Sound arguments.

Author:Eckstein, Justin


In the early days of the "visual turn," many scholars appealed to the ubiquity of media, like television, to justify the expansion of the object domain. In their essay, "Toward a Theory of Visual Argument," for example, Birdsell and Groarke (1996) enjoin attention to visuality because "a better understanding of these components is especially important if we want to understand the role of advertising, film, television, video, multimedia, and the World Wide Web in our lives" (1). No doubt, Birdsell and Groarke are correct that argumentation scholars need to confront the pragmatic media and platforms people use to argue. Yet, they are silent on sound's role in shaping our media environment. Indeed, film, television, video, and even the World Wide Web are as much aural as visual (Chion and Murch 1994; Dyson 2009). From the music that frames film to noises that structure interaction with digital instruments, our media creates quite a hubbub.

Sound supplies arguers with powerful resources to enhance or undermine deliberation. We need analytic tools to identify and evaluate sound. While there is extensive research into sound's persuasive capabilities, very little attends to the reasonableness of its use (e.g. Burner 1990; DeNora 2000; Fullberg 2003; Huron 1989; Park and Young 1986). Without "the ability to critique sound, we leave ourselves open to the awesome manipulative powers of Madison Avenue professionals, the military industrial complex, and political operatives" (131), Goodale (2010) warns. Argumentation critics are uniquely positioned to comment on the reasonableness of sonic strategies. In particular, argumentation can illuminate how sound can help or hinder a procedure for resolving a disagreement; how sound can act as globally or locally relevant, sufficient, and/or acceptable evidence for a conclusion; how sound can present or modify a choice; and how sound can tactically modify the conditions for acceptance or rejection of a standpoint. The different argumentation traditions import analytics, principles, contexts, and norms that guide the identification, reconstruction, and assessment of sound's reasonableness.

Yet, for some, sound cannot be a legitimate object of argumentative inquiry, because sonority does not cleanly translate into externalized, linguistic propositions. Words never adequately capture sonic intensity, the certain pitch, volume, or amplitude that accompanies sound. As a result, the process of reconstruction excludes sound as irrelevant ornamentation. The propensity to reduce all arguments to language is what Gilbert (2002) calls the logocentric fallacy:

When we focus entirely on discursive aspects of communication, we limit both the ways in which we receive and ways in which we transmit information. The logocentric fallacy is committed when language, especially in its most logical guise, is seen to be the only form of rational communication. (31-32) Although Gilbert (2002) refers to the propensity to focus on words instead of other contextual cues, logocentrism also encompasses an ocularcentrism. If all argument must be externalized into text to be analyzed, then only entities that can be translated into visual data (in the form of written words and diagrams) can be considered argument. Such an erroneous move misses the way argumentation pragmatically occurs. Gilbert's (2002) classic example of a partner proclaiming "everything is fine" in an agitated tone demonstrates how meaning is apprehended beyond the linguistic components. While the words signal things are fine, the tone conveys a different, more important message. In fact, the words might rightly be considered irrelevant to discerning a partner's anger. To understand argumentation, we must expand our definition of argumentation to incorporate non-linguistic elements.

Recent multimodal argumentation scholarship troubles the logocentric paradigm and its commitments to a strict division between logic and emotion (e.g. Gilbert 2004; Groarke 2015). While some use multimodal to refer to logical, visceral, emotional, and kisceral modes of argument, I follow recent work by Groarke (2015) and use the term to describe how we reason through our senses. The acceptance, growth, and success of visual argument supplies a paradigm example of multimodal argumentation. The multiple special issues on visual argument trouble logocentric assumptions, like arguments must be precise or reduced to propositions (Birdsell and Groarke 1996, 2007; Deluca and Harold 2005; Kjeldsen 2015). The resulting body of scholarship accounts for the ways screens and images offer novel resources and problems for argument. Like vision, sound offers another modality to theorize argumentation. Recently, some theorized sound's rhetorical potential in the realms of the voice and music (Dolar 2006; Eckstein 2014; Edgar 2014; Goodale 2010, 2013; Groarke and Dewey 2002; Gunn 2010; Gunn et al. 2013). Yet, the previous research positions sound as additive to argumentation. That is to say, sound is tacked on to argument as a persuasive strategy, but not an argument in and of itself.

