Category Archives: English 350: Visible Rhetoric

All entries in this category are related to English 350: Visible Rhetoric, a class I took at Illinois State University in the Fall of 2008.

Discovering bell hooks

bell hooks image

bell hooks (aka Gloria Watkins)

I had one of those “Aha” moments when I sat down to watch this week’s assigned youTube videos.

All I knew about bell hooks before this week was that she was a feminist author/scholar. After watching the “On Cultural Criticism” pieces, I recognized that I was actually familiar with parts of her work despite never having “studied her.” (Aha!) This particularly applies to her work in terms of cultural visuals. I was especially interested in Part III of the series, in which she talks about transformation as being a combination of critical thinking and literacy.

Being an enlightened witness does require a higher level of literacy. As we strive in the English Department to counteract our culture’s visible representations of those less literate than ourselves as lower-class, I think we should try to remember that our responsibility extends beyond creating a dialogue. We also have a duty to help people acquire the skills they need to interact in such a dialogue. We need to help people see beyond the constructed narratives in movies like “Hoop Dreams.” We need to DO cultural criticism, and bell hooks outlines many of the ways to do this.

I also particularly like her concept of creating a more complex accounting of identity. Anytime a person is asked to define him/herself (including in our first module), it creates a sort of mini-identity crisis. How much more confusing must this intricate code-switching be to a young person who is assaulted every day be the various ads and messages we all discovered are so prevalent in our media journals this week? When it comes to defining the culture of oppression, the difficulties become even greater. The idea of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy calls attention to this too-often-unarticulated problem, although I would include many more (and some just plain different) descriptors in my own illustration of oppressive forces.

All things considered, I had a hard time remembering to apply everything I was hearing to visible rhetoric because I was just so fascinated at hearing bell hooks talk. I’m having some trouble narrowing down what aspect of mass media I want to tackle for my project, but I think once I spend some time putting the videos in context I will have an easier time of it.

Photo from

Response to Klein, Holland, Sullivan

Klein, “Truth in Advertising”

1. Klein sarcastically responds in the article, to companies’ apparent brand identities–that Nike, for instance, is not selling shoes, but instead communicating “notions of transcendence.” Take a look at the front/main pages of these three web sites:

2. What is the outer truth visible here (e.g., what’s being sold)? What is the “inner truth” identified here?

On Hummer’s site, I think freedom is the equivalent of Nike’s transcendental offer. The Hummer at the top plowing through water lets viewers imagine themselves in exotic places doing exciting things. In reality, GM is selling a car, a means of transportation to and from work and other daily chores.

The Agent Provocateur site was the most interesting of the three – it played to a sense of adventure as well as to freedom. I found it intriguing that it offered two main possibilities: shop or explore. This is an interesting way to back up the claim to being more than just commercial. But, when it comes down to it, prices and products are listed in a catalog-like format.

Microsoft is known as one of the most successful companies in the world, and its marketing is direct. Before a consumer can even visit this page, a pop-up ad intervenes, offering a new software to make the Internet experience better. Once on the page, consumers get an appeal to fear (Protect yourself from phishing!) and an appeal to modernity (Get the latest version!) right away. The main panel is about the Mojave Experiment, in which testers renamed Windows Vista and had people try it again – and ended up with a higher approval rating. This is probably in response to the bad reviews Vista has gotten recently, so it also is a direct appeal to consumers to keep buying.

3. Find an example of “anti-brand activism.” How does what you’ve found work to break the hold of “broken promises” and “unfulfilled desires” perpetuated by brand campaigns?

The first Web site that popped up on my “anti-brand” Google search was I’m not sure I would actually classify it as anti-brand, but it’s certainly interesting, and it could potentially be anti-brand. The Web site focuses on demystifying brand identities. For example, a multiple choice question on its front page asks audiences a trivia question: Which brand says the environment is part of its DNA? In doing so, it also asks consumers to evaluate whether or not this claim is true. Is this an example of a broken promise? An unfulfilled desire? I actually find (which bills itself as the world’s only online exchange about branding) to be a far more socially responsible movement than the anti-brand movement. It opens up discussion for anyone to participate in (see the site’s “debate” section) rather than simply replacing one dominant view with another.

