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Sound arguments.


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 inferential leap from premise to conclusion, (2) a perceived rationale for the leap, (3) the existence of a choice, (4) the regulation of uncertainty, (5) the potential for confrontation, and (6) a shared value framework. These conditions weave through two registers. The first is procedural: a means of doing something, the moves taken to achieve a particular end, i.e. patterns of inference, relations between standpoints and political environments, and value configurations. The other resides in arguers' experiences: the perception of an inference, the sensation of risk, and the feeling of uncertainty. (2) Thus, in ascertaining if non-verbal sounds can be argument, it is useful to distribute Brockriede's conditions along procedural and experiential lines.

As summarized in Table 1, procedural and experiential conditions presuppose one another. The first characteristic, an inferential leap, thus includes the argumentative procedure --moving from premise to conclusion, as well as the perception of these elements. This of course gets at the social side of argumentation: if another does not recognize something as argument, then there is no social traction. The second characteristic, choice, couples the procedure of considering imperfect information with the experience of amplifying and attenuating sensations of uncertainty. Arguments emerge when people face an uncertain choice. Finally, value framework joins the procedure of aligning reasons and value commitments with the experience of confronting and risking beliefs. Social risk assumes common values; if people do not have similar priorities, then arguments may not prompt a response. Below I further reconstruct "Where is Argument" within these three distinct axes: inference, choice, and value framework.


The first two characteristics of sonic argument bundle sound into a procedure of inference from premise to an uncertain conclusion. Premises anchor arguments in something the audience accepts: they can involve a sensory experience, cultural truths (endoxa), testimony (lay or expert), examples (empirical or hypothetical), principles, or statistics. In contrast to syllogisms, practical arguments do not contain the conclusion within the premise, but rather inferences move from the premise to a contingent conclusion. Inferences must be large enough to be potentially wrong, but small enough to appear reasonable. If a rationale falls outside the economy of inference, then it is no longer considered an argument. In short, argumentation involves a procedure of moving from a premise to an uncertain conclusion. While not all sounds meet these conditions, many non-verbal sounds do offer material premises for probable conclusions.

The identification of a sound and the corresponding inference to a conclusion depends on "audible techniques," which discern signal from noise (Sterne 2003). Simply defined, audible techniques are culturally learned procedures for identifying a sound, ascribing a meaning, and appraising significance. We can think of these audible techniques broadly, borrowing from Goodnight (2012) as public, private, and/or technical. There are public modes of audition; iconic sounds most individuals recognize, such as associating an alarm with emergency. There are private modes of audition, coming from interpersonal experience, such as the meaning of a partner's deep sigh. And, there are technical modes of audition wed to different epistemic fields, such as the mechanic's capacity to discern the meaning of a car's noise. While these sounds might not be perceived as an argument, they nevertheless illustrate each sphere's enthymematic potential. Each audible technique supplies a rationale from the movement of a sound to a probable conclusion.

In addition to a procedure from moving from premise to conclusion, "an arguer must perceive some rationale that establishes that the claim led to is worthy of being entertained" (Brockriede 1992, 6). An interlocutor must recognize an inferential leap as plausible. Justifications can be explicitly announced, or they can reside in an unspoken subtext. Hence, sound can be perceived as an argument in three ways. First, a sound is deployed within a common audible technique, like a public mode of audition. Common sounds represent a salient component within our soundscape and can be identified easily as a sound, such as a pop song. These bits of music offer a shorthand experience for sentiment. Second, audible techniques confer creditability onto arguers. For instance, if a mechanic listens to your engine running and says you should replace the timing belt, her training offers a shorthand justification to perceive her inference from sound to conclusion. Third, the arguer may outline the inference from sound to conclusion explicitly. In the example of the timing belt, the mechanic may identify a specific chirping sound coming from the engine, and then explain to you that the pitch, tonality, and volume of the chirp indicates a weak timing belt. Although each sound might not be unequivocally recognized as an argument, each instance acts as "an invitation to inference" (Pinto 2001, 68-69).

To illustrate the procedural and experiential dimensions of the first order conditions of argumentation, consider an example of going to the doctor. Sarah is very concerned; she has felt lethargic and opts to visit her physician, Lisa. Lisa listens to Sarah with her stethoscope. Lisa methodologically places the stethoscope on different parts of Sarah's back and chest, attentive to her breathing. Lisa concludes her examination by focusing on the upper right part of Sarah's chest, just below her collarbone. Here, Lisa notices a faint, but distinct sound: a low-pitched blow. Lisa records the sound and plays it for Sarah. She then tells Sarah that she might have a low intensity, pulmonic valve, heart murmur, and advises Sarah to go to a cardiologist.

