Field Notes on Activist Objects
Like many American cities, Washington, D.C. grapples with its share of oppressions: racism, poverty, and geographical displacement, to name a few. Over the last two years, I have identified a network of graphically designed objects that resist these oppressions. Though these objects are often very different from each other, what they share is that they all circulate in the material and digital space of Washington. Working from a research method I call ecological fieldwork, this article reports on a kind of ambient activism, or the activism of objects in the background of city life that exert a hard to define but nonetheless real agency.
"Demonstrations had become a fact of everyday life, part of the background that people didn’t really notice anymore. There was always someone protesting something."
Cooper in Marcus Sakey's Brilliance
"The semiotic information of material culture,” says McCracken, “appears . . . to seep into consciousness . . . [insinuating itself] . . . into the very fabric of daily life."
David Sheridan in "Fabricating Consent"
Before I moved to Washington, D.C., public school history textbooks and Chicago’s television network news sketched its outline for me. The Million Man March in the fall of 1995 especially stands out: I saw my textbooks’ Civil Rights still life become a vibrant scene of contemporary activism. Such highly visible social action defines D.C. across the country, I think; the city functions as a stage for national protest, a theater-set with the attention of millions. When I moved here, however, I found a different lived experience. For many D.C. residents, protesters and tourists bleed together. Crowds to avoid, they clot the urban landscape’s arteries. Many people I know changed their commutes to avoid the Occupy Wall Street “mess,” for example, and sunbathers in Malcolm X Park rarely raise their heads when immigration reform marchers routinely pour down 16th Street to the White House. Pedestrians cross the street to avoid the small knot of regular demonstrators for Alan Gross’s release at the Cuban Special Interest Section.1 Is then the cynicism of Sakey’s character, specifically describing D.C., an accurate assessment? Without overstating this effect, one can distinguish between the globally visible but locally marginalized activism of national network news, which we might dub “in but not of Washington,” and a quieter layer of activism that operates in the background of city life, in the District and for the District. Just because social action becomes “part of the background,” however, does not necessarily indicate impotence. As Thomas Rickert suggests, “Rhetoric . . . can no longer be situated solely in human subjective performance” (29). This paper is about a kind of ambient activism, the activism of objects in the background that nonetheless exert a hard to define but real agency.
In what follows, I report on material activist objects that have surfaced in the context of my ongoing archival project, DC/Adapters (dcadapters.org). DC/Adapters collects and analyzes contemporary adaptations to and uses of the District of Columbia’s flag. The original flag, pictured here in the year of its adoption, 1938, offers a design ripe for creative re-imagination (ghostsofdc.org):
Since February of 2011, I’ve collected hundreds of images of adapted flags—from graffiti to commercial branding—with the growing sense that I’d tapped into a vibrant rhetorical phenomenon. Flag adaptation has turned out to be a commonplace with diverse uptake throughout the very complex system that is our nation’s capital.
DC/Adapters makes two moves related to oppression, liberation, and activism. First, it tracks activists’ specific uses of the flag through categories and tags. DC/Adapters also enacts a kind of activism itself. In Ben McCorkle and Jason Palmeri’s opening letter of a special issue of Harlot (11), they assert the need for a “capacious vision” of digital activism, describing “collection and arrangement,” as “powerful activist acts.” I’m grateful, therefore, for Technoculture’s timing with this special issue, a fitting platform for this first report on the research of DC/Adapters. Some of what follows does not require a capacious vision to be viewed as activism, such as a non-profit’s poster that adapts the flag design to amplify its call for action on behalf of D.C.’s underfed. One, however, does need a capacious view, literally, to see the larger systems in which these objects move, and to understand DC/Adapters itself as activism. As McCorkle and Palmeri put it, “When we open up our conceptions of what the scholarship of digital activism entails, we just might be able to do a better job of fucking shit up in the field of rhetoric—and in the world at large.”
Organized as a kind of a triptych, the first section of this report offers context from three angles: a brief account of activism and its historical context in D.C., the story of DC/Adapters’ origins and methods, and its theoretical framework, that of rhetorical ecologies. In the two sections that follow, a photo essay examines select adapted flags from the archive as material activist objects in the service of diverse causes, which leads to a third section of theoretical speculation about their possible impact. It is in this final section that this report on the fieldwork of DC/Adapters most directly challenges readers to consider the possibilities of object-oriented activism.
Chocolate City Remix
The roots of D.C.’s local activism rest in the city’s unique demographic composition—crucial to understanding 21st Century activism in Washington. In fact, D.C. boasts a remarkable history of local activism, one that remains very much a part of the city’s self-presentation, as illustrated by projects like the African American Heritage Trail designed by Smithsonian historian Marya Annette McQuirter. The trail highlights local history including the freeing of slaves and suffrage of black men before the rest of the country, as well as the growth of the city’s black population, which topped 70% by 1975. Accessible federal jobs, the prominence of Howard University, and the Black Arts and Black Power movements all crystallized into the “Chocolate City” throughout the middle parts of the 20th Century. Of no small significance, D.C.’s African American majority stood as a major facet of the city’s identity until that majority disappeared in 2011. And while black activism may come to mind first, as evidenced by the fact that the African American Heritage Trail courses through 19 different neighborhoods, other causes have taken root as well.
