Thursday, May 29, 2008

BasketBama or BamaBall: Why the Fascination with Images of Obama Playing Basketball?

The first thing I said when I saw a clip of Barack Obama playing basketball was "He's left-handed. He'd be hard to guard."

I found myself liking him a bit more at that moment, assuming he'd be a wily player, quick and catlike, fast to the hoop, his shot difficult to block.

Obama's interest in basketball has become an interest of the American public, and there has been a push to watch him play and to see him in action on the hardwood. Such images have many potential advantages but carry some drawbacks as well.

On the plus side, Basketball Obama comes off as sort of macho, a man's man, confident and athletic. You can imagine him bonding during pickup games, playing hard defense on his man, standing up for himself if he gets a hard foul in the lane. It also contrasts his youth and agility against John McCain's lack of either. Obama's lean, healthy athleticism makes McCain's aging, greying, and cancer-visited body seem profoundly not young.

We also like to see our president hanging with regular folk, and so photos of our politicians playing sports do this cultural work. Though his swing is atrocious, watching George W. Bush hit golf balls with other white guys somehow reassures us that at least something in his life resembles that of a normal guy. We think, therefore, because we see him be a bogey or double-bogey golfer, that he might see the world the way an average double-bogey golfer would. Most mediocre golfers love their families and like peace and don't want to send people into war or shift the tax burden to the middle class. We see that bad swing, and we think we're okay.

Such is the power of the sports image.

On the downside are the negative connotations some tend to associate with basketball and black men. More than other major American sports, basketball has become dominated by African American players, and with the exception of Steve Nash and perhaps Pau Gasol, its superstars are all black. Golfing and jogging and hunting--the sporting domains of President Bush--could hardly be whiter. Conversely, if you ask most Americans what sport a black man is most likely to play, they will probably say basketball. The only problem with this is that Obama and his image handlers want him to appeal to white voters, white women, and poor whites, and those with negative opinions of African Americans may see in Obama's basketballness his blackness.

One has to hope that America's semiotic sophistication goes beyond stereotype, beyond the "image" of basketball players, black politicians, and black athletes.

What people who see Obama play basketball should consider is that basketball teaches teamwork, collaboration, patience, behind the scenes work, and both offense and defense. There is no quarterback, no goalie, no pitcher, no designated hitter--it is America's most democratic game. It's the great equalizer. It is the anti-golf.

--D. R.

The Shoes

What are shoes for? 

At their basic level, shoes protect one's feet, but they have become a way of indicating cool for a long time, starting with Converse,  then moving to Puma and Adidas, a few other brands for a short time, and then to Nike. (There are more extensive histories, but this is a basic narrative.) So what to make of the new, very cool Obama shoes by Van? 

The stunning shoes that Van produces are not very practical, in that shoes are close to the ground and can get dirty thus damaging the art. They are also less visible than let's say a t-shirt. But they reference a number of important trends. For one, they show the way Obama has become part of popular culture. Go to Van's site and you will see not only the Obama shoes, but all kinds of illustrated shoes, from a variety of cultural subjects including Spiderman, Tinker Bell, San Francisco, and Darfur. That Obama has joined these ranks itself shoes, er, shows the transformative nature of the campaign and the candidate.

Though Obama is probably the first national candidate to play basketball at this stage of his life, I think it's less about the shoes say less about this than about the cultural impact described above. Basketball shoes have gone way beyond sports; this semi-Obamian is in Europe, and in his country, he has seen many, many different kinds of Chuck Taylors here, in a population where almost no one plays basketball. To wear the Obama shoes--or to link to it on your website, which is more likely--is to show loyalty to Obama but also to show one's cool. In that sense, it's less about the shoes and Obama himself and more about the wearer. 

Monday, May 26, 2008

Obey Obama

For almost four years now, there has been little doubt of Barack Obama's standing in political culture. But recently, he and his image have not simply driven by but set up shop in the visually-based realm of pop culture.

The appearance of the Obama "Obey" signs may be the most convincing proof that Barack Obama's semiotic house has a good solid foundation on the main street of America's popular imagination.

As most readers know, the Andre the Giant "Obey" images have come to be the poster-poster for American fringe culture, but the quickness and ease with which Obama's image has occupied Andre's former semiotic space speaks to Obama's popularity across demographics.

It might also speak to the ease with which his image can become propagandized.

Meghan Daum has argued that the "official" Obama Obey images, designed by Shephard Fairey (who did the original Andre posters), merge the mythical with the questionable. For her, the posters are "a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality; (b) a controversial American figure who's been assassinated; or (c) one of those people from a Warhol silkscreen that you don't recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way."

