Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Car Magnet?

At 7:46 am on Thursday morning, an email appeared in my inbox making me an offer I felt I could very easily refuse.

Or not.

I'm still unsure.

"Make a donation of $15 or more by midnight on June 30th," the email urges "and receive a special edition Obama logo car magnet."

A what?

That's right--a car magnet. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of the big square pizza delivery side panel car magnets, almost as much as those sported by exterminators. But, I have to admit, I'd never conceived of one for a politician.

It's an interesting idea. Certainly, it's more . . . sophisticated . . . than a bumper sticker, which despite an improvement in document design, is still the cultural equivalent of the beer cozy. But magnets, well, magnets feel more substantial. Less tacky. We tend to associate professionalism with car magnets. Bumper stickers on the other hand connote self-importance, preachiness, and bannerism. In general, if you see a car magnet, you pretty much only see that magnet, whereas bumper stickers are a bit like jello shots--they come in clusters.

But, wouldn't someone steal that Obama magnet? Either a pro or anti Obaman? How easy to imagine a great Obama car magnet thief, peeling the magnet off in the parking lot of Whole Foods, Target, and soccer practice so that he can cover his refrigerator with them.

But what about the magnet itself?

The Obama folks were smart enough not to produce an image solely of the magnet, lest they open themselves up to ridicule. Instead, we get a rendering of it packaged within the semiotic rhetoric of donation.

As for the magnet's semiotics, there are no surprises. It's pretty much the standard Obama logo, replete with the flag road and blue oval sky, only with its O-ness reinforced. Totally fine. Entirely acceptable, if a tad, vanilla.

But, really, couldn't they have dolled up the magnet a little, bumper-stickered it a tad here and there. Maybe give it a slogan, something like:







Humor aside, amidst all of the back-and-forth about gas prices, alternative fuels, public transportation, and the concern surrounding our over-carred culture, the car magnet seems an odd choice. Why not a pair of those walking shoes, a baseball hat, a t-shirt made of organic cotton?

Either way, if you decide that magnet is worth fifteen of your bones, you can get one here:

If you do, zap us an email here at semiobama [at] and let us know what happens to it and you.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Se-ME-Obama, or Why I Am Having a Difficult Time Wearing the Barack Obama T-shirt I Really Like

The following post is more about the semiotics of me, rather than Barack Obama, and that's entirely within the way both semiotics and politics work--we often process phenomena through our own lenses as well more general lenses (for example, the Democratic Party, Northeasterner, class, gender) 

As myfriends will tell you, I am obsessed with t-shirts. I routinely collect them, have strict rules for buying them, and rank their popularity in my head.

I am a proud owner of this t-shirt, given to me by a Obama supporter before I had committed to a candidate. While I have worn this shirt a number of times, never have I worn it as my primary shirt (i.e., I have worn it under sweaters and such). As a supporter, I was thinking about why this might be.

First of all, I am in Europe. And as a foreigner, I already feel self-conscious and always a little like I am performing. If I wore the shirt, I would be received well--Obama is very popular here. But I don't wear many American t-shirts here. Wearing American clothing would make me more visible than I already perceive myself to be. In other words, I want to be an anonymous text and wearing the shirt would make me less so. When I return to the states in a few weeks, I will undoubtedly wear the shirt more frequently, especially in my safely Democratic state.

And it's not the design per se. I like the color of the shirt, and I am fond of the rendering of Obama, as well as the font of the print. It's simple, minimally adorned, and classic in design. It's 100 percent cotton. It's really the type of shirt I like the most.

The issue is the presence of someone else's face on my body. It feels a little like I might be subscribing to a cult of personality, rather than my more straightforwardly political reason for voting for Obama--I prefer his policies over John McCain's. I will grant that the secondary effects of Obama's personality and his intelligence, the enthusiasm of young voters, also appeal to me. But as I have told my students more than once, I vote for the party more than I vote for any individual candidate. That's why I bought my John Kerry t-shirt in the last presidential election, though I preferred other candidates in the primaries.*

Still, if wearing the t-shirt can have any possible effect on encouraging people to vote or even having a discussion about politics, I might be inclined to break it out pretty often this summer and fall. Or I'll perhaps just go here and buy another one.