In a number of instances, particular causes have become associated with specific neighborhoods. Sheperd Park, for example, became known as the “Garden of Diversity” because of the efforts of groups like Neighbors, Inc. to integrate the neighborhood from the 1940s, even though restrictive housing covenants had been the norm in D.C. and elsewhere across the country. The historical embrace of diverse residents, especially Jewish and African Americans, remains a source of pride in the Sheperd’s Park Citizens Association (SPCA). In Dupont Circle, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance and the Human Rights Campaign, including the former’s Preserving Our History project and the latter’s Dupont shop, explicitly invoke Dupont as the “historical heart” of D.C.’s LGBT community. While Dupont remains important and accessible for the LGBT crowd even as it grows increasingly affluent, other historically marginalized groups have seen their neighborhoods pulled out from under their feet. For example, Barry Farm, once parceled property bought for freed slaves by the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867, and which became black-populated housing projects through the 20th Century, now draws the defense of grassroots housing advocates against the re-developers eyeing the neighborhood.
In a way, three nicknames tell the story of 20th Century D.C. First dubbed the “Murder Capital” by Newsweek in 1941, Washington became increasingly identified with violent crime, especially as the situation rapidly worsened through the second half of the century. At a peak of 482 murders in 1991, the first three years of the ‘90s saw nearly 1,400 killings, with a minimum of four hundred per year through the first half of the 1990s, as reported by the Metropolitan Police (“Murder Analysis”). Abe Pollin, owner of Washington’s N.B.A. team, seemed to sum up local concern, and perhaps a desire for a magical solution, when in 1997 he changed the team’s nickname from the Bullets to the Wizards. This new nickname foreshadows the power of private businesses in D.C.’s radical makeover to come. The homicide numbers significantly diminished throughout the latter half of the ‘90s and the 2000s in fairly precise correlation to larger population shifts in the city. In an analysis of the changes from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census, the Urban Institute aims to “[tell] the story of our changing city,” when D.C.’s population began to grow for the first time since the riots in the wake of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Not only, it turns out, is the city’s population growth driven almost entirely by newly arrived young white professionals, but “the areas where blacks moved out and the areas where whites moved in are roughly the same”: Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant. The third nickname, the reference to the Columbia Heights neighborhood as “Columbia Whites,” only began after the boom in development following the construction in 1999 of a new Metro station, some of the first rebuilding since the ‘68 riots but far from the last, as development and therefore the cost of living exploded in and around the area. Neighborhoods like Columbia “Whites” and Mt. Pleasant seem to me charged with a complicated pathos. Differences collide, often resentfully, even as the changes keep coming, seemingly slow and fast at the same time. Many Washingtonians, when they stop to think about it, don’t know what to make of our rapidly changing physical and demographic environment. This is the D.C. I moved to in 2011, where I encountered the city with the hyper-attention that we so often bring to new places.
As a new resident to the city, I noticed the D.C. flag in part because of its similarity to the flag of my hometown Chicago. It was D.C. residents’ creative uses of it that has kept my attention, however. I eventually discovered that the act of adaptation seems to be baked in to the D.C. flag. Originally designed by Charles Dunn, the flag itself adapts the shield portion of George Washington’s family coat of arms, a choice inspired by Maryland’s state flag that itself adapts Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms (Dunn 82-83). Clearly, flags emerge from a sense of place and, as we’ll see, provide powerful means for signaling local identity.
Even though I noticed the D.C. flag and the occasional adaptation of it, it wasn’t until I saw these three signs, within a few paces of each other, that I began to think of these adaptations as rhetorical acts of genuine significance.
All three shops, located at new upscale food market Union Market, incorporate and revise D.C’s flag design into signage, functioning as both advertisement and place-specific rhetoric of identity. From left to right, the flag’s three stars adorn the top of the empanadas banner at D.C. Empanada; in Salt and Sundry’s chalkboard sign hearts beat in place of stars; and D.C. Knife replaces the stars with its primary retail product. These varied uses of the same commonplace, the adaptation of the flag, leapt to my attention even in the midst of the busy Sunday morning market. The flag, it quickly became clear to me, is far more than just a flag: it’s a source of creative material and rhetorical invention all over the city. The proximity of these three signs focused my attention, in the way described by Richard Lanham as oscillatio, when one no longer looks through something but looks at it, suddenly occupying a meta-critical state of perception (xiii). While my newness to the city made me more likely to notice this phenomenon, the surprisingly large number of similarly improvised objects, the emergence and persistence of a city-wide rhetorical commonplace really, has sustained it. And while these three were the first I found (all three commercial signage), I decided to begin to collect such images—not knowing, of course, whether I would find a single additional example. Since then, as already noted, I’ve collected hundreds of images of adapted flags, indicating the truly prolific uptake of this commonplace by all sorts of rhetors into all sorts of genres, tapping as they do into the highly visible love for the local as a means of persuasion. Distinct subsystems that produce adapted flags have emerged, all exhibiting different forms of flag adaptation, including what I call the shop local subsystem, the activist subsystem, the political advertisement subsystem, the street art/graffiti subsystem, and the cultural consumption subsystem (these subsystems function as “categories” on the site, while the neighborhoods where I find them operate as tags). As will become clear, the borders of these categories do not always hold up. What these diverse rhetors share, however, is their shared use of a single commonplace, the adaptation of the D.C. flag, in order to kairotically intervene in movement in this system—to capture and hold attention.
