language therefore always has a priority “and provides that which deduction can never discover” (Grassi 2001: 97) –

as Crusius writes (Crusius 2001: xiv). Where does this non-deductive sweetness and primacy of words stem? Explanations of natural sign-relations and imitation – suggesting that the word imitates (does not represent or describe) the world – offer an answer to this question, but not to the practice and the influence of the rhetor. How are the rhetorical attitudes, sensitivities and influences operated in order to create the non-abstract sensual experience, ‘amazement’, in order to move the audience? The key to this may be the ‘wonder’ gained by experience and through speech. ← 71 | 72 →

3.  The Amazing

By nature, all men long to know. An indication is their delight in senses. For these, quite apart from their utility, are intrinsically delightful and that through the eye more than the others. For it is not only with a view to action but also when we have no intention to do anything that we choose, so to speak, sight rather than all the others. And the reason for this is that sight is the sense that especially produces cognition in us and reveals many distinguishing features of things (The Metaphysics, 980a)

– as Aristotle posits in the famous introductory lines of The Metaphysics (980a). In her effort to base the sources of non-cognitive thinking, Hannah Arendt (1981: 58) corrects the first English sentence in the paragraph saying that literally translated it would rather read: “All men desire to see and to have seen”. Knowledge then emerges from seeing, from experiencing the world as it is given to the senses.

There is then an immediacy of seeing and being shocked by the world, a sublime trauma, a deep fascination that brings truth with itself. This truth is gained from experience from the world commonly inhabited, from common sense. It may not be irrefutable but is definitely speakable. This is the truth that stands at the roots of philosophy, of rhetorical persuasion and this is the truth gifted through thaumazein, wondering. Wonder is the initial shock of seeing something not yet revealed. It is the shock that arises tension and awakens attention; it is what marks the human encounter with the world. Grassi considers wonder of primary importance to the essence of philosophy and gives a brief explanation of how thauma (wonder) integrates seeing and learning:

The grammarian and lexicographer Hesychius gives in his lexicon the following synonyms for thauma: ekplexis (shock); xenisma (estrangement); and for thaumazein: theasthai (to look) and manthanein (to learn, to understand). […] The etymological connection established both in antiquity and in modern times between thaumazo and theaomai points to the area in which the interpretation of the term thaumazein is to be looked for: on the one hand in ‘seeing’, and on the other in the domain of ‘immediacy’, which establishes the relationship between ‘wonder’ and ‘emerging vision’, already present in the prephilosophical use of the term thaumazein. […] Questions arise only when something demands clarification, because uncertainty would be intolerable. In other words, we must find ourselves in the realm of an originary tension for our ‘at-tention’ to be awakened. That is why the estrangement referred to by Hesychius in his lexicon is related to shock (Grassi 1994: 5–6).

The wondrous emerges from the connection of events that are not in causal relation, but reveal an inherent, necessary affiliation. It occurs within the system of nature, and brings a surprising consequence with itself. The apparent coincidence, the correlation, the connection that is expressed in the thauma proves itself to be inevitable for the receiver. Mere chance which has no connection with preliminary ← 72 | 73 → and upcoming events is not wondrous, it has only a short-term effect of surprising us. True thaumaston rather puts us off our everyday experiences and thus awakens emotions. Surprise is swept off by these emotions and we come to the conclusion that ‘this must be the way it is’ (Simon 1999; Poulakos–Nathan 2012). Arendt comments:

In other words, what sets men wondering is something familiar and yet normally invisible, and something men are forced to admire […]. The wonder that is the starting point of thinking is neither puzzlement, nor surprise, nor perplexity; it is an admiring wonder. What we marvel at is confirmed and affirmed by admiration which breaks out into speech […]. In short wonder has led to thinking in words; the experience of wonder at the invisible manifest in the appearances has been appropriated by speech, which at the same time is strong enough to dispel the errors and illusions that our organs for the visible, eyes and ears, are subject to unless thinking comes to their help (Arendt 1981: 143–144).

Wonder sets up a cognitive chain that brings pleasure, passion and learning with it. Aristotle specifies the role of wonder among the aims of genres of speech in his Rhetoric.