Inspired by WPA posters of the 1920s but also the bold images of revolutionary semiotics, Daum's reading of the posters are not entirely off base. These texts play with important visual symbols that are often linked with deep-seeded images of nationalism. Such propaganda is characterized by bold colors, strong assertive graphics, heroic and commanding poses, and the iconography of leadership. As these two images reveal (and as we discuss in regard to the Time magazine covers), it is common to represent the figure from a "lower" perspective, making the hero appear larger than life. Note also the holy, even angelic rays emanating from Mao's head.

There is no question that, aesthetically, the Obama-obey posters recall the visual rhetoric of totalitarian imagery, of dictatorial propaganda, but they lack the idolatry of the Russian and Chinese versions. It's true the "Change" Obama looks a bit stern, even robotic, as though he has emerged from the panopticon to do some serious surveillance of the right wing. However, the "Hope" and "Progress" Obama is more pensive, more thoughtful, as though he's listening to a Neil Dimaond record or watching performance art. But, then again, hope is more laid back than change.

One question is, do the images evoke democracy? The red, white, and blue graphics play on American colors of patriotic semiotics, which is key. And, where most of the pure propaganda images show the body in postures of action, ruling, holding forth, and showing strength, these images exude confidence, authority, trust, and thought. They emphasize intelligence over action, realization over revolution.

This last point makes the fact that the images are so popular even more fascinating--especially given the audience of the original Andre posters. But then again, maybe they are, at their core, the most appropriate Obama images: they are edgy yet sophisticated; populist yet cool.

Not unlike Obama himself.

--D. R.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Obama's European Esquire cover

One of the semi-Obamians is abroad now and so has had some different experiences in encountering images of Obama.

One striking image that has appeared abroad and not in the states is this cover of Obama on Esquire. (Apologies for the photograph and not a scan.)

As you can see, the image is a head shot with the definition of charisma in Spanish and then the caption: "Barack Obama, president of the United States (some day)."

The headshot is striking for its luminosity and the simple layout. There are no other stories previewed, which is itself notable and in sharp contrast to this month's U.S. cover of Obama. This quality and the glow of the photograph evoke timeless quality, that this photograph and layout (excepting the obvious current font of the caption) could appear in four years or have appeared 20 or even 40 years ago, especially true given the consistency of the font of the "Esquire" title. I think the magazine editors are consciously evoking other timeless politicians, suggesting that Obama transcends recent politics in some way. Oddly enough, it evokes this Esquire cover too....

The cover suggests that Obama is simply glowing with charisma, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has a Greek etymology, meaning grace or favor. The definition itself (sorry, can't translate the Spanish exactly, so the Oxford will have to do), refers to two different definitions, "a free gift or favour specially vouchsafed by God: a grace, a talent," or "the gift or power of leadership."

What does this definition have to do with the photograph? It seems to favor the first definition, as the photograph's light orientation highlights Obama's personal qualities rather than the professional, which I think could be an implicit criticism that the cover is making--the glow is flattering, but also invokes a bit of flashiness that one normally associates with advertising. In fact, one of the criticisms from Europeans I've talked to is that Obama's appeal seems to be based on this quality, especially through the rhetoric of his speeches (the word, rhetoric, itself has a Greek root, roughly meaning eloquence). As I have pointed out, evidence of his leadership and his more concrete positions is available on his website.

But as we know politics is much more than policy. So Esquire is probably on to something with this luminous version of Obama, as his personal qualities have played a significant part of his success this campaign season.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

France's Obama?

Well, not quite. But as the New York Times reports, France is obsessed with Nicolas Sarkozy in semiotic ways.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sometimes Images Speak for Themselves

Myrtle Strong Enemy, a 101-year old member of the Crow nation, holding a Barack Obama “Change We Can Believe In” sign.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

MetaPost: Writing about Writing about Obama and Semiotics

Taking a step back from reading representations of Barack Obama in popular culture in order to read the process and politics of such a project reveals a great deal about how we already see our culture.

Marshall McLuhan argued in the 70s that we live surrounded by media; that we are always already inside its grasp and its gaze. It stands to reason, then, that our readings of media and media culture probably also fall within the parameters that we and the media have mutually established. To step outside those boundariess, though, to read icons, media, and public discourse on our own terms is more complicated and can be seen as elite or overly abstract.

In the case of Barack Obama, though, it's just fun. How often do we see a person and that person's politics infiltrate so many aspects of popular culture? Without question, Obama has literally altered the semiotic topography of America and American culture beyond what some have called "the Obama effect."

