| drew davidson |



Ekphrastic Academia:

Images, Sounds and Motions in Academic Discourse


Drew Davidson




            In academics, we traverse a diversity of problems and offer a plethora of solutions.  For instance, we formulate theories as to how we could or should look at the world.  We also ponder how to evaluate and express our arguments.  In all, we struggle to place theories and their function in our lives.  This brings me to the questions that drive this essay.  Would the use of a performative, ekphrastic academe better allow us to place theory into our lives?  And do the new technologies of multimedia open up to ekphrasis more than our current text-based form of academic scholarship?  I will more fully define what I mean by ekphrasis at the end of this essay, fisrt I want to look at multimedia in general.  It is my belief that a multimedia document would enhance our ability to make arguments and develop meanings in compliment with our traditional textual discourse.  In this essay, I want to explore the potential ekphrastic implications multimedia has for academia.  I will do so, by first looking at the potential rhetorical aspects of the components of multimedia; images, sounds, motions, and text.  I will then discuss the performative and rhetorical implications found in the interactivity and variability made possible in multimedia documents.  Finally, I will delineate the ekphrastic effects that I see multimedia could have on academia.

             Before I begin, I would like to side step and describe the impetus for this essay.  In academics, especially in communications, our experience(s) in life are often explored and expressed through critical analysis.  However, the discourse of the academy often feels like a "comfortless straitjacket" in which an essay is written to "conform to the scientific model of thesis and support" (Freedman, Frey and Zauhar 2).  To me, the imposed order of academic discourse can seem restrictive, and almost untrue of an experience studied.  I am interested in exploring spaces that may be less "rigid [and] dichotomous" in their conventions and will allow for more experimentation in the expression of thoughts and feelings (Heuvel 13).  I am looking for a mode of expression that "capture[s] some of the

inconsistency [and] indeterminacy" of our life experience(s) (18).  Granted, I think that by organizing our thoughts we can better develop our ideas, but I have wondered if there isn't a complimentary mode of expression that would allay my qualms and still allow for critical analysis; i.e. multimedia.  This urge is what has led me to delve into the potential use of multimedia in academic discourse.

            To begin, I would like to explore the potential rhetorical aspects of images, sounds and motions-- three components, along with text, that can make up a multimedia document.  It should be clarified that when I say multimedia document, I am referring to a CD-ROM that can include images, sounds and motion, as well as text.  A very similar document could be constructed as a web page on the internet, although it would have some different characteristics which I will get into later in this essay.  To make my point concerning the rhetoric of images, I am going to discuss the potential rhetorical aspects of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (c. 1953).  In this discussion, I am utilizing a definition of rhetoric proposed by Cherwitz and Hikins in their article, "Communication and Knowledge:  An Investigation in Rhetorical Epistemology."  In their article, they define rhetoric as, "the art of describing reality through language."  I find this definition somewhat problematic in that it presumes language as the means of communication.  To me, this seems to be a very oedipal perspective of communication that precludes other forms of communication outside of language.  Even so, I understand the authors' contention that to deal with any sounds, feelings and/or images that may be thought of as pre-oedipal we must language them to even begin to describe them. 

             This is an interesting definition with which to approach White Paintings.   For not only is there no language involved in the work, there is the absence of an image, which, of course, is itself an image.  The painting, at first glance and thought, would appear to have nothing to with rhetoric in relation to this definition, words and language are not involved.  So, to approach this work will take some "languaging" which I will do shortly. 

            Before I do, I would like to explore the oft-delineated categories of rhetoric and poetic.  Now, I realize that images, sounds and motions are not necessarily poetic.  That said, I believe that using this terminology to illustrate the rhetoric of the poetic can help us see the potential for a rhetoric of images, sounds and motions.  In their article, "Rhetoric and Poetic:  A New Critique," Staub and Mohrmann address the similarities of rhetoric and poetic.  Essentially, they state that there is no distinction between these two categories.  They acknowledge that the separate categories hold some validity in terms of a university departmental system, but from there they find fault in any attempt to maintain this distinction.  From here, they go on to establish that all forms of texts are a combination of rhetoric, poetic and logic.  They state that the "maker" of a text merely emphasizes one element over the other.  So, for Staub and Mohrmann, whether a text is rhetoric or poetic is a moot point.  For them, the point is to glean what element the maker emphasized.  