*I looked for an image of the cool retro shirt that I will hopefully break out after the November elections....but no luck. How fleeting is political gear!

Obama's music

We referred earlier to Obama's Facebook profile, which among other things, contained his music preferences. An article in Rolling Stone has a more detailed article about his musical taste, and New York magazine reads the list. We'll be back with our own reading soon.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Michelle Obama on The View

We didn't watch it, but Troy Patterson did.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Superhero

What does it mean to be president of the United States of America? What kind of person can get elected to the land's highest office and succeed at driving the biggest baddest SUV on the world's highway? A regular man? A super man? Is a president, by his very ascendancy to the office, a hero? Despite the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a powerful president, we never really saw representations of him as a superhero, a la Superman or Captain America. Similarly, Nixon, Carter, Clinton . . . all were important guys who did super things, but I wonder how many Americans would describe them as heroic?

Whether he wins the November election or not, some already see Senator Obama as a hero, and, at least on a metaphorical level, others even perceive him as some sort of superhero. This is not to say that people actually believe he can breathe underwater or fly without the use of cables, jet engines, or hallucinogens, but, many Americans do see his accomplishments as super-human. Some recent representations of Obama as a superhero speak not to his uncanny feats of strength or his tendency to shoot webs from his palms but to his even more bizarre ability to leap the tall building of race in a single bound and to dash, faster than a speeding bullet, to the crossroads of American political discourse.

Representations of Obama as a superhero take many different shapes and play on a diversity of semiotic signifiers. For example, the image on the right depicts Obama as a crazily muscled but jolly hero that plays with many key semiotic texts. At first, one notices how Obama's 8-packed chest is at odds with his soft, calm, facial features. Unlike most super hero poses (think Batman), where hero's visage is brooding and threatening, we have here a happy hero, ready to stymie bad guys or listen to your complaints about the new tax code. Even more interesting are the classic icons of America that frame him--the two furling flags and the White House. What SuperObama has conquered here, the image suggests, is not Penguin or Lex Luthor but American voting records, racial prejudice, and every possible odd known to man. It's also worth noticing how excited all of the white people around him are, even though no one has any idea who or what Super O. is pointing at.

Missing from the version on the left are the gleeful Anglos, the white house and the generous codpiece, but present is the all important flag--one of the strongest semiotic texts anywhere in the world. The previous illustration is clearly a persuasive text designed to facilitate associations between Obama's accomplishments and those we attribute to super heroes, but this one is just bad Photoshop. It's funny, but mostly because it's just not very good. It's also hard to tell if this image is clearly pro-Obama or just pro-satire. Still, it plays on the super-ness of Obama's persona. And, he gets a cape!

The button on the right is less vague. Both satirical and political, it speaks to Obama's ability to make otherwise statured Republicans look small, ineffectual, and unutterably geeky. You'll notice that this version and the one above give Super O. his own insignia--the O--reminiscent both of Superman's S but also of the prominent O of his campaign banner, which sort of gives him a super branding opportunity as well. Here, the non-Anglo, non-suited-and-tied Obama is also ripped beyond non-steroid means, further distinguishing himself from the pasty, flabby, aging Republicans.

A future post will look at the various permutations of the image that introduces this site--the photo of Obama mimicking the pose of a Superman statue--but for now, I'll simply close by drawing a distinction between Obama intentionally and comically mocking Superman and imaginary renderings by others of Obama as a superhero. Though small, the distinction is important because it circumscribes how Obama sees himself and how others choose to see him. He positions himself as a real world parody of the invented superhero, while others position him as a metaphorical hero. Both Obamas make the actual candidate that much more likable.

