Reviewed by Sarah Hirsch, University of California, Santa Barbara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Gregory Wilson, Texas Tech University
Speakers: Leigh Elion, University of Wisconsin–Madison, “Tactical Multi-Modality: San Francisco’s Visual Culture and the Limits of Persuasion”
Clayton Benjamin, University of Central Florida/USF Sarasota–Manatee, “Humanities and GIS?: Situating Geographic Information Systems in Humanities Research”
John Gagnon, Michigan State University, “Making Docile: Visual Signage as an Exertion of State Power in Lansing’s Eastside”
The presentations on this panel dealt with visual and material rhetoric, ranging from politicized art and parody to cartography and street signs. The speakers on the panel discussed the rhetorical messages of these visual media and what they include and exclude with regards to lived experience. The panelists also explored how space is negotiated and redefined through these visual articulations.
Leigh Elion’s presentation, titled “Tactile Multi-Modality: San Francisco’s Visual Culture and the Limits of Persuasion,” was formulated around the question of failed communication. Elion contextualized her discussion by invoking the stories of young men of color killed by San Francisco police officers, and the subsequent exclusion families of the victims felt from the public discourse regarding the violence. This exclusion from the civic discourse surrounding the police use of excessive force resulted in a visual rhetorical move in the form of a poster placed at a local bus stop at 24th and Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District. The bus stop, one of the Google Shuttle stops provided by the company to its many commuter employees, is located in a district in the midst of gentrification due to the proliferation of Silicon Valley tech workers who live in the city.
At the bus stop, an original Apple iPhone ad and its correlated tagline, “Shot on iPhone Apple 6s,” is placed on one side of the stop’s shelter area. The visual associated with the advertisement articulates the iconic rhetorical modes typical of Apple’s advertising: bold colors, clean lines, clear resolution, distinct contrasts, smiling couples, scenic nature shots. On the opposite side of the bus platform is the parody of the ad. The poster is a picture of Mario Woods, one of the shooting victims. In the corner of the poster is the silhouette of the Apple image and below Woods’s picture is the caption, “Shot on Keith Street.” It is clear that the poster is modeled on the ad, and Elion argued that the location of the poster anticipates a large audience of young, wealthy, predominantly White viewers. The result is that the parody confronts an audience that can’t quite—or doesn’t know how to—connect, but that is the point. The poster of Mario Woods performs what Elion called the rhetoric of a closed fist. It’s a form of embodied rhetoric, a nonverbal piece of text used in place of a verbal or explicitly written articulation. The visual serves as an interruption, an assertion of another narrative that has been excluded through the normal means of discourse.
Using the work of Lester Olson, Elion noted that though there is a lack of connection between the Mario Woods poster and the audience, this lack of remedy still results in argumentation. Though it seems like a closed rhetorical situation, the placement of the political parody next to the original ad produces uneasiness in the viewer. The ubiquity of Apple products and advertising are correlated with the ubiquity of police brutality. The poster thus provides a counter narrative of local communities and families who found no recourse in the city’s legal proceedings. The poster works a moral violence on the viewer, offsetting the message of the original ad, which is predicated on situational ease. The parody points to this dichotomy, which causes disconcertion. The parody uses the ad to produce its unsettling rhetorical effect.
As such, Elion argued that images play a role in public debate. Mario Woods’s portrait holds power in a chain of images and lays the groundwork for a foundational shift, in that it changes the discourse. The poster contributes to the elements of discourse when other voices were excluded from the debate. Even if it doesn’t quite persuade, it has socioemotional benefits: hope for a future audience and the promotion of validation.
Clayton Benjamin’s presentation, “Humanities and GIS?: Situating Geographic Information Systems in Humanities Research,” focused on how and why maps are produced and how to make them more inclusive. In formulating his argument, Benjamin used Mei-Po Kwan and Guoxiang Ding’s (2008) idea of the geo-narrative as a framework. In their article, “Geo-Narrative: Extending Geographic Information Systems for Narrative Analysis in Qualitative and Mixed-Method Research,” Kwan and Ding explain that their study was “based on extending current GIS capabilities for the analysis and interpretation of narrative materials such as oral histories, life histories, and biographies” (p. 443). Benjamin explained this process as narratives mapped in visualized form, the argument being that the mixed methodologies of space and narrative help in the understanding of place and how people write places. Essentially, narrative creates place out of space. Thus, the geo-narrative model provides the map with the cultural and social aspects of lived experience. Mapping stories reveals the intricacies of lived experience as people interact with space and create place. Benjamin emphasized that space becomes place through meaning, and this meaning comes from discursive practices that construct place. This is what Benjamin called the geo-argument.