Procedurally, Lisa's argument that Sarah should go to a cardiologist rests on an inference from a faint, low-pitched blow. To the untrained ear, this sound might pass unnoticed, lost within a raucous body. The suggestion to see a cardiologist may appear happenstance, reactionary, and unnecessary. But, to a properly trained ear, the blow portends to a potential problem: a heart murmur. A technical mode of audition, medical auscultation uses a stethoscope to identify internal sounds, ascribe them meaning, and render judgments. This practice relies on a taxonomy of sounds, produced from previous auscultations (Sterne 2003). Thus, underwriting Lisa's argument is an inference through classification, which is a "conclusion about known members of a class of persons, objects, events, or conditions" (Brockriede and Ehninger 1960, 50). The argument is warranted by the similarity between the sound in Sarah's chest and the sound identified as a murmur. The injunction to go to the doctor is not just an observation, but a probable conclusion: the sound in Sarah's chest could be an "artifact" from clothing, a lousy stethoscope, or just an abnormality. Therefore, Lisa's recommendation is still an argument, because Lisa's inference could be wrong. Perhaps most importantly, Lisa's suggestion constitutes an argument because Sarah recognizes it as such. Sarah has several options in response to Lisa's claim, including ignoring it, challenging the sufficiency of the sound, or its relevance to her condition. For Sarah, the technical practice of medical auscultation confers a perceived rationality onto Lisa's conclusion; it assuages her objections and her uncertainty is temporarily resolved.


For Brockriede (1992), a properly calibrated constellation of premises, conclusions, and inferences must be accompanied by an uncertain decision. If arguers already knew how to act, then arguments would serve no purpose. But arguers are "limited by what they know, what they believe, what they value," and thus act under varying degrees of uncertainly (Brockriede 1992, 6). Brockriede continues, "when uncertainty is high, a need for argument is also high, especially if people are uncertain about something important to them" (6). Arguments regulate uncertainty by swapping perspectives, expanding understanding, challenging facts, and/or purifying knowledge. This procedure of weighing variables with imperfect information terminates in a choice. A choice may be institutionally codified by penning a legal opinion, legislating a policy, or voting; or it can be enacted less formally, through accepting another perspective, agreeing to alter conduct, or revising beliefs. The selection of one option over others never fully resolves uncertainty--the option only modifies the uncertainty. Uncertainty can be reduced, but never eliminated.

The experience of choice relies on an experiential wedge between a subjective perspective and an object. Johnstone (1990) uses a sonic example to illustrate the concept of the wedge: "An example of rhetoric at its most elementary level would be the question, 'Isn't that your telephone ringing?' addressed to a person not hitherto conscious that his or her telephone was ringing" (333). In Johnstone's example, the ringing phone evokes a gap between the auditor (subject) and the phone (object). The jangle beckons attention, enjoining someone to pick up the phone. Interceding into the wedge, a person can entertain a host of reasons to pick up the call, ignore it, or in this case, ask someone else to pick it up. When something bypasses this narrow space of contemplation, it is not considered an argument. If someone cannot consider a position's merit, then she does not have agency. Strategies designed to increase adherence by circumventing reflection violate this condition of argumentation. But, if a position can be evaluated thoughtfully, then it may be an argument.

When faced with an uncertain circumstance, sound can overwhelm, torture, or startle an auditor. Sound can also refuse to leave or regulate uncertainty, while respecting agency. Sound can create uncertainties, the way that a ringing phone draws attention to a new unknown; underscore abstract relations, like converting climate data into music; or unify disparate images, such as a film score sutures together frames into a coherent narrative. In each instance, sound advances a standpoint. A sonic argument, then, must endow the auditor with the agency to contemplate a reason's merits.

