LET US NOW MOVE FROM flashing warnings of existential catastrophe to those more banal and easily overlooked warnings—orange for system failure—that are built into our public infrastructure. Used in public signage, Safety Orange functions as a technology of neoliberal control that trains citizens to be perpetually vigilant and responsible for their own safety and well-being. We can glimpse this logic—which shifts the onus of compliance from institutions onto individuals—in something as ordinary as Slippery When Wet signs. When these signs hang permanently instead of being temporarily placed to indicate that the floor has just been mopped, their semiotic function is subtly but significantly altered. Rather than call attention to an actual danger, they render chronic the management of potential risk, outsourcing it to everyone and no one in particular. Like the antismoking campaign slogan Smoking Kills, the warning Slippery When Wet functions as a neoliberal performative; it states a platitude so self-evident as to appear unremarkable, and it thereby surreptitiously contracts everyone present into accountability.
The phrase Slippery When Wet is delivered in the voice of public administration, which, as media historian Lisa Gitelman observes, “reventriloquizes the impersonal authority that has so long hailed and conscripted its subjects to the mediated public: ‘post no bills’; ‘all circuits are busy’; ‘stay tuned for more.’”1 But precisely unlike an administrative address that says “all circuits are busy,” Safety Orange’s address does not convey real-time facts or updates. Instead, it operates like road signs that say Be Prepared to Stop or Slow When Workers Are Present; these signs do not inform the driver that workers are present but, by interpellating the driver in the conditional mood, make her accountable (indeed liable) for all possible scenarios. The power of these signs is less panoptic than ambient, conscripting all who stray into the purview of the sign.2 As public and commercial spaces are increasingly regulated under the terms of neoliberal management, this semiotic responds-without-responding to what tort law refers to as a duty of reasonable care to protect against known or reasonably foreseeable risks: via passive signage, the public steward or proprietor meets their minimum legal obligation to their patrons and employees even as they demonstrate relative indifference to their fates. If the risk is actualized, it is not the proprietor’s fault (“you were warned”); if it is not, it is evidence of the effectiveness of the sign. The felicity of the performative, perversely, can never fail.
These text-based warnings begin with a hypothetical scenario and conclude with an appropriate behavioral response (If floor is wet, then walk with care; if workers are present, then reduce speed). While it follows the principle of these signs, Safety Orange differs insofar as it belongs not to a textual but to a visual semiotic system. Orange maintains a similar syntactical structure but proffers a far vaguer relation between the signifier and its referent. It leaves the passerby to fill in the blanks, conveying roughly: If [potential danger], then respond safely. This untethering of the warning sign from what it refers to matters because it turns the entire landscape into a field of potential danger whose meaning the passerby alone is left to decipher.
This outsourced and distributed form of governance suffuses what Gilles Deleuze termed the regime of control. In Protocol, Alexander Galloway shows how this decentralized management associated with the rise of networked technology extends into the street. Galloway contrasts the speed bump with the road sign, arguing that while both are effective means for preventing speeding, they represent two different modes of power. The road sign addresses a logical subject, who makes the conscious decision to slow down, while the speed bump produces a “protocological” subject who subconsciously wants to slow down (to protect his car or his comfort): “the signage appeals to the mind,” Galloway observes, “while protocol always appeals to the body.”3 In other words, protocol bypasses the moment of decision by installing an infrastructure that subliminally programs the driver’s behavior. Insofar as Safety Orange is a signifier detached from any specific signified, orange can be said to be protocological. Yet unlike protocol, orange does not simply manage bodies; it manages expectations. Orange follows Chun’s articulation of the workings of new media: it interpellates subjects as decision-makers, withholds information needed to make informed decisions, then holds subjects responsible for the outcome of their actions.
Orange thus operates neither fully logically nor protocologically; while the speed bump subconsciously addresses the body and the road sign consciously addresses the mind, orange blurs the somatic and the semantic, creating an affective field of interpellation. It does not say Stop!, Go!, or Slow down!, but instead Proceed at your own risk. The logic of the road sign is structural; the logic of the speed bump is infrastructural; the logic of the orange traffic cone is parastructural. Where the road sign consciously addresses the decision-making of the driver and the speed bump subconsciously addresses the decision-making of the driver, the traffic cone affectively addresses the decision-making of the driver. Pertaining neither strictly to the semiotic logic of the stop sign nor to the somatic logic of the speed bump, the traffic cone manifests a higher degree of contingency and therefore a looser causal relationship between the sign and what it signifies.4 It simply sits beside the pothole.
