visual rhetoric

The Anchor: You Know You Want It

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word anchor since reading Ronald Barthes’s “Rhetoric of the Image”. Let me start from the beginning, though.

Before defining the word, anchor, Barthes establishes the probably that “in ever society, various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs…” In other words, every picture has an infinite scope of contextual potential. So, with such a wide array of possible meanings for a picture—varying by who is looking and when/where they are—pictures need anchors, or something to provide “control” and “bear a responsibility—in the face of projective power of pictures—for the use of the message.”

Take this advertisement for example:

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I found this picture online when I searched ‘McDonald’s advertisements’ on Google. Obviously, it is a picture of an advertisement, but we’ll pretend for the moment that we’re seeing it in person.

Imagine there were no text on the advertisement, and just a picture of an Egg McMuffin. Sure, many people would still see it as an advertisement, but it would also lose a lot of potential viewers in the noise surrounding it. These days, don’t pictures of fast food remind us of things like hear disease, obesity epidemics, animal cruelty, and minimum wage concerns as much as they remind us about the food itself? The Egg McMuffin is not innocent, and McDonald’s knows this.

The anchor text of the image reads, “don’t stare too long[,] you’ll miss the train”. Here, McDonald’s is distracting us from the rest of this contextual noise and making us see it as they want to see it: desirable. But I don’t think McDonald’s expects anyone to actually think, Aw man, I almost missed my train because I was so lost in the beauty of this Egg McMuffin! Good call, McDonalds. More likely, McDonald’s wants us to pick up on their intertextual play with sexual phrases. The “don’t stare too long” is just a textual equivalent of the quintessential American scene wherein the gawking male momentarily loses his wits while checking out a woman. Or, in linguistic form, something along the lines of this:

My eyes are up here

The McMuffin advertisement gets even more interesting once you look at its placement within the frame. We might expect the text to be somewhere on the bottom, in some more marginal position while the image engulfs most of the space. However, the anchor of this advertisement consumes half of the picture, given an equal prominence to the McMuffin itself. Whereas most advertisements idealize their products at the center of the picture, McDonald’s does not. It’s almost as if McDonald’s, through their suggestive language, is acknowledging that it is unhealthy—something less like food and more like a casual encounter with a stranger. And by making the text as prominent as the image, the reader is gestured to consider the guilty proposal as much as we are the product.

After all of this, I’ve come to see anchors as not only holding down a meaning for the picture, but also as attempts by certain parties to anchor the reader/viewer, to try and sway us away from the more prevalent—and perhaps more important—meanings behind objects. We, as consumers and citizens, need to remain critical and skeptical, so as not to fall under the spell of such textual hypnotics.

Palestine, by Joe Sacco

Palestine is an interesting book, a work of comic-journalism (as the author Joe Sacco identifies himself), in that while exploring and existing in the muddy, unclear politics of the Palestine, Israel, and resettlement zones.

While Sacco the character plays out a fact-finding mission

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Sacco the artist uses a variety of techniques to inspire sympathy for the people he lives with, those without a place in their homeland.

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Abstracting, as explained above by Scott McCloud,comics theorist, is only one such technique, but it is crucial. Sacco turns to abstraction time and again for the natives that he comes in contact with; however his own character remains constantly abstract no matter the setting.

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This is a planned and very powerful rhetorical move. McCloud writes that “when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself  “(p.36). So, by rendering himself-our touchstone in this journey-to a cartoon, Sacco forces us to explore the world ourselves.

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It’s a very Robert Crumb face. This style is also a stylistic choice, as Sacco shows himself quite capable as drawing in a variety of styles.

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So then, why the Crumb references? McCloud writes that “in R. Crumb’s world, the curves of innocence are betrayed by the neurotic quill-lines of modern adulthood and left painfully out of place” (p.126).

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This both separates Sacco/us from the environment, both strengthening our connection to him and emphasizing the harshness/realness of the world of the Middle East.

Conversely, the neuroticism of the world is often and effectively exaggerated.

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Here, the IDF representative attempts to explain why Sacco and his companions can’t get through.

So what’s the result?

By investing ourselves in Sacco’s character, by seeing and experiencing vicariously through him, we develop sympathy for those he (we) lives with. This is of course, his goal. By avoiding making any statement of the rightness of either side, Sacco’s personal journey, which we follow along on, encourages it’s readers to at least become at least critical of the usual presentation of the average Palestinian.