From a semiotic perspective, these various images of Obama-as-super reveal how some Americans are choosing to represent visually what Obama has accomplished culturally. By making him a superhero, he becomes, by association, a pop culture icon, a figure larger than life, a canonized persona in the make-believe world in which real people live. Once that happens, being a mere president is almost Rove-like in its utility.


Monday, June 16, 2008

The SockObama

Well, for those of you who had planned on the Sock Obama doll for stocking stuffers, we here at SemiObama regret that we must be the bearer of bad news.

The folks at Sockobama have decided against proceeding with the production of the cuddly guy you see to your right. The company came under some epistolary heat for producing what many see as an icon of racism sewn up in the guise of a snugly bedtime companion. A hint this entrepreneurial project was going to enjoy the same fate as the Karl Rove Binky surfaced on June 12, when the company posted a long letter on their website, of which this is an excerpt:

We at TheSockObama Co. are saddened that some individuals have chosen to misinterpret our plush toy. It is not, nor has it ever been our objective to hurt, dismay or anger anyone. We guess there is an element of naviete on our part, in that we don’t think in terms of myths, fables, fairy tales and folklore. We simply made a casual and affectionate observation one night, and a charming association between a candidate and a toy we had when we were little. We wonder now if this might be a great opportunity to take this moment to really try and transcend still existing racial biases. We think that if we can do this together, maybe it will behoove us a nation and maybe we’ll even begin to truly communicate with one another more tenderly, more real even.

The letter goes on to describe what dolls of the other candidates would look like (Republican = potato; Hillary = squirrel), but one wonders if the entire letter is bizarre performance art. It's hard to believe one's business plan wouldn't take the monkey/African American contingency into consideration, especially after the problems a Marietta, Georgia man had when he printed up a whole slew of Obama/Curious George t-shirts--over which, Houghton-Mifflin, the owners of the Curious George image, may sue.

The statement by the doll-makers-to-be and the reactions of many who are angered by the toy speaks to the often yawning abyss between semiotic intent and semiotic reception. Or, put another way, there really may be very little connection between what the producer of the doll intends and what we, as potential consumers, interpret. They may intend "cuddly." We may read "creepy."

And why might some find the doll creepy?

Let's take, just for starters, the long and not particularly distinguished semiotic history of simian representation of Africans and African Americans, not to mention racial epithets that draw such comparisons in disturbing ways. In fact, a recent post on Intellectual Vanities charts this conscious and subconscious association, making the Sock Obama claim seem either shockingly ignorant or, again, perversely performative--almost a taunt. New York Magazine referred to the letter as an "elaborate mind game."

From a pure semiotic perspective, the doll is . . . cute. Sock Obama is chipper, and his outstretched arms are welcoming, hopeful. The suit and tie are a nice touch--a sort of presidential cue. More than anything else, the button is a semiotic indicator that we are to assume the doll is Obama. The short hair may help this as might the famously large ears--so often the caricatured feature of Senator Obama--but in truth, the doll doesn't really resemble the candidate as much as it resembles other racist caricatures.

Still, the fact that Obama's Obamaness is big enough to elicit this project and the strong reactions, speaks to his importance not only as a politician but also as a lightning rod for American cultural semiotics and American cultural values.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Obamas & The Pound: Reading the Dap

I'm not sure there is anything snarky left to say about the media coverage of the Michelle and Barack Obama dap.

Nor is there much to say about the dap/pound/fist bump itself. Media Matters & The Huffington Post ran a pictorial history of the dap; E. D. Hill called it a "terrorist fist bump" on her Fox News show, which has since been canceled; and many African American blogs have been educating all of the clueless white people about the long, storied history of the pound.

