Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.
In an election year, political signs can be impossible to avoid. They're in front yards, on bumper stickers, and in some places you might never have expected. Tobias Carroll chronicles the permutations and secret histories of political signs, venturing into the story of how they came to be and illuminating how the signs around us shape us in ways we often fail to appreciate.
In an era of political polarization and heated debate, what can be learned from studying how our personal space becomes the setting for both? Understanding political signs can help us understand our current political moment, and how we might transcend it.
Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.
I was super entranced by this book. It was fascinating to think about my own experiences with political signs in the various countries I have lived and how Tobias Carroll’s learnings can be so easily applied no matter the location. I’ll be digesting this one for a while to come!
This is the first of Bloomsbury Object Lesson series I have read, a short monograph style on a particular piece of ephemera, trying to knit together a brief history, with thoughts and discussions on the importance of that item. As such this is probably an odd one compared to say the one on Trains or Bulletproof Vests - as what consists a Political Sign is a very broad church. And this is also an openly personal take on the subject, Carroll talks about his own history with political signs as someone in his early forties growing up in New Jersey his first interactions with them would be electoral lawn signs, and placards at a Equal Rights Amendment rally. But also he is open about his politics, what the major influences are (US 80's punk primarily - though Ann Nocienti's Daredevil run gets name checked a surprising amount) and how that feeds into the book. So this is oddly 80% about political signs, 20% memoir.
What the book therefore lacks in rigour it gains in bouncey narrative flow as we jump from placards, to Dead Kennedy album covers, to Labour's Not Working to right wing tattoos. It is both to large a subject - the history of political signage is basically a history of politics, and too narrow a focus - it is mainly his lifetime and mainly US (with a small sop of Britishness for the publisher). But then the point of this kind of monograph is not to be exhaustive, or even particularly authoritative, it is instead to start or help along a conversation, and to spur and make connections where none previously exist. So perhaps any caveat I have is just that Carroll's is representative of a voice I hear too much and have heard on this and similar subjects because he is - a little younger, and a little more American - me. Open-minded, left wing, semiotically savvy, dubious of the actual point of political signage but at the same time often infuriated by it. I didn't walk away with many new ideas, and whilst I enjoyed the short study, it already feels dated despite its most recent textual reference being in late 2019.. That's not its fault, and would always be the case when writing about mass media (though the pandemic has chipped away at it), but there you go.
I came across this while looking for something about the power of political propaganda. I felt like it did the trick and it was a nice, quick read. Divided up into short essays, almost like vignettes, Carroll talks about political signage and how we interact with it even when we don't realize it.
This book is part of an object series by Bloomsbury that has some great other titles that I'll read next.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book.
“You can read a place through the signs you see there. You can find evidence of political beliefs or challenge conventional wisdom. You can see protests in action, see truth spoken to power. This is a book about signs, a book about reading, and a book about how one thing becomes another. In the end, it’s a book about stories: the stories political signs tell, the stories we tell ourselves about them, and the stories they become after time has passed. Listen.” – p. 6
“This led her [journalist Lane Wallace] to research whether or not signs actually make a difference in elections. Her conclusion is that they don’t have much, if any, effect on the outcome; instead, the endurance of their presence on grassy surfaces across the United States is more a sign of polarization and “politics as sport” than anything else.” – p. 17
“That may be one of the most unsettling elements of the Brexit vote: the fact that numerous statements touted as facts by the Leave campaign turned out to be completely false, including a promise of increased spending for the National Health Service and the ease of negotiating a trade deal with the EU. And that, too, is one of the more disorienting elements of political signage over the years: it doesn’t need to be accurate to be effective. What happens when a winning campaign turns out to have been built around a lie?” – p. 28
“Mario Cuomo was known for his fondness for the phrase “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” But that’s the tricky thing about political signs: they’re neither poetry nor prose, and in the space between the two some unexpected dissonances can crop up—dissonances with consequences of their own.” – p. 39
“But most people don’t have the luxury of that sort of expansive empathy in their everyday lives. See the right bumper sticker—an “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart,” say, or a faded Obama/Biden 2008 sticker—and you’re liable to make certain assumptions about the owner of that vehicle. And, to an extent, the owner of that vehicle has also chosen to identify herself as such: an Obama voter, an anti-abortion voter, a concerned environmentalist, a frustrated libertarian. Why talk when you can just glower at the assumed persona of the driver in front of you, waiting for the light to change?” – p. 43
“Protesting is a form of speech, and as such it is something that can represent a panoply of viewpoints. No one, whether progressive or reactionary, has full ownership over the concept of protest. And given that many protests and rallies these days can involve counterprotests—in some cases more populous than the original event—it’s not hard to see this dichotomy in action. Though if you’re there as an observer, you may decide before long that it makes more sense to choose a side.” – p. 55
This series of books – the list of which will soon breach a second page in every edition, so long it's getting, no matter the font shrinking – is designed to discuss semi-academically something we routinely find around us, or don't realise is culturally significant enough to have a non-fiction book dedicated to it. They're not for the specialists regarding each and every topic, for they're designed to be for the lay browser, in a collect-the-set fashion. This book, on the political sign, is one of the better ones, taking us from the hand-held placard at protests, to torching yourself at said protests, through tifos and tattoos, and up to the Three Billboards-sized one name, one party indicator, maximum-sized minimalism.
