A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

From Spectacular to Vernacular: Epideixis in Tactical Urban Design

Blake Watson, University of Nevada, Reno

(Published January 26, 2017)

The public realm in America has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good.... The public realm has to inform us not only where we are geographically, but it has to inform us where we are in our culture. Where we've come from, what kind of people we are.

-James Howard Kunstler, “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

In late March 1965, nearly 8,000 civil rights marchers walked the 52-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 80 from Selma, Alabama, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to reach the state’s capital, Montgomery, in order to highlight the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Unlike the 600 marchers who on March 6, “Bloody Sunday,” also tried to cross the Edmund Pettus, the 8,000 went unmolested, largely thanks to the ruling in Williams v. Wallace from U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, who issued an injunction permitting the four-day march from Selma to Montgomery (Johnson). Ultimately, the Selma marches led to perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of the twentieth century: The Voting Rights Act. As such, the Selma marches can be considered one of the most important and successful modern instances of demonstrative material rhetoric. Unfortunately, as constitutional law professor Ronald Krotoszynski has detailed in the Yale Law Review, a series of rulings beginning in the late 1960s and continuing throughout the 1970s reshaped and eroded the “public forum doctrine” that protected these important marches. Krotoszynski’s recent LA Times article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma Civil Rights Marches puts the situation in stark relief: “Today, it would be impossible to obtain a federal court order permitting a five-day protest march on a 52-mile stretch of a major U.S. highway. Under contemporary legal doctrine, the Selma protests would have ended March 8, 1965.”

There is little disagreement that citizens ought to be owed access to public sites of symbolic significance as a matter of self-expression. Public monuments and memorials are, after all, instantiations of communal identity, commemorative material expressions of “who we are” and “what we value” (see Dickinson, Ott, and Aoki; Blair). And yet citizens' dwindling access to public monuments, memorials, parks, and highways as sites of protest and display has created a situation in which such spectacular citizen displays are fewer and farther between.

The sanitization of spectacular sites from organized citizen expression, including the rise of so-called “free speech zones,” has coincided, though, with a more vernacular placemaking of a novel sort that should interest rhetorical studies. Guerrilla citizen urbanism is on the rise, from roguish acts like yarn bombing (originating in Texas in the mid-2000s) to the more political displays of tactical urbanists who seek to personalize and reimagine cold, even hostile (see, e.g., the rise of “bum-proofing”), public spaces. Websites such as NextCity, Planetizen, and Atlantic Media’s CityLab have popped up in response to a growing public interest in such citizen-led urban design, while books such as Insurgent Public Space and The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces have flooded human geography and urban design schools. Such publications highlight how vernacular placemaking by citizens has become an important form of citizen action. This article proposes that citizen placemaking thus warrants increased rhetorical study and that vernacular displays, which inhabit banal public spaces on sidewalks and streetscapes, are best understood within the tradition of epideixis, or rhetorical display.

To show how vernacular placemaking functions as epideixis, this article examines several tactics described and illustrated in Tactical Urbanism, a guidebook for advocacy through small-scale urban design. Sometimes referred to as guerilla, pop-up, or D.I.Y. urbanism, tactical urbanism is a movement within urban design that advocates for a New Urbanist approach to city planning and design. Tactical urbanists especially advocate for denser, more walkable, more communitarian cities, and they do so in a particular way: by instructing citizens how to construct temporary displays in their neighborhood public spaces (e.g., sidewalks, streets, parking spaces, and empty lots). Tactical Urbanism guidebooks, of which there are numerous volumes, include tactics such as chair bombing, in which citizens create temporary seating space on public sidewalks; PARK(ing) Day parklets, which are makeshift greenspaces set up in street parking spaces; and guerrilla gardening, which entails planting flowers, plants, and grass in sidewalk cracks, potholes, and vacant lots. These tactics are devised to draw attention to disrepair and disuse, demonstrate novel design possibilities, and redefine the character of communities through the design, construction, and arrangement of rhetorically meaningful objects in relatively banal public spaces. By attending to these vernacular displays as instances of rhetorical epideixis, we can gain insight into a fundamental mechanism of material display advocacy in public space.

For some time in rhetorical study, argumentative approaches to visual and material displays have been a productive way to understand public display advocacy, but, as an epideictic approach emphasizes, rhetorical displays are not merely prelude to argumentation. Kevin DeLuca’s “image politics,” for instance, provides useful insight into the ways in which material displays radiate out onto the internet as mediated “image events.” For DeLuca, the image event is always destined for argumentation, even if the display itself is only the opening act. As he argues, image events do not so much make explicit arguments as proffer postmodern argumentative fragments, “mind bombs that expand the universe of thinkable thoughts” (DeLuca and Peeples 144). But what DeLuca describes—the creation of displays designed to “get them asking whether there are better ways to do things”—lies at the heart of epideictic rhetoric, which is important for the establishment and maintenance of communal values, not just as a warrants for enthymemes to come, but for their own sake (qtd. in DeLuca and Delicath 326).

