From The New York Times and Daily Routines, a note about the way Barack Obama is working as the president. The article focuses not only on the new more casual dress code but also how Obama schedules his day.
S E M I O B A M A
Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Tamara Keith, an excellent reporter at KQED radio here in San Francisco, first filed the report for NPR back on January 16. In that report, she describes how IKEA has built a replica of the Oval Office. Talk about Democracy . . .oh wait, that's Socialism . . .
Tuesday's program built on Keith's report and mused about Obama's branding ability when it comes to business (back to Democracy; or is that Capitalism?).
Sunday, January 25, 2009
It's a nice if odd image---MLK with fingers locked, sort of leaning on Obama's shoulder like a pensive spouse, gazing out the window at the robins in the backyard. Obama, looking as though he just heard the tea kettle whistle. The composition of the sticker makes you wonder about the intention behind the positionality of the two men. Is MLK "leaning on" Obama? Is he a kind of guardian angel on his shoulder? Are they two faces on the African American Mount Rushmore?
As Obama's presidency moves from its infancy into adulthood, it will be fascinating to see how the images of him in popular culture mature as well. What other icons will he be paired with? And, will MLK get jealous?
Friday, January 23, 2009
ship to the University of San Francisco, where he plies his trade writing campus news and magazine stories for the Web.
What happened to us at the moment Barack Obama became president on January 20? Was there a cultural shift? Was it the beginning of a new social, community-based movement? Was it the simple swearing in of the next American presidential politician?
Whatever it was, it made me want to walk the six or seven blocks from work to buy a New York Times first thing on Wednesday morning, before the crowds scooped them all up. Starbucks, across the street from the drugstore where I ended up, was all ready sold out.
There, on the cover, were the smiling faces of the new first couple. I was surprised. I couldn’t recall ever seeing the president of the United States and first lady looking so happy together. (Especially in such dire times.) And as I thought about what surprised me, I realized it was just that – the togetherness.
If memory serves, only Al and Tipper’s held-a-little-too-long kiss during the 2000 presidential campaign recalls any similar evidence of a “presidential” couple in love going back to at least President Carter’s administration.
Looking at the Times’ photo brought to mind another image that was circulated widely around 1963 and again around 2001. The first was the album cover to Bob Dylan’s celebrated Freewheelin’ recording. The second was a semiotic mirroring of that album cover in the movie Vanilla Sky nearly 40 years later. Am I reaching too far? Maybe, but there is something about the promise and potential of relative youth captured in all three images. Beyond the setting, there is a craving in the way the couples cling to each other. A virility. It’s as if they are balanced on the edge of a swimming pool in winter about to plunge in – perfectly determined to make the best of it.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Similarly, clever San Franciscans have been playing with the linguistic similarities between "PRESIDio" street and "PRESIDent," creating their own semiotic indicators about the direction of the country.
Play with official signs has always been a form of peaceful (and symbolic) protest, and this is no different. It's just a sign of the times . . .
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
This was a day of revolutionary politics and revolutionary pictures. None of us will forget the swarm of bodies along the mall, the embrace of Presidents Obama and Bush, the veteran in the crowd who stood at attention, saluting through the entire address, or the image of the Obama girls taking photos of their father. It was an event that seemed to need the visual plane to register its importance.
To me, the most memorable image was the transportation of and Obama's utilization of the Lincoln Bible.
The process of retrieving and delivering the Bible is, in itself, profoundly symbolic, but watching the guards carry it like a surgeon might cradle a vital organ about to be transplanted drove home the deep historical significance of the Bible--a significance echoed by the entire day.
As a text, the Lincoln Bible is simply remarkable. It's beautiful in its simplicity; the humble design so at odds with its historic significance.
Here's hoping the new president will be able to harness the unifying power of the president whose Bible both anchored his inaugural ship and pushed it out onto the choppy waters of our America.
A few preliminary notes:
I never watched the full inauguration before, and I only have vague memories of ever seeing the swearing in. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance.
I've been reading some grumbling at the expense of the inauguration, and that this would not be the reaction if John McCain had been elected.
