Wednesday, December 31, 2008

GQ Man of the Year

Barack Obama, Michael Phelps, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jon Hamm were named GQ's men of the year. According to the accompanying article, these men were chosen, because they "blew our minds." The four are among 27 men or groups of men listed.

I don't know what sort of criteria blowing a mind is, and I have to say, mind-blowing is not how I view either Hamm or DiCaprio--I think they are fine actors but just two of many.

I am more intrigued by the pairing of Obama and Phelps, both figures who achieved big things by inspiring the nation--and grinding it out. 

Anyone who knows swimming knows that it's the grind-iest of sports, hours and hours in a pool, and some more doing "dry-land" work,  all with the hope that endless practice will lead to greatness. Obama is no stranger to the grind, though of a different form, an endless triathlon of traveling, speaking, and meeting.  The success of Obama and Phelps shows men of the year can be celebrities and those who put in the time. (And of course, win eight gold medals or become president.)


Saturday, December 27, 2008

On a Mood

I don't think I've ever experienced the strangeness of the world we live in now--optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. The economy is getting worse and worse, and many people couldn't be more excited about the new Obama administration.

Obviously they are not related by cause and effect--Obama is not even president yet, and has had no impact, save for perhaps a small positive one on the stock market, since he has been elected. 

But they are related in other ways. For one, people seem to be feeling part of something larger than themselves in both a positive and negative way (or just negative, I guess, if you're not an Obama supporter). The optimism about Obama is related to the economic downturn. It certainly would have been more difficult for Obama to get elected in a good economy. And one feels the optimism because there are problems in the United States and the world that many people believe Obama can solve.  Without significant problems, the basis or need for optimism is less tangible. Which is what hurt Al Gore in running for president--there was no seemingly urgency to elect him. 


Friday, December 19, 2008

Meet the Obamas!

Thanks to Laura Burke for turning us on to this article in Time.

One of the many keen observations James Poniewozik makes has to do with how popular culture deals with the semiotics of a popular black family and a popular black president--topics that have interested SemiObama from the start:

After Obama won, there was talk of a "Huxtable effect"--the idea that pop-cultural portrayals of African Americans from The Cosby Show to 24's David Palmer readied white America for a black President. But maybe there's an opposite factor at work here too--the 50 Cent effect. The impact of the Obamas comes partly from the unspoken contrast to a decades-old media archive of images of black people as problems or threats, from news to cop shows to hip-hop. Broken families, perp walks, AKs and Cristal.

Suddenly the most photographed black man in America was giving speeches and calling world leaders. Suddenly the most discussed black women in America were two adorable kids and their lawyer mom. Suddenly you had a news story involving a black man and dogs, and it wasn't Michael Vick.

As Obama's profile and presidency matures, it will be fascinating to see how popular culture coverage of him (and his family) also evolves.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Obama Soda

Obama Soda!

Read about and listen to the full story on NPR.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Interview with the Designer of the Obama logo

Via Kottle.

An interview with Sol Sender, who designed the Obama campaign logo (shown here on the campaign home page).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

How Soon Is Now?

Found: Storefront, Geary Boulevard, San Francisco.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

On Cult of Competency

Chris Cillizza ("The Fix") notes that Barack Obama is doing his best to show competence as he prepares for becoming president. As we've said before, we think this is one of the most powerful narratives that Obama has going for him--that he's going to run the government efficiently and without drama. In other words, that he is going to run the country as he ran his campaign. This is different than "running the government like a business," frequently heard as George W. Bush, armed with a Harvard MBA, took office.* 

Given the struggles of the financial industry and now the automobile industry, running anything like a business now has multiple and conflicting meanings. Businesses care about products, efficiency, and cost control. Governments can care about those things, but their obligations are to the people, where corporations do have obligation to some people, the shareholders. 

Obama himself has identified with at least one company, Google, a company known for innovation as well as the same reluctance for internal drama. At a talk in front of Google employees in late 2007, he noted that his campaign and the company also shared a belief in delegating and innovating from the ground up rather than solely from the top.
"There is something improbable about this gathering," the Illinois senator told a packed cafe auditorium of hundreds of Google employees. "What we share is a belief in changing the world from the bottom up."
And one notable hire from industry has been Google's Sonal Shah, who is on Obama's transition team. In any case, it's clear that Obama is focusing on competence as at least one of his organizing principles (the previous mentioned Rivals metaphor is another), and one that has at least started to get the attention of outside observers.


*In the same Google search, I also discovered that Microsoft donors favored Hilary Clinton while Google favored Obama (and in the above article about George Bush, the writer compared him to Jack Welch, the legendary president of General Electric.) That's not surprising considering the cult of personality that ran through both Microsoft and the Hilary campaign.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Better than Fred

New York magazine reports on Alphacat, who does a better Obama impression than SNL's Fred Armisen.

Obama state Google correlations

Courtesy of Kottle...

Check out the correlation generator at StateStats. I'll leave the explanation to the site, but I played around with it for a while, and so far the search for "hybrid" has the highest correlation with "voted for Obama." 


Metaphor for stimulus money that's only barely Obama related

As the Washington Post details today, the government efforts to use infrastructure spending to revive the economy might take a bit too long to ramp up, and people might spend a tax break too quickly. Of course, the economy needs both. Coffee+sugar--long-term stimulus + short-term energy. It's not an exact science...but neither is economics. 


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Yet Another Obama Doll

Sure, my newborn son was happy about the University of San Francisco T-shirt, but nothing made him smile like his new Barack Obama doll.

Pointing toward the future with his left hand and ready to pound the podium with his fisted right, this big eared but loveable figurine made both Gavin and his daddy think about the word "change" in a new way (if only for a moment).


Team of rivals

I want to point out how limited the term "rival" is at least in terms of professional background and to some extent ideology. First of all, before Clinton and Obama fought for the presidency, they were both relatively liberal Democratic senators, a group numbering in the dozens. "Rival" Robert Gates is a member of the Bush administration for sure, and a former director of the CIA, but he is also a former college president, a position that requires tact and fund raising skill as much as intellectual vision. Janet Napolitano is a governor, Eric Holder a former office holder, Larry Summers, a former Treasury Secretary and president of Harvard--all insiders, part of an elite group that has access to real power in the United States. And not only are they insiders, but they are either former or current government office holders or politicians, whose job description includes smoothing rough edges of their own personalities.

