Now: Visual Rhetorics

The visual rhetorics course I’m teaching this semester is by now well enough plotted to pass along a link, finally. I haven’t taught the class before, which only means that its materials this time are spun provisionally from many influences–an independent study and qualifying exam at SU, Michael Salvo’s syllabus, Dànielle DeVoss’s syllabus, and good conversations with CGB just after the new year. Its large arc follows from photography to document design to infographics and data visualization. I remain cautiously optimistic that these three sub-arcs will fit together okay within the fourteen meetings we have. No surprise, but I’m supplementing heavily with PDFs and assigning as required texts only Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Handa’s edited collection, and Cairo’s The Functional Art. One project involves writing (and designing) Ch. 10 for the Cairo book–a “missing” chapter focused on visual rhetoric. There’s an ignite presentation set up to articulate in short-form one’s emerging visual-rhetorical priorities and interests in relation to one of the people interviewed at the end of The Functional Art. And then there is a loose-fitting, build-your-own-collection portfolio whose creation and assembly is spread as evenly as possible throughout.

I’m still trying to figure out the role of in-class workshop blocks devoted to self-paced attempts with Photoshop and Illustrator. And I can’t quite decide how formally and explicitly to dwell on technical matters and rationale related to different image file types. Against these uncertainties (or yet-unmade decisions), I count as one advantage that I have had all but three of the fourteen students in class before, and it’s a terrific bunch who will assert their preferences whenever I’m slow to decide.

Elkins – The Object Stares Back (1996)

That The Object Stares Back is only part of the picture; in fact, it’s the same name as one of the six chapters in Elkins’s 1996 meditation on seeing. The objects that stare back include everything from stars, moth wings, radar imagery, and insects ill-fitted to our schema for recognizing them. These objects are, although named differently, more like quasi-objects because when they stare back, they implicate us in a “tangled web of seeing” that challenges whether the human observer is an “autonomous, independent, stable self” (74). Elkins goes on, “This is the kind of idea that is popular in academia because it is so exhilaratingly radical—but at the same time it is almost entirely unbelievable, which is to say we cannot believe it if we want to keep going” (74).

The object-stare-back is a peculiar notion: “In a grocery store, I do not think for a moment that rows of vegetables and the cans of soup might be looking at me as I speed down the aisle” (73). And yet there is an emerging stare-back that accompanies positionally sentience: locatable as something suspended between products and consumer positions, if we can link this phenomena with something like the Shell gas station icon rolling up on the GPS interface. This is not quite the same as the can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle peering at shoppers, but is does seem like a new variation on the stare-back.

In the chapter on “Blindness,” staring takes another turn: “Staring is an unusual kind of seeing, and there’s usually something odd going on when I find myself staring. Perhaps staring is a sign that an artwork has malfunctioned: it has arrested my thinking, slowed me down, paralyzed me so I can barely move” (209). Intriguing here that staring establishes an irregular relationship to time; in staring, so much comes to a standstill. Elkins also compares staring to gazing: “That’s how I would distinguish a stare or a glance from a gaze: stares and glances are focused on details” (210). Barthes’ Camera Lucida comes to mind here. That staring is an unusual kind of seeing, that it is “focused on details,” that it brings time to a standstill, could mean that it is located at the critical juncture between studium and punctum. It is, as I now think of it, at the point where the punctum‘s sting (not only photographically, but arguably extending into the world) is suspended, noticed in such a way that it heeds a kind of proprioceptive pull toward studium. In time, whatever holds the stare might end up there, something studied.

This holds up in Elkins’s discussion of German realist painter, Franz von Lenbach who appears almost straining in a series of photographs in the chapter, “Blindness”:

In picture after picture and even in his self-portrait paintings, [von Lenbach] has this same faintly ridiculous pompous stare. It may have been an accustomed squint or an affectation—as if to say, I am a great and penetrating artist—but I almost prefer to think it was the symptom of a concentrated effort to see. (He wasn’t a first-rate painter, and I also wonder if he might have been hampered by the very intensity of everything under his gaze, so that there wasn’t much left to see.)

Not much left to see: stare-punctum becomes crushing-gaze-studium. Why not? Could such effortful seeing generalize to over-exerted writing? I don’t know. But the build-up clicks for me. To re-enact the von Lenbach expression, I tried it out, let my MacBook Pro’s built-in camera capture me imitating the painter (Think, think: “I am a great and penetrating artist”). 3…2…1… Yet I cannot unpick the loopknot: Is this the computer staring back at me? Me staring back at me? Me staring back at you? You staring back at my Macbook?


By the way, to make this face I had only to think about the fact that I wrote a version of this entry yesterday late afternoon and then failed to save it: big frown and scrunched brow.

