Defining Visual Rhetorics: Rhet of Visual Arguments

steampunk_archive_icon_by_yereverluvinuncleber-d5jsav0Blair, J. Anthony. “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Eds. Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 889-1322 of 6169. Ebook.

Begins by discussing rhetoric and argument, primarily Aristotle and the enthymeme.

Sonja Foss, Karen Foss, and Robert Trapp argue for a wider conception that sees rhetoric “as the uniquely human ability to use symbols to communicate with one another” (909 of 6169).

Talks about the history of rhetoric being speech (and thus in communication). Then discusses what it means to be persuasive. Blair says that though a robber’s gun may cause you to give up your money, it is not an argument. “Arguments supply us with reasons for accepting a point of view” (949 of 6169).

I wrote in my notes that he is focusing on the rational here. What other word would work for reasons? Elements? Facets? ideas?

Words are “situated in the conventions of their usage communities” (976 of 6169).

“[A]rguments in the traditional sense can be visual as well as verbal” (989 of 6169).

Blair says there are two main rationales for not accepting the idea of visual arguments.

One is that the visual is inescapably ambiguous or vague. The other is related to the fact that arguments must have propositional content, and the apparent fact that visual communications do not. (994 of 6169)

Says visual arguments can have the same fallacies as verbal arguments: vagueness and equivocation (1002 of 6169).

“We do not expect a speaker or writer to be more precise than is needed for the purposes of his or her communication in any context” (1007 of 6169). In some instances lack of precision is valued–as in diplomacy. If this is true for verbal argument, it should be held as true for visual as well (1017 of 6169).

“[I]t is possible to express propositions visually” (1035 of 6169).

To prove this, Blair says only one example is needed. He uses a political cartoon from before WWII. While this is both verbal and visual, the visual element is the compelling argument. (1037ff)

Used with permission from
Used with permission from

“[E]ven if it is true that (some) visual images do not express propositions, it does not follow that they cannot figure in arguments” (1060).

Having disposed of the two objections to visual arguments, Blair says he will “consider the rhetorical properties of visual arguments” (1063 of 6169).

“[M]ost communications that are candidates for visual arguments are combinations of the verbal and the visual” (1065 of 6169).

Discusses “The Daisy Ad” that Johnson used to counter Goldwater’s candidacy for the presidency.

“evocative power” (1104 of 6169)

Ads on television use “between one and four dozen different moving visual images in a 30-second spot. We have no trouble processing” so many visuals, but cannot do the same as quickly with verbal arguments (1104 of 6169).

“Visual images can thus be used to convey a narrative in a short time” (1106 of 6169).

“[M]y students are under the impression that the visual [of television news] gives them direct access to what is visually portrayed in a way that print does not” (1118 of 6169). They think that this makes it more real than print journalism, as they don’t understand that film and photography are both also rhetorical choices (1116 of 6169).

Ralph H. Johnson… calls for “truth in arguing” (1126 of 6169).

“visual arguments supply simple, minimalist support” (1131 of 6169)

“To be effective, the visual properties of a visual argument must resonate with the audience on the occasion and in the circumstances. The visual symbolism must register immediately, whether consciously or not” (1134 of 6169).

Photo by Richard Croft, WC CC2.
Photo by Richard Croft, WC CC2.
Church sculptures are “didactic visual arguments chiseled in the granite” (1143 of 6169).
These images of the damned and the beatified “are fixed in stone no less effectively than had they been fixed in print” (1153 of 6169). Blair identifies this as a “moral argument” (1153 of 6169).
As an Old English scholar, I am particularly interested in the discussions of ancient visual rhetoric.

“It is one thing to hear… it is quite another, far more vivid and immediate, to see” the consequences for accepting and not accepting Christ (1156 of 6169). Visual arguments communicate “with much more force and immediacy than verbal communication” can (1156 of 6169).

The Pepsi advertisement with twin boys and puppies “evoked a powerful involuntary response” (1178 of 6169).
It was an appeal to the emotions, which he compares with ethical appeals–such as when actors pretend to be doctors for ads (1185 of 6169).

Genres of Visual Argument
Okay. I just liked that heading. I love genres.

“[V]isual media offer rich means for generating forcefulness for arguments expressed visually” (1202 of 6169).
“[V]isual cultural icons generate powerful resonances” (1207 of 6169).

Perlmutter 10 characteristics of “photographs of outrage that can give them iconic status” (1212 of 6169).

“Television commercials thus invade our private space and time and reach us when we tend not to be alert and vigilant” (1229 of 6169).

For “the most effective ads… the actual influence is accomplished behind this facade of rationality” (1236 of 6169).

“[V]isual influence through association and the power of visual symbols is not restricted to advertising” (1256 of 6169).

“[B]ackdrops are visual rhetorical devises that render the message conveyed more believable or persuasive” (1261 of 6169).

“[S]ymbols do their work precisely by making contact with our unconsciously held, symbol-interpreting apparatus…” (1263 of 6169).

Brands rely on the psychological appeal they invoke with their images (1268 of 6169).

The spoken word can be far more dramatic and compelling than the written word, but the visual brings to arguments another dimension entirely. It adds drama and force of a much greater order. Beyond that it can use such devices as references to cultural icons and other kinds of symbolism, dramatization and narrative to make a powerfully compelling case for its conclusion. (1283 of 6169)

“Where visual argument excels is in the rhetorical dimension” (1288 of 6169).

Relevant readings:
David S. Birdsell and Leo Groarke. “Toward a Theory of Visual Argument.” Argumentation and Advocacy 33 (1996): 1-10.

Anthony J. Blair. “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Argument.” Argumentation and Advocacy 33 (1996): 23-39.

David Fleming. “Can Pictures Be Arguments?” Argumentation and Advocacy 33 (1996): 11-22.

Update: After I posted this, I was reading on Twitter and saw a link that seemed related. The post is “Why Storytelling Matters: a Data-Driven Experience.”


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