Cultural Theories of Visual Rhetoric
Social structure often has a major influence on the ways of communication, the impact, and style of all rhetoric. Visual rhetoric is not different in its impact and being impacted by society and different cultural values, ideology, and styles. Symbols and other components of visual rhetoric vary in meaning from culture to culture, and even sometimes within subgroups of cultures. This is reflected in the study of semiotics. Semiotics and Visual Rhetoric are in summary, signs that can have different quantifiers such as color, perspective, line, etc. These are dictated to a culture through different vehicles, the medians of rhetoric.
Cultural rhetoric is defined by the standards or values that culture attaches to things. This sort of value attachment can even vary within a culture and amongst different groups of people. We see in modern society in America that culture defines the roles of its entire membership and where an acceptable place in society is for these people. The struggle between sexes is one in particular that is perfect for this example. Culture has dictated in the past the placement of men above women, and therefore the power of men’s rhetoric over that of a woman. Gender and Visual Rhetoric roles are an ideal example of cultural rhetoric viewing the two genders as sub groups of the American culture.
Simply put, cultural rhetoric is a way of framing the words or ideology of a group through a lens that filters or can judge another group’s rhetorical power and value. Cultural rhetoric theories state that a culture is able to dictate values and standards through cultural rhetoric practice. With an interdisciplinary approach to understanding cultural theories of visual rhetoric, below is a more in-depth explanation of culture as understood by sociologists and communications scholars.
Culture affects how we see things. Different cultures perceive things differently. According to Laura Desfor Edles' Cultural Sociology in Practice, “Culture” can be defined in several capacities; (A) humanistic and artistic activities, (B) the manner in which a particular group of people live, their way of life, (C) systems or patterns of shared symbols (1). It is this last method of defining “culture” with which we are most concerned. It is through these systems of shared patterns and symbols that individuals understand their environment, their reality, their life and everything related to their life.
Each individual has their own subjective frame through which they see reality. These frames are created through unique cultural experiences specific to the individual. Cultural frames reject an objective reality. Cultural frames shape how we see ourselves, others and our world. Cultural frames are cumulative they accumulate over time with experience and are constantly changing based on these experiences. The sum of our cultural frames is called our cultural prism. Because each individual experiences life through their own cultural frames, it can be said that there is no one universal objective reality. Each person has their own reality.
How does this relate to visual rhetoric?
Often, the focus in both learning as well as teaching visual rhetoric is the need to make certain universal claims regarding its power, uses and meanings. However, if we consider visual rhetoric from the “cultural frames” perspective, there is no universal application of visual rhetoric. Each individual’s cultural frames dictate how they use as well understand visual rhetoric. For example, consider traffic signs. Traffic signs vary from country to country and even sometimes from region to region. Depending on an individual's cultural background, he or she will understand traffic signs differently.
A Japanese "bumpy road" sign  looks strikingly similar to the European sign for "dip" in the road . Two different concepts represented by the same image in different geographical locations. The interpretation of these signs therefore will vary based on the cultural prism from which an individual views them.
Language is Arbitrary and Culture-SpecificEdit
The language we use to describe our world is completely arbitrary. There is no reason that certain words represent certain things. There is no clear connection between the signifier (word/symbol) and the signified (“object in world”). But more importantly, the construction of language is extremely culture-specific. Not only do varying cultures use different words but also these cultures see words differently. For example, consider a tree, a tree can be seen many different ways from varied subject positions and cultural frames. For an environmentalist, a tree is something to be preserved, a relic. For a timber company, a tree is profit. For a politician, a tree can represent a political platform.
How does this relate to visual rhetoric?
Visual rhetoric can be considered a language, a visual language and similar to verbal language it is often arbitrary and definitely culture-specific. Consider brand logos. A company's logo is often well-recognized as representing a particular brand but it's actual connection to the brand is somewhat arbitrary. For example, the Starbucks logo ; a green and white Nordic goddess has no relation to coffee products, the brand logo is arbitrary. In addition to being arbitrary, often logos are culture-specific as well arbitrary. While Starbucks is probably a universally recognized logo, an image such as the Duke Dog, James Madison University's mascot is not. The Duke Dog is a culturally-specific symbol, easily understood and recognized by the James Madison University (JMU) culture as their noble mascot and spirit guru, yet most likely considered just a dog to individuals outside the JMU culture.
“The ideas of the ruling class are, in every epoch, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class, which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force (Edles 33).” This description of Hegemony is quoted by Edles from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' German Ideology. Although the description sounds somewhat convoluted, Marx and Engel touch upon the important idea of the connections between the ruling class and the ruling intellectual force. Hegemony is a fairly simple concept with very complicated definitions. In essence, Hegemony is a theory regarding how dominant classes control the order of society by making their own views appear to be the accepted views. Subordinate classes accept certain ideas, actions or structures as natural when in reality they are actually social constructs created by the dominant classes. “Hegemony is thus the sum of the cultural processes through which ruling groups universalize their own worldview in order to emerge as dominant (Rumbo).”
