Rhetoric, Visual Rhetoric, and Consumer Culture

Tonight’s 240 class is packed! We’re going to be discussing rhetoric in advertising, with a nod to some of the key definitions of “culture” and the goals of cultural studies that we’ve covered in other classes. I’ve asked students to bring in a selection of three print advertisements, one of which may become the subject of their first essay and anatomization; they’ve also watched Killing Us Softly via google video, and I’ve got some great clips from Stuart Hall’s MEF video on representation. The goal is to get to a point where we can see how advertising works to create identifications, identities, and communities through the strategic use of signs–and, ultimately, how this builds on and calls into being specific ideologies and relations of power.

My plan for the organization of the evening is something like this:

  1. 15 min. In small groups, go over the reading. Define a selection of significant vocabulary, and then find a quote from each of the readings that you would argue contains the most important ideas to remember. Be prepared to explain why.
  2. 15 min. Discuss the readings as a group, adding to our google doc list of important terms and concepts. How many different “definitions” of culture are we working with now? Any common threads, recurrent ideas?
  3. 20 min. Watch an excerpt from Killing Us Softly: How is Kilbourne analyzing rhetoric? What kinds of identifications does she think the advertising industry is encouraging us to make? What kinds of divisions and exclusions are embedded in those identifications (Ryan 61)?”[Culture is the software of our lives. It is the program we live by, the rules that determine how we think and act. But it is also the malleable, rewritable script that we ourselves rework and recreate as we live and produce creative works and say and do creative things in our lives” (Ryan xi). We should expand this to include critical work, like what Kilbourne is doing.
  4. 10 min. Look at Benetton ads, make observations, inferences as a group. Consubstantiality?
  5. 10 min. Share your ads with your peers in small groups–come to a conclusion about which is the most interesting, the richest advertisement to critique, and why.
  6. 30 min. Round robin. Pass the ad. Make a list of 5 concrete observations about the signs used in the ad; pass the ad. What inferences can you draw about the observations your peer has made? Pass the ad. Add to the list of observations–insert 5 more concrete observations, and pass the ad. The next person should complete the inferences list. Pass the ad. Read what your peers have written, and examine the ad closely. Then, answer the following interrelated questions: “What central consubstantiality does the ad seek to create on the part of the viewer? What ‘truth’ or ‘norm’ is it constructing?  If rhetoric is a use of signs, directed toward others, to compel action and belief, then what belief is this ad working to compel? If rhetoric is how we shape the chaotic experiences of life into a shared worldview (Ryan 58),  what shared worldview is the ad working to create?” Let’s think about big ideas, big beliefs–race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, identity, nation, and so on.
  7. 20 min. Return the ads to their owners. Read what your peers have written, add any notes of your own. Then, freewrite for 15 minutes. In your freewrite, describe the advertisement in as much detail–both objective and inferential–as possible. Don’t worry about organization or style!
  8. 20 min. Watch excerpt from Stuart Hall. Consider what he says about the power of representation. What is his most important point? How can we draw on some of his ideas about power and representation to help us interpret our advertisements?
  9. 10 min. Construct a working thesis for your essay; share.
  10. Homework/next class.

I hope that’s not too ambitious… Thoughts?

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