Visual Rhetoric Crush-of-the-Month

The website FlowingData has quite a bit in common with Harlot. Translating complex data of all varieties (money spent, reps at the gym, time you waste) into compelling graphic form, “Data visualization lets non-experts make sense of it all.”  At Harlot, our goal is to reveal all the various and subtle ways rhetoric penetrates our everyday through a language and location that invites everyone to explore and understand persuasion.  FlowingData, meet Harlot; Harlot, meet FlowingData.

The graphic that’s posted at the very bottom has captured my attention for a number of reasons, mostly related to Derrick Jensen (no direct relation–only in the larger Danish sense), who is perhaps my favorite author (and certainly the most sane person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting).  As a radical environmentalist, Jensen is constantly searching for new ways to communicate just how severe the situation is we are currently, collectively facing.  That’s at the macro level.  At the micro level, he’s challenged with taking statistical data that most logically reveals how the earth is being murdered and transforming it rhetorically into something that sticks.

Some data for you:


Facts, though, have a tendency to roll right off of us.  We’re more inclined to be persuaded by stories that connect with us personally, in ways that we can readily link to everyday experience.  Here’s a stellar example of the rhetorical task he encounters when trying to persuade people that our way of life, our sense of self, and relation to what allows us to live is not just unsustainable, it’s immoral and insane.*    And stupid.

“Within our current system, the life span of any particular artifact as waste is usually far longer than its life span as a useful tool.  Let’s say I go to a food court at a mall and eat a meal with a disposable fork.  Let’s say I use the fork for five minutes before one of those tines breaks (as always seems to happen) and I throw it out.  The fork goes in the garbage and is buried in the landfill.  Let’s say this particular type of plastic takes five thousand years to break down … For every minute I used the fork it spends a thousand years as waste: a ratio of one to 526 million, a number so large it’s hardly meaningful to human minds.  On a scale that’s easier to fathom, if we compressed a fork’s five thousand year existence to one year, the fork would have spent only six one-hundreths of a second as an object useful to me.”

Although he presents it rather modestly, Jensen’s shift from a ratio to a story-of-sorts is a crucial rhetorical move–one that all environmentalists and activists of all walks should take note of.  We need to keep pressing for the most effective forms for communicating the gravitas of the situation (but without falling prey to the idea that that’s all that needs to be done).

I think the artists of GOOD and Fogelson-Lubliner that collaborated to produce the brilliant illustration below have a solid grasp of what it takes to translate facts in a way that sticks.  I strongly suggest that you click the image to view it in its full glory . . .


And when you’re done there, don’t forget to check out the archive of amazing at FlowingData.


* I use the term “insane” quite literally, in its strictest definition(s): senseless; an unsoundness of mind that affects one’s capacity for proper responsibility; one whose way of life and/or mental state is such that they are unable to make a sustained commitment to their own health and the relationships that constitute it.  Perhaps “madness” is more accurate, though, since there is a particular violence to our collective insanity.

Rhetoric and Food for Thought

For a skinny kid, I think a lot about food.  Not so much the tastes and textures, but the politics, value-systems, and rhetorics that surround its place in culture.  There is a developing food movement in this country; it’s comprised of many sub-movements based around the concepts and practices of “organic,” “sustainable agriculture,” and “slow food,” with “local” similarly occupying a prominent position.

We’ve not only seen the items on our supermarket shelves change over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the surrounding rhetoric shift in places and intensify in others.  With the introduction of genetically modified foods in the early 1990s, the expansion and entrenchment of industrial farming and monocrop culture, and the consolidation of powers that control the entire system, the message that accompanies food has increased in significance, adopting narratives of progress in some sectors, while remaining obstinately old-fashion in others.  For example, listen to Michael Pollan kick off the powerful documentary, FOOD, Inc., with a quick, but incisive rhetorical analysis on some of the persuasive techniques used to sell food:

(Perhaps y’all could chime in with some of your favorite rhetorical approaches and we can keep this conversation going . . .)