How does this relate to visual rhetoric?
Deconstructing hegemonic constructs is extremely important when investigating any form of rhetoric. To understand certain forms of visual rhetoric, it is necessary to be aware of any potential hegemony. In addition, when participating in visual rhetoric one should be sure not to further any hegemonic constructs that may exist within the culture. Often, media perpetuates hegemonic structures by portraying individuals, the world and life as a particular way. While cultural groups such as African Americans, Hispanics and Asians continue to flourish within the United States, television, movies and advertising continue to portray America as a dominantly White society with little diversity. By constantly being exposed to often "colorblind" media, we accept it is as natural the Hegemony that The United States is a dominantly White country. In interpreting and creating visual rhetoric, it is important to keep in mind the potential Hegemonies.
Culture (from a communications standpoint) deals mostly with the rules that govern the understood, misunderstood, acceptable, unacceptable, expected and unexpected ways messages are relayed within a certain community. This community can be as small as an intimate group of friends or as large as a continent. The community is the culture. The message and it's delivery methods is the rhetoric. While theories on cultural rhetoric are usually explained in regards to verbal communication, they adapt well into visual rhetoric.
When verbal literacy is used, it follows guidelines set forth by the governing body and is designated as the national language. Visual literacy is also governed by culture specific values, but which are set for by national groups, they can vary. To be completely visually literate, one must understand all cultural aspects that may play a role in the interpretation of the image. This is where the knowledge and understanding of semiotics is important. The role of nonverbal communication in visual rhetoric connects closely to semiotics and the understanding of a visual argument.
Nonverbal behavior is typically analyzed in-depth in regards to communication. Nonverbal communication itself is culture-based. The cultures one associates with will influence their interpretation and use of non-verbal codes. Nonverbal cues, as explained by Mark P. Orbe and Carol J. Bruess in Contemporary Issues in Interpersonal Communications, can be split up into seven categories, four of which translate well into visual rhetoric (138).
Facial and eye communicationEdit
Facial and eye communication through expressions can tell a lot about the message a person is conveying in a picture. The importance of the face can be traced back to the simple fact that when communicating verbally, a person typically looks at the communicator’s face for extra feedback. However, much of facial communication is culture bound (Orbe 142). The seven common facial expressions (sadness, anger, disgust, fear, interest, surprise, and happiness) are innate in people as children. Yet, as a person is socialized into their cultures as adults, these expressions are sometimes hidden or accentuated. For example, Asian cultures teach one to hide any highly emotional thoughts such as sheer excitement. In a painting, it is important to take note of the cultural setting of the characters because their facial expressions may be skewed to fit the culture.
Proxemics study the use of space in communications (Orbe 145). Proxemics are also highly culture bound. A photo of a mother and child in each other’s personal space, embraced in a hug automatically brings thoughts of intimacy to an American. This is because intimate distance (touching up to 18 inches apart) is considered primarily inappropriate in U.S. culture. A good example of the extent to this used in recent popular culture is the film, Borat, where a foreign man from Kazakhstan tries to introduce himself to Americans by invading their intimate space . Borat is not welcomed by Americans who see this as an invasion of their personal space. Proxemics tie in closely with visual rhetoric because the distance between the two objects in a narrative representation may give clues to the relationship and argument conveyed.
Physical appearance and artifactsEdit
Physical appearance and artifacts affect communications on a cultural level similar to facial and eye communication. This includes the choice of dress, choice of objects, decoration and the like. Even certain colors are more important than others in a culture (Orbe 154). For example, red, white and blue will have a different emotional connection to an American, Britain or Frenchman than to an Iraqi or South African. To an American, a photograph of a woman in a revealing dress will stimulate a different reaction than the reaction to the same photograph by a group of men from India. Similarly, in this photo  of a Japanese wedding ceremony, the bride has her hair covered. Understanding that this has the same effect as wearing a wedding veil in western culture adds to the viewers understanding of the image.
The environment can be affected by culture in visual rhetoric. Architecture, room arrangements and colors fall into this category (Orbe 150). This relates closely to time and space in regards to visual rhetoric. Different cultures will react differently in certain environments. A person who grew up in the culture of the "city that never sleeps", New York, will react to a painting of the Swiss Alps differently than a person who travels the world hiking and mountain climbing.
Culture is both influential in how a reader interprets visual rhetoric as well as how a writer composes visual rhetoric. Understanding how cultural theories can influence visual rhetoric is essential. Although this discussion included only Sociological as well as Communication-based theories of culture and visual rhetoric, these theories can be considered the underlying base upon which other cultural theories are developed and understood.
Edles, Laura D. Cultural Sociology in Practice. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers., 1965.
Orbe, Mark P. and Carol J. Bruess. Contemporary Issues in Interpersonal Communications. London: Oxford UP, 2004.
Rumbo, Joseph D. [Lecture]. Vocabulary Weeks 1-8. Sociology/Anthropology 368-Contemporary American Culture, James Madison University, 2007.