What constitutes visual argument?
Arguments, made with or through visuals.
Is it possible?
What elements does it require?
Visuals. An argument. That’s it.
Can it be done without linguistic reference?
The term “contextual reference” is so loaded I had to save 80% of my word count to address this. There is no such thing as non-contextual reference, because to be referential an object or argument must contain a referent. That referent is contextualized by its juxtaposition. Also, there’s no form of argument that is not referential, if at least to the actant(s) of that argument.
So, not only can visual arguments not be made without contextual reference, nothing can be made without contextual reference. Not a verbal argument, not a written one, not a bicycle. Not a banana (P.S. any object which could be argued to have a Platonic ideal–whether you buy into the Platonic ideal or not–is a contextualized argument).
As is so often the problem with rhetoric, the question isn’t category, but scope of inquiry. If we instead ask “can visual argument be done without immediate or direct contextual reference?” then the answer is still “yep.”
My Artifact – “A kind of intellectual catastrophe” (The Witness)
“A cage awaits you – this is it, this is the enlightenment you were promised. You lock yourself in the cage. But The Witness played you for a fool. – you were wrong. You were the one snared in the net of panels and wires. There is no enlightenment here. The cage slowly returns you to the very beginning of your long journey, as the island resets. The puzzles un-solve themselves. Where you started is no different from where you ended up, because the experience has left you unchanged. You have achieved nothing. You have learned nothing.”
“The key motif of The Witness is the circle and line, but it has seeped out of the panels into the fabric of the island. You see the motif everywhere–the path of a stream, the patterns in the ivy, it can even be found in the weather. A player who spends too much time with Tetris can be infected with it–they see the shapes everywhere, and have to resist the urge to plot fictional trajectories. It feels like The Witness wants to do this with you. Soon enough, you start to notice the same motif in the real world. Finally, you have the thought: ‘wouldn’t it be funny,’ you think, If I could just click the–‘”
As always, I’ll be looking at The Witness – this time in terms of an analysis on the YouTube channel Electron Dance. Connecting the visuality and designed structure of The Witness to the concepts of mindfulness, enlightenment, and rebirth through sacred texts and public intellectuals, the video questions what the role of the self is within The Witness.
More on that later, but for now, I would encourage folks (who have NO INTEREST in playing the game) to watch the video (massive spoilers, all the spoilers).
Based on some of the initial coding from my subject testing, I decided to look at Zettl and aesthetics for this component, and found it… wanting in its abbreviated form in the Handbook. So I went and got an instructor edition of Zettl’s Sight, Sound, Motion (6th ed. – it’s in 8th now). And I found that perhaps the most useful analytic mechanism in Zettl is the pedagogical framework he lays out for building a curriculum around aesthetics, including a quite nice little week-by-week breakdown of teaching from the text (Fig 1).
So, the thing I find most fascinating here is that Zettl views aesthetics not only as component-based, but also iterative, building upon first principles towards broad aesthetic narratives. Zettl argues, effectively, that you can teach aesthetics, teach with aesthetics, and teach through aesthetics, and this structure works across all three forms of pedagogy.
In the end, what Zettl is talking about in “Aesthetics Theory” is visualizing aesthetics through cinematographic lens–no surprise based on what his interests are–and this is what drove me to go more afield in his work to explore how spatial rhetorics, sound, motion, and light build towards an aesthetic syntax. I’m also going to be doing a lot with Gilles Deleuze here, but for this assignment I had to choose one of these readings, so Zettl it is.
So, here’s a question – the video artifact I posted is not a montage, but as an edited narrative of play and philosophy, it is certainly montage, and it contains montage(s). Is gameplay itself, even in continuity and without montage, montage? Is it an assemblage of actions, a juxtaposition of “various seemingly unrelated events” into a broader narrative, a “specific meta-message” of “induced meaning”?
Let’s get to the questions.
Why this method for this artifact?
“Everything smells of *long sniff* significance.”
The Electron Dance video is fascinating because it makes a parallel argument to that of The Witness itself – namely, that participating with it will draw the user/viewer/player towards a comprehension of philosophy and a narrativized “truth” about the self. That is to say, that it moves from noise to sound, from light to form, from abstract to concrete. It builds a narrative syntax through editing of aesthetic continuities.
These aesthetic continuities are reflected in the philosophical narrative syntaxes the game itself explores, and the video interpolates. Content and aesthetics are, effectively, one and the same.
What did it reveal?
“The flight simulator is now the only way to visit Meiggs’ Field. Technology empowers us to visit places that do not exist. Places that cannot exist. But we do not celebrate this enough. Critics and players often denigrate virtual environments with demands for purpose. The developer-god must corrupt places with mechanics, poison them with meaning–proof of intelligent design must be demonstrated through challenges and collectibles.
The journey itself is never enough.”
It revealed that the viewer is the open, empty, luminous presence of awareness.
For Zettl, the space of visuality is delineated and limited by aesthetic forms and choices. And this limited frame is useful for what it manages to isolate in scope. The Electron Dance video touches on each component of Zettl’s cinematography: light, color, form, field, area, contrast, contained forces, depth, volume, sound, motion, and effect. It uses these components to build on the narrative structures which are drawn from this; however, it also isolates the experience of the viewer-participant (“audience” is absolutely a falsehood here, but it’s hard to articulate why). It assumes that the space is given to the viewer-participant, and the viewer-participant simply occupies it.
I enjoy this conflict. It’s unresolvable, and that is the curse of cinematic language. It gives us tools and terms of production and distribution, but even at its best (Deleuze?), it misapprehends the mindfulness of reception. Aesthetics are mediated, but they are unilateral. Visual rhetoric makes arguments, but those arguments are always resolved by another party who either sees or does not see. Who pursues truth, but cannot apprehend it.
What did it miss that you think might be important?
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Zettl offers us a cinematographic language and palette which we can use to understand how visuality constructs tonality and argument. What is fascinating is to consider how it fails to do the things necessary to address the narrative choice which exists outside of the cinematographic form–the narrative selection of the viewer, whom Zettl’s aesthetics is inflicted upon.
I’ve more than exceeded the length I planned to dedicate to this at this point, so for now… Part Three?