VisRhet: Authority & The Gaze

One of my favorite movies, Hitchock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, tells a story about their son being kidnapped, which later leads to the unraveling of a greater plot to assassinate the prime minister of England. This scene, seen below, is of Jo and Ben McKenna (Day and Stewart, respectively) talking to their son’s kidnappers – and eventually their son — on the phone. ManWhoKnewTooMuch

The scene is interesting as the camera does not shoot straight on; rather, its angle tilts slightly upward, creating an ominous effect. The camera itself creates a position of authority, making viewers look at the couple’s powerlessness regarding the situation.  However, stepping back a bit, it is not only the camera that lends its power, but it is also the modern movie theater with its screen and images, displayed through lenses and angles, that create a modern Panopticon of sorts, allowing hundreds of eyes — remember, Panoptes is the many-eyed giant of Greek myth — to engage in voyeuristic behavior all at once.  As Foucault warns, “Visibility is a trap!”

Deconstructing the image a little more, we see that the McKennas wrinkled and worried foreheads take up the greater portion of the image. Their own gaze is nebulous, since the situation does not warrant visual focus but more of an aural one (the aural gaze, by the way, is another element to consider within a different context, especially since the song “Que Sera, Sera” plays so prominently in this film), as they await directions from their son’s kidnappers down the telephone line.  That said, viewers can tell that Jo is almost teary eyed, and Ben’s eyes show worry or maybe even the machinations of revenge. If “seeing comes before words,” as John Berger argues, then it takes little examination of the scene – few if any words at all — to note the grave concern on the McKennas’ faces.

Speaking of their faces, the lighting in this scene could be construed as one that depicts a sense of feminine submission, as Ben’s face possesses all of the color, while Jo’s is pale and perhaps symbolically her strength pales in comparison to Ben’s.  The traditional 1950s ideal of a man as the head of household and the more analytical gender play out here. Additionally, Ben’s profession as a physician lends to his authority over he wife, as, in one part of the film, he sedates her to help calm her down.  Ironically, however, it is the emotion of the song sung by Jo that helps them rescue their kidnapped son.

Altogether, it is both the power and authority of the visual, both conscious and subconscious, that move our society to think and to act (I think here of the recent news that images of deceased infants moved our current president to retaliate against Syria’s Assad).  As a derivative, film brings the visual to a new level because of its ability to not only depict a single image but also a moving narrative. When placed within a theatrical context, it makes me wonder if the idea of physical discipline, as seen in ancient Roman arenas (a theatrical spectacle of their time), differs much than the mental discipline of the modern movie theater.

VisRhet: Bibliography Entry 3

McKinney, J. G. (2005). Leaving home sweet home: towards critical readings of writing center spaces. Writing Center Journal, 25(2), pp. 6-20.

home-sweet-home-1414676696Q7GThis article delves into the history and expectations of the atmosphere, arrangements, and accoutrements recommended for writing centers.  Discussing their historical ambiance, author Jackie McKinney points to past metaphors used to describe writing centers, such as “Andrea Lunsford’s garret, storehouse, and Burkean parlor; Elizabeth Boquet’s laundry or safe house; or Steven North’s skills center, fix-it shop, or cross between ‘Lourdes and hospice’” (p. 8).  McKinney says, however, that the most prominent description of writing centers has been toward a homelike setting. She gives examples of a number of writing center professionals who have argued for their spaces to appear in such abstract terms as welcoming, inviting, non-threatening, non-remedial, and non-classrooms.  To create such a mood, recommended furnishings and architecture in writing centers have included everything from couches, bean bags, lava lamps, coffee pots, posters, and plants, to soft carpet, calming colors, and a window to stare out.  Altogether, these items and the variously suggested designs and arrangements that create a homey feel in writing centers are a deliberate response to yesteryear’s “auto-tutorial writing labs” with their skill-and drill-sensibilities (cited in Boquet, 1999, p.51).  What is more, the homey metaphor plays into the whole idea of writing center staff being perceived as part of the family (cited in Carino, 1995, p. 20).  McKinney argues, however, that these descriptions of writing centers are more about ideal centers than an actual critical reading of how the space looks and feels.

With that in mind, the author turns to Nedra Reynolds 1998 article “Compositions Imagined Geographies.” In this work, Reynolds suggest that compositionists look at the material realities of the spaces in which students write, rather than looking through them. This call for a more critical reading of writing centers turns McKinney to ask more analytical questions about what moods these spaces actually exude. For instance, she writes, “[D]escribing a center as having a couch and softly painted walls may invoke the metaphor of home for some readers . . . [but] what if the couch is terribly stiff, the walls a dirty beige, and the center itself full of cranky tutors?” (p. 10).  Further, McKinney uses the work of Reynolds, who identifies Tim Cresswell’s principle of critical geography, which moves away from “geographic regions” to an analysis of the “role geographic forces has in the explanation of other things.”

In addition, the author contends that writing center professionals have to look at more than just space but also focus on objects in the space. She uses W. David Kingery’s work, here, to help flesh out the idea of cultural materialism and how reading geography and objects, although more difficult to read than text, will help staff better understand the privileged and relative space of a writing a center.  To exemplify, McKinney picks up on the works of Colleen Connolly and her colleagues and Leslie Hadfield and hers—“Ericka and the Fish Lamps” and “An Ideal Writing Center,” respectively—demonstrating how design choices within writing centers truly take on different meanings among administrators, staff, and students.