So prevalent is his image and so utterly altered is the political and social terrain post-Obama, we can now, officially, talk about what we at SemiObama call an "Obamized" landscape and the "Obamazation" of popular culture.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault describes revolutionary action as confronting "the relationships of power through the notions and institutions that function as their instruments, armature, and armor.” As our culture has migrated so thoroughly to the realm of the visual, the politics of semiotics have become more and more important. Obamizing shoes, t-shirts, billboards, pins, posters, YouTube, web pages (perhaps even this blog) can be seen as a kind of semiotic revolution--an alteration of the signs, symbols, and images we tend to associate with authority, power, and dominance.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Yes We Can


That's how many hits WeCan08 on YouTube has received for the "Yes We Can" music video. Add to that ever-increasing number another 9 million hits from other YouTube users who have uploaded and hosted the video, and you have over 17 million viewings of a political ad that did not occur during American Idol, the Super Bowl, or 60 Minutes. Such is the effect of Barack Obama, such is the nature of the Internet, and such is the lure of well-timed and well-produced visual culture.

At 4 minutes and 30 seconds, the clip is long for a video, short for a film. It features a host of A, B, and C list celebrities speaking and singing alongside Obama as he delivers his now legendary "concession" speech after the New Hampshire primaries. Developed by the Black Eyed Peas front man and directed by Jesse Dylan, the video has been nominated for a Webby Award. Not surprisingly, it is a rich semiotic text.

On a purely visual level, the video is simple. There is a split screen--Obama on one side, and usually the celebrity on the other, though the frames interchange, sometimes showing two Obamas, two celebrities, or the words, "Yes We Can." By choosing to do the video in black and white, will.iam and Dylan create a text that echoes protest films of the 60s and 70s. Something about its black-and-whiteness both reminds the viewer of the issues of race in the campaign and obviates them at the same time. It feels from another time; a time when young people and rock musicians worked together to topple the system.

What lifts the video--for better or worse--above that of a merely visual text is the music, which both annoys and inspires. The actors "sing" or chant the words of Obama's speech concurrently with Obama. Their voices thump out alongside the accompaniment of a folksy acoustic guitar. steals the show, here, as does Scarlet Johansson. Both are understated in their star capacity, deflecting the spotlight to Obama. Harold Perrineau, Jr., Aisha Tyler, and Maya Rubin are also good. The biggest surprise and the most unexpected treat is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, since he looks both lost and stoned throughout.

At times, some of the celebrities seem as though they will burst into tears, they are so overcome with emotion. John Legend is intolerable in a campy filled-with-the spirit-over-the top performance that begs for attention. Esthero, despite her fantastic albums, is not much better. Indeed, if the video suffers from anything, it is the self-importance of the project reflected in the expressions and earnest performances of the folks involved--as though the actors' contributions are as impactful and important as Obama's.

That said, there is no denying the video is powerful, even arresting at times. The editing, expertly done, creates a sense of happy multi-ethnic democracy. The genuine emotions of those involved make you believe that if Obama is elected president, we might all feel this sense of hope and possibility.

And, one can't discount the speech itself, already a classic. But the real impact is the idea of the video itself--that so many celebrities (not a group known for their political gravitas) would rally so wholeheartedly behind a political candidate for a YouTube project.

One can ask if the video is art, a campaign document, an advertisement, or propaganda, but nowadays, the distinctions among those genres feel arbitrary and are of little use. The chorus of "yes we can" may sum up the aspirations of the Obama campaign and his candidacy, but does it also speak to its target audience? As an Internet text, "Yes We Can" is successful. Ultimately, though, it is worth asking if this video at this moment will catalyze this generation of young people to vote for this candidate.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Splash Page

A few weeks ago, when I went to Barack Obama’s home page, I was greeted with a sepia-toned photograph of the senator, his wife, and two daughters (now it’s a photograph of Obama and John Edwards, who recently endorsed him). In the photograph, the family are smiling. They are dressed semi-formally, with the senator wearing a white shirt and trousers, and his wife wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a print skirt. Both children are draped over the senator.

It’s pretty clear why Obama’s campaign has you enter the site this way. It’s an appeal to emotions, positive ones, a reminder that Obama is first of all a family man. Practically, this is important—all presidents of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been married. As a potential voter, perhaps you have children, or perhaps you want children. Even if you don’t, as a Democrat you probably won’t begrudge Obama including his family, and if you are an independent or Republican, you probably won’t either.

While an unmarried person could be president, the selection of married people as candidates and presidents suggests a certain conservativeness in the general populace, one that Obama is undoubtedly trying to tie into.

But this is as much about class as it is about family. The photograph also displays a stereotypical version of the middle class, with two parents together with two children. It does not look that different from an advertisement for home d├ęcor—it’s a comfortable looking ad. It’s clear this is the American Dream looking out at us.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cover-ing Obama: Time Magazine

When Barack Obama appeared on the cover of Time in October of 2006, it was an important moment for a number of reasons.

