Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Visual Rhetoric and Politics...

It's always interesting to me to look at political sites (for either party) and think about the visual rhetoric expressed by the content. Not photographic content, which is far more interesting on political parody pages; standard party websites haven't yet stooped to manipulating photography on their main page. I mean backgrounds and minor graphic details such as buttons, banners, and color interplay, graphics that people don't study, that people don't internalize and filter as they do standard print artifacts such as alphanumeric text and photographs. One of the purposes of rhetorical criticism is the production of "metaknowledge," explicit understanding and evaluation of messages that pass through our lives.

Make no mistake: these graphics are messages, deliberately crafted (whether consciously or not) to convey a general feeling; thus the danger of allowing them to pass unfiltered. How do such things become messages? Think: how many images, sounds, and pieces of text just pass through your mind without a second thought? How do we "know" what things mean? We know because human beings are social animals: we communicate. Rhetoric is not necessarily windy, neither is it necessarily poetic or otherwise discursively exaggerated: Moliere reminds us that, while almost none of us speak poetry in the day to day, all of us speak prose. We persuade. We argue. We debate and discuss. We also unconsciously consume discourse: when was the last time you looked at a Stop sign and thought about it?

Like the stop sign, political visuals are deliberately crafted: color and shape have definite meanings in politics. A map can be seen as nothing more than a political artifact, a representation of perceived borders: I am here, I am not there. Look at the planet from space, and you see no borders. The use of a map shape in a political site, with colored pieces in the shape of smaller map shapes, has a rhetorical purpose. The Republican National Committee homepage uses map and color messages in a subtle and brilliant fashion. If you want to see the maps of which I speak, you can visit this page.

The first map, which was used in a "Donate" animation, shows faded red and blue. Keep in mind that the rest of the site shows only dark, blood red. Fading in this context suggests uncertainty: we're winning, but we haven't won. It enhances the effectiveness of the large, red button reading "Donate," in all caps, and does so quite subtly, in a way that the average visitor won't notice. The second map shows a bloodred "heartland" with isolated blue spots that represent highly urban areas. This, too, is a rhetorical appeal, one designed to demonstrate that first, 80% of the United States is "Red" country, and second, that those folks in big cities (notice the blue swath in the Northeast, following the Canadian border, and along the California Coast, the very immigrant southwest, and the isolated blue islands in cities such as Chicago, Charlotte, Indianapolis, etc) don't agree with the overwhelming majority. Its brilliance lies in its subtlety: the map is only a physical representation of space, and ignores population entirely. We all know that the popular election was not an 80/20 landslide, but this map displays something entirely different: power and victory.

In the interest of fairness, I should mention the Democratic National Committee homepage, which engages in similarly suble rhetorical devices. The bloodred map of Iraq in the center of the page has two major implications that immediately come to mind: first, the blood spilled in the nation, and second, an implication of political responsibility. The blood of the Iraq war is placed squarely in the hands of the Republican party (despite the fact that a number of Dems voted to go to war). Another interesting visual is the dollar bill button on the right hand side of the page, which is labeled "Republican culture of Corruption," the latter word in gray. The dollar bill is a subtle reference to lobbying money, which many Dems are tied to as well. The gray: think what you will of shades of gray or corruption. Here I must admit that I wrote about the visuals on the RNC site earlier in the semester: I'm working on the DNC visuals right now for a different paper, so my criticism isn't as broad as it otherwise would be. Nonetheless, you get my point: visual elements such as these are subtly designed to enhance the party message.

This is, of course, exactly the goal, as it is on all such pages: political parties want three things from visitors to their websites: votes, donations, and volunteerism. Party sites are designed to appeal to current party members, active or inactive. Active party members can learn the party's stance on current events; inactive members can be informed as to just why they need to be more active. Undecided voters may visit to learn party stances, but the odds are likely that they'll also be looking at the opposition: if they seek information, undecideds are far more likely to go to traditional news media outlets. Opposition members may visit, but only to shake their heads and mutter terrible things about "spin," then return to the homepage of their party of choice and gleefully read what they'll see as accurate, informative news.

Make no mistake: these graphics are deliberate constructs. Graphic designers and website creators have far too much control over color and pixel definition for it to be anything but. Whether conscious or not (some of it may be unconscious, but I doubt that most of it is), these are rhetorical devices. If the cornerstone of a deliberative democracy is an informed citizenry, then twenty-first century democracy demands that we become informed not just of textual and photographic content, but of the subtle, background content that enhances the former two.
currently playing on miPod - Symphony no. 3, second movement - Schumann

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