Foss: Theory of Visual Rhetoric

Foss, S. K. (2004). Theory of Visual Rhetoric. In K. L. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis, & K. Kenney (Eds.), Handbook of Visual Communication : Theory, Methods, and Media (1st ed., pp. 141–152). Routledge.



Visual rhetoric: relatively new area of study (1970). Contribution of Burke  (symbolicity-- not only talk but other human symbol systems). Ehninger (1972): "proposed a definition of rhetoric that did not privilege verbal symbols and was sufficiently broad to include the visual" (141). Rhetoric to E was a way ppl influence each others'' thinking through strategic use of symbols. 


Objections: rhetoricians not trained to deal with images, but with speech/language. Other concern that it would dilute/dislocate the study of rhetoric. Other perceive language as superior or images are the "easy way out."


Foss argues for the practical side of vizrhet-- it''s persuasive and pervasive. Language can be limiting. "Human experiences that are spatially oriented, nonlinear, multidimensional, and dynamic often can be communicated only through visual imagery or other nondiscursive symbols" (143). 


Visual rhetoric has two meanings: visual object/artifact (''product'') and perspective on the study of visual data. 


Visual Rhetoric as a Communicative Artifact


"Visual rhetoric is the actual image rhetors generate when they use visual symbols for the purpose of communicating" (143). What makes a visual object a communicative artifact / visual rhetoric? "Must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience" (144).


  • Symbolic Action: must go beyond being a sign and be symbolic (image only indirectly connected to its referent). Uses example of shape and color of stop sign having no natural relationship to stopping a car.
  • Human Intervention: Painting, photograph, etc. Tree becomes symbolic when brought into home for Christmas (requires human action either in process of creation or interpretation)
  • Presence of an Audience: designed for communication with audience--even if that audience is the creator.


Visual Rhetoric as a Perspective


The theoretical perspective/ critical-analytical tool. Focus on rhetorical response (not aesthetic). Conception of the audience (not necessarily "trained" in design, art history, education). Specific attention to one or more of three aspects of visual image: nature, function, and evaluation.


  • Nature of the Image: Attention to presented elements and suggested elements. Presented=naming major physical features of the image (space, mass/size, media, materials, shapes/forms). Suggested=what viewer likely to infer (gold=wealth, privilege, power).
  • Function of the Image: how image operates for viewers (as opposed to purpose, which is creator''s intention). Action image communicates (Elvis painting memorializes singer; interior design creates feelings of warmth).
  • Evaluation of the Image: Analysis


Deductive Application of the Rhetorical to the Visual


Visual image treated as language-like symbol. Apply theory.


Inductive Exploration of the Visual to Generate the Rhetorical


investigate features of visual images to generate rhetorical theory that takes into account distinct characteristics of the visual symbol (149). Assumes visual images differ in significant ways from discursive symbols (e.g., images do not express thesis or proposition as verbal messages do; cannot identify smallest independent units of visual image; language general and abstract, images concrete and specific).