University: University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Description of Work:
Marie’s current intellectual work is two-fold—she is working on finishing up a monograph on the rhetorics of medical advocacy organizations and has begun work at the intersections of technical medical communication, fat studies, and infographics. With regard to the importance of and renewed interest in data visualization (and by extension infographics), in this new work, Marie calls attention to a specific use of the infographic as a form of data visualization from health-related organizations of medical and statistical data regarding obesity. Through analysis of obesity infographics, she argues that infographics about medical data can (and do) feminize the “obese” body and claims the female body as an efficient instrument of normalization and cultural management.
To do so, Marie rhetorically analyzes obesity infographics to illustrate that the infographic genre’s goals—to simplify, clarify, and deliver complex information in a visually compelling manner—can exercise problematic commitments to expediency and illustrate problematic notions of exigence [Katz, 1992; Ward, 2010; Dragga & Voss 2001]. Such commitments encourage misreadings of medical data and, by extension, the infographics that convey data regarding body categorizations and notions of health.
By obfuscating how infographics potentially drive simplification of terms that reify the narrow frames with which we understand “obesity” and “obese” bodies, Marie argues that such visual representations of data can also serve a metonymic function for ever-narrowing cultural conceptualizations of obesity-as-detriment and obesity-as-bodily-fault. Further, she argues that such problematic use infographics can reduce the complexities of the body and definitions of the body, especially of the “obese” body and definitions of “obesity,” with the effect of potentially pathologizing, managing and normalizing information and bodies under the guise of promoting “health” and “healthy living.” Interfacing with medical data in this way, in other words, can be both understandable and yet highly problematic; this work illustrates how and why.
Designing to be Thin: Infographics, Fat Studies, and Technical Medical Writing
“Good technical writing is so clear that it is invisible. Yet technical writing is the mechanism that controls systems of management and discipline, thereby organizing the operations of modern institutions and the people within them” (ix).
Spurious Coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing
Abigail Saguy claims that conceptually, our cultural definitions of “obesity” as health-harming, grotesque, and damaging to society function as frames that shape the way we understand particular facets of any given bodily interaction, thereby persuading us to ignore, obfuscate, abject, or otherwise organize a multitude of other possible narratives and definitions. Such frames are supported, normalized, and perpetuated by various cultural artifacts, many of which are distributed by professional and organizational entities.
To further Saguy’s argument, I analyze a particular subset of such cultural artifacts—medical communication regarding “obesity” and “fighting obesity” in the form of infographics from various health-focused organizations (weight-loss industries, medical institutions, public publications on health)—with two goals in mind: first, to augment Saguy’s claim by widening such analyses to infographics in interrogation of how medical visual rhetoric employs normalizing narratives of “health” to supplement and forward hegemonic frames regarding “obesity;” and second, to illustrate that the seemingly altruistic infographic genre goals to simplify, clarify, and deliver complex information in a visually compelling manner often exercise problematic commitments to expediency and exigence (Katz, 1992; Ward, 2010), whereby infographics regarding body categorizations participate in a gross simplification of terms, amplifying the narrow frames with which we understand “obesity” and “obese” bodies.
Such simplification is further complicated in that such rhetorical intervention can help distill difficult body-driven information, thereby easing anxiety and confusion, while simultaneously forwarding a logic wherein narratives regarding “obesity” and “health” become further narrowed, structured, and thus strengthen and enrich dominant narratives of “obesity” via visual medical technical communication. In other words, I argue that such pictographic representations, specifically from seemingly altruistic locations, serve a metonymic function for ever-narrowing cultural conceptualizations of obesity-as-detriment and obesity-as-bodily-fault insofar that they often reduce the complexity, especially of the “obese” body and definitions of “obesity,” to visualizations of two or three sets of comparative data in an effort to manage and normalize information under the guise of promoting “health” and “healthy living.”
This piece works, then, at the intersections of visual rhetoric, technical writing, medical rhetoric, emotion theory, and fat studies to illustrate how these fields of inquiry can intersect to complicate and call attention to how infographics can and do support hegemonic narratives surrounding “obesity” and “obese” bodies.