Garr Reynolds over at Presentation Zen has a good breakdown of the visual elements of IKEA. I highly recommend that you read his post “Learning slide design from an IKEA billboard.” He provides an excellent analysis of what makes the posters persuasive and engaging. It really is a top notch post.

I, on the other hand, am totally thrilled by a person’s willingness to deconstruct a visual representation present within their own environment. I mean, once that deconstruction and analysis takes place, won’t that person be one step closer to understanding the way their particular environment manipulates them? And in understanding that manipulation, we’re a step closer in understanding the communication that is prevailing within that environment.

Are you paying attention?

Speaking of coffeeshops….

While sitting in one the other day, I observed a group of people obviously involved in some kind of meeting, surrounded by computers and tensely discussing what seemed like matters of some import. Every so often, I noticed that one person (I should mention, the only man in the group) seemed to be spending significantly more time e-mailing, texting, and even taking a phone call in the middle of the conversation. I could practically see the steam come out of the others’ ears

Now, I don’t want to make any tired generalizations about modern culture, manners, or the ills of technology. But this experience returned to mind while I was reading something about audience responsibility and rhetorical response… and for the first time I really thought about the expression “to pay attention.” So of course, I went to the OED and found the following definitions of the verb “to pay”:

  • to appease, pacify, satisfy
  • to give or transfer goods/money in return for goods or services, or in discharge of an obligation
  • to give what is due or deserved

And for attention:

  • earnest direction of the mind, consideration, or regard
  • practical consideration, observant care, notice

This common phrase, then, has some interesting underlying assumptions — that careful notice is what is due to a communicator, what is deserved by the one (or many) who puts forth a message. That service, in effect, demands recompense in the form of that seemingly simple but rare “earnest direction” of attention. If the attention owed is not paid, the transaction simply cannot go through. And the debt multiplies exponentially.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of audience responses lately — especially as we audiences are awash in political rhetoric that can all too often leave us feeling passive — and this phrase brings to mind yet again Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of rhetorical listening, “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture; its purpose is to cultivate conscious identification in ways that promote productive conversation, especially but not solely cross-culturally” (Rhetorical Listening 25). This is more than mere granting of attention; it is an active participation in the work of communication, which can only occur under conditions of equal exchange.

So that guy playing on the iPhone wasn’t just rude — he was a thief of sorts, or perhaps just a cheat. By refusing to grant his attention, he  failed to hold up his side of the communicative bargain. His attention was being paid out everywhere but to his immediate colleagues — who couldn’t help but recognize the lack of value he placed on their conversation.

As far as I can tell, the only ways to repay such inattention are to refuse to listen in turn or to refuse to speak. Either way, there’s a breakdown in collaborative conversation, a rejection of the shared responsibility of rhetoric — and that’s a pretty high price to pay for a text message.

I can only hope he at least picked up the tab…

conventional wisdom

This past week, I made a conscious effort to catch the major speeches at the Democratic National Convention (including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Al Gore, and Barack himself).

“But why?,” I was asked last night.

Hmmmm…. because I’m a Democrat?  Because I study rhetoric?  Because I’m trying to decide who to vote for?  No, no, no.

Really, I guess it’s because I want to be inspired.  Because I want to hear motivating speeches that promise Americans the best, that tell us we deserve the best, that make me feel a part of something larger than myself… a part of a big community that shares my social, cultural, and political values and goals.

Is that, in fact, the sole (or “soul”) purpose of these conventions?  Because, let’s face it: these politicans don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, they can’t possibly accomplish all they claim they will, and they never really tell us what exactly they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.

Is it all about the use of rhetoric to INSPIRE–to MOTIVATE the American people? to stir our emotions just enough to reinstate our belief in the government and to cast our vote in November?

Well, these 6 people did that for me.  They told me exactly what I wanted to hear.  They made me feel exactly how I wanted to feel.

Creatures of Habit

I often go to coffee shops to work. At home too often I stare out the window or doze off, but at cafés I can only gaze off into space for so long before people will think I’m crazy. And sleeping in public is just weird. If the time comes that I’m comfortable enough to go to cafés in pajamas, it’ll be both a sad and liberating day.

There’s a coffee shop in particular I visit about once or twice a week. When I go there, I expect to get good work done, and I generally do. It’s like Pavlov’s salivating dogs and the ringing bells: For me, visiting this café = work. It’s great. I’d go every day except it’s hard to avoid conversations with other café goers now that I’m a regular (and I’ve ruined other cafés for myself by giving in), and I know I can’t sustain on a daily basis the kind of productivity I experience there, and forcing it would ruin my relationship with the venue. It’s too precious to me.