Of course, our movement is mirroring those elsewhere throughout the world.  It’s distinct, however, given our consumer-centric society and place in the hierarchy of consumption (we comprise about 5% of the world’s population and consume roughly 1/3 of its meat).  Food Sovereignty Movements are in nascent stages across Africa, Europe, and South America.  Soon enough we will also be in a position where one must declare (as ludicrous as it sounds) the right to grow food and have a say in where the rest comes from.

Currently, however, the word “organic” is the dominant term in our food conversations.  The term carries vast and various associations and values that go far beyond a simple label indicating how the food was raised.  Here’s some fodder for you rhetoric junkies: The Daily Show’s look at the White House’s organic garden reveals a struggle over which values will get associated with organic.  Enjoy watching while I go hunt down some articles on the rhetoric of “organic” for a future blog post . . .

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Writing and weeding

I’m working on an academic article about Harlot, and the irony does not make it a smoother process… so I was out in the backyard weeding.

I enjoy the excuse to sit around outside, but I always have qualms about weeding–in part, because I’m never quite sure I’m pulling the right ones. But even more so, because I get uncomfortable about messing with nature. (Or rather, “nature,” since this is my urban and bricked backyard, after all.) I have these funny guilty feelings about killing something that’s growing, like its an environmental sin (cue Catholic upbringing) to in any way interfere with the natural course of, well, nature. I know that this isn’t logical, that there are immense and innumerable complicating factors… but still.

Side note: My students were so put off by Gore’s rhetorical choices in An Inconvenient Truth that they seem to have found the movie less than persuasive. It sure as hell worked on me. I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist. But now, all the time, I think about these things, the tiny details of our relationship with the earth. Negotiations and love songs.

Anyway, back in the garden, I’ve found that I can pretty comfortably pull the weeds that grow up in between the bricks of the patio, or where they might adversely affect our vegetable plants. I don’t want to analyze this, but I also tend to be more lenient with the ones I like, like clover. So delicate and pretty, no harm there. Today I didn’t yank a big ugly dandelion because there was a ladybug on it. Not logical, but a system is developing.

I weed the human areas and try to let the plant areas mostly alone. Which brings me to the borders, the lines that can be drawn and redrawn, the liminal spaces, the messy areas. I thought maybe I’d take a hard line and just declare a point past which the weeds are not welcome. But that line is hard to draw–and more importantly, I thought, they place the weeds within the surrounding areas in an interesting and precarious position. They’re in contested space (in my head, at least) between human and natural environments–and again, I wonder, who am I to decide? Plus, I’ve read Anzaldua and believe in the dynamic, disruptive potential of the borderlands. Again, not necessarily the most logical thought process… But for now, I’m going to let those spaces be, just to see what happens there.

Which brings me back to that paper about Harlot, into which I now think I should work some of these ideas about the messiness and growth potential of such border spaces. That’s some good gardening.

Cruiser chic

It was a gorgeous weekend in Columbus, OH, and I was lucky enough to spend a fair amount of it watching the neighborhood soak in the sun. As I sat on my porch, I saw an impressive number of people on bikes — hipsters on street bikes, middle-aged couples on mountain bikes (and too often, on the sidewalk), the hard-core guy on the recumbent bike… streams of them rode by my porch.

One trendy young woman  passed a couple of times on one of those new-style “easy-boarding” cruiser-types;  they look significantly different than trad or even updated cruisers — it’s not just that there’s no crossbar, but that the frame dips almost to the road between front and back tire.

Biria's easy boarding cruiser

Biria's easy boarding cruiser

I haven’t been able to figure them out, but seeing that girl ride hers in a dress made me realize at least part of the point — they’re wardrobe-friendly for women. (They’re also nicely accessible.) I ride a new cruiser myself, but it doesn’t have that design feature, which does impact what I wear to work in terms of practicality and decency. More importantly, they are actually part of a growing fashion trend: the cute, stylish bike that goes with a cute, stylish outfit… and lifestyle.

