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Multimodal Rhetorics and Public Discourse

One must ‘put in play,’ show up, transform and reverse the systems which quietly order us about.” (Michel Foucault)

I sit here writing on my Apple lap top, noting for the first time the capitalistic imagery surrounding my text – my “desktop,” with my “folders” and “icons,” the “Calendar” prominently displayed, so that I might “set appointments” and “improve my productivity” as a part of my general “work environment.” Though ostensibly, “this reality is constituted by and for white middle- and upper-class users to replicate a world that they know and feel comfortable within,” the world of corporate capitalism is one in which I have specifically not felt comfortable, thus I have more often used the tools of computer-assisted writing to resist and critique these institutions rather than participate in them (Selfe and Selfe 486). These are the tools provided, the ones offered as the choices for me to use, and thus I must use them or say nothing. In that context, is it reasonable to expect those who resist power to somehow avoid using the very tools that represent what they wish to critique? Will using these tools merely reproduce systems of dominance and power or disrupt it? Does “taking up the tools where they lie,” as Butler would have it, negate the strength of the critique against the system that produces those tools? Or is it an inevitable fact of resisting power that is ubiquitous and permeating of all levels of being, culture, and identity?

In response to Sheridan et al’s discussion of the rhetorical effects of still camera photography, I would like to examine how these representations create arguments for and against the “Occupy” movement currently being enacted across America in a very immediate and personal manner. Given the variety of multimodal mediums utilized by the Occupy Movement, including video, sound, still images, remixed and reappropriated images, etc, I see this as a rich site for analyzing the immediate possibilities of “multimodal public rhetoric…[by]… nospecialist citizens” (807). In addition, also per Sheridan et al’s discussion, I would claim that the Occupy Movement has utilized both deliberative approaches, as well as more confrontational, agonistic ones, thus showing the various ways that both of these rhetorical methods might be employed simultaneously to achieve the most effective potential purposes. I could (and may) assess this phenomena further in a more in-depth manner at some point in the future, but for the purposes of this particular kairotic exegesis, I’ll stick to a quick analysis of one particular argument against the Occupy Movement based upon a still photo with added text, alongside my own “Kodak moments” in a public park that the Occupy Cincinnati protestors have utilized as a staging ground to voice their discontents within the public sphere.

The following visual argument has circulated on the internet in recent weeks and is worth noting for a several reasons. 1) Though I understand the point that the image attempts to make, it, itself, is a straw man fallacy, in that it “ignores [the Occupy Movement’s] actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of that position.” 2) On the other hand, perhaps this image is a response to the same image, sans the “Straw Man” explanation below. Perhaps it is attempting to make the same argument here that I am, i.e. that by criticizing the  participants of that movement for using the tools produced by institutions they oppose, they are somehow negating their argument/creating a fallacy of logic. 3) The confusion about authorship and intent between the layers of a) the still photo b) the text-over commentary and c) the framed “Straw Man” claim creates a multimodal, multi-authored, multi-perspectival rhetorical artifact that circulates within the public forum, open to interpretation and commentary, thus inviting further remediation (such as this one). Are these reappropriations “plagiarism” in the classic sense? Or do they represent “the general turn toward assemblages of various types [that] is bound up in a broader cultural shift toward understanding texts and the world in postmodernist ways?” (Johnson-Eilola and Selber 382). 4) Is it fair to criticize those who resist power of being hypocritical if they “take up the tools where they lie” in order to do so? Is it even possible to resist power otherwise? And though Foucault would surely remind us that “where there is power there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power,” it does not follow that resistance, however intimately tied to power it may be, is futile (Sexuality 95). Rather, we must rhetorically resist with what we have in order to transform the nature and manifestations of power, thus, just as the replication of power alters in response to changes in technology, so, too, will the manifestations of resistance.

Though Foucault is often cited as the quintessential “resistance is useless” theorist, I do not read him this way at all. Rather, I see his theories as a mapping of power, and however totalizing the territory, there are always cracks and crevices in the terrain. A less cited view espoused by Foucault specifically states that freedom is possible, even within power:

We are not trapped. We cannot jump outside the situation, and there is no point where you are free from all power relations. But you can always change it. So what I’ve said does not mean that we are always trapped, but that we are always free—well, anyway, that there is always the possibility of changing …[R]esistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change with the resistance. So I think that resistance is the main word, the key word, in this dynamic. (Ethics 167).

What does this have to do with multimodal public rhetorics? Everything.

Though I am not, right at this moment, going to launch into a critique and analysis of the multimodal uses of public rhetoric employed by — and in some cases against — the Occupy Movement, I do want to examine a hands-on personal accounting of the site for this resistance in my own local area to compare alongside, and partially in response to, the critique of that movement cited above. To do this, I will use “original” materials, such as words attributed to me (or assembled by me) and images for analysis, as well as “assemblages,” such as the images above, and some which will be presented presently. Though I have some material access to these modalities (my iPhone and Mac lap top) I am not “technologically savvy,” thus my attempts at multimodal rhetorics combined with simple examples of assemblage will be constrained by the level of my access to skill and expertise in this area, which are admittedly limited.