I was there one day, tucked into one of my usual spots at the edge of a long bench seat with a small round table in front of me. I was deep in my own world, typing away like mad. I sat there with walls to my back and left, laptop in front of me, decaf latte next to it, book bag to my right, and iPod somewhere in the vicinity and attached to my ears: I sufficiently blocked out the venue, sounds, and people I’d just driven out to join in the first place. Yes, my life is full of ironies.

I was lost in my own world (for several hours at that point, might I add), when a hand slid a napkin into my view. I saw something was scrawled on it in pen, but first my eyes followed the hand to find its owner. (The rhetorician in me needs context first.) A girl had sat a couple tables away at the same bench where I was seated, and she’d similarly spread her belongings in a half circle around her against her corner of the space. Our workspaces were symmetrical.

My eyes went back to the napkin, and I read her note. She asked if I knew of a book on creative directors. My brain paused. I am unfortunately one of those pitiful people who when asked a random question often blanks out and has to ask the person to repeat the question even if it was fairly clear the first time. Since the question was written down, I didn’t have to ask for a repeat, but the words swam in front of me, and I had no idea what she was asking.

I turned off my iPod, removed my ear buds, and turned to ask her what field of work or study she meant. But before I could ask my question, she took the napkin and began writing again. Was I still a student at OSU? “Yes,” I said, nodding my head and wondering how she knew me without my remembering her.

She began to write on another napkin more quickly, messed up, scribbled it out, paused, and began to look flustered. In an aloof sort of way I watched, waited, and wondered why she kept trying to write even after I’d turned off my music and given her my attention. I had work I needed to return to. And then slowly my mind began to wrap itself around this puzzle. Her gestures. The lack of any sound or utterance. And then shame began to override my impatience. She was deaf, and she was communicating the best she could with me while asking for my help.

Rather than watch her struggle with writing on a napkin, I figured she could type out her question more easily on my laptop. Perhaps, like me, she was one of those people who can’t write comfortably by hand when someone’s waiting (or for that matter parallel park when someone’s watching. Sigh).

I got her attention and pointed to my laptop. She looked relieved. I went to my email account and opened a composing space so she could type out her question more clearly, and when I handed over my laptop, she opened a new window and began searching for her book. That’s fine, I thought. Finding the book would answer my question just as well and probably even faster. With my source of work gone, I watched. And then I helped her with the book search. And then I tidied up the sentences she wrote to a librarian (recalling how confused I was by her initial question). And then I went ahead and added another sentence or two to that same note. And then she hit send. And then we got sucked into conversation.

I had questions for her (naturally), and rather than be offended at my lack of knowledge of deaf culture, she brought up various sites to show me the kind of projects she was involved in. (I wish I remember them so I could add the links here.) Using the URL space of the browser, we wrote (she started it; I wouldn’t have thought of it). Aside from Firefox 3.0 trying to preempt us with various popular addresses on the Web as we typed, our conversation went smoothly.

Our interests overlapped quite a bit: She was one of the people who produce the kind of content I analyze. Her story was that she was a graphic design artist, had been offered a new position at her company, and was researching what was involved in it. She selected one of the magazines she’d spread around her, pointed out certain features, and wrote about why certain designs and layouts appealed to her. If I didn’t have piles of work waiting for me, I would’ve had a ton more questions for her.

All the while, though — and I’m embarrassed to admit this tendency — I kept trying to figure out her pattern of error. I don’t usually sit and pick apart every writing error I see, but her patterns were unlike anything I’d seen in the years I’ve worked as a language tutor and writing instructor. It was yet another puzzle for me.

It turned out that she was Ukrainian and had learned English in a very short time. The usual cues I would have expected — an accent, pauses and “uhs” in speech — were exactly those I obviously could not hear, but I was also blind to them in writing that day. It made me think that a lot people learn languages by immersion, by being enveloped in the daily sounds and conversations that surround us. I assume, then, that a person who learns language by signing and reading is probably going to pick up certain features of language more quickly and fluently than those that a hearing person would and therefore would have different types of interferences from their other languages as well. Fascinating.

Finally, I told her about Harlot, cordially asked her to consider submitting her work to us, and then we went back to work. She got my attention again a little later, and I stopped and turned off my music. But not without a moment of hesitation. I knew my music didn’t matter, but it didn’t seem right to leave it on. It was the same feeling I get when I wear sunglasses and talk to someone who isn’t wearing any. It seems rude if I can see the other person’s eyes but that person can’t see mine. (I actually buy sunglasses now that aren’t entirely dark just so I don’t have to suffer the discomfort.)