Through a reading of tactical urbanist texts and tactics as instances of rhetorical display, this article examines the rhetorical work of vernacular epideictic design—the material construction of (often temporary) structures, affordances, and coordinative signs designed to inspire observation and reflection, to shore up and reassert shared values, and to teach a way of “seeing with” those values. Epideictic is a politically potent, often covert genre of rhetoric that succeeds less on the basis of proposition and argument (and indeed traditionally mustn’t be seen as argument) and more on the revelatory display (and concealment) of an object, act, or person of symbolic importance to a community. Public material displays, if well-crafted, do something similar, drawing attention to embodiments of the values of the community, concealing complicating issues, and asking community members to look, reflect, and act according to those values without necessarily dictating how to do so or justifying with reasons. Epideictic design is rhetorical not (or not merely) as a proposal for particular actions, nor as a justification for a set of policies, but fundamentally as a paradigmatic civic education, a demonstration of a way of valuing space/place. This article examines how material public displays teach observers both to see banal public spaces as worthy of recognition and how to “look with values” at public space.

Tactical urbanist displays function as civic education in at least two ways: First, instruction in what matters—which actions, objects, and persons deserve recognition, acknowledgment, and emulation—is insinuated into everyday life as tactical urbanists use material objects to highlight and recommend some places/practices and indict others. By building, painting, and digging these structures right into the materials of public space—benches, streets, and sidewalks—they demonstrate alternative possibilities for those spaces and materially embody a value-laden view of the built environment. Secondarily, these displays teach spectators how to “see with” the correct set of values via what Jordynn Jack calls a “pedagogy of sight,” a way for observers to perceive and recognize the good and the ill “in accordance with an ideological or epistemic program” (Jack 192). This facilitated recognition of values invites spectators to take the designer’s vision forward with them as a way of seeing the world. This article proceeds by describing several examples of tactical urbanist advocacy-with-things, as described in Tactical Urbanism guidebooks. These displays are distinguished into demonstrative displays of alternative possibilities and satirical displays, meant to censure certain spaces that conflict with “our values.” Once in place, tactical urbanist displays illustrate not just how the built environment can influence what “we (as a community) value” but also how we come to recognize exigencies for ourselves.

What is Tactical Urbanism?

The Tactical Urbanism guidebooks are a series of free e-books published and promoted by the Street Plans Collaborative,[1] an urban design and advocacy firm. These guidebooks define, encourage, and instruct readers in the commission of tactical urbanism. The text, which is explicitly aimed at average citizens with no particular expertise, encourages local, neighborhood-level interventions. While Mike Lydon and his coauthors don’t explicitly identify their practices as rhetorical or even as communicative, a close reading of their texts and projects illustrates just how rhetorical their architectural and design tactics and strategies are. Their brief, image-heavy texts illustrate a series of public space interventions, tactics with names like “open streets,” “ad-busting,” “weed bombing,” “chair bombing,” “depaving,” “reclaimed setbacks,” “pop-up town halls,” and “guerrilla gardening.” The guidebooks even follow rhetoric's centuries-old handbook tradition, in which devices and techniques for effective advocacy are taxonomized.[2] Each entry describes a design project meant to persuade and its intended effect.

Fig. 1. Weed bombing tactic (Mike Lydon).

For example, weed bombing (see fig. 1) involves painting weeds bright fluorescent colors to draw attention to otherwise easily ignored urban disrepair. Another device, depaving (fig. 2), consists of digging up pavement on vacant lots and exposing the soil for other uses, all the while highlighting the prevalence of asphalt and lack of exposed soil.

Fig. 2. Depaving tactic (Mike Lydon).

Fig. 3. Pavement to plazas (Felipe Bengoa).

In figure 3, on the other hand, tactical urbanists reconfigure how pedestrians and vehicles are directed in public space by literally redrawing the textual, coordinative, and aesthetic features of urban public spaces.

In all these instances, we can draw a parallel between these tactics and rhetorical devices (e.g., apostrophe or synecdoche) because each describes, in one medium or the other, a technique with the end goal of persuasion. The only difference is that while a rhetorical device describes a resource of language, design tactics describe a persuasive resource of materials and their display. That is, objects are rhetorical, but not necessarily in the same way that language is, engaging us not as auditors, but as spectators.

Spatial Argumentation or Epideictic Design?