There is, however, a great deal to say about how much semiotic attention an apparently race-based gesture draws. Athletes, reality TV show contestants, and celebrities give dap all the time and Fox anchors keep their jobs. When Mr. and Mrs. Obama exhibit an act of intimacy and support, it draws fire from all corners, but Homeland Security turns a blind eye when terrorists like Ali G & Pat Buchanan seal their dark deals:

In fact, the truly astonishing media frenzy over a simple hand gesture that has been a rather tedious part of popular culture for almost two decades is itself a justification for SemiObama. Everything Obama does is news; every image iconic; every gesture symbolic.

Which is one of the arguments SemiObama makes: Obama is no longer just a guy. He's himself a walking archive of semiotic symbolism. Reading their pound means reading race; it means reading status; it means reading expectations for the least human job in the land; it means reading the nexus of popular and political culture, where Obama stands, like a lightning rod, at Ground Zero.

So, is the dap "black?" Well, I think the answer is, if a black man running for president of the United States gives a fist bump to his black wife in the middle of a stage with millions of white, black, and brown people watching, then I think there is a pretty good chance it's no longer a black thing.

The question is, will the media (and America) ever stop seeing him through that lens?

---D. R.

Metapost: When Semiotics Becomes News

Like many people, I was fascinated by the coverage of the contrast between the John McCain and Barack Obama speeches on Tuesday night.

Obama gave what we now take for granted--a masterful speech, this time declaring he had requisite delegates to clinch the nomination. On the other hand, McCain's was a widely panned speech that received bad marks for content, timing, and delivery. While there was a lot of coverage on the historic moment when the first African American clinched a nomination for a national party, there was also quite a bit of coverage of the speeches the two men gave. The assumption, of course, is that these speeches are indicators not only of thier campaigns but of their facility as president. Even so, while some coverage focused on Obama clinching the nomination, a surprising amount of coverage focused on not news but semiotics.

Ever since the Kennedy/Nixon televised debates, all facets of the media have been overtly attuned to the candidates as visual texts. This one is no different. For example, much of the coverage of McCain focused on his gestures, particularly the false smile; the lime green background that some compared to Jello; and, in particular, his recrafting of Obama's campaigns slogan--mocking of Obama's "Change We Can Believe In" through the use of "Not" before it. None of this qualifies as news coverage--it's all clearly interpretative work on the signs of the speech--the visual symbolism, the rhetorical devices, and overall performance, with very little focus on what he said. In other words, commentators interpreted the signs of John McCain's speech in a way that added up to an interpretation of the comparative performances of McCain and Obama.

This coverage acknowledges the way political coverage often works, with its obsession with the new. As I have said, I've been fielding a lot of questions about Obama's rhetoric versus his policies, and it confuses me a bit, because it's so clear to me how media outlets operate--they mostly focus on what is happening rather than what has happened, what people have said, or what they have done. So that means a focus on an interesting line from a speech, a primary result, or a poll rather than issues, which have been on the campaigns' homepages for months. Not exclsuively of course, as most investigative journalism and news analysis, in the form of magazine pieces, newspaper reports, and television talk shows, do go beyond the immediate. But news holes, the term journalists use for the space in their outlets that has to be filled each day, focus on the new in news.

I think the larger question is whether media outlets will focus on a broader, much more truth-aiming type of comparison between the two candidates, a task that has often failed before. But I thought the semiotic focus on Tuesday, when clearly McCain was trying to make news on an historic evening, was appropriate, especially when McCain seemingly made an ill-advised attempt to steal Obama's historic moment. It does show in any case how everpresent semiotic analysis is, even on network television.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Obama Wants You!

When I first saw the image to the right, I was mystified.

It was without context, so I was not sure if it was an anti-Obama piece of propaganda, meant to portray him as a kind of scary American icon, recruiting Obamaniacs into his fold, or if it was a pro-Obama piece that plays off the original Uncle Sam, urging young Americans to be patriots.

Either way, it remains one of the most striking examples of Obama semiotics.