In the end, though, I wonder whether her eyes caught the strange looks we got from someone sitting nearby or whether with the aid of her half circle of magazines, placed like a barrier around her, that she’s trained herself to block out sight of the rubberneckers. The day left me both happy at what I had learned of deaf culture but also saddened that people still shamelessly gawk at individuals with disabilities.

Eating Your Flashdrive

So, yes. I may be a complete dork here. Right, so I am a complete dork here, but Shiny Shiny is reporting on flashdrives in the shape of fruit. And, for some reason, I find it utterly idiotic and absolutely cool at the exact same time. I can’t imagine walking around with a plastic strawberry or watermelon in my pocket, but I do enjoy the thought of seeing random strangers look at my laptop with a sideways long glance when trying to figure out why there’s a strawberry sticking out of my computer.

Is she trying to make a statement?

Maybe she just likes fruit.

OBEY the Commander in Chief!

Yep.  They’re everywhere.

I can’t walk down the sidewalk in Columbus without seeing a poster or sticker with Obama’s face on it.  Do these look familiar?



Am I a little annoyed?  Yeah.  I’m annoyed.  But not for the reason you might suspect.  My annoyance (and deep fascination) springs not from the man depicted, but the man who designed it.

Alright, you recognized these images around Columbus (and my guess is that even for our outside-of-the-heartland readers this image isn’t unfamiliar) — but do you recognize these?


Yes?  Good.  But for any urban dwellers out there that haven’t (and I’ll try to say this without sounding condescending), it’s time to open your eyes when you’re out-n-about in the city.  Seriously.  They’re everywhere.

What is the face of Andre the Giant doing gracing cityscapes all across the globe?

The “OBEY” campaign is the brainchild of Shepherd Fairey, perhaps the second most famous street artist of all time (Banksy is hands-down the first).  In the late ’80s Fairey started posting stickers with a crude drawing of Andre on it with the saying, “Andre the Giant has a Posse.”  He plopped stickers wherever he went, eventually creating a stir of rumors and conspiracies.  In candid interviews Fairey tones down his typical pitch about how the campaign is an “experiment in phenomenology” and admits that he just thought it was funny confusing people into thinking random and fantastical thoughts about what such a sticker could possibly mean.  How deep.

Fascinated with how messages embedded in the cityscape communicated differently, Fairey expanded his reach, bombing stickers and wheatpasted images across the US.  Soon ascending the short ladder of hipness, Fairey was able to support himself financially, becoming a full time street artist.  He now operates an extremely successful brand.  OBEY now sells clothing, limited edition prints, and books.

You may have surmised by my tone that I find Fairey a less than compelling figure.  It’s true.  Without being overly bitchy about it, I think he’s a shallow hack and capitalist pig.

And this isn’t just a case of “I used to like that band before they got famous.”

Street art — stenciling, wheatpasting, and some varieties of tagging — carries with it certain philosophies (that I’ll do my best to explore in a follow-up post) that Fairey has little respect for; but more generally, Fairey has little respect for originality, a key component of street art.  He’s a flagrant, unapologetic plagiarist masquerading under a revolutionary veneer.  Gross.

Mark Vallen, an astute art critic who has done the research to expose Fairey’s careerism, puts it eloquently: “When a will to plagiarize and a love for self-promotion are the only requirements necessary for becoming an artist, then clearly the arts are in deep trouble.”

Here are just a few clipped shots from Vallen’s site, which is linked to above:obeyplag1.jpgobeyplag3.jpg


But I want to be careful here, since the use of art in resistance is a tricky area.  Appropriation, replication without granted permission, subversion through irony, and a deep distrust of all authority are all common features in street art.  But when you make your pay by stealing other people’s aesthetics and allowing it to pass as original stuff, you’re nothing but a banal jerk.

Oh my.  Now that I’ve ranted for so long I’m out of breath to talk about the Obama image as rhetorical situation.  But a few thoughts before I go slam a cup of decaf:

* When subculture aesthetics and practices mix with political propaganda (they’re often close cousins in many regards), the results can be mixed.  I’m wondering how the practice of illegally “tagging” and “bombing” posters on walls and stickers on lampposts gives the campaign a subversive “a revolution is happening!” feel to it.  There is a pervasive irony here, right?  I mean, blatant dismissal of city law for a “higher purpose” isn’t ironic when that higher purpose is ultimately fighting the fundamental adherence to city law.  But what about when it’s for someone who’s job it is to maintain that fundamental order?  I’m polarizing camps here, making the question slightly misleading by being reductive.  Nevertheless, subversive overtones (undertones?) can really help a political campaign in building momentum.

