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Obama Hope’s widespread genre diffusion and rhetorical transformation has been made possible by a complicated network of collective activities distributed across time and space. This network is constituted by an entanglement of actors, perhaps best understood as actants, who are enmeshed in various associations in which they are “exchanging competencies, offering one another new possibilities, new goals, new functions” (Latour, 1999, p. 182). This actor-network is not a fixed or static structure. Neither should it be understood as a series of fixed entities connected by relations signified by the lines that emerge when interacting with the map below. Rather, as Levi Bryant (2009) helped show, an actor network is constituted by interactions among various entities that are each doing something: “It is the actions,” Bryant explained, “that define the network, not a set of stable relationships or patterns that can be tracked throughout time despite changes in the entities enmeshed in the structure.” According to Bruno Latour, these actions can be thought of as translations, in which the action of one actor sparks an action in an other. But Karen Barad (2007) offered a reminder with the notion of intra-action that when any two entities enter into relations, both are mutually transformed5. Therefore, in new materialist terms, Figure 6 can best be understood as an attempt to map out the dynamic actor-network that is emerging as Obama Hope intra-acts with a multiplicity of actants throughout its ongoing rhetorical life.

The multiplicity of actants in any given collective activity is impossible to fully map out, especially when it comes to an image such as Obama Hope that circulates broadly, undergoes genre diffusion, and enters into a wide range of collective activities. However, as I argued elsewhere (Gries, 2015), during the fourth phase of iconographic tracking when we are studying collectivity, we can locate evidence of collective activity that is visible on the internet, such as when newspaper articles report an image’s participation in a specific social movement or protest. Once such collective activity is identified, we can also do activity theory research to gain a deeper sense of how a variety of heterogenous entities intra-act to accomplish specific rhetorical goals. Activity theory, after all, is especially useful for identifying the goals of certain activities, the actors involved, the divisions of labor involved, the social context in which such activities are taking place, the various artifacts and events that are embroiled in such activities, and the guiding rules or principles that come to guide choices and behaviors within such activities. When it comes to developing actor-network maps, then, we can rely on activity theory research to help identify many of the various actants involved in the network of collective activities in which an image has become intertwined. Again, while the full array of involved actors is impossible to map out, we can at least identify the most important distributed collective activities in which an image becomes involved and do our best to represent the involved events and actants.

Actor-network mapping is a useful research strategy to document and visualize an image’s distributed collective activities, especially as it enables us to identify the intra-actions among a constellation of involved actants.

In regards to Obama Hope, Figure 6 ought to be considered an early stage of such a mapping project in that it identifies the major activities and events in which Obama Hope has participated and some of the key actants involved in those activities. For the purposes of this mapping project, this list of actants, each identified with a distinct color on the map’s key, includes digital technologies, organizations, social media, companies, genres, and, of course, people engaged in various collective activities. To learn more about the collective activities in which Obama Hope has become embroiled, click on the green nodes. From there, trace the events and various actants involved in each collective activity. Clicking on each node will pull up an information window that provides a URL. This URL leads to a website that documents Obama Hope’s intra-actions within a particular collective activity.


This map began as a static map presented in the conclusion of Still Life with Rhetoric (see page 282). Since that publication, I have not only added many more actants and activities to this actor-network, I have also made the map interactive so that viewers can explore this network according to their own interests. Unlike the other maps in this webtext, this map is not directly linked to the metadata on my Google Spreadsheet and thus is not reliant on computational analysis. Nonetheless, I have included it here to help visualize just how distributed Obama Hope’s collective activity has thus far become and to supplement other visualizations in helping account for Obama Hope’s divergent genre activities and ongoing rhetorical transformation. (More data will be added to this actor-network as my research proceeds.)

To interact with this map, begin by clicking on the plus sign in the upper right hand corner of the visualization. Once the identification of collective activities, events, and actants becomes clear, drag the map so that the nodes can be easily accessed. Clicking on each node will bring up a hyperlink that you can follow to see Obama Hope in action in a particular collective activity. To return to the full view of map, simply click on the map.

This visualization is intended for laptop and desktop displays only. It has been removed from tablet and mobile displays to improve webtext readability.

Figure 6: Actor Network Map Visualizing Obama Hope's Various Collective Activities.

