The unnaturalistic enthymeme: figuration, interpretation, and critique after digital mediation.

Author:Pfister, Damien Smith
Position:Essay
 
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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. Why? Because negation is a linguistic function, foreign to the concrete and analogic world of the non-verbal" (17). This Burkean-inflected characterization of the negative seals images off from the world of argumentation. If images can only show presence (what is), and not absence (what is not), then pictures cannot participate in the process of dissoi logoi at the heart of argumentation. Images cannot refute each other absent the mediation of language.

Fleming's objections, based on the representational logics presumed to be at the heart of film photography, trenchantly highlight the potential problems of seeing pictures as arguments. However, in what we call the enthymematic turn in visual argument studies, scholars theorize the argumentative function of images in terms of that most rhetorical of argument forms, the enthymeme. The enthymeme is conventionally theorized as an argument form that relies on audience members supplying culturally specific assumptions (hidden premises) to the publicly articulated premises of a rhetor. According toj. Anthony Blair (2004), "visual arguments are typically enthymemes-arguments with gaps left to be filled in by the participation of the audience" (52). Although the argumentative potency of any given image may vary, David Birdsell and Leo Groarke (1996) describe how certain contexts activate enthymematic associations and thus lend argumentative force to images. Images are always accompanied by the possibility of variant interpretive frames, so scientists interpret 1MRI data differently from lay publics (Gibbons 2007), citizens react to flags of different nation-states differently depending on their cultural allegiances (Pineda and Sowards 2007), and tattoos signify different kinds of identification in prison cultures (McNaughton 2007). The enthymematic turn implicitly responds to Fleming's critique: the addition of a culturally specific hidden premise creates a two step relation between statement and proof, and because different assumptions might supply different hidden premises, divergent interpretations of any image support the possibility of dissoi logoi.

Cara A. Finnegan (2001) showcases the utility of the enthymematic turn by theorizing the "naturalistic enthymeme" in the context of the 1936 skull controversy. The skull controversy refers to the critical reception of Arthur Rothstein's now iconic photograph of a cow's skull on a parched landscape in South Dakota's alkaline flats. Rothstein's published photo, circulating in a culture that largely presumed photographs reflected the real, appeared to warrant the farm relief that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Congressional allies were pushing. When audiences discovered that Rothstein had moved the skull from its original resting place in order to experiment with different compositions, and that verdant fields of green surrounded the alkaline flats (which, even in the wettest of times, are marked by vestiges of cracked earth), they felt duped. Audiences expected that photography would simply reflect, rather than, in Burke's (1966) inimitable phrasing, select and deflect, reality. Why? As Finnegan details, the technological biases of film photography intersected with a specific cultural moment marked by a realist-documentary way of seeing. In contrast to drawing or painting, the author's hand appeared to be so far removed from the production of images that film photographs could be sold as truly mirroring nature. By combining mechanical capture with chemical processing, the trope of "taking a picture" sublimated the craft involved in "making a picture" in the staging of a scene and in the dark room. For Roland Barthes (1977), film photography eventually gave rise to the myth of photographic naturalism. Despite the many manipulations a film photographer might conduct in camera or in the darkroom, audiences of film photography historically acknowledge that " the thing has been there" (Barthes 1982, 76) and that "a sort of umbilical cord" stretches from the referent of the photograph to the viewer of the photograph through the interplay of light and silver halides (81).

Moreover, viewers of film photographs at the time were positioned in an ocular regime that privileged coming to knowledge through sense perception, specifically the objectivating power of sight--the ability to come to knowledge through sight's ability to make objects into objects of inquiry. This explains why audience members, upon viewing Rothstein's skull photograph, enthymematically supplied assumptions about the photograph's fidelity to the real. As Finnegan (2001) explains,

When the audience for documentary photography (trained in the conventions of the dominant ocular regime) assumes the naturalism of the photograph, it is tapping into an argumentative resource that I call the naturalistic enthymeme. The enthymeme, according to Aristotle, is an argument that is drawn from premises that do not need to be stated "since the hearer supplies it" ... That is, the enthymeme leaves space for the audience to insert its own knowledge and experience; it assumes an audience of judges capable of "filling in the blanks" of an argument. To extend this notion to the photograph, the viewer of the photograph "fills in the blank" with the assumption that the image is "real" in the three senses discussed above: that it is a representation of something in the world (representational realism), actually occurring before the camera in a particular time and place (ontological realism), captured by the camera with no intervention from the photographer (mechanical realism) ... regardless of what else a photograph communicates, at minimum it is continually making an argument about its own realism. (143)

As the "paradigmatic realist discourse," Bryan Taylor (1998) argues that film photography's products "compelled viewers to accept their authority as accounts [and] to gloss the contingencies of their production" (333). The...

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