Foss’s Visual Rhetoric applied to concert totems

The concert totem I am choosing to analyze using Foss is the Justin Bieber mugshot totem. roo10

The nature of the image: The totem itself is comprised of a color printout of Justin Bieber’s 2014 mugshot attached to a pool noodle with traditional silver duck tape. The image is approximately 11 x 17. It appears to be attached to a thin sheet of cardboard or styrofoam board for support. Regarding the mugshot itself, Justin Bieber is smiling in it and wearing a bright orange prison shirt. The backdrop is gray. What was striking about the mugshot in the first place is the misguided smile. The smile would be much more at home had he been posing for the cover of a magazine than preparing for a day in jail on charges of DUI and resisting arrest. The sign does not present an argument; however, it communicates a general sense of shaming Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber is not an artist likely to perform at Bonnaroo, so attendees could take joy in seeing him brought down a notch in a mugshot. The incident itself occurred a year prior to the festival, so one could argue that it was outdated by pop culture standards.

Function of the image: The function of any totem is to allow others to locate a person in a crowd. As such, it is successful. First of all, it was the only Justin Bieber mugshot sign at the festival that I saw. Proper totems should be unique. The bright orange of the prison shirt allows the sign to be perceived and recognized from a distance. A secondary function of a totem is to contribute to the ecology of the festival. In this case, the sign may send a message that pop stars are open to ridicule in this context, particularly this pop star, particularly a pop star who is arrogant or naive enough to smile the smile of a celebrity in a mugshot. There may be an intended ironic use as well. The festival’s motto is “Radiate positivity”; well, Justin Bieber’s smile does that even when it perhaps should not.

Comments on design: The pool noodle “stick” of the sign makes the totem both lightweight and safe to carry. If the pool noodle does not have a stabilizing feature, it could be unwieldy to carry as it weeble wobbles with the wind. I cannot tell if the duck tape is an original design feature or an addendum added once the carrier discovered a flaw in a previous design. The duck tape and the crinkled edges of the image suggest that the creator/carrier of the sign was less concerned with professional presentation and more focused on functionality.

Commentary on the approach:

I chose Foss because images without definitive arguments are as open to analysis as true visual arguments. The methodology permits analysis when little to nothing is known about the creator of the image while also allowing for context to be considered. The totems I will be analyzing for this project may be two dimensional images or three dimensional objects; they are all on posts of some sort, so there is a design element that will be discussed as well.

One concern I have is that Foss says that scholars “do not see the creator’s intentions as determining the correct interpretation of a work” (p. 146). I am not sure if that means supposition about the creator’s intentions is off limits or not. I found myself drawn to possible motivations or possible intent in part because I cannot speak to the myriad ways the image could be regarded by the people in the audience for this image.

Because this methodology is more of a lense or perspective, it is difficult to know if one is applying it correctly. I utilized the parts of the chapter that I found relevant to my purposes. Design wasn’t a specific methodology element, but it was also generally included in the purview, so I felt confident including it.


About Visual Argument

A visual argument is entirely possible, and, yes, it is also possible to have an entirely visual argument without text, although I agree with the authors that this is more difficult to do so in a way that allows multiple audiences to experience the same argument in the same way. From the Blair reading, the Benetton ad is a great example of a visual argument that is possible without a linguistic reference. As with traditional arguments, the visual argument must make a claim and somehow support that claim. I agree with Blair that the visual arguments even moreso than linguistic arguments depend on the unconscious identifications they make. These identifications require the creator of the visual argument to be cognizant of potential identifications and how the context of the visual argument will assist or work against the identifications.