The tendency in rhetorical criticism is to read the persuasiveness of displays not as “shaping through sharing,” as Celeste Condit has described one function of epideictic rhetoric, but as instances of enthymematic argumentation (Condit 291). For instance, Kevin DeLuca’s readings of protester self-display rely on “image events”: protesters who create spectacles (e.g., environmental activists in trees) designed to draw media attention and provide free press for an issue (DeLuca 12). Since their messages are typically heterodox, they can also expect to be framed unfavorably by the media, and so self-display is an important argumentative resource because it is one of the few things protesters have complete control over. Their bodies become “not merely flags to attract attention,” but the sum and substance of an enthymematic argument (12).

In one of the only other readings of tactical urbanism, Danielle Endres, Samantha Senda-Cook, and Brian Cozen read the PARK(ing) Day tactic (a.k.a. “parklets”) as an implicit, enthymematic argument for more communal, pedestrianized public spaces (124-26). As they claim early on, “alterations of place/space can make arguments . . . can make claims and provide support for claims in an enthymematic process wherein audiences that encounter them fill in the premises” (123-25). They continue:  

we consider the (re)constructions of place by PARK(ing) installations to be material spatial arguments that call for adherence to an alternate vision of what a parking spot, and urban space more generally, can be. Particular PARK(ing) installations serve as a form of argument by example, with the installations as the evidence for the claim that reconceptualizing parking spaces is not only possible but also desirable. (125).

Specifically, their article examines the ephemerality of these material displays, a key component of Endres and Senda-Cook’s original “place in protest” concept. Because they occupy parking spaces, PARK(ing) Day parklets are intentionally temporary and soon dismantled. What is left of PARK(ing) Day are its archived, remediated traces: “photographs, videos, and written accounts” (Endres et al. 129). It is the combination of this temporary installation in the city and its imagistic recording and preservation that combine to give the tactic its full argumentative effect (130).

Fig. 4. San Francisco parklet (Mark Horgan).

While I agree substantially with their reading of PARK(ing) Day, my argument is that the covertly rhetorical mode that Endres et al. describe, in which “audiences that encounter them [parklets] fill in the premises,” is in fact an important feature of epideixis, whose operative mode is something more like self-persuasion than argumentation. It was Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca who first pointed to just such an epideictic function in argumentative rhetoric: “epidictic [sic] oratory has significance and importance for argumentation because it strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds” (49-50). For Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, the distance between gaining the adherence of an audience and the appropriate moment for action opens the opportunity for diminished conviction and failure to take action (48-52). Epideictic oratory bridges those gaps in its hearers' resolve through the display of exemplars of virtue and communal identity. For tactical displays, the revelation of inconsistencies between shared values and particular practices and norms is made salient for onlookers—for example, by (literally) highlighting exemplars of urban decay (i.e., weed bombing). Such displays do less to justify claims (argumentative work) than they do to generate exigencies. They will have succeeded once we recognize an exigence as exigent.

Endres et al.’s use and description of PARK(ing) Day as a “spatial meme for users to rethink and recreate their own public urban spaces” is appropriate (and indeed memes also operate as a display rhetoric), for these are reconfigurations and revisualizations of public space that suggest a novel way of viewing (125). They term this “argument by example,” ultimately concluding that the effective installation of a parklet suggests “that reconceptualizing parking spaces is not only possible but also desirable” through spatial argument (125). Yet here the work of reconceptualization (literally “to consider again”) is the work of (re)presentation and identification, not argument. PARK(ing) Day invites us to examine again, to see anew, and to reflect upon the true nature of place/space by showing and not telling.

The weed bomb, for example, does fit into enthymemes surely and effectively, especially as it is remediated online, its implications are drawn out, and an interpretation is made by advocates. As we encounter the weed bomb without any frame, however, we are offered the opportunity to observe it and reflect on it for ourselves.[3] Tellingly, the first parklets were created by the conceptual artist Bonnie Ora Sherk as installation pieces in the 1970s. The practice was taken up and spread in 2005 by the Rebar Group, an art studio in San Francisco. Rebar is primarily a group of artists and sculptors whose principal mode of persuasion is display—getting otherwise oblivious denizens of public space to look at, recognize, and reflect on the value of banal public space—and so it should come as no surprise that their inventions fit best within an epideictic tradition. As Rebar claims on their website, “PARK(ing) Day has effectively re-valued the metered parking space as an important part of the commons—a site for generosity, expression, socializing and play. And although temporary, PARK(ing) Day has inspired direct participation in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape” (Rebar “About,” emphasis mine). This is, after all, what art asks of us—how we should engage with it, as an opportunity for reflection and reexamination rather than the basis of some implicit argument or one part of an implied or imminent enthymeme. Epideixis is indeed often and importantly a prelude to argumentation and deliberative rhetoric, but that is not all it is. Aesthetic and playful displays such as weed bombs, guerrilla gardens, depavements or PARK(ing) Day parklets seek to change something much deeper than a particular instance of the policy at hand. They ask us to change something about how we value urban space generally, to reflect on “who we are,” what our priorities are, and what our shared space reflects about us.