Sonic arguments inform choices made under conditions of uncertainty. Take, for example, Jonathan Perl and Marco Tedesco's collaboration to sonify Greenland's glaciers. Perl and Tedesco use data points, such as melt rates and albedo ratios (a measurement of a glaciers' capacity to reflect light) and convert them into sounds. One of Perl's sonifications, for instance, pegged frequency to albedo ratios (lower frequencies indicating lower reflectivity) and assigned melt rates clicks (representing a decrease). In his composition sonifying 1958-2012 data, listeners hear lowering frequencies and increasing clicks, demonstrating that the glaciers are melting and becoming less reflective (Communicating Polar Climate Change 2016). Perl and Tedesco's aural argument claims climate change is quick and disastrous (Communicating Polar Climate Change 2016). Abstract relations between data points, such as melting, opacity, temperature, and time are rendered audible --composing a haunting musicality. More than other modalities, Perl and Tedesco's sonority draws into sharp relief climate change's immediacy. The compression of 54 years of data into a two-and-a-half minute sonorous composition illustrates, viscerally, the speed and scope of climate change's destructive effects.

Value framework

Brockriede's (1992) fifth and sixth characteristics posit a shared frame of reference that enables the disputation of perspectives. Procedurally, this requires argumentative clash and social risk. For argumentation to occur, individuals must question the acceptability, as well as the global and local relevance and sufficiency, of reasons. Clash emerges from overlapping horizons of concern--people approximating one another's priorities. Sometimes common priorities precede an exchange, like cultural codes; other times they can be forged through a process of discovery (Liu 1999). If a reason does not resonate with a mutually agreed upon horizon of concern, then auditors may discount it as irrelevant. Clash can be introduced procedurally, within a courtroom exchange, or emerge naturally between partisans, like a couple disagreeing about finances (Goodwin 2001). Additionally, argumentation incurs social risk. Failing to adequately (or successfully) create doubt, defend, or advocate a standpoint has consequences; people are averse to appearing wrong. This risk thwarts the proliferation of people espousing positions they do not believe in. If social risk is absent, then no mechanism exits to ensure a stake in a disagreement.

Sound argumentation shares Brockriede's conditions of argument, requiring common techniques to render sonority audible and relevant to a disagreement. If people cannot agree on the border between irksome noise and meaningful sound, then sonic argumentation is unlikely. Like other hermeneutics, audible techniques are wed to values. An underlying horizon of concern renders a sound significant, a noise irritating, or a vibration irrelevant. Such a framework offers arguers a wealth of resources to advance an agenda, to provoke a disagreement, or to interrupt a deliberation. Lisa's injunction above to go to a cardiologist, for instance, values preemptive action. For a sonic argument to work, however, it must be understood as relevant to the discussion. If sonic argument resides in listeners, then the auditors must hear the resonance between sounds and standpoints. Finally, the production of sound entails social risk. The manufacture of a sound especially a loud, sharp sound--jostles and beckons. If it draws attention but the standpoint appears irrelevant, untrue, or inconsequential, then a listener will reject any claim that may follow.

Confrontation and shared values also have an experiential dimension--the embodied creation of a gestalt. Argumentation occurs when a self--understood as a constellation of commitments and investments--is risked. Johnstone cites an example of entering into a disagreement about the death penalty. Prior to a disagreement, a partisan's death penalty commitments are not salient. But, confrontation foregrounds those commitments, "evoking consciousness by introducing a gap between a subject and what can now objectively concern him" (Johnstone 1990, 333). An argumentative encounter wedges reality along subjective investments and objective topics--it structures phenomenological experience, or a "world" (Johnstone 1959; Johnstone and Natanson 1974; Natanson 1962). The process of an argumentative encounter entails risking world-making commitments. Hence, losing a disagreement entails the immediate destruction of a world (Natanson 1962). Even if an arguer does not concede her world, the modulation of certainty spins off new worlds, teeming with new questions. A debate about the death penalty, for instance, may prompt a discussion of race, creating new worlds that must be reconciled. Sometimes, reason can resolve into a unitary world; other times it cannot. Either way, argumentation crafts worlds and sometimes destroys them.

Brockriede's (1992) fifth and sixth characteristics posit shared values that allow for disagreement. Like other argument, sound configures worlds. It does so at a visceral level, modulating how partisans feel about certain positions or standpoints. Consider the following example: in response to student protests over a looming tuition hike, the National Assembly of Quebec (NAQ) passed Bill 78. Bill 78 restricted students from gathering within 50 meters of any university and

makes it illegal for anyone to stage or participate in a demonstration of more than 40 people anywhere in Quebec and over any issue unless the demonstration's organizers have informed police in writing at least 8 hours in advance of the precise route of the protest and the duration of the demonstration, and agree to abide by changes in the protest route made by police (Jones 2012).