In DC/Adapters, I collect images of flag re-designs circulating in the dense interconnected systems that comprise Washington, D.C. These rhetorical objects include graphic reconfigurations of the red and white stars and bars design in as many different ways as one can imagine, as well as production in various materials like posters (paper), signs (plastic and metal), art (paint and marker), and the digital. Ralph Cintron has referred to commonplaces, historically understood as forms of argument, instead as “storehouses of social energy,” suggesting that the mobilization of the District flag enacts a kind of networked charge distributed throughout the city (100). A central element of the social energy gathered by flag re-designs comes, I believe, from the effort expended in re-fashioning its constitutive elements. In this sense, I think of Jenny Rice’s description of her father, a mechanic, who doesn’t just “imagine and improvise solutions,” though he does this and it is important. He also “helps others imagine what they will need in order to create, repair, or refit.” Rice continues, suggesting that we “conceptualize rhetorical producers as logomechanics, or creators who can imagine, improvise, and enact the material deployments of meaning and its operation” (“Mechanics” 372). I’m less interested, then, in this flag on city property, than I am in DC Soul Recordings, a one-man effort to catalogue disappearing vinyl, which replaces the red stars of the flag with 45 rpm record inserts.
The content of this archive, as with all archives, reflects its method of collection. DC/Adapters grows organically, a result of my immersion in theories of rhetorical ecologies. Thinking of this project as enacting a kind of embodied and embedded research, I decided to collect only images that I came across in my everyday movements around the city. The project includes photos taken with an iPhone, while walking home from the grocery store, out with my wife, or running errands on my bike. This archive, that is, grows directly from the patterns of regular life. I’ve come to think of this approach as a kind of ecological fieldwork, like ethnography but with a focus on complex systems and objects. While I’ve zoomed in on one rhetorical move, the adaptation of the flag, I’m actually using that focus as a way of looking for connections, pulses of energy, what sparks are jumping and catching and which ones aren’t: the hue and cry, that is, of rhetoric.
My methods also include recording the location of each flag adaptation, distinguishing between adaptation and appropriation, and acknowledging the inevitable partiality of these methods. I record the location of every artifact because from the beginning I’ve been interested in where this activity occurs. This report, as already mentioned, functions as one slice of a larger project. DC/Adapters, still very much a work in progress, will evolve into a more advanced web project including developing a suite of analytical maps that build on the single heat map currently on the site. A flag re-design must be just that, a re-design, to be included (though this distinction quickly proved murky). Lastly, I have not collected “repeats,” though I wish I could have. Doing so would have captured more accurately the spatial distribution of the phenomenon (more on this later), but many of these have been so mass-produced that it would have been impossible to capture every iteration in any case. Exhaustive compilation also defies the imagination because many flags disappear as quickly as they appear, such as this charming hand-drawing I found taped to a bus stop, and which only survived about twelve hours.
Objects’ origins, furthermore, often remain elusive—creative Googling isn’t always enough to track down the rhetors behind them. Furthermore, photos imperfectly record embodied experience. My images can only offer a partial and time-bound glimpse, a limit of the entire project, really. This archive, then, stands as a record of a moment of attention paid. DC/Adapters functions as a translucent window into local rhetorical ecologies, described by Syverson, as “metasystems,” or a number of interrelated complex systems (5). In D.C., these interrelated complex systems include common urban systems visible from various angles and points of articulations like diverse populations, labor markets, built environments, but with D.C.-specific inflections like our racial history, the federal government’s immense presence, sub-statehood status, and so on.
The name DC/Adapters plays on an energy metaphor, itself adapting the name of the device that converts alternating current to direct current, the AC/DC adapter. Originally housed in Tumblr but now on a WordPress site, the archive has now passed two hundred and fifty distinct re-designs, and it has became clear that this phenomenon courses through D.C. on a larger scale than I could have anticipated when I began. As the project grows it increasingly illuminates, through the renewable energy of this commonplace, the interactions within and between rhetorical ecologies.
