The Rhetoric of Interpellation

February 12, 2008

Here’s some context for where I’ll ultimately go with this post: I’ve lately been consumed by a project whose grounding is a mixture of Althusser’s theory of interpellation and this nebulous THING we’re calling visual rhetoric. Here, said THING means something like it does in Chapter 2 of Defining Visual Rhetorics, i.e. being able to add a (logical) verbal narrative to an image. Further, to be able to add a narrative which assigns value to the image in terms of its ability to interpellate you [the viewer] into a subject [viewing + action] position. And specifically, when examining donor webpages on top public university sites, to get you to fork over some (well…lots, preferably) cash.

Helmers mentions frames. The frame is EVERYTHING when it comes to visual rhetoric. Take the museum-as-artifice example she uses at the end of the chapter. Did anyone think about their local science and/or nature museum here? How about amusement parks? Disney World???

Helmers: “What we experience in the space of the art museum is a way of seeing that is authored, not by the artist, but by the curators.”

The argument is in the arrangement! Juxtaposition! Subversion of (curators’ established) Ethos!

When I went to France for the first time, I actually said (and not even to myself…yes, out loud), “This is JUST like Epcot Center at Disney World.” The comparison was insane because it’s totally backwards (I this realized moments *after* it came roaring out of my mouth). In realizing that I’d had the simile reversed, I felt how completely I’d been interpellated into the ultimate subject position of THE CONSUMER by Disney World. Talk about a hugely successful “narrative framing device” on a billion dollar scale. What an attention structure!

Helmers: “Looking indicates the way things could be rather than proving the way things are” (84).

The brains behind Disney aren’t called ‘Imagineers’ for nothing.

My hypothesis: A forceful (dare I say emotional) mechanism behind visual rhetoric is interpellation–being hailed, called, or summoned into a subject role. And not just ANY subject role, but the role the artist, author, imagineer, designer WANTS you to play in order to capture your attention for, more often than not, monetary gain.

“Rhetorical meaning…appears to depend of perception [authored, actually, by the artist, not, as Helmers says, the viewer] and reception [authored, also and again by the artist]” (Helmers 85).

So…while we all want to believe in the rationality of experience as (ideally, for us) mediated by an ever more ubiquitous commingling of words and images, how much control do we really have over our perception? Assuming part of the way visual rhetoric (as persuasion) works is through interpellation, and assuming interpellation awards control of perception to the author of the experience, where does that leave the viewer on the other side of the frame?


2 Responses to “The Rhetoric of Interpellation”

  1. This is excellent, but I challenge it with visual figure/ground relationships. What if the artist has (intentional or not) created figure confusion with no apparent ground in the work? Think of the vase/face illustration:


    What exactly are we looking at? What was the author’s intent or mechanism? The use of negative space can open up worlds that would be silly to attribute to the author.

    I just cannot accept the mechanism of interpellation in all visual work. Many modern artists are at the whim of the substrate and media – stuff just happened, and the audience interprets the work as-is…without Marxist theory.

    -Andrew Hurley

  2. Point well taken. Perhaps I should have qualified my hypothesis. Modern art, as I turn it over in my head now, and as you describe it, appears to be an exception to the interpellation-as-control opinion I offered in my post.

    So while there are exceptions within modern art, I don’t think modern art as such is an exception. How much does it cost to get into MOMA? Sure, maybe most of the artists featured there did not want to be artists for the fame, but if I’m remembering biographies right, I believe Andy Warhol and Duchamp are examples of artists who who used the fact that people are prone to (over)interpret substrate, media, and white space in order to subvert interpretation to the point of becoming meaningless. And then collecting admission for it at the door.


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