Students and citizens, irked with a protest ban, took to their patios and the streets every night at 8 p.m. to clack pots and pans loudly, expressing their disapproval.

The tactic of banging pots and pans, known as charivari, or "rough music," draws attention to a problem and shames offenders (Sterne 2012a). This disagreement presupposes overlapping horizons of concern. Both parties were interested in producing the best possible environment for students. For the NAQ, a protest-free campus was the most conducive to education. Students, however, disagreed. The students used the charivari to challenge the NAQ's premise by acting in such a fashion that symbolized their discontent.

Students claim that Bill 78 created a cacophonous space, antithetical to education. The argument extended further as more denizens joined. The charivari highlights a political context that excludes and marginalizes students. It may be described as an objection, which draws into relief the contexts that govern an exchange of reasons. It acts as a meta-argumentative move--less concerned with responding to a specific set of claims, but troubling the circumstance of the disagreement (Olson and Goodnight 1994). Moreover, the protest incurred social risk--students' hazarded expulsion, imprisonment, or violence. The risk increased as sounds propagated off the city concrete, amplifying the potential for social rebuke. The louder the protest, the greater chance it would draw scorn. In sum, the harsh tones symbolized the student's discontent and challenged the assumption that the NAQ was helping them by banning protests at school.

If sounds can be argument, how then are they different from logocentric accounts of argumentation? Sound can be reconstructed as a speech act. For example, the charivari described above can be reconstructed as an accusation. The students accused the NAQ of robbing them of their rights. As such, the argument configured the conditions governing the exchange, distributing burdens between the parties, and compelled a response from the leader of the Quebec's ruling liberal Party, Jean Charest (Kauffeld 1998). But an exclusively logocentric account misses how sound's materiality also exerts effects; in this case the way, the charivari enveloped the city, provoked a mood, and enacted a temporality. The next section outlines sound's unique features.

Sound ontology

Sound's materiality as a vibrational force has unique properties: sound affects listeners (embodiment), conveys a sense of time (immediacy), and surrounds people (immersion) (Chion 2016; Dyson 2009; Goodman 2012; Hirschkind 2006; Idhe 2007). Embodiment, immediacy, and immersion significantly overlap; an immersive sound also evokes immediate, embodied responses. These unique properties can be fashioned into effects. Sonic arguments can trigger embodied memory (anamnesis), convey temporality (urgency), and attune arguers (orientation). Sonic effects are modified via different arrangements, or sonic figures. The decision to pick one figure over another is not merely additive; it is also an intrinsic part of the argument. Sonic figures offer reasons to adopt a perspective. Sonic figures may provoke an embodied parallel case, its temporality may mark the urgency of action, or it may signal discontent. In each instance, the sound offers a reason. These effects and figures are not exhaustive, but offer an opening salvo for theorizing sound arguments.


Sonic materiality registers as corporeal sensations (Bruner 1990; DeNora 2000; Dyson 2009; Fullberg 2003; Goodman 2012; Hirschkind 2006, Horowitz 2012; Jackson 2003; Westermann 2008). Audible techniques use past experience to anticipate patterns and ascribe meaning to them. This is a recursive procedure, as the embodied residue of past experiences shapes one's inference of future sounds (Connolly 2011; Hirschkind 2006). When people listen to a sound, the body stores the context, or mood, of audition just below the threshold of consciousness (Augoyard and Torgue 2005; Connolly 2011; Hirschkind 2006). (3) Then, when confronted with a new sound, the body draws from the memory of past contexts with similar sounds to inflect experience. This process is called anamnesis. Augoyard and Torgue (2005) define anamnesis as "an effect of reminiscence in which a past situation or atmosphere is brought back to the listener's consciousness, provoked by a particular signal or sonic context" (21). Thus, audible techniques include "a technique for animating and organizing a stratigraphy of bodily experience" (Hirschkind 2006, 98). In other words, sound provides a way for the body to store, index, and activate memory.

Sound arguments involve more than a disembodied acceptance or rejection of a standpoint, but invoke a structure of feeling, a material inference. Anamnesis manifests in embodied judgments such as aversion or attraction. Augoyard and Torgue (2005) explain:
   Sound undeniably has an immediate emotional power that has been
   used by every culture. This surplus of feeling that exists in the
   perception of sounds in a spectacular context (such as the
   soundtrack of a movie) or during an exceptional situation (such as
   historical or collectively memorable events) does not disappear in
   the everyday sound environment. As soon as it is perceived
   contextually, sound is inseparable from an effect, as subtle as it
   can be, a particular colouration due to collective attitudes and
   representations or to individual traits. (11).