According to its creator, James Montgomery Flagg, the original poster of Uncle Sam was, at one time, the most popular poster in the world. It first appeared on the cover of a magazine called Leslie's Weekly in 1916 and went on to be every red-blooded American boy's avuncular patriotic conscience, urging him to join his brethren and protect the United States of America.

The Obama version plays with and off of these associations in startling ways. On one hand, the Obama Sam also asks Americans to be patriots and join their brethren--but in change. Like the original image, Obama is draped in the semiotic garb of the United States, all top-hatted and blue-cloaked, and he, too, beseeches us to help him protect America from the forces out to destroy it--a weak dollar, bigotry, a failed war, curtailed civil liberties, and Republicans.

Most interesting is the absence of any text with Obama Sam. The image--its ubiquity and its power--is enough. Anyone who knows the iconic original will get this new version. However, what you think about Obama may influence your interpretation of the image. In this case, semiotics is also politics.

Recently, another image has started popping up--the one on the left. I like it, but less. The representation of Obama is rather lame; he looks too much like he's picking teams for basketball, and he wants you to be his small forward. Notice how this sign plays with the text of the original but not so much its subtext. It has no power, no cultural memory, and almost no patriotic associations.

But back to the first Obama image above. What I like most about Obama Sam is its inversions. The old guy becomes the young guy. The scary guy becomes the hopeful guy. The white guy becomes the black guy. It plays on all of the xenophobic, protectionist emotions the original Uncle Sam posters were designed to elicit and turns them on their heads. It turns fear into hope.

What it says is that Uncle Sam may have wanted you for the old America; but Obama Sam wants you for the new one.

--D. R.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama, McCain, and Facebook

One of the changes wrought by Howard Dean in the 2004 campaign was the use of the Internet for political discourse and organization. Without the sophisticated ground game of Barack Obama, however, Dean's people-powered movement only went so far.

Still, the Internet has become more important to the candidates. Obama used the Internet to help outraise Hillary Clinton. And then there are the social networking sites. All the candidates had and have web pages and most everyone had acccounts on Facebook and MySpace, not to mention, Twitter.

Why? It's those darn kids. Many young people now communicate more and more online, have fewer landlines, and are an untapped demographic, still voting at levels well below other age groups, making a tempting target. Other sites have discussed the Internet phenomenon in more depth, so here I want to take a moment to look at the semiotics of Obama's Facebook site and for sake of comparison, John McCain's as well. Looking at these sites shows both the sources of Obama's power and the limits of a medium that requires candidates to conform to the design specifications of the site.

Design. While there are variants between candidates, seemingly the whole point of Facebook's design (at least to this non-user) is to make it simple and easy to use, a template format that can take little tinkering. But in doing so, there is an inevitable sameness, a variant on the old frame design used early in web design. I was also surprised after becoming familiar with social networking through MySpace how uncluttered and clean Facebook was; that despite its popularity with young people, how in its essence, it is a very no nonsense site (though users can certainly nonsense it up!).

For a political candidate, this template is both boon and bane. What does it say that both McCain and Obama have similar pages?

The message behind the design seems to be that in some ways we are all equal, or that we start off the same, a message of basic (technological) humanity, that the candidates are not much different than those who look at the page (of course, we don't have hired staffers to run our pages either). It implies, as does the idea behind the site itself, that friends are just a click away. But it could also signal when looking at two politicians that the two are not so different from one another, which is not a message either candidate is trying to send. Still, even with the restaints that a Facebook page necessarily has, it's not so far from what a candidate would want in a page--a self-chosen photo, some basic information, and links to other information.

Content. Almost everything is the same here, save for the campaign photo that Obama used (which doesn't work as well as McCain's standard issue photo). Note that Obama has more than seven times the supporters as McCain, not surprising for a candidate so oriented toward the young, but much different than polls that have them almost deadlocked.

Content is as restricted as design, and in fact, is not completely controlled by the candidates. Note one of the supporters that McCain has highlighted--the lower right hand corner shows an Obama supporter!

