Monday, June 26, 2006

Visual Rhetoric & Digital Politics Part II - The RNC

Before continuing with this entry, I suggest you read the introductory entry for the Visual Rhetoric & Digital Politics series, which will provide a good grounding for what I hope to discuss. I should note: this is a nonpartisan sequence of essays, meant to instruct readers who wish to learn more about the challenges facing deliberative discourse and cultural literacy in the digital era.

Although both major American political party websites display remarkably similar rhetorical features, the Republican National Party website [Link] is much more similar to traditional media genres in content and form; therefore, it presents an ideal starting point to examine the visual rhetoric of politics in the digital world. Distinctly “American” colors of red, white, and blue provide the background as well as the base for most icons and animations. As expected, the elephant logo of the party plays a prominent role in iconography, and an abstract American flag composes the banner at the head of the page. The generic expectations of visitors to American political sites, based in print and broadcast media, lead us to look past these icons as window dressing in a visually rich environment; however, if we examine their rhetorical value, we can see that they play a far greater role than that of “window dressing.”

Color saturation and modulation are completely the result of choices made by graphic and website designers, much more so than in a non-digital context. There are literally millions of color options available to designers, who merely have to enter a six-character alphanumeric code when creating a graphic or choosing a background (see for more). Given the distinct cultural associations of color and political party, the saturation and modulation of the colors red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) play a strong role in analyzing the visual rhetoric of the website.

Upon first looking at the background of the page, we notice that blue is everywhere, which initially appears anomalous: one would expect far more red than blue on the Republican National Committee website. Looking closer, however, we notice that the background blue – even at its darkest, is quite pale. It fades downward into the white background of the rest of the body. This is neither coincidence nor a pleasing aesthetic device. Color saturation is an indicator of power and importance, and this blue is pale and insignificant, fading into complete absence. Red, by contrast, is dominant and fully saturated, and at no point in the background does it fade into pink or white. The top of the abstract flag in the banner is a full, rich red; even the field of stars, always blue on the flag, is red in this area.

Even more important than the dominance of red in position – always on top – and in saturation is modulation, or shade. The red on the site is quite similar to blood: dark, rich arterial blood. When we examine the cultural connotations of red and blue, and the interplay of saturation, position, and modulation, the message created through color begins to clarify. We can extrapolate the weak – and weakening – saturation of blue into two subtle messages about the Democratic Party, long associated with that color. First, it plays into the notion of Democrats as weak – both on security issues as well as in character. Second, it evokes a message of political power: the blue fades away (runs) while the red remains strong. Republicans – like the red on their website – are dominating the political arena, pushing their weakening blue opponents into obscurity. Prominence, the display of red over blue, even in the starry field of the flag, only intensifies these messages. The modulation of red is calculated to imply a number of messages and symbolic undertones: red-blooded Americans, the blood of our patriotic soldiers overseas, and the lifeblood of the nation, the “heartland.” Although background is frequently overlooked, even here political rhetoric is actively evoking messages of strength, victory, and patriotism.

Logos, often considered relatively transparent, are recognizable rhetorical constructs: they are chosen to represent the perceived strengths of an entity, and they are refined throughout their existence to correspond with ideals and characteristics that said entity chooses to offer the public as it’s iconic “face.” The elephantine logo of the Republican Party is no different: elephants are associated with wisdom and power. The American flag colors are associated with patriotism – the blue of the elephant logo is the only strong blue on the entire page, but this logo predates the website by decades – and the transparent rhetorical presentation is of a powerful, wise, and patriotic party. A deeper rhetorical meaning hinges upon our understanding of the subvisual rhetorical message of the site: elephants are tough. Elephants are hard to kill, and they can trample those in their path. This association is much clearer in the “elephant breaks” used in the right sidebar of the page: two trumpeting elephants facing opposite directions with long, sharp points protruding away.