In other words, sound saturates experience with a mood, a feeling, and an ambience. Sometimes, sound fades into the background, framing an experience by operating on the edge of perception. Other times, sound comes to the forefront, directing an auditor's attention and sensation.

The sonic figure of repetition, for example, creates an embodied association between a sound and a person, product, or idea. These repetitions occur in public, private, and technical contexts. For example, Lisa's embodied response to Sarah's heart blow comes from technical training that taught her to associate that particular sound with a distinct diagnosis. But for Lisa, the sound invokes an anxious sensation, because it triggers past contexts of bad news shared with a patient.

Public, private, and technical modes of audition offer resources for crafting arguments. A public mode of audition, for example, supplies common auditory touchstones to provoke a certain mood. Iconic sounds offer arguers topoi for enjoining an audience to action. For example, Whitesnake's 1987 "Here I go Again" is an iconic ballad that has been featured in over 40 television shows and movies to convey joyful anticipation. A 2016 Walmart back to school ad featured children signing (without music) "Here I go Again" as they prepare for the new school year. The conclusion of the ad, which closes with the Whitesnake song, offered an injunction to shop at Walmart. For many parents preparing for back to school shopping, the commercial excites feelings of joyful anticipation. The use of a song is not mere orientation, but actually constitutes the inferential structure of the argument. Sonically, Walmart advances an argument from parallel case. Brockriede and Ehninger (1960) explain that an argument from parallel case "asserts that the instance reported in the data bears an essential similarity to a second instance in the same category" (49). In other words, the use of the song activates an embodied complex of nostalgia and excitement that offers a reason to do something: you should take your kid back to school shopping at Walmart so they can feel that joyful anticipation of the new school year. The inference is clear: just as the previous contexts brought about joyful anticipation, so too will shopping at Walmart. This does not happen at the level of representation, but is viscerally felt. It is the sensation itself that supplies the reason to shop at Walmart; the mood becomes the parallel case that anchors the inference.


Immediacy foregrounds sound's temporal dimensions (Chion and Murch 1994; Chion 2016; Dyson 2009; Idhe 2007; LaBelle 2010). Sound exists as it recedes from being. These sonorous ebbs and flows create an everyday sensory backdrop that marks time. The chirps of birds in the morning, the hum of traffic in the afternoon, the chirr of crickets at night composes the rhythm of everyday life. Idhe (2007) observes, "the temporal rhythms of daily sound are structured rhythms, and it is in rhythm that the background or field of auditory temporality is located" (87). It is the same birds in the dawn, the same traffic in the morning, and the same chirr of crickets in the evening that pattern time. Sound provides the markets that allow us to organize the experience of time passing, or a duration.

The anticipation of when a sound will fade into the background, or a release, shapes the experience of duration (Augoyard and Torgue 2005; Chion 2016; Idhe 2007). To illustrate this experience, Chion (2016) offers the example of listening to a single piano key. If someone hits the F key on a piano, for example, the note bursts into being, yet quickly disappears. Most listeners anticipate release, which conveys a faster sense of time. Yet, "the same sound inverted," Chion (2016) writes, "which takes the form of slow building of intensity and disappears as soon as the intensity reaches its maximum, will be listened to much more actively and continuously, and so it will seem longer" (36). Hence, if a listener is certain of release (e.g. the hitting the F key), then she will anticipate the end and move on (speeding experience of time). But, if a listener is unsure about when a sound will release, then the experience of time slows down so that the listener can follow the sound. Like when a loud, sharp sound is followed by a cut out, the anticipation of the next note (when will it return?) slows down the experience of time.

If argumentation requires people to make choices under conditions of uncertainty, then immediacy underscores the temporal dimensions of that choice. Sonic figures such as accelerando (the speeding up of tempo) or rallentando (slowing down of tempo) modify urgency (Augoyard and Torgue 2005). For example, Perl and Tedesco use sound to argue that we must act immediately to stop the terrible effects of climate change. The sonification generates an inference from cause, which asserts that "a particular causal force is sufficient to have accounted for these facts; and the claim relates this cause to the person, object, event, or condition named in the data" (Brockriede and Ehninger 1960, 48). Perl and Tedesco utilize accelerando to impart the sense of an extreme need to act on climate change. The rapid increase of beats per minute builds tension, as listeners anticipate the next sound, which culminates in a sensation of urgency. Accelerando is not merely a presentational device, but supplies a justification for acting on climate change: the sounds evidence a rapidly changing climate. If the effects are sped up, then auditors are licensed to infer that climate change is an urgent problem requiring immediate remediation.