Safety Orange is a neoliberal Band-Aid, an alibi that stands in for engaged governance. Invented to convey caution from a distance, the traffic cone literally becomes the guard rails for absentee state infrastructure, as drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites across the country, striated by countless traffic cones, illustrate. Like the traffic cone, Safety Orange is a visual stopgap for structural action. It both encodes and makes hypervisible the retraction of the welfare state and the defunding of public works. Orange does not seek to ameliorate problems but to anticipate and outsource them—to automate governance by training citizens to regulate themselves, to simply avoid the pothole. This is the dynamic in play when states urge citizens to buy generators, anticipating power outages from weak or overloaded power grids during extreme weather events, or to buy their own bottled water as a workaround for failing water systems. As Dean Spade has argued of community-based networks of “mutual aid” (practices of collective resource sharing in the face of state infrastructural failure, malfeasance, and even overt sabotage of its citizens), there is a curtain drawn across the empty place that should be filled by concrete climate policies, infrastructural investment, care networks, and other institutional resources; that metaphorical curtain is Safety Orange.
As Cris Shore shows, the de-responsibilization of the state is coeval with the rise of risk society, which he explicitly links to “the politics of neoliberalism and government attempts since the 1980s to render individuals responsible for duties and risks that were previously considered responsibilities of the state or government authorities.”5 It is the careful reallocation of responsibility to the localized, individual level, Shore argues, that allows private companies and government bodies to shed responsibility for large-scale disasters. And as Masco shows, the divestment in local and national infrastructures went hand-in-hand with a deep investment in the technologies of the security state-military infrastructures and the project of counterterrorism. The existential terror on which this project feeds, writes Masco, “not only empowers the most radical actions of the security state; it also creates ideological barriers to dealing with a vast set of everyday forms of suffering and vulnerability that Americans experience, now rejected in favor of warding off imagined catastrophes.” According to Masco, these “everyday forms of suffering” include “poverty, bankrupt municipal governments, spectacular white-color crime, energy scarcity”—all of which increase citizens’ precarity as the state abdicates responsibility for them, reminding us that what really matters is national security.6 Safety Orange is the weakest form of care in a postwelfare society that is no longer actively concerned with protecting and improving the lives of its citizens.
The landscape turns orange when the state abandons its citizens, leaving in its wake crumbling infrastructures and mass precarization. Perversely, the state’s withdrawal is palliated by a skim of democratic participation and individual agency, which is, of course, nothing but a neoliberal ethics of self-responsibilization in disguise: “The human beings who were to be governed [are] now conceived as individuals who are to be active in their own government,” Nikolas Rose observes. “And their responsibility [is] no longer to be understood as a relation of obligation between citizen and society enacted and regulated through the mediating party of the State; rather, it [is] to be a relation of allegiance and responsibility to those one care[s] about the most and to whom one’s destiny [is] linked”—in other words, the relation of individual to individual rather than of individual to society.7 Orange proliferates as the state surreptitiously transfers responsibility to the citizen under neoliberal information capitalism. As Wendy Brown puts it, “The idea and practice of responsibilization—forcing the subject to become a responsible self-investor and self-provider—reconfigures the correct comportment of the subject from one naturally driven by satisfying interests to one forced to engage in a particular form of self-sustenance.”8 In the absence of a government willing to fill social and economic potholes, the individual must govern herself to avoid the dangers that are everywhere marked by Safety Orange.
The state, however, is far from absent when it comes to nonwhite lives and communities—indeed, it is dangerously present, ever surveilling, ever intervening to punish rather than protect. In light of this, we must reassess the traffic cone. Tou Thao, one of the four officers who were on the scene when George Floyd was murdered, later characterized his role to investigators as that of a “human traffic cone.” His sole focus during Floyd’s murder, he claimed, was to maintain crowd control by preventing increasingly concerned bystanders from intervening, while fellow officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes. The traffic cone can no longer be seen simply as an emblem of state divestment; this is too kind to the state, for in this figure, the state is dispassionate and egalitarian, withdrawing resources from all citizens impartially. In fact, the state is heavily invested in protecting the interests of certain groups. We must also think of the traffic cone as an emblem of the falsely impersonal role claimed by the state in its extralegal campaign of anti-Black terror and violence.
Thao described himself as a traffic cone—a mere object, a cog in the machine of the state rather than an actively complicit agent in state violence—to minimize his responsibility for Floyd’s death.9 As Thao’s defense makes manifest, the traffic cone that appears to index mere negligence is in fact a symptom of the state’s conscious imperative to protect and serve the interests of white supremacy through the continued harm of poor communities of color. Some traffic cones are present to draw attention to holes that will eventually be fixed; other cones are there to impel passersby to simply avoid holes that were never meant to be fixed.