The literature on rhetorical ecologies provides the conceptual grounding of this project, especially Jenny Rice’s early and important “Unframing Models of Public Distribution,” in which she traces the commonplace invocation to “Keep Austin Weird” as an example of ecological dynamics (16-19). This brief case study infected me, to borrow her viral metaphor; it informed DC/Adapters years before it existed. As the literature on rhetorical ecologies and related areas continues to grow, this 2005 article remains one of its most cited texts. 2
The literature on rhetorical ecologies exhibits an analytical shift to the holistic, an ongoing consideration of writing in the larger systems in which it occurs. More specifically, the mode of analysis turns from atomistic items (writers, texts, audiences) and their conceptual correspondents (autonomy and originality), examining instead these items’ co-constitutive interactions (one definition of coordination). No text is single-authored, since every writer owes who-knows-how-much to the interconnected ecologies that generated her and what she sees as her text’s exigence, its composition, and even meaning. Rather than running along linear interpretive planes, from coder to code to de-coder, rhetoric functions as a complex system: distributed, emergent, embodied, and enacted, to borrow Margaret Syverson’s four key terms (7-18). Human bodies, computers, and countless other material entities coordinate with each other. Rather than the referent in a system of representation, meaning stands revealed in this framework as a retroactive and metaphorical description of enacted textual effects. Genres, dominant interpretations, even the achievement of one’s intentions through writing emerge much like the patterns of a flock in flight. In writing, then, the sums are multiple and they always exceed the parts. And as an ecology itself, the field of rhetorical ecologies evolves constantly, pulling from and contributing to studies on public rhetoric, material studies, and theories of complexity, the digital, and the network. DC/Adapters adds to this evolution by collecting examples of specific rhetorical activity with the purpose of shining a light on interlocking complex systems and subsystems, including taking the pulse of local issues and social trends, and learning about the dynamics of rhetorical movement.
“Rhetorical movement,” though, names all sorts of motion: that of the fifth canon of delivery and its contemporary evolution into circulation; the graphical movement in adapting the flag; social movements, as in progress on Big Issues; and the action that maintains the life of any complex system in which stillness equals death. In other words, it’s not only traditional forms of activism, and the journalism and scholarship about them, that make change. It’s up to researchers of rhetoric to ask what other sorts of rhetoric, actions, and objects change the flow of complex systems. As we’ll see, diverse rhetors produce adapted flags, sometimes in direct opposition to each other; for example, commercial enterprises and those resistant to them adopt flag adaptation, creating a kind of material agonism. Objects—stickers, signs, paintings, posters, etc.—work with and against each other to tauten the strands of this layered urban network. And, as Dobrin wrote in 2001, “ecocomposition [must] be seen as a site for the kind of activism that resists the oppression not just of nonhuman organisms and environments, but of all oppressive structures” (14). DC/Adapters steps in this direction.
It is from these three contexts, that of Washington’s demographic history and local activism, that of my creation of DC/Adapters in 2013 and its growth, and that of my study of rhetorical ecologies, that this project emerges in order to both grapple with methods of rhetorical research but also with how such research can echo local activism and even amplify it.
Rhetors adapt the flag in the interests of many activist causes, as we’ll see, but they’re yoked together by virtue of their shared uptake of this commonplace, which inscribes an issue as of particularly local importance (hunger, homelessness, gentrification). In many ways, though, all these issues are the legacy of the disinvestment experienced in D.C. following the King riots— like in cities all over the country—but in ways unique to D.C.’s particular history. Furthermore, each adaptation features different moves, which often echo in some way the causes they further: moves include replacing one or more stars or bars with another image (like we saw with D.C. Knife), the spatial re-arrangement of the flag’s elements, or sometimes the simple addition of text like we see with this lawn sign in support of the long-running effort for D.C. statehood.
The addition of text to the red stars and bars of the actual flag claims local identity, even as it echoes the slogan of President Obama’s first national campaign. In a highly recognizable genre and mode of circulation (the classic political lawn sign), this call for statehood functions as a kind of activism for everyone, while advancing one of the longest running local causes. The effort for statehood, part of the same spirit that included “Taxation without Representation” on District license plates, is publicly driven by a number of organizations, two of which, D.C. Statehood-Yes We Can! and LuvDC, consider themselves grassroots movements and employ adapted District flags. LuvDC, in fact, borrowed their design from local designer Brandon Bloch’s effort to “re-brand” D.C., which I observed stenciled on a truck parked in Adam’s Morgan, enacting an entirely more mobile circulation than the lawn sign above (brandonbloch.com).
This design, improvised from the 3 stars/2 bars foundation, softly echoes the letters D and C, while replacing one star with a heart that stands over the other two stars. I’ve also seen this design on t-shirts worn to rallies and events like Flag Day. Bloch’s desire to re-brand D.C. raises issues that resonate throughout many of these examples: what does it mean for a young, affluent white graphic designer to “re-brand” the Chocolate City of the ‘60s and ‘70s? What if D.C. achieves statehood only after Washington is no longer an African American majority city, after being denied statehood status for so long?
A number of activist groups invoke this commonplace of the local on behalf of the city’s underprivileged. D.C. Hunger Solutions, part of the Food Research and Action Center, and Food For All D.C., part of the Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team, articulate their designs through website logos.
My original photo of the D.C. Hunger Solutions logo, like many others, bears the mark of fieldwork: in this instance, a poorly-lit, fuzzy image taken from across a moving public bus. I captured the shot above from their website. D.C. Hunger Solutions enacts the typical star-replacement move, swapping the stars for an iconic apple, as did D.C. Knife with its product. Food for all D.C. spatially re-organizes the stars and bars so that the city’s population (“All DC”) is contained within the shape of the flag—another move for inclusiveness, like the activism for everyone of the DC Statehood lawn sign. These are efforts to unite an increasingly diverse city population across giant, and growing, income disparities.
Rooting D.C., a two-time adapter (at least), goes for the rare replacement of both the stars and the bars in the digital logo on the left, while the design on the right pushes the stars down into the top bar and morphs the lower bar into the soil of the city, into which the organization takes root (literally).
