Birdsell & Groarke, “Toward a Theory of Visual Argument”

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

Birdsell and Groarke confront the “verbal paradigm” that has obscured the visual modes of reasoning and persuasion. They break down some of the tenets of the verbal paradigm through a series of discussions.

First, they discuss the assumption that visual images “are in some intrinsic way arbitrary, vague and ambiguous” (1). While they concede that “Visual images can, of course, be vague and ambiguous,” they write, “this alone does not distinguish them from words and sentences, which can also be vague and ambiguous” (2). Words are likewise can be ambiguous; and more, visuals can also be straightforward and cogent.

Second, they address the importance of context: “’context’ can involve a wide range of cultural assumptions, situational cues, time-sensitive information and/or knowledge of a specific interlocutor” (5). He points to three kinds of contexts that are important for meaning in visual images:

  1. Immediate visual context: characterized by either sequences of images that inflect meaning upon a single frame or “elements of the ambient visual environment.” In other words: what are the other images juxtaposed with this image?
  2. Immediate verbal context: the additional mode of words also offers meaning. Here, B&G also allude to “conventionalized situation-specific meanings” or breaking down images by type or genre. Verbal cues can offer a narrative description that aids in ascribing a recognizable type.
  3. Visual culture: specifically geared toward the production of visual meaning, visual culture refers to “cultural conventions of vision in this sense include what it means to see, or to represent, seeing, as well as changes in the meaning of particular elements of verbal vocabulary” (7). B&G allude to technologies of circulation that influence how we see images: the format and type of images.

Third, B&G describe the relationship between resemblance and representation: visual images have the added concern of “resemblance” when creating meaning. But as they write, “resemblance does not always correlate to un-ambiguity or correlated meanings. For example, the seal of the president does not resemble the president, but represents him.

Concluding, they write, “Any account of visual argumentation must identify how we can:

  1. Identify the internal elements of visual image;
  2. Understand the contexts in which images are interpreted;
  3. Establish the consistency of an interpretation of the visual;
  4. Chart changes in visual perspectives over time” (9).

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