A Different Baton

The logo itself is not nearly as big a deal as what it represents. That’s true in a very literal sense: the logo itself only matters because of the thing which it is meant to represent, the University of California. It’s not objectively ugly, in other words, if indeed there is such a thing as aesthetic objectivity. The logo is subjectively ugly. It’s because of its context, because of its history, and because of our subjective experience of the logo that it strikes so very many people as “ugly.” For many, this is the last straw, a last indignity. 

I say this not only for myself, but after reading a lot of comments on the petition being circulated, and doing periodic searches for “UC” and “logo” on twitter. It’s impossible to be comprehensive, of course—over 45,000 people have signed the petition—but it’s also impossible to deny that a lot of people are angry, that there is a virtual consensus that the logo is ugly, and that if the UC does anything other than scrap the logo altogether, they are sending the message that they do not care. I’ve followed this issue pretty closely, and literally the only voices I’ve come across who speak in favor of the new logo are supporting it in the pages of the Oakland Tribune, or the LA Times (or work for the UC itself). Well, that and two people that the UC’s own Creative Director re-tweeted. Outside of the UC’s own damage control, there is no one on their side here.

In that sense, it’s already game, set, match: if the point of a re-branding campaign is to spark new interest in the object which you are attempting to re-brand, this campaign has already been an absolutely catastrophic failure, demonstrably so. The results are in: people are talking about the UC, about what a bunch of embarrassing idiots they are. Forty-five thousand people have not only signed their name to a petition, but so very many of them have written impassioned comments that begin with phrases like “as a UC alum” and “I go to a UC” and then go on to express their dismay in a broad variety of very explicit ways. Read the comments, if you can stand scrolling through change.org’s terrible interface. The UC community is angry. They are alienated. They feel unrepresented, even insulted. There are a great many references to the UC’s proud tradition, and to the way it is being erased and disrespected, and the distinct sense that they have the right to say so and be heard.

This backlash has become the primary story. A few design-blogs had written up the logo change in the days before the UC community began to rise up—and those posts are written in a very inside-baseball eye to design choices, speaking to and from the design community—but the story has completely changed in the last three days.

All of the new articles on the issue will tell the exact same three-part narrative: logo is introduced, people hate it, university responds by citing design experts. The only reason those articles are even being written, in fact, is the logo’s demonstrative failure as a public relations campaign; the only interesting thing about it, the narrative hook, is that a logo which is supposed to make people think positively about the UC is having the absolute reverse effect. The logo isn’t just a failure: it’s an own goal, an unforced error. The university has shot itself in the foot.

Whats still at stake, though, is what will happen next, who will win. Because there is such a strikingly clear divide between the UC community—faculty, students, and alumni—and the people who run the place, who have the ability to make decisions about things like logos, and the experts they hire to manage public opinion. And it really is striking how clear this division is; as Angus Johnston pointed out, this LA Times article is typical in being unable to find a single UC student, faculty, or alumni who will actually defend the stupid thing. Instead, they quote design “experts” from outside the UC community, like this person:

Drastic changes in long-time logos disrupt "a sense of connection," explained Kali Nikitas, chairwoman of the graduate program in graphic design at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. "It's as if you show up at the same coffee shop for years and they start serving you a different coffee. Your routine is broken," she said. And at colleges and universities, reactions can be particularly powerful, she added, "since people really love tradition and legacy at their alma mater. They are really passionate about where they go to school and view it as the cornerstone of their lives." The older UC logo, she said, conveys a sense of stability while the new one looks "incredibly progressive." She said that people probably will come to accept the new one and "in five years, no one will care."

Now, there are several things to say about this, but let’s start with the analogy: this design change is not at all like being served a different coffee. It’s just not. People do not identify with coffee the way they identify with their alma mater. Coffee is a commodity: it’s a thing you buy, a thing you consume, and a thing you piss out of your body afterwords. The school you go to, on the other hand, will identify you for the rest of your life, for better or for worse. If you got your degree from the University of California, that’s now who you are, forever. And so, when they re-brand the school, they are re-branding you. This is why so many UC alumni are upset, why this is meaningful to them. They don't want to be branded.

The rhetorical effect of the analogy, by contrast, is to make that fact go away, to make you forget that distinction and to paper over the fact that a university degree and a cup of coffee really are very different things. In objective terms, they may be comparable—the one costs a dollar or two, the other costs $14k a year—but this is exactly the point. Understanding them as reducible to their monetary value (or their market worth)

As in, “An English major and a dollar fifty will get you a cup of coffee”
is what’s at stake here: are these things objectively comparable (as commodities) or are they subjectively different, as experiences which we relate to in fundamentally personal and non-financial ways?

A big part of the response to the logo, in this sense, is not about the logo so much as its about the commodification of the university that the very fact of it having a logo represents. Take this comment from the petition, which was liked by 146 people:

“This new logo is absolutely ridiculous. Not only is it called a logo, but it is EVERYTHING our school is against. Might as well have slapped a McDonalds "M" on top of it and call it a day. It looks so corporate, and it looks CHEAP.”

Changing a “seal” to a “logo” is something people get upset about, full stop, because they mean different things: the former has a set of desirable associations that are absent from the latter, precisely because “logo” is a term of art for marketing, for consumption. And people don’t like that shift.

