Painting a slogan on a wall in letters three feet high sets an idea almost literally in stone, and also fixes it in space. It stabilises the message to the extent that it becomes immobile. But the walls on which graffiti is scrawled are often blank, anonymous spaces, and the slogans a reaction to their soullessness. And these are just as often also sites and spaces of movement: graffiti appears in tunnels and underpasses, on bridges and walkways, it belongs quintessentially to the street, to places where people are on the move and many will pass by.
For a decade or more, from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, along the concrete wall of the newly built Westway and facing the underground line between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park stations, was written: SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY – TUBE – WORK – DINNER – WORK – TUBE – ARMCHAIR – T.V. – SLEEP – TUBE – WORK – HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE – ONE IN TEN GO MAD – ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP.
Tags began to appear on subway trains in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s and 1970s. Their bold calligraphy was itself a statement, an assertion and mobilization of the self. They were also about joining a community of writers, and finding recognition within that community.
Brigada Ramona Parra were muralists, organised in groups of 8-10 to write and paint slogans and images in public spaces in support of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Their work had to be simple enough to carry out quickly and effectively, with available materials. Sites had to be identified and appropriate messages conceived and designed. Different members of a group would outline a text in black, colour the background, fill in words and images in stronger primary colours and finish it all by retracing its bold, black outline. Something painted at a busy intersection had to have immediate impact, something on a wall beside a market might draw a spectator’s attention more slowly and hold it for longer. What was possible, appropriate and effective was contingent on the space available, its location, and not least the physical reach and capacity of the muralists themselves. Some projects would enlist local residents, some brought conflict with rival groups. Muralism was more than messaging: it was a physical process of taking control of urban space.
The signature stands for its author: it is a critical moment of self-representation, for agency is constituted with the capacity to represent the self, to put it into motion and into relation with others. The signature is a way of making agency operative and effective when an actor – the signatory – is not present. In medieval society, this held pre-eminently for the king and the bishop, often in the form of a seal; now, in democratic societies, the signature stands equally for the citizen. By extensions, the signature serves as demonstration and enactment of legal, social and political status, and in a sense produces the authority it is said to represent.
In early modern Europe, a signature indicated belonging to a village or commune, and a share in its collective resources and obligations. Only slowly, as princes and parliaments competed for support in and among those communities, did the signature come to stand as an expression of individual interest and opinion, and only then did the number of signatures on a list become significant.
Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Morris, Wilson and Washington were among the most prominent signatories to the American constitution. But what they signed was at the time they signed it no more than a proposal agreed by the Constitutional Convention which had been meeting in Philadelphia over the summer of 1787. And that they signed it was ‘neither obvious nor automatic’, while what their signatures meant wasn’t wholly clear.
The signing on September 17 was the outcome of a vote, held on a state-by-state basis: it was delegations who agreed collectively to offer their respective states’ support for the document, though some of their individual members may have opposed it. When the proposal was published two days later, the names of 39 signatories as well as that of the Convention’s secretary, William Jackson, appeared below the text.
A signature may serve as a pledge or commitment as when completing a contract; it may authenticate a decision, as when a head of state signs a bill into law; it may stand for endorsement of a claim or idea, as in a petition, or it may simply attest to facts, as in witnessing a marriage. Those who signed the constitution were not pledging or authenticating, for they simply had no authority to do either (indeed, what was at issue in drafting a constitution at all was whether such an authority should be constructed). So were they attesting or endorsing? Were they declaring simply that the Convention had agreed the text as presented, or were they also declaring support for it?
The ambiguity of what the signatories were doing when they were signing, Coenen argues, was deliberate. It served to make it easier for more delegates to sign and then, once they had signed, it made it more difficult for those with reservations to oppose ratification. The number and prestige of the signatures, and the apparent unanimity of purpose they seemed to represent, then served an important rhetorical function in persuading others of the momentousness and the merits of what was proposed.
The petition is perhaps one of the simplest and most mechanical forms of political representation. It has two basic elements, a text and a list of signatures. The text is usually a brief statement expressing some sort of grievance, and making a demand or request of the authority to which it is submitted. It is a story or account of trouble – a definition of a situation – and a plea for remedy. It has parallels with a certain kind of prayer, in which one or more supplicants ask for benevolent intervention from a god or gods.
The second element of the petition is a list of signatures given by those who support it. Each signature is made below the previous one in a ruled column, sometimes in a numbered row. Signatories may also be asked to print their name in capitals, and to give some other identifier such as their address. In this way, the petition has elements of both the text and the form: it presents an account of the world, and offers up standardised information about those who support it.
In the early to middle 19th century, women were especially prominent in petitioning the US Congress to abolish slavery: this was a principal way in which they began to take part in public, democratic political discourse. They worked as unpaid volunteers – men’s political activity was usually paid – and did much of the invisible, administrative work of printing petition forms, distributing them, counting signatories and binding the collected sheets.
In doing politics by petition, women met others like themselves, both in organizing and coordinating a campaign and in talking to those they approached as signatories. Their diaries and letters suggest they learned by doing, as their ability to engage others in talk and argument became increasingly sophisticated.
Francis Cody tells of an episode in rural India, in which a group of women were to petition a district official about access to the land surrounding their cremation ground. Their initiative was in part the product of a literacy scheme and the work of a particular local organizer.
The district administrative office was housed in a former palace, where grievances which would once would once have been made orally and in person were now to be made on paper, to an office rather an individual. When they arrived, the women discovered the official they were looking for had left. They had to leave their petition, the document and its signatures, to speak for themselves, which seemed as uncertain as their newly-formed handwriting. They had been defeated in their attempt to make a direct plea, face-to-face with a public authority in a social register they knew and understood, and forced to rely on a token, a written submission they did not yet wholly trust. ‘Everything rested on a written piece of paper’.