            I am highly attracted to the authors' idea of emphasis and would only like to put a small twist on it.  I think an emphasis can be made by both the maker and the audience of the text.  For example,  Rauschenberg had certain intentions in mind when he created White Paintings, these intentions were then emphasized in the completed piece.  Concurrently, the audience of this piece can approach it with emphases that bear on the reading of the text.  In other words, one could approach the piece determined to look at its poetic aspects, or at its rhetorical ones, and this would shape the resultant reading of the piece.

            So, I can not only see White Paintings as rhetorical, but my analysis of it can emphasize the rhetorical meaning of the piece.  Through language, I want to explore how this work of art describes a reality.  The following is a gross summary of the context of the art world when this painting was produced.  It was a world in which the trend of the time was to reduce the media of art to their most essential beings; i.e. painting had to be true to itself, it should no longer try to recreate a three dimensional world, but to abstract to the two dimensional reality of paint on canvas.           

            Various artists strived in different ways to reach this end; Jackson Pollock splattered paint on the canvas, capturing the essence of the action of painting, Mark Rothko painted fields of color, highlighting the bare essentials of paint on canvas.  It would seem that the maker's emphasis shifted from a visual aesthetic to an aesthetic of ideas.  It was conceptual art; art about the language of art.  The finished art work (re)presented the artist's thoughts on the process of art.  It is no small coincidence that this was a time in which art critics rose to influential prominence.  Critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg shaped the direction of the art world through their theories and concepts of what art should be and what an art work could mean.  Their discussions of what art works meant was becoming as important as the works themselves. 

            Into this art world comes White Paintings.  Much could be, and has been, said about how this piece merely carried this trend to its logical conclusion; bare white canvas as the ultimate truth of painting.  Others have noted an irony in the piece, a mockery of this trend and a declaration of its end.  Either way, what I find most interesting is that all this languaging occurred around a blank canvas.  All of those who responded to it, did so explicitly out of their emphases on how they were looking at the painting.  Whether it was to argue if the painting qualified as art, or to put forth yet another interpretation of what it meant, they were languaging the painting. 

            So, it seems the painting has a lot to say, or that a lot can be said about it.  In the painting's blankness is an absent reality; a reality indirectly described.  The absence of an image invites the audience to actively participate in developing the meaning of the painting.  The silence of the blank canvas allows for the viewer to add their ideas and feelings to it.  This calls to mind Isak Dineson's short story, "The Blank Page."  The story describes a Spanish convent where generations of princesses' wedding night bed sheets are hung.  Each sheet is stained with the "blood of defloration" showing that the princess was pure (virgin) until her royal destiny was fulfilled (Smith 2).  Within this hall of sheets was one that was not stained.  It hung, white, unbloodied.  The story of some long gone princess was told in the sheet's blankness.  Dineson's short story is often used to illustrate feminist theory, but I find that White Paintings, like a "blank page," languages a reality through the context of the world around it.  An image has a language all its own, and its meaning comes through our languaging it in and through words.  This is not to say that we can attribute any meaning to an image, more that, an image, like a word, has a meaning that we can express.

             Now, it is my contention that the reasoning I use to define a rhetoric and meaning of an image could be similarly used in regards to sounds and motions.  Sounds and motions definitely have meaning.  For example, a horror movie's soundtrack adds to the suspense.  Take away the moody soundtrack and you lose a great deal of the tension.  Motion has meaning as well.  Recently in a class, a professor was discussing his relation with truth and his gestures were pointing to a truth that was away from him, separate from him.  I would not have understood his take on this truth as well if I did not have the motions of his gestures.   The context of the class discussion and the movie were enhanced by sound and motion.  In view of these contexts, an audience can approach an image, sound and/or motion with an emphasis on its rhetorical elements and look for its rhetorical meaning.

