Statement of Intent/Personal Statement David M.

Hill

I find myself in a deep crisis of conscious, at the genesis of which are blood bananas. Charlotte, my adopted hometown, is a contender in Chiquita Brand’s search for a new base of operations. While banal to an outsider, this move is good for our city’s reputation, our economy, and our community. But, as a scholar, there are greater considerations. Chiquita is experiencing discontinuity of self vis-à-vis its Corporate Responsibility position. As it turns out, Chiquita is well documented as an exploiter of the Colombian people, often paying one terrorist organization to “protect” their plantations from other terrorist organizations. In response to criticism, Chiquita sold its Colombian operating subsidiary to a self-sustained Colombian company from whom they still buy their bananas. During this sale, their wellheeled communication staff launched a robust CSR campaign promoting “integrity, respect, opportunity, and responsibility.” And we bought it. Few consumers dug into the story behind the produce and the systemic disconnection between the organization’s story and their actions. As a communications practitioner, it has never explicitly been my role to sell consumers blood bananas. It has also never been my role to explain to consumers why accepting our words with no critical eye towards authenticity is so important in an era of information saturation. What has explicitly been my role is to convince the average populous to want what my clients want them to want. To convince you that our experience is somehow richer, that our product is somehow better, that our lifestyle promises will intertwine with your own in a way that leaves you a little better than before you met us. I’ve fed numerous psyches with messages meant to influence and collude and have offered no alternate methodological framework from which to analyze these messages. The time in my life, in my career, and in my academic progression to correct this is now.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an architect. Problematically, I didn’t want to actually design space; I wanted to mediate meaning through the idea of space. I could never be a practicing architect because my interests were in the theories of interaction and proxemics. I decided, also, that the glacial pace of construction would impede my effectiveness in exploring multiple theoretical approaches simultaneously. I chose instead a graphic design program rooted in studio art making and art history theory—I believed the world could be changed through proper, well-executed design. By controlling and altering a user’s environmental experience a good designer can encourage social change. Can propel egalitarianism. Can guide other humans to conclusions in support of the greater good. It is a noble approach, and one in which I still believe wholeheartedly, but design isn’t enough. I can contribute to a visually-mediated conversation, but first I must help my audience become conversant in interpreting the message. I blog regularly at www.owenshill.com in the hope that revelations about cultural threads will present themselves in the only way I know how to process them: through intentional collection, organization, and analysis of the interstitial bits of information that build upon one another to construct our cultural identities in the visual realm. By curating items for consideration I hope to slice through the clutter of “always on” visual communication in the digital sphere and zero in on the significant element of these tropes that are a manifestation of our greater cultural discussion. Amateur media has agency, but presents only a synecdoche. To understand the relevance and importance of all the pieces, we must step back and observe, write, and teach. Each blood banana we consume becomes a part of our physical being; the nutrients are broken down and absorbed into our body, inextricably linked for the lifetime of the nutrient.

Information we consume follows the process of ingestion and absorption. My work as a designer and my academic study—which has primarily focused of visual communication as a tool for making meaning in organizations—has made me hyperaware of the constant stream of messages we absorb every minute of every day. Anthropologically, our particular moment in time represents a specific challenge that must be addressed: the digital media that so strongly influences our message creation and distribution leaves little footprint for future academic study. Therefore I must study the nutritional content of visual communication in situ. Our interactions and influence must be studied in real-time lest it vanish into the ethers forever. It is this immediacy that draws me to your program and your accomplished faculty. No one field of study is hardy enough to allow for simultaneous in-depth analysis of the amount of information with which we are presented. I believe in an interdisciplinary approach that melds the critical and organization lens of Eric Eisenberg with the media studies thinking of Noam Chomsky and Edward Bernays with a nod to the public/private ramifications explored by Jürgen Habermas and Robert Putnam. In this age of developing knowledge, I look to as broad a selection of thinkers as possible, even if they fall outside the academic field in which I work. Only by looking at the totality of thinking on relevant topics can I triangulate back to knowing in a textural and complex way; our field of study is important enough for this complexity and my innate curiosity in ethnographic data collection helps me synthesize findings in meaningful, interesting ways. Because of the amount of information already produced, only by keeping our academic findings interesting can we ensure relevancy in the conversation. When looking to extended academic study, I can think of no more useful and current question to explore than that displayed popularly by the meme. If we understand the meme to

be a vessel for cultural meaning, we cannot deny its position of authority in communal sensemaking. But where are they from? And how do they translate into larger questions in visual communication? The meme is an important semiotic device often discussed in terms of linguistics. My particular area of research interest lies in uncovering the underlying power structures of visual memes—pieces of graphic shorthand that immediately convey meaning to our brains and psyches. Like backscatter propelled through our brains, memes carry information into various regions of our brains with no clear pathway for analysis. We see, process, and understand these cues with very little active thought to the rich material contained therein. The graphic style of mid-century propaganda posters from World War II. The delicate uniqueness of hand-lettered signs. The brushstrokes of a particular piece of art. All are rife with underlying substance waiting to be unearthed critically and exposed as part of something much larger. As a modern cultural anthropologist, it is my role to deconstruct these pieces of visual shorthand—some of which are digital, some of which are produced—so that we can begin to reassemble, with intent, the messages we are actually privileging. Ever-present and expanding amateur content generation, specifically in visual and digital media, all but ensures the proliferation of additional communication shorthand mechanisms. I want to be on the forefront of a sea change where I, as a cultural scholar, encourage thoughtful consideration when these metonyms are employed. By working in academic centers of study, in the classroom, and in the groups that write modern texts, I can help understand the composition of our collected identities and supply the appropriate language and critical skills to the communicators who will continue to generate media long after my work in this field is finished.

The study of digitally-mediated visual communication in culture is developing, but not anemic. As we stand on the cusp of an exciting and rapidly developing period of change in the field, we need to be adaptable and curious—ready at any moment to identify and analyze the emergent nodes of visual communication and maintain relevance with our audience as our field of study stretches and grows. I’m ready to contribute as a leader while the “needle moves” on understanding visual culture in a modern age; to be in the epicenter of meaning creation sociologically. By supplementing my knowledge of visual media creation and interest in digitally-mediated communication with the opportunity to work with the thought leaders in your program, I will be best prepared to train the communicators of tomorrow in the various ways to understand their environment as it is created through communication and culture. You will undoubtedly review applications for candidates with higher test scores or from more illustrious backgrounds, but you will not review an application from a candidate who will work harder to make the world a better place through thoughtful design, engaged communication, and servant leadership in the field. We have a lot to learn and a lot to teach. Allow me to roll-up my sleeves and jump right in.