Looking more closely at the Obama content section, where it lists his favorites in a variety of subjects, there are a few surprises--who knew he liked Moby Dick?--but very little that would seemingly disqualify a candidate for office. There are some basic rules for being on Facebook, rules that are even more strict for someone seeking public office. But even though his site might not reveal all that much, it is convenient for users to find out more information, link to videos, and more importantly for the Obama campaign, pass the site on to other Facebook friends and be a willing recipient for what additional information and other material the Obama campaign wants to share.

Why Obama Has the Advantage. It's less to do with the campaign than the medium. Democrats in general have done better with the Internet than Republicans for a variety of reasons, but largely because of recent political demographic trends. There's really not much difference between the two Facebook pages, and that's deliberate on the part of Facebook. It's probably smart for McCain to even have such a page, because it does suggest a politician, even if he gets a few giggles for supposedly being too old for Facebook, at least cognizant of the latest technological trends. Still, as one can see by Obama's huge advantage in supporters (as of earlier this year), that it goes hand in hand with Obama's dominant use of the Internet.

In a while, I'll look at Obama's MySpace and YouTube pages and compare them with other candidates.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Racist Images

As this post goes to press, Senator Barack Obama needs only four more delegates to ensure the democratic nomination for president. For Obama supporters, this will be a night of celebration, a moment unrivaled in the social narrative of the United States--perhaps one of the least racist days in American history.

And so it seems fitting for today's SemiObama post to examine those images tonight's news will transcend.

Visual propaganda has a long history in the United States, a country that has often revealed a tendency to be swayed by images rather than data, emotion rather than reason. One aspect of visual culture the mainstream media has tended to avoid is the plethora of anti-Obama propaganda--often shockingly racist images--that are circulating the Internet. One one hand, it might seem counterintuitive for this site to give space or credence to such texts, but SemiObama's mission is to examine the power of semiotics. To ignore anti-Obama visual culture is to downplay just how powerful his image really is. One only satirizes that which is dangerous; so, one could argue that even the most disturbing images actually speak to Obama's potential to subvert them and to inspire America to rise above them.

What Senator Clinton and Obama share is the tendency for opponents to caricature their non-political attributes: race and gender. In the case of the image to the left, an image found on the desk of South Carolina representative Bill Sandifer, there is a silent attempt to frighten viewers by linking Obama's ethnicity to one of the great stereotypes of modern culture--the black thug. Yes, it's disturbing, but beyond that, it's just poorly executed and profoundly unconvincing.

Another classic stereotype is the African American = Muslim = terrorist mentality. Some of the more inflammatory images exploit--or at least try to exploit--the semiotics of fear some Americans tend to associate with anyone of Arab or Middle-Eastern descent. These tactics are old, and, generally, unsuccessful, but they prey on the anxious and uneducated, and they try to manipulate not through any connection to reality but through association and exaggeration.

The image above and to the right pretends to be funny, but it's really about instilling fear--fear of the angry African. The rapper stereotype in the image below and to the right, tries to do similar work. Its text is harmless humor. It's subtext is the same as the overt text of the first image Rep. Sandifer likes so much. It's always reassuring to see what visual cues some people deploy to send messages. I'm surprised, for instance, that the artist stopped at the bandana and the grills. Why not go for the bling? The baggy pants? The Tommy shirts? The basketball jerseys? Oddly enough, the lameness of this image actually sends a very different message: this person is a bad reader of culture. You can't take the message seriously, because the author has no authority.

In fact, the crudeness, the simplicity, and the ineptness of these images all reveal the ineptness of the rationale behind them. They have no teeth. Even more interesting is how these images have remained on the peripheries. Perhaps they have circulated privately, but no one of any real weight has given them credence. Thankfully, the larger, more inclusive, more democratic, more populist semiotics of Obama are what have captured America's visual consciousness.

--D. R.