ANALYSISReturn to top

Liza Potts (2014) made evident with her diagramming practices that mapping actor-networks can be a productive strategy for identifying the people, organizations, technologies, and events within a complex system. Potts advocated for creating such maps to not only examine how information surfaces and temporary connections within a particular system are formed but also for tracing the actors and associations within a particular network (p. 31). Such mapping, can, in turn, help build systems that are appropriate for managing activities and advocating for new policies and processes (p. 32). Yet for scholars, Potts argued, actor-network mapping can also help “pinpoint the people, organizations, technologies, places, and events that affect [a] network structure” and “visualize ... ecosystems—the organic, engaging, and interactive networks” (p. 32). Such affordances of actor-network mapping are especially useful when trying to visualize a runaway object’s multiplicity of distributed activities. Actor-network mapping can not only make visible the complexity of actants contributing to an image’s distributed activities, it can also make visible previously unrealized connections and intra-actions between those actants.

Part of the challenge in doing actor-network research is identifying the variety of distributed collectives that emerge in relation to a visual artifact. Collectives, as Latour noted, refer to assemblages of entities, human and nonhuman, individual and organizational, physical and digital, etc. Especially when an image experiences global circulation, and especially viral circulation, the number of relations that an image enters into can be quite difficult to keep up with. In Figure 6, for instance, we see that Obama Hope has been entangled in fourteen major collective activities, many of which include encounters with various actants all working toward similar goals in a distributed fashion. In relation to the 2008 presidential election, for instance, Obama Hope became entangled with, among other things, numerous artists, craftspeople, and politicians working to support Obama; with many individual organizations and companies seeking to raise funds for Obama; with different social media that functioned to accelerate and document its rhetorical activity; with various digital technologies that fostered its proliferation and remixability. It was also involved in a number of distinct events ranging from gallery shows to fundraising events to political rallies to inaugural events, to name only a few. How are we to keep track of such entanglements and all the involved players, especially when an image has circulated for many years? Figure 6, after all, only represents the major collective activities in which Obama Hope became involved over the last 8 years. How might we keep track of an image’s actor-networks that evolve over the lifetime of an image that has circulated for much longer? Actor-network maps, while messy, can help us make sense of such massive and convoluted data.

Another challenge in doing actor-network research is making sure to give due credit to all those human and nonhuman entities with which images become entangled to accomplish certain rhetorical goals. In any collective activity, the involved actants have varying degrees of power that are difficult to fully disclose. But from a new materialist rhetorical perspective, our job as scholars is to create symmetrical accounts that help identify the assemblage of entities that come together in any given activity to incite and carry out rhetorical action6. Such work entails mapping out the various people, organizations, and companies involved in an image’s collective activities. When concerned with an image’s rhetorical transformation, this mapping is especially important in order to acknowledge an image’s nuanced contributions to collective life. Obama Hope, for example, is most well-known for its contributions to Obama’s political elections as well as participating in political commentary through the genre absorption in a variety of political artifacts. But the actor-network map in Figure 6 makes evident that Obama Hope has also come into important relations with many organizations that, while less well-known in the U.S., are playing important roles in other countries. In 2012, for instance, Obama Hope became part of Better Together’s campaign to persuade Scottish citizens that “Scotland is a better and stronger country” when part of the United Kingdom. And in 2014, Obama Hope came into relations with the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) in an effort to call on international political leaders such as Obama to recognize the Catalan cause. Actor network maps can help disclose such important but perhaps not widely recognized rhetorical activities in the life of a single image.

Figure 6 admittedly does not do visual justice to the number of people who have intra-acted with Obama Hope—those people who both organized and participated in the identified events, those people who constitute the organizations and companies, those people who designed, produced, and distributed the genre artifacts, and finally those people who invented and used various technologies that intensified Obama Hope’s production and accelerated its circulation. Such people deserve more representation on this actor-network map. But as scholars committed to new materialist studies of rhetoric, we also need to work hard to identify those nonhuman entities (technologies, social media, genres, etc.) that play such an important role in an image’s rhetorical transformation: as Doug Eyman (2007) noted, “any method for examining or researching circulation must take into account not only the actors, networks, and interactions, but also the specific articulation of media and technology within those networks” (p. 19).