At the same time, there’s a fascinating blend class pride mixed in with the anti-corporatism of that comment; “corporate” is something that “our school is against”—something quite central to the “ourness” of the UC, in fact—but some corporations are also more corporate than others. Some kinds of corporatization are more objectionable; it’s much worse to be corporate like McDonald’s, presumably, than a less “cheap” corporation. But if it’s bad to be commodified and even worse to be given a low selling price, then I’m reminded of the old joke: The food is terrible. And such small portions!

Embedded in that comment, in other words, is the same contradiction that defines and circumscribes how we think about higher education in general. It’s something we want for subjective reasons—an experience, a rite of passage, a formative period in becoming the person we become—and yet it’s also something we want for quite practical reasons, albeit a practicality defined in subjective terms. If you have a degree from the University of California, to be blunt, you don’t have to work at McDonalds. You become less cheap, less disposable, less precarious. You become a person of importance and substance, a citizen, both in the eyes of the people around you and in your own self-image. We all know this. You can write all the “is college such a good value after all?” articles you want, and people will still want a good college education; precisely as it’s harder and harder to find jobs with a modicum of dignity, people come to place a higher and higher value on a university education, the traditional means of acquiring that social status, the ability to say “I pay taxes I have a job I’m an American citizen.”

This is a big part of why people are so upset about the logo, I think. Not only is the experience itself being devalued (by changing a seal into a logo), but commodifying the degree actually reminds people of the thing they went to school to get away from: the dehumanizing effect of a dehumanizing labor market, and the fear of social death that the specter of unemployment represents. Without a degree, you’re just a pair of hands, a unit of “work,” and since respectable blue-collar jobs are disappearing faster than the polar ice caps, education becomes the fetish object that will save us. If you have a degree from Cal, after all, you have a network, a place, a status, or at least that’s what you hope to acquire there: you hope to become a person who doesn’t have to worry about being left behind. For better or for worse, we're all scared of being eaten up by the economy, and we all strive to shore up fragments against our ruin.

None of this is even to touch on something which is, perhaps, the most important thing of all: the extent to which education is, can be, should be, or might be a humanizing and liberating experience on its own terms, that old-fashioned enlightenment stuff that goes along with the book, the star, the “Let There Be Light,” and the old-fashioned-ness of a seal.

This is what Kali Nikitas (and the geniuses at the UC Office of the President) don’t want to see, and what gets lost when we compare a university degree to a cup of coffee. That coffee will always be there, as long as you have the money to buy it. The sense that a university degree represents “stability,” on the other hand, or “a sense of connection,” not only will not, but as this entire episode demonstrates, it’s precisely the thing that the UC administration is trying to get rid of, the thing they don’t value. It’s no coincidence that every single aspect of the new logo (and the execrable video they made of it) is meant to show that the university is making a radical break with the past: that’s exactly what they are trying to convey. People like stability and continuity in their alma maters, because it gives them a sense that they are still part of the campus, still a part of the UC, and that it’s still a part of them. And they want those things to be reality, that dream to come true. But the UC administration thinks about their university like upper management thinks about corporate assets, and they’re threatened when other people claim to have a right to speak for and to represent it, when other people claim to have an ongoing stake in what the university is. That’s why they call the cops on protesters and make you get off the grass, and beat you if you don’t. They want to cut that cord. They want to represent us for us.

In 2009, when a wave of massive state funding cuts rocked the university—when a gradual slide turned into an avalanche—the UC student body, the UC faculty, the UC staff, and the UC alumni mobilized. Some people occupied buildings; some people marched; some people held signs; and some people wrote letters and made phone calls. The results have been mixed, but there have been results. The regents know that when they meet to raise tuition, they will need armed police officers to keep students out. When students mobilize to protest the privatization of the university, the university knows that it will pay a cost for pepper-spraying them, for beating them with batons. And the governor knows that raising tuition comes with a political cost. This is how the University of California community has managed to represent itself; this is how we have managed to have a small voice in how the university is run.

In 2009, however, the University administration responded to budget cuts by telling people to be quiet, sit down, and let them speak for us. They hired a team of designers—moving Vanessa Correa from Chicago, for instance, to be the UC’s new “Creative Director,” for a mere $140k a year—to begin the project of re-branding the university, of erasing its history as a public university and re-marketing it as an adjunct to Silicon valley. This is what people are protesting. When we mobilized, as a “we”; when we sought to strengthen and test the bonds that tie us together and make us as a community; and when we gathered to defend something we found to be important to who we are, the people who run the UC like a business decided to surrender to the market, and to help facilitate the University's transformation into a state-supported University of Phoenix. It’s because they don’t know what they’re doing that they don’t see us protesting it; it's because they can't see themselves as we see them--and won't hear us when we speak--that they can't understand what it is we demand when we protest.

Most of all, there is such dismissive contempt in the idea that we are not only beasts of habit, but that we fear change and react instinctively. That’s what makes our opinions unimportant, what gives them the confidence that there is nothing really here, and we will all eventually forget our anger and accept what we are given. It’s truly remarkable, in fact, that someone like Kali Nikitas can both acknowledgesthe fact that people have strong, passionate feelings—that “people really love tradition and legacy at their alma mater”—while also asserting that these strong feelings are also pliable, easily manipulated, and essentially transient; people view the school as a “cornerstone of their lives,” she acknowledges, but when you change its logo from a symbol of “stability” to a symbol of “progressive change,” she also expects people will lie back and take it. But this is how the University administration thinks, as their words and actions have demonstrated for years: they own the product, and we buy things because they can make us want it, can control and shape our subjectivities. And “design,” for them, is just a different baton, a different can of pepper spray paint, and a more subtle means of controlling and corralling the animal spirits that roam their grassy lawns…