Cardboard Critics: The Language of Protest

Anna Kemball | April 30, 2018

Anna Kemball image

A picture says a thousand words, they say. When it comes to how we take collective action, how much can be said through pictures and words, hastily scribbled on a scrap of cardboard? What impact do these transitory collections of text, image and object have in relation to more permanent messages associated with our universities?

Like HEIs up and down the country, the University of Edinburgh has recently come out of a month of strikes as members of UCU took industrial action against proposed changes to their pension scheme. As you’d expect, signs, placards and banners were the most obvious forms of expressing dissent at rallies. Indeed, no matter what the cause or dispute – Women’s Marches, anti-austerity demonstrations, the list could go on – what unites these various examples of collective action is often the humble piece of cardboard.

Back to the UCU strike. Staff and students alike in an institution of higher education are trained to exercise critical thought and analysis. In the humanities, we’re well-versed in spotting those moments when language has a short, sharp impact. These signs can be a complex combination of the figurative and literary devices we’ve been trained to read and analyse – form and content, language and image, physical object and abstract concept, creator and spectator all converge. Added to this complexity are the dynamics between mass produced ‘official’ placards of protest versus the ones improvised by individuals. Does the difference between the two sets signal fragmentation within a particular cause? Or does such variation better reflect the unique ways in which people articulate and communicate shared ideas?

Although often a collection of individual images, the messages conveyed are magnified by being part of a larger group. The individuality and the temporality of the signs disrupt the functions and purposes of particular space. Developing a concept used in sociolinguistics and semiotics that looks at how text is used in a fixed space, Marissa K. Wood considers protest signs to be a “mobile and temporary form of linguistic landscapes”. The signs reflect those who demand their voices be heard, often the marginalized or the underdog in a political scandal or industry dispute. They’re not polished or uniform; often these are individualised, handmade and imperfect objects that convey the breadth of opinion on the issue at hand. Humour in the face of adversity, pride in the face of prejudice. These pieces of cardboard easily lend themselves to intertextuality – quotes from famous figures and historical events now converge with newer additions of memes and humour. Protest signs function by drawing upon a history of reform and change to show that protest is, and should be, intersectional.

Since March 13th, students and staff at Edinburgh have occupied the Gordon Aikman lecture theatre. Initiated by a sense of solidarity with the UCU strikers, the occupation has since continued and become The Real Edinburgh Futures Institute, demanding a free and democratic education that is open to all. From the outside, signs and sheets covered with puns visibly indicate that this institutional building is being used for radically new purposes. But, after a month of occupation, have the signs retained their impact? Or have the students, on their way to the library to face end-of-year deadlines, seen it all before? With time, does the disruption cease?

If so, I’m not quite sure where this leaves us. It’s as if the temporal impact is undermined by the permanence of the written word. Strikers and protesters want change to be lasting, but are reliant on transitory messages for maximum effect.

From the protests I’ve either seen or participated in, I know the importance and urgency of the issue at hand to the creators of those objects. But, as the news cycle spins on, it’s painful to think about how these linguistic landscapes will quickly be erased and replaced. Is there a more effective way? Action speaks louder than words, you might say, and maybe that’s always been true in activism.  But I’m hopeful that there is a way for language to continue to speak, disrupt and be heard.

About Anna

I’m a first year English Literature PhD student at the University of Edinburgh studying representations of mental health across a range of indigenous literatures. With a BA and MA from the University of Leeds, my research interests include: critical medical humanities, mental health, postcolonial and indigenous literatures and disability studies.

Works cited

Woods, M.K. (2017). Cardboard and Old Glory: reading protest signs at the demonstrations against Trump’s travel ban. Diggit Magazine. Retrieved from:

Article edited by Valentina Paz Aparicio and Vivek Santayana

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