Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Unnaturalistic Enthymeme: Figuration, Interpretation, and Critique after Digital Mediation

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Unnaturalistic Enthymeme: Figuration, Interpretation, and Critique after Digital Mediation

Article excerpt

In contemporary, internetworked visual culture, digital manipulation of images is ubiquitous in commercial advertising, television, cinema, and newer visual genres stimulated by the internet. A stream of public commentary thematizes this preponderance of digital manipulation: photojournalists are called out for taking too many liberties in editing images; blogs document "Photoshop disasters" in which limbs are chopped off; critics wonder if all this manipulation doesn't degrade our historical trust in the veracity of the image. Digital media technology dramatically impacts visual culture by simplifying, democratizing, and making more precise the post-processing editing of images and supporting sites for meta-communication about new imaging practices.

What, then, are the rhetorical and cultural implications of post-processing digital manipulation executed in programs like Photoshop or apps like Instagram? Specifically, how have the interpretive conventions associated with film photography evolved with the increasing ubiquity of digital imaging technologies? While the myth of photographic naturalism exerted considerable hermeneutic power throughout much of the 20lh century, such that viewers of film photographs often uncritically presumed their realism, we detect a shift toward another interpretive practice in the context of digital mediation. Adapting Cara A. Finnegan's (2001) theory of the "naturalistic enthymeme," we argue that contemporary interpreters of images often operate under the auspices of the "unnaturalistic enthymeme" in assuming that an image is, because of the figurative potential of digital manipulation, less tethered to realism. We then explore how the rise of the unnaturalistic enthymeme as an argument formation necessarily recalibrates strategies of resistance. If cultural critique in the era of photographic naturalism needed to emphasize the unreality of images (e.g., feminist critiques of unrealistic bodies on magazine covers), what kinds of critique are available when audiences already believe that what they are seeing is unreal? One available mode of critique, recently employed by street artists and culture jammers, involves appending Photoshop toolbars on commercial billboards. We interpret this intervention as reliant on a strategy of visibilizing the unnaturalistic enthymeme by artfully drawing attention to the grammar of digital manipulation. Finally, we conclude that the presence of the unnaturalistic enthymeme is evidence of-and further consolidates-a visual culture that cultivates subjects with hypersophistic attitudes who play with, produce, and critically interrogate the constructedness of images.

The Enthymematic Turn in Visual Argument

That images participate in meaning-making processes is incontrovertible; more controversial is the claim that images might function as a kind of visual argument, a form of persuasion usually conceived of as a series of linguistic propositions strung together to yield a conclusion. In his objection to the claim that pictures can argue, David Fleming (1996) perceives a fault line running through the concept of "visual argument" by crisply defining "picture" as "any representation meant to look like the thing it represents ... an artifact constructed to be iconic with the external world" (11) and "argument" as "an intentional human act in which support is offered on behalf of a debateable belief' (12). For Fleming, an argument must contain a claim and support, a two-step relation between evidence and interpretation supportive of some broader claim. Pictures lack the sequential and syntactical structure required to be an argument.

Moreover, an argument must, according to Fleming, be two-sided, able to be "refuted, opposed, or negated" (13). Representational images cannot negate, for the negative is a peculiar function of language alone: "Because if the picture is perceived to be closer to the material world than language, then it may be less negatable as a communicative entity. …

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