By Christine Denecker, The University of Findlay
“Picture Perfect” and the New Face of Academic Argument
In “Picture Perfect,” viewers experience the dual existence of Vogue intern, Alexa Calhoun, who presents an outward life of perfection to her ever-growing legion of Twitter followers, while she simultaneously battles depression and feelings of inadequacy. The result is a complex, intertextual digital argument where, to borrow the words of Kyle Larson, the interaction of the separate parts of the composition contribute to one’s “understanding of the whole.” Specifically, the visuals, layered with the voice over, music, and tweets “add up to a semiotic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts” (Larson 96). This “whole” relies heavily on the affective, and as such, aids in sparking conversations about the role of emotion in academic argument and the place of digital composition as academic argument in the composition classroom.
According to Virginia Kuhn, “digital argument can extend its features to writing with sound and image in addition to words,” (par. 3.2) and “Picture Perfect”—thanks to its juxtaposition of a variety of visual, alphabetic, and aural elements–certainly stands as a digital argument that invites viewers to interpretations that are decidedly neither predictable nor neutral. Instead, those interpretations are predicated largely on experience and emotional response to “Picture Perfect’s” intertext. In fact, two types of exchange occur which lead to potential multiple arguments sparked by the piece; first, (not surprisingly) is the exchange between the viewer and the text, and the second is the exchange amongst the parts of the text itself. The layers of argument that emerge through the interplay of what viewers are seeing (images of Calhoun in moments of both perfection and imperfection), hearing (haunting music as well as Calhoun’s voice-over: “simplest tasks become painful,” “stuck,” “heaviness”) and reading (tweets describing Calhoun as “flawless,” “a goddess,” “queen,” and “angel”) create juxtapositions and tensions difficult to achieve in traditional academic argument.
In addition, when those layers are analyzed against one another, such as the voice-over against the tweets or the visuals against the music, new tensions and arguments emerge extending the potential for interpretation and for dialog about the piece and/or various subject matters within the piece. For example, as Calhoun’s cult of personality grows, a dystopian view of society emerges: a copy of 1984 is included in one of the scenes, a blinking clock, television static, and even Calhoun’s first name—Alexa (Amazon’s voice recognition device)—suggest a socially engineered universe and open up the potential for additional interpretation and argument. Interestingly, Kuhn contends that argument “can help break down the boundaries between fact and fiction” (par. 3.2). However, the intertextual layers of “Picture Perfect” actually serve to blur those lines via multiple avenues for interpretation based on the ways in which viewers’ lives and experiences intersect with the life and experiences (real or imagined) of Calhoun.
In the end, “Picture Perfect’s” intertextual and subsequently emotive elements serve to help viewers rethink the notion that the separate parts of a digital composition contribute to a specific “semiotic whole.” Certainly they can and do; however, to limit digital argument to one semiotic interpretation or a singular “whole” obfuscates its ultimate potential to challenge, transform, and put a new face to academic argument.
Kuhn, Virginia. “The Rhetoric of Remix.” Transformative Works and Cultures, 9(41), 2018, 41 paragraphs.
Larson, Kyle. “The Subversive Remix Rhetoric of Saved By The Bell Hooks.” Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, 7(2/3), 2017, pp. 94-103.