Physical Politics in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

Hate him or love him, Frank Miller-creator of (among other things) Sin City and 300 is very good at what he does. And what he does is propagandize. Ok. So what. All creators are propagandists.

So what’s my problem? Well, let’s avoid the whole tendency to draw swastikas whether there is a need or not, and move into the visual in-group/out-group world Miller creates

I recently watched the animated adaptation of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a comic I had first read when I was a youngling. Batman, I saw, could still kick a lot of ass at 55.

Batman at 55. I should age so well.

For those unfamiliar with the plot,  The Dark Knight Returns is a conservative fantasy. Hardy, masculine, go-getters MEN are marginalized by liberal PC society, and the whole place has gone to heck because of it.

Superman also answers to Ronald Reagan. I’ll get back to that.

Now, this plot I mentioned.

The new police commissioner, who’s in over her head.

 

A woman!

Her first tasks on the job are to ineffectually deal with the youth crime of Gotham and to place a warrant on Batman.It’s quite strongly suggested that gets her job due to gender politicking by the higher-ups. And, she doesn’t agree with Batman’s principles.

Neither does this guy, the psychiatrist.

He is a ruthless send-up of leftist intellectuals,  always with a theory of some sort, spouting semi-Freud while blaming society, or the government, or the overt masculinity of Miller’s Batman, while really only trying to make a name for himself.

These two are visual stereotypes; for Miller they represent liberalism. Miller encodes them carefully; the first only having her job because she is a woman, the second only really interested in personal gain. Visually, their bodies are thin, frail, weak; this being an intertextual, (how images/words/ideas of a culture relate to other images/text/ideas of a culture)  reference to society-at-large’s belief in a sound mind in a healthy body.

Miller intends for these characters to be reviled, or at least have negative connotations attached to them. This we know by comparison, the rhetorical highlighting of differences. Bat-hunk, Superman, even the lefty Green Arrow, Miller draws as big, physical men. They solve things with their fists, they are full of the ethereal quality of “gumption.” These are characters side-lined or frustrated by, as Miller’s Superman remembers, “Parent Groups and sub-committees,” mired by liberal bureaucracy, forced to the margins. Their very existence is a threat to liberal world, and as Superman warns Batman, “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.”

 

 

LeapPad Educational Toy as Myth-Sustaining

Children’s toy commercials are semiotic and rhetorical goldmines–not just for kids, but also for parents. As I was recently surfing through different educational toy commercials on the internet, this one caught my attention.

This commercial was obviously made for a very specific audience (parents) at a very specific time (holiday shopping season). The appeal is clear: the LeapPad is a safe and educational alternative to the tablets they themselves likely use on a frequent basis. But there might be a deeper message embedded in this commercial’s delivery.

First, consider the stylistic similarities between LeapPad’s Christmas commercial and this one:

LeapPad’s similarity to the Apple iPad extends beyond its design and practical purposes. The distinct style and format of the iPad commercial, stemming from earlier iPhone commercials, is inconspicuously mimicked by LeapFrog: the tablet’s placement at the center of the shot, the hands of the unidentified user(s) set stably on the sides throughout their demonstration, etc. Here, LeapFrog not only assumes that the viewers (parents) are aware of iPad/iPhone commercials, but also that they have accepted the technological myth that tablet technologies will be a crucial tool–and thus literacy–of their children’s futures. It says, This is what your child needs to be successful and consequently, A child without this tablet is at a disadvantage.

We shouldn’t see any parent that buys their child the LeapPad as a ‘sucker’ for buying into this technological myth–at least not any more than the LeapFrog company itself. By appealing to this contemporary technological myth, largely perpetuated today by Apple and its rivals, LeapFrog has forfeited the infinite array of other design and marketing possibilities for one that subscribes to the tablet code.

The myth, simply put, is the consumer demand for tablets, and the code is the design and function of a tablet: touch-screen, graphic icons, application use, etc.

If this myth pushed by Apple, LeapPad, and almost every other tech company isn’t an attempt to convince consumers and future consumers of a sort of technological determinism, it is at the very least an assertion (or concession) to the technological dominance of tablet technologies and interfaces.