Does tactical urbanism have an ultimate argumentative agenda? Surely it does, as epideictic rhetoric has always had. The battle over what counts as the values, virtues, and vices of a community does significant work in determining what may be argued for and on what bases. For most of us, a particular proposal probably even springs easily to mind. Something like, “We should devote more of the street to people and less to cars.” Crucially, however, the display itself is nonpropositional. It does not tell us what to do or how to go about doing it. It does not give reasons, nor justifications, even if we may easily provide them. What the parklet does, and effectively so, is to show us something familiar in a new way, the epitome of epideictic rhetoric. As Endres et al. themselves conclude, “PARK(ing) Day has an impact on a generalized space—the parking space…. encourag[ing] a new perspective for seeing parking spaces and thinking about urban landscape as constructed” (138). Thus, as their own account of it attests, place in protest is deeply epideictic, describing a repeated “reconstruction of a place” that might lead to “a change in the meaning of that place” or “encourage a new perspective for seeing parking spaces and thinking about urban landscape as constructed” (138, emphasis mine). This reading almost exactly describes the effect and purpose of epideictic rhetoric: to reframe or display something “in a new light” such that an audience of spectators (theoroi) may reflect on, re-envision, and revalue it. Shared values, ideals, norms, virtues, and vices constitute the vital foundations of argument and deliberation, but we do not (typically) argue about which shared values we shall have. We learn to notice what matters not by being reasoned with, but through the subtle process of epideixis, by learning to recognize and acknowledge.

Vernacular Epideictic Design: Displaying What Matters

Tactical urban displays provide an epideictic civic education by holding up exemplars of laudable (or vicious) behavior for admiration (or censure) and asking that observers recognize and assent to the example on display. In this way epideixis is more than a frivolity, a practice exercise in amplification or stylistic “showing off.” This “mere display” view of epideictic rhetoric has been much revised by contemporary rhetorical scholarship. We really ought to think of recognition rather than “praise and blame” when we think of epideictic rhetoric. As Lawrence Rosenfield argues, “[If we followed] Aristotle’s lead we [would] interpret epideictic discourse simply as ‘praise and blame’ rhetoric instead of fundamentally about ‘“acknowledgement” and “disparagement”’” (133). Such exhibition is accomplished traditionally through figurative oratory—for instance, ekphrasis (evocative description) or auxesis (amplification)—in order to evoke what Quintilian referred to as fantasia (imagined visualization) (Prelli 5-20). Yet material displays accomplish these same ends, not through oratory but through world-making of a more literal sort. As Dickson puts it, material rhetoric is “a mode of interpretation that takes as its object of study the significations of material things and corporeal entities—objects that signify not through language but through their spatial organization, mobility, mass, utility, orality, and tactility” (297). By taking advantage of architectural, positional, and design tactics and devices to quite literally “bring before the eye” a perspective on the world, material displays give salience and presence to certain elements and features while concealing others.

Rosenfield’s distinction (not praise, but acknowledgment) transforms epideixis from something a rhetor adds to an object of display into a rhetorical act of facilitated recognition. For Rosenfield, this means drawing out a radiance that was always already there, “the opportunity of beholding reality impartially” ( Rosenfield 133). Epideixis shows us something familiar “in a new light” or, more exactly, it clears the way for an already-present “Radiance of Being,” an inner essence, “to shine through” (Rosenfield 135). It does so by “exhibiting or making apparent (in the sense of showing or highlighting) what might otherwise remain unnoticed or invisible” (135). Epideixis is never done purely for the sake of commemoration, but rather as a material invitation for spectators to recognize virtue’s embodiment and ultimately learn to recognize, internalize, and live life together in accordance with a shared set of societal values.[4] It reifies what is fact by wrapping observation in communal values, offering spectators an experience that resonates with communal values they already hold.

The importance of observation and reflection to rhetorical display should not be understated here. Aristotle reserved for the audience of epideictic oratory the term “spectator” (theoros) rather than “judge” (kritas), which was the term applied to audiences of both deliberative and forensic rhetoric. Through either a (re)description or (re)narration of a life or act, the oratory itself reveals the true essence of the thing, its essential nature, which an audience is called to witness, reflect on, and often emulate. Thus, epideictic oratory displays by taking advantage of the evocative affordances of language, “bringing before the eye” what is not literally present. As spectators, we “experience rhetorical displays in the classical sense of ceremonial speeches [epideixis] that seek to inspire audiences with images and exemplars of the excellent and wonderful in human experience” (Prelli 8).

