>> Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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, because Dr. Manhattan can also function as a figure of the reader as well the author, but that's an argument I want to have. From there, it's onto the unfilmable film itself.
- Now that they can break film and comics into their constituent parts, I re-orient them in an explicitly rhetorical direction. We talk about the rhetorical situation, which is, of course, a triangle. (For the record: that silliness is me teaching myself to manipulate images in Photoshop for my book on teaching visual rhetoric.) Then we situate the rhetorical context in the historical context via Warren Ellis's Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth.
- From there on out, it's all about the writing. I teach them about paragraph burgers, which, while silly, is the single most effective means I've found to teach paragraph structure. Students intuitively understand that you don't call a pickle with and a piece of a cheese a "hamburger." For the remainder of the quarter, we use the tools from the beginning of the course to make sophisticated arguments about the rhetorical stakes of what they'd otherwise dismiss as pop culture ephemera.
*I've never written up my notes on getting them to think about structure via punchlines, which begins, not surprisingly, here with The Killing Joke. The gist of it is that jokes don’t work if you only provide the punchline, which is my way of introducing them to the notion of process: this shot in a film or panel in a comic or argument in an essay only works as a punchline if the joke's been properly set up. Basically, I try to get them to think about argument in terms they intuitively understand.