Laura J. Davies
June 25, 2007
CCR 720: Agnew
Short Paper #3
The Digital Image: The Sophist’s Dream and Plato’s Nightmare?
The relevancy of ancient rhetorical principles and classical methods of evaluating and understanding arguments is underscored in Kevin LaGrandeur’s article, “Digital Images and Classical Persuasion.” The digital image, coupled with digital text, has most often been described and studied through postmodern lenses, which emphasize how the digitization of media reflects an increasingly fractured, multivocal, and decontextualized modern world. The image can be manipulated easily and freely inserted into a variety of texts without regard to its original source. It seems like the ultimate manifestation of many postmodern theories – that meaning is constructed in a specific time and space which cannot be translated easily into another rhetorical setting. LaGrandeur’s claim in his article is that there is another valid way besides postmodernism to interpret and recognize the rhetorical effects of digital images: Aristotelian rhetorical theories. If we rely on these classical understandings of rhetoric, we might begin to see the digital image in a new light, focusing on how its meaning is complex, yet also coherent and connected to the larger, non-digital human experience.
LaGrandeur shows through both Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen and excerpts from Roman poet Horace that the image was seen as a powerful rhetorical tool even in the ancient world. Specifically, these classical authors saw the potential for images (and the description of images through words) to affect an audience emotionally; Gorgias points out that Helen was powerless in the face of rapturous images, which perhaps overwhelmed her rational sense. Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric (the available means of persuasion) seems to include images de facto, and he mentions images in his discussion of both metaphor and emotional appeals. Aristotle and the Sophists were aware of the persuasive ability of the image to allow pathos to supersede logos; a technique of the Sophists that Plato denounced in his proclamation that the Sophist practice of rhetoric is “mere flattery,” coating over bad logical arguments with pretty language.
After his discussion of how the Sophists, Gorgias, Aristotle, and Horace saw the image as rhetorical tool, LaGrandeur jumps to the twentieth century to explain how the digital image works intertextually with the words on the screen to create an integrated argument that depends on both the image and the text. The difference here, it seems, is that LaGrandeur is arguing that the classical notion of the image-as-rhetorical-tool was that the image was used in addition to the text; it was an add-on. Now, however, the image is as much a part of the argument as the text; there are some digital Web-based arguments that are only comprised of images.
How do we assess, then, the rhetoric of the digital image? LaGrandeur, when teaching his students visual analysis, goes back to the holy Aristotelian trinity: logos, pathos, ethos. He asks these questions: How does the image work with the text to present a logical, rational argument? How does the choice of image enhance the emotional appeal of the argument – what feelings does the image arouse in the audience? How does the presentation of the image and the entire Web page (its layout, professionalism, etc.) add to the credibility of the author? LaGrandeur uses these questions to analyze three different Web pages: a page created by a doctor’s office to explain Lasik eye surgery, a home page created by one of his students for an assignment, and the home site of a well-known hate group. With each example (explained not only through words, but through an image of the site as well), LaGrandeur shows how every part of the construction of the site – from the choice of colors, fonts and images to the wording and amount of the text – affects the overall credibility and effectiveness of the site. I was particularly interested by LaGrandeur’s discussion of fonts and how they, “like calligraphy,…are as much art as they are signifiers of sound and words.” The form of the font affects the reading of the text; style is as much a visual aspect of a good argument as the construction of balanced sentences or parallel structures.
LaGrandeur articulates in his article the same fear Plato had – that rhetoricians will use enticing language and images to obscure weak rational arguments: “The integration of electronic media into the persuasive endeavor has made a virtue of digital facility by drawing attention to the material effects of graphical style and structure. When a Web site’s images are especially polished, pleasing, and well arranged, its readers often cannot help but be attentive – and even impressed or moved” (133). What would Plato’s response be to the digital revolution? Would he throw out his laptop and become a Luddite, relying only on the power of words to describe the world, because to rely on images leads to a slippery slope where emotion can overpower logic? Are arguments based on emotion less credible than those based on logic (and vice versa?) For Plato and Aristotle, logic and rationality seemed to rule the day – they agreed that appealing to the emotions of the audience and the credibility of the speaker were effective, but not as noble and true as sound logic. Does an argument that is skewed toward logic deny the essentially human nature of both the rhetor and the audience, a nature that relies on emotion as well as rational thought to make decisions and that finds value in moving words and images?
I think Plato would also have a problem with digital rhetoric because it places the power of language and image in the hands of so many, not just a few tried and true noble rhetoricians. The digital world is remarkably democratic, and even novices, with the right frills and formatting, can create a site that lets them pose as experts. The image, then, takes precedence, and the image is much more easily disseminated and digested than lines and lines of text. It seems to me that the Sophists would love the freedom and versatility of the digital text, while Plato would be very wary, feeling like its clouds over solid arguments because style takes precedence.