            This type of approach invites an audience to interact and perform; they are just as active in developing rhetorical meaning as the artist/scholar.  I believe that a multimedia CD-ROM would allow an audience a form of interactivity with images, sounds, motions and text that is not possible with critical documents written about images, sounds and motions.  To explore this idea, I will refer to Carroll C. Arnold's article, "Oral Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Literature."  I am using Arnold's terminology to illustrate the difference between oral and written rhetoric as an analogy to show the difference between multimedia and text documents.  This analogy has helped me to further understand the strengths and weaknesses of a text-only document and the potential for a multimedia one.  In his article, Arnold states that there is a difference between oral rhetoric and written rhetoric.  He begins by citing Aristotle's explanation of the difference between oral and written texts.  Both note that speeches made by writers normally sound thin compared with those of orators, on the other hand, the orators may sound good, but they pale when read on paper (195).  Arnold asserts that oral rhetoric is inherently meaningful, that the action of oration has a bearing on a situation regardless of the words spoken. 

            From this idea of a specificity to a speaking situation, Arnold borrows Quintillian's idea that the experience of speaking is a stressful one.  For Arnold, oral rhetoric is "rhetoric-in-stress" (198).  He sees it as stressful in that speaking is a "confrontation of active beings" (199).  Unlike a writer, a speaker is making her/his points in an immediate public arena.  In a speaking event, there is an immediate interaction between speaker and audience that exposes "themselves to the possibility of change" (203).  I have a problem with Arnold's explanation in that it is a one-sided treatment of the stress, or risk, of oral rhetoric in comparison to that written rhetoric.  I believe that written rhetoric can be just as stressful and risky as oral rhetoric.  For me, it is not a matter of degree, but of emphasis.

            In looking at the stress, or risk, between oral and written rhetoric, Arnold focuses mainly on the stresses of oral rhetoric.  He doesn't directly address the potential stresses of written rhetoric, and there seems to be plenty of risk involved in written rhetoric.  Granted, there may not be a sense of immediacy surrounding written rhetoric, but there is a sense of permanence.  When engaging in written rhetoric, one is setting her/his views in stone so to speak.  These views will be on record to remind/embarrass the scholar of her/his earlier attempts at an argument, or idea.  So, there is a sense of risk in that the scholar sets about making her/his arguments as well as possible with the knowledge that they will forever be marked. 

            Now, in this day and age, speeches can be videotaped and recorded with ease.  So, issues of permanence do come into play with speeches as well as with texts.  Even so, both orators and writers can dismiss, or defend, their earlier work as immature, or as a developing process in which they learned from their mistakes and moved on.  And yet, I still see a difference in the overall risk one takes when engaging in oral or written rhetoric.  The issues of permanence in writing are distanced from the writer.  It is not the immediate concern, instead, a writer tends to focus on making the best argument s/he can with what knowledge is available at that time.  For example, as a grad student, you may publish an article that is slightly embarrassing to read years later as a professor.  The realization of making a mistake inevitably comes in hindsight, with the scholar looking back and noting previous errors made.  An orator, on the other hand, can not escape the immediate risk with which s/he is engaged.  You may have a brilliant argument prepared, but it could fail if it is not presented well.   The audience and/or antagonist, is right there with you.  I have never felt butterflies in my stomach while writing a paper, but I get them every time I go in front of a crowd in public.  The potential for a debate is quite real; therefore, there is an overwhelming emphasis on articulating oneself clearly, as well as being able to respond promptly to questions, comments and/or critiques. 