Last week, I shared Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement as an example that could be used with Cultural Studies methodology. The announcement was posted on Instagram which means the immediate audience for the announcement were the legions of fans who follow Beyonce on Instagram. The larger audience was the whole world because anyone could recognize that Beyonce’s announcement would be likely to go viral (although not viral enough, apparently; when watching the Grammy’s this weekend, my husband had to ask me if she was pregnant). The announcement is just that: an announcement, first and foremost. There’s not much argument in: “Hey, guess what? I’m having two babies!” (The words of the post were unnecessary to help make the announcement that she is pregnant; they did, however, add the additional detail that she is pregnant with twins)
But this announcement is also a celebration. It is a personal celebration for Beyonce and JayZ: they are “blessed” to be expecting twins. Some would argue (have argued– see earlier post with links to sources) that the announcement is also a celebration of black motherhood particularly. A claim could be made that Beyonce is reclaiming pregnancy for all women instead of all white women. Again, this all depends on identification, though.
As I said in class last week, some looked at the image and thought it looked like a cheap J.C. Penney portrait. Others, though, saw Madonna (the mother of Jesus, not the singer) imagery. Anyone used to classic art would recognize the veil as a religious accoutrement. This is all to say that the extent to which something is viewed as an argument often depends on who is doing the viewing and how much they know about the context of the imagery and/or the intent of its creator. It turns out that the announcement image was only the beginning. It was a prelude of sorts to Beyonce’s Grammy’s performance where motherhood was celebrated to a higher degree and with additional religious imagery.
When it comes to my project for the course, I do not see concert totems as attempting to persuade. They are signposts to alert people to the location of one person. I would argue that the totems do send various messages, though. For instance, the sign on the right (“Send Red Bull”) sends the message to me that this person intends to be seen on videos and streaming services of the concerts in addition to allowing his friends to locate him. The creator of this sign likely thought, “Hey, this will be funny if it appears in a video.” The audience for this sign is the world outside of the festival in the same way that a “Mom, I’m having a good time” sign would be intended to be funny to people viewing from home– funny as well to people in attendance but is it possible to argue it is funniER to people outside? It’s interesting to note that the flipside of the Red Bull sign is meant for those at the festival as its message is “Puke and Rally,” which also suggests the holder might be drinking more than the requested Red Bull. My identification of an audience for this side once again depends on the claim that this side of the sign would be funnier to people in attendance who might have experienced a similar sentiment during the festival.
The signs in the left-hand picture (Doge and Rodney Dangerfield) will also be visible on streaming services because of their size. They have a low-lying claim of Doge and Rodney Dangerfield being cool in some sort of offbeat way. I’d argue that by creating a very large sign, the creator is also sending a message that their enjoyment of the show is more important than the enjoyment of people in the 2-5 feet directly behind them, as the sign has the potential to block the view of the stage for a swath of people in that area. But overall, I do not think argument is the main goal for these totems, as not much is at stake when claiming that Doge and Rodney Dangerfield are cool or strange enough to merit the expense of a large sign from Kinko’s. So, I guess you would say that I am arguing that a true visual argument has stakes attached to the outcome of the argument’s reception by the audience.
I’m tacking on a post-script. I created the following visual argument a few weeks ago and I am inordinately proud of it. My claim is that Trump has signed so many executive orders he is as bad as Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (I do not claim credit for the image of Trumpbridge; I merely put the two images together with the text) A working knowledge of Harry Potter movie #5 is needed in order to understand the meme. True Harry Potter fans would understand the meaning without the included text.

Annotated Bibliography #1

Gee, C., & Bales, S. (2012). Manchester Tennessee’s assimilation of the “Bonnarite”: A qualitative analysis of the “other” in local press on Bonnaroo. Studies in Popular Culture, 34(2). Retrieved from

Bonnaroo is a modern music festival described as “an event where certain behaviors traditionally considered ‘deviant’ (e.g., rebellious or sexually charged music, recreational drug use, etc.) receive social sanction within the temporal and physical confines of the event space” (p. 73). The authors contrast this space to Manchester, TN, a small, southern town of 10,000 that gets overtaken by Bonnarites (an odd term since the current parlance is to call them Bonnaroovians) each year with 70,000-100,000 tickets sold. Manchester is defined as “typical of the small rural towns found throughout Middle Tennessee: close knit and traditional” (p. 75).

Gee and Bales performed a qualitative and quantitative study of what was printed in local Manchester newspapers about the influx of festival attendees for words that indicated the alien or the accepted. They collected published stories about Bonnaroo and examined perceptions of outsiders through grounded theory and also quantified terminology used for both outsiders and authority figures. After applying open coding, they found that the articles largely referred to the outsiders as a homogenous mass even though diversity was often also mentioned. The outsiders are not referred to as tourists at all; instead they are linked to music: fans, enthusiasts, spectators, etc. (p. 78). (Sidenote: You know the paper is from the South when it never refers to outsiders as tourists but manages to refer to them as “folks” a couple of times).

This study uses the same methodology as a previous study of a Knoxville World Fair with different results. Most notably, the rhetoric around the World Fair made it sound more like the town was being invaded and mentioned the number of “undesireable” attendants, whereas the language surrounding Bonnaroo makes it sound more like Manchester becomes a temporary metropolis instead of being overtaken. The language often de-emphasizes the negative aspects of the festival (drug use is one example given) and instead celebrates the communal aspect. The articles do not emphasize youth but rather the range of ages that attend the festival (Sidenote: The majority of attendees in 2015 were traditional college-aged fans, but one could readily find people of all ages including a group of grannies who attend each year) The concert-attenders are also referred to as being socially responsible.

The overall conclusion of the study is that the locals are glad to welcome the festival attendees as the festival is now a leading industry in the town, even though it lasts a mere four days out of the year. The festival organizers work with the community, and the community extends their hospitality to the festival.

The article will be of use when defining the festival and its place in Manchester as well as perception of the communal aspect of the festival.

**The articles I am finding for my research about festivals mostly pertain to the community aspect as well as analysis of what festival attendees are seeking. I am not finding anything directly written about signage at festivals.

Artifact for Feb. 09

In case you have been immersed in academia and somehow did not hear the news, Beyonce is pregnant with twins. Her announcement was sort of a big deal <sarcasm font>.


