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I Saw the Sign

On the myth-making and protest of political signage

Political Sign by Tobias Carroll. Bloomsbury Academic, 192 pages.

In 2014, the mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey, was marked by weird drama over campaign signs. Flouting a city ordinance, staff for the eventual victor Ras Baraka and his challenger Shavar Jeffries hung bright posters on trees, telephone poles, and mailboxes. Furious residents dug through March snowbanks just as quickly to tear them down. “It’s basically litter,” said one resident of the city’s North Ward, where the thicket of signage was especially dense. Eventually, City Hall coughed up an ultimatum: remove the signs or the city would do so at the campaigns’ expense. Baraka and Jeffries reluctantly complied with the wishes of the people. In Newark, signs were no longer just signs: they represented a contest over public space.

Episodes like this form the backbone of novelist and critic Tobias Carroll’s Political Sign, a pithy new book in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series that examines these signs as symbols, logos, and advertisements. In an account that’s more impressionistic than exhaustive, Carroll argues that political signs illustrate “how one thing becomes another.” Posted on lawns, held aloft at protests, emblazoned as tattoos, or displayed in museums, they have the power to represent and transform how we see our world. His analysis is, in essence, a semiotic one: political signs are objects with meaning beyond the literal messages they bear. And while whatever they signify depends a lot on the signs themselves and their context, it also depends on a world of cultural gestures operating below the surface.

For this reason, political signs are especially freighted with meaning. They are prone to becoming the subject of what Roland Barthes called a myth, a “second-order semiological system” that communicates not just a sign’s original message but also a story that the culture tells in sly support of prevailing ideologies. When advertisers depict protestors to sell a product or an idea, media outlets appropriate protest signs to draw eyeballs, or museums show activist art to burnish their social justice credentials, the signs do extra signifying. Enlisted this way, they become part of the pageantry of power.

But the route of a political sign’s meaning is often circuitous. The messages yard signs deliver, for example, can be misleading. Carroll’s way of seeing them proceeds from his upbringing in suburban New Jersey, what he calls “Bruce Springsteen and Kevin Smith territory.” He remembers a visit to his home county of Monmouth during the 2018 election season, when the density of signs for Bob Hugin, the Republican challenging Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Menendez for his seat, “served as a pretty solid indicator of the region’s politics”—predominantly white and conservative. Nevertheless, Menendez prevailed. “Lawn signs don’t vote,” goes a common adage among political operatives. That is to say no one’s sure they’re relevant to electoral outcomes. Far more than to persuade, they exist “to show the world who you are or what you believe in,” writes Carroll. Like so many objects we own, their greatest purpose is to signify personal choice.

Still, campaign signs form an industry of their own, one with a long history. As voting rights in Western democracies expanded over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reaching greater masses of people became more important, and sign-making slowly professionalized. The nineteenth century saw a hodgepodge of signage styles: some were a whole story in height, or covered with song lyrics, or printed with paragraphs of copy. These straightforward signs were conceived of to communicate information to voters in plain language. But by the twentieth century, ad men were refining the art form. Agencies like Young & Rubicam, which worked on Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential bid, set the template for campaign rollouts: the logos, the storytelling, the special televised events. Since then, campaign signs have conformed to a standard language with a numbing, generic sameness. Even nearly eighty years after its release, the most famous image of Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane is unmistakable as a campaign rally, Carroll remarks.

Like so many objects we own, their greatest purpose is to signify personal choice.

So it’s all the more striking when political signs are effectively memorable—and memorably effective. Consider Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 provocation, a sign by the firm Saatchi & Saatchi depicting a line at the unemployment office with the slogan “LABOUR ISN’T WORKING.” That visual helped vault her to the British prime ministership and heralded a broader conservative turn that was echoed in the Reaganism of the United States. In 2017, the far-right UK Independence Party aped Thatcher’s sign with a nativist version promoting Britain’s exit from the European Union: it portrayed an immigration line and the words “BREAKING POINT.” Contained within these images is an extra layer of meaning, a political vision more totalizing than meets the eye. What viewers get is not just a message about too much unemployment or immigration, but the myth of a once-great nation compromised by the social welfare state and an influx of outsiders, respectively. Both Thatcher’s austerity politics and the ultimately successful Leave campaign were built on lies. But “one of the more disorienting elements of political signage,” writes Carroll, is that “it doesn’t need to be accurate to be effective.” The same is true of politics in general.

Political Sign was written before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. For today’s reader, its discussion may feel like a dispatch from another time. After all, the meaning of political signs changes when we can no longer see them—or when the context for our seeing them is radically altered. Logos and ads still circulate on TV and social media, of course, and Joe Biden’s campaign has given voters the ability to post yard signs in the one place where it’s still safe to come together: Animal Crossing. But posters, T-shirts, pins, and bumper stickers have fewer opportunities to signify now that so much of our lives has migrated online. There weren’t, for example, many MAGA hats represented at Donald Trump’s anticlimactic June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when a nineteen-thousand-person venue went largely unfilled. (It’s no wonder that beautiful Trump-beflagged boaters in Texas recently made national headlines when some sunk their vessels, helping the nation recover from its tragic slump in symbolism.) If Citizen Kane’s lively rally scene reminds us of anything, it’s that the power of a demagogue’s political imagery depends a lot on response from an audience.