Although there is merit in studying sound as an additive strategy, this essay makes the more provocative claim that sound can be an argument. To explore the potential of a sonic argumentation that deviates from logocentric norms means we cannot start with an a-priori definition of argumentation. Often times, in multimodal argumentation, authors start with a definition then look for it within the object. For example, Groake (2015) defines an argument as "an attempt to use premises and conclusions to resolve some disagreement or potential disagreement" (135). Then he demonstrates how such a definition of argument can be applied to different senses, like sound or taste. Although a reasonable line of inquiry, at best such an exercise would "merely be self-validating" (Hariman 2015, 240). When we start with a definition of argument that assumes a particular mode of visual diagraming, like Groarke's key chart, and then impose it upon sound, we may miss what makes sound different. If modalities reason differently, then starting with a definition circumscribes findings.

Instead of starting with a definition of argumentation, we should risk conceptual ambiguity and begin with the necessary conditions for something to be considered an argument. Such a position concurs with Brockriede's (1992) observation that arguments are not a form (i.e. a constellation of data and premises), but a perspective people take. Even the most strident proponents of argument as externalized discourse concede norms of reconstruction that rely on an analyst's interpretation to fully represent an argument. (1) Thus, something counts as an argument only when another person (analyst or otherwise) identifies and labels it an argument. Such a perspective recognizes what counts as an argument is contextually situated and culturally relative. Thus, my claim that sound can argue suggests how people listen and interpret sonority might help the process of making and/ or justifying decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

Just because arguments reside in people does not mean that everything is an argument. Brockriede (1992) offers six conditions that must be satisfied for something to be considered an argument. To this end, I use Brockriede's conditions of argument to hear if sound resonates. The next section reconstructs Brockriede's famous essay into three conditions: arguments must infer, present a choice, and occur within a common value framework. Once I demonstrate that sound satisfies these conditions of argumentation, I attend to sonic ontologies. Here, I outline sound argument's three unique properties: it provokes emotion (embodied), conveys time (immediate), and it surrounds people (immersive). Partisans can fashion these unique features into sonic figures to invoke a structure of feeling, mark urgency, or orient a disagreement. Yet, when a sound undermines the situated conditions of argument, it becomes fallacious. The next section outlines sonic fallacies: a sound argument can be too weak to generate inference or it can overwhelm (force), it can be too fast or slow (velocity), and it can cover up others positions (masking). The essay concludes by speculating about future directions and potential limitations for the study of sound argument.

Where is (sonic) argument?

Brockriede's (1992) canonical "Where is Argument" supplies argumentation theorists with a litmus test--a set of conditions--to determine if something usefully can be called argument. For Brockriede, argumentation describes a pragmatic and social practice "whereby people reason their way from one set of problematic ideas to the choice of another" (5). Thus, he is less interested in ascertaining a timeless form than a contingent social practice. Along these lines, Brockriede instructs critics to study the quotidian to uncover argumentation.

Sound resonates with Brockriede's (1992) account of argument. Physiologically, sound involves vibrating air molecules (Goodman 2012). Human perception only apprehends a narrow bandwidth of vibrating matter as sound. Thus, sonic argument exists only within the field of human comprehension. As Brockriede reminds us, "human activity does not usefully constitute an argument until some person perceives what is happening as an argument" (4). Sound describes a cultural process of rendering vibrating air molecules meaningful (Sterne 2003). Most significantly, meaning does not stem from an intrinsic quality of the sonorous object, but "pop[s] up unexpectedly and usefully in a person's head" (Brockriede 1992, 5). When a car chirps, for example, it is the listener who diagnoses a faulty driving belt. The warning does not come from the car, but the driver who recognizes the sound and infers an action.

Brockriede (1992) elaborates upon generic conditions for argumentation. Briefly, those conditions are (1) an...

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