Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Enthymeme as Postmodern Argument Form: Condensed, Mediated Argument Then and Now

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Enthymeme as Postmodern Argument Form: Condensed, Mediated Argument Then and Now

Article excerpt

When Stephen Toulmin wrote The Uses of Argument in 1958, the modern age was in full bloom and television was in its infancy. Today, however, most scholars argue that we now live in a postmodern age, thanks in great part to the emergence of television as the primary communication medium in developed nations. Argumentation scholars have responded to these developments in a number of ways. Goodnight, for instance, posits that our more complex contemporary world has spawned three spheres of argument: the personal, the technical, and the public. The erosion of public argument, he claims, is due to the privileging of the technical and personal that occurs in a world fragmented with specialties. Willard (Argumentation; Theory), meanwhile, suggests that argumentation scholars should explore the multiple interpretations of argument made possible by the existence of multiple frames of reference in a postmodern age.

These and other responses, however, do not explore directly how public officials argue through the media to postmodern audiences. Jamieson (Eloquence) examines how the rhetorical style of public officials has changed in an electronic age, but she does not delve into the changes in argumentative style wrought by the new age. Her thesis, though, that whether it be through brief campaign commercials, decreasingly brief "sound bites" on the evening news, or appearances on talk shows in which topics change every few minutes, public figures' pronouncements are transmitted to audiences through media and in condensed forms, equally applies to the arguments found in those pronouncements. Understanding how these arguments are structured is an important step toward revising a conception of public argument that has evolved much more slowly than has public discourse itself. Such an exploration, which I initiate here, must begin with an understanding of how audiences in postmodern societies process condensed, mediated arguments. Ironically, today's postmodern audiences process arguments in a manner eerily similar to the classical audiences of ancient Greece. The implications of this notion on public argument raise some troublesome issues, only a few of which I can attempt to answer here. To develop these issues in further detail, I first compare the processing of postmodern and classical audiences. Next, I illustrate these theoretical similarities with a brief analysis of the rhetoric of David Duke. Then, I conclude with a discussion of the implications of this theoretical outlook.

The Convergence of Postmodern and Classical Theories

The postmodern condition, claims Collins, features a plethora of signs and symbols that circulate within a culture. "One of the key preconditions of the postmodern condition is the proliferation of signs and their endless circulation, generated by the technological developments associated with the information explosion (cable television, VCRs, digital recording, computers, etcetera)" (Collins 331). McGee calls these floating symbols "fragments," and argues that contemporary audiences primarily process new combinations of these previously articulated fragments. "The apparently finished discourse is in fact a dense reconstruction of all the bits of other discourses from which it was made" (McGee, 279). Similarly, Collins calls this process the comprehension of the "already said" in new forms. "What is postmodern in all of this is the simultaneity of these competing forms of rearticulation - the 'already said' is being constantly recirculated, but from very different perspectives ranging from nostalgic reverence to vehement attack or a mixture of these strategies" (Collins 333).

Postmodernism appears on television in a variety of forms, from self-reflexive prime-time programming (S. Olson) to network news reporters dishing up stories about how politicians attempt to manipulate those stories. Television, as a less-than-linear medium, is an ideal vehicle for postmodern communication. …

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