Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Can Pictures Be Arguments?

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Can Pictures Be Arguments?

Article excerpt

My purpose in the following paper is to consider whether the term "argument" should be extended to include pictures.(1) Clearly, a drawing or photograph independent of words can influence the thought and action of others; but can it, I wonder, argue? And if we say that it can, do we risk losing something important in our conventional understanding of argument? Below, I elaborate more fully what I mean by "conventional understanding of argument"; as for "picture," I define it here as any representation meant to look like the thing it represents. Thus, a sketch, drawing, painting, photograph, or three-dimensional model would be a "picture" if it were constructed to resemble imagined or actual objects in the visible world. Now, the concept of likeness has been much criticized of late; as Mitchell (1986) and others have pointed out, the picture is often (if not always) every bit as opaque and cultured as language. But without some notion of visible likeness, it is difficult to see how one would make sense of the everyday, and presumably useful, distinction between "showing" and "telling." I define "picture," then, as an artifact constructed to be iconic with the external world; and my question is, can such a thing, independent of language, be an "argument"?

Many scholars are now convinced that the application of the word "argument" needs to be broadened. Willard (1989, p. 109), for example, has rejected the traditional association of the term with propositional discourse. Argument is interaction around incompatibility, he has written, and any attempt to distinguish it from other forms of persuasive communication is driven by "a bureaucratic rationale." Similarly, for Hesse (1992), all discourse is argumentative because all discourse is productive of belief. Narrative persuades because its "emplotment" of events over time engenders belief in acceptable sequences of action. It involves, that is, some propositions causing other propositions. At the same time, Hesse writes, what we have traditionally referred to as "argument" is itself a kind of narrative, a believable sequence of propositions plotted over time in such forms as the enthymeme.

Fisher and Filloy (1982) agree. Although argument has typically been conceived in terms of inferential structures (claims and reasons), people also "arrive at conclusions based on 'dwelling-in' dramatic and literary works" (p. 343). The mode of arguing in such works is "suggestion": an immediate, emotional response becomes a reasoned belief through critical interpretation (p. 347). "Aesthetic" proofs, then, are those structures of suggestion which are invented by an author, experienced by an auditor, and used by a critic to substantiate a reasoned interpretation (p. 347). On this line of thought, it is hard not to see argument "everywhere," as Brockriede (1975, p. 179) had proposed. Couldn't a picture, by virtue of suggestion, engender belief in an argumentative sort of way? Yes, say Medhurst and DeSousa (1981), for whom political cartoons are a kind of enthymeme, relying on socially-sanctioned presuppositions to produce reasoned belief and action in others. Cartoons, that is, argue for political positions by adducing acceptable (albeit unspoken) reasons to hold those positions. Similarly, for Buchanan (1989, pp. 97, 107), arguments can inhere in things as well as words. When material objects solve problems in a reasonable manner, they are persuasive in the same way that verbal arguments are. Deliberation and use reveal the premises of such objects and arrange them into inferential structures. According to Buchanan, the Krups coffee mill, for example, is an "argument" for use and aesthetics over technology.

Paintings are also susceptible to this kind of analysis. For Varga (1989), a 13th century painting of St. Francis of Assisi is a kind of argument; the portrait in the center is claim, and the narrative episodes flanking it are evidence for that claim: he who lived thus, who did these things, should be revered. …

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