Instagrams that wound: Punctum, visual enthymemes, and the visual argumentation of the Transportation Security Administration.

Author:McHendry, George F. "Guy", Jr.
Position:Essay
 
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In the wake of September 11, 2001, the United States of America made a series of drastic policy shifts at home and abroad, the legacy of which still endures today. One of the most visible and intractable state operations to form in response to 9/11 is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks (2011) reports, "In November 2001, Congress passed and the President signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. This act created the TSA, which is now part of the Homeland Security Department" (391). TSA employs "50,000 security officers, inspectors, directors, air marshals and managers who protect the nation's transportation systems so you and your family can travel safely" (Transportation Security Administration). TSA conducts routine searches, in one form or another, of every passenger and their belongings. From 2011 to 2012, the cost of operating TSA eclipsed $8.1 billion and continues to rise (Department of Homeland Security 2012). TSA screens an average of 1.8 million passengers per day. Each of these screenings is in the service of searching for contraband like the box cutters used in the September 11 attacks.

TSA's project of airport security has been controversial as well: TSA has been attacked for being ineffective, TSA's security procedures have been attacked for being sexually aggressive, and TSA's workers have been accused of being thieves (Blackburn 2012). In a study of popular online discourse of TSA security, McHendry (2015) notes the rancor of anti-TSA discourse. For example, one individual asks, "Ever wonder why pedophile pedophile priests who are defrocked get jobs at TSA?" (277). Another fat shames an agent in a personal and sexist attack, "That fat cow standing there with her fat arms folded with her fat attitude, chewing her cud. What a disgrace" (276). Attacks on the agency are frequent and even when less personal they still insinuate that TSA is useless. Golson (2015) notes internal reports show the agency is ineffective at tests that attempt to sneak weapons through security, "They're staffed with blue-shirted government employees that poke through your bags and, if you're very unlucky, poke through you as well" (para. 1). An op-ed in The Orange County Register argues, "Now we know that, not only does the TSA routinely violate passengers' constitutional rights, it is completely ineffective at the one thing it is supposed to be doing" (para. 7). To counter its negative image, TSA has developed a savvy media operation, operating multiple twitter accounts, an active blog, and an image sharing Instagram account. TSA uses these accounts to disseminate the frequency with which it locates and confiscates dangerous items at security checkpoints.

In one week alone TSA found 38 loaded firearms, an inert grenade, "Five 40mm grenade launcher practice rounds," "one hollowed out replica mortar," a "magazine loaded with seven rounds of .45 caliber ammunition," two "concealed knives with 10-inch blades," 23 "credit card knives," and "firearm components, realistic replica firearms, bb and pellet guns, airsoft guns, brass knuckles, ammunition, batons and a lot of sharp pointy thing[s]" ("TSA week in review-38 loaded firearms, inert explosives, concealed items, and other items of note," 2014, paras. 1, 3-4). Looking only at firearms, TSA discovered 2,653 weapons--a 20% increase over the previous year--in passengers' carry-on bags in 2015. Publicizing the detection of firearms and dangerous objects is a key rhetorical strategy to reinforce the agency's efficacy.

TSA claims, "In many ways, Transportation Security Officers are the public face of our nation's security. It is difficult work, requiring patience, stamina, and great attention to detail. It requires extensive training and constant vigilance" ("TSA blog year in review," 2013, para. 4). The disconnect between TSA as ineffective gropers and as a constantly vigilant last line of defense is clear; as such, analyzing some of the ways TSA constructs the danger posed to the national air infrastructure and dramatizes its role in protecting passengers warrants careful analysis.

In June of 2013, TSA began using the popular photo sharing platform Instagram to share photos and information with the public. Instagram is a social media image sharing platform that connects users and the public to a vast feed of images. In their own words, "Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever" (FAQ, para. 2). Instagram was purchased by Facebook in 2012 for one billion dollars. Over 300 million people have Instagram accounts (300 million 2015). As of the end of 2013, nearly 75 million users access Instagram daily (Kastrenakes 2013). Instagram is a valuable service for disseminating images in the current new media landscape.