Immersion draws into relief how sound surrounds people (Birdsall 2012; Corbin 1998; Hirschkind 2006; LaBelle 2010; Schafer 1977). Listening supplies an expansive perceptual field that encompasses its surrounding environment. Whereas vision has an identifiable horizon and periphery, sound renders a vast milieu audible. Sound conies from near and far, above and below, in front and behind. To grasp sonic immersion, it is useful to divide sound into discrete sound objects, such as a fire alarm, and soundscapes, such as the combined sounds of a city block. Sound objects sit at the center of attention, while soundscapes linger on the threshold of perceptibility. Soundscapes "are not effervescent or abrupt comings and goings of sound but an auditory texture and background that provides an auditory stability for the world" (Idhe 2007, 87). What constitutes the sound object and the soundscape is contingent on how a listener wishes to narrow her attention (Augoyard and Torgue 2005; Idhe 2007; Sterne 2003).

If argumentation requires that people exist in a common framework, then sound provides listeners social cues to locate themselves within the appropriate norms. Soundscapes carve out space (Augoyard and Torgue 2005; Chion 2016; Corbin 1998; Hirschkind 2006; LaBelle 2010; Schafer 1977), convey moods (Corbin 1998; Goodale 2010, Hirschkind 2006; Rikert 2013), and modify immediacy (Corbin 1998, Gueguen et al. 2008; Kellaris and Kent 1992; LaBelle 2010 Milliman 1982). That is to say, soundscapes locate people within a nexus of place, time, and feeling. In the context of the Egyptian soundscape, for example, Hirschkind (2006) notes weaving together urban chatter, prayer calls, and sermon cassette tapes, "contribute to the creation of a sensory environment from which the subject draws its bearings, an environment that nourishes and intensifies the substrate of affective orientations that undergirded right reasoning" (125). For Hirschkind, Islamic sermons captured on cassette tapes attune a listener's commitments to piety, and thus shape what counts as a good reason. It is impossible to separate a deliberative exchange from a soundscape. The sonic backdrop's instructs on the appropriate reasoning (public spaces sound different than private ones), and the volume metes out risk (how loud or quite modifies social risk). Listening, then, plunges people into an immersive environment that bestows argumentative resources.

Just like partisans can argue about the rules of a debate to advantage their side, so too can partisans shape their soundscape. Sonic figures like sharawadji (a joyful feeling of plentitude) and ubiquity (a discomfort that accompanies non-localizable sounds) shape a soundscape (Augoyard and Torgue 2005). For example, in response to Bill 78, protestors used the soundscape to direct attention at the problem of tuition hikes and protest bans. The charivari works through ubiquity. The city propagates the clanging of pots and pans, bouncing and echoing the noise. The result creates a promiscuous sound that undermines the NAQ's monopoly on territory. While the government might preclude where bodies can go, it is much more difficult to regulate sound's movements. Whereas the Bill 78 relied on spatial regulations to preclude an exchange of reasons, sound invaded and reconfigured space to facilitate deliberation. Ubiquity is not just a presentational device; ubiquity also is the substance of an argument from sign. Such an inferential structure "affirms that some person, object, event, or conditions possess the attributes of which the clues have been declared symptomatic" (Brockriede and Ehninger 1960, 49). Here, unpleasant sounds are a symptom of the generalized disquiet amongst the population.

Assessing sound reason

Sound argument requires a situated assessment of a sound's capacity to impair or to enhance argumentation (Goodwin 2007; Jacobs 2006). If a sound argument undermines the conditions of argumentation, then it is unreasonable. From Brockbriede's conditions of argument, I infer three norms tied to inference, choice, and framework. Inference relies on conventional validity; if either party does not recognize something as an argument, then an argument is never constituted. If an arguer cannot perceive a reason, then it would be impossible for the acceptance of a standpoint be based on the strength of a reason. Choice relies on freedom. If an arguer cannot advance her standpoint, fully consider another's reason, or withdraw from the disagreement, then argumentation does not occur. Finally, value frameworks are designed to ensure contestation through clash; if there is not a common horizon of concern, then arguments lack a common denominator for interaction. It is difficult to test the better reason, if there is not a common set of priorities.