Aristotle insists time and again that epideictic rhetoric relies on amplification rather than argument to provide for the reader a paradeigma or “concrete example” to be “set before” the audience, not to support a proposition (Rosenfield 135). The Encomium of Helen, for instance, invites its audience to reconceive Helen not as a villain but as a victim by elaborately re-narrating her betrayal as a story of seduction, offering an opportunity to “look again,” to reexamine and then rethink the object of display. Similarly, in the Funeral Oration, Pericles praises an idealized Athens in which the audience wishes to believe, a place of inclusiveness and equality despite the realities of slavery and patriarchy, thereby reifying those ideals in the lives and deaths of the soldiers being buried and constructing both Athens and her dead soldiers anew for his audience. As these examples show, it is the twin notions of the impartial beholding of reality and the noncontroversiality of the shared values evoked that give epideixis the innocuous air that allows it to persuade while seeming to do no such thing.

Based on all this, we might expect epideictic rhetoric to be a valuable tool for the powerful—the rhetoric of patriotism, religiosity, and tribalism. And it is. Epideictic speeches are instruments of authority, typically delivered by community leaders such as presidents or generals. Even something as simple as a prayer will typically be delivered by the head of a household. This is as true of material displays as it is of oratory. Within scholarship on the rhetoric of display, we are used to identifying the epideictic in true spectacles (e.g., monuments and memorials) that serve a spectacular epideictic purpose such as a public commemoration or a symbolic emblem of a nation, city, or political party (see Prelli; Dickinson, Blair, and Ott; Balzotti and Crosby), but do so less often with non-state vernacular displays (for vernacular examples, see Hauser “Demonstrative”; Erni). This should not be surprising; monuments and memorials parallel the ceremonial, inspirational, and community-binding displays of epideictic oratory. Like public oratory, they exist in central spaces where singular, awe-inspiring experiences may be shared with other community members. And like the epideictic oratory of Pericles or Lincoln, they often issue from positions of power to bind a community under a single identity. As we’ll see, vernacular urban displays are on the rise, especially as denizens take responsibility for the (re)design of the city as an increasingly bottom-up and expressive act of composition.

Demonstrative displays are the primary rhetoric of tactical urbanism, including tactics from open streets initiatives and ciclovías to chair bombings and Build a Better Block parties. Tactical urbanist displays do something similar to traditional epideictic oratory by demonstrating an alternative possible future and inviting citizens to try it out, to adopt it or reject it, but to consider it through their experience of it. Tactical urbanists believe that their designs may prove themselves useful and valuable if only they can be exhibited and auditioned live and in-person. The designs are explicitly meant to be “tried out” and their value appreciated firsthand. For example, the pavement-to-plazas tactic “demonstrates” an alternative reality that has potential to become permanent.

Fig. 5. Pavement to plazas tactic (New York City Dept. of Transportation).

In figure 5, a simple paint job changes the way vehicles and pedestrians occupy the streetscape. Because behavior in urban space, especially busy streets, is potentially dangerous, these spaces are heavily saturated with coordinative signals (e.g., signs, lines, colored asphalt), and these coordinative signs are meant to pass from the top down, designed to both protect and control pedestrians and drivers. As denizens of this space inhabit, experience, and accept this space, they learn a new perspective on what such a space “is for.” Crosswalks define a more significant zone for pedestrians in the otherwise auto-centric street. Figure 5 also illustrates the difference between the expressive tactical designs of citizens and those made by a bureaucracy of urban planners. Instead of weighing statistics on traffic flows, insurance parameters, best practices, and efficient light intervals, the citizen design expresses values, asserting and expanding the space meant for pedestrians in the urban landscape. It is an epideictic rather than technocratic design.

Fig. 6. Les Bouquinistes (Mike Lydon).

Lydon’s guidebooks trace the historical roots of tactical urbanism to Paris's Bouquinistes, the street booksellers who occupy the recognizable green wooden boxes that line the Seine, as the historical archetype for the movement. During the sixteenth century, unauthorized booksellers coalesced on the banks of the Seine to peddle their wares. Not surprisingly, brick-and-mortar Parisian bookshops had the political clout to have Les Bouquinistes banned in 1649 (Uzanne 20). Eventually their popularity brought them back, though, this time confined to limited locations along the Seine and with the stipulation that the shops must be broken down into boxes each night. Today, the familiar green boxes of Les Bouquinistes that line the Seine have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, an accomplishment Lydon touts as the first victory of tactical urbanism (Lydon 5).

Les Bouquinistes, typically common peddlers of limited means, were only able to open up space for themselves through the physical presence of their shops. At first these shops were quite temporary, but as Les Bouquinistes went unmolested, they settled into territories and more permanent encampments. As Lydon explains it, Parisians were essentially given the opportunity to “try out” the riverside booksellers (Lydon 5). Their existence became an accepted part of public life and, with time, found enough of a foothold to become permanent. Les Bouquinistes had stumbled on an (ultimately successful) rhetorical tactic that tactical urbanists today use explicitly. Just as Les Bouquinistes did, Lydon’s public space interventions are designed to create speculative, cheap, temporary objects and displays that reconfigure public space in the hope that others come to accept them, and the values they embody, via an experience of them.