A Rhetorical Walk in the Park

If, as Wysocki claims, “anything we make for each other…. is rhetorical,” then what means of persuasion might be found, here, at one of the sites of Occupy Cincinnati’s resistance and spaces for meeting? What have we “made for each other” that signifies the conditions in which we live and and under which we may visit this public park? A park is supposedly a public space, open to the public, for all to use. Since I am “assembling” my position, let’s just go with the very first definition that comes up in a quick Google search:

Definition for public space:

Web definitions:
A public space is a social space such as a town square that is open and accessible to all, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or… [socio-economic level]

Fair enough. Let’s visit one of these spaces, shall we?

Piatt Part Sign

It was “The first park in Cincinnati, Donated to the People in 1817.” The sign says so, so it must be true. “To the people,” yes, but only at limited times. Immediately to the left of this inviting sign is the following one:
“Accessible to all,” perhaps, but not ALWAYS accessible, and not for all purposes that this public might desire. Despite these warnings, though, there are signs of resistance, however subtle or hidden.
The institutionally valid receptacle for trash is a somewhat creepy, environmentally friendly, personified container, that cheerily invites one to “feed” it refuse.
Though cheerful (or creepy, depending upon one’s perspective) this sign indicates a part of the regulatory code of the public space, a rhetorical appeal to “obey the rules” previously stated (No Littering) upon entrance. This makes adhering to the rules “feel good” rather than oppressive, as a regulated action may, simply by its function of being a demand. It’s good for the park, it’s good for the environment, and hey — it’s the rule.
Animal behavior is also regulated in Piatt Park, though it is interesting to note that only domestic animal and human behavior is mentioned on the signs. Dogs, who ostensibly have literate owners, are prohibited from exploring the foliage.
Likewise, humans are prohibited from feeding animals in the park, perhaps as an attempt to curb the behaviors of even non-domestic creatures.
Despite these prohibitions, people can be viewed regularly feeding the pigeons, whose pathos-based rhetorical appeals are nearly impossible to resist.

Real Photograph of Fake Pigeon

The pigeons do not seem much constrained by the park’s prohibitions or their various rhetorical appeals to follow regulations. In fact, in blatant disregard for the clear wishes of the Park Board to keep animals out of plant containers, they can be seen flaunting their resistance, while domestic dogs, constrained by leashes, are forcibly prohibited from frolicking in the foliage.

Rebel Pigeons, Disregarding Authority

While the park on one hand seems to invite the public to share the space by providing benches…


…. and a few of the basic necessities such as water….

(Have a drink!)

It does so under the regulating eye of a giant bronze authoritative looking white guy and the shadow of towering consumer capitalism.

The statue of Garfield was roped off and surrounded by police tape, which I forgot to document, thus you will have to take my word for it. You might choose to imagine one of the following images, or envision one of your own, to get a sense of this effect.

(Real Photograph of Actual Computer Screen)

In the shadow of government (as represented by Garfield) and the towers of capitalism (self-explanatory) I found a small enclave of protestors.

Piatt Park was the former site of much larger groups of Occupy protesters, as well as the scene of multiple arrests. To circle back around to my original question, is it fair to judge these protestors as “hypocrites” for utilizing the available means of persuasion, such as iPhones, videos, blogs, and yes — even handmade signs? (Sharpie is a representative of our capitalistic overlords! Down with semi-hallucinatory fumes and very, very black lines!) Or is that exactly what rhetorical theorists since the time of Aristotle have urged us to do? Is that not exactly as rhetoric is defined by that great white supporter of hierarchy, slave-classes, and white supremacy? Should we abandon rhetoric itself, given the “dubious characters” of its earliest, oldest, and most elitist theorists? (Yes, I’m talking to you Plato and Aristotle.) Is that not analogous the criticism leveled against the Occupy protesters across the nation who deign to use the tools made by the corporations they oppose? Think about it. I’ll wait.

If the type of “multimodal sphere” envisioned by Sheridan et al “is contingent upon nonspecialist citizens having access to an array of cultural and material resources, including technologies, knowledge bases and skill sets,” then the Occupy Movement with the various multimodal arguments (many of which offer a very visceral position against abuses of power and authority) is exactly the sort of postmodern resistance that is not only expected, but most likely to be effective in this historic moment (807). Furthermore, as a “grass-roots organization,” it then likewise follows that it would “assess the available means of persuasion much more broadly and strategically in terms of the materials necessary for the production and distribution of appropriate rhetorical compositions within a particular set of circumstances,” choosing what is most effective and appropriate for its audience (814). If “kairotic assessments of modes and media — like assessments of when to appeal to pathos, ethos, or logos — require that public rhetors confront issues of both the reproduction and distribution of rhetorical compositions,” then the Occupy Movement demonstrate exactly that (Sheridan et al 816). Rather than being built upon a fallacy of logic, the Occupy Movement is founded  upon principles of assemblage, utilization, and “taking up of tools where they lie” in order to achieve specific rhetorical ends using all methods of persuasion and mediums by and through which to persuade.

