In the Spring of 2015, I completed a book project called Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics (see full abstract below). In addition to exploring what a new materialist approach to rhetorical study might entail, I introduce a new digital research method called iconographic tracking. To demonstrate the affordances of this method, I conducted a 7 year long case study in which I tracked the circulation, transformation, and consequentiality of Shepard Fairey's now iconic Obama Hope image. The findings from this initial case study are presented in the third part of the book.
To further this research, I am invested in developing digital software and data visualization strategies to support research in visual rhetoric and circulation studies. I am currently putting together a team of international scholars and writing grants to gain funding to develop software to support the method of iconographic tracking. I am also honing data visualization strategies by working on a large coding project in which I am coding 1000 pictures of Obama Hope and developing metadata that feeds directly into a variety of interactive maps. My hope with all of this work is to offer a software program that will allow others to easily put iconographic tracking to work for their own research projects.
I am also invested in boosting research in circulation studies, the study of rhetoric and writing in motion. In addition to contributing a new research method and accompanying software for this shared inquiry, I am currently co-editing (with Collin Brooke) a collection titled Rhetoric, Writing, and Circulation. This collection showcases cutting edge research in circulation studies coming out of the field of Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies.
While visual artifacts have received increased attention in recent years, rhetorical theories and methods have yet to catch up with images circulating and functioning in a digitally saturated climate. Today, as Shepard Fairey’s now iconic Obama Hope image makes evident, images often circulate and transform across media and genre at viral rates. In addition, images reassemble collective life as they enter into diverse relations, take on roles far beyond their intended function, and spark a firework of activity across the globe. While Obama Hope, for instance, was designed to garner support for Obama during the 2008 election, it has become, among many other things, an international environmental and political activist, a popular cybergenre for launching social and political critique, and a source of political enchantment for people both within and beyond U.S. borders. Considering such wild abandon, how can scholars account for visual rhetorics in a digital age?
Still Life with Rhetoric responds to this dilemma by introducing a new research approach and method for studying visual rhetorics. A new materialist approach is influenced by contemporary scholarship coming out of both rhetoric and composition and communication such as Louise Wetherbee Phelps’ and Kevin Porter’s work with discourse and time; Jenny Edbauer Rice’s work with rhetorical ecologies; Collin Brooke’s work with new media rhetorics; Carole Blair’s work with material rhetoric and consequence; and Cara Finnegan, Robert Hariman’s, and John Lucaites’ work with circulation. This approach also draws heavily on Bruno Latour’s work with actor-network theory; Deleuze’s and Guattari’s work with the virtual and actual; Jane Bennett’s work with vital materialism; and Karen Barad’s work with agential realism. Working under this influence, I develop a unique theoretical framework for studying rhetoric as a distributed, generative event that unfolds with time and space as things circulate, transform, and enter into diverse relations.
I also forward a new research method called iconographic tracking. This method employs novel digital and traditional qualitative research strategies to explore how new media images actualize in diverse forms and genres, circulate in physical and cyber space, and affect a wide range of material consequences. To model how productive this approach and method can be for visual rhetorics, I present research findings from a four-year-long case study in which I which I investigated how the Obama Hope image went viral, became a cultural icon and national symbol, and engaged in a broad spectrum of collective activities in a very short time.
Still Life with Rhetoric is unique in that it offers theories and methods to account for the futurity of rhetoric—the strands of time beyond the initial moment of production when things become rhetorical as they circulate with time and space. For it is only with an eye toward futurity, I argue, that rhetoricians can actually account for how new media images help constitute and reconstitute collective existence in the 21st century.