Seeing as a creative act

September 9, 2016

In an act of democracy, you chose to post a response to the comment in The Age of the Image by Rafael Malach, a professor of brain research at Weizmann Institute in Israel: “Seeing is a subjective and creative act.” What do you make of that statement? Do you agree with it, disagree, both? Why? In what ways is seeing subjective? Creative? Provide at least one example from your own experience. And remind me to tell you all about the sunrise in May.


Fort Lauderdale, May 2016

What is culture? What does it do?

August 25, 2016

In COM 270 Visual Rhetoric, we read Michael Kimmelman’s really smart piece on globalization and the creation and contestation of culture. Now it’s time to respond.

First, here are some key excerpts from the article as I see them:

  • Culture . . . is a suite of traits we inherit and also choose to disavow or to stress. It consists in part of the arts. It is something made and consumed, in socially revealing ways. When Mats Nilsson, a Swedish product-design strategist for Ikea, not long ago told The New York Times that he loves to browse for handmade baskets in Spain, bird cages in Portugal, brushes in Japan and hardware on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was creating his own cultural identity out of the bric-a-brac of consumer choices made available by the globalizing forces of economic integration. Bricolage, it’s called. Anyone may now pick through the marketplace of global culture.

  • (T)he fact that everybody from Yerevan to Brasilia, Jakarta to Jerusalem, knows songs by the Black Eyed Peas or wears New York Yankees caps doesn’t mean that culture is the same everywhere.

  • What’s new is the power available to wide swaths of the populace, thanks above all to cheap travel and the Web, to become actors in the production and dissemination of culture, not simply consumers. A generation or more ago, aside from what people did in their home or from what’s roughly called folk or outsider art, culture was generally thought of as something handed down from on high, which the public received.

  • Today (culture is) made and distributed in countless different ways, giving not just governments and institutions but nearly everyone with access to the Web the means to choose and shape his or her own culture, identity, tribal fidelities — and then spread this culture, via Youtube or whatever else, among allies (and enemies) everywhere, a democratizing process. The downside of this democratization is how every political niche and fringe group has found a culture via the Web to reinforce its already narrow views, polarizing parts of society despite the widened horizon. Neo-Nazis across borders now bond around cultural artifacts available over the Internet. Democrats and Republicans move further apart, digesting news from their own cable network shows.

  • Instead culture (often unconsciously) identifies crucial ruptures, rifts, gaps and shifts in society. It is indispensable for our understanding of the mechanics of the world in this respect, pointing us toward those things around us that are unstable, changing, that shape how we live and how we treat one another. If we’re alert to it, it helps reveal who we are to ourselves, often in ways we didn’t realize in places we didn’t necessarily think to look.

  • Culture is something we propagate but also something naturally there, existing in and around us, which makes us who we are but which may rise to the level of our consciousness only when one of those ruptures or rifts appear — when some little psychic clash happens between it and our more or less unconscious sense of the everyday world.


Your task: Choose one of these excerpts and write a brief (350 words) account that either confirms or rebuts Kimmelman’s argument. For example, for the excerpts about culture’s role revealing rifts in society, you might write about street art or graffiti you have encountered on your travels and what that artistic expression might mean or reveal. I might write about seeing New York Yankees hats all over Ireland and what that tells me about Ireland’s relationship with or perceptions of the United States, and perhaps about the power of brands and how brands work. (Unfortunately, I saw a lot of Red Sox hats, too.)

You are who you root for

January 20, 2016

I wear something with a Tar Heel on it almost every day. If not the heel, then an interlocking ‘NC’. If not either the heel or the NC, then something powder blue. Every day. Some days it’s three or five such apparel choices, all layered on top of Air Jordans, in tribute to His Airness (UNC, BA-Geo., 1986). InterLOCK

Why? Why do I wear so much to affiliate myself with a university and, to be honest, an athletics program and, to be even more honest, one team — Carolina basketball? Is it that I wish to share in the glow and aura that are Tar Heel hoops? Is it an important aspect of how I construct and communicate my identity? Did I choose to attend Carolina (twice) in part because of its campus sports culture? (Yes, absolutely.) Why was that so important to me?

