Visual Rhetoric/Narrative and Conceptual Representations
In their text Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen propose that all images can be divided into two classifications, narrative and conceptual. These classifications separate images into two categories: those images that have a component of action and those that possess a static, timeless essence. The following chapter defines narrative and conceptual representations within the discussion of Visual Rhetoric and provides examples of each.
The first type of classification is the narrative representation. While conceptual representations "represent participants in terms of their. . . stable or timeless essence," narrative representations "present unfolding actions and events, processes of change, and transitory spacial arrangements" (59). That is, while conceptual representations show stable concepts, narrative representations show participants that are connected to one another through lines called vectors. In order for an image to be classified as a narrative representation, then, the participants in the image must be connected with a vector. According to Kress and Leeuwen, “When participants are connected by a vector, they are represented as doing something to or for each other. From here on we will call such vectorial patterns narrative”(56). Vectors represent courses or directions, and because the participants are connected by these invisible lines, the viewer understands the participants to be interacting with one another. This idea of Rhetorical Vectors relationships is the most important concept in separating narrative from conceptual representations. While narrative representations always have a vector between participants, conceptual representations never have these vectors. Despite the name, narrative representations are not always “telling” a story. Rather, the important idea is that the objects in the image are acting on and interacting with one another.
When an object in the image is viewed as being the active participant in the image, it is called the actor. In order to be an actor, the object must be either creating or interacting with a vector to convey a sense of action. The participant that the actor is interacting with, usually passive in the action process, is known as the Goal. The Goal is that object that the actor's vectors connect with to form some sort of action or interaction. While all narrative representations show some form of action, there are different types of narrative processes to consider.
As previously stated, the "hallmark of a narrative visual 'proposition' is the presence of a vector" (59). According to Kress and Leeuwen, vectors are "formed by depicted elements that form an oblique line, often a quite strong, diagonal line" (59). These vectors may be formed from a number of objects, from bodies to limbs to tools. There are usually two participants in a narrative representation. The "Actor" is "the participant from whom or which the vector departs" (59). That is, the "actor" is the object in the image that produces the action on the other object in the image. The passive participant in the action process is called the "goal." The "goal" is "the participant at which the vector is directed" (74). Kress and Leeuwen distinguish different narrative processes by the types of vectors and the number and kinds of participants involved.
- Action Processes are those in which "the Actor is the participant from which the vector emanates...or forms the vector" (63). That is, in order to be considered an Action Process, the Actor must either have a vector coming out of it or actually form the vector. According to Kress and Leeuwen, when an image has only one participant, that participant can be considered the Actor. This is called a non-transactional image--there is no Goal in these images and vectors are not "done to or aimed at anyone or anything" (63). If there is only a vector and a Goal shown in the image than Kress and Leeuwen call the action an Event. Lastly, when there are both an Actor and a Goal that is connected by a vector which stems from the Actor, then this process is called Transactional.
- Reactional Processes are those in which an eyeline, such as a glance, by one or more of the participants, forms a vector that connects those participants. This process differs from the Action Process in that the vectors are formed solely by the gaze of one of the objects in the image. In this case, only, the participant who does the looking is called a Reactor instead of an Actor, and the passive participant is called the Phenomena, not the Goal (67). The Reactor is the participant who forms the vector with his eyes; he does the looking. Reactional Processes can be transactional and nontransactional as well (68).
A Celestial Example
The following examples showcase the difference between narrative and conceptual representations. The image found on the left is a photograph taken of the silhouettes of men and women gazing up into the night sky. Between these men and women is a telescope, also pointed towards the very heavens to which the people look. Vectors are formed out of the upward gazes of the men and women. Another vector is formed by the telescope itself, which points diagonally towards the sky. Because of the vectors, the picture on the left exhibits a narrative representation.
The picture on the right also shows a telescope. However, while the telescope on the left is in use, shown by its placement in the image and the vectors that it forms, the image of the telescope on the right is more of a timeless concept. The element in the image is shown "symmetrically, against a neutral background" (45). In short, the picture of the telescope on the right can be accurately considered a conceptual representation because there is no interaction between elements in the picture. Because of the lack of vectors to visually create action, this picture can only show the timeless concept of an astrological tool. Similarly, there is no actor present in this picture.