It's interesting to note the derivation of the term rival--according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes from the Latin, rivalis--meaning "one living on the opposite bank of a stream from another." Or in other words, same stream, different bank.

In a sense, this is a team of rivals not unlike a national Olympic team is a team of rivals. Athletes might compete against one another for years and years, but then are thrown together on the same team every four years--after competing against each other for the same spot on the team. Sound familiar?


Entertainment Weekly on Obama and pop culture

Benjamin Svetkey speculates on what our president-elect might mean for the entertainment industry. My own take is that it won't mean too much immediately, unless you count news programs as entertainment--the interview with Barack and Michele Obama was one of 60 Minutes's largest audience in years. More about that later...


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Disco Inferno

One of my favorite little bits of information that has come from reading the extended accounts of the post-election was this from Newsweek:

During one of the debate preps, the lights blew, flickering on and off like a strobe light from the 1970s disco craze. Obama stood behind the podium, quietly singing the song "Disco Inferno," last popular in the heyday of "Saturday Night Fever."
It's more than likely Barack Obama was humming, "Burn, Baby, Burn," the famous chorus from that song, itself a reshaping of the term used during the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, itself stolen from the famous radio call by Magnificent Montague.

So we have an African-American candidate who is making a joke about disco, humming a song that itself has refigured a term twice from its original context in both political and popular culture terms. Perhaps in some deeper context, Barack Obama knew this relationship himself, but regardless it seems a remarkable journey for a phrase--from disc jockey to a future president humming it in a context that at once showed how long a cultural distance the country has traveled and how odd the twists of popular culture are.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Obama and the Blackberry

I don't have a Blackberry or an iPhone, but I suspect it won't be long until I get one; I had a phone where I could check the Internet abroad and loved it.

As you may have been reading in the last few weeks, Barack Obama has had to face the possibility that he may have to give up his beloved Blackberry, one of the ways the presidency is going to change his life.

Owning a Blackberry is hardly remarkable, and it would have probably been more surprising if Barack Obama--junior senator, law professor, and avid reader--did not have one. Nonetheless, it says something that our president-elect has one and does not want to give it up. 

*He's busy, someone who doesn't want to wait to read emails, and perhaps important, because he needs to read his emails.
*Obviously he has a facility with technology, a symbol of person engaged with the current in American culture.
*And to build on that, he's independent--he wants to read his own emails, despite being a senator and a presidential candidate, rather than have someone read for him. 
*The articles do focus on the way losing direct access to his friends will further tend to isolate him. But having a Blackberry also has its own intrinsic technological pleasures--I suspect that friendship is only part of the reason he wants to give up his Blackberry.  Knowing what is happening with the world, on your own terms, with your own effort (by clicking and scrolling) is one of the joys of the Web. Of course, being president allows a certain amount of control too....


Friday, November 28, 2008

The Victory Plate!

Buy yours now!

SemiObama wants to know if any of its readers have bought the plate.

Email us at: and tell us your plate story.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Chicago photos

Recently I was in Chicago and thought it was an appropriate time to take some photographs in Barack Obama's home town. Not unexpectedly, the level of Obamawear was very high, but there were also some interesting contexts and juxtaposition.

Sorry about the blurriness here--I was working with a disposable camera. This is a magnet of a bag of grocieries, saying "Put Food Back on the The Table: Vote Obama 2008," a clear nod to the economic crisis.
As you can probably tell, this was taken on Michigan Avenue. We see Chicago-nalia,  shirts, mixed with an Obama shirt. 
This is from the Tribune building, current owners of the Cubs. We can see balance between McCain and Obama here, mixed with the Cubs.

There is supposed balance here, but we can see three Obama shirts compared to one McCain.
A Hebrew sign with a more typical sign.

Here is an Obama shirt within a Chicago context--a Bears shirt and an Al Capone one.
In this particular Walgreens in Hyde Park, a variety of merchandise was on sale.
I'm sure this shirt exists somewhere else outside Chicago, but it adds to the diversity of Obama wear available.

A number of books, including the widely panned Jerome Corsi book, were available at the airport bookstore... was another Obama shirt next to a Cubs division championship shirt. Obama had better luck in his playoff than the Cubs...


Obama Ape

The Obama Ape image at this funky celebrity-as-ape site is almost as interesting as the thread of comments about it.

Racist or comic?

You decide.

(We vote racist. No matter how many other images there are of celebrities on the site, the history behind the image is immutable.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

The front page

Since we began here at SemiObama, we have spent a lot of time discussing the covers of newspapers and magazines, despite the fact that newspapers and magazines are losing their grip on American journalism.

As much as we love blogs and watch television, there is still something different about newspapers and magazines that make them crucial when an historical moment happens. We know this, and sales of The New York Times and Washington Post, days after the Obama election, or the cumulative effect of something like this, show how strong an effect the tangible has on us. 

In the case of a long election that ended in history, the need for the tangible may be overwhelming. Television news was thrilling, reading the blogs surprisingly less so, but reading the newspapers and the commemorative magazines, though decried as cynical by some observers, gives people a sense that something real has happened.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

More decoding

Actually this piece on the Obama cabinet is less openly interpretative than the previous one. But the word code is prominently displayed in the headline...

On the Lieberman vote

Nate Silver broke down the decision not to kick Joe Lieberman out of his senate committee chair.  What I like about his short piece is the way he treats an event as a text, a reminder that everything, including decisions and events, are texts that can be read.


Monday, November 17, 2008

MLK and Obama: Who Owns the Rights to "change?"

Fascinating article in Saturday's New York Times about the controversies surrounding the merging of Obama and MLK images. Obama cannot profit from t-shirts like the one on the left, put it's possible the King estate can . . .

Ozzie and Harriet Obama?

James Poniewozik looks at 60 Minutes ' packaging of its interview with Obama, a strategy that the campaign itself has undertaken in the past.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The New York Times Goes SemiObama

One of the arguments SemiObama has made over the past several months is that images of Obama have become commodified. In Sunday's New York Times, that arguments gets literalized in interesting ways.

America's newspaper of record is offering up for sale, various items with Obama's visage. We're not just talking about copies of the paper from November 5, but non-journalistic things like photos and coffee mugs. To be sure, this raises some fascinating questions about the relationship between what is news and what is capitalism.

Many media critics have noted the degree to which advertisements and the primary texts are increasingly indistinguishable from each other. For example, commercials and ads not only mirror content, they often determine it.