How this relates to our reading this week is the O’Donnell Cultural Studies chapter in the Handbook of Visual Communication. Those with the proper cultural capital recognize her announcement as a coded image that challenges racism and sexism. Kevin Allred, whose official title on his article is a “Politicizing Beyonce professor” (sidenote: how does one apply for such a job?), titled his article, “Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement was the coded political act we needed to kick off Black History Month.” MSN picked up an article that was originally on The Conversation, titled “How Beyoncé pregnancy pics challenge racist, religious and sexual stereotypes.”


Concert Totem Rhetoric

A new day, a new topic, a new mood board.


2012 was my first music festival experience. My friend picked the wrong time to use the restroom and had trouble getting back to me. I had a yellow rain poncho that I held up as high as I could for her to locate me. Since then, I’ve been interested in concert totems. The following pictures were all taken by me in 2015 at Bonnaroo:

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There are countless tutorials for creating a totem: from The Scene is Dead, DJ List, Complex, Insomniac.

This Guide to Bonnaroo is what I used when planning to attend.

For more concert totems, this is a list of the 10 Coolest Totems at Coachella. (after totems were banned)

The goal of most concert totems is to allow large groups to reconvene at different shows amidst huge crowds. The totems need to stand out from the crowd while being easy enough to carry and meeting the specific festival’s restrictions. The only totem I have created was to locate our tent (pool noodle shark, playing a banjo). It was effective for that use. The totem was deconstructed on day 3 and taken to shows (less effective, but it was fun). My friend took the pool noodle shark and ended up appearing in a video that was filmed for Mumford & Sons (precisely at the 1 minute mark). My cardboard banjo might be in it for a millisecond– I’m still not 100% sure that’s my sign, but I think it is. If you’re curious and would like to see the video montage my friend made of the many pictures and videos of her days at Bonnaroo, click here. It features additional totems and festival visual rhetoric.

I am interested in the design and construction as well as the affordances of concert totems. Additionally, the signs should fit the ethos of the festival and be employed according to concert etiquette. I do not know for sure what form my project will take.

Other project ideas…

After receiving an email telling me that the Sparklepony project might require IRB approval, I thought I’d sketch out a few additional ideas for feedback.

  1. Assessment of visual literacy. This idea is not without complications, either. A colleague and I have created an assessment test for use at our community college. One section of each test includes an advertisement. The students have to answer questions about the visual composition of the image as well as questions about the audience for the image. One idea is to research along the lines of what was in the Barthes’ reading for today what students should know. I had some issues with getting IRB approval from ODU when I first mentioned this project a year ago. I also cannot share the portion of the test on my public blog, as it is still being deployed to students.
  2. BBC’s Sherlock. When watching Season 4, I noticed that Sherlock’s clothing fit motifs introduced in previous seasons, but unlike earlier seasons where it seemed like the clothes were wearing him or as if the clothing had become some sort of trope for the audience, this season’s choices were less noticeable but still served a purpose of showing the outer world what he was prepared to do.
  3. Concert totems. I once joked that I wanted to write my dissertation about concert rhetoric and try for grant funding to attend music festivals. I went to a major music festival two years ago and took many pictures of the totems that were used so groups could locate the rest of their group members in the crowd. Additionally, I have my own experiences with a sign that I held on day three of the festival and how the totem created a more social dynamic to the concert attendance. (Put this under the category of “If you carry a cardboard banjo with you to a bluegrass show, lots of people will talk to you”).

An observation about selection

Over break, I decided to finally take care of a box of pictures I’ve had sitting on a shelf ever since we moved into this house 6 years ago. I had to sort through all of the pictures I’d printed from early married life to when my oldest was around 6 years old. I managed to make an album of baby pictures for each of the kids when they were under a year old, but all of the other pictures got thrown into this box, to be dealt with later. My firstborn was the first grandchild in the family on both sides, so not only do I have the pictures I took but also the pictures given to me by two sets of parents.


Observation 1: I took a lot of pictures of my firstborn. And had duplicates made. And kept every blurry shot.

Observation 2: Digital camera= less printouts. My second child has fewer printed pictures. Who knows what is in my digital archive… Poor third born child has fewer pictures but more videos.

Observation 3: (the real reason I am blogging this) What gets selected for inclusion in an album differs over time. I had the chance to tinker with revisionist history as I omitted ex-wives. My father-in-law’s wife #2 was redacted as much as possible. Some evidence remains of a brother-in-law’s fiancee #1 and wife #1 (2 different people). Fortunately, another brother-in-law is on friendly terms with his ex-wife.

Previously, I probably wouldn’t have included many pictures of myself either because I disliked X, Y, or Z about the picture. Now, I am glad to have the occasional picture of myself with my kids because it helps me remember time spent with them. Oh, and the times of my life when I felt fat would look very skinny to the person I was two years ago.