And to learn and to admire are usually pleasurable; for in admiration there is desire, so the admirable is desirable, and in learning there is the achievement of what is in accordance with nature. […] Since to learn and to admire is pleasurable, other things also are necessarily pleasurable, such as, for example, a work of imitation, as in painting and sculpture and poetry, and anything that is well imitated, even if the object of imitation is not in itself pleasant; for the pleasure [of art] does not consist in the object portrayed; rather there is a [pleasurable] reasoning [in the mind of the spectator] that “this” is “that,” so one learns what is involved [in artistic representation] (On Rhetoric, 1371b).

The immediacy of wonder, its energizing (epistemological) force to discover the unrevealed and the urge to speak about it is what makes rhetorical speech “touching,” “moving” and memorable. The classical orator had to have a general competency to apply the accumulated wisdom of the common culture to the particular case to move his hearers’ minds and engage their passions (Halloran 1994: 331–332). The speaker acted in a known world where common sense prevailed over specialized knowledge and where the influence of the speech stemmed not from the actual newness of the information but from the act and expression of wonder with which a new connection between parts of the known could be shown.

Thauma and admiration, shock and discovery, fascination and learning have not failed to serve as the way the speaker can create a situational climate for a persuasive speech. That is, a rhetorical act, which – prior to rational argumentation – utilizes and displays the meeting of the verbal and the visual. ← 73 | 74 →

4.  Visual and Verbal

We might be able to disconnect image from language. We do this every night in our dreams. However, without language, we cannot do anything with that image except experience it. Imagery lives in the moment and ties us to that moment. To be tugged out of that moment, to be known as anything other than life as it is lived, we need language. Similarly, the process of naming, the meaningfulness of language, is predicated on the existence of imagery. Language that is disconnected from imagery loses its meaning (Fleckenstein 2004: 15).

The verbal and the visual thus are bound in meaningful expression, in rhetorical zooming on the situational and cultural at the same time. They are in kinship: inseparable and inevitable to invigorate the communicative situation. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between language pairing or framing, recreating or governing the pictorial.

For the classical and renaissance-humanist period, textual vividness and verbal persuasion was embedded into the concerted dynamics of phantasia (imagination) and memory. Francis Bacon conceived of rhetoric as dependent on imagery and reassured that images are more memorable than words. For him, rhetoric’s responsibility was

to second the judgments of the reasoning faculty by working on the imagination. If rhetoric is capable of seconding good and true judgment, then it cannot all be misrepresentative. A part of rhetoric’s power, and indeed purpose, says Bacon, is to make the remote goods and natures that pure reason perceives appear to the auditor less distant, and thus it tries to overcome the more short sighted affections. Rhetoric, when supporting reason, knocks at the doors of the imagination […] (Derrin 2013: 9).

Bacon defined rhetoric as “subservient to the imagination as Logic is to the understanding; and the Duty and Office of Rhetoric, if it be deeply looked into, is no other than to apply and recommend the dictates of reason to imagination in order to excite the appetite and will” (The Advancement of Learning Book IV, XVIII. 2.).

From the elements of elocution imitation and description are the best to demonstrate how humanist rhetorical practice translated the visual into the verbal. Imitation was the method with which visions would be encapsulated and imagination could be triggered within the schemata of description. Rhetorical descriptions intertwined the visual and the verbal just as it is elaborated by Henry Peacham’s vivid paragraph (1593/1954):

Descriptio is a generall name of many and sundry kindes of descriptions, and a description is when the Orator by a diligent gatherin together of circumstances, and by a fit and naturall application of them, doth expresse and set forth a thing so plainly and lively, that it seemeth rather painted in tables, then declared with words, and the mind of the hearer ← 74 | 75 → therby so drawen to an earnest and stedfast contemplation of the thing described, that he rather thinketh he seeth it then heareth it.