Interestingly enough, even in these different critical readings of writing centers, McKinney suggests that a sense of hominess ultimately still seems to exist.  As a result, in a full section, McKinney gives three admonitions regarding the idea of a homelike writing center: 1) comfortable is a way of “aligning with mainstream [and middle-class] values” (p. 16); 2) the home metaphor can be off-putting to students, as some homes are “dangerous or abusive” or “too loud or enticing” and students may be looking for an escape from such a setting (p. 16); and 3) homelike settings imply a gendered read, giving in to the stereotype of feminine nurture and the “director mother,” especially as writing centers have been predominantly directed by women over the years (p. 17).  As a caveat, McKinney is quick to point out that readers should not confuse this feminization with feminism. She cites bell hooks who “describes a different kind of feminist space—one that does not nurture but works because of confrontations and the exchange of ideas . . . “ (p. 18). McKinney concludes that the dominant metaphor of writing centers as homes has narrowed our gaze. Writing center professionals should, instead, look at their spaces and not through them.

Compared to my own research, McKinney contrasts with the work of architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, father of pattern language, who in his 1996 address to the Silicon Valley crowd (transcript available here), argues for living structure to sustain and nurture individuals as well as for objects and architecture to offer a “condition of wholeness” when individuals move into their presence.  On the other hand, McKinney’s view reminds me of Pratt’s work on contact zones back in the 1990s, but McKinney never really explains how architecture and objects might dictate such contact or conflict. She only rails against the lack of difference, so to speak, in writing centers, and like Joe Harris (1995) warns regarding Pratt’s theory when put into practice, a “multicultural bazaar”(p.33) may be all that a writing center ends up becoming if McKinney’s notion is not carefully put into practice.

In context within the course, McKinney’s article reminds me of the work on material rhetoric by Propen (2012), especially her discussion on Foucault’s heterotopias that “asks that we take a look at the hierarchic ‘history of space’ . . . to expose the different relationships that delineate them” (p. 29).  Further, Propen points out how Foucault calls for knowledge in unfamiliar spaces (p. 31). With these Foucauldian ideas in mind, perhaps another way of looking at McKinney’s work, here, on writing centers is not necessarily to see the space as merely aiming to produce conflicting ideas for its users but as a space striving to produce something different than the norm for all of its users. One user may prefer a homelike setting; another may choose a more collaborative, debate-like setting. How do writing center professionals accommodate for these differences all in one space? A versatile architect, both real and metaphorical, is needed.


Harris, J. (1995). Negotiating the contact zone. Journal of Basic Writing, 14, 1, 27-42.

Propen, A. (2012). Locating visual-material rhetorics: The map, the mill, and the GPS. Anderson: Parlor Press.

VisRhet: Signage

This is more of an advertisement than a sign, but it promotes out-of-class workshops in our learning centers, which dovetails with my project on writing centers. The photo was borrowed (and cited as necessary by its creator) from Flickr; it is cropped at the left as the overhead projector took up more space in the original.  Interestingly, the room looks just like one of our campus classrooms.  The font is Myriad Pro, and it is the one recommended by the marketing department’s style guide at the college.  The white aims to stand out against the dark background.  The photo credit (hopefully) is small enough not to detract from the photo as a whole yet gives the required attribution.

Visual Rhet: Mood Board

My research interests have revolved around writing centers, specifically as they are partnered with libraries and librarians.  This Pinterest board reflects what we call the Writing Studio, located at the Clearwater campus. As you will see, one large desk is at the center, and normally on one side, the librarians are seated and on the other are writing specialists.  The idea is for a collaborative space that provides individual instruction in research and writing in a seamless way.

As I think about visual rhetorics, I consider the space of the Writing Studio: its design and its meaning.  Questions arise, such as: How does the design affect identity within the space, both for students and personnel? What subjectivity is found in the space?  What ideologies and assumptions stem from the space?  What image do students have of this type of space if they have no previous reference point for writing centers?

See Pinterest Board


Visual Rhet: Artifact #1 (Group 2)

According to Hill and Helmers (2004), Gerard Genette argues for the term transtextuality over the more commonly used intertextuality (p. 14).  Genette’s definition of transtextuality is defined as “all that sets the texts in a relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts” (as cited in Hill and Helmers, 2004, p. 14).

This idea reminds me of an artifact of an assignment I often used in a first-year composition course when discussing visual literacy and visual rhetoric.  This assignment is actually what I might refer to as a forced transtextuality as I would ask students to compare analysis of two images in separate weeks of the course.  The two assignments are below:

Analyzing the World

Analyzing the World Again

  • You have previously written about this image
  • Now, view this image and read this passage from Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. The images may be different between NASA’s Apollo 17 and its Voyager 1, but they are both about planet earth.
  • Explain the differences and similarities between how you analyzed the world and how Sagan analyzes its existence in his text. Is his writing more about the composition of the photo or its context? What stands out or draws you in to his writing? After reading Sagan’s text, is there anything you would change regarding your own analysis?


Hill, C. A., & Helmers, M. H. (2004). Defining visual rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.