Monday, October 6, 2008

ekphrastic affects

it's so obvious it's killing me to watch it. we want to rise above petty campaigning tactics, but they don't. somehow, we need to discover ways of activating affective intensities capable of moving voters without also alientating them or degrading ourselves. because really actually American voters don't simply want their party's winner -- although Burkean identification is proving to be a highly powerful variable (recently, i spoke with a person who claims to be highly rational, a person who has for so long ID'd Republican that he said that he wants to see McCain win, die quickly, and then watch as the world becomes very "exciting." i don't usually do this, but OMG). well, let's say that for many American voters, it's not exclusively about party. not now. but what worries me is that for all her lack of historical, et al knowledge -- which might persuade party-ID'ing Republicans to think carefully about disidentification (at least this time around), Palin proves that she knows what voters desire, and she is giving it to them (ahem).

so i'm thinking about Palin via a theory of desire, which is to say, by way of Spinoza, a theory of joy, which is in a way a theory of affect (i'm playing loose; it's all the rage in politics). that is to say, people want, especially now, to feel that living in America means what it has often wanted to mean, that they can feel their desires and act upon them in ways that seem productive. they want that desiring joy – “the passion one experiences in the transition to an increased power to strive”-- Spinoza’s definition of desire.

what is worrying me is that regardless of the outcome of the election (oboy), all Sarah Palin need do is look like she does (not my version of "pretty" or "sexy," but it's working for many, that iconic sexy librarian thing) -- and so but this is not a great moment for women and power, despite what everyone wants to be saying about this (even my goddess, Christiane Amanpour on The Daily Show wanted to go there and did, a sign that The End is very, very near).
so but i'm thinking that this is about how images argue and how they do so effectively even (especially?) when they radiate their meanings absent contextualizing discourse (despite what the linguists and many rhetoricians say). to be clear and more accurate, let's say that in Governor Palin's case, her image argues absent "rational" contextualizing discourse.

to complicate the question of whether or not images argue absent contextualizing written or verbal discourse, say, an essay that explains their meaning, [or a speech that demonstrates leaderly power-potential] i turn to iconologist WJT Mitchell. Creating distinctions between “pictures” and “images,” Mitchell argues for the somewhat easy comprehension of the rhetoricity of pictures because of how they support or contain images (images relate most essentially, for Mitchell, to icons). with regard to pictures, we might discuss line, angle, lighting, proximity, and other design elements as a way of getting at what an agent is after in the framing of the image(s) within a picture. but, for Mitchell, images are far more dynamic, as they possess the potential to seduce us into consuming and reproducing them; they have the distinctive ability to “go on before us,” (105) [sic] as if they possess some vital force that exceeds an obvious rhetoricity. Mitchell moves us beyond “what can I teach?" and "what do I need to do to prepare myself to teach it?” to wondering about “the question of images and value [that] cannot be settled by arriving at a set of values and then proceeding to the evaluation of images”. Rather, Mitchell argues that “[i]mages are active players in the game of establishing and changing values. They are capable of introducing new values into the world and thus of threatening old ones”(105). images themselves seem to possess agency, for Mitchell, and to divorce that agency from the image by intervening with a verbal rendering of the image’s meaning seems somehow wrong [or at least, ineffective. i mean to recognize that it really doesn't matter what Gov. Palin says or omits or blunders, as long as the image "goes on before us," and this is rather terrifying but also evidence in support of images' rhetorical power]. we might be especially struck by the reductive expectation for an image’s accompanying verbal or written discourse because, here and now, new media technologies (and old ones too, a can of hairspray, a sexy librarian ensemble) enable us to produce not only “pictures” but, with artful or perhaps even chance juxtapositions and playful tensions, “images.”

image pleasure is, to be sure, disorienting and paradoxical. on the one hand, images are impotent because they lay beneath our pedagogical concern -- why worry them at all? so, Sarah Palin's appearance is not worth considering. i'd like to be able to say that this is so, but it is, according to my thinking here, really the only thing that people are considering . . . the image is sufficient. it speaks, in the magical manner of icons that generate cultural worship, ritual, and identification with What Has Been, which is so comforting to so many Americans, especially in the terrifying present. on the other hand, we recognize the widely-resonating power of images -- they are powerful because we place them beneath us, as though to do away with or desacralize them, perhaps fearing their power because of how they reveal our own lack (who's this Palin nobody?). this paradoxical (im)potence underscores the nature of images’ enigmatic power and makes image work important for rhetorical pedagogies. Mitchell explains that:

[f]or better or for worse, human beings establish their collective, historical identity by creating around them a second nature composed of images which do not merely reflect the values consciously intended by their makers, [as with the rhetoricity of pictures] but radiate new forms of value formed in the collective, political unconscious of their beholders. As objects of surplus value, of simultaneous over-and underestimation, [… images] stand at the interface of the most fundamental social conflicts. (106)

in particular, Mitchell sees images in terms of their rhetorical agency; they

are phantasmatic, immaterial entities that, when incarnated into the world, seem to possess agency, aura, a “mind of their own,” which is a projection of a collective desire that is necessarily obscure to those who find themselves […] celebrating around or inside an image. (105-6)

for many, the obscure nature of the mutual desire of images seems to be what pedagogies of the visual (where i can find what i'm calling "image pleasure," although image pleasure exceeds pedagogy) might be after. that is, images “radiate” cultural values and desires[2]; we respond to the desire of the image as we discern a will to engage with and participate with and in images. “Celebrating around or inside an image” seems to suggest unwitting participation (as w/ the golden calf), and here we may find space to imagine image work as an endorsement of an uncritical disposition. this is not the endorsement many of my colleagueas in Rhetoric and Composition bring to image work. regrettably, however, it seems to be working for Governor Palin.

[1] Blair qualifies by calling for a few key design elements (see George for summary or Blair in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital Age.

[2] for several drafts, I had used “articulate” over the more appropriate “radiate”; we have so normalized our ekphrastic hopes and conventional pedagogies.

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