Figure 6 demonstrates just how important not only Obamicons themselves are in generating parody, participating in various campaigns and protests, launching satire, etc., but also the importance of the digital technologies that made possible the invention, production, and distribution of Obamicons. In addition, as previous research has disclosed, Obama Hope’s distributed emergence and ongoing circulation would certainly not have been as intense without the help of social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blogs, etc. Tracing out the connections of Flickr alone, for example, demonstrates that Flickr was an important actant in many of Obama Hope’s collective activities: not only in the 2008 presidential election, but also through the development of Obama Street art group and Obama Craft group, as well as through Flickr's key role in Obama Hope’s function as political art, parody, and satire, as many citizens and organizations, both within the U.S. and abroad, uploaded their remixes of Obama Hope to showcase and advertise their work. Actor-network mapping can help tease out these varied connections and make visible just how imbricated such genres and technologies are in the distributed collective activities of a runaway object.

In addition to making visible the multiplicity of actants contributing to an image’s distributed activities, actor-network mapping can make visible previously unrealized connections and intra-actions between those actants.

Actor-network mapping is also especially useful for discovering new connections and intra-actions between various actants that qualitative research might not uncover. Figure 6's revelation of many of the interconnected activities in which Obama Hope participated during the 2008 presidential election suggests directions for additional research: as I discussed elsewhere (Gries, 2015), the exact connections between various activities between Yosi Sergant, Shepard Fairey, and Obama’s official campaign have yet to be fully disclosed. At issue is whether Fairey and Sargent helped orchestrate a top-down visual propaganda campaign to win votes for Obama or if an Obama art movement emerged as a bottom-up, grassroots phenomenon, disconnected from Sergant, Fairey, and presumably the official campaign. Figure 6 affirms that more research ought be done into this issue as this map makes visible connections that were not otherwise visible. For instance, early in 2008, the Obama Street Art group emerged on Flickr to document the proliferation of Obama Hope (as well as other Obama art) and to stimulate dialogue about Obama. In order to find the URL for David Combs, the originator of this group, I visited Combs's magazine’s website where I noticed Shepard Fairey/Obey Giant was not only listed as the magazine’s friend but also as a commonly featured artist. Could Fairey, on his own accord or upon advice from Sergant (the public relations guru intent on making Fairey’s Hope poster going viral during the election season and who had earlier ties to Obama’s campaign), have asked Combs to develop that Flickr site to draw more attention to Obama Hope and thus more support for Obama? Figure 6 shows that Combs has close ties to Fairey and thus points toward the need for more research into their exact connections in order to paint a clearer vision of how this movement emerged. Visualizations such as actor network maps thus prove useful for pointing to new relations that, in turn, foster deeper research.

In light of such benefits, scholars interested in studying the circulation, transformation, and consequence of visual rhetoric might invest more time and energy into making actor-network mapping a more integral part of their research process. While I discovered her scholarship after creating and describing my collective activity map above, I found that Potts (2014) had written extensively about actor-network mapping as a research method, going so far as to describe this method in such detail that it can be easily adapted for other projects. Potts’s mapping strategies of using noun icons and signifying relationships with thickness of lines seem especially useful in helping to make new discoveries about our objects of study. As we press on in developing digital visualization techniques for studies of visual rhetoric, then, we ought thus adopt and build on Potts’s method. Adding a chronological dimension to actor-network maps would prove especially useful in visualizing the distributed emergence of which Edbauer Rice’s rhetorical ecology model speaks.


  • (5) To make this process of mutual transformation more clear, consider the relations between Obama Hope and Shepard Fairey. Obama Hope was first encountered by Fairey in a photograph taken by Mannie Garcia. Obama Hope was transformed via Photoshop and other digital technologies into the red, white, and blue graphic design we are so familiar with today. Its rhetorical life was also transformed as its circulation was escalated after Fairey transformed it and it became remixed on unprecedented scales. Fairey, on the other hand, was also transformed. While he was somewhat well known for his "Obey" campaign and other graphic design work, Fairey’s relations with Obama Hope catapulted Fairey into the mainstream news and transformed him into a celebrity artist, as evident in the significant numbers of newspaper and magazine articles printed about him between 2008 and 2009 alone.

  • (6) For more on symmetry and distributed agency, see the chapter on agential matters in Gries’ Still Life with Rhetoric.