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

Research Method: Tracking Swastikas

When it comes to manifesting in visual rhetorics of hate, the swastika is a visual sign that diffuses across a wide range of genre artifacts (posters, graffiti, tattoos, flags, banners, armbands, etc.), surfaces in a wide range of places (school, parks, community centers, private residences, religious institutions, etc.), and appears with a variety of words and phrases such as “White Power,” “Make America Great Again,” and “KKK.” Swastikas also manifest in a variety of media, some of which is expected (such as spray paint and markers), others less so (such as snow, shaving cream, and human feces). In all these cases, swastikas become visual spectacles that attract community attention and elicit a wide range of affects, emotions, intellectual responses, and actions. Such visual rhetorics of hate are traceable in that they have been widely documented not only by individuals through social media but also by local and national newspapers that are widely accessible via the World Wide Web.

In order to investigate these “swastika incidents,” as they are commonly called in news and police reports, I heavily rely on iconographic tracking to follow and register the emergence of swastikas in both urban and rural settings. Iconographic tracking is a digital research method that is designed to account for the ways that images circulate, transform, and become consequential as they participate in various collective activities in physical and digital spaces (See Gries, Still Life and Gries, "Mapping Hope"). While iconographic tracking relies on qualitative research strategies such as interviews, questionnaires, and field observations, such research is largely assisted by digital search engines that enable one to access, among other sources, social media, online portfolios, editorial photography sources, and online newspapers and magazines. The coding and data visualization is made possible by software such as Google Fusion Tables, Google Maps, and Google Charts that allow one to digitally organize, date, and create custom, real-time data visualizations. Thus far, my limited research with iconographic tracking has discovered 435 incidents in which swastikas have surfaced in the United States between February 1, 2016, and August 31, 2017.

All data thus far collected for this project has been tagged for the following information to assist my analysis:

In addition, I am tracking individual, community, and institutional responses to these visual rhetorics of hate. Such attention to consequentiality is important for two reasons. First, attention to consequentiality helps uncover the swastika's complexity of nuanced, contemporary rhetorical functions. Especially in cases in which intentionality is hard to discover, rhetoric is best understood in terms of becoming and consequentiality—of what, in this case, the swastika becomes in its entangled encounters with other signs, material entities, constructed environments, individuals, communities, laws, histories, etc. In order to identify the swastika’s complex socio-material consequentiality, then, I am documenting all kinds of responses—from individual responses of anguish and resilience to school responses of policy reconfiguration to community responses of solidarity and activism.

The second reason for attending so closely to response and consequentiality is for hope. Tracking swastikas has proven to be an emotionally charged and deeply affective experience. It is not rare for tears to stream down my cheeks as I read about transgender folks waking up to find swastikas with the words “Die He She” spray painted on their car or Jewish commuters encountering swastikas with the words “Jews Belong in Ovens” on their way to work. Nor is it rare for an embodied sense of hopelessness to emerge as I learn about African American family’s homes being broken into, ransacked, and tagged with swastikas and racial slurs. Ironically, focusing on individual and community responses to such visual rhetorics of hate helps to restore some sense of hopefulness. From young children covering swastikas with self-made flowers and messages of love to communities holding candle light vigils and forming non-profit support groups for hate victims to students generating petitions to create required classes about race and social justice, as much as hate has emerged in the last 17 months, so too has hate’s refusal. In her most famous speech line, perhaps, Michelle Obama said “when they go low, we go high,” and this has certainly proved true for many communities infected with swastikas. Documenting responsivity and consequentiality, in addition to the details of the initial swastika events, helps elucidate not only how visual rhetorics of hate often become rhetorics of resilience as well as rhetorics of forgiveness and hope but also how the swastika itself can be reappropriated for resistance as much as for hate—a phenomenon to which The Swastika Monitor also hopefully contributes.