Monday, January 19, 2009
First there are the ubiquitous t-shirt selling places everywhere. This does not seem odd--save this is for a president (elect). The idea of a president as a cultural figure rather than just a politician is on display here (and everywhere around tourist areas). Note the references to The Matrix and Rocky here--and these are positive ones. That's different from many previous political figures; most cultural references are positive rather than mocking ones.
Below we have a reference to the "Change" part of Obama's message--brought to us in an ad for the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, including more than 850,000 government workers. The ad takes partial credit for the election and invites people to fight for "Change that works." J Ro makes a good point about how Obama's slogan and imagery have now become part of the commercial world. And we see here and in the next photo (and in the countless commemorative and inauguration issues) that corporate interests see in Obama an opportunity.
There is also the "Inauguration Super Store," which displays a variety of t shirts and other knick-knacks, including an Obama figurine.
Obviously this commercial focus comes from a mix of Obama being a compelling cultural figure, a contrast to the previous administration, and a culture much more adept at adjusting to commercial opportunities. People want to be a part of this new administration, and one of the ways they can do that is through buying. See Sunday's Curtis (which has provided a compelling narrative about Obama) for more on this phenomenon.
Next store to the Inauguration Superstore was the Zenith Gallery, which had a display of Obama art. Most of the art we have seen so far has been representational and this display is no different, save for the abstract O. Given Obama's presence as a real human being, I think it would be hard to paint Obama any other way. Seeing these paintings reminded me of the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt painted by my great-grandfather Max Bigman, a WPA artist in the 1930s. The painting is purely representational, even in the midst of widely diverging artistic trends, as if to say here is a man who cannot be abstracted.
As we will see in 24 hours or so, an Obama presidency will be a reality. The above photos, representative of a much larger semiotic set, suggest that although the story of Obama becoming president is an inspiring narrative, it is also complicated in the way Obama and his images are reflected in political, commercial, and popular culture
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Released on January 14, the comic features a plot line sure to thrill both Obama and Spider-Man devotees. Peter Parker gets assigned to cover the inauguration but spots two identical Obamas. Savvy about these kinds of things, Parker determined that one of the Obamas must be an impostor.
How right he is!
Using basketball--I kid you not--to determine the real Obama, Spider-Man swoops in to save the day (and the president) (and the free world).
In an article from The Detroit Free Press, Steve Perri (not the lead singer for Journey) admits that this confluence of pop culture superstars transcends mere politics:
"' ...The significance of the comic outweighs whoever I voted for,' says Perri, an investment adviser who has about 1,600 Spider-Man comics. 'To have Spider-Man have such a pinnacle moment as meeting the president -- it's history.'"
There is even a fist-bump.
Stick that in your web E. D. Hill . . . .
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
canonize the image of the most celebrated president in a generation.
But such is the time we live in; such is the cache and vision of Barack Obama.
As a semiotic text, the poster neither delights nor disappoints. The iconic images of the White House and Capitol building add a layer of stuffiness to the poster, but from an aesthetic perspective, they balance out the compositional field. The seal on the other hand, really solemnizes the image. It looks to be emblazoned on Obama's chest, like a Hawthornian scarlet eagle he can neither hide nor wash off.
The V-shaped stripes--perhaps connoting his unlikely victory--quarter off the hoards of screaming fans at the first Beatles concert. In truth, Obama's popularity--his ability, Lennon and McCartney-like--who whip spectators into a frenzy has become part of his image, so to encode this detail into the poster is a shrewd move. It also apportions some of the spotlight to the populace. After all, Obama was about the grass roots, the common person. Our identity is his.
Most interesting is the hybridized Obama/Gandhi quote that mastheads the poster. Is this an intentional comparison to Mahatma? To his unflinching devotion to the poor, to his political morality, to his nearly God-like level of service and sacrifice?
If so, that's a hard row to hoe; especially in near-depression America. But, if the tag line is not so much about Obama but about us, then it creates a bizarre but pleasing triumvirate of Gandhi/Obama/Kennedy in which the responsibilities of governance lie not with the gods but with their people.
As the inauguration nears, we here at SemiObama will be your inaugural semiotics headquarters, reading both the major and the minor, the mainstream and the marginal.
Monday, January 12, 2009
You can go here to see more Obama mugs, along with shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and more.