More visceral than Carroll’s consideration of traditional political signs, as we witness the continued rise of perhaps the largest social movement in history, is his writing on subversive political images: protest signs, tattoos, activist performances, and artwork. Generations of people on the margins of American life have handmade signs to contest power outside official electoral channels. During the Civil Rights Movement, striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, printed “I AM A MAN” on the signs they carried to protest racism and abuse by the city. Protestors have also long made improvised political signs of their own bodies. A history of “die-ins” spans from 1960s environmental protest to AIDS activism to today’s climate justice demonstrations and the Movement for Black Lives. People have worn their protests too: artist David Wojnarowicz’s black denim jacket, hand-painted with a pink triangle and the words “IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.,” called the government to account for ignoring an epidemic that was ravaging America’s queer community. And the so-called pussyhats that a pair of women from the Ravelry knitting community created to mark the 2017 Women’s March became what Carroll calls “ideological shorthand for a protest movement.”

Varying degrees of shocking, clever, or ludicrous, each of these signs is still stubbornly lodged in our collective memory as a demand for human dignity. But reactionary protest signs have been just as inventive. Think of the ghastly posters of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members shout abuse at those they deem “sodomite hypocrites.” Think of Roger Stone—really, think of him—whose liver-spotted Richard Nixon tattoo forms a public emblem connecting fifty fiendish years of movement conservatism. And then there’s tattoo artist Bob Holmes, who administered seventy-eight free Trump-themed tattoos over a single year. Political signs are how we inscribe our politics to ourselves as well as others, not just a means for promotion or protest but for “cultivating and organizing our identities,” Carroll holds, quoting the critic David Balzer’s work on “curationism.”

Because these signs tell a story that’s ultimately about us, it’s no wonder we put them on display. Both the Minneapolis Institute of Art and New York’s International Center for Photography have recently held shows featuring artworks and photographs that address political protests and campaigns. Shortly after its opening in 2019, New York’s Poster House staged an exhibit of signage from the Women’s March. “Particularly in contemporary protests you see a lot of signs that seem to be made with this secondary audience in mind, made to be photographed,” observes Melissa Walker, the collections manager of Poster House. Displayed in a museum, a sign like “AM I NEXT? #BLM” becomes a generalized emblem of a national movement, an object of retrospective contemplation rather than an urgent call to collective action.

But stripping these signs from the wild and placing them behind glass also confers tertiary meanings. When the Whitney Museum acquires signs with messages like “Abolish Fucking Cops” at a steep discount from a fundraising sale, it certainly neuters their message and exploits the artists who created them, but the museum’s object is to tell a favorable story about its own racial justice commitments. Presented this way, protest signs ultimately serve a true myth in the Barthesian sense, one that flatters America as a country in which a noble tradition of protest, supported by establishment institutions, leads to steady progress rather than routine suppression and limited gains.

Displayed in a museum, a sign like “AM I NEXT? #BLM” becomes an object of retrospective contemplation rather than an urgent call to collective action.

This kind of signification is compounded by the extractive impulses of media and corporations. If Carroll misses an opportunity for criticism, it’s in identifying the cynical way these images and the movements they’re attached to are inevitably appropriated. A Black Lives Matter sign is made into a dubious commodity when it becomes one of “34 Incredibly Powerful Signs From Black Lives Matter Protests Everyone Should See” in a BuzzFeed listicle published for clicks and ad revenue. And advertising itself has long sought to align its clients with countercultural movements and desires. The Movement for Black Lives is no exception: consider Pepsi’s much maligned 2017 TV spot that pictured Kendall Jenner crossing protest lines to hand a cop a soda.

The most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests surged in late May, in reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Written prior to those events, Political Sign lacks a taxonomy of the movement’s signs—the ubiquitous “WHITE SILENCE=VIOLENCE,” the manifesto on a pizza box, the reactionary messages of counterprotesters supporting Blue Lives, the anti-Trump slogans snuck in by white liberals either clueless or determined to co-opt the crowd—as well as the rash of “brand activism” that has attended it. Millions of people have carried or witnessed signs on the streets, despite the pandemic; tens of millions more have seen them on TV or social media. The protests have proven an exception to this year’s mandate that people make their demands at a social and physical distance. They also form a neat rejoinder to the notion that electoral politics and its signs are the truest form of democratic action.

Political Sign is a timely reminder, then, a political sign in its own right that encourages us to consider the power latent in our images. For all their radical potential, their mythic quality means we should also beware. “The fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated,” wrote Barthes on the function of myth in modern life. As the case of counterprotesters’ “All Lives Matter” signs makes apparent, reactionaries will readily take up shared signifiers to serve their own purposes. Comparing what that sign means on its face with what it means as a rebuke to the “Black Lives Matter” movement—that racial injustice in America is a solved problem deserving no special recompense—may be the best demonstration in recent memory of how dominant groups use this kind of appropriation to prop up existing hierarchies. For every visual insurgency, a counterinsurgency is never far behind.