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.

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