SLWR Book Cover

Still Life With Rhetoric:
A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics

By: Laurie Gries

Review By: Angelia Giannone

Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-874219777, 336 pages.

"Part II: Practice"

Part II is again broken up into two chapters: "New Materialist Research Strategies" and "Iconographic Tracking." "New Materialist Research Strategies" begins with another overview of definitions, including what Laurie Gries calls the “six principles indicative of the thought style particular to the new materialist rhetorical approach” (p. 86). These principles—becoming, transformation, consequentiality, vitality, agency, and virality—are the primary ideals that Gries uses during the case study to discuss images (pp. 86–89). Gries only dedicates one paragraph to each priniciple in this section, but the reader may be able to make the connection between these principles and the bulk of Gries's discussion on them in Part I. The principles, explained on pages 86–87, are defined below:

  • Becoming: The Principle of Becoming is the recognition that things exist, and thus they are constantly evolving relative to time and space.
  • Transformation: Related to Becoming, the Principle of Transformation makes clear that materials are rhetorical when undergoing ontological transformation.
  • Consequentiality: The Principle of Consequentiality accounts for the idea that consequences are meaningful and are part of what transforms materials.
  • Vitality: The Principle of Vitality defines materials as living things.
  • Agency: Building from Vitality, the Principle of Agency argues that materials have lives and are actants that can both affect and enact change or be changed.
  • Virality: Lastly, the Principle of Virality is an extension of the Principle of Agency in that the fast spreading of a thing "is a consequence of a thing's design, production, distribution, circulation, transformation, collectivity, and consequentiality" (p. 87).

Here, Gries defines the general parameters involved in new materialist methods: "A new materialist rhetorical approach simply privileges following, tracing, embracing uncertainty, and describing in order to construct the empirical evidence needed to learn how single multiple things become rhetorical as they resemble collective life" (p. 88), and she continues this chapter with sections explaining each of these actions. However, it isn’t until the second chapter of Part II, "Iconographic Tracking," that Gries truly lays out the essence of the materialist approach, which is iconographic tracking. Instead, Gries first creates a mental framework from which scholars should conduct research, meaning, for instance, “embracing uncertainty” when dealing with the direction of your research (p. 96).

Gries’s chapter "Iconographic Tracking" details the physical steps scholars may take to research, document, and investigate an image and, most importantly, how that image can be tracked when it may evolve in a digital (such as Internet memes) or analog environment (such as street art). These actions take the form of data mining, tagging images, generating key terms, and so forth. Additionally, and quite helpfully, Gries at times offers digital tools and platforms to use during iconographic tracking, such as Zotero (pp. 111–112). While it can be easy to become distracted in the labor that goes into research, Gries makes a convincing argument that organized data collection can help illuminate and direct research questions when tracing the circulation and evolution of images.

The actual, physical steps involved in iconographic tracking aren't original, per se, but in Still Life With Rhetoric, Gries makes a compelling argument that first defines how we should think about viral images in Part I, and then outlines all of the careful work and tedium that is required for researchers to track, as best they can, the lives of images. As Gries emphasizes, this distinction is useful because researchers simply can't use the same methods that were useful for analyzing analog/print forms as ones necessary for analyzing digital forms. I think that Gries makes this argument quite well in this section along with later case study sections because the Internet allows "metaculture spread" and images rapidly transform with it (p. 130). The speedy evolution of digital images on the Internet is exemplified later in the case studies, where Gries details her own process of tracking the Obama Hope image, and we can trace the very complex life of that one image.