In the case of The New York Times peddling Obama swag, a seemingly opposite movement occurs--news becomes product. One wonders how "objective" the Times is with this commercialization of its product. Can the reporters of news become purveyors that news? Can they profit from their own stories?

It's hard to say, exactly, but we're going to keep watching this fascinating turn of events, and we ask readers to write in with their own observations.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Robinson on Rickles

Eugene Robinson has a great column on how Barack Obama's election may start to challenge our nation's stereotypes, a point he makes by recounting how Don Rickles bombed making an Obama joke.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama on People and Us

One of our projects has been to chart the movement of Barack Obama from political culture into the realm of popular culture, but his appearance this week on the covers of People and Us marks a new level of super stardom--even for the messiah.

What's interesting about these covers is not that Barack and Michelle Obama are on them, after all, they are the President and First Lady Elect. What is fascinating are the stories they tell and the images used to tell those stories.

In both cases, the covers indicate a metaphorics of struggle, a thematic of overcoming. Note how unlike the recent covers on Time, The Economist, and Rolling Stone Obama is smiling, as if to indicate arrival. In some of the previous photos, Obama has come off as aloof or cold, but now that he's "won," it seems to be safe to represent his victory as proof of his perseverance.

Also interesting is the fact that it now seems okay to represent him less as an allegory and more as a regular guy. That he graces People and Us merely reinforces his status as someone who is able to bridge those seemingly unbridgeable worlds.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Whiteman's Dilemma, A Guest Post by Tunji Lardner

We're happy to offer another guest post, this time from Tunji Lardner, a Nigerian journalist who lives in New York. Here, Lardner explores Obama's otherness that SemiObama has tried to chronicle these past several months.

BARACK OBAMA: White man’s dilemma.

Tunji Lardner

Barack Obama. “That one” as Senator John McCain so infamously described Barack Obama in their third televised presidential debate to the glee and horror of millions of US viewers was yet another poignant punctuation mark in the racial dialogue of the ever evolving grand American narrative. But I missed it. As a non-native viewer, my initial response was to chalk up the remark to McCain being “McCain,” a crusty old curmudgeon given by turns to periodic outbursts and a mischievous disarming charm.

It was in the inevitable post debate deconstruction by TV pundits that the covet allusions were exposed, “that one” was variously interpreted to be everything from a common “Irish” expression to a subtle, condescending racist slur that most Americans, especially African-Americans would understand. Like most things, the truth must surely lie somewhere in between, and it a measure of just how ubiquitous and invidious the issue of race is in America-and even more so in this extraordinary elections-that in every word might lie a spring loaded racist pun.

It is almost clich├ęd to talk about race and racism in America. This artificial social construct is so embedded in the collective psyche and spirit of America, that is difficult not to preface every conversation about equality in America without the periodic listening in of the ambient humming of race, whispering its discordant tune. For non-white immigrants whose ears have not been trained to hear those racialist notes, it takes quite a while to be able to actually “hear” that ambient anthem of racism.

But over time, one hears, one sees and one actually begins to understand the covert drivers that define the issue of race in America. One such moment of clarity for me came when I watched the September Republican Convention a week after the Democrats held theirs in late August. The experience for me was like night and day, black and white, if you will. The grand theatre of a Barack Obama addressing a rainbow nation of Americans promising hope and change was a startling sight, because the implicit sense of possibility was that this man, okay, “this black man” could one day be the President of the United States of America ( POTUS). The very idea of “a black man” as arguably the most powerful human on the planet requires a cosmic recalibration and attitudinal adjustment that might be beyond the capacity of many Americans, black and white.

During the television broadcast of the aforementioned Republican Convention I sat with the rapt attention of a political neophyte new to the ways of American electoral politics. I watched the TV screen intently, trying to decipher why this other party seemed so distant from the values espoused just some days before. As speaker after speaker extolled the war time heroics of John McCain, while simultaneously deriding and mocking the perceived histrionics of Barack Obama, to the rapturous applause of an agitated sea of blanched faces, save the odd speckling of black, it suddenly hit me. In the waves and waves of party faithful, the so-called rock solid republican base, “the true face(s) of America,” the “Joe the plumber” and his archetypes, I saw something that I instantly recognized. It was something that periodically confronts and confounds us, something unsettling, deeply unsettling and troubling, something called fear.

In the faces of this group of white men, and in heeding my own caveat I hasten to add “not all white men,” I saw and fully recognized that primal surge of uncertainty about tomorrow. A feeling that I have grown familiar with for all together different reasons, but a feeling nonetheless about a novel tomorrow, with the possibility of a black man as POTUS. Even as each one swaddled in the familiar comfort of the red white and blue, must respectively confront the fear and loathing of the inevitability of change, the more concrete reality of a busted economy signaling hard times ahead, two enervating wars, the decline of American global status, begs a response.

But what, how do you respond to the unprecedented ascendancy of a very gifted American politician who clearly represents a different and new way forward, but who just happens to be black? Barack Obama’s unbearable blackness of being is at once the denouement of the grand American narrative; the plodding but inevitable fulfillment of these opening words penned with remarkable prescience on July 4, 1776 by group of very wise white men, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In rising to collectively fulfill the sacrament of it independence, America through the election of Barack Obama as President has once again displayed its “exceptionalism” and advanced the cause of humankind by providing the world with a transcendent and transformational figure that immediately challenges all the negative and divisive “isms” of our times. A Barack Obama as POTUS has an aspirational doppelganger almost literally as leader of the world in this new century. Tough assignment to be sure, but anyone who has over the last two years of his campaign discerned his preternatural self possession, calmness, and steely determination to change the world for the better can make a safe bet that at the very least he would be a much better improvement on George Bush.

But what about those hold outs, those mostly white men and some women who can’t possibly conceive of an America in which to put it bluntly, the President is a black man?

To them I paraphrase French romanticist Victor Hugo when he said, “ No army can stop an idea whose time has come.” Before the historic elections of last Tuesday there was the speculative notion that win or lose a “Barack Obama” was an idea whose time had come, and that America could and would never be the same again.

Well, the Barack Obama hypothesis is no longer an idea. It is reality. Specifically, it is “the new reality” roundly endorsed by most Americans and enthusiastically supported by the rest of the world. Judging by the unprecedented global out pouring of support for President-elect Barack Obama, it is clear that world transcendently understands the semiotics of a new type of leader for the 21st century. While some might suggest rather churlishly, that it represents the wholesale repudiation at least for now, of leadership of a certain, well, complexion, in a certain sense it is really a Darwinian re-calculation of global demographics and even democratic representation. In America proper, it presages the changing demographics of the country, suggesting that another so called “minority” president might not be such a novelty in another generation, because the old majority would by then be a “minority.” Brack Obama’s colorful heritage, being neither black nor white has finally offered the world a new color spectrum of possibilities in which white is just but one of the many colors available.