According to Kress and van Leeuwen, triangles, especially when angled like those in the break, “are a symbol of generative power . . . and represent action, conflict, and tension” (53). These triangles present the action of protection and a tension between the elephant and “outsiders,” which leads to the potential for conflict. The elephants in this pose are not the passive elephant of the Republican National Party logo. They are active: trumpeting and powerful creatures shouting a warning to all who approach. Their defensive posture offers two if-then ideational references: first, they protect their territory, a reference to the perceived Republican ideal of a strong military presence; second, they protect themselves, defending against local attackers from opposition parties.

The other icons present are, in the objective sense, representational maps of the United States, of which two are most interesting for identifying the subjective, rhetorical aspect of the iconography. The first, which appears in the “Donate” animation, portrays the importance of local action in national politics. This map is the only graphic in which red saturation is less than complete, although upon close examination, the blue is still far more muted than the red. The implication of the map, stated within the animation, is that all could be lost if the visitor fails to donate to the Republican National Committee. The red is shown as stronger than the blue by far; however, it is somewhat faded, which gives it subjective urgency. The message of this map is clearly rhetorical: the blue (Democratic Party) is weakening, but the complete supremacy of red (Republican Party) is still questionable; therefore, visitors are asked to support the red by donating via the handy red “Donate” button which appears shortly after the map.

The second map renders similar messages in a different context. This map, at the bottom of the page, encourages visitors to get involved in party activities. Both red and blue are saturated in this instance; however, the saturation of the blue is far less important in this image because there is so little of it. What is important is the scope of the colors: blue (the Democrats) is strong only in certain “liberal” strongholds such as the northeast, the upper Midwest border, a strip of the California coastline, and a portion of the largely immigrant and Native American southwest. Hawaii is an insignificant blue dot appearing beside a gigantic red Alaska. The map is not rhetorical only in the sense of the messages it implies, but also in what it chooses to obscure in its representation.

This map, as an icon, is diagrammatic of two possessive attributes that the Republican Party wants the populace to witness: the breadth and location of Republican strongholds in the United States, and the relationship of those strongholds to Democratic ones. Although objectively, people understand that the red coloring of the heartland is not representative of each individual citizen, the nature of voting districts makes it an apt representation of political power. The message is that the majority of America is Republican. Americans are fond of charts, of maps, and this map shows that most Americans, especially in the mythical “heartland,” believe in Republican ideals. The locative circumstances displayed in the map are also rhetorical in the location of blue, or Democratic, strongholds. The Republican map creates a strong division (via full blue saturation) between the heartland and the elite urban northeast, the odd folks in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the almost-Canadians of the upper Midwest, and the immigrants and Native Americans of the southwest. The map narrates a difference: “their interests,” those of the Democratic areas, are not in keeping with the rest of America, or “our interests,” the interests of red-blooded Americans.

The rhetoric of the map is based entirely upon locative circumstance and implied narration. All maps are, in a way, rhetorical representations of subjective narration; the implied narrative of this map rhetorically obscures the fact of population. Although relatively small in area, the blue portions of this map contain almost half of the population of the United States. In choosing to represent Republican vs. Democrat bases in this manner, the Republican Party is able to obscure the statistics concerning popular support of their policies. Their map shows an America united in Republican belief, with only a few dissenting areas, instead of the deeply divided electorate that exists in fact.

The breadth of rhetorical messages in this brief selection from the website demonstrates the need for rhetorical critics to look beyond traditional arenas when analyzing digital rhetorical artifacts. Theories grounded in traditional linguistic and photographic grammar are insufficient when addressing digital artifacts. The rhetorical power of a well made website, as demonstrated above, is not found solely in text, sound, and a carefully selected photograph. If our purpose as rhetorical critics is to defeat Twain’s maxim (see introductory entry), then we must closely examine all of the convergent rhetorical messages in a website, including - perhaps especially - the seemingly insignificant elements of background visuals, color, and iconography. Each has the potential to contribute to the rhetorical message, sometimes developing a narrative that the unwitting visitor fails to recognize, even after the message is absorbed.

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