Thursday, 15 October 2009

By request: my visual rhetoric course As requested in the comments to my last post and via a couple of emails, here's a general outline of the course I teach on visual rhetoric. (If you find it interesting or just want to give me money, the book I'm co-writing with my course director should be available early next summer.) I'm more than happy to debate the merits of teaching rhetoric and argument through popular culture or the validity of any of the particular readings I put forward; however, keep in mind that those readings are presented in the classroom and, as such, are designed to be arguable instead of definitive. I want them to argue with particular statements because I'm teaching them how to argue, so there are moments (particularly in the readings of the films) that I'm deliberately wrong. Those moments will likely be obvious to you, but you're not an 18-year-old undergraduate on the short end of an institutional power imbalance who's afraid that, should they contradict me, they will fail the class, lose their scholarship and spend their days toiling away in the service industries. That said, here are links to the analytic portion of the course: I introduce them to the idea of the overdetermined image, because nothing is accidental in an Alan Moore script.* Nor, for that matter, is anything accidental when it costs $80,000 per second to film it, which is why we then discuss how Christopher Nolan turns Batman into classic horror monster in Batman Begins. The point here is get them fluent in the language of film, so that they might make arguments about how directors manipulate the camera in order to appeal to the audience. (We also discuss what is and isn't in the diegetic space, e.g. music, which is heard by the audience but not the characters.) Then it's on to The Dark Knight. That link goes to a reading of the interrogation scene; this one leads you to a similarly thorough analysis dedicated to proving the controversial thesis that Batman is really fast—because demonstrating that even the simplest of claims require evidence and careful argument to be taken seriously is the point of the course. Now that they're relatively fluent in the language of film, we try to prove something a little more complex; namely, that Superman Returns is very much about 9/11. First, I take them back to September morning; then we analyze the action sequence that's about planes slamming into NYC landmarks, lest they think I'm reading too much into the anxieties the film taps into. Now that they're comfortable with film, I get them to apply that knowledge to comics via the comic that's about the conventions of comics and is therefore utterly unfilmable, Watchmen. I begin by reminding them of the overdetermined nature of the image, then we discuss panel transitions and word-picture relation, move on layout and narrative flow, then I try to prove what I stated in the second sentence about Watchmen being a meta-comic. My argument's deliberately argumentative,...
Nonfictional lies. These are difficult words for me to write: I lied about what happened yesterday. The road did turn into a parking lot. I did spy a car crest the hill behind me as I crept into an impenetrable fog alongside a semi. But I never "braced for impact," as I first wrote. So as not to be branded a liar, I replaced "braced" with the more accurate "readied." However, in clear violation of The Trivialities of Deportment as Required by the Guardians of Best Online Society, I made this emendation silently. There's no indication that the word "readied" occupies the space originally reserved for "braced." Why'd I do this, and why am I telling you about it? The title of this post is an awful pun grounded in the reality of traumatic experience. Talking to the wife last night, I remembered that after the car crested I'd remembered reading that human bodies are more likely to survive brutal demonstrations of differential inertia when they go slack. After I remembered that, I relaxed my neck and attempted a deep breath before the sedan changed course. I did what is rightly called the opposite of bracing: I made like an abandoned marionette and begged the Laws of Physics to commute the inevitable. When the sedan buzzed by, I was draped limp on the driver's seat awaiting a cascade of concussive pains as my car endeavored to save my life. Why am I telling you this? Because people who deal with people like me for a living have told me to control what I can control. I can't stop the sudden intrusion of the inexplicably awful into previously pleasant dreams, but I can edit the written account of the experience responsible for the trespass. I understand that violations of decorum in the name of therapy might offend the finely-wrought sensibilities of some of you, but I currently value my mental health more than my reputation. (Without the former I could never rehabilitate the latter.) Not that I'm worried. My shudder of a pun describes a process I'm not ashamed of being victimized by. The unintentional stuttering of memory results in nonfictional lies . . . in moments misremembered as time dilates in expectation of bright death. They're the pare shavings trauma whittles from memory and they are inevitable. In order to nonfictionalize that post, I'll need to replace some nonfictional lies with others, and the thought of being called out on account of altering inconsequential details is too much to bear right now. I'm not changing my story: I'm nonfictionalizing it. To give another example, when I said I was listening to NPR when I noticed the car, I think I maybe lied. I didn't think I had until when I was talking to my brother and let slip that I'd been listening to Big Star's "Life is White" when I noticed the other car. Given that I couldn't have been listening to NPR and a track from Radio City at the same...

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