And more importantly for America, it has dislodged or even quite possibly displaced the dominant monochromic view of who is a real “American.”Americans, all Americans can now legitimately challenge that pharaonic sense of implicit entitlement and accomplishment that some white men have about their place in the America, the world and indeed the universe.

The huddled undifferentiated masses of “minorities and women,” can now begin to emerge from the shadows to challenge and hold America to the word of the founding fathers’ self evident truths. In 1831 when another French man, Alexis de Tocqueville writing about democracy in America, made the case for America’s exceptionalism. It was by one interpretation to underscore the difference and put some distance between the evolving American New World ideals and the staid European Old World views it had left behind.

In other interpretations and especially when conflated with the concept of a “manifest destiny,” even as it connotes the contentious acquisition of vast tracts land across the North American continent, it provided a unique sense of superiority and dominion over and above all others. From the right to own slaves to key elements of the Bush doctrine-the right to globally spread democratic values, as well as to preemptively strike at America’s perceived enemies, with the unilateral swagger that has mired America in Iraq, all these elements brewing in a four hundred year old melting pot have come to head with this election.

The American story is about to be re-written and the new chapters will be a more inclusive narrative that does not portray the white man as the protagonist that dominates every story line, even when not there. E PLURIBUS UNUM; out of the many shall indeed come one, one American grand narrative. In coming full circle to one, “that one” or “the one,” or “this one” or “the other” the collective reality of today is that we all live in an increasingly interdependent and delicately balanced world, in which there really is no “other.”

The White man’s dilemma is that in the days and weeks and years following Tuesday, in gazing at the mirror he will either see his true reflection as being wholly part of “us” or choose to believe the refraction of his distorted identity as being separate and different from the rest of America. Whichever way, America will march toward hope and change; with the righteous wind behind her the laggards will have to catch up, hopefully soon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


As Sean Quinn over at FiveThirtyEight acknowledges, we're all tired. While he and his photographer drove all over the country making electoral reports, all we did was knock on a few doors and stand like a statue at a polling place. But it's not the physical nature of the election that has us all tuckered out, though I am suffering from a decided lack of sleep.

It's the end of a long election season, and an end that was dramatic in its results and symbolism but almost completely without drama in its progression during the evening, especially after the first few battlegrounds were called for Obama. Last night as I was scanning election results on my office computer and checking out the campus broadcast of CNN, I was struck by how little happened after Pennsylvania and Ohio were called. So little in fact, that I actually got some work done while waiting. At ten, I looked more closely at the Florida and Virginia numbers and realized that with urban areas in Virginia reporting a little more slowly than rural areas and Obama building a larger lead in Florida, that the networks seemed to be deliberately slow feeding us results.

I called Miles in Virginia and suggested as much, and that a call of the election would happen at 11. It did.

Those I talked to today were unanimous in their recognition of the evening as historic and the quality of both McCain's concession and Obama's acceptance. But they were also surprised how quickly and easily the election seemed to go during the night itself.

We had rewritten our expectations of what elections were supposed to be--we saw them as inherent lingering dramas, a contention boosted by the length of our this campaign but especially our experiences in 2000 and 2004.  In other words, we made the signified of the election signifier as a stable instability instead of its more likely interpretation of unpredictable. Or in English, we thought the drama of election night would match the drama of the last year. It didn't.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Real Semiotics

One half of the semi-Obamians made his way to a polling place today in New Hampshire, where he held election signs for the Democrats. At this polling place, he was one of 11 Democrats holding signs compared to six Republicans. 

Some observations:

*The signs themselves were fairly low tech--just graphic designed and stapled to a wood stick. Actually, some were taped--they didn't hold up as well. I cut myself a bit on a staple, and the foldout sign I had for Paul Hodes, the Democratic candidate for Congressman I had to balance on my foot. 
    There does not seem to a particularly high tech way to do the signage. It was somewhat comforting to think that in an age of high tech voting targeting, sign holding still came down to a basic technique that's probably decades if not centuries old.
   In a sense the act of voting and the sign holding are part of the same low-tech dynamic that comes down to choosing and helping others choose.
*Both the other Obama volunteer and I had to call into the headquarters for Obama signs--both of us were holding up signs for candidates who we had not heard of. I guess that's to be expected if you work outside of your voting area.
*The idea of standing and holding signs is rather strange but required because signs, at least in New Hampshire, cannot be left unattended. The election official took unattended signs and put them near the dumpster, causing one holder to ask if anyone had stolen the signs after she had come back from a break.
*There were sign stories. People talked about the cold and rainy conditions in which they had held signs for their candidates. One said, she had been holding signs for "twenty years." I said I had been holding signs "for an hour."
*I was cold. I didn't know my job when I left for the campaign today, so I dressed like a college professor with a corduroy blazer. Though it got warmer later, my hands and feet were numb. The New Hampshire natives were much better dressed.
*I felt a mix between human and sign; one of the Republican sign holders thanked people for voting. The only talking I did was to other volunteers. But I felt my function was more as a sign than a human. And I liked "visibility" because I could help without talking to more strangers; I didn't mine being read....


The SemiObama Presidential Endorsement

After months of researching and writing about images of the junior senator Barack Obama, SemiObama has decided to endorse for president of the United States, junior senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois).

Sadly, we can't find any photos of Mr. Obama to post on our website. Check back in a few days for updates!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Consuming Obama: Guest Post by Jan Davidson

Readers of SemiO may remember the photo of Obama, California sent to us by Jan Davidson, a resident of Olema, CA. Today, Davidson makes her debut on SemiObama with a post-Halloween piece that is less about a McCain trick and more about an Obama treat.

Recently, a friend presented me with this piece of chocolate with Obama's image on it. It sat on her dashboard a little too long, and she was very apologetic that the image had become cracked and wrinkled.

I love the idea of Consuming Obama as Obama and the election are certainly consuming me. Consuming also reminds me of the term "grok" from Stranger in A Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, (a book which I admit I haven't read since high school). And after reading the plot summary on Wikipedia, let me say right here that I'm making no analogies between that story and Obama. That's a wormhole I intend to avoid at all costs!