“Communication and Sport: Surveying the Field” tells us that people “enact, produce, consume, and organize sport primarily as a communicative activity.” Our college and team affiliations seem to communicate something essential about our identities. And as a society we use sports to communicate something about “American values,” as we’ll see both in its sophistication and vulgarity in about three weeks (the Super Bowl). My own research certainly suggests that sport is one of the primary sites for constructing, maintaining and contesting identity. Think about Jackie Robinson. His courage and success on the field communicated important, undeniable truths about blackness in America. I’ve written books about this.

So my questions for you here:

  • How do you use sports to create or construct identity?
  • How do you use sports to communicate who you are, what’s important and who you are NOT?
  • How have you seen sports used to contest identity? This last question might be especially apt for our class’s women.
  • How specifically do these choices and values manifest themselves in your dress and in your behavior? (In 2012, $4.6 billion — that’s BILLION — was spent on collegiate licensed merchandise like my UNC sweatshirt and Tar Heels baseball cap, not to mention garden gnomes and dog bandanas.)

Post a few graphs that show your thinking about these questions about sports, communication and identity.



Brain as place

December 30, 2015

I’m sure you’ll hear about this journalism from other places, but I’m referencing it for three writerly reasons:

1. Knausgaard serves up a smorgasbord of metaphors, which I know is a metaphor, but one that is at least specific to the author’s nationality.

2. The presentation’s exquisite layered multimedia, and in that presentation, the very wise choice to put the video at the very end.

3. The reminder that nothing can do the heavy lifting of storytelling like long-form. In this post-happy, ‘like’-driven socially mediated world, narrative can still arrest.

Take a look, if you dare.

Tending the garden

October 7, 2015

In an article about online trolls in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tech culture expert Xeni Jardin is quoted saying that she believes “online communities rot without daily tending by human hands.” It’s a wonderful garden metaphor, and garden metaphors, like that of Adam and Eve in the unspoiled Eden, are among the most durable and delightful of metaphors. Shakespeare knew this. Advertisers know this. Adding another semantic layer to Jardin’s use of this metaphor is the delicious fact that Jardin’s name, in French, means “garden.”

How cool is that?

New book on black baseball and the black press

August 19, 2015

The press release on my new book:

New from Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, is A Devil’s Bargain: The Black Press and Black Baseball, 1915-1955, a new book by Brian Carroll, chair of the Department of Communication at Berry College and a black press historian.

The new book brings into dramatic relief the dilemma, or devil’s bargain, that faced the black press in first building up black baseball, then crusading for the sport’s integration and, as a result of that largely successful campaign, ultimately encouraging and even ensuring the demise of those same black leagues.

“A Devil’s Bargain is a once-in-a-great-while book that changes the way we see the black press and how it helped fuel a national social movement,” said Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and a black baseball historian. “The book inbook covervites readers to judge the motives of writers seeking to integrate society without losing their self-identity.”

Carroll’s book drills down on a handful of representative events and phenomena to present a history of the black press and black baseball from the origins of the Negro leagues in 1915 to their fade in the mid-1950s, finishing with the desegregation of spring training in the early 1960s. Chapters focus on a singular event or phenomenon from each decade of the period covered.

“Even casual baseball fans know the outlines of the Jackie Robinson story,” Carroll said. “But did you know he wrote a newspaper column his first season in baseball? That story is a classic case study in public relations. This book’s stories aren’t in the mainstream of baseball scholarship.”

A Devil’s Bargain is one of only a few histories to apply traditional methods of historical scholarship to an under-represented story in American scholarship, which is the black press’s involvement in integrating baseball.

“The book’s great service is as an indispensable guide to understanding these period writers in their quest for justice and changes in attitudes towards minorities,” said Lester, who wrote the book’s foreword.

Carroll said his hope is that the book “exposes a new readership to the contributions to American society of both the black press and the Negro leagues.”

