noun: vignette; plural noun: vignettes
a brief evocative description, account, or episode.
I remember the first time I encountered a vignette.
I was a child; it was a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. I was mesmerized. I read the catalog back-to-front. I could see myself wearing the Ventilated Fedora. I pondered the Eight Foot Tall Inflatable Rubber Duckie while I lay in bed at night. And, although I did not have $699.95 to spare, and had never even purchased myself a bottle of shampoo, I knew—deep down—that I needed the Hands Free Hair Rejuvenator.
The advertisement didn’t ultimately sell me anything, but I was sold on vignettes.
On an essay for a certain literature course, my professor wrote, among other things, “The essay has a sort of rapid-fire feel, which is both compelling and slightly disorienting[.]” I wasn’t especially surprised by this response—it was how I’d chosen to craft the essay. I wanted the reader to be compelled and surprised by my conclusions in an emotionally arresting manner. Perhaps this came across as mild disorientation. But, regardless, it was this disorientation that bumped me down to the type of grade that’s split down the middle by an ugly yet rhetorically impactful “ / ”.
verb: vignette; 3rd person present: vignettes; past tense: vignetted; past participle: vignetted; gerund or present participle: vignetting
- portray (someone) in the style of a vignette.
- produce (a photograph) in the style of a vignette by softening or shading away the edges of the subject.
In tenth grade, I decided to take the AP U.S. History exam. I diligently pored over my weather-beaten, water-stained 13th edition of The American Pageant (it had been dropped in a bath by a classmate’s older brother five years prior). I made Quizlet flashcards for names and dates, drew up timelines of important events, and attended a night class at a local high school to learn all of the AP-related material that my non-traditional school didn’t teach.
Most importantly, I practiced the art of the DBQ.
For the fortunate individuals unfamiliar with the term “DBQ,” a document-based question is an essay prompt requiring the writer to employ a certain number of given documents as sources, through either direct quotation or mere reference. Sometimes, there are more connections between these documents than other times, but it doesn’t matter. You still have to come up with an argument, however tenuous, and string the sources together in a “meaningful” manner. If you string them together and don’t elaborate on why exactly these documents go together, you won’t be awarded the ever-elusive “Reasoning” point.
By the time exam day came around, I had begun to enjoy the challenge of the DBQ. I was actually sort of (but not actually) wishing they were more challenging—that the links drawn between my sources were forced to be more ridiculous. I wanted to prove to the reader that I could weave together any stray bits of fabric into a vivid, beautiful—if Daedalian—quilt of rhetorical show-offery. The practice exams were always just a bit too logical for my liking. I began to wonder: does the AP board want our rhetorical skills to stretch only so far, but no further?
In the first lecture for CHV247, Rhetoric, A User’s Guide (From Ancient Greece to the American Present), Professor Greenwood drew a colorful rhetorical picture of Gorgias the orator: “He would stand before the crowd—any crowd—from the bema—any bema—and with his scarlet cloak whipping around him, he would shout, ‘Throw me a theme! Any theme!’ and then he would proceed to speak on this theme, extemporaneously, eloquently, and with passion.”
We sat stunned into silence (or perhaps decorum) by this anecdote, but Professor Greenwood soon revealed that it was likely apocryphal, and, moreover, Gorgias was probably not as extemporaneous as he seemed. Instead, he would come up with his points in advance, thoughtfully and thoroughly, and then he would take whatever “theme” was thrown at him and work it around his prepared points to construct an impressive speech.
This anecdote both terrified and thrilled me. Gorgias seemed the original, master vignettist—he could take anything evocative and meaningful to his audience and mold it into something that proved a point he’d been wanting to make all along.
But wait a minute: isn’t Gorgias credited with being the first rhetor, or orator? Does this anecdote imply the master vignettist to be equivalent to the master orator? Is rhetoric the method by which one conceals the fact that the bones of one’s text are “mere” vignettes?
noun: meaning; plural noun: meanings
what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action.
Sometime in the spring of eleventh grade, I received an email from an administrator at my high school asking if I was planning on registering for the English Literature AP exam or the English Language AP exam. Not knowing there was a distinction, I had just written “English” on the sticky note that served as my exam registration form during our last high school assembly. I asked my English teacher which exam I should take. He told me the Lit exam was more highly regarded. I then asked an older classmate which I should take. He said that I shouldn’t take Lang, because it was just like APUSH. Like APUSH how?
More stupid DBQs, he said.
I emailed back my administrator that I meant to write both.
Soon after, I completed practice exams for the two Englishes and requested that my English teacher grade the essays for me. He did so very quickly, within the timeframe of our mandatory mid-morning ten-minute “snack break.” When he got to the point in the rubric about “Reasoning,” I asked him, “What’s defined as ‘Reasoning’?”
Without looking up, he said, “Oh, that’s just because the AP graders have very little time. They have to read dozens and dozens of essays. They don’t have time to come up with the meaning themselves.”
“The meaning or the reasoning?”
“They’re the same thing.”
intended to communicate something that is not directly expressed.
Sources: Oxford Languages
In our second CHV247 lecture, Professor Greenwood elaborated on Gorgias.
“Remember the Gorgias story? The scarlet cloak. ‘Throw me a theme!’”