However, the definitions of "grok" are interesting.) The Oxford English Dictionary defines "grok" as "to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with...and to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment." In the past eight years, I've found little, if any, reason for empathy, sympathy or enjoyment around the activities of the Bush Administration.

Wikipedia defines "grok" as " share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity," and goes on to say that "In an ideological context, a grokked concept becomes part of the person who contributes to its evolution by improving the doctrine, perpetuating the myth, espousing the belief, adding detail to the social plan, refining the idea or proving the theory." This seems particulalry apt in the light that Obama's message of change is not only all-inclusive but implicitly and explicitly asks us to participate to ensure that change happens. That participation may take the form of donations of time and money now, but I wouldn't be surprised if the internet connections continue after election day.

Finally, I like the fact that the image on this particular chocolate makes Obama look old. It's easy to be worried about Obama's safety. Comparisons with Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King fuel these fears, not to mention the recent activities of some self-avowed white supremacists. When these anxieties arise, I counteract them by picturing Obama as an old man, his 8-year term as President just the beginning of a long and brilliant career as a highly respected and influential world leader.

By the way, I haven't consumed my Obama chocolate yet. I'm waiting for the morning of Novermber 5th.

Obama chocolates are made by Cosmic Chocolates in Oakland, CA. You can see the unmelted version on their website:

Saturday, November 1, 2008

SemiObama Ahead of the Curve (Again!)

Saturday's New York Times found noteworthy a topic SemiO has been posting on all along--the political t-shirt.

Travel with us if you will back in time to re-live some of the earlier SemiObama T-shirt posts

One of the things we've been particularly interested in is the way in which people have made Obama part of their personal identity--whether it's shoes, magnets, or clothing.

Though it appears on a different site, we also recommend checking out this piece that reads Palin t-shirts. It's fascinating to see how Obama t-shirt imagery differs from the semiotics of the Palin shirts.

If Obama wins, look for new and different forms of Obama fashion arrival.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Obama and Fantasy Football, or What Obama Has in Common with

Barack Obama is a recognized sports fan. We know about his basketball, and then there was this recent article about Obama's fantasy football team, written by Rick Reilly.  The article itself, like most of Reilly's stuff, was really about Reilly--after all the column is called the Life of Reilly--but it also revealed another heretofore unseen aspect of Obama's personality. 

The article revealed directly a least one part of Obama that only gets displayed indirectly most of the time--his inherent American masculinity. In this case, however, it's a particular kind of masculinity, the sports geek; his knowledge of fantasy football makes him part the growing legion of American men who love both sports and numbers.  Combine this with Obama's relationship with basketball, his appearance on the cover of Men's Health, his smoking habits, his hiring of a former sports player and academic as an aide, (not to mention his poker playing) and you have a man who can move in many different circles of masculinity, seemingly all very easily. 

But back to fantasy football. It's a sport where people pretend to own teams; they draft players, often pretend to pay them, and then compete against other teams. It's becoming more and more popular, with almost every sports website sponsoring a game. There is also fantasy baseball, basketball, golf, horse racing, hockey, and NASCAR. Being successful depends on a laser focus on numbers and predictions based on numbers. 

The link between masculinity and geekdom has only blossomed in the last few decades, with technology nerds becoming kings of the universe, and more specifically, to this post, geeky sports nerds being hired as the cool kids. That's why it's entirely appropriate that Nate Silver, the Baseball Prospectus writer, is this election's geek sensation; his, a highly technical but eminently readable guide to election polling, is the go-to site for those of us who are geeked out on polls.*

That somehow Obama's connection to Fantasy Football makes him cooler is of some consequence to those of us who have had to explain to friends and romantic partners why we are spending hundreds of dollars and hours on a game with little chance of making any of that back. 

More importantly for this election, it probably means that Obama reads and other geeky blogs; this year, politics is the new fantasy sport...


*I am glossing over the differences between geek and nerd. See Mental Floss's take.

Effect of Viral Emails

On the heels of yesterday's post, we provide a link to a story in The Swamp that, coincidentally or not, ran yesterday as well. It takes a look at the short and long term effects of anti-Obama email.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Racist Email

Nothing makes you a lightning rod for odd Obama emails like writing about Obama. The one in my inbox this morning was simple.

The subject line: "Plot to Kidnap Obama"

Upon opening the email, the message was nothing but this photo:

Time Magazine recently did a piece on how economics is going to trump race in this election. I believe they are right. According to Time, some white supremacist organizations are even supporting Obama out of sheer financial desperation. Still, it's fascinating how an underground subset of Americans seem to be working through both latent and overt racism because of Obama's success in the public and political sphere.

Almost everyone knows better than to publicly cite race as a motivating factor in voting. Regardless of personal views, public pressure will force folks to censor themselves. For example, virtually no one would wear a t-shirt of this joke. However, there does seem to be a need for some to process and vent through a more innocuous, more protected medium. I suppose the consolation here is that at least people know it is publicly unacceptable to be racist, and that at least that racism gets enacted as a joke rather than as action.

The only negative repercussions of Obama getting elected is the possibility of 4-8 more years of these emails . . .the optimistic reading though is that despite these emails, we should have 4-8 more years of an Obama presidency . . .

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Election fatigue

Everybody I know is saying, "I can't wait for it to be over," suggesting an existential weariness that goes beyond simple tiredness.  I know I feel that way. So let's read this fear as a text.

Is it fatigue or memory? A Daily Kos diary recalls a post from 2004 in which he declared "We're already winning in Florida," linking to this image. I predicted a Kerry win myself. So some of this has to do with predictions gone wrong, not unlike my friend Miles's consistent memory about the Bartman Cubs, a series where he called me in the offending game and talked about pitching lineups between his Cubs and my Yankees. The World Series champions that year were the Marlins.

Is it fatigue or (a hundred different kinds of) fear? We have all been reading about the Bradley effect, but we want to believe in our country's ability to choose an African American president. Many of us are afraid that we won't take our first serious chance to do so. We remember Florida in 2000, and we read stories like this, which talk about election machine troubles, or this, which talks about endless waiting, or this, which talks about GOP efforts to disenfranchise poor voters, or this, where official looking signs appear telling Democrats to vote on November 5 (not 4). So we're also afraid Democrats will somehow be cheated out of a deserved victory.

Is it fatigue or excitement? Has the past month been the equivalent of an extended Christmas Eve or the week or two before a big sporting event when our team is playing? Are we so excited that we cannot wait until Election Day? 

Is it fatigue or the promise of relief? We might be anticipating the Wednesday after the election just as we might be a little extra tired the week before a vacation.

Is it fatigue? Some of us have added the equivalent of a part-time job either working for the campaign or in my case reading about it to our already over-scheduled lives. So we really might be tired for all the reasons above and then some. 


Sunday, October 26, 2008

The NYT Week In Review Page: Mr. Thrust & Mr. Parry

Poor John McCain--first he discovers his vice-presidential candidate disagrees with him on gay marriage, then, a caricature of him winds up on the front page of the New York Times "Week In Review" section in which he is endowed with the moniker "Mr. Thrust." To make matters worse, a "CHANGE" banner Adams and Eves across his crotch.


Hard to say, but it's not what you would have expected for Mr. McCain's porn name--something more like Pepper Lakeshore comes to mind.

But, Mr. Obama doesn't come off much better in this version. His visage is scrunched and overly adolescent. He looks too much like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman and Nipsey Russell.

Still, in the semiotic tug-o-war within this image, the taller, lankier Obama--who also seems to be using his hips to gain leverage on Mr. Thrust--I give the edge to Mr. Parry (though not in the nickname contest).

The T-Shirt Matrix: What Images of Obama Tell us about Obama (and Us)

As interesting as the possible Obama t-shirt options are, perhaps even more intriguing is the effect of this unintentional tic-tac-toe matrix.

As an individual icon, Obama's visage is now no longer noteworthy; it's even quotidian. But, when arranged in this nearly collage-type design, the various images enter into dialogue with each other. They tell us how we have seen, and perhaps even tell us how we should see Obama.

They also demonstrate the various ways Obama's face has been translated into popular culture. In this case, what emerges is overwhelming evidence for a kind of mytholigization of Obama. Many of these suggest a sort of abstract, woodcut aesthetic that evokes either propaganda or political art. However, almost none of the images are particularly "patriotic," which suggests the degree to which Obama's Obamaness transcends politics.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Canvassing, Part I

A few days ago, I canvassed for Barack Obama with my friend Miles and his daughter, Sophia, already famous for their extensive participation in Hanover County near Richmond, where they live. Hanover County is a reliably Republican county, but the Obama campaign is taking nothing for granted--they hope to significantly reduce the Republican margin in the county.

For the most part my participation was as sort of a pack mule, carrying campaign literature, as Miles asked each household (that had previous either been identified as undecided or had not received a completed visit) their voting preferences. We spent about two hours in this highly Republican area and ended up hitting about 25 houses.

The process is highly refined, and Miles and Sophia had a definitive pattern. Working from a map, we methodically went up to each house; Miles rang the doorbell and stepped back off the porch and waited for the person to answer. He first introduced himself, his daughter and me, then asked respondents if they were the person on the list, and when they replied, he asked the residents if they had made a decision about their voting preferences for both the president and the Senate and then carefully noted the reply.

The OED defines canvas "to entangle or catch in a net," but if there is such a net, it's of the flimsiest of materials; there is no hard sell, even if the voter is undecided. My friends seemed to understand the balance between the privacy of the resident and aims of the campaign; the most symbolic aspect of the campaign was Miles's deliberate decision to walk off the porch to stand on the walk (it's also interesting that all the houses in this particular development had both well defined porches and walks). It suggested Miles's desire to seem non-threatening. As I confessed when we walked on these suburban streets, I hate when people knock on my door, and Miles seem to understand this. 

But it was also true that Miles was determined to reach every house and so he had to balance his own desires not to intrude with his strong will to reach every voter who might vote for Obama.

More canvassing stories later...


Friday, October 24, 2008

The Economist Cover

We've become used to seeing photos of Obama from a distance or, as with the Time covers, straight on and probably altered or airbrushed if ever so slightly.

This untouched image of Obama from the side is unusually intimate. It makes the viewer feel like she's about to whisper something in his ear ("Look, Karl Rove showed up without a tie!;" "salad fork is the little one;" Butthead is, in fact, the more highly evolved one").

The pursed lips and contemplative expression evoke both perplexity and determination, unlike the typical photos which read confidence and arrival.

In short, here, he looks more like us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


From Wired Science:

Sen. Barack Obama's support for space exploration has earned him the support of advocates on Florida's "Space Coast" that call themselves Obamanauts.

I like the Obama-ing of language here, but I think the icon is the thing; the spaceship version of the logo is much cooler than the original.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yes We Carve


What to say about people carving pumpkins with Barack Obama's likeness or with campaign logos. I think it's one more demonstration that Obama has not only voters but fans.


The New Donation Video

On the off chance you haven't seen the new video by Obama asking for donations, you can view it here:

Against the backdrop of a matrix of the now iconic "CHANGE" signs, a dark suited, flag-pin wearing, striped blue tie donning Obama makes a plea to last minute supporters to donate to his campaign. His strongest argument is that McCain/Palin have deployed the same strategies for this election that George W. Bush relied on in the last two.

There is only a hint of alarmism in an otherwise reasonable and persuasive pitch.

Monday, October 20, 2008

On Endorsements

The news cycle is being ridden by Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama, which naturally had us putting on our semiotic hats (they are quite stylish).  The semiotics of an endorsement force us not only to look at the two parties involved in the endorsement but also the questions that the arise when receiving or giving an endorsement.

It does not take a rocket scientist (nor an English professor) to observe that an endorsement is a form of high-profile vouching--Powell is essentially saying "he's with me" in the common space of the election. Besides the obvious electoral consequences, there are other questions that arise with an endorsement. Is the endorsee connected with everything that the endorser has done? How much does the context of the endorser's past matter? For the endorsee, are there new obligations that arise with the new affiliation with the endorser--and vice versa?

You can see in the coverage of the Powell endorsement various responses to the above questions, but it's also true that the same contexts surrounded the endorsement from Hilary Clinton, which led us think about the question on a more abstract level. If an endorsement matters, rarely does it come without connections to a high-profile past--if the person endorsing matters, then something they have done has mattered to someone.

Am I leaving out other questions?


Sunday, October 19, 2008

The bumper sticker

I've been meaning to write about my new bumper sticker and car magnet, but have been stumped on saying something interesting beyond the fact that I do not see a lot of Obama bumper stickers (but more than for McCain), and wondering why that is. But perhaps it's too early to declare loyalty or some trend reducing bumper sticker placement (I say that because the woman buying her sticker before me had trouble finding a place to put it).