Growing interest in textual description inspired by Pseudo Longinus’ On the Sublime (around 100 AD) marked French and English belletristic rhetoric of the 18th century. Authors of the age favoured description as an important mode to imitate and capture the visible. Étienne Bonnot, Abbe de Condillac as a pedagogue, philosopher and rhetorician in his L’art d’écrire (1775, Of the Art of Writing, see the compilation of his Philosophical Writings 1982, 1987)

explained the differences between the visual and verbal in this way: The visual world is holistic and is seen instantaneously as a picture. Verbal language is linear, occurring sequentially in units over time. Language decomposes holistic reality, allowing writers to convey what is really seen out there in the world into the mind, where we can once again recompose it to represent the holistic world. It also analyzes that reality by breaking it into bits. For Condillac and others in French belles lettres, the most expressive text is one that tries to re-create this all at onceness – this powerful tableau effect of prelinguistic, visual thought. […] Thus, the keys to the later process of translation from visual imagery to written text were memory and imagination, closely linked (Hobbs 2002a: 38–39, see also Hobbs 2002b: 111).

For the late humanist of the 18th century, Gianbattista Vico – who named Bacon as his main influence – speaking, language, history and social systems all started with the immediate and emotional experiencing of the world, that is, wonder which involved vision (and the senses). Human experience was apprehended by the power of imagination. Ingenium, ingenuity (Vico 1982: 69–70), the basic process to see and connect experiences – the capacity to invent, perceive relevant similarities, to make parts fit into the whole – was taught in the study of rhetoric. Thus language from its inception was metaphoric and imagistic and rhetoric as a mode of speech, primordial (Vico 1711–1741/1996; Grassi 1994).

In the later era of modernity, however, language seemingly trapped the visual: imagery could gain legitimacy only through language-based frames. Principles of language were and are to be applied to visual operations that are, by their nature, different from the verbal. This is one of the reasons why the visual in rhetoric has been defined as an expressive feature instead of a generative force. Overarching studies of tropes and figures (neo-rhetoric, Dubois et al.: Rhétorique générale, 1970/1981, see also Genette 1982) have limited and categorized the visual into style-formats and excluded it from ways of serious persuasion. The sharp distinction between the emotional and the rational eliminated the archaic storming of the visual and verbal and cut off sensual appeals from the branch of argumentative ones. Persuasive speech has been conceived of in terms of attitude, source, message, receiver and context factors, elaboration (O’Keefe 2002). Imagery as a ← 75 | 76 → persuasive force was almost exclusively paired with the operations of metaphor and the notions of ‘visionary speech’ has been reserved for cases to which the terminology of persuasion could not be applied.

5.  Visionary and Persuasive

What one may miss from contemporary rhetorical theory she will easily find in leadership studies where studies that succeed to identify applicable tools and ways to the formation of great, charismatic leaders are of true significance. For the sake of the present discussion charisma of the leader (Weber 1947; Simonton 1988) can be considered as a complex of abilities (and a joint perception) that captivates and moves receivers to act in accordance with a vision the speaker holds.

House and Shamir (1993) examined eight theories of charismatic, visionary, and transformational leadership in order to clarify an overarching theory of charisma. Only one of 11 behavioural dimensions was represented in all eight theories: visionary behaviour, that is, the articulation of “an ideological goal […], that emphasizes fundamental values such as beauty, order, honesty, dignity, and human rights” (House–Shamir 1993: 97; Emrich et al. 2001: 527). In terms of visual and visionary rhetoric this articulation is what turns out to be decisive. Visionary rhetoric is a discourse aimed to challenge the future and generate change persuasively. With its frame (expectations, norms, knowledge)-breaking and frame-realigning methods, visionary speeches paint the world and the future with words with lush, imagery-laden language. Persuasive as they are, they require elaboration; that elaboration occurs in terms of mental simulation of the situation being described by the content (Fauconnier 1994; Coulson–Oakley 2006).

Vision content research has investigated the effects of imagery-based versus concept-based contents. Assumptions have held that image-based (concrete, emotional) content tends to evoke emotional, while concept-based content tends to evoke cognitive (hot or cold systems, see Metcalfe–Mischel 1999) responses from receivers respectively […]. Researches on the relation between charismatic leadership and imagistic speech have mostly framed their methods on the basis of either Martindale’s Regressive Imagery Dictionary (1975), a content analysis coding scheme designed to measure primordial (associative, concrete) versus conceptual thinking (abstract, logical), or the Paivio, Yuille, Madigan noun pool (1968) or the Toronto Word Pool. All of these databases entail counts, lists and item value ratings that exhibit imagery- versus concept- and the concrete- versus abstract-based words. According to Emrich et al. (2001: 530) “the essential difference between these two types of words resides in the extent to which each arouses a sensory experience in the minds of listeners. Image-based words more easily ← 76 | 77 → evoke sensory experiences, whereas concept-based words appeal more strongly to listeners’ logical interpretations”.