Of course I remembered.
She went on to describe some possible, but also possibly fictional, oratorial predecessors of Gorgias. Why would anyone make up fictional oratorical predecessors? What was wrong with Gorgias being the first? She answered her own rhetorical questions:
“Well—his whole ‘throw me a theme’ thing, it was very divisive. People didn’t like it. He didn’t make many friends that way—‘throw me a theme!’ It came across as arrogant.”
I understood. Gorgias was no master vignettist after all—he gave the meaning away too readily to his audience. He came to his bema armed with an agenda. Nevertheless, though, he clearly elicited an emotional response in his audience, divisive or otherwise.
The requirement for “meaning” or “reasoning” may, in the context of an academic essay, seem logical. And perhaps it is, because it gives the reader proof that the author did have a meaning in mind and wasn’t just throwing together a series of unrelated vignettes, like a splatter-paint or magazine collage. But then again, in some of the greatest art museums of the world, created by some of the most renowned artists, are splatter-paints and magazine collages. Occasionally these works are accompanied by elucidatory (if not convincingly so) titles—consider “Winter,” “Adam and Eve,” or “Urination in a Truck-Stop Latrine.” But sometimes viewers are not so lucky, and are presented with titles such as “Number 174” or the enigmatic, ever-applicable “Untitled.” Or is titular vagueness a stroke of luck for the viewer? After all, “Untitled” can mean anything the viewer would like it to mean. Maybe the viewer doesn’t need another “Adam and Eve” today, the viewer needs a “Cain and Abel.” Or maybe the viewer doesn’t need” any meaning at all.
Okay, I lied.
When I saw that Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, vignettes! was not the first thing that sprang to mind. Nor was I mesmerized (sometimes with respect, sometimes with disappointment) by vignettes, as I am now, having been indoctrinated into the community of vignettes whose work appears (perhaps too) frequently in the pages of the Nassau Weekly.
In fact, I didn’t even want to buy anything from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. I was old enough to have started adding to my own savings account, and I shivered to consider how many babies I’d need to sit, how many neighborhood dogs to walk, and how many times my elderly neighbor would need to go on vacation and forget to halt his mail delivery before I could afford the Eight Foot Tall Inflatable Rubber Duckie which Hammacher Schlemmer so badly seemed to want to sell me.
In reality, my first reaction and only reaction to the catalog was laughter. I remember lolling on the couch with my brother while we mocked the ad-vignettes’ periphrastically purple prose.
Consider: what if the beauty of vignettes’ rhetoric is that “meaning” is not a required piece of criteria for full credit? For the vignettes’ audience, meaning still usually arrives—it’s just that the meaning is more likely to be self-discovered, or at least to appear to have been self-discovered. Because of this, the audience is almost always going to be more convinced of the validity of whatever meaning(s) they uncover. None of us like to be told what to do, and Hammacher Schlemmer’s telling me to buy outrageously expensive and useless products was insultingly hilarious. But by provoking a strong emotional reaction in me, they achieved what I now presume to be their ulterior motive.
It is only now that I have come to understand that advertisers generally do not care whether you laugh, cry, mock, or jump for joy when you encounter their rhetoric. That you buy the product(s) is only their ostensible goal; their overarching aim is to enjoy product placement real estate in as many locales as possible, including your brain. And I have to hand it to Hammacher Schlemmer: they’ve found steady real estate in my brain, and we’ve got fixed rent around here.
Ambiguity of meaning can be useful, especially for professors who enjoy giving hybrid grades. Ambiguity is also useful for writers like myself because it helps us avoid having to come up with meaning ourselves. Oh, you couldn’t tell whether so-and-so actually died at the end? That was purposefully ambiguous. Oh, you don’t know what the hell the argument of my essay is? Yep, on purpose. I’m trying to be thought-provoking. I’m trying to make you think for yourself.
I.e., writers can be lazy too. Vignettes are an incredibly useful tool in the pursuit of finding an excuse for listing out numerous unrelated and possibly controversial opinions. For Gorgias, or at least the apocryphal version, his audience’s favorite “themes” were mere means to the ends of displaying his rhetorical skill and giving stage to preconceived strong opinions. For myself and many other writers, the vignette permits me to share my strong opinions, or show off my writing, and in bite-sized chunks that do not require me to actually organize my thoughts. Perhaps I run into trouble when I bring the same rhetorical tendencies to my Dean’s Date papers, but that’s not the vignette’s fault, that’s the fault of the APUSH exam forcing me to come up with increasingly tenuous “Reasoning(s)” to the point that I no longer want to come up “Reasoning” when I write anything at all—reverse psychology, like Hammacher Schlemmer ads staying memorable for how “bad” they are.
This is the point in the essay when I write my conclusion, but in truth, this exploration of the rhetorical purpose, function, and effect of the vignette has only left me more perplexed as to why they are so enticing and infuriating at the same time. After all, if I am aware of the reverse psychology and authorial laziness vignettes permit, then doesn’t that ruin the effect? Evidently, there is more to the story, but I am not brave enough to probe the form’s secrets further here, exposed as I am in this silly little essay.
(I will just have to turn it over to you, the reader, while I go off to ponder all this in private.)