Ahead of much of what else is here, I appreciated Elkins’s attention in Chapter Two to the function of tropes in science. A researcher sees something unrecognizable, unclassifiable, and assigns to it a metaphor that links inexplicable thing (e.g., an amoeba) to an existing schema. “But [the amoeba’s] body is very strange, very distant from mine, and my mind is clotted with analogies: the amoeba reaches out ‘arms,’ it rolls over itself like a tractor head. I cannot experience the amoeba except through mechanical and biological metaphors” (158). Through substitution (i.e., tropes), recombination and, in effect, new knowledge become possible. Tropes contribute clarity and contour. Elkins identifies another example of this in a doctor’s puzzling over a previously unknown (undisclosed) condition in which the tongue’s surface changes while others aspects of its functioning are in tact. The doctor does not know what to call it, but based on pattern similarities, it becomes “Cerebriform Tongue or Cartographic Tongue” (147). Such naming is complicated, right?, because it is both consequential and underpinned with uncertainty—a provisional relationship to knowledge. In the turn to mapping, a more tightly fitted description would be Raised Relief Tongue, but “raised relief” risks a degree of domain specificity that could undermine the necessarily general level of association between topography and the tongue.

There’s more, but I have other stuff to tend to. The more: a noticably arhetorical discussion of empathy (137), a fascinating section on cyclophobic adaptations (75), a disputable point about visual desperation (156), literary flourishes citing Kafka and, at the end of the book, Wallace Stevens (the conclusion, by the way, is titled “Envoi,” which I read as “Ennui” the first time; need another chapter titled “Oops: When the Wrong Word Stares Back”).

The bit on cyclophobic adaptations is good enough (by which I mean worthy of a return) to blockquote here:

The world is full of eyes, and sight is everywhere. But there is a special category, another kind of eye that is neither real (like my eyes) nor metaphorical (like the “eyes ” of rainbows and halos). It sees, and yet it is blind. I mean the fake eyes some insects grow on their bodies in order to frighten away predators. Butterflies and moths tend to have these eyes on their lower wings, so that they can keep them hidden under the upper wings until they need to flash them in some animal’s face. The feect startles practically any animal that can see: it keeps away birds, lizards, frogs, and small mammals, and it also scares many people. So many animals are frightened of eyes that biologists have a word for it—cyclophobism. (75)

Theory Blackmailed, or Invention Hobbled?

Yesterday–day one of teaching in the new semester–did not quite go as planned, and in the wake of a couple of surprises, I didn’t get around to posting like I intended to in recognition of the nth annual RB of September. After a few years such postings carry a some heavy, if solitarily imagined, burden of tradition. Thus, “theory blackmailed”:

Many (still unpublished) avant-garde texts are uncertain: how to judge, to classify them, how to predict their immediate or eventual future? Do they please? Do they bore? Their obvious quality is of an intentional order: they are concerned to serve theory. Yet this quality is a blackmail as well (theory blackmailed): love me, keep me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you call for; do I not do what Artaud, Cage, etc. have done? –But Artaud is not just “avant-garde”; he is a kind of writing as well; Cage has certain charm as well… –But those are precisely the attributes which are not recognized by theory, which are sometimes even execrated by theory. At least make your taste and your ideas match, etc. (The scene continues, endlessly.) (54)

Why blackmailed? Translator Richard Howard could have selected a different connotation of “la chantage,” e.g., bluff, or intimidation. When the avante-garde serves theory, theory in turn may be said to hobble invention, to wrap it in a splint, to contain it. I read in this Barthes passage a concern for theory’s disciplining of innovation. Unexpectedly, this clicks with concerns in the Introduction and first chapter of Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, a book I’ve just started. Related are questions about what becomes of “the attributes which are not recognized by theory,” put another, perhaps more helpful way, Can theory keep up with avante-garde performances? Must it?

Anyway, happy RB Day, twice belatedly.

Free Cantons



A classical view (based on the unity of the human person): stupidity is an
hysteria: it would be enough to see oneself as stupid in order to be less so. A
dialectical view: I agree to pluralize myself, to permit free cantons of
stupidity to live within me.

Often he has felt stupid: this was because he had only an ethical
intelligence (i.e., neither scientific nor political nor practical nor
philosophical, etc.). (RB 110)

Yesterday was the
Barthes of
, the day of the year that has, around here, become blogically devoted to
excerpts a la Roland. Oh how nice it would be if this–missing Barthes Day–was
the only thing off a little bit these days. Decrypted: I’m still on the
rebound from that flu bug (it was a damn fine foe), and, as luck would have it,
Tom Brady was my number one pick on my fantasy football team, which, pity that
it is, still makes me wonder why, if it’s fantasy, he can’t be healthy
and put up big numbers this season.

Swimming a Little

On this, the Barthes of September (so
I am left with no choice but to post an excerpt. But which one? Something
apropos to this afternoon’s mood (any respite from Why does this over-warm
office where I sit working on my dissertation smell like shit?
94F–record-setting heat in CNY. A dead squirrel in the eaves? I refuse to
climb in the small, hot, unlit nooks to inspect them. Tactic: wait it out–in
the office, curious, resting on hope alone that the unbearable stink resolves itself).