Book Information
Title: A Devil’s Bargain: The Black Press and Black Baseball, 1915-1955
Series: Research in Sports History
ISBN: 978-1138887855 | Publisher: Routledge | 160 pages

Available through bookstores everywhere.

The (learned) meaning of the stars and bars

June 25, 2015

In Visual Rhetoric, we study signs and symbols, with signs signifying some basic, universal meaning and symbols telling a story using multiple signs. The confederate flag certainly has a story.

That symbols tell stories implies that their meaning is utterly learned. A smiley face is a simple sign signifying a human face. It doesn’t look much like any one human’s face, but it has dots and dashes proportioned in a circle just similarly enough to all human faces that even small children pick up its meaning with little or no help. For the same reason, we see a face in the fronts of cars, on WallE or R2D2, and really anywhere there is even a remote spatial relationship of elements that could be perceived as a face. Cognitive psychologists call this personification. It’s one reason robots are so scary, because they’re becoming a bit too much like us.

stars and barsSo on the stars-and-bars, the stars are mere signs. They look enough like all stars to be perceived as stars, though no one real star of course looks like those on the flag. But the collection or set of signs that is the confederate flag — in those particular colors — that has to be learned. And it’s in that learning where we sowed the seeds of the current controversy. Many Southern whites learn it to represent Old South heritage, valor, independence and, ironically, freedom. Many Southern blacks learn it to represent white oppression, lynching, secessionist insurrection, and, the opposite of freedom — slavery, as Joe Morton (as Scandal‘s Eli ‘Papa’ Pope) eloquently articulated it on The Nightly Show on June 23. Both narratives are true-ish, and therefore both are culturally valid. (I think it’s important to note that the Pope character stereotypes and prejudices in ways uncomfortably similar to the ways he perceives he has been stereotyped and prejudiced. While eloquent and funny, the soliloquy cedes the moral high ground in an interesting rhetorical choice.)

The question right now is whose learned story should be authorized by mainstream society. For South Carolina as a state, there is the additional question of whether a state government should be in the business of authorizing any narrative for such a controversial symbol. States such as Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina are asking this second question, as well. Prior to the Charleston shootings, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas can reject the symbol on its license plates, because the plates are a form of government speech. By that line of reasoning, a confederate flag on the state capitol is the government shouting.

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, American society seems to be arriving at a consensus that the flag as symbol is too toxic to remain prominent in American life, including state capitol flagpoles, license plates, WalMarts, Apple apps and, with the exception of Mississippi, official state emblems and flags. This changing consensus makes the flag a classic case study for semioticians studying signs and symbols, because at its most basic level, this symbol is some read, some blue, some lines and 14 stars — not much. Yet its meaning has changed dramatically over time, and oddly at no time was it ever the official flag of the confederacy. This is interesting to note given its near sacred status for some today.

Along with religious-looking garb strikingly similar to that common in the Catholic faith, the stars-and-bars has been appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan. It was appropriated as southern kitsch by the CBS TV show Dukes of Hazzard. And it is often fused with Harley Davidson iconography in a sort of southern tableau of manly manhood. And that’s what happens with symbols — they are created, learned, appropriated and misappropriated. The Nazi swastika originally was a symbol of — and you can’t make this stuff up — Bhuddhist peace.

If anyone is grateful for the current confederate flag controversy, it would have to be the Washington Redskins, because the debate about that team’s own problematic symbolism is sort of lost in the flagpole shuffle.

My questions for SPRING 2016 COM 270:
Referring back to some of the organizing questions for the entire course that we looked at a few weeks ago,

•In what ways is our perception of what the confederate flag means conditioned by custom, socialization and culture?
•How has the meaning of the flag changed over time, and what does this tell us about signs and symbols more generally?
•Who should decide what a symbol means? What gets memorialized and remembered? What gets remembered in particular ways (the authorized memory, in other words)?

In answering these questions, think about some of the artifacts and events we looked at to start Friday’s class: