IN THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, where I live, locals like to joke that the state flower is the traffic cone. Hearing this for the first time, I chuckled at recognizing a familiar rustbelt landscape of unending—and often, it seems, never-begun—construction. But when I googled the origins of the quip, I learned that the quaint localism is hardly local. As it turns out, the traffic cone is also the state flower in Ohio, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, and Florida, according to online memes that tell the same joke about different states. The widespread applicability of the joke is telling: in many parts of the U.S., the “temporary” problem of infrastructural disrepair is increasingly perceived as permanent, and what is experienced as uniquely regional is in fact widespread.1
Everywhere, hazard warnings overwhelm our sensory fields, on our streets and on our screens. Risk—defined by the OED as exposure to “the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance”—is in principle situational, and therefore temporary. But now, signs warning of risk are a constant presence, and the experience of living under risk has become coextensive with modern life in our “risk society.” For Ulrich Beck, who coined the phrase, risk society speaks to a new global awareness of threats that transcend local and national boundaries:
At the center [of the “logic” of risk production and distribution] lies the risks and consequences of modernization, which are revealed as irreversible threats. . . . Unlike the factory-related or occupational hazards of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, these can no longer be limited to certain localities or groups, but rather exhibit a tendency to globalization which . . . brings into being supra-national and non-class-specific global hazards with a new type of social and political dynamism.2
Where Beck argues that risk under global capitalism knows no limits, I hazard that orange operates as a containing mechanism by making risk appear conscribed to a specific context or situation. Orange localizes risk; it counteracts what Beck characterizes as the globalizing dimension inherent to risk society. The traffic cone—the state flower of every state—condenses in itself the work of orange: to make systemic failure seem local and situational.
Yet at the same time that the orange traffic cone makes the global appear local—and the endemic seem epidemic—we also see the proliferation of orange in everyday life.3 The use of traffic cones in U.S. traffic control and public works is heavily regulated by national standards, which specify that the cones are for highly context-specific, short-term use, but traffic cones have traveled beyond the province of road safety; they are increasingly employed to embody a regulatory presence across all facets of life (construction sites, parking lots, competitive sports).4 Similarly, Safety Orange apparel has spread outside its original context: no longer confined to the woods and construction zones, hunting and workplace safety apparel are now popular street fashion. When these objects meant to convey warning are no longer exceptional but mundane fixtures of everyday life, they curiously become both hypervisible and invisible, screaming “Pay attention” and whispering “Ignore me.” Social psychologists, engineers, and management scientists working on warning and traffic control signs strive to make signs highly visible—attention-stoppers, like the Fyre Fest orange tile—while at the same time keeping them unobtrusive enough to not distract drivers.5 One Federal Highway Administration manual highlights this tension between hypervisibility and invisibility: “As the direct means of communication with the traveler, traffic control devices speak to us softly, yet effectively and authoritatively.”6 The paradoxes of Safety Orange are deliberate, as the bureaucratic standard was engineered to stand out and to blend in, to alert and to normalize.
Today, alert warnings are so common that they seem to epitomize the contemporary itself. In 2005 the artist Banksy recreated Claude Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies,” the iconic impressionist masterpiece featuring a Japanese bridge over a water garden. Banksy’s version of the late nineteenth-century artwork shows the pond befouled by two half-submerged grocery carts and a single traffic cone. The cone is intended to signal the presence of pollution, which should trigger remediation; instead, here it has itself become a pollutant, forever painted into the landscape.7 Safety Orange thus captures the paradoxical effects of an ever-expanding field of emergency: as precarization becomes more and more endemic, more broadly distributed, the crisis it poses is increasingly naturalized, made ordinary, and rendered part of the scenery of daily life.
The world itself is turning orange. We are inundated with images of a globe stitched together in varying and intensifying shades of orange, representing varying and intensifying levels of danger. Orange is a stretching threshold of uncertainty, threatening to turn full-blown red. Orange is the sensorium of existential global risk as it is produced through real-time data science visualizations: coronavirus contagion maps, climate warnings with heat indexes showing rising temperatures, terrorist warning levels—all charting a world in which crisis is not simply imminent but, paradoxically, chronically imminent.
Orange’s sensorium of chronic imminence is delivered through an elaborate semiotic and mediatic apparatus. “Because risk is virtual,” Bhaskar Sarkar and Bishnupriya Ghosh explain, we “require mediation to render [it] legible. Risk perceptions depend on mediatized forms, from tables, bar diagrams, and graphs (generated via regression analyses) to color-coded emergency alerts (chromatic transcriptions of threat levels) to geospatial models (generated by live-tracking of winds, currents, moving landmass, etc.).”8 Often, however, these mediatized forms do not enable knowledge about crises and empower us to resolve them; instead, as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has argued, these forms “undermine the agency they promise,” multiplying crises and intensifying the complex processes they supposedly document. “From financial crises linked to complex software programs to diagnoses and predictions of global climate change that depend on the use of super computers, from the undetected computer viruses to bombings at securitized airports,” Chun observes, “we are increasingly called on both to trust coded systems and to prepare for events that elude them.”9
What Chun points to is the oddly unhelpful nature of Safety Orange’s call to be prepared. These warnings often convey uncertainty rather than knowledge, paralyze rather than mobilize. Building on Mary Ann Doane’s account of how television organizes time, Chun argues that never-ending crisis structures the temporality of new media.10 While TV relishes the spectacle of catastrophe, new media feed on crisis: they compel users to be constantly ready to act while weakening the meaning of action. Unlike the passive TV watcher, figured as a couch potato, new media promises its users agency through participation. Instead, new media deliver the nonreality of endless virtual exchange: “The decisions we make . . . seem to prolong crises rather than end them, trapping us in a never-advancing present.”11 This hyperactivity without agency reflects the American cultural mood under the Orange Presidency. Recalling Siegfried Kracauer’s 1927 diagnosis of life in Weimar Germany, Hal Foster has written of media effects under Trump: “Never before has an age been so informed about itself [and] never before has a period known so little about itself.” Foster observes: “This paradoxical condition—whereby superabundant information undermines actual knowledge—is heightened by our media environment, which overwhelms us with data even as it deskills us in interpretation, which connects us even as it untethers us.”12 To put it another way, orange’s very semiotic instability reminds us that clear communication requires a stable semiotic field.13
Bolstering this widespread sense of crisis paralysis, we might say that the Trump media economy cried Safety Orange, exploiting fear and outrage for profit and attention, trafficking in hyperbole and misinformation, and in the process undermining the footholds for meaningful political communication. (Trump’s frequent recourse to the adjective “special,” for example, as one journalist put it, “is almost a mark of how deadened his rhetoric is.”)14 Trump’s erosion of the power of language, necessary to communicate appropriate warning, is especially ironic given the heightened dangers of the moment. This irony was tragically illustrated by one Stanford climate scientist’s description of the orange sky caused by spreading wildfires that appeared above San Francisco in late 2020 as an “exclamation point” on the intensifying reality of climate change.15 For Foster, “the problem is, the old concepts seem inadequate in the face of Trumpism, voided not only by the sheer scale of the calamity but also by its weird mix of the buffoonish and the lethal.”16 In her own discussion of Trump’s compulsion to exaggeration (specifically his use of exclamation points in his tweets), Sara Ahmed observes that overuse to the point of uselessness, counterintuitively, can serve a purpose: “When someone is judged as overusing a sign,” Ahmed writes, “we mean it has ceased to be effective for a specific purpose. But that cessation can be the point of how something is used; the point can be to stop something from working as it usually works, to repurpose a tool.”17 Following Ahmed, we might ask, What is the purpose of Safety Orange’s overuse? Why does it urgently demand our attention but not point to any clear action? The overuse of orange, I propose, works to untether the sign of caution from its object. It renders the warning intransitive, and thus inoperative as a warning. The ubiquity of the color serves to undermine its traditional use to sound alarm, and thus its usefulness for distinguishing between what requires immediate attention and what does not.