Within the geo-argument, place is understood as an intricate network of discursive social interaction. Benjamin noted that maps are thought to be objective and uncontested, which makes them effective in describing the reality of life on the ground and the reality of a particular place; thus maps are inherently rhetorical. They are the visual articulation of geographic information. In this sense, the geographic information system provides the possibility of visualizing people’s lived experience in a particular place .
Places are created by the stories told about them, but they also facilitate identity formation. Benjamin explained that there is an ethos attached to the position of home. Place helps us identify ourselves through attributes such as accent and ideology. Places shape the way we think about the world and how we construct the world around us. Benjamin wanted to deconstruct maps to see who and what is written about our spaces more fully. He positioned it as a geo-poetics, an art form utilizing critical cartographers and critical geographers like artist Janet Cardiff (2005), who conducted audio walks. Benjamin argued that map artists use tools to form a disjunction between narrative, memory, and experience. In doing so they reject the authority of normative maps, not maps themselves. As art geographers, they deconstruct space and prescribe it with new meaning, reshaping place.
Benjamin believed that we can change the hegemonic thought of place. He noted how in changing geographical informational systems from a scientific tool to art, we have the potential to change how we perceive our world.
John Gagnon’s talk came from observations he began to make during his walks to and from Michigan State’s campus. In his presentation, “Making Docile: Visual Signage as an Exertion of State Power in Lansing’s Eastside,” Gagnon started out by citing Michel de Certeau (1984) and his assertion that the practitioners of the city are walkers. Gagnon’s opening question that prompted his investigation pertained to the street signs and city ordinances he encountered in walking from the Eastside to MSU’s campus in East Lansing. (East Lansing and Eastside are two distinct areas in the city of Lansing: East Lansing grew out from the MSU campus and now consists of 25 separate neighborhoods. The Eastside, geographically west of East Lansing, is a diverse community located close to downtown and Lansing’s urban center.) “How,” he wondered, “does visual signage—state-implemented signage—operate in communities?” Taking de Certeau’s cue, he began chronicling his walks, thinking about how regulation and control was implemented via material signposts. Gagnon found that the further east he moved, the whiter and wealthier the neighborhoods became.
Gagnon noted how signage is an everyday form of visual rhetoric. They are an everyday text and tool of power. By taking the signs into account, Gagnon was able to turn what is invisible, the walk, into a visible entity marked by signs. He started by looking at how signage was working within the community itself and settled on three categories: informational, hospitable, and restrictive. The informative signs tended to be the most neutral, educating passersby on population information and mainly functioning objectively. The hospitable signs were mainly positive, welcoming visitors and the like. The restrictive signs were mostly negative, consisting of No Parking and Neighborhood Watch notifications.
Gagnon noticed that the visual rhetoric deployed by the state differentiated by neighborhood. In the Eastside, signage was dominantly restrictive and consisted of only three informative and one hospitable signs. On the other hand, the Michigan State Campus (the most east of East Lansing) hosted mostly hospitable and informational signage. From his observations Gagnon argued that state-implemented signage can be used to manage people in communities. As the rhetorical-visual practices of the state, the signs become demographics themselves in showing how the state perceives the community. The signs become used as a type of surveillance and modify the behavior of the community. While the signage of Eastside is deterring and confining, the signage in East Lansing, near campus, tells a different story. The hospitable signs create an open and welcoming environment. The informational signs indicate that the neighborhood has value. From his analysis, Gagnon asserted that this dichotomy ultimately restricts intra- and inter-community movement. It impairs the ability for communities to collaborate. Gagnon noted that visual signage can easily “recede” into the background and go unnoticed, forgotten. But he encouraged us to know the signage in our community and how it is functioning. What story is it telling?
The talks on this panel promoted interesting discussion. Many commented on the commodification of the iPhone and the notion of every selfie as a type of portrait. Elion noted in response how Apple has a specific visual narrative that is always aesthetically pleasing and non-combative. All reflected on the compelling rhetorical work of the visuals discussed in each presentation.
Cardiff, Janet. (2005). The walk book. Retrieved May 6, 2016 from http://www.cardiffmiller.com/artworks/walks/audio_walk.html
De Certeau, Michel. (1984). The practice of everyday life (Steven F. Rendall, Trans.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Kwan, Mei-Po & Ding, Guoxiang. (2008). Geo-narrative: Extending geographic information systems for narrative analysis in qualitative and mixed-method research. Professional Geographer, 60(4), 443–465. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00330120802211752