Rooting D.C. educates city residents on urban food production and consumption, with an emphasis on sustainability. These food advocacy activists, like the housing campaign below, work in the wake of the disinvestment and blight that followed the ‘68 riots, as experienced by so many American urban centers.
Housing For All, a campaign from the Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), supports non-profit housing initiatives in D.C., and draws attention to their efforts with this sticker I found on a sidewalk power box in the Petworth neighborhood.
This design features an architectural element. The slightly adapted flag design, with yellow stars, provides the roof of a house for which the text stands as the walls. And again, just like with Food for All, the re-design signals a broad inclusiveness.
The DCCoalition Against Domestic Violence works against domestic violence in the District of Columbia. On stickers and postcards, hearts round off the sharp edges of stars and send the message of love that the organization hopes will erode domestic abuse.
Within the first month of my fieldwork, I came across this poster on H St NE, which I then traced to the organization’s website.
A joint effort by D.C.’s Department of Public Works, the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and local non-profit Words, Beats, and Life, MuralsDC sponsors young spray-paint artists in the creation of public art. This project simultaneously offers political recognition to historically outsider art while beautifying the city. This graphic re-design of the flag features a number of significant alterations: first the stars are flipped upside-down, just like MuralsDC’s murals flip the script on the typical subject matter of large format public art. These pieces feature figures from D.C. history, especially prominent African Americans, as well as scenes from city life. The flag itself is folded into a larger paint brush in the poster, and in the website logo, the paint brush becomes the stencil of a paint brush from an implied aerosol can.
With over thirty murals city-wide, MuralsDC exerts real influence on the city’s visual landscape, including “I See Something New Every Day,” by Cita Sadeli, “Chelove,” which tells the story of local musical history.
This 3-story mural features Chuck Brown, the grandfather of Chocolate City go-go, a local form of funk, and the Bad Brains, early icons of the 1970s harDCore scene, a fusion of punk, reggae, and jazz (depending on whom you ask, of course). Note the adapted flag with the letter X in place of stars, which became the public symbol of harDCore’s fusion with the straight edge lifestyle in the public accounts of bands like the Teen Idles and Minor Threat, among others. Many objects in the graffiti subsystem echo this move to replace stars with Xes, recently pickled by the Corcoran Museum of Art in their exhibit “Pump Me Up: DC Subcultures.”
What’s one to make of activist street art projects, as I understand MuralsDC murals to be, when they call on the same commonplace as the museum show that, “ feels like an invitation to District gentrifiers to participate in the culture that they have displaced—its crack and crews and ’core, all safely behind museum doors” (Capps)?
While all above examples indicate, I believe, the social energy of the flag commonplace within D.C. activism, they also begin to indicate the interaction across complex systems, as in Syverson’s definition of a rhetorical ecology. There’s nothing clean or easy here, though. By tracing these last three pictured objects, we’ve traveled from NGO (activist subsystem) to a mural (street art/graffiti subsystem) to a museum exhibit (cultural consumption subsystem). For activists, these other subsystems matter because they contribute to the continual unfolding of the commonplace and, through interactions in the same material space, create charges in all associated systems. It’s precisely along these lines that Jenny Edbauer noted the “bleeding” in, through, and across rhetorical ecologies (9). Nathaniel Rivers and Ryan Weber reinforce her description of rhetorical bleeding, approvingly calling the whole thing a “bloody mess,” pointing out that such bleeding indicates not the exception but precisely the kind of constitutive relationality and systematic entanglement that we see between complex systems (193-194). And while all flag adaptations energize each other in the sense that they propagate a still-vibrant commonplace, some adaptations speak directly to each other, enacting direct confrontation, or a kind of material agonism, as in the next series of images in which corporate giants adapt the flag, small, local businesses do so as well, and street artists obliquely scold the lot of them.
Some flag adapters do so in the interests of unambiguous branding for commercial interests. These re-designs from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods indicate major corporate entities’ desire to tap into the energy of flag adaptation. The Trader Joe’s sign molds a word cloud-type text formation of local neighborhood names into the bars, with Washington’s famous cherry blossoms blooming in place of the stars, while Whole Foods’ tote bag also mobilizes the cherry blossoms in place of stars on a flag laid over the shape of the District itself.
It would be easy to dismiss these items as inauthentic, as not really local, but to do so would be to miss the way that they share local space and therefore re-charge the topos (Cintron’s “storehouse of social energy”). As Edbauer notes of Cingular Wireless in Austin, appropriations of local commonplaces by corporate giants do not snuff out an energetic commonplace, they seem to fuel it (“Unframing” 18-19). Without the appropriation of the local by these big box stores, then, we might not see the growing clamor for Washingtonians to spend their money on local businesses, as in these examples.
Small businesses, in fact, quite often incorporate the flag itself or adaptations of it into their logos, signage, or advertising material to attract potential customers. Note especially the brilliant incorporation of the city’s skyline into the top bar (under the stars) of the left-hand “Drink Local” poster. Both reference the growing number of D.C.-based breweries and distilleries. Perhaps counterintuitively, shopping local has begun to appear as another kind of activism against the incursion of corporate interests. In this instance, commercial adaptation as such does not automatically indicate the forces of gentrification against which many activists work. Like the “Drink Local” adaptations above, some shop local objects, apart from any particular business, take the form of exhortation to support local small businesses in general. This approach suggests, more than any one store’s necessarily self-interested effort could, that some see shopping local as a kind of work done on behalf of the community.
