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.