            This sense of immediacy is found primarily in oral rhetoric.  The presentness of this sense has led me to think about the performative aspects of oration which, in turn, helps to define the strengths and weaknesses of oral rhetoric.  In dealing with issues of the performance of oration, I summarize Peggy Phelan's definition of performance that can be found in chapter 7 of her book, Unmarked.  In it, she defines performance in terms of its presents and presence.  By presents, Phelan means that a performance lives and dies in the present.  A performance only occurs this way, this time.  To see it again, would be to see another performance.  For example, you can see Romeo and Juliet many times, and even though its the same script, it will be a different performance each time.  For Phelan, this leads to a series of presents, in that each performance is a part of a process of presents, each one different from the last.  This, in turn, leads her to define a presence of performance. 

            By the presence of performance, she means that each performance takes on a uniqueness of its own.  An example of this is that it is better to go see a band live several times, than to listening to their record several times.  There is the potential for a different performance at the live show.  The potential variability of live performance gives it its presence.  This presence is metonymical.  A metonym is a word or phrase that represents something by close association.  For example, you can say, "the kettle is boiling" when in fact it is the water in the kettle that is boiling (Phelan 150).  A performance not only represents the script of the performance, but it represents itself.  For instance, even though Romeo and Juliet is considered a great play, you can see a bad performance of a it. 

            Now, it is my contention that Phelan's definitions of performance are applicable to oral rhetoric and that these definitions help describe the risk of oral rhetoric and also help define its limits in relation to written rhetoric.  If oral rhetoric lives in a present, where it is possible to hear a bad speech of a good argument, then the emphasis on performing well is very strong.  The speaker has to not only have a good argument, but s/he has to give a good performance.  This is an immediate type of pressure that helps to explain why a speech might flop or fly in a given time and space.  While this helps to further define the stress of oral rhetoric, I believe it also shows its limits.  Since, a good speech lives and dies in the present, its effect is only pertinent in that present.  It effects the audience that hears it.  The next speech will be different, and will be more or less successful for a variety of reasons. 

            So, the success of a speech is limited by its medium.  Granted, one can video a good speech, but the medium of video loses the presence of a live performance.  There is a lack of interactivity available to those watching the video, whereas those at the speech can vocally respond and influence the event.  Like a record, there is no performative presence to a video.  There is no chance of difference in a fixed video outside of seeing something different through repeated viewings.  In this, there is some similarity with a CD-ROM; no immediate interactivity is available between audience and author/scholar.  Although, there is a form of interactivity in the possible variability of the document which I will explain shortly. 

            Written rhetoric, like other fixed forms of media (i.e. video), may lack an immediacy, but it does have a permanence to it.  Its audience will be able to return to it, again and again, and get very similar readings from it (the differences coming from the audience, not the text).  Thus, written rhetoric lives in the strength of its argument.  This is not to say a speech doesn't need good arguments, but that a text has more of a necessity for them.  Granted, a writer can write in such a beautiful style that they convince readers in spite of a lack of argument, but it is my belief that type of text won't stand the test of multiple, critical readings over time. 

            I have focused on the immediate risk of oral rhetoric in comparison with the permanent risk of written rhetoric to highlight issues of an audience's interactivity with a document.  The audience is more present with a CD-ROM than they are with a manuscript in that they have more of an active outcome on the "reading" of the interactive, multimedia document.  I believe we can further explore this relationship through a multimedia document that potentially juxtaposes the immediacy of a speech with the permanence of a text.  A CD-ROM would be a permanent document that would allow for a form of interactivity from the audience.  It could be constructed to allow the audience the chance to choose how they want to read the document.  Also, a CD-ROM would allow the scholar to incorporate images, sounds and motions into the document.   There are already a multitude of CD-ROMs utilize multimedia to present information in ways a text can not do, I believe these elements could be used to argue as well.  A good example of this is Leslie Jarmon's CD-ROM dissertation.  In it, she is making arguments about what certain gestures mean.  The multimedia capabilities of a CD-ROM allow her to put QuickTime movies of the gestures right in the document.  This saves her from the awkward process of trying to describe the gestures and also allows the reader to view and review the gestures to see if they agree with Jarmon's arguments.  Images, sounds and motions would also invite the audience to actively develop the meanings they find in the document. 