Until this feature, almost no one thought this senator from Illinois could reasonably contend for the Democratic party's nominee for president--much less actually be president. And yet, there was Joe Klein making a compelling argument that a relatively inexperienced, relatively young African American, with a relatively Muslim sounding name could hold the highest post in the land, be the occupier of the whitest house in the country.

What is most interesting about the cover, though, is the image of Obama. Rather than feature a photo of him and his attractive family or a picture of him giving his now famous speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, the editors of Time chose a close-up--a tight shot of little more than Obama's face, bookended by his trademark ears. Handsome, well-groomed, and ethnically ambiguous, the image oozes an earned, intelligent confidence that is both engaging and mysterious.

For better or worse, the tightly cropped photo of Obama called up Time's embarrassing O. J. Simpson cover, in which Simpson's skin was intentionally darkened by artist Matt Mahurin. One wonders if this flattering (though not altered) photo of Obama was a kind of reverse homage to that cover, a semiotic I'm-Sorry-Don't-Hold-It-Against-Us entreaty. Regardless of intent, though, the effect of this cover was staggering.

John Berger has written effectively about how reproduced iconic images, like that of the Mona Lisa on t-shirts, coffee mugs, ties, the sides of barns, billboards, in Dali paintings, and on postcards, alters how we see, conceive, and feel toward the original image. So ubiquitous is Obama's visage now that it is difficult to remember back to when this image was fresh, when it was exciting, when it may have even been transgressive.

Indeed, contrasting the original Time cover with the "contender" version that appeared in 2007 is illuminating. In the first, the TIME letters are red, here, they are white. Also, in the most recent version, Obama's head occludes the TIME letters, whereas, in the first one, the big, red, TIME font tattoos across Obama's forehead. Notice also how, in the later version, a sort of angelic glow seems to emanate from Obama's body, as if he might be illuminating, radiant, even holy.

Additionally, one can't ignore the camera angle. Positioned just below his waist and shot upward, the perspective makes Obama seem larger than life, even gigantic. The low-upward shot was a favorite for directors in classic Western films. The cowboy, often John Wayne, was frequently filmed from a low angle to reinforce the thematic of the hero as large, capable, and towering. One also wonders if the whiteness of the cover is an attempt to soften Obama's blackness. It's a complicated and extraordinarily delicate subject to talk about--how visual culture represents a person's skin--but the first cover certainly and silently references it where the second seems to obviate it.

One could accuse TIME of cagey visual rhetoric here. Without question, they have manipulated the tools of graphic design, semiotics, and visual iconography to make an argument about Obama's aura, his candidacy, his magnetism, his star status.

The semiotics of both covers reveal how visual culture can alter how we see and how we see images--even those of people who we think we see so often, we are inured to visual rhetoric. But, Obama is a complex text, and almost every group has some interest in shaping how we (and others) read him.

Welcome to SemiObama

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else.

--Umberto Eco

One of the most striking phenomena in contemporary American culture is the ascendancy of Barack Obama as a symbol. He stands for so much for so many people--hope, possibility, racial equality, vision, youth, energy, and change. In fact, he is, in many regards, no longer just a person; he is an icon. For a great number of people, especially young people, he stands for America's most positive values, while to some, he embodies America's most unattractive fears and anxieties. Regardless of how one feels about Mr. Obama, the junior senator from Illinois and the presumptive Democratic candidate for president of the United States, one cannot ignore his ubiquity. He is everywhere: on t-shirts, on YouTube, across magazine covers, on television, and in nearly every meaningful publication around the world. So saturated is our media with images of Obama, it is now, officially, approaching the level of high camp.

SemiObama is here to do something about that.

With a sense of humor and a sense of history, SemiObama seeks to
offer insightful, innovative, and informative readings of representations of Barack Obama in popular and visual culture. This publication is not concerned with parsing Mr. Obama's politics. Rather, we are interested in unpacking and decoding the visual texts of and about Obama. In other words, SemiObama is dedicated to offering semiotic readings of various Obamian texts as they make thier way into our culture and come to signify ideas, values, and beliefs beyond the candidate himself.

In addition to his observations about semiotics and signs, Umberto Eco also suggests that semiotics is the "discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie," so we will also look closely at visual Obama texts that are used, both by the idealistic and the idiotic, to mislead.

We hope you have as much fun reading SemiObama as we will have have reading (and writing about) the semiotics of Obama.

We can be reached at Feel free to contact us with ideas, suggestions, and criticisms.