On the other hand, these same establishments, like high-priced boutique food and liquor stores, sell goods and charge prices that align them with increases in the cost of living that generates population displacement. As Sharon Zukin puts it, the processes of gentrification “reassert a purely local identity” (186) and “help constitute a market for the special characteristics of place” (192). The shop local subsystem, then, not only emerges as the most active subsystem in my fieldwork, but also functions as simultaneously a kind of an activism and as part of the gentrification machine. This plurality seems difficult at first—our tendency is to think that people/policies/trends/objects are working strictly for or against gentrification, but approaching the work from the framework of rhetorical ecologies has helped me to see, time and time again, how rhetors and their creations bleed across purposes and effects. As Candice Rai puts it, “The flexible uses of [rhetoric are] possible because [their] topoi function as persuasive rhetorical engines that proliferate meaning” (39, emphasis in original). Thinking in terms of the proliferation of meaning edges us closer to one of the central lessons of rhetorical ecologies in general and DC/Adapters more specifically: that we should think of rhetorical action as occurring multiply rather than unidirectionally or linearly. The following examples of street art activism, along these lines, offer visual provocations intended to stir things up in the minds of their beholders rather than convey a particular message.
The sticker (source unknown), for example, names the problem in no uncertain terms, with both text and the re-arranged stars and city skyline. Antarah Crawley’s mural “Greetings from Dystopia City” likewise aims to provoke city residents less explicitly perhaps but no less powerfully.
Painted on the side of the Capital Fringe theater, Crawley flips the flag design upside-down on a backwards cycling cap, he says, to indicate the “kinetic force” of the theater. He continues, “The motif is also highly applicable to the nature of D.C. as a body of people without representation in Congress, and also as a place that is treated as a rigid, inorganic federal city, when really, it is home to generations of people.” Ultimately, Crawley hopes his work forces residents to “question the nature of this city.” The kinds of questions that need asking, Crawley says include these pointed queries: “What am I doing here?” and “How does my business affect the city itself?” (antarahcrawley.com). Crawley’s work looks passersby in the eye, so to speak, and directly confronts them.
Similar art provocations bleed across the city, muddling the art and activist spheres. These mysterious ephemera often appear in a number of locations throughout Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant, and the U Street Corridor, the now re-developed “Black Broadway” of 20th Century D.C.
I’ve named the lefthand sticker “3/5s” because it stretches out of shape by an additional ⅔ the original flag, running past the red ink in the process. Perhaps evoking the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which the United States’ 1787 Constitutional Convention agreed to count ⅗ of the slave population for the purposes of total state population, this extended design looks to me like a comment on national and local racial history, including the dwindling African American population in D.C. An acquaintance suggests an alternative theory of this image, arguing that it’s another statement on the statehood issue. He suggests the title “Downloading Statehood.” The righthand image recalls the time of the Chocolate City, especially the heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s, as described above, when D.C. was a national hub of black culture. Like Crawley’s figure in the cycling cap, this man appears to look passerby directly in the eyes, but unlike Crawley’s figure, he doesn’t do so with a critical look in the present moment, but with skeptical impassivity from the past.
Not much information about either of these images circulates publicly. Both pieces seem to resist and remember, however. They point to the tension in D.C. and the present rate of change, including commercial and residential re-construction and the resulting demographic change. In short, these objects enact counterpublics, in Michael Warner’s sense of publics that are sensitive to their subordinate status (56).
It’s no accident, further, that the bulk of these art/activist objects I’ve found have been located in one of only a couple of neighborhoods. In what I intend to be the second stage of DC/Adapters, I have begun to build a digital map, marking the spatial distribution of flag objects. Rhetoricians have recently embraced mapping, of course, as a powerful tool for analysis and invention. 3 Even in its early goings, my mapping clearly indicates that the densest flag activity occurs in neighborhoods that have experienced the most amounts of change over the last decade or so. Staid neighborhoods like Georgetown offer very few adapted flags, and as much time as I spend in the area, I can safely say I’m not missing them. Conversely, neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant, mentioned earlier as those undergoing the most change in the entire District, contain the greatest number of stickers, posters, graffiti, and shops with re-designed flags. Further complicating the issues I’ve been discussing, like ecological bleeding and the dynamics of commonplace uptake, then, is the question of the spatial distribution. Mapping, however, has begun to put pressure on my early methodological choice to only record flags observed in my everyday life, what I’m calling ecological fieldwork. While I work in Georgetown, and live in and around Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant, Adams Morgan, and Petworth, the partiality of the project also limits the claims I can make about where activity occurs and where it does not. The longer I conduct this fieldwork, the more one thing becomes clear: an examination of one slice of rhetorical activity like this paper offers, that of some of the activist uses of the flag commonplace, barely begins to crack open what such tracing, collecting, and mapping work might reveal about the local “intersection[s] of a hundred threads in a material-cultural-performative-semiotic web” (Sheridan xxiii).