              Like written rhetoric, a CD-ROM would have a sense of permanency.   And oral rhetoric and multimedia both allow an audience potential variable experiences.  Granted, a multimedia document would not be truly interactive, but the reader would have more options from which to choose and the document would not have to be read the same way twice.  A multimedia document can be structured nonlinearly, giving its audience multiple choices of directions in which to follow an argument.  Even with a nonlinear structure, the reader's experience will be linear with a beginning, middle and end.  Thus, we have a document that has a potentially infinite number of linear readings.  There could be even more interactivity in terms of a multimedia web page.  This would be a living document that would allow for transactivity from the author and reader.  I use the term transactivity to emphasize that the components of the document will change with each reading/writing (Stewart 367).  The author of the document can continually explore the web to find other web pages that support his/her argument and the add links to these pages, somewhat analogous to footnotes.  The document would literally be able to sprawl across the web with links to related pages.  Meanwhile, the reader can add their responses right to the page itself, responding to the argument, enhancing the original document through each new reading. 

             A multimedia CD-ROM has more potential than a text for variable experiences of the document.   In this essay, I proposed a multimedia document as a possible new medium of academic discourse.  I did so, by first looking at the potential rhetorical aspects of the components of multimedia; images, sounds, motions, and text.  I then discussed the implications of interactivity in terms of the immediacy of oral rhetoric and permanence of written rhetoric in juxtaposition with a multimedia document's potential of multiple readings.  I realize that there is still a lot of theorizing that needs to be done in dealing with the development of a "language" of images, sounds and motions.  I also admit that I am only scratched the surface within this paper.  Incorporating these elements into documents and arguments raises a whole new slew of ethical considerations that need to be addressed.

            As I stated above, I desire a mode of expression that is less "rigid [and] dichotomous" in its conventions and would allow for more experimentation in the expression of thoughts and feelings (Heuvel 13).  One that "capture[s] some of the inconsistency [and] indeterminacy" of our life experience(s), without precluding critical analysis (18).  I believe that the potential variability of multimedia allows us to develop arguments in a document while also capturing some of life's inconsistency and indeterminacy into a document.

            Also, this potential variability not only allows for, but invites, audience participation.  The reader/viewer of a CD-ROM is invited to perform many different choices as to what they read/see/hear.  The chance to read the document differently would make for a document that is available to a more diverse group of people than might otherwise be possible.  People could read it in any way that suits them and this could open up academics to them.  More variability could lead to more diversity, and ideally this would invite a wider group of readers/viewers.  The act of opening up academics to a larger group could allow for more agency.  There could be more potential for change with more people talking about and trying to understand ideas and issues.  Granted, this may seem like an unattainable Eden of ideas, but I strongly believe that as scholars, we should look for new and different ways to teach others, opening up academics to the public and enabling changes to be made in our culture and society.

            A term that comes to mind for the process of this type of document is ekphrasis.  Ekphrasis is the Greek word for description.  In relation to art, ekphrasis refers to a description of a work of art that is undertaken as a rhetorical exercise (Lucie-Smith 72).  In other words, the description is done in hopes of better understanding the work of art described and possibly expanding on its meaning(s).  An ekphrastic description can be anything that responds to the work of art; a poem, a painting, an article, etc.  For example, ekphrastic poems are evoked by a work of art; whether it be a painting, a sculpture, or an architectural work.  And these ekphrastic poems are attempts to describe what the eye sees; thus enabling the viewer to understand the painting, sculpture, or architecture, more fully (Cage and Rosenfeld 200).  Ekphrasis encompasses and articulates the interactions between artist and artwork, audience and artwork, critic/scholar and artwork, audience and ekphrastic description, and among audience, ekphrastic description and artwork (Long and Cage 287).  If we looked at academic discourse as an ekphrastic response that is evoked not just by art, but by any experience and/or text, we could use a multimedia document to explore, articulate and interact with the links between images, sounds, motions, texts and people. 