As summarized in Table 2, when conventional validity, freedom, and clash intersect with embodiment, immediacy, and immersion, then three criteria to assess sonic reasonableness emerge: force, velocity, and masking. Force assesses the strength or weakness of an embodied inference; velocity evaluates the time frame of an immediate choice, and masking gauges if sound allow arguments to interact. Since every sound reasons involves embodiment, immediacy, and immersion, any sound reason can violate any or all of these conditions.

Force evaluates if a sound reason is strong enough to compel attention, but not so strong that it overwhelms an interlocutor's capacity to withdraw from the disagreement. If a sound does not register as an argument with listeners, then it lacks force for consideration. Sound can also exert too much force. Certain pitches, frequencies, pressures, and volumes paralyze listeners with dread and/or exact physical damage (Goodman 2012). In between these two extremes is the space to assess if a sound argument has reasonable force. For example, the Walmart example has a reasonable amount of force. Although not every person watching will have the same embodied memory, a reasonable amount of people with children heading back to school will recognize the song. The Walmart ad generates the appropriate amount of force to capture attention, without overwhelming the senses. A listener can opt out of the appeal. Whereas some ads may compress sounds to burst into a living room and arrest attention (like a loud sound prompts a startle), Walmart uses the affective currency of an iconic song to capture attention.

Velocity evaluates if sound reason preserves an appropriate amount of time to efficiently and fully consider a position. The goal for argument analysis is to assess if a sound reason conveys a reasonable temporality. The sensation of urgency may compel a response before reasons are fully considered. An arguer can offer too many argumentative positions that no reasonable interlocutor can adequately consider the merits of each position. Consequently, any choice to accept or reject a standpoint will be, at best, partial. Argumentative positions may also occur at such a slow pace that the time to act may be missed. If an arguer goes to slow, then arguers might not be able to decide which course of action is best before an exigency resolves. For example, Perl and Tedesco's sonification occurs at a reasonable pace because it impresses upon listeners the urgency of acting on climate change. If something is not done now, then climate change may become irreversible.

Finally, masking evaluates if an immersive environment is conducive to deliberation. If a sound argument is too loud, then it can obscure another aural perspective. But if it is too quiet, then an arguer might not have the opportunity to respond. For an argument to occur, sound arguments must be configured properly so that reasons can clash. Argumentative analysis must determine if sound arguments enhance or diminish the potential for deliberation. Using the charivari as an example, advocates of Bill 78 attempted to mask opposition by creating restrictions to silence protest. Yet, the banging of pots and pans announced the protestors' position(s), creating the potential for argumentation. If the students did not create a cacophony, then it is unlikely their voice would have been heard, making clash impossible. Hence, the charivari was reasonable.

A predetermined amount of force, immediacy, or masking required for argument does not exist. Sonic argument may exercise a great deal of force, but sometimes arguers must compel a response, like when an interlocutor evades obligations or responsibilities (Goodwin 2007; Manolescu 2005). Sound arguments may be presented at a fast pace, because exigencies like how best to respond to a natural disaster require urgent action. Some sound arguments might overlap. Sometimes, however, auditors want to ensure aural privacy, and will use ambient noise to mask other conversations. The argument analyst must assess force, immediacy, and masking contextually to determine if it is a sound reason or a sound fallacy.


Multimodal argumentation suggests the senses have their own style of reasoning. Yet, most previous research takes an additive approach, viewing the senses as "ingredients from which arguments are constructed" (Groarke 2015, 152)--but do not change what it means to argue. Sound can be added onto an argument, a material premise for an inference or a strategy to bring about ascent. Such an approach typically smuggles in vision as the primary argumentative modality, however. It assumes that only things that fit within a visual analytic (e.g. Toulmin diagram, argument tree, Wigmore chart, key table, etc.) should count as argument. When argument is tied to data visualization, sound can only be epiphenomenal. In other words, it cannot fully analyze and evaluate sound reasoning it misses sound's embodied, immediate, and immersive dimensions.