Activism of Objects
Having read this far, a skeptical reader might ask, “But can we really think of stickers and flyers as doing the work of activism?” She might sharpen the question by adding, “with so little reference to the human activist behind the object?” If we agree to consider these artifacts as activist at all, commonsense would suggest they hold weaker capacity for change than the staples of social action: marches, petitions, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and so on. Answers to this question are beginning to emerge from an area of work I see as connected to rhetorical ecologies, the study of object-oriented ontologies (OOO), led by Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Ian Bogost. Bogost’s self-described “elevator pitch” for this area of inquiry reads as the following:
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves. (bogost.com)
There’s much more to this area, of course, no surprise given its relationship to Heidegger’s work, but this statement makes the case for a focus on things, just as theories of rhetoric as ecological inform my research methods. While OOO rejects the disproportionate historical focus of study on all things human, often referred to as correlationism, focusing on objects does not mean dismissing human-based studies so much as looking with equal rigor at all the innumerable phenomena that populate the world. This is a question of balance, as becomes clear with Bogost’s call in the last phrase of his blurb to consider objects in their “relations with one another as much with ourselves” (emphasis mine). As those concerned with activism—i.e., action mostly on behalf of people—our anthropocentrism will never recede so very much, but work like that of rhetorical ecologies and OOO opens space for us to consider the existence, movement, and effects of objects in new ways. Hence, my claim that adapted flags might do a kind of activist work on their own. From this angle, any flag objects than trigger thoughts or actions on behalf of D.C.’s disadvantaged would be doing the work of activism. In a special issue of New Literary History including Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, Ian Hodder offers a way of distinguishing this claim from our usual human-first analytical mode, in his distinction between Human-Thing relationships (HT), such as the typical rhetorical concern with rhetor-text, and Thing-Human relationships (TH), in which the object of study becomes the effects on people of objects’ agentive exertions (19-20). DC/Adapters forces the question: what does moving through an urban landscape dotted with provocative activist variations of the city’s central symbol do to our impressions, movements, and choices? Further, we need to ask ourselves whether these objects can, as Crawley hopes, make passerby ask themselves: “What am I doing here?” and “How does my business affect the city itself?” And just a bit further, what other sorts of questions might other adapted flags inspire? Such questions require what Bogost calls “speculation in an applied fashion” (Alien 109).
Something like applied speculation already appears in our literature on rhetorical ecologies. For example, Rivers and Weber, mentioned earlier, speculate about the “mundane texts that shape institutions and therefore mold human behavior” (188). Rivers and Weber look at the Civil Rights Movement as a test case, especially at texts around the legacy ascribed to Rosa Parks’s actions. For them, mundane texts like the minutes from a meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association or the flyers circulated among black churches contributed to the monumental change that followed, as much as Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus on that famous day. Maybe we can only retroactively identify the relationship between these flyers and the Civil Rights Act, through something like correlation rather than causation, but activists never know ahead of time what will generate desired change, and what won’t. Likewise, adapted D.C. flags, so clearly part of the ambient background of the city, might play a role like those of the Civil Rights flyers identified by Rivers and Weber or Edbauer’s “Keep Austin Weird” stickers and t-shirts. This perspective requires a shift from typical approaches to rhetorical analysis to a perspective Marilyn Cooper builds across multiple texts.
Cooper approaches rhetoric as a tool rather than a text. This move, a core notion of rhetorical ecologies, requires seeing symbol-use as more than the cognitive conveyance of meaning. Not yet extending her argument to the visual, Cooper aligns words and tools because they: “enable us to play around with ‘stuff’ and create new patterns” (“Matrix” 26). Cooper’s notion of tools points us toward examples of coordination and resistance, of leverage and movement. If, as David Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony Michel put it, rhetoric has begun to “feel less like cognitive-symbolic activity,” then perhaps rhetoric now feels more like the creation of new patterns (xvii). The pattern metaphor departs radically from beliefs, the commonly understood aim of persuasive efforts, because its physicality moves us away from models of persuasion based on intersubjective transparency and the ideal of strictly rational human interaction. When one puts a stick in a trickle of water, the flow-pattern changes not because it now sees the truth of the stick’s argument, but because multiple agents forcefully, if subtly, interact. Likewise, we can think of adapted flags as slippery levers, as technologies of pattern change. They can pop us free from tired or harmful patterns, though it’s pretty tough to tell when or where or with whom they might do so. Cooper, theorizing action like the street art activists above, further characterizes such tools as devices of perturbation and invitation within complex environments (Agency 437-439). People in the District see and sense changes in the city’s complex patterns, and activist adapted flags can work to create anew the complex patterns of D.C. I’ll end these field notes with a little speculation about how adapted flags, especially those pointedly engaged with provoking greater social awareness of the city and its marginalized historical majority, can nudge residents’ attention and motion.