The book has quite a few elephants in the room, and that's not a pun on one of those US parties. It's definitely very much concentrated on the United States, however, and when it does venture into the UK it does so with much less sureness of foot. Our author declares the Leave side in the Brexit debate had signs that proclaimed lies. Er, and the losing side didn't? I hoped (in vain, I later saw) this is not the author's bias in evidence. You'll possibly remember how the Remainers were shouting the victors down for 'lies' printed on the side of a bus in large letters. Only the Remainers ever thought those letters had actually been believed. One more elephant – the book cried out for illustration; I didn't recognise the Obama emblem mentioned and had to look it up with the new knowledge it was a pro-Obama sticker, and not a Soviet Union postage stamp with precognition.
What we think of in the UK as political signs are only one of two things, generally – either a sorry scrap of paper with red ink in a council house window, or a large blue wooden thing dumped at the end of a rich land-owner's farm drive. Funny that. People in England can seek green and yellow ones in vain these days. But this book is actually really wide-ranging, covering the legitimacy of the political message from sportswomen and -men, efforts to ban the roadside statement of intent (which might influence nobody, just decide for you which of your neighbours you'll feel friendly towards in future), and so much more.
And the spread of political signs is only going to grow. In the last British General Election copious f*c*book images pretended to show actual signs and adverts from the Tories. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid about their funereal black, and nobody seemed to notice they were stuck over the insurmountable underground train air vents. The numbers of people falling so gullibly for fake signs, at a sophistication of almost "ban beards" or "kill NHS staff" level, was only one reason why political signs need to be learnt about. There are small flaws to this book, but it's a welcome, intelligent and thorough survey, actually for both academe and said tube commuter.
With the recent ending of the 2020 U.S. election season over, at least as far as voting, I figured I could approach this book. Honestly, there is way too many political signs, commercials, mailers and everything else thrown at you for long months when there’s an upcoming election. It can become exhausting just sifting through the daily mail of circulars by the various candidates.
There is a good reason behind that, which Tobias Carroll points out early on, which is name recognition. That is one of the top ways a political candidate gets voted into office. Makes sense, as most people want to know at least something about the person they are voting for, even if it’s only a name and the party they are align themselves with.
The book took on much more than the typical political signs you may think about, such as yard signs, billboards, and those placards people carry when marching in the streets. I was surprised at the breadth that political signs may appear. Yes, tattoos make sense when you think about it. One of the bigger surprises for me was sporting events, particularly in soccer, or football as the rest of the world calls it.
All in all, this was a thorough book on the topic and short enough that the material doesn’t get bogged down with too much. The coverage is mainly focused on the United States, but veers away from time to time, into the UK and other countries where football (soccer) is the main sporting event. There was some discussion about the history of political signs as well, but not in depth.
This book is part of the Object Lessons series, and they are all fairly short, and focused topic reads.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Academic and NetGalley for an uncorrected electronic advance review copy of this book.
Political Sign is a brief look at the history and impact of, well, political signage. Exploring the simple to more complex forms of political expression, it touches on how elements such as colours, names and symbols came to evoke particular parties or political dynasties. Primarily focusing on the US, but with a brief look at the UK, the book is a quick and easy read which manages to educate the reader whilst also providing some ideas to chew upon. An enjoyable little book for sure, and worth the read - especially for the politicos out there!
Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, as above.
This is one of my favorites in the Object Lessons series. Carroll looks at all types of political signs - from yard signs to bumper stickers, billboard, and even the most personal of political signs -- tattoos and examines why they are used and what makes people use them. He explores the concept of media literacy which he defines understanding why something is being broadcast - figuratively or literally - in front of you. I liked the mix of personal anecdotes with analysis. Carroll's writing is engaging and approachable - this was a great addition to the collection.
Could have been great because this is a fantastic topic. Instead it wanders aimlessly into punk rock and tattoos. And, of course, the author retreats to a lazy conservatives = luddites and liberals = inspired artists. Swing and a mess. (Typo, but mess works just as well.)
Another great entry into the Bloomsbury Academic Object Lessons series. It was interesting and thought-provoking, but even with the detour into punk vs politics, it was missing some of the whimsy I have grown to expect from the series.
Unfortunately for Carroll, he asks the exact question I have been asking continually, for years: "what happens when a politician lies.". It is a question that bookends a chapter, so there is no answer given ... probably because the answer is nothing &*^%$# happens to them. And this makes me angry.
Recommended for: good commuting read.
Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Academic for the ARC.