Fig. 7. Painting guerrilla crosswalk (Elijah McKenzie, Broken Sidewalk).

For both Les Bouquinistes and pavement to plazas, a desired change is effected through material insinuation. Were this intervention to cost more than paint and labor, it might never get made. The presence of the displays is tactical, both temporary and maneuverable, which means that they may be created either with authorization or without, as with the “guerilla crosswalks” tactic. These demonstrations can be cheaply made and easily undone; thus, they may be approved and funded more easily. Tactical urbanism is defined by this incremental, temporary, and sometimes unsanctioned nature. It prods at what is allowable, working at the edges of municipal ordinances and patience to make only the easiest and most temporary changes to everyday public spaces, a pragmatism born of the expense and bureaucracy of urban design itself.

Not all tactical urbanist displays are demonstrations of alternative possibility, however. Many epitomize the flipside of praise: blame and censure. The weed bombing tactic may be understood as an instance of such shaming, or vitupera, its purpose being disidentification between audience and the object on display through the literal “highlighting” [of] urban weeds in fluorescent colors. The purpose of shaming, just as much as praise rhetoric, is to tribalize a community, to bring “us” together in a unified viewpoint as apart from and opposed to “them.” These displays constitute the second major category of epideictic design: satiric display.[5] Precisely because of epideictic’s authoritative role in public discourse, there is a long tradition of satire in epideixis.[6] The weed bomber merely holds up an object, one its painter presumably sees as blameworthy, to preexisting communal standards and asks viewers to see the absurdity in it. In doing so the bomber may subtly alter those values, a process Celeste Condit details at length in an article on the political functions of epideictic, shaping what will become the warrants of future deliberations through sharing. (Condit 290). Cracks, flaws, and problems are made absurdly patent for viewers, often by beautifying them with color. Guerilla gardening (fig. 8) also constitutes a satiric display, highlighting cracks and potholes that might otherwise be ignored by planting often elaborate miniature gardens in them. Similarly, the PARK(ing) Day tactic presents the viewer with the absurd spectacle of a parking space-shaped slice of park against a field of asphalt.  These displays mock the pretenses of pay parking spaces and urban decay by pairing them with grass, trees, and bodies. As with most satire, we are meant to admire the skill and creativity of the author as much as her moral indignation, both of which lend the display its startling, satirical effect. Just as it requires the eloquence of a Swift or a Pope to adequately satirize through literature, so too do tactical displays require the design skills that Lydon and his contributors have. The goal of such a display, while rhetorical, should not be rationalized as an argument; the epideictic essence is the reflection it prompts through the ironic vision it invites us to share in.

Fig. 8. Guerrilla gardening (Steve Wheen).

Fig. 9. The first PARK(ing) Day in San Francisco (Rebar, “Portfolio).

Pedagogy of Sight: How to See with Values

At least as important as showing us what matters, material public displays teach us how to view the world, to see with values. Witnesses to these displays are not just called to live by the virtues displayed, they are also taught a way of viewing their world. The argument that we may be taught how see in accord with a set of values is made powerfully by Jordynn Jack’s concept of a pedagogy of sight, “a rhetorical framework that instructs readers how to view images in accordance with an ideological or epistemic program” (Jack 192). Jack develops the term to clarify the necessity for instruction that confronted Robert Hooke as he tried to make sensible some of the first micrographic images to a broad audience: “Hooke’s challenge was to make such objects worthy of careful observation . . .  he needed to render what could be seen simply as meaningless squiggles or abstract matter recognizable as objects of study” (193, emphasis mine). In order to do so, Hooke’s text figured his images and diagrams within a familiar ideology (Christian) and a metaphorical idiom (bodies are machines). Importantly, a pedagogy of sight teaches viewers not just how to view the particular engravings at hand, but also how to take that ideological-metaphorical mode of viewership forward into the ways they viewed the world (Jack 192-93). By figuring the microscopic world as made up of natural machines, Hooke both offered the images as evidence of the mechanisms of nature and at the same time taught viewers how to see mechanistic bodies in microscopic images. We all “see with values” all the time, whether that means recognizing “worthy” objects of our attention, defining and ignoring the scenery against which those things stand, or even our recognizing what is or isn’t an entity at all. How else do we learn to recognize?