Coincidentally, today Tim sent me a link to David Byrne’s review of Jeff Mapes’ “Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities.” In it, DB agrees with Mapes’ claim that growing numbers of women riders will play a major role in attitudes and policies about riding:

I can ride till my legs are sore and it won’t make riding any cooler, but when attractive women are seen sitting upright going about their city business on bikes day and night, the crowds will surely follow.

I caught a glimpse of that shift today — and it brought another ray of sunshine. Because that ride had rhetorical potential.

Now if only she’d take that message off the sidewalk.

Then & Now

The class I taught today reflected upon the statistics you’ll find below, compiled from a Mother Jones survey compiled in 2008.  The conversation was fascinating, as they felt confident to speak from their personal experience.  They readily use terms like “food movement” and “green movement,” but revealed some anxiety about the position they’re in: they feel a movement of sorts taking place, they say, but also feel individuated, isolated, and insignificant in the production of real change.  Skeptical of the tired narrative that change begins with individual, no matter how true they know it to be, they seemed equally incredulous–but in a different way–about the possibilities of collective action.  My use of the term “collective mobilization,” I suspect, came off as foreign, a bit old school (in the bad sense).  There were, of course, tinctures of intimidation in such a term, too.

Anyway, I invite you to share these numbers with others and strike up a conversation about potential avenues for change . . .




An Inconvenient Tangent

I’m teaching a course on documentary this term, and today my students were watching/analyzing An Inconvenient Truth. I picked this doc because we’re talking about the use of personal narratives in/and public rhetoric, and I’m kind of fascinated with the “Al Gore Show” woven throughout the film.


For the most part, of course, we see Gore’s slideshow presentation and listen along with his (rapt) audiences. (As one student suggested, the director lays the prophet robe on Gore a bit heavily.) But every so often, that lecture is interspersed with Gore’s reflections and anecdotes about how he came to be offering that slideshow. And at those junctures, his voice changes, becomes low and intimate, the footage becomes soft-focus or creatively aged, and the pathos becomes a bit heavy-handed.

… as a student’s sudden snort made abundantly clear. It was the snort of a burgeoning rhetorical critic, and it confirmed my hunch about some of the risky, even reckless rhetorical choices Gore and the director made in that movie. And the personal quest angle isn’t the only one. I wonder whether the warm fuzzy fatherly feelings would work on audiences alienated by his Bush jokes? Or are we to assume that no one who voted for Bush (that’s a lot of people) belongs in this doc’s audience?

More as my students figure this all out…

Compos(t)ing rhetoric

A few days ago, at the Target check-out line, I quickly pulled out my trusty re-usable shopping bag to prevent the default plastic bag extravaganza. I’m used to having to force this unfamiliar object on check-out clerks, whose years of training have led to automatic waste. I’m certainly no paragon of environmental virtue, but I try to adopt reasonable measures to cut my own engrained throughtlessness. Anyway, this time I was delighted to hear the woman working the register say, “Oh good… we’re all trying to remember now, right?” And I thought, “Are we?! Fantastic!”

This was one of the best “we” identifications I’ve experienced lately, and brought home some of the subtle (and admittedly belated) evidence I’ve started to see of a nascent populist environmental conscience in which “we” are reasonable and responsible, economically savvy, even patriotic in attempts to revise assumptions that a central American value is the right to waste. But more importantly, we’re having the conversations.

Apparently this “we” is still a collection of individuals, however, rather than a collective drive that would include the astonishing waste that continues at higher levels, from the nonsensical plastic-bagging of backpacks checking on planes to the electric mayhem of Times-Squarish neon advertising that illuminates deserted downtown Columbus. Today I saw the the local gas station has installed TVs on every pump, as if we all need to waste electricity for the minute we’re (wastefully) pumping gas… including, again, when there’s no audience. But I digress from my morning optimism.

