Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Visual Rhetoric & Digital Politics

To understand politics in the digital age, we must be able to apprehend political rhetoric in textual, auditory, and visual elements, both individually and convergent. The textual and auditory elements of political rhetoric are widely studied; however, critics tend to dismiss much of the visual as textually dependent. When they do encourage the examination of visual elements within websites, they tend to examine them in the context of print-based media, looking at photographic selection and placement.

One of the more popular textbooks for courses concerned with the theory and practice of rhetorical criticism - Roderick P. Hart and Suzanne Daughton's third edition (2005) of Modern Rhetorical Criticism (Allyn & Bacon Press) - advises students engaged in a rhetorical critique of a website to ask themselves: "To what extent does the online artifact resemble offline communication? Are there clear generic parallels? Does this artifact borrow from more than one offline genre?" (p. 208). Questions such as these dismiss one of the most powerful tools of the digital realm: with software and hardware continually gaining capacity and capability, the visual enters the arena of message creation and transmission, providing not just photographic context, but also subtle taxonomy and iconography. In order to be fully aware, culturally literate citizens, able to engage in the more prudent and deliberative public discourse that is traditionally associated with democracy, we need to be able to critically engage all elements within a digital artifact.

The Internet is rapidly becoming a major medium in the political arena, an environment wherein people retrieve second-hand information with little examination of the visual rhetoric involved therewith. We can no longer address only the textual or auditory elements of political websites; as scholars and citizens, we must understand the messages conveyed by colors, icons, and animations within the website as well. This is the newest area of political information dissemination, and fully a third of the information conveyed is subtle and visual.

Inspired by the success of Internet-based political campaigning, national political parties have increased their web presence by a good deal in recent years. The cost of developing and maintaining websites and e-mail lists is relatively low in the political arena, and the benefits of web traffic and e-mail in fundraising and information transmission far outweigh any fiscal overhead. “Add me” forms and “Donate” buttons do much of the party’s fundraising and politicking passively, allowing viewers to perform actions that were far more expensive in the era of phone banks and mass mailings. The party line is textually available to all visitors; audio clips present the best of recent speechmaking; carefully selected photographs render party leaders in the best possible light. With these obvious and overwhelmingly dominant presences, based in traditional media genres, we easily overlook the interplay of color, background, and iconography, which lends great strength to them as rhetorical devices.

Over the next few posts, I'll examine the rhetorical features of color, background, and iconography on major political party websites.

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