Okay, so the semester is almost over but I decided to pop up one more of my Visual Rhetoric posts because it was a super-fun one to write. I promise this will be the last one!
This one focuses on the concept of “image events.” Image events are “often crafted to directly challenge the assumptions of rational argumentation, decorum, and the notion that social change can only happen through sustained, logical debate between equals” (Spurlock).
I had already decided on the image event that I was going to use when I started reading Enculturation so it was a happy accident that “Inhabiting Spaces of Resistance: A Meditation on Co-Performative Acts of Protest” was one of the available articles. Spurlock tells us that “…any planned public appearance is always already a spectacle, a disturbing display of power and resistance, and a performative rupture that wounds and traumatizes the social and cultural landscape.” Protests and counter-protests aren’t uncommon, of course, but in the last few years (largely since Trump was elected) these kinds of events have been happening with increasing frequency and many of these “performative ruptures” are due to alt-right groups who unabashedly celebrate their racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, and homophobic beliefs. That being said, for every “rally” that the alt-right holds, there are counter-protestors there to shake things up, and this is such a good thing. Spurlock even says, right out that “Isn’t it unethical not to show up and protest, to embody one’s politics in the face of their opposition, and to put theory (or belief, in this case) into practice?” and I couldn’t agree more. Reading Spurlock’s piece put me into a headspace that made the week’s other readings much more approachable because it spoke directly to the image event that I had decided on and made analyzing it so much easier.
So, on to my image event. In August 2017, a small contingent of the alt-right held the Boston Free Speech Rally and when I say small, I mean small. There were only about 50 people there in support of their “cause.” I mean, look at these guys. Almost every single one of them appears to be white and male. They’ve draped themselves in American flags. Most of them are doing the “OK” hand gesture, which has now been classified as a hate symbol. Some are wearing MAGA hats, which isn’t a surprise, but many are wearing helmets and pseudo-tactical gear as if they’re expecting, or even inviting, some kind of violent confrontation.
On the other side, however, tens of thousands of counter-protestors showed up, which was both incredibly impressive and very rewarding to watch. Among these counter-protestors were a group of feminist activists known as W.I.T.C.H.
W.I.T.C.H. has been around in various forms since the 1960s. Officially the acronym stands for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell but they’ve been known to change it when the occasion demands. For this particular protest, it stood for We Interrupt Those Choosing Hate. This current group formed in 2016 in response to growing threats from the alt-right. Their appearance is stunningly dramatic, as it’s meant to be and makes for a very powerful image. Their faces are obscured by veils, indicating that their own identities are less important than their united stand against a shared threat. This stark appearance has made waves in the years since the 2017 Boston Rally. The Topic article that I linked to has a fantastic collection of images of the group but it’s this appearance, at the Boston Rally, that really kicked off talk about them. We don’t know who they are but we know what they believe.
In the Delicath and DeLuca piece, they tell us that “Far from being stunts of the disillusioned, image events are best understood as a form of argumentative practice, the rhetoric of subaltern counterpublics who have been purposely excluded for political reasons from the forums of the public sphere” (321) and I think that the W.I.T.C.H. protests are important for this specific reason. Women were, and often still are, excluded from public forums. And to be labeled a witch is still considered a dire thing for some people. If you look into it, you’ll find that there is a real fear from conservatives that witches are actually hexing republican politicians. I’m not even kidding. A large part of that fear was because of these protestors. They caught the public’s attention in a very striking way, and their use of veils to hide their identities made their statements more noticeable simply because it wasn’t about who they were as individuals. I mean, honestly, they may not even be all women. There’s no real way to tell. The message is what matters, even if you have to be shocked into seeing/hearing it. One thing I loved about the Topic article is when they mention that a man at one of their protests asked, in reference to the veils, “Can you see?” and the witch in question responded, “Can you?” Simple, direct, and to the point. Let the image tell the story. Let the image convey the rhetoric.
Delicath, John W., and Kevin Michael DeLuca. “Image Events, the Public Sphere, and Argumentative Practice: The Case of Radical Environmental Groups.” Argumentation, vol. 17, 2003, pp. 315–333.
Spurlock, Cindy. “Inhabiting Spaces of Resistance: A Meditation on Co-Performative Acts of Protest.” Enculturation, vol. 6, no. 2, 2009.