* The image itself deserves a solid rhetorical analysis of visual composition.  It departs significantly from your standard American campaign headshot for a poster.  The simplicity of it all, combined with the steely gaze of Barack can’t help but make me think of this other leader — I think his name was Chairman Mao.  Or am I thinking of Lenny?

Seriously, doesn’t this poster have an aesthetic aura to it that gestures towards revolutionary leaders of the East?


(thanks to for pulling these shots together)

*  Hillary caught on a little too late to the power of revolutionary propaganda, the current cultural cache of retro, and the potential of hipster politics.  Did any of you see this poster, released by the Clinton campaign near its death knell?



Anyone out there up for another quick game of juxtaposition?  This hopefully will leave us on a good jumping off point for a rowdy Harlot discussion . . .



Watching TV Makes you Smarter?

Yep.  At least that’s what Steve Johnson claims in his 2005 New York Times Magazine article with that title.  And…it’s an argument worth considering, especially given our penchant for dissing Americans in matters of intelligence. (Consider, for starters, Susan Jacoby’s recent book The Age of American Unreason, former Vice-President Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, and Richard Shenkman’s new book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter.)  H.L. Mencken wasn’t mistaken when he once said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

So, maybe it’s worth overestimating the intelligence of the American public, or at least reconsidering some of our criticisms.

Here’s the gist of Johnson’s argument:  a number of contemporary television shows, including The Sopranos, 24, The West Wing, and ER (keep in mind this was published in 2005) are actually demanding of some of our mental faculties.  The mental faculties he’s referring to include attention, retention, the parsing of complex narrative threads, and the deciphering of quick dialogue filled with information most viewers won’t understand.

He uses The Sopranos to illustrate his point about complex narratives.  In one episode, the viewer has to untangle at least 3 different narrative threads with layered plots in just one scene.  And, he says, the narratives build from previous episodes and continue on in future episodes.  ER is an example of a show full of quick dialogue packed with complex terms and a vocabulary unfamiliar to most that the audience must wade through to follow the story.

All of this, Johnson argues, requires the audience to focus–exercising the parts of the brain that map social networks, work to fill in missing information, and help make sense of complex narrative threads.  What Johnson’s crediting here is the structure and design of the shows…not the content.  The content, he acknowledges, is probably more immoral and sensational than ever.  But that’s not the point in this examination.

So, is this a valid point?  Do others agree?  What shows on TV right now might be comparable to the ones Johnson cites to make his argument?


Speakapedia is a “mac utility that converts Wikipedia articles into spoken articles.”

My first thought? Wicked cool.

My second thought? Wait, when would I ever pop a Wikipedia article on my ipod and listen to it? But, why not? I mean, I’m a big fan of PBS and TLC. The Discovery Channel. I read random Wikipedia articles. Why not listen to them? I might learn something. So, now, we’re back to wicked cool.

Plus, just imagine the expanse of accessibility that this provides. A user that uses assistive technologies could just take an article on the go with them when researching something, much like a user who doesn’t use assistive technologies would print the article out. And that’s what we’re all about here at Harlot, ain’t it? Becoming accessible to all. An all inclusive endeavor.

My dream of dreams would be to figure out how to implement this into a Harlot wiki, but setting up the wiki comes first. If it makes anybody feel better, we’re working on it. And, hopefully, one day, you’ll be able to take your favorite Harlot Wiki articles with you to jam on your ipod. For Pleasure With A Purpose.

Cast your vote for Harlot’s “Featured Text”

In the spirit of collaborative criticism, one of the key elements of Harlot’s pilot (see is the “Featured Text”: a rhetorical artifact that begs to be analyzed, preferably by lots of smart people. For that exercise, Kay Halasek provided prompts and a launching point for discussion of Hillary Clinton’s infamous Sopranos spoof  campaign ad.

Now that we’re approaching our official launch in the fall (woo hoo!), my question is: what do we want to talk about? What would you like to analyze in Harlot? What’s going to get the conversation going? The Olympic opening ceremony?

Mudslinging campaign ads? The New Yorker cover debacle? David Byrne’s “Playing the Building” exhibit (see my post on May 18)? Those “We” global climate change commercials? Your favorite text of the moment?

Just let us know.