“I’m so angry that I made a sign”: Selfhood and Media Reflexivity in Occupy Protest Signs

Curator's Note

Personal stories popped up everywhere during the first two months of the Occupy protests. News coverage and social media outlets included protest signs toting individual anger and motivations for occupying public space. Autobiographical messages ranged from printed “Lost my job; found an occupation” signs to extensive, handwritten accounts of the calamities of expensive healthcare. These messages are multiply autobiographical and digital: they are produced by the individuals physically holding them; they are captured with digital photography and circulated on digital news platforms; and their individualism and autobiographical impulse reflects trends in digital media authorship. The handmade aesthetic - far from a visual cliché simply signaling left politics - signifies the presence of the body, of the lived, amidst the digital and global distribution of images. In this way, selfhood is understood and publicized not just through the autobiographical statement on a placard, but remains in the frame through the embedded mark of one’s hand when the protest sign is digitally reproduced.

The first five images in the slideshow illustrate this pattern. “I am 84 and mad as hell” uses demographics to simultaneously legitimize and highlight frustration while challenging ageism. “I can’t afford a lobbyist so I organize” declares a protester’s motivation and economic situation while decrying a corrupt political system and educating the media and the public about why people are mobilizing.

As Occupy spread, “top 10” lists of signs proliferated. Digital news sources began recognizing the signs as objects themselves - not only as political symbols, delegitimizing signifiers, or the means to understand the occupation. Ironically, many of the media’s favorite signs contained statements challenging representations of the movement. The protesters used media reflexivity to capitalize on the press’s love of covering itself. Media literate activists made autobiographical interventions in the mediascape with placards like “not a jobless anarchist,” “I DO have a job,” and the double entendre “give me some credit.” The final image is a one-two punch of selfhood and media reflexivity: an infant’s first-person sign shames the greedy 1% through innocence and common sense; her father’s sign mocks the media who question the goals of the movement by turning the common refrain “we want justice” into a direct address, “we want justice, stupid.” Denied visibility and then ridiculed by the press, the protesters turned their critical and creative thinking skills on the media itself. And the media took the bait.


Thanks for this post, Lyndsey.  You make a keen insight when you note that the signs for the Occupy movements became a means through which protesters could signal their very human presence, both through their content and their I-made-this-at-my-kitchen-table construction.  As you observe, the signs stand in direct opposition to the sleek and highly produced PR modes of the corporations and media outlets that they target, almost as a critique of the mode of public discourse that's silenced the protesters who carry them and as marker of the authenticity of their messages.

It also strikes me that the self-reflecivity of the signs enacts a sort of humbling, even democratic conversation: as the signs question the mainstream media's representations of the protest, we onlookers see an exchange happening between individual sign-holders—people like us—and behemoth media outlets.  Suddenly Fox News or The New Times looks less like an objective media source that's somehow outside the discussion about our country's future and capable of framing it and more like a fellow participant in it.  The signs bring the media into the frame and the fray.

 Thanks again for this post. It is good to look at these images in a connected way.

Developing what you've said it I wonder if the effect of the hand drawn script is somehow linked to Barthes' 'punctum'-- that the sense of recognition a viewer has in connection with the humanity of the signs is that thing which 'pricks', in amongst the overly familiar frame of news photography.

Also I keep thinking about the repetition of "I"-- in this instance visibly tied to idenitfying the one in the many of the 99% but also more generally in crowds. Which I think maybe connects to some of the other posts this week, the way the I is continually reasserted as a call for attention in the crowd of (new) media. The "I" in each case not necessarily a given but something that needs hailing? 

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