This operation has been examined most closely in the context of scientific visualizations: graphs, maps, and images that re-present nature for viewers. Behind any display stands some designer making choices, taking advantage of this opportunity for reexamination by crafting the scene to be encountered. Hooke’s microscopic images exhibit what would appear to be little more than unintelligible squiggles, yet come to serve as evidence of a mechanistic theory of the natural world that is offered to make sense of the squiggles. Similarly, epideictic displays are made to offer “a view of” or “a perspective on” something we thought we knew—a hero, a villain, a war, or practice—and to invite witnesses to reexamine and reconceive them. Thus, the dual evidentiary and pedagogical roles at work in a scientific pedagogy of sight, at once both a reason to believe and a useful new mode of recognition, infuses epideictic display as well.

By exhibiting an ideology “in the flesh,” tactical urbanists teach witnesses a new way of seeing with their values. Whether they are reappropriating parking spaces as parks, bombing empty sidewalks with seating, or highlighting the decay of the urban landscape with weed bombs, tactical urbanists display for spectators their own unique way of seeing the city. Spectators are thus invited to see that these spaces do or do not live up to communal standards and are invited to internalize that value-laden way of viewing. As they go forward, they may recognize similar exigencies for themselves and make judgments and arguments about their amelioration.

Weed bombs again provide a textbook case. By spray painting overgrown weeds in public space, tactical urbanists literally highlight problems and issues by giving salience to features of the material environment. Tactical Urbanism 2, for instance, describes the actions of weed bomber Brad Knoefler, a Miami resident and “vocal critic of the . . . lack of maintenance efforts”

Fig. 10. Weed bomb (Grant Stern).

in his neighborhood (37). At first Knoefler cut the weeds in his neighborhood public sidewalks and streets, but he now claims, “it’s much more beneficial to beautify them and convert them into street art” (qtd. in Lydon 37). Thus, while Knoefler clearly wants the weeds cleared up and his neighborhood to be better cared for generally, cutting the weeds sends no particular message and must be done again and again. His playful and satiric act of spray painting weeds rather than cutting them and making them invisible helps observers “resee” the space in which they live.

Brightly colored spray painted weeds are rhetorical displays, but their purpose is explicitly not the change they seek in the world, but inviting others to (re)see the world as a tactical urbanist does. As Lydon makes clear in the heading of the same page of the guidebook, the purpose of weed bombing is “to incite action in cleaning [blighted neighborhoods] up” (37). The weed bomb display teaches onlookers a way of attending to and recognizing what matters, to “see with the appropriate values,” to see the world as does the activist who perceives weeds or pavement as exceedingly salient, obtrusive, and exigent.[7] Like composers of visual images, in other words, designers of material displays necessarily reinscribe into material displays a way of looking at the world.

But what actions do brightly colored weeds advise us to take? Do they propose their own eradication? Or perhaps they suggest a celebration of weeds’ unnoticed beauty? Only by reading the tactical urbanist texts are we given proposals and the full argumentative context for their spatial argument. It is not at all clear that these displays argue for anything in particular. And neither must “place in protest” always mean a “spatial argument.” As Endres et al. recognize, the point of PARK(ing) Day tactics is to incite spectators to “rethink public space” (137). Like epideictic oratory, epideictic design trades on its ability to persuade covertly, preferring showing to telling, teaching viewers how to see with values.

This act of seeing, and specifically recognizing, isn’t just about noticing what might otherwise be ignored; noticing is bound up with evaluation and may be taught through well-crafted display. What we consider exigent rather than unremarkable often begins with the very act of perception, our ability to recognize exigencies as exigent when we encounter them. In oratory, this salience is typically given through the simulation of experience, fantasia, evoked by auxesis or ekphrasis, which transports the audience. Encomia, eulogies, and panegyrics all display by narrating the lives and acts of the great and ignoble. Epideictic design, however, reveals and conceals in uniquely visual and material ways—salience is given through visual or tactile emphasis and highlighting. Both epideictic oratory and design make salient what matters so that the rest of the community might share this way of recognizing, might notice violations of communal values rather than passing them by without comment. 

The public displays of tactical urbanism teach witnesses how to (re)see their urban environment—not just witnesses to pointedly expressive monuments or memorials, but viewers of everyday public space/place. Whether tactical urbanist displays do this by highlighting exigencies or demonstrating possibilities, their ultimate goal is civic education, to teach witnesses how to attend to space/place in the proper way, to see issues not just in this or that pothole or parking space, but to learn to see with the proper set of values, to recognize virtue and vice when it arises. Tactical urbanist interventions help us, in other words, “see as” new urbanists do, to recognize their problems as problems. Seeing with the proper set of values means something more than knowing what “our values” are. It means learning to bring those values to bear in particular instances, to recognize virtue and vice embodied when we see them. Here, the word recognition should resonate in both the sense of “to identify” and the sense of an “acknowledgement” or “appreciation.” Once we can see how some practice, person, or norm aligns with (or fails to align with) shared values, we may go on to recognize such value-laden instances again and again. We will have learned to see with values, to recognize what is blameworthy and praiseworthy as it manifests itself concretely.