Rather than starting from a predefined definition of argument and imposing such a structure onto sound, I followed Brockriede's (1992) conditions that give rise to argument. Such an approach allows us to rethink what multimodal argument means and how each sense might have unique ontological features. I argue that sound can be an argument in of itself Indeed, sounds satisfy the conditions of argument: inference, choice, and value framework. Auditors can perceive another's inference; sounds offer reasons that help people make decisions under conditions of uncertainty; and sound occurs in an overlapping value framework. In this essay I outlined sonic argument's unique ontology of embodiment, immediacy, and immersion. These unique features give rise to new resources for advocacy, like anamnesis and accelerando. At the same time, embodiment, immediacy, and immersion create the potential for new fallacies that require new standards of evaluation. A sound argument can have a reasonable scheme, but the sound occurs at such a pace that another arguer does not hear it, the sound presents with such force that it overwhelms the senses, or the sound obscures other positions being offered. I offered three situated criteria to assess sound arguments: force, velocity, and masking. These criteria offer analysts a strategy to determine if a sound constitutes an argument or a fallacy.

Although some readers might wish for a formalized definition of sound argument, more research is required before sonic argumentation models can be offered. The goal of this essay is an opening salvo to foment further inquiry into the intersection between sound studies and argumentation. The sonic figures, effects, and fallacies offer a starting point to promote the study of sonic argumentation, but more work needs to be done. Yet, the future study of sound argumentation faces a significant constraint. Most argumentation scholarship is confined to the communication channel of a journal. All the major argumentation periodicals (even if they are online) conform to the conventions of the printed journal. As a result, publishing essays about sonic argumentation requires conversion from sound to vision. Sonority's unique ontology is always lost in the translation. Of course, accepting alternative models of disseminating research, like a blog, or current publications distributed digitally (such as Informal Logic) could enable some hyperlinks or embedded audio to create space for sonic argument.

Finally, the division between "old" and "new" media trades on immersion, immediacy, and embodiment (Crawford 2009; Dyson 2009; Eckstein 2014; Sterne 2012b; Sterne 2012c). New media shifts from an externalized "looking at" (such as watching images on a screen or listening a record) to a "being-in" (such as ubiquitous, virtual environment). Whereas a book asks for people to pay attention to one page at a time, new media constantly splits attention, demanding immediate responses in and out of concurrent tasks. If sound also foregrounds immersive, embodied, and immediate arguments, then sound offers a more general approach to theorize argumentation in our digital moment. Indeed, force, velocity, and masking offer new tools to attend to a media environment that mirrors a sonic ontology. Just like vision has become the primary modality to understand argumentation (even ones that appear in other sensual registers), adopting a sonic perspective may shed light on the ways we understand different types of arguments, from individual acts of persuasion to public policy claims.


Received 21 April 2016

Accepted 14 December 2016


(1.) For example, in pragma-dialectics, critics are encouraged to add, delete, substitute, and rearrange to aid the process of arguments analysis, van Eemeren and Grootendorst (2004) observed often "essential parts of the process of resolution are sometimes also left unstated, such as the precise content of the difference of opinion, the distribution of the discussion roles, the way in which arguments are supposed to support the standpoint, and the relationship between the various arguments" (97-98).

(2.) Some might take issue with ascribing phenomenological characteristics to argumentation, instead preferring a more empirical or social scientific approach. However, ceding the domain of persuasion or argument apprehension to the social scientists obscures the situated nature of argumentation and truth claims.

(3.) The zone just below the level of consciousness is called an affective substrate. An affective substrate is populated with sentiments, attachments, and intensities that help color experience. We often see this register at work when we watch a movie, as different scenes are stored below the level of reflection and are called up to interpret a scene. Indeed, we can make sense of a movie without actively recollecting each of the antecedent scenes.


I would like to thank Darrin Hicks, Beth Innocenti, Katie Langford, Peter Ehrenhaus and the reviewers for their valuable insight during the revision process.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

Justin Eckstein is an assistant professor of communication and theatre and director of forensics at Pacific Lutheran University.


Justin Eckstein (iD)


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Justin Eckstein (iD)

Communication & Theatre, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, USA

CONTACT Justin Eckstein [mail]
Table 1. Reconstruction of Brockiede's conditions.

Condition          Procedure             Experience

An ingerential     The correct pattern   The mental movement from
leap               of inference          a premise to a conclusion

Choice             Weighing varialbes    The senstation of
                   with imperfect        making a choice

Value framework    Aligning reasons to   Social risk
                   value commitments

Table 2. Sound reasonableness.

Condition              Norm                    Sound ontology

An inferential leap    Conventional validity   Embodiment
Choice                 Freedom                 Immediacy
Value framework        Clash                   Immersion
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Date:Dec 22, 2017
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