The morning was made even brighter by this article in today’s NYT about Michelle Obama’s new vegetable garden on the White House lawn:

“My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

from the vegetable garden (by Shelley & Dave, flickr)

from the vegetable garden (by Shelley & Dave, flickr)

All this positive energy, in the midst of national anger and despair over where waste (of cultural, political, environmental “capital”) has led the country, has renewed a rhetorical vigor that I haven’t experienced since my younger days, when I handed my mink-wearing aunt a Peta “Fur is Dead” coffee mug, conscientiously objected to disection, and dreamed of saving the whales with Greenpeace. At some point, I stopped “preaching” and pushing my ideas on others, assuming that a non-judgmental modeling would be more effective than overt pressure, that composting, biking, and reasonably restricting my use of chemicals was a personal choice.

These days, though, I find myself thinking more about the simple and obvious lessons we could all be sharing just by talking about these choices, by enjoying the kind of productive dialogue that, at its best, rhetoric can be and promote.

Hey, Where’d my Egg go?

Ha! Gay penguins steal eggs from straight couples (via The Blogora).

I’m not even sure what to say. Just “hmm.”

Though, I did like the keeper’s attempt at political correctness when saying that the gay penguins would have to be separated from the other penguins:

“It’s not discrimination. We have to fence them separately, otherwise the whole group will be disturbed during hatching time,” he added.

Still, hmm.

Trashy Rhetorics . . .

So I was out in Denver recently to revisit the Peter-Pan lifestyle that I used to lead not all that long ago.  While pulling out of the Whole Foods (which used to be a Wild Oats) I noticed perhaps one of the most effective (public) rhetorical maneuvers that I’ve seen in a long time.

Envision if you will walking up to these two containers:


As I walk up with a plastic bottle, I look for the recycling option, which is not only there, but has a nice list of what’s acceptable and what’s not.  I was thrilled with the fact that an effort was being made to not only sort but educate at the same time, knowing that recycling literacy is pitiful — even among those that self-identify as “green.”  (Click here to see what Columbus accepts, which is a pretty standard list.)


But I was even more THRILLED when I saw this label on the other can:


What an effective way to redirect someone’s thought-path to consequences that aren’t otherwise considered in throwing away something into a “trash” bin.  Even though it’s a move done by Whole Foods (a company whose ethical principles sometimes walk the line), it’s an excellent example of micro-politics: the making of everyday occurrences into conscious political acts.

And here’s the best part: this is easily transferable into an activist project that anyone can participate in.  Stickers, stencils, or a simple crossed out “trash” with a penned in “landfill” in its spot will redirect otherwise mindless acts of devastation.

Perhaps someone should take the time to create a “landfill sticker depot” where you can get landfill stickers sent to you so that you can do some redirecting whenever you find the chance.  A similar thing happened with the “Fuck” project.  If you want to get some immature kicks, the book, “Fuck this Book” is relentlessly funny.  Some sample shots below.  Enjoy.

But seriously, thoughts on trashy rhetorics?


What a piece of . . .

When the BBC writes, “Al Gore’s [Nobel Prize] acceptance speech was a powerful piece of rhetoric,” is there an underlying political critique happening? We’re all aware that popular use of the word “rhetoric” doesn’t always line up with scholarly connotations. Shocking, I know. Does it mean something, though, that they didn’t tag it as a “powerful speech” or “powerful message”? How is the article contextualizing the speech by calling it a “piece of rhetoric”? (click here for the full speech)

Strange I didn't bring up the military-industrial complex that accounts for half of our nation's oil consumption . . .

“Mr. Gore’s speech,” the article says, “was a rhetorical tour de force.” Under the section heading “Rhetorical Power,” there is, however, only an implicit rhetorical analysis: “The former vice-president painted a gloomy picture of the climate impacts that might lie ahead. But he was more upbeat in his assessment that carbon emissions could be tackled.”

Emotional roller-coaster = rhetorically effective? Gore’s speech is ripe for rhetorical analysis . . . thoughts anyone?