Instagram is also a complex application. It is part camera application, part image manipulation application, and part social network. Instagram functions by asking users to take or import a photo. That image is then cropped (usually into a square) and can be digitally manipulated. Once the image is edited users can add a caption, including searchable hashtags (for example, TSA uses #TSAGoodCatch for the objects it locates, when I post pictures of my dogs I use #bostonterrier), and share the image. Depending on a user's privacy settings, the photos are then available to anyone who knows their username or are available only to those to whom they have given permission. Users can follow one another and when someone you follow uploads a new picture it appears on a massive timeline of new photos, with the most current at the top. The photos are optimized for mobile applications and often contain between 900kb and 2mb of data. Instagram is used by TSA to disseminate images of dangerous objects found in airports.

TSA's Instagram account is public and open for anyone who uses the application or connects to the account's web address. In this essay, I examine specific argumentative functions of images shared by TSA. To do so, I looked at a swath of TSA Instagram posts, spanning from January 2, 2015, through July 31, 2015. Over this 30-week period, TSA posted 282 images to their account. Of those pictures, 190 were of potentially dangerous items (67.37%), 30 were of K-9 officers (10.63%), 25 provided travel tips (8.86%), 20 were of agents (7.09%), and 17 were miscellaneous images including infographies supporting agency initiatives (6.02%). Potentially dangerous objects dominate TSA's Instagram use. Two-thirds of the photos they share serve this end. The prevalence of these objects is not haphazard, rather, it suggests that disseminating the existence of these objects may be the raison d'etre of TSA's feed.

Not only do images of dangerous objects dominate the photos TSA shares, the images draw public and media attention to the threats they pose. TSA generates media attention to their efforts primarily because of their depiction of weapons. Over 399,000 people follow TSA's feed. Popular media outlets have praised its menacing style. The Daily Beast warns "If you're a nervous flier, read no further" (Strochlic 2014). MTV.com gives readers "19 Reasons the TSA's Instagram Will Scare You S-tless" (Lakshmin 2014). Gawker considers the account "Worth a Scroll" (Chan 2015). Wired calls the feed "Terrifying and Totally Awesome" (Bierend 2014). The media attention seems to endure even beyond the sensational headlines above. In short, TSA has found a way to document the danger of air travel and provide exigency for TSA procedures via social media image sharing. The sheer quantity of images of dangerous objects and their ability to gain media currency and circulation suggests these images connect with audiences.

In this essay, I argue TSA's use of images of dangerous objects on Instagram functions as a visual enthymeme that provides arguments to justify the existence of TSA, given the context of constant criticism faced by TSA. This essay works from existing literature on visual enthymematic arguments and Roland Barthes's concept of punctum to examine the ways TSA's images depict airports as vulnerable, wounded, and pricked by these dangerous objects. The photos justify TSA and work to carry the burden of security visually beyond the photograph and into the operation of airport security itself. In support of these claims this essay unfolds in four sections: First, I provide a brief overview of Instagram as a photograph sharing platform. Second, I discuss the concepts of visual enthymeme and punctum. Third, I analyze TSA's use of Instagram as a series of visual enthymemes. Fourth, I look at the implications of this form of argumentation via visual rhetoric and social media.

Visual arguments and enthymemes

Analysis of visual argumentation is a promising and vexing line of inquiry in argumentation studies. In this section of this essay, I argue Barthes's concept of punctum offers a lens to analyze visual enthymemes. Punctum provides a way to understand how visual enthymemes call audiences to consider possibilities by wounding the veneer of a blase visual field. Enthymemes strike at our heart at opportune moments. As I will show later, TSA's visual enthymemes call audiences to consider the probability that these objects are dangerous and that they endanger airports. Before turning to punctum, however, I look at visual argumentation and enthymemes more generally. Visual argumentation is addressed directly in Argumentation and Advocacy's 1996 special issues on visual communication. Over several articles, scholars advance arguments for how images do the work of argumentation. The move to the visual is significant, Birdsell and Groarke (1996) indicate, because, "A decision to take the visual seriously has important implications for every strand of...

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