Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Else? The New Yorker Cover

The controversy of The New Yorker's image portraying Barack and Michelle Obama is a prime example of instant semiotic analysis at work, as well as how intense reaction can be to images. It is also an object lesson in the difficulties with being funny (or trying to be), particularly when it comes to politics. 

The reaction is a pretty standard semiotic response to a sign. First there is the analysis of the image itself, followed by a discussion of its context, including the impact of its image. Indeed, much of the discussion has focused on the potential impact on the audience, though there has been some discussion on whether Barack Obama himself should be offended by them. 

My own take is that we can't separate the images from the response to them--that the analysis of the images has essentially become part of the image, that the cover was destined from the beginning to be part of a media reaction. Though most of the reaction has been negative, after breaking down the physical image of the cover, it's clear that its meaning and then impact are unstable. Both bloggers and friends are discernibly struggling to figure out how they feel as well as how they should feel given the incendiary nature of the images. 

Part of the struggle is determining whether the cover is funny or not.  Humor is particularly complicated because we can have both intellectual and emotional reactions--we are not reacting intellectually when we respond to Dumb and Dumber, and we probably are when we watch Woody Allen's Manhattan (though perhaps not Bananas). The Obama image requires such a multilevel response--thinking about the image, thinking about how the various audiences will respond (Barack Obama, Democrats, the media, Republicans), and thinking how what one wants to consider oneself within those contexts. It's rarely true that one can have an unmediated reaction to humor, but in this case, it seems nearly impossible. 

Despite the defenses by New Yorker staffers and a pretty good online presence, I don't think they were prepared for the New Media reaction to it, the nature of instant analysis and response storm that follows every political and cultural development, especially in this campaign. As to whether it was funny? There is no objective standard of humor, but one can see from the reaction and the magazine's reaction to the reaction what the verdict is.  The "I was trying to be funny" defense is rarely effective, and when you have to explain your joke (or the category of your joke), it means you weren't funny. At least not to most people--after all, there were a few people who liked Ishtar.


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