In general, I like bumper stickers, perhaps because I like telling the same joke over and over. As a car owner  for the first time since 2004, I am going to have to choose my loyalties carefully. Bumper stickers are semi-permanent, and in fact, I remember in high school, one of our pranks was to put unwanted bumper stickers on each other's (parents') cars. Yes, we were nerds. 

The Obama sticker is attractive in its use of the campaign font (Gotham), taking a cue from its predecessor in font-dom--the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site, as The New York Times writes; the font itself was inspired by previous uses in New York City, mostly on municipal or transportation signs. It is supposed to represent the tone of the campaign, forward-looking and youthful. 

But why aren't there more around especially in  such an exciting election year?


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Link: Reading the Debates - Part II

The folks over at The Weekly Rader offer a reading of the debates as an intentionally constructed text. Ironically, it serves as a sort of companion piece to our recent post on metaness and the debates.

In both posts, the authors provide interesting perspectives for looking at debates beyond simply thinking about who won or what is said.

Target: Obama - A Guest Post by James Taylor

University of San Francisco political scientist James Taylor has been one of the most active commentators on the issue of race in this presidential election. Though the piece below gets at semiotics through the back door, it does address the optics of the election, the actions and reactions of people who respond to the idea (and the image) of a black president.

"Kill him!" "Terrorist!" "Traitor!" "Sit down, boy!" "He is not one of us!" "He's an Arab," "Socialist," and "Bomb Obama!" are just a few of the audible rants of Americans, heard at McCain-Palin gatherings in recent weeks.

Wow, how we long for the good ol' days of feeling bombarded when William Horton (he was given the name "Willie" by Atwater, not his mother) was introduced to the Republicans by Al Gore in 1988 -- providing Lee Atwater and Bush 41 the race-baiting, fear-mongering fodder that resulted in the defeat of Dukakis after having the lead entering the final weeks of the 1988 campaign.

This is not to suggest the Obama campaign has been innocent of smear tactics, such as linking McCain to the anti-immigrant demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh on Spanish-speaking TV. But this did not amount to all-Mexican and all-Black crowds calling for McCain's Mississippi Irish blood.

The Right's rage against Obama has bordered on fanatical, and the dye may have been cast, regrettably, by Hillary Clinton's defeated campaign, which provided the blueprint that the McCain-Palin ticket is currently following. This tenor was stirred earlier this week by the Republicans' answer to Hillary Clinton -- Sarah Palin. McCain should take note; it did not work effectively for Sen. Clinton.

This animus we are witnessing may be owned by the Republicans, but it was brought and brought first by the Democrats during the primary campaign. Pundits called it the "kitchen sink" strategy. Indeed once Sen. Clinton's campaign was on the verge of defeat in late May -- just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination -- she reminded an editorial board in South Dakota, "My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992, until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know I just, I don't understand it," she said, dismissing the idea of abandoning the race at that time.

It was the fourth time which Clinton alluded to RFK's late June assassination as precedence for not suspending or ending her campaign (on March 6th she used the word "assassination" in a TIME magazine interview; on May 7th in Washington, D.C. and later in West Virginia she redacted the word, but mentioned the tragedy). After reasserting the word in late May amid much criticism, Sen. Clinton apologized.

In a January 8th interview with BET's Jeff Johnson (What's In It For Us? special), Barack Obama himself, conceded, that early reticence among older African Americans -- who witnessed the murders of JFK, MLK, and RFK -- centered on concern for his safety. It has been widely reported, but only whispered, that Barack Obama received Secret Service protection beginning in May 2007, earlier than any presidential candidate in recorded history of the Service; "I've got the best protection in the world," Obama said in a previous interview, "So stop worrying."

But Obama made the request for protection himself. On the eve of Obama's Democratic nomination acceptance speech on August 28, three "lone wolf" white supremacist meth addicts, Tharin R. Gartrell, 28; Shawn R. Adolf, 33; and Nathan D. Johnson, 32, were arrested for plotting to kill Obama. Initially, officials said there was no credible threat -- despite their possession of two rifles, one with a scope, in the car, along with walkie-talkies, a bulletproof vest and licenses in the names of other people -- but they now consider it a serious plot.

During this campaign, the world witnessed the tragic assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who like Obama, was a left-of-center political leader and equally an historic figure as the first woman to be elected head of an Islamic state.

In 1963, Texas oil tycoon Haroldson Lafayette (H.L.) Hunt publicly stated that JFK should be shot since "there was no way to get those traitors out of government except by shooting them out." His son, Nelson Bunker Hunt and others, took out a full-page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News on November 22nd accusing JFK of being a Communist sympathizer and a traitor to the nation -- precisely the charges against Obama for his ties to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.

JFK, like Obama, was a "first" in being a serious Irish Catholic candidate (Al E. Smith lost in 1920) and his faith, like Obama's racial mix, was a perennial issue in the 1960 campaign. The Hunts also ran a propaganda machine called the International Committee for the Defense of Christian Culture and like the venomous Fox News demagogues, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, they used their radio programs Facts Forum and Life Line to spew hatred of the president before he was killed.

Martin Luther King, of course, lived with death threats every day of his public life until it was taken April 4, 1968. Like Malcolm X, it is depressingly true that in such an eerie atmosphere as the present, Barack Obama is safer abroad than he will be, should he win, in America, even as President of the United States.

Some might remember comedian Eddy Murphy's 1980s Delirious stand-up routine where he joked about whites voting for Jesse Jackson -- after a night of drinking and pranks -- only to discover the next morning, that Jackson had been elected; during his fictitious inaugural address, Jackson ran back and forth from left to right of the stage as the imagined assassins, in southern drawl, looked through a rifle scope saying, "He won't stand still, he won't stand still."

That was funny; the tenor of this political moment is not.

Politics has always been a "blood sport," and campaigns often bring out the lowest common denominator in people; the "us" against "them" trope. But there is something of a spiritual sickness in a nation where our political process has been reduced to calls of "Kill him," and something only slightly less troubling about Hillary Clinton saying, "Let's wait and see what happens."

Add the ingredient of the worst global economy since the Great Depression or the crash of 1877, and it makes for a combustible atmosphere. And in the end, if this is the course that our politics take -- again, then what voice, prey tell, do you think many people might invoke? Does the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ring a bell?