RB (from RB) on "My Head is Confused":

On a certain kind of work, on a certain kind of subject (usually the ones
dissertations are made of), on a certain day of life itself, he would like
to be able to post as a motto the old-wives’ remark: My head is confused
(let us imagine a language in which the set of grammatical categories would
sometimes force the subject to speak in the aspect of an old woman).

And yet: at the level of his body, his head never gets confused.
It is a curse: no value, lost, secondary state: always consciousness: drugs
excluded, yet he dreams of them: dreams of being able to intoxicate himself
(instead of getting sick right away); anticipating from a surgical operation
for at least once in his life an absence, which was denied him for a
general anesthesia; recovering every morning, upon waking, a head swimming a
little, but whose interior remains fixed (sometimes, falling to sleep with
something worrying me, upon first waking it has disappeared; a white minute,
miraculously stripped of meaning; but the worry rushes upon me, like a bird
of prey, and I find myself altogether back where I was, just as I was the
day before

Sometimes he feels like letting all this language rest–this language
which is in his head, in his work, in other people, as if language itself
were an exhausted limb of the human body; it seems to him that if he could
take a rest from language, he could just rest altogether, dismissing all
crises, echoes, exaltations, injuries, reasonings, etc. He sees language in
the figure of an exhausted old woman (something like an antique cleaning
woman with worn hands) who sighs for a certain retirement…. (176)

Why not this? While there is no relief from the odor (decomposing flesh, I am sure of it),
there is a little relief for my head. It is a couple of pages less
confused than it was yesterday.

No Last Word

Remembering to read a little bit of Barthes from time to time. I like
this one (from RB):

When I used to play prisoner’s base…

When I used to play prisoner’s base in the Luxembourg, what I liked best
was not provoking the other team and boldly exposing myself to their right to
take me prisoner; what I liked best was to free the prisoners–the effect of
which was to put both teams back into circulation: the game started over again
at zero.

In the great game of the powers of speech, we also play prisoner’s base:
one language has only temporary rights over another; all it takes is for a
third language to appear from the ranks for the assailant to be forced into
retreat: in the conflict of rhetorics, the victory never goes to any but the
third language. The task of this language is to release the prisoners:
to scatter the signifieds, the catechisms. As in prisoner’s base, language
upon language
, to infinity, such is the law which governs the logosphere.
Whence other images: that of choosing up hand over hand (the third hand
returns, it is no longer the first one), that of scissors, paper, stone, that
of the onion in its layers of skin without a core. That difference
should not be paid for by any subjection: no last word. (50)

After reading through Invention as a Social Act, I turned to this bit
from RB to untwist what I was reading about collaboration as a
dialectical process from Lefevre. No need to blur the distinction between
synthesis (anti/thesis wound together like a bread-tie) and "scatter[ing] the

Although this is as much because I was posting Barthes passages last year,

The Cuttlefish and Its Ink

From Barthes’ RB:

I am writing this day after day; it takes, it sets: the
cuttlefish produces its ink: I tie up my image-system (in order to protest
myself and at the same time to offer myself).

How will I know that the book is finished? In other words,
as always, it is a matter of elaborating a language. Now, in every
language the signs return, and by dint of returning they end by saturating the
lexicon–the work. Having uttered the substance of these fragments for some
months, what happens to me subsequently is arranged quite spontaneously (without
forcing) under the utterances that have already been made: the structure is
gradually woven, and in creating itself, it increasingly magnetizes: thus it
constructs for itself, without any plan on my part, a repertoire which is both
finite and perpetual, like that of language. At a certain moment, no further
transformation is possible but the one which occurred to the

: I could keep the book a very long time, by gradually changing each
of its fragments. (163-4)

It didn’t spring to mind while I was resting face-up in the MRI
machine yesterday afternoon (tomorrow’s entry?), but I eventually settled on a
title for WRT302, as I noted
in the
following yesterday’s entry expressing my dilemma, a title brought
about by RB’s bit above. So it’ll be WRT302: The Digital and Its Links.
I thought about The Network and Its Links, but opted for the former.
Plus I had a thousand really good suggestions, all of which I’d have done well
to take up. The course proper is still six months out; I wanted something
splashy enough to attract enrollments and also something that makes theoretical
sense to me–something that would motivate me toward working carefully through
the many decisions between now and then. I really like the way RB gets at
the ratio between stabilization and drift, the inter-portions of anchor and
flotation, between a buried bow in the sand and a three-thousand year voyage.
The "image-system" generalizes to digital composition quite effectively, I’d
argue; arrangement and spontaneity, "structure is gradually woven." Could
be true of…. And so it will do. Not to mention, when I decided,
yes, this is it
, I still had the metallic grind and industrial deep-buzz of
the body-part scanner lasting with me into the evening; all the more appeal for
the idea of composition as the increasing magnetization of ongoing attempts.