Holland, “Keeping Promises: The Impact of Brands on Society”

1. How does Holland explain the rise of brands? The “void” that brands fill in our society?

Holland says branding filled the void when Americans became disillusioned with religion and other social interactions like clubs. She even says the move away from the nuclear family has contributed to this shift. I would argue, additionally, that the Internet age has both caused this shift by increasing the amount of time a person spends “alone” (e.g. at a computer or television, with access to the world at her fingertips) and by providing a new way for brands to reach consumers. As our society increasingly produces people who live and work with less and less face-to-face social interaction, branding will continue to become a more and more powerful influence.

2. Take a look again at the three sites listed above. What identity does each brand offer us? Promise us?

Hummer promises adventure as well as comfort and luxury. Based on the exchange value of the Hummer, it also likely offers a certain amount of prestige. The site says: Anyone who owns a Hummer must be part of a group that is adventurous as well as wealthy.

The Agent Provacateur site offers beauty and sexual freedom. It shows attractive models with mainstream body types, but it puts them in an atmosphere that is not mainstream (at least not for the U.S., although the site is European). The implication is that anyone can look like those models if they wear this lingerie. The site also offers a section for “exploring,” which leads into a soft-core, choose-your-own-ending sort of sequence. This emphasizes sexual freedom and the ability of the woman (the intended viewer) to choose her partner and preference.

Micrsoft’s Web site welcomes viewers into the club of professionals. It offers sleek, easy-to-use software and implies that those who use Microsoft products will be in good company. It also is the most direct in terms of framing the viewer as consumer – a good consumer, it says, it up-to-date. The Microsoft viewer is someone who is willing to spend the money to have the most current technology.

3. What strategies does Holland suggest for not underestimating your own power? For researching and being an activist in the face of corporate identity strategies?

Holland suggests using the very power that companies are after when they create brands: the power of the consumer. The opinion of the consumer – whether expressed through oral statements, written letters, protests, or simply purchasing power – is our most powerful weapon in shaping the paths taken by companies.

Awareness is the major requirement for being an activist. Research is vital to understanding how companies work, and self-reflection will help consumers decide how to use their power in terms of supporting or not supporting those companies. For graphic designers working in the advertising industry, Holland suggests taking a step back to think about if you would be proud to see a newspaper story on your recent work. Holland also suggests perusing the annual report of a company you’re interested in.

Sullivan, “Flogging Underwear: The New Raunchiness of American Advertising”

1. What’s the deal? How come men are being sold products with male sexuality? How is it that “male bimbos” in ads work to convince men to purchase a variety of products?

Sullivan says at one point that most of the sexuality implicit in these images is narcissistic. The male model is “in love” with himself; thus, male viewers may construe this fabrication as a message that if they use Product X, they, too, will love themselves. More likely, I think, is Sullivan’s argument that women buy most of men’s stuff. The makers of the Hom ad, for example, said the ad was directed at women because it is women who buy most men’s underwear. There are also two other possibilities that Sullivan glosses: the rise of metrosexuality (and, by extension, the rising acceptance of homosexuality) and fact that ads showing the “male bimbo” simply attract attention. On page 209, Sullivan notes that what kind of attention an ad attracts doesn’t matter because viewers tend to disassociate the message from the sponsor rather quickly. What is important is getting them to see that corporate logo in the first place.

2. What does Sullivan accuse today’s fashion photography of lacking? Do you agree, disagree? Explain.

Sullivan says today’s photography lacks creativity as well as a connection between personality and product. The new wave of consumers are defined by their “denial of individuality” (210). Sullivan describes several ads which depict young, beautiful people doing absolutely nothing. They’re not active, they’re not communicating, they’re not even looking at each other or anything else. They’re just … there. These ads incorporate little creativity and no personality, according to Sullivan. I disagree. I do think these ads are creative, to some extent. I think, in many cases, they represent the disillusionment of young generations with the messages preached by their predecessors. This denial of individuality could be interpreted as an expression of oppression. However, I think Sullivan is correct in saying these ads do not display a connection between personality and product – rather, they display a connection between consumer and brand. And that, today, is all a company needs.

