Thursday, July 31, 2008

The McCain Advertisement

"Is John McCain calling Barack Obama a dumb blonde?"

This is the lead question by Garance Franke-Ruta in her funny review of the new John McCain ad for the Washington Post's blog. For those readers who haven't seen the video, its purpose seems to be that Obama is more like Paris Hilton than Paris France--that he is all show and no substance.

Not long ago, SemiObama contributor Dean Rader published an op-ed in The San Francisco Chronicle that explored the importance of Obama semiotics in popular culture, ultimately making the case that Obama was more of an icon than a celebrity. One of Rader's assertions was that figures like President Bush and Paris Hilton are popular but not icons:

What it means to be an icon in today's visually oriented world defies easy explanation. George W. Bush's image is everywhere, as is Paris Hilton's but neither is an icon. Both are popular and both carry cachet, but being iconic in an icon-obsessed world is about more than mere presence. It's about stature and transcendence. It's about transformation, which means there is a big difference between being a celebrity and being an icon. The former merely indicates media omnipresence; it is value free.

Yesterday's advertisement compares Obama to both Hilton and Brittney Spears, with a particular focus on his celebrity. As Franke-Ruta notes, it is difficult to figure out what, exactly, the McCain camp is arguing. Is it that Obama is too popular? Is it that he is vapid? That he's a bad parent? That he shouldn't have made those sex films? Maybe it was that time he kissed Madonna?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Si SE Puede!

Location: Non-descript window, Southpark Street, San Francisco, July 29, 2008. 1:45 pm

No one knows what day of his 25-day fast in 1972 Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta came up with "Si se puede"--one of the most famous slogans in U. S. History.

Though it means "yes, it can be done" in Spanish, it has migrated into English with the more direct, more communal translation of "Yes we can." Barack Obama has rather ingeniously seized on both meanings of the phrase, but the latter, more succinct version has emerged as his standard catch phrase. See, for example, one of the very first SemiObama posts on the now-classic video.

The poster to the left, though spotted in San Francisco, was designed to appeal to Latino/a and Chicano/a voters in Texas. Obama even looks a little Latin here, as though merely bronzed by the hot Texas sun. What's interesting is how the poster bounces back, un-translates the motto, returning Chavez's assertions to its original impulses.

Si se puede is more political than "yes we can."

The latter connotes community, optimism, and cooperation, while the latter carries connotations of revolution. In fact, it is actually closer in spirit to "We shall overcome" than it is to "Yes we can."

But, the magic of Obama is his ability to transform the verbal into the vision. He can make any linguistic concept part and parcel of his politics. For him, it is all vernacular. Which is why the absence of the soft Obama blue and the standard logo "O" so pervasive on his campaign texts doesn't feel missing on this poster.

Still, we will have to see if the passion and politics of Chavez are enough to break the decades-long fast Texas Democrats have endured as they have been waiting to feast at the grand buffet that is the U.S. presidency.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Obama and People

The magazine that is. Bonnie Fuller, late of The Star, examines People's coverage of Barack Obama. 

Saturday, July 19, 2008

LINK: How to Draw a Black Man

We like Dayo Olopade's smart piece on the semiotics of drawing Obama that appeared in The Root not long ago. Along with the gem to the left is a series of sketches and caricatures Olopade collects and reads. According to him, it's particularly tough to draw a black man.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Obama Sidewalk Tattoo

Location: Chestnut Street, San Francisco, outside the Apple Store

Hundreds of people got a very good look at this unusual Obama image on Friday, July 11, when too many of us stood in line outside the Apple Store to get the new iPhone. Why I chose to do be in line is the topic of a different and much less interesting post, but, one of the things that made the experience noteworthy was the positive reaction people had to this Sidewalk Obama.

Though it may have been me reading this into the moment, people got pretty interested as they moved closer to and stood around this graphic-based black and white tattoo, set in relief on the busy sidewalk. Most in line seemed to equate the excitement and anticipation of the new iPhone with Obama's candidacy. Both are about innovation, both are about change, both are about the future, and both are about a new generation.

This sidewalk image is particularly interesting because it's almost missable. It is subtle but clearly impressed into the cement. One reason it works is because it is transgressive without being obnoxious (like Obama himself?).

Again, like the Obey posters, this sidewalk tattoo is a wonderful merging of fringe and mainstream semiotics. As I write in a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, these rogue images of Obama do fascinating cultural work because they send all sorts of provocative messages about who supports Obama, how his support gets manifested, and why images of him are important to pay attention to.

I wondered, as I shuffled past Sidewalk Obama, how many people like me had snapped a photo of it with their old camera phones eager to download that image on to the newer, cooler version.


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.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rolling Stone Covers

Last week, Barack Obama appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone again. It was the first time a politician graced the front of that magazine in the same year. It was big news. It made the Huffington Post; conservative bloggers went on and on about it; it even made TV (well, what doesn't?).

In an of themselves, the covers are only moderately interesting, but there are some notable semiotic signifiers that make them rich visual texts:

The cover on the left first appeared in March, the one on the right, last week, and the two covers seem to express the two Obamas--the one pre-nomination and the one post. In the former, he looks worried, uptight, and earnest; in the latter, he's relaxed, happy, even humbly shy. In March, he needed to look presidential, but now, he just wants to come off as normal, warm, funny, and, most importantly, likable.

Part of the problem with the March cover is the bizarre Sears Portrait Studio background and the even more bizarre heavenly glow limning the senator. He looks airbrushed. He looks like he's about to have his aura read. He looks like he might wind up on the cover of a romance novel.

The most recent cover, though, humanizes Obama a great deal. You can see traces of gray hair, and the photo is closer, and the background, warmer and less moody. One also notices the lapel pin. A smart, smart, smart move on his part. It's a key semiotic signifier that got Mr. Obama into a lot of trouble with veteran groups and others who fear he may be a) Muslim; b) not really American; c) anti-flag; d) a hippie; or e) all of the above.

Most notable is the lack of any written text on the cover, save the eponymous "Rolling Stone." No bands, no teasers for inside, no captions. Its proof that Mr. Obama is no longer simply a man or a candidate; he is an icon. He doesn't need written language to explain who or what he is. He now so fully occupies visual space that his image is its own clarification.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Obama as Antichrist?

As part of our new ObamaLinks series, we thought we'd direct you to one of the most bizarre Obama sites out there: The Barack Obama as Antichrist blog.

At first, I thought it was high irony, but, I quickly discovered it was not. It seems to be an actual textual and visual argument for Obama as the Antichrist. To be sure, this is a tough row to hoe, but the anonymous creator of this blog does his darndest.

Highlights of this blog include the unbelievable images that run vertically along the right side of the page. They alone are worth the trip to the URL because they actually help make the argument of SemiObama--the semiotics of Obama are so powerful, they have infiltrated every aspect of contemporary American culture.


MetaPost: Links

Part of the fun of doing semiotic readings of Obama is trolling through all of the sites out there that feature visual renderings or interesting photos or unusual takes on Obama's Obamaness. So, a new feature on SemiObama will be the occasional link to other sites we think readers of this one will find intriguing.

We also encourage any readers to send us tips on blogs or other websites you think we might be interested in. Our hope is that this will facilitate some interaction among writers, bloggers, journalists, and critics.