Not Everything Is an Argument

Not Everything Is an Argument

Rectangles on a blue background. An excellent demonstration of the shape tool in Photoshop. Yet this painting sells for hundreds of dollars. It may be fine decoration for a Nieman Marcus, but it’s not art.

Indignant Ian: How dare you, man! Who are you to say what is and isn’t art?

A thinking man, that’s who.

It’s a “habit” of mine to use my mind for the purposes of definition and categorization. You may not like my output, and I’m open to hearing your argument, but I’m willing, able, and ready to make a judgement call in this case. Those shapes aren’t art.

One thing I know for sure is that art is something. It’s not everything. (Then it would be nothing.) Art has characteristics, attributes, features. Art has a definition.

Likewise, something I hear all the time when I talk about rhetoric is that “everything is an argument.” ::sigh:: No, it’s not.

Your Wifi key is not an argument. The Florida Keyes are not an argument. Alicia Keyes is not an argument.  Arguments, like art, are something. I’ve covered what they are in previous posts, and I’ll continue to do so. But I want to take some time to discuss other kinds of discourse. What you can engage in if you’re not making an argument.

In composition studies, there are traditionally four categories of discourse:

  • Exposition
  • Description
  • Narration
  • Argument (not covered in this post)

Let’s look at the characteristics and distinguishing features of each:

Exposition: Just the facts, ma’am.

Expository discourse aims to explain a topic or situation by telling the audience the crucial facts or timeline. It’s distinguished by lack of descriptive detail and quick movement from one point to another. The goal of exposition is to communicate something efficiently. To tell.

Exposition may contain arguments if it’s recounting them—i.e., it’s listing arguments made by someone else. But it’s not an argument in itself. The goal of exposition is not to persuade an audience to action but merely to inform them about a given topic.

As rhetors you might use expository discourse to catch up your audience on certain events or otherwise give them the context necessary to understand a point:

“The apple is the pomaceous fruit of the apple tree, species Malus domestica in the rose family (Rosaceae). It is one of the most widely cultivated tree fruits, and the most widely known of the many members of genus Malus that are used by humans.”

Description: Details, details, details.

Descriptive discourse focuses on details. The goal of description is to use sensory experiences—sight, sound, touch, taste, smell—to give detailed information about a topic. To show.

Description isn’t argument because it’s not attempting to prescribe how something should be. It’s merely demonstrating what it is or what it’s like. (Confusing description with prescription is a major cause of stress in relationships.)

Rhetors can get into argumentative territory with exaggerated metaphors:

Apples are the nectar of Gods.

Really? Prove it.

Rhetors can also use descriptive language to their advantage in setting up emotional context for arguments. Vivid descriptions can create powerful appeals to pathos:

*crunch* The apple’s juice dripped from my smile to the ground. Bursts of sweetness, hints of sour, a reminder of dad’s farm and the joy we took in running through the orchards as kids.

Narration: The art of story.

Narrative discourse is the combination of exposition and description into a logical structure that features characters, setting, and plot. The goal is to tell a story. To entertain.

Most stories, even if they contain morals, are not arguments. They’re assertions or demonstrations, since they get to make the rules of their universe and decide the outcome ahead of time. That doesn’t mean that can’t be useful to rhetors.

On the contrary, stories are an excellent way for rhetors to concretize arguments. They let your audience “see” your argument as if they were discovering it for themselves. Sometimes stories are the only way to open an audience to persuasion, and being a good storyteller can be a powerful boost to your ethos.

One type of story that generally is an argument in itself is fable. These moral-heavy stories usually feature personified animals or plants and teach young people a life lesson. They’re arguments because they typically make explicit the premises and conclusions. I’ll discuss fables more in a future post.

* * * * *

These modes aren’t as clear cut as their definitions. Description might contain exposition and vice versa. The point is to consider intention. What is the purpose of the discourse? Assuming the goal of every speech, article, or movie is to persuade will only lead to chaotic thinking and rationalism. Understanding the correct purpose of discourse will save you headaches and make you a better rhetor.

Happy persuading (or informing or entertaining)!