Friday, October 17, 2008


What's so interesting about both the debates and the campaign is its meta-ness and performantive aspects. We know from history that content and visual performance do not always agree--the crucial debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, where television viewers thought Kennedy won and radio listeners thought Nixon did is the most prominent example. But with the growth of so many forms of criticism and the addition of so many pundits on television and on the Internet is that performance--and its resulting commentary--have become especially prominent.

Focusing on performance in some ways more accurately mimics the way we often choose our political candidates; certainly some voters focus as much on personality and demeanor as they do on issues.*

While the media focus on performance has increased over the last few election cycles, a new somewhat mitigating factor has also arisen.


By metaness I mean a focus on the process of commentary as well as the commentary itself, Metaness is often a form of transparency in that we understand the process by which information reaches us. If we are open about the way media cover candidates, we are more likely to get at a truth than by simply listening, watching, or reading straight journalism. Check out this video from's all about how the story is being told rather than the issues of the candidates. Political Internet journalism and blogs tend to be at the forefront of this, but I've noticed the post-debate coverage on the networks to be much more meta than in the past.

Indeed, this campaign has shown the full flowering of meta-commentary, both on the right and left, on television and on the Internet, and everywhere in between. Pundits and writers are focusing not only on the policies and performances of Barack Obama and John McCain but also on the way media is bringing that information to its audiences. Sometimes that coverage eclipses the actual content generated by the two  candidates, leading to the idea that the candidates do not have ideas, a decidedly negative result. But at the same time, metaness acts as a mitigating filter, letting audiences know the ways media and political campaigns are giving them information.

Of course, that's what this blog is about too; we think the signs and symbols of the campaign are a crucial part in understanding the messages behind the messages.

That's not to say of course that issues are not important; obviously, they are the most important aspect of a campaign. But at least the coverage of the coverage of the campaign has caught up with the implicit focus on non-issues in the election.

Comments? I'm still working through some of the ideas behind this...


*If you want to know the positions of the candidates, the worst place to find it is in network news coverage and the best is on the campaigns' websites. The debates are somewhere in the middle. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New Blog Idea: SemioCain . . .

No Sleep Til Election!

That's right, after a brief hiatus, SemiObama makes a pledge to do a post--some kind of post--every day until the election. The semiotics of the election are ramping up. The optics of skin and age and rallies and debates are on everyone's table.

We just hope to serve up the daily dish . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Game Obama

Television, radio, Internet--and now Xbox 360. The Obama campaign is now advertising on the popular video game Burnout

Of course, this fits in with the general philosophy of appealing to a younger generation, and it's also true that videogames are an increasingly important part of American culture. Beyond that, I think the Obama campaign's game ads, besides their more traditionally serious goals, bespeaks a candidate who wants to be a leader that gets it. And getting it means going beyond the traditional media outlets and the  Internet to where millions of people, mostly young, but increasingly older are spending their time.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Obama, CA

We're grateful to Jan Davidson of Olema (or is that Obama), California for sending us the photo to the right.

The small town of 55 souls is positioned just about an hour north of San Francisco on the lovely Highway 1, just a Palin's throw from the Pacific Ocean. Though Olema has not officially changed its name to Obama, Kelly Emery's sign might lead passers-by to assume the opposite.

A Marin county code allows political signs on personal property, and Emery (below) installed this one on the site of her Bed and Breakfast. So far, residents seem to be both pleased and amused by the sign, perhaps because they expect to see the senator crossing the street.

One of the things we like about this text is its seamless merging of Obama iconography and the semiotics of normal traffic signs. It sends the message that an idea of an Obama presidency has already become part of the literal and cultural landscape.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Semiotics of the Debate - Part 1

SemiObama returns from a brief hiatus just in time for Sarah Palin and the debates.

Presidential debates are confusing. On a literal level, they aren't really debates, and on a semiotic level, they are not the most diverse texts. Both candidates wear dark suits, white shirts, and ties of either red, blue, or some combination thereof. Of all the predictable elements of a debate, nothing rivals the costuming, even down to the flag lapel pin.

There are often podiums, the accoutrement of either a professor or a preacher, but presidential candidates belong to neither of those shady professions. The podiums professionalize and formalize the setting, and they provide some measure of distance between the candidates, each other, and the audience. In short, they are deadly dull.

But not as dull as the set.

This year, the set design is painfully consistent from one debate to the next, at least in terms of the confusing backdrop. Not even the longest McCain answer is as tedious as the royal blue field and the white cursive script, which we are to assume is a passage from the Constitution. The line of red stars along the bottom patriotizes the backdrop, not only by completing the American color palette but by accentuating the faux document. The problem with this set is the synergy created by its sterility and its overt patriotism. Both earnest and dull, the set evokes neither the oval office nor a board room. All it evokes is trade show booth.

As for the candidates, there is little to say. McCain comes off as stiff and a little too starchy; Obama can be too measured and not emotional enough. Check back soon for further posts on the semiotics of the performances.

But for now, consider ways in which the contrived set reinforces the contrived nature of these non-debates. Two-dimensional, flimsy, and shallow, the set seems to ask us to pay attention to those same flat, superficial traits in our candidates.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

Obama and the Semiotics of Christianity

For a candidate rumored to be Muslim, there sure are a lot of images of Obama and Christian iconography.

Perhaps we are unaccustomed to seeing black men in positions of power foreground religious symbolism, or perhaps we are uncomfortable with a Democratic politician advancing his own Christian faith, but either way, it seems no one really knows what to do with Obama's dogged insistence that he is 1) Christian and 2) allowed to be both Christian and liberal.

And yet, his faith is one of his more endearing qualities and one that not even his strongest detractors are able to affect. Even the parodies seem to work (as noted by the funky image on the right).

What's fascinating is how fascinated the media, the right wing, and the church going community are with Obama's belief system. Oddly enough, most regular American believers remain relatively quiet and unusually respectful, even when prominent figures, like the creepy James Dobson (with his creepier pray for rain video) set poor examples of Christian leadership. Americans don't always exhibit the most dignity when it comes to church and state, but despite the minority of folks who think he is the anti-christ, most have given Obama and his family a good deal of spiritual latitude.

What messages these images send largely depends on the reader's personal associations with crosses, churches, and African Americans. For decades, the image of a black man and a cross carried a truly horrific semiotic signification. Regardless of what you think about Obama's political (or spiritual) beliefs, you have to admit that it's absolutely redemptive the way he has reclaimed and recast that pairing.