The recent tragedy in Arizona has raised some interesting scrutiny over Sarah Palin’s PAC poster. Numerous liberals have claimed that Sarah’s poster at SARAHPAC.com is in part to blame. I think this reveals an interesting bit about how we think of signs, and the ritual action of killing.
Sarah’s poster is being blamed for the shooting by democratic bloggers (SEE HERE). Their argument is that the poster incites violence against the democratic representatives in these districts- however they do little to unpack their logic. Indeed, they may not quite understand it! What they argue for is essentially a synecdochical function, whereby the places stand in for, and represent by way of the person’s very absence, the representatives. The act of placing cross-hairs on the specific cities, and juxtaposing a list below as a key for what those places on map indicate, suggests that the crosshairs are not simply on the cities, but that they are on the cities-as-representation-of-representatives. Effectively, the crosshairs are on the representatives.
Such a logic is not necessarily new to human beings. Studies of cave paintings of animals in the Tadrart Acacus region of Libya hav e suggested that paintings of animals served a (similar) functional purpose. In order to kill the hunted animal, a cave-dweller must kill its spirit symbolically. Put differently, one must map out the killing, and carry it through, so as to kill the spirit of the animal. They did so by drawing the hunt, and representing the target and execution of the animals. This is a visual metaphor and imitative magic: by carrying out the violence symbolically, there would be better luck killing the animal in real life. Violence was carried out in the “art,” or the source, so as to happen in real life, “the target”- as it is described in terms of metaphor. The logic goes, then, that the cave dweller will have an easier time killing the corporeal version of the animal because it’s spirit and symbol are already dead. Extracted from this is also the suggests that, symbolically dead to me, I won’t have the same ethical hang ups of actually killing the animals (that may or may not represent something more spiritually connected to me). Now, I don’t want to do one of those terrible Media Effects arguments and suggest that violent images make us do violence- all I want to do is show that the logic is not absurd as one might think. We don’t even have to go back to cave dwellings in 12,000 BC- how many hetero girls in high school right their first name followed by their boyfriend’s last name? Symbols do things symbolically that affect us physically, and important in this case affectively. HOWEVER, the argument that this poster is RESPONSIBLE for the event is absurd to a level…
The first problem is that none of the spaces designate WHO is to be ‘shot’, it is not listed in order from left to right, and there is no specificity marking EXACTLY who is where (I’m sure due to ethical considerations). To argue that this is a map of killings is a stretch. However, I suppose that the co-occupation of a list of names and crosshairs does not remove it from being a hitlist, but this I think is less a product of the graphic and more a product of the interpreter wanting to see that- but this does not relieve of us of the responsibility as you’ll see below.
But first, the second problem: that the use of these metaphors made the violence. Media effects research of this nature is often pointed at a weaker ‘other’- mentally handicapped, women, and racialized minorities- without considering the fact that for the past week I’ve played call of duty, and that for the last couple years democrats have been attempting to ‘throw over’ oppressive politics, and none of us have killed anyone despite immersion in violent metaphors and violent video games.
This, however, does not relieve Palin’s visual communication team from any and all responsibility. I think that what they must consider is the fact that if someone DOES act on this, whether motivated by the poster or not, they are implicated in a structure that has in some capacity facilitated the violence. There is an ethical concern that visual communication specialists must take up regarding the use of violent metaphors: they frame issues in specific ways. Numerous killings have taken place in the ‘culture wars’- not a coincidence given that liberal and conservative thought is often framed as a violent clash, not least over the protection of rights for minorities and women. I’m not saying that these makers of visual metaphors are responsible for the killings, but they ARE implicated in it and need to hold themselves accountable. As such, there is an ethical responsibility on the shoulders of politicians and their advertising teams.
Radical representation marks the pre-existence of radical action, and violent representations mark the pre-existence of violent tendencies. Vis comm specialists and advertising consulters are posed with a choice between exploiting the pre-existing structure for their own benefit, or actually doing the democratic work of changing structures of inequality through reframing the injustices marked by violent metaphors in different terms. In other words, recognizing that something is best framed visually in a violent metaphor should urge us to reframe it in a counter-violent way. The choice to do so, however, is their’s; the responsibility to scrutinize these decisions is mine; the responsibility for putting these together to insight a socially responsible form of advertising and engagement is our’s together.