The findings of studies investigating the correlation between successful, charismatic (presidential) leadership and the use of imagery (for example ‘I have a dream’ instead ‘I have an idea’) have consistently demonstrated that there is a significant positive relationship between the skillful use of imagery and leaders’ ability to persuade people to accept and enact their visions, to be perceived and rated charismatic (Maranell 1970; Murray–Blessing 1994; Emrich et al. 2001; Naidoo–Lord 2008). Moreover, case studies (Willner 1984) and qualitative research that tested the effect of metaphor on presidential/leader charisma (Mio–Riggio–Levin–Reese 2005) further justified that speeches by leaders perceived as charismatic have a higher amount of metaphor density as opposed to non-charismatic ones. Consequently, charismatic leaders use metaphors as a rhetorical tool to inspire and motivate followers (Shamir 1995; Mio–Riggio–Levin–Reese 2005). These findings support the research of metaphors and metaphorical messages as persuasive tools. As metaphorical thinking may engage substantial image-based processes (Zaltman–Coulter 1995) metaphors can constitute intense (Hamilton–Stewart 1993) or vivid (Nisbett–Ross 1980) language which can arouse greater effect on the audience and lead to more persuasion (Siltanen 1981). Metaphorical messages are likely to produce greater attitude changes relative to their literal counterparts (Sopory–Dillard 2012).

As Emrich et al. assumed (2001: 529) “leaders who use words that evoke pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, and other sensations tap more directly into followers’ life experiences than do leaders who use words that appeal solely to followers’ intellects. By engaging followers’ senses, not only their minds, leaders make their messages more immediate, real, and appealing to followers”. The usage of image-based rhetoric results in a vivid performance which has the capacity to grasp listeners’ attention, facilitate their comprehension, evoke emotions and incite elaboration and motivate their memory.

Rhetoric that is crafted to be image-based, image-evoking, concrete is easier to process, to relate to and to interpret emotionally (Miller–Marks 1997) and to elaborate than its non-imagery counterpart. Vivid speakers seem and sound more active and dynamic and their audiences feel more inclined to judge them as competent and visionary.

As for stimulating memory processes: imagery produces superior memory for verbal material (Kieras 1978; Paivio 1986).

When a follower hears, comprehends, and is motivated to store in memory a leader’s message, an image-based message will be stored in more “places” and in richer detail than a comparable concept-based message. Therefore, when it is time to act, followers will have ← 77 | 78 → greater success retrieving a leader’s image-based than a concept-based message and will have on hand a richer, more detailed and, hence, potentially more instructive guide for action (Emrich et al. 2001: 533).

In short, research findings confirmed that messages of leaders/speakers are more influential when they are high, rather than low, in imagery; the speaker’s ability to convey images in words plays a key role in visionary behaviour and that effects of imagery in speech positively correlates with persuasive communication and the perceptions of speakers as charismatic.

6.  Epilogue in Lieu of Conclusions

The initial shock of experiencing what is unrevealed in the world, co-existence of the verbal and visual in thinking and speaking, the imitation of vision in words, and visionary oratory all belong to the tradition of rhetoric. However, the study of textual products and logical procedures has apparently overcome the consideration of visual processes in rhetorical speeches, leaving the faculty and its pedagogy without two of its most discerning characteristics: visual thinking and the sensualizing of language. Thauma, phantasia, ingenium, enargeia, charisma – these constitute the vocabulary of visionary rhetoric, a mode of speech the usage of which could re-penetrate contemporary rhetorical theory – the lexicon of structure, logic, argumentation, style – in order to see clearer the function and influence of vision and imagery in persuasive communication. Sparkling ideas of theoretical forerunners and the strong body of research evidence support any scholarly ambitions which aim to dive for more visual in the rhetorical. The present chapter meant to be a humble contribution to further quests of the brave ones.


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