Today, National Public Radio ran a segment on how difficult it will be for the White House and the government to control these kinds of products. The President-elect (and president) will actually have very little control over his image and his name.
News from Marvel: Obama will be on the cover of a special issue of Spiderman.
"How great is that? The commander in chief to be is actually a nerd in chief," Quesada said. "It was really, really cool to see that we had a geek in the White House. We're all thrilled with that."
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I'm intrigued by the Utne Reader cover this month. It features a smiling Obama, sporting sunglasses, pointing at the potential reader with the caption "Yes, You Can." For the uninitiated, Utne Reader is a progressive, self-helpish magazine that is often sold in health food stores (as well as bookstores)--it calls itself "are digests of independent ideas and alternative culture. Not right, not left, but forward thinking." Despite its self-description, its demographic is decidedly liberal.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Marilyn DeLaure is an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches classes that look at the intersection of politics, rhetoric, and consumption. Her essays have appeared in Text and Performance Quarterly, Theatre Annual, Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, the edited volume Confronting Consumption, and American Voices: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Orators. Here, she gives a semiotic reading of two recent magazine covers that feature Obama and past presidents.
During the week of November 24, 2008, the covers of America’s two largest news magazines depicted Barack Obama as the new incarnation of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On the Newsweek cover, Obama stands in the foreground, casting behind him a gigantic shadow in the shape of Lincoln; the accompanying article includes an image of a penny with Obama’s copper profile replacing Honest Abe’s. Time Magazine features a smiling Obama edited into the iconic black-and-white photo of FDR driving a convertible—crisp fedora, jauntily tipped cigarette holder, pince-nez glasses and all.
The Newsweek cover aesthetics are graphic and bold, with bright colors and contemporary font. In the background, Lincoln looms large, looking thoughtful but a bit gauche in his stovepipe hat. Obama, on the other hand, anchors the lower right corner, feet set in a broad stance, his head turned slightly toward Lincoln, his gaze directed up and into the bright future: he radiates part Mad Men-cool panache, part superhero masculinity. Since we read both text and images from upper left to lower right, the great Lincoln visually flows into Obama, ennobling the young president-elect. Obama-as-Lincoln underscores the oratorical eloquence of both slim men from Illinois, in particular their power to unify a divided nation.
The Time FDR-Obama cover is easily invited by the historical moment: Obama was elected amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The image evokes the greatness of both men, who overcame significant obstacles to win the presidency (polio-related disability for Roosevelt, racial politics for Obama). Obama-as-FDR elicits hope that this man—optimistically flashing his pearly whites, exuding presidential strength and boundless confidence—will help us conquer “fear itself,” restore confidence in world financial markets, and perhaps even buttress a failing domestic auto industry.
Framing a candidate or president-elect as the successor to past great presidents, or claiming they share desirable character traits, is certainly nothing new. (A good example is George HW Bush’s 1992 convention film:
But I don’t recall ever seeing such explicit melding of images of a president-elect with past presidents—visually arguing that Obama literally embodies the greatness of past presidents, that he is the new Lincoln, or Roosevelt. (Another striking Obama-Lincoln melding is Ron English’s drawing (left) Can we imagine Dubya, or Bill Clinton, or Senior Bush enshrined on the nickel? But Obama’s face somehow works. It’s remarkable how Barack Obama is already being canonized as one of the great presidents, even before having taken the Oath of Office.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Given the weirdness of some recent Time covers, this neo-Faiery choice is both smart and intriguing. Interesting to us is that when lauding the "person" of the year, the editors at Time chose to forgo the representational route, offering instead an image, or, more precisely, an iconic image of the president elect. One wonders if the magazine is celebrating the person or the image.
By placing the Faiery-inspired image on the cover, Time acknowledges that this kind of fringey street image has become the putative visual marker of Obama's campaign. Also, with its roots in the WPA posters of the FDR regime, Time might also be making a semiotic connection between the kind of economic situation FDR faced and the one President-elect Obama will encounter on inauguration.
One thing is certain: the Faiery images embody the hope that many people have invested in Obama--hope that he, FDR-like, will be able to lift them out of the intellectual, economic, and political depression of the last eight years.