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As Tsar of Rhetnation, I vow...

This semester, I'm supervising an independent study on visual rhetoric, an area that I've always had a passing interest in, but one where I wouldn't consider myself an expert. As a result, I'll be doing a lot more reading than is typical for me in an IS. I'm not complaining--I'd like to get a little more up to speed, and this is a good way to do it.

So anyhow, the first book we chose is James Elkins' Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (Amazon), both for its general overview of what is a fairly nebulous field (WJTMitchell calls it an "indiscipline") and for the skeptic part of it. I've read several of Elkins' books--he, along with Mitchell, Barbara Stafford, and a couple of others, is much of the basis for whatever expertise in visual theory I might lay claim to--and have always found him both accessible without being too evangelistic.

There's a section in VS:SI called "Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult," and I found myself wondering what it would look like to try an analogous exercise for composition, rhetoric, and/or writing studies. "At the moment," Elkins writes, "visual studies is, to put it directly, too easy." His ideal?

I would like to see a visual studies that is denser with theories and strategies, more reflective about its own history, warier of existing visual theories, more attentive to neighboring and distant disciplines, more vigilant about its own sense of visuality, less predictable in its politics, and less routine in its choice of subjects....What matters most is the ease: visual studies is too easy to learn, too easy to practice, too easy on itself. I would like to see the field become so difficult that it can do justice to the immeasurable importance of visuality, which is still slighted throughout the university (65).

Substitute "writing" for "visuality" and all of a sudden, it sounds pretty familiar and (for me, at least) desirable.

Among various "cases" posed to his colleagues, Elkins closes with "The Case of the Writing Itself: The Challenge of Writing Ambitiously," wherein he urges his colleagues to know the field as completely as possible, to go beyond the name drop and to "do [their] sources the favor of a concerted encounter," and to write as well as they can. It reminded me in no small measure of what Latour says about writing sociology. It's easy enough advice to give out, but much harder to actually follow, but when I find writers from other disciplines convinced of how incredibly important writing is, I find it inspiring. Discussions like these make me want to be a better reader and a better writer.

And they make me want to write an article detailing ten ways to make writing studies more difficult, if for no other reason than my discipline's tendency to swing wildly towards inclusion as a solution for every perceived problem. Actually, as I write this, I think I need to distinguish between inclusion/exclusion, which is a pretty easy binary to resolve (i.e., one is good, one bad), and easy/difficult, which is less so. I don't think difficult necessitates exclusion, nor do I think Elkins is advocating that. I do think, though, that there are times where we make our field "easier" because we think it will thusly become more "inclusive." (And misguidedly so, on occasion, methinks.)

I think that's all I have for today. Although I will say that, if you have a passing interest in visuality, and want a decent overview of the "field"--and one that's well written--you could do far worse than Elkins. And I mean that literally--there is some real crap out there.

Okay. That's all.


Have you had a chance to check out the CWRL's Visual Rhetoric blog?


There's a blog, a bibliography, and some essays. Also, if any of your students are interested in blogging about visual rhetoric we'd love to have them.

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