Orange has been repurposed: its work is no longer to prepare citizens for a specific imminent, identifiable, and actionable danger but to condition them to be ready for anything. Safety Orange is thus exemplary of the ideological paradigm of preparedness. Lindsay Thomas argues that this U.S. national security paradigm—traceable to Cold War imperatives of nuclear readiness, operationalized in civil defense exercises—normalizes disaster by confusing fiction with reality by asking subjects to regard hypothetical disaster events “as if they are real.”18 As a logic of governance, preparedness is concerned not with the prevention of disasters but with habituating citizens to anticipate them before they happen—to accept their inevitability. “Preparedness training focuses on teaching people to regard disaster as normal. This normalization positions events like natural disasters, industrial accidents, and disease outbreaks as equivalent to terrorist attacks: all are threats to national security, all are inevitable or unstoppable, and all should be expected as part of daily life.”19 For Thomas, preparedness is a form of “affective training” that habituates citizens to a “new normal” of chronic disaster. It trains us to relinquish demands for systemic transformation by accepting a future based on present conditions: “Preparedness media cultivates this feeling of always-alert detachment because it is politically expedient. It emphasizes the maintenance of the status quo—the extension of the present into the future, indefinitely—over meaningful change.”20
Safety Orange’s repurposing into a technology of preparedness has two key effects. First, by overusing the aesthetic and rhetoric of emergency, the state deflects examination of the slow violence of systemic crises (climate change, racial injustice, public infrastructural breakdown). Emergency demands immediate action, but immediacy is not what is needed in the face of “disasters that are ongoing, slow moving, and nonlocal”—all problems that are intractable at the individual level.21 Second, by prompting citizens to imagine themselves as survivors of imminent catastrophes, Safety Orange compels adaptation to a constantly precarious state of affairs.
Perhaps the most iconic illustration of the peculiar temporal logic of perpetual risk, at least within the U.S. cultural idiom, is the widely mocked color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System introduced by a Bush administration presidential directive in the aftermath of 9/11. During the decade that followed, it was common to hear the national threat level announced in U.S. airports—usually Code Orange, designating “high risk” of terrorist attack.22 When then-Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge raised the national alert level to orange in December 2003, the threat warning was followed by a statement to citizens to “continue with your holiday plans.” As Joseph Masco argues of the true purpose of the orange alert: “This is an official appeal to participate in being generally terrorized, followed by an appeal not to alter one’s life in any significant manner. It is an invitation to pure excitement.”23 Over the nine-year life of the system, the threat level was never reduced to “low” (green) or “guarded” (blue), and only once was it ever raised to “severe” (red).24 In the years since 9/11, there has been no return to normalcy (green) and, perhaps even more surprisingly, no collapse into full-blown catastrophe (red). What we live in, instead, is an era of intensified risk made interminable.
Safety Orange says, Pay attention! Be vigilant! Orange is the chromatic expression of contemporary crisis’ paralyzing call to action. It is the urgently vague something in the post-9/11 National Terrorism Advisory System mantra “If you see something, say something.”25 But what do we do with what we notice? The color demands response but gives no clear directive. Failure to learn the lessons of the terror alert system, which failed because it offered no actionable steps for citizens to follow, has played out in public communications about COVID-19 and climate change.26 What good are crisis alerts when they offer no guidelines for what to do? Without protective equipment and testing available, what is the point of contact tracing?27 Without a halt on global corporate emissions, what good is an individual citizen’s decision to drive less? Indeed, many of these urgent warnings of crisis cannot be meaningfully responded to by individual citizens, although the warnings themselves put the responsibility on individual shoulders. If the warnings of COVID-19 transmission or global temperatures rising are not meant to prompt specific action, what are they meant for?
What the coronavirus and climate crises have laid bare, in the United States in particular but also other parts of the world, is that neoliberal governments do not convey clear and accurate information but leave citizens on their own to make calculations about their health and safety and to weigh the consequences of their actions as though they were matters of personal choice—and thereby to shoulder the extreme human and environmental toll wrought by this dynamic. What we need is not new or better metrics of risk assessment but structural change by those empowered to make it. However, as I explore in the next chapter, orange can be used to prevent us from imagining meaningful transformations, just as Thomas’s “affective training” by preparedness trains us to accept a future based on present conditions. By associating catastrophic risk, coded in orange, with securitization, public pandemic and climate change risk communications do not motivate critical radical action but instead instill a dangerous sense of complacency.