Response to Practices of Looking Chapter 6: “Consumer Culture and the Manufacturing of Desire”

1. What are some of the historical and cultural reasons why consumer culture has appeared and proliferated?

The use of advertising – which almost always incorporates visible rhetoric – has been a staple in the spread of consumerism. “Increased industrialization and bureaucratization in the late nineteenth century meant a decrease in the number of small entrepreneurs and an increase in large manufacturers … ” (191). People also began to do a lot more traveling, and more public places sprang up that could support commerce. In other words, increased competition and increased visible rhetoric are directly related. This phenomenon is occurring again with the rise of e-commerce and telemarketing (192). People can now participate as consumers without ever leaving their homes. It’s easier than ever to be a consumer now – plus, the government encourages consumerism, especially now, in order to prop up our failing economy.

2. How did the rise of consumer society change homes? Change family relationships? Change the dynamics of the private and public spheres?

The consumer society discussed above brought with it a number of changes. Space for advertising is now available in the average American living room. Families gather around the television rather than talking over dinner. The public sphere continues to encroach upon – and sometimes masquerade as – the private sphere. The quote used below in question number 3 illustrates the extent to which this has occurred.

3. On page 193, the authors note that some media and cultural theorists have argued that “advertising replaced what had previously been the social fabric of communities, becoming, in effect, a central source of cultural values” (this is also an argument presented in Klein’s and Holland’s essays). Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

While Sturken and Cartwright present this view as somewhat extremist, I think it’s exactly right. That’s not to say that all demographics have undergone this change, but I believe the average American is far more consumer-driven than anyone realizes. We live in world of needs that are really wants. Everything is marketed to us, from cars to food to nursing homes. Millions of people have spent hundreds of dollars for the social status of owning an iPod (see the dicussion of NIke on page 201), when a similar mP3 player is often half the price. The social makeup of our world is driven by advertising.

4. Think about your last visit to a local mall. What aspects of the design, layout, and visual elements of the mall lent themselves to shopping being constructed as a leisure activity? A pass-time? What design aspects contributed to the cultural ideological belief that shopping is expected of us? That consumerism is good?

The last mall I was at was White Oaks Mall in Springfield, which features a centralized design with spokes that contain larger chain stores at their ends. Stores are not grouped by category, but spread out so that a person on a mission for one thing will have to walk all over the mall, past all other kinds of stores, during their search. This layout also allows the mall to have more doors, and closer parking access, thus allowing people to easily return to their cars to leave their purchases and then go back into the mall to continue shopping. Recently, even more signals than usual have impinged upon the American consumer to fulfill the duty to spend money. This tax season, anyone filing was given about $600 in “free” money and encourage to pour it directly back into the ailing economy. Consumerism was framed as a healthy goal for the economy.

5. What’s the difference between exchange value and use value? What examples do the authors use to articulate these concepts?

Both of these terms are dependent upon the society they are used in. Exchange value refers to what a products costs within that society, and use value is about the item’s use in that society. Sturken and Cartwright suggest rice has a high use value – it can keep you alive – and a low exchange value – it’s cheap. Perfume, on the other hand, has little use value, but often is quite expensive. Their best example, in my opinion, was comparing a Honda to a Mercedes-Benz. These items have exactly the same use value, but vastly different exchange values. (199)

6. What did the Frankfurt School theorists mean by the term pseudoindividuality? (See page 205.)

Pseudoindividuality is the idea of mass marketing based on individualism. The example given is of perfume. The mass marketing campaign says the perfume will smell different on everyone, thereby priveleging individuality even as the ad markets to the masses. This technique is quite popular today, with many ads encouraging people to “think outside the box” or “be different” and take a risk on this new product. Of course, if everyone does so, no one is different. That’s where the “pseudo-” prefix comes in.

7. What would ads be like if they didn’t work to create a sense of dissatisfaction? If they didn’t prey on our anxieties and insecurities? If they didn’t make us feel weak and needing?

I disagree with the basic assumption made by this question (and, at times, Sturken and Cartwright) that all ads do create a sense of dissatisfaction. I think there are a number of very positive ad campaigns that make a point not to prey on anxieties and insecurities, ads that try to promote a sense of power and confidence. These ads are often directed at women, a group that is perhaps the most in need of empowerment. While I know some would make the argument that these ads are the worst kind as far as playing on people’s fears, I do not believe that is their intent. They do not “work to create” this strife.

Nevertheless, many ads do – and the world would be very different without them. A world without ads working for dissatisfaction would certainly not be so consumer-driven. Needs and wants would be much better delineated in the mind of the average person. There would also be a lot more space in which people could value other sorts of communication. At the same time, though, we could not live in a free market society if this were the case. A sense of dissatisfaction can be a very good, motivating thing. Without advertisers for motivation, we might not achieve as much. Frankly, the idea of a world without advertising playing on personal dissatisfaction is so far removed from reality that it is impossible for me to imagine.