A movement using the “available means of persuasion” must, in order to be effective, utilize mediums of rhetorical expression that access available technologies to produce messages that can be reproduced, or else their powers of persuasion would be lost within a vacuum of discourse (like student essays, perhaps?) and not disseminated for consideration within the public sphere. To say that it is hypocritical, or in some way antithetical, for the Occupy Movement to utilize technologies produced by the very same corporations that they oppose is akin to proposing that we stop using rhetoric altogether, since the first, oldest, and most elitist theorists proposed its methods largely to control the same masses which now attempt to utilize its powers to effect their own ends. Is it fair to say that women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups should not attempt to use rhetoric to alter systems of power, simply because these methods were first codified by great, white, hierarchy-happy, slave-enabling, sexist, elitist, wealthy men? (Yes, I’m talking to you again Plato and Aristotle.) Of course not. Rather, we should acknowledge the long tradition of using power against itself, of “taking up the tools where they lie” in order to benefit wider and more inclusive groups of people, those whom Plato and Aristotle would have never included within their elite class of wise, “naturally privileged” philosophers.

So what does this have to do with my analysis of pigeons? Note that the pigeons are the only “free” creatures in Piatt Park, the only beings with agency to do as they please, to go where they will, despite the signs prohibiting these actions. Heck, even dogs are regulated, thus this is not a species-specific type of regulation. What is the difference?  Pigeons are not domesticated you see, thus they cannot be regulated as easily – the best that can be done is to attempt to regulate the humans with whom they might interact. Sure, we can threaten the pigeons with the power of life and death (though no signs explicitly claim to do so), but even this threat has no rhetorical effect upon their comings and goings, nor upon their repeated (and successful) appeals to domesticated humans, who are willing to disobey the rules in order to feed them.

What can we learn from the pigeons? That with domestication comes both privileges and restrictions, regulations and freedoms, punishments and rewards, carrots and sticks. We get signs telling us where we can and cannot roam, what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot drink, where we can sit, when we can do so, and under what auspices we are “allowed” to utilize these privileges. Are the protestors of the Occupy Movement “hypocritical” in pushing against the confines of this domestication?

The answer to this brings us back around to Foucault (like power, he is inescapable), regulation, and the semiotic, rhetorical constraints of Piatt Park. By analyzing the space in which the occupation occurs, its surface invitations to assembly (the inviting sign, the benches, picturesque foliage, drinking fountains, and yes – even the creepy waste receptacle) read side by side with the constraining, containing signs of regulation and limitation, all within the overshadowing presence of government and big business, gives a microcosmic, semiotic representation of what the Occupiers are up against. To say that they should not use the tools before them, the ones manufactured by the power they resist, is equivalent to telling them that they should not use their hands to facilitate their protest, as even bodies within the park can be constructed as exhibiting the rhetorical signs of discursive power.

Ethos Appeals: White, married woman. Doesn't do manual labor. Pathos Appeals: Doesn't give a damn about her nails; apathetic, carefree indifference.

What tools are left, if not our technologies, our voices, our bodies, our spaces? To take away our tools is to take away our voices, to silence rhetorical choice, and to succumb to the overwhelming pressures of power. Instead, to circle back to the beginning, we “must ‘put in play,’ show up, transform and reverse the systems which quietly order us about,” and do so, in this moment, by the available means of persuasion.

(Assemblage by Mac Air lap top; photos by iPhone; motivation by Mr. Coffee)

Works Cited:

Aristotle. “Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001. 179-240. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Essential Works of Foucault: Volume One. New York: New Press, 2006. Print.

—–. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction.  Trans. Robert Hurley. NewYork: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndon and Stuart A. Selber. “Plagairism, Originality, Assemblage.” Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 375-403. Electronic Source.

Selfe, Cynthia L. and Richard J. Self, Jr. “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones.” CCC 45.4 (Dec 1994): 480-504. Print.

Sheridan, David M., Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony J. Michel. “The Available Means of Persuasion: Mapping a Theory and Pedagogy of Multimodal Public Rhetoric.” Jac 25.4 (2005): 803-844. Print.

Wysocki, Frances Anne. “With Eyes That Think, and Compose, and Think: On Visual Rhetoric.” Teaching Writing with Computers: An Introduction. Ed. Pamela Takayoshi and Brian Huot. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2002: 182-201. Print.


One comment on “Multimodal Rhetorics and Public Discourse

  1. […] here’s a blogsite to visit for the purposes of Part A. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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