a banner image of graffiti art showing swastikas being thrown in the trash

Swastika Monitoring: Developing Digital Research Tools to Track Visual Rhetorics of Hate

Laurie Gries

Methodology: Digital Tools as Vital Actants

Rhetorically speaking, this project can be understood as taking a new materialist approach to visual rhetoric in order to develop data activist tools that can contribute to contemporary hate tracking efforts. In my prior work, I identified what a new materialist rhetorical approach entails by identifying six principles that are indicative of this emergent methodology and which relate to becoming, transformation, consequentiality, vitality, agency, and virality (Gries, Still Life). While I do not have space to recount each principle here, these principles, as a whole, challenge visual rhetoric scholars to study an image’s ontological complexity—to account for the ways that images are constantly circulating, transforming (in form, media, and/or genre), and acquiring diverse meaning as they become embroiled in various rhetorical activities. These principles also demand recognizing that images are vital actants, productive of space and consequence—that as they move into new locations and enter into diverse relations with other signs, structures, peoples, organizations, etc., they (re)configure space and (re)assemble collective life in both expected and unexpected ways. In addition, these principles push scholars to acknowledge that images play a significant role in spreading contagious affects and desires that, in turn, fuel particular motivations, thoughts, behaviors, and actions. A new materialist approach to visual rhetoric, then, entails following images as they circulate to discover where they surface, what kinds of relations they enter into, and how they become rhetorical with time and space as a multiplicity of consequences emerge from their diverse encounters (affective, cognitive, behavioral, organizational, structural, socio-political, cultural, etc.). For this study, I am thus deploying iconographic tracking—which was specifically designed as a method for new materialist rhetorical research—to investigate how the swastika is both experiencing and triggering rhetorical transformation in the United States as it comes to ontologically matter in all kinds of nuanced ways (See Gries, Still Life, for more on rhetorical transformation).

While such research clearly intends to contribute to studies of visual rhetoric, I also aim for The Swastika Monitor to become a digital actant that is able to impact public life through its own diverse encounters. Over the last few years, I have been experimenting with digital visualization techniques, which I define as strategies that use existing or new custom-designed software to collect, process, analyze, and visualize data in ways that are conducive for producing individual insight and collective knowledge ("Mapping Obama Hope"). While such techniques are productive for enhancing research methods such as iconographic tracking, digital visualization techniques can also be useful for instigating data activism and generating actionable insights and tools that can account for and hopefully intervene in pressing socio-political issues. Heavily reliant on visualization—that process that affords “the translation between a complex world and a human observer” (Halpern 22)—data activism has long played a significant role in making social problems visible, sensible, and relatable (See Miles and Kostlenick). Yet, the emergence of the open data movement, the ubiquity of data visualization software, and the increasing capabilities of computational analysis are generating new opportunities for data to be strategically deployed in our contemporary context. Today, digital data visualization has become an especially powerful means of making visible previously inaccessible data; developing actionable insights based on pattern identification; producing new digital spaces for critical reflection; and generating new opportunities for socio-political activism. As such, organizations such as We, the Protestors have taken to data activism to fight against police brutality, while organizations such as Oil Change International have deployed data activism to expose “the true costs” of fossil fuels.

In light of such affordances and enactments of data activism, my research explores how visual rhetoric scholars can take advantage of digitally-driven tactics to produce vital actants that might themselves become powerful rhetorical interventions in public matters. As Stefania Milan and Miren Gutiérrez have argued, data activism has potential “to change the way citizens approach computational politics and the informational state, as well as the way we see and practice social change.” The Swastika Monitor, I especially hope, will become a viable and reliable means of tracking and disclosing how the swastika is currently circulating as a potent visual rhetoric of hate in the contemporary United States.