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Workshop 10: Precarity and Visual Praxis: Collectivity, Circulation, Legibility, and Form

Primarily Synchronous (June 1-4)

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Workshop Leaders:

Caitlin Bruce, University of Pittsburgh:
Leslie Hahner, Baylor University: 

Precarity identifies structural conditions of interrelationality and vulnerability that are differentially distributed and magnified within continuing, multiplying ontological crises. Conditions of crisis facilitate capitulation to dominant social arrangements and can thereby amplify precarity, tending toward entropy. But, these same conditions can also create spaces for possibility—imagining the world otherwise. Though precariousness is a shared condition of mortality, precarity indexes the ways that socio-economic systems render some more vulnerable than others. Who and what counts as a life depends on whether that form of existence is legible, recognizable as matter that matters. Making sense of the onslaught of precarious existence relies on being able to imagine or represent the diffuse dangers that undermine well-being. Such heuristic efforts rely on frameworks for legibility. 

Contemporary visual rhetorical practice—in its inventional capacity—is often key to the work of sense-making. Representational practices of all kinds (language, mapping, performance, etc.) attempt to make legible both extant dangers and the possibilities of mitigation. Theorists of the aesthetic have explored how sensemaking is what helps subjects imagine and understand relations between self, other, and world. The turn to the visual in rhetoric was, precisely, a product of the need to expand repertoires of legibility to account for the more-than-textual (or discursive) with an attention to the ways that sensorial and affective registers shape understanding, argument, and identity. Scholars in the field have amply explored how photojournalism is one means of making crises legible and how monuments and memorials help make retroactive and projective sense of collective loss and future possibilities. Others have attended to the way that photographs can serve as a platform for vicarious enjoyment for others’ suffering or as a means of cultivating sympathy or empathy. 

Despite these important forays into alternative schemas for legibility, there are ways in which the visual rhetorical canon might conflate precarity and precariousness. One locus for conflation is within dominant rubrics of citizenship. Citizenship has long been a god term, with deliberation or progress as valued outcomes for visual rhetoric. What assumptions and limitations inhere in the privileging of this schema? What commitments to liberalism, legibility, and forms of optimism have shaped the discipline to date, and what are some alternatives? How might modalities of precarity trouble this model and our relationality to precarity? How could visual rhetorical inquiry bear witness to ongoing and growing conditions of fragility? 

We wish to explore how concepts of creativity, collectivity, and form might offer alternative philosophical and practical frameworks for considering visual rhetorical praxis. These terms suggest a way to think beyond individualist schemas for invention. 

Creativity, collective expression, and legibility are routed through visual form. Visual form is a robust rhetorical resource for considering the ways rhetorical possibilities push against the limits of legibility. Form is the terrain of legibility and it is the modality of the visual that can potentially be exploited to interrogate rhetoric’s work in precarity. One of the ways visual rhetorical scholars may rethink form is in its circulation. Form relies on movement to both cement and potentially shape the terms of legibility. In other words, circulation is key to both the recognizability of form and the possibilities of invention. Visual expression may use the iterative possibilities of circulation to do something new, and/or to potentially navigate the constraints of precarity. 

An additional way visual form can be exploited is by moving away from narrow interpretations of a singular image to considering the impact of collectivity. If precarity is a collective, albeit differential, experience, theorizing collective expression is a necessary intervention. Collective enunciations of visual expression—patent in the travels of image sets or in the making of public images—beg new forms of inquiry. Visual rhetorical inquiry may then need to incorporate practices of reading that emphasize circulation, relationality, and contextuality. 

Readings in this seminar will explore visual rhetorics during crises, emphasizing the work of form to circulate and craft the terms of precarity and/or legibility. Scholars will also consider the possibilities of collective visual practice to mitigate ongoing conditions of fragility. Participants are asked to share their work-in-progress and to build new ideas together.

Caitlin Frances Bruce Caitlin Frances Bruce is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work is in the area of visual culture, rhetorical theory, transnational circulation, public art, affect studies, and theories of space and place. She is co-founder and executive director of Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project ( where she collaborates with artists and organizers to create public art and public conversations. Her first book is Painting Publics: Transnational Legal Graffiti Scenes as Spaces for Encounter (Temple University Press 2019, winner of the Jane Jacobs Book Award from the Urban Communication Foundation). A former Fulbright-García Robles Postdoctoral Fellow and RCT Early Career Awardee, she has published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech; Text & Performance Quarterly; Communication, Culture, and Critique; Critical/Cultural Communication Studies; Women's Studies in Communication; Geohumanities; Public Art Dialogue; Subjectivity; and Invisible Culture and is a contributing editor for Mediapolis. More information can be found at:

Leslie A. Hahner Leslie A. Hahner is a professor of communication at Baylor University. Her work explores how the visual shapes public culture. Hahner’s research primarily focuses on how visual texts shape the tastes and values of culture, often by engaging the work of rhetorical form, style, and argument. She authored To Become an American: Immigrants and Americanization Campaigns of the Early Twentieth Century (MSU, 2017) and co-authored Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-right (Peter Lang, 2019). Hahner is published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Rhetoric & Public Affairs, among other outlets.

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