            I believe that the ekphrasis of multimedia could capture some of the quirks of the experiences of our lives and allow us to explore and express them in a different way that should then aid us in better understanding them.  Now, I do not see an ekphrastic rhetoric to be similar to the aesthetic rhetoric as proposed by Steve Whitson and John Poulakos (142).  While having aesthetic characteristics, ekphrasis is based in epistemology; for ekphrasis is an enterprise undertaken to further develop and understand meaning.  Also, I am not suggesting that an ekphrastic multimedia CD-ROM should replace tradition academic discourse and analytical criticism; in fact, I do not think it can.

            Multimedia has the capabilities to describe reality through language; whether is be the language of images, sounds, motions and/or text.  I see multimedia and traditional academic discourse as complimentary forms of expression that are invaluable to further exploring issues and arguments.  I believe our current form of academic discourse and multimedia function differently, not better or worse, just differently.  To place theories and allow them to function in our lives and enable changes, these differences should be explored.  Multimedia may allow for images, sounds and motions to enhance our arguments, but it will be through language that we discuss the potential meanings.  As scholars, we explore a diversity of experiences and I believe that, especially as scholars, we should explore and perform a diversity of expressions. 


Works Cited



Arnold, Carroll C.  "Oral Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Literature."  Philosophy and Rhetoric. 1             (1966):  191-210.  


Cage, Timothy S., and Lawrence Rosenfeld.  "Ekphrastic Poetry in Performance:  An             Examination of Audience Perceptions of the Relationship between Poetry and             Painting."  Text and Performance Quarterly  9.3 (1989): 199-206.


Cherwitz, Richard and James Hikins.  "Communication and Knowledge:  An investigation             in rhetorical epistemology."   Rhetoric. (1986): 49-70.


Freedman, Diane P., Olivia Frey and Frances M. Zauhar.  Introduction.  The Intimate             Critique.  Eds.  Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey and Frances M. Zauhar.  Durham:              Duke UP, 1993.


 Heuvel, Michael Vandon.  Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance:  Alternative             Theater and the Dramatic Text.  Ann Arbor:  U of Michigan P, 1993.


Jarmon, Leslie.  dissertation,  U of Texas at Austin, 1996.


Long, Beverly Whitaker, and Timothy S. Cage.  "Contemporary American Ekphrastic             Poetry:  A Selected Bibliography."  Text and Performance Quarterly  9 (1989): 286-            297.


Lucie-Smith, Edward.  The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms.  London:              Thames and Hudson, 1984.


Phelan, Peggy.  Unmarked:  the politics of performance.  New York:  Routledge, 1993. 


Smith, Sidonie.  Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body:  Women's Autobiographical             Practices in the Twentieth Century.  Indiana:  Indiana UP, 1993. 


Staub, A.W. and G.P. Mohrmann.  "Rhetoric and Poetic: A New Critique."  Southern             Speech Journal.  28 (1962):  108-115. 


Stewart, John.  "A Postmoden Look at Traditional Communication Postulates."  Western             Journal of Speech Communication.  55 (Fall 1991):  354-379. 


Whitson, Steve and John Poulakos.  "Nietzsche and the Aesthitics of Rhetoric":  Quarterly             Journal of Speech.  79 (1993):  131-145. 







Ekphrastic Academia:

Images, Sounds and Motions in Academic Discourse




This essay explores the potential of multimedia on computers to create ekphrastic documents; documents that are an artistic and rhetorical response to a work of art.  The characteristics of multimedia (images, sounds, motions and text) are explored in terms of their possible rhetorical aspects.  From here, the contention is made that the interactivity of multimedia allows for an audience to perform a reading of the document, themselves creating an ekphrastic response.  It is the believe of the author that performative, ekphrastic multimedia can benefit  complement our tradition, text-based scholarship.




















| drew davidson |