On the left, the counter-image is a picture of a night scene in which a group of men and women gather around a telescope while they gaze upwards towards the night sky. Unlike the conceptual representation on the right, this left-hand picture portrays an action that happens between the group of star-gazers, the telescope, and the night sky. Both pictures show the same kind of technology, but the picture on the right is vastly different than the picture on the left. Unlike the picture on the right that represents static technology, the picture on the left represents "technology in action" (46). The participants in the picture on the left (group of star-gazers, the telescope, and the night sky) are represented as active and interacting because of the vectors that connect them with other elements in the image. According to Kress and Leeuwen, while the right picture is "static, this picture [on the left] is dynamic. Where the [right] picture is dry and conceptual, the [left] picture is dramatic" (46).
The second type of representation brought up by Kress and Leeuwen is the conceptual representation. These differ from narrative representations in many ways. Not only do conceptual representations lack vectors that are a vital element of narrative representations, these images also have a component of timelessness and represent their participants in their generalized essence. They represent a static concept rather than engaging their participants in some kind of action. Conceptual representations have three distinct subcategories to further define the way visuals define their participants: Classificatory, Analytical and Symbolical. Each of these three types carries distinct assumptions about the way they represent the world.
Classificational processes often relate their participants together through a taxonomy. Taxonomies represent the world in terms of a hierarchical order. Its main concern is the ranking of ideas in terms of an overall generalization, whether it is their unifying origin or a higher power. They are grouped by a “kind of” relation (81). Classification processes attempt to present the participants in a way that is often without context and as objective as possible. This type of representation is striving for that timelessness mentioned above and often appears in advertising and textbooks. The three types of taxonomies that are found in conceptual representations are as follows:
- Covert Taxonomies portray a symmetrical equivalence between all of the elements in an image. Images are shown in an objective, decontextualized way to emphasize their timeless nature.
- Single-Levelled Overt Taxonomies introduce the importance of "superordinates" and "subordinates" an an image. The superordinate and subordinate participants in an image show a higher degree of ordering than is present in a covert taxonomy, where all of the particpants are seen as equivalent. In single-levelled overt taxonomies, the participants are shown in a tree structure to indicate the hierarchal relationships.
- Multi-Levelled Overt Taxonomies are similar to the previous, except that a participant, "Superordinate," is connected to other participants through a tree structure with more than two levels. Participants in middle levels are called "Interordinates," and those at the bottom level are "Subordinates."
Moving away from the simple objectivity of the classificatory process, the analytical process sets up a part-whole relationship between its participants to strive to make them fit together. The parts are called attributes, and these attributes are part of the whole, which is termed the Carrier (89). Kress and van Leeuwen provide the examples of fashion shots, which display the parts of an "outfit," and label both the Carrier ("easy-wearing, inexpensive cottons") and the Possessive Attributes (Laura Ashley trenchcoat, Stuart Membery sweater.)
Another example: maps. In a map of the United States of America, the Carrier is the entire country, and the possessive attributes are the individual states, and both are labeled either inside the image or in a legend or caption. In the case of the fashion shot and the map, neither has a vector or carries a narrative process.
Symbolical processes move beyond classificational and analytical processes in that they do not try to find relationships between concrete objective images, but they seek to establish what the images mean. Symbolic processes take two forms, symbolic attributive and symbolic suggestive(108).
- Symbolic Attributive images are composed of two parts, the carrier and the symbolic attribute. The carrier in these instances is that which has its meaning given by the symbolic attribute and the relationship between them.
- Symbolic Suggestive usually only have one participant, the Carrier, whose meaning is established in some other manner. These other ways of conveying meaning often establish the difference between an analytic process and a symbolic one. One example is that the colors in a symbolic suggestive image may be muted, blended or otherwise emphasized to create mood. That is to say, these images do not represent a specific moment in time, they are more concerned with create a timeless feeling, an essence of meaning.
This chapter on narrative and conceptual representations merely scratches the surface of the work Kress and Leeuwen have done on this topic. For further information, interested readers should consult their work, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. The idea behind this analysis is drawn from the way humans perceive, discuss, and study language (written or verbal), signs, and symbols (See: Semiotics and Visual Rhetoric.) Those ideas about language are then transferred and applied to the study of visuals, hence the name "Grammar of Visual Design." Kress and van Leeuwen maintain that although their study of language is the backbone for finding meaning in images, the two mediums (language and images) are distinct from one another. While they find similarities between the two and attempt to create a "grammar" for images, they do not hold the idea that the two are one and the same, as other scholars may believe. The comparison of language and images creates a framework of discourse that allows scholars working from all perspectives to come together and find a common ground in the field of visual rhetoric.
Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. New York : Routledge , 2006.