My hope with this article has been to explore a vernacular material rhetoric and the epideictic role it performs in shaping shared, public values. Because politically engaged citizens have been cut off from spectacular sites like the Selma bridge, sites that lend their arguments moral force, their rhetorical energy has found expression in vernacular spaces. Tactical urbanism is an important instance of citizens “speaking back” through the public spaces that are embodiments of elite conceptions of the common good, but they are less pointed and more playful and satiric than what they’ve replaced. By studying not just the pointed protest displays of social movements, nor overtly expressive monuments and memorials, but rather the epideictic design (and redesign) of everyday public spaces, I hope to point the way toward the constitutive rhetorical work of design. Tactical urbanists don’t so much tell us what to value, believe, or do as they help us visualize and recognize meaningful instances of our values’ material manifestations. An epideictic lens offers rhetorical analysts the ability to examine more than truth assertions, but also how dearly held values and beliefs find their material expression, what counts as a violation of those values, and how we learn to recognize those exigencies.

If we think of epideictic oratory as a way of giving concrete form to communal values and a way of pointing to, describing, and narrating virtuous and vicious exemplars of those values, epideictic design is an attempt to place those values in actual concrete. Yet questions remain for those interested in (or concerned about) the political potential of epideictic design. What techniques and devices might comprise “eloquence” in design? What principles—architectural, ergonomic, aesthetic—contribute to effective epideictic displays? How does usage articulate with the rhetoric of materials—not just as visual displays, but as functional objects? And though the rhetoric of display tends to focus on how displays create salience, what explains the rhetorical potency of the invisible mundane, the ways banal public spaces tend to iterate in parallel—from sidewalks to potholes to the common park bench—communicating meaning not by assertion but by accretion, subtly and repeatedly marking space as for some and not others?

None of this is meant to deny the importance of the argumentative work done by these material and visual displays, especially as images of tactical urbanism are archived, annotated, remediated, and mobilized. Nor does it insist that all displays are epideictic by their nature. But if we conflate argumentation with the values and warrants on which it is based, then eventually argumentative rhetoric subsumes epideictic rhetoric. Rather, by understanding public objects in both senses, we get a fuller picture of what rhetorical work displays can uniquely do. An epideictic reading of tactical urbanism invites us to remember and recognize the pervasive and subtle, even intentionally covert, political work of rhetorical epideixis in public space.

[1] There exist several texts all titled Tactical Urbanism. The guidebooks referenced here are those available as e-books for free online, especially Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-Term Action // Long-Term Change, which is not to be confused with the print book Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action for Long- Term Change.

[2] Rhetorical treatises, handbooks, and exercises on composing epideictic, from the Rhetorica ad Herennium through Kenneth Burke, include instruction and rules of thumb for producing displays through language (toasts, eulogies, panegyrics, etc.), praising the deceased, amplifying and revealing strengths, and concealing flaws. The tactics described in tactical urbanist handbooks provide similar instruction in material interventions in vernacular public space.

[3] Endres et al. assert that spatial arguments may stand alone, requiring no explanatory language to make their argument. We may grant that assertion and still ask whether those supplied premises are themselves persuasive. This article asserts that spectators are persuaded (or not) by tactical displays in much the same ways they might be persuaded by a work of art. This is, I think, in keeping with the experiential, stylistic, and affective bases of Endres and Senda-Cook’s term “place in protest” (see Endres and Senda-Cook). See also Erika Doss’s Memorial Mania for the argument that contemporary memorialization practices, especially spontaneous and temporary memorials, are primarily concerned with archiving emotion.

[4] Several scholars make this educative point explicitly (Rosenfield; Condit; Poulakos). Gerard Hauser interprets Aristotle’s epideictic rhetor as someone who “provide[s] concrete guidance on how to live in harmony with noble ideals” by valorizing emblems of what a community considers its highest values (“Aristotle” 15).

[5] This term is borrowed from the literary scholar Dustin Griffin, who traces the origins of satire to epideictic oratory and the declamatory training received by its greatest practitioners, from Juvenal to Swift.

[6] Paradoxical or mock encomia, for example, begin with the Greek satirists Varro and Lucian and include encomia of bees, salt, and mice. As Kirk argues, “the exact point in literary history at which the paradoxical encomium became either temporarily or permanently confused with the Menippean satire is unclear” (33).

[7] Bitzer and Vatz’s rhetorical situation debate turned on the origin of exigency: whether it was located “in the world” or the rhetorical creation of rhetors who “gave salience” to certain states of affairs. Rhetorical display suggests that such a dichotomy is false because designed materials can “give salience” not just through language, but through the design of the built environment.

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