8. What’s the difference between bricolage and counter-bricolage? Can you think of an example of each?

Bricolage is when consumers (often youthful ones) appropriate a product and imbue it with a new meaning. This is often seen as very hip, forward-thinking, or individualistic. Counter-bricolage is when commercial culture takes that product or idea back and reconfigures it. The book’s example is the advent of designer boxer shorts based on the fact that young men were wearing low-hanging pants (224). Another example would be the rise of rap music. Rap was born as a cry against hegemonic forces, but was promptly appropriate by suburbanites (bricolage). Now, rap artists have altered their message to appeal to those suburbanites and gain profit (counter-bricolage).

An Array of Colors

Thursday’s presentations were very enjoyable (thanks for the pizza, Angela!) and also quite thought-provoking. As noted in a previous blog entry, the color purple has polarizing effects. My research seemed to indicate it was unique in this aspect, but as the presentations continued I realized that most colors have the same sort of polarizing quality to them.

For example, Amy, Kevin, and Rachel’s presentation showed that yellow can connote warmth and welcome as well as cowardice and frustration. They used the term “bipolar” to refer to yellow and other colors. They also noted that yellow is a staple in feng shui, as it can compensate for low light, but in the fashion industry is seen as very unstable. Jessica, Rachel and Joanna found in their presentation that pink can cause both a calming effect and can incite hostility. In this case, they noted variables including the length of exposure, and perhaps more tellingly, the exact hue.

Combining these findings with the discussions surrounding the use of the color pink over the years — as it progressed from denoting masculinity to femininity, among other things — and they variations surrounding U.S. political parties’ use of the colors blue and red, I can only believe that colors are more subjective than most people realize.

Some studies conducted seem to show an innate reaction to color. For example, a University of Chicago study showed that yellow made babies cry. Yet, at the same time, we find contradictions such as the meanings of red and black between Eastern and Western cultures. Some Eastern cultures use red to denote purity, while we see red as a passionate color. Black means death to us, but means life in other parts of the world. It seems to me that our perception of color has more to do with “nurture” than we ever thought. At the same time, it is interesting to note that their are “nature” aspects to the situation. For example, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in the two examples above, the colors fell at opposite ends of a continuum that runs along the SAME variable. We seem to think pure hues like black and white have something to do with the most pure values — life and death. That perception, perhaps, transcends cultural boundaries.

Media – inside and outside

As a working journalist, I engaged Sturken and Cartwright’s analyses of American media from multiple viewpoints. First, I followed their commentary as an American consumer of media — and I felt their views were spot-on. The sheer magnitude of media messages we take in each day is overwhelming. It’s no small wonder that we process a very small percentage of it consciously. While I disagree intensely with the hypodermic model, I see a lot of good reason in the Marxist-inspired theories put forth by the Frankfort School. However, I do not see media consumers as brainless sheep, as the text seems to suggest the Frankfort School believes.

This is precisely the point where I transitioned from reading as a consumer to reading as a journalist — because, as a journalist, I am a member of that privileged class that supposedly creates the thoughts and feelings of the masses. (Ha!) I do NOT believe that audiences docilely accept whatever argument or message is put forth to them. Everyone interprets the signifiers created by media differently; it is probably a rare exception when the intended message is received and understood in its entirety. I suspect oppositional readings are far more common than any other, precisely because the audience wants to assert agency before even thinking of agreeing with any portion of the message. (At the same time, many consumers have preconceived notions that create both oppositional and supportive readings. An ongoing CNN poll shows that only about a quarter of those who watch presidential debates would change their votes based on those debates.)

I also identified both as a woman and as a general consumer with the authors’ discussion of Lacan’s mirror stage and the search for the objet petit a on page 217. Ads are constantly telling us of ways we can be more, do more, have more — and it’s all in search of the satisfaction represented by these ads, a satisfaction that our consumer society (and perhaps any human society) will never allow us to possess. Even ads that do not conform to the typical pressures — I’m thinking of the Dove ads that celebrate all body types — urge consumers to find that objet petit a, that impossible satisfaction, in the knowledge that the push to do so will (they hope) produce commercial profit.