Reading Notes for “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments” by Blair

Reading Notes:  Blair                                                                                                Ed Lessor

Key Terms and Concepts
We begin by discussing Blair’s basic definition for an argument—it must have a linguistically explicable claim, and at least one linguistically explicable reason. He then implies that an argument should also include an attempt to communicate the claim, a person that uses the claim and the reasons, some intended recipient for the claim and reasons, and the intention of the “user” to bring the recipient to accept the claim on the basis of the reasons.

The concept of the “user” is interesting here, as it reminds us that the “writer” is not as directly available to the analysis as would be the case in alphabetic arguments—particularly in the case of collaborative visual pieces. Blair discusses the use of visual conventions and symbolic language to a certain extent, but not in enough depth to be really useful in attempting an actual analysis of a visual argument.

As he begins to delineate the various forms that visual argument could take, we focus on a couple of features of his discussion. First, that most dramatic paintings and sculptures do not make actual visual arguments, although some could be interpreted to do so. I find it useful here that he distinguishes between a painting that expresses a concept or makes a statement from one that actually posits a conclusion based on reasons. It is also interesting to note here that determining the argument made by such a painting requires a good deal of critical insight into the period of both the artist and the subject that is depicted.

In the section in which he discusses advertising, I like to highlight the dual nature of the visual argument as posited by Blair. He sees an ad such as the one by Benneton, that he discusses at length, making an explicit argument—in this case about racism, and an implicit argument that relates to the association of the viewer with the lifestyle projected by the ad (buy our clothes since you are also not a racist!). Blair finds this secondary argument to be an anti-argument. He feels that it only functions if it is not perceived by the viewer at all, but happens at an unconscious level. This is a great place to discuss ads with the class—most of my students find that Blair is a bit naïve here. Many ads function as arguments at both levels—the modern consumer is not only aware of the secondary message, but expects it and is able to offer their own critique of how effective the argument is for them.

I spend a little time discussing Blair’s take on the political as well. Political ads can be arguments, but often also tend to be one sided, and often offer statements rather than arguments with both claim and reasons. We then discuss Blair’s overall conclusion that visual arguments are fairly rare—the perception of the class is that as we become more media saturated and tech centered that the role of the visual argument is on the rise. I usually end the discussion with a reminder that Blair finds the affordance of visual arguments to be the incredible evocative power of the visual image. He then goes on to point out that this is also a primary weakness of the visual argument—evocative responses may not always be appropriate in some situations. He goes on to say that visual arguments tend to be one dimensional and that they can be concrete and precise, but also vague or ambiguous—these can be either strengths or weaknesses depending on the context.

Student Reception
Students find this to be a difficult essay to read. They tend to complain about it before our class discussion, but then appreciate having a clear set of points that they need to be in control of with the essay. Some instructors find it useful to begin working with visual arguments in a more pragmatic way before assigning the Blair reading. I use “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments” as an introduction to visual argument. Most of my CO 300 students tend to be in an “Everything’s an Argument” mode when they come into the course, so I like that Blair is actually taking a fairly skeptical approach to the idea of “visual argument.” Most of this is familiar to the class from our discussion of the rhetorical situation, and it is simply a matter of being able to apply these to a visual argument rather than to a verbal or “alphabetic” text.

Unit Goals
We discuss Blair as a fairly primal attempt at thinking about visual argument, but then quickly add in additional concepts that would allow for an analysis of argument. I ask students to identify the claim, the reasons, the rhetorical context (who, to whom, when, where, why) for a given visual argument. We then add in discussion of arrangement, color, text, repetition, visual symbolism, visual analogy, visual accumulation, and other features of the argument that would tend to add meaning to the overall argument. I find that many of my students do not enjoy reading the Blair when it is assigned, but are able to go back to it in a meaningful manner after we have broken it down in class.

Course Goals
The Blair essay fits in quite well with a number of the general course goals for CO 300:

Extend knowledge of rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Read and discuss theoretical texts from rhetoric, discourse studies, communication, and related disciplines
  • Analyze texts reflecting disciplinary/professional/specialized discourse
  • Compose effective arguments in different genres (such as academic and public media) and different modes (such as alphabetic, auditory, and visual modes, as well as multimodal texts that combine these strategies) designed to achieve multiple and specific purposes for multiple and specific audiences
  • Reflect on the synthesis and communication of knowledge in alternate modes of composition

Extend experience in composing processes, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Critique one’s own compositions and the compositions of others

Extend mastery of argumentative conventions, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Adapt genre, mode, and other compositional choices to meet audience and purpose
  • Focus and sustain arguments in different modes using effective arrangement
  • Use audience appeals, including pathos, ethos, and logos
  • Anticipate and address audience questions and objections

Extend the application of advanced rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Compose arguments in different modes for specific audiences and purposes
  • Adapt content and style to respond to the needs of specific audiences and rhetorical situations