Activist objects can puncture our attention precisely because attention is a physical phenomenon. Like when a bright light catches your eye, we do not always command this perception. In “Fabricating Consent,” David Sheridan describes the Barbie Liberation Organization’s culture jamming project in which they switched the speech mechanisms in Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, replaced them on the shelves in retails stores, and included directions for the “operation” on their website (259-260). This project seems specifically geared toward attention rather than prompting a particular action. In ways big and small, that is, this activism might have captured the attention of children, parents, retailers, manufacturers, and the media, and, one hopes, changed complex patterns of gendered thinking, even in small or hard to track ways. Similarly, as DC/Adapters has grown, it has changed what and how I see, as well as the vision of others around me. I have included it in my classes in various ways and talked with a number of friends and colleagues about the project, as well as people I don’t know and even one reporter from the Washington Post, many of whom have had two reactions: 1) they recognize the phenomenon and immediately ask if I already collected one or two that she or he recalls on the spot and 2) they mention, usually days later, how often they now see adapted flags, sending me one or two images over email (which I include in the archive if I haven’t yet). I cannot pretend that these alterations to others’ attention constitutes a radical change to life in D.C., but they carry a charge, a rhetorical potentia. At first, it might seem that others’ lack of conscious notice of adapted flags seriously circumscribes any such object-potential. On the other hand, I would suggest the fact that people recognize the phenomenon immediately and typically name one or two they remember—without realizing they had carried that image with them—suggests the kind of nonconscious work such objects can do. The question is, can objects agitate prior to, or underneath, specific notice? The answer I offer here is yes. It might not matter, in other words, if people think of these objects as activism as they observe them; to hang too much importance on this question would be to dwell in the realm of the hermeneutic. It might be more important to ask what sorts of thoughts, impressions, and feelings do these objects spur, even when people do not consciously note these images? How do they alter one’s sense of place and community?
I didn’t realize just how much this project has altered what I see until I found myself insisting to my wife that this image could be an adapted flag, which it seems fairly clearly not to be. Sometimes an upside-down coaster is just an upside-down coaster.
Another day I found myself expressing my frustration over a minor professional disappointment by drawing this on my hand:
I’ve begun to wonder if all these adapted flags, even the ones that reinforce gentrification and population displacement, like the big corporate or shop local re-designs, make us more aware of place and people in important ways, ones that perhaps cause us to see our city in different ways, and maybe even in progressively political ways. Moving through a built environment that is sticky with the filaments of “material-cultural-performative-semiotic web[s]” perhaps cannot help but alter the way that one moves through space, and maybe even makes one less likely to cross the street, or put one’s head down and shoulder though. In a recent O-Zone article, James J. Brown, Jr. and Nathaniel Rivers create another link, this one explicit, between OOO, rhetorical ecologies, and activism. Considering the ways that “rhetor[s] must attune [themselves] to a complex ecology of humans and nonhumans,” Brown and Rivers argue that working with objects can “throw into sharp relief the agency that things are always exerting” and “simulat[e] the experience of those at the margins” (29-32). I like to think that the Public Property sticker, Crawley’s mural, 3/5s, and the man in the hat sticker carry the potential to jolt increasingly white affluent passersby to stop and think about the past, present, and future of Washington, D.C., as they have made me. In a practice of “rhetorical carpentry” Rivers and Weber call rhetors to action, especially those concerned with questions of social justice, to create “objects designed to confront audiences” (34), echoing Cooper’s invitation to create perturbing tools of pattern change. Every individual object that incorporates re-designed flags counts, of course, as a kind of carpentry, including those explicitly confronting pedestrians, but so too does DC/Adapters, which collects and arranges many variations on this carpentry. The digital map, once completed, will function as another kind of rhetorical carpentry, as does Technoculture’s special issue itself. As DC/Adapters continues to grow, I have even begun to take more seriously a friend’s suggestion that I consider putting together an exhibition in a local gallery. A project so far outside of my own experience that it is difficult to imagine, I come to embrace this idea in light of James J. Brown, Jr.’s suggestion that we “continually [perform] [our] rhetorical experiments in public” (2). Whether we call the adapted flags “provocations,” “carpentry,” or “rhetorical experiments,” the advocates of social justice in Washington, D.C.—those who aim to distribute more equitably the fruits of the city’s upward economic swing—bear the responsibility of testing the effects of such objects and as many others as we can make in human and non-human collaborations. In a world in which rhetoricians now insist that nothing guarantees rhetorical efficacy, it must become the aim of those with activist aims to embrace the effects of carpentry with the resources around us, of materially collaborating to change patterns of attention and motion. And like Bogost at the end of Alien Phenomenology, I choose to ask with a sense of wonder rather than resignation, who knows what sorts of effects these objects might have?
- 1. The Cuban government released Gross on December 17, 2014.
- 2. For some of the early and important texts on rhetorical ecologies, see Washell, Coe, Cooper, Syverson, Warner, and Dobrin and Weisser, among others.
- 3. See Jim Ridolfo’s rhetmap (rhetmap.org) and the International WAC/WID Mapping Project (mappingproject.ucdavis.edu) for two examples among many others.
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Matthew Pavesich, PhD is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English and Associate Director of the Writing Program at Georgetown University. His Journal of Basic Writing article “Reflecting on the Liberal Reflex” was selected for Parlor Press’s The Best of the Independent Rhetoric and Composition Journals (2013). He lives in Washington, D.C.
© 2014 Matthew Pavesich, used by permission