Friday, January 30, 2009

On working without a jacket

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. 

A few notable semiotic moments:

*He openly reads The New York Times, and in fact, based his denunciation of corporate greed on material he read there. This is both a nod to the importance of the Times and the sign of a president who wants to have contact outside the bubble of White House staff. (As a side note, I have been wondering for a while what Barack Obama reads, especially after the Sarah Palin interview with Katie Couric.  I particularly want to know if he reads Daily Kos or Talking Points Memo. as they seem to write with the idea that people who are high-level decision makers read their copy)

*He is not wearing a suit coat but is wearing a tie. The Times and others break this down, but it is an important nod to process and image--the statement is that working hard is more important than being formal. That the president does not always wear a suit in the office (apparently Nixon always wore on) is supposed to show his constituents that he cares more about productivity than tradition.

*He works out first and then goes to his office. I think this is generational (though not universally so). Unless you are a banker, people of our generation like to get that workout in first rather than lunch or after. Lunches and dinners are now prime time for working, and as we all know, time shrinks after you start working.

*We're fascinated with our president. We want any information we can get. The Daily Routines site includes mostly writers (Mr. Rogers being a notable exception), and to include Barack Obama shows another level of interest in the way he works. 

Expect the suitjacketless look to take off....and our workouts to begin earlier. 


Thursday, January 29, 2009

NPR goes SemiObama

Tuesday's Talk of the Nation took a page from the SemiObama playbook to focus on the use of Obama in advertising campaigns, such as the Pepsi & Ben and Jerry's ads.

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

Our First "President Obama" Sighting from the Field

We've seen plenty of inaugural items on television, but this is the first post-inauguration president item I've seen in person in the Bay Area. It was spotted on the back of a green sedan in the Richmond district in the parking lot of Delano's grocery store, 27th & Geary.

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?

The Hope poster in the National Portrait Gallery and New York Times

Check the article out here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obamas Freewheelin, A Guest Post by Ed Carpenter

One of the magical aspects of Obama's Obamaness is the ability for people to see all aspects of their lives in him. Malleable, importable, sampleable, we put him everywhere. Our guest poster, Ed Carpenter, sees Bob Dylan in Obama, especially after the photo of him and Michelle on the New York Times. Carpenter has a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He has worked as an editor and reporter for several Bay Area newspapers, before jumping
ship to the University of San Francisco, where he plies his trade writing campus news and magazine stories for the Web.

Obamas, Freewheelin’

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

Bush Street becomes Obama Street

One of the main east/west arteries in San Francisco is the "one-way" Bush street. Over the past few months, residents of the Bay Area have been unoffically changing "Bush street" to "Obama street."

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

The Most Memorable Image

Inauguration day is all about semiotics; in fact, it may be the most sign-laden day in American culture. More than the Super Bowl, more than election day, more than the 4th of July, inauguration day blends the images of both old and new America. Architecture meets pomp meets flags meets statesmen meets monument meets memory.

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.


New President

A few preliminary notes: 

*We have come to expect nothing but greatness for Barack Obama's speeches, and this was one was well-delivered and inspirational.

I thought it was striking how thinly disguised the reputiation of the previous administration was, specifically the line, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" a line clearly referencing the previous administration's policy on torture, and the line criticizing those who think, "our system cannot tolerate too many big plans the discussion of the government." Diane Feinstein's short speech was pretty partisan too....

*I was struck by how much blue there was on the stage. I wonder if (and surmise that) Obama chose his red tie to go with his white shirt and blue background.

*Sometimes when NBC panned to a reaction shot, people broke their reaction to the speech and reacted to being on television. So the whole point of the reaction was lost.

*Beyond these small observations, the whole scene was remarkable in the combination of its massive scope and relative observed simplicity--a few speeches, swearings in, performances, and we have a new president. Something so simple was complexly orchestrated after a long, long process. And now, it bears repeating, we have a new president.


Confession, more thoughts

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word inauguration comes from a similar Latin word, meaning "consecration or instalment under good auspices or omens"--how appropriate given the love for Obama from so many.

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. 

It's also interesting to see how many notables--both politicians and celebrities--have been sighted on the way to the ceremony. We've seen Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, and every politician you can think of from Dan Quayle to Joe Lieberman to Edward Kennedy to John McCain to Al Gore to John Kerry.

Update: Bush and Obama enter the limo together from the White House.  It's a black Cadillac (an American car) with two flags on each side of the hood. 

More to come. 


Reading the inauguration

The stage is set. Images we thought we might only juxtapose in imagination now appear reality. How we read them tells us as much about us as they do about our government and our country.

Initial Inauguration thoughts

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. 

It's simple--Barack Obama is the first African-American president and a young energetic politician who inspires for a number of different reasons. The combination of those factors has made his inauguration much more significant than probably any other in history. There have been a lot of firsts, but none so significant since the inauguration of the first president, George Washington. 

Combine that with the sourness attached to the departing president and a deep economic crisis and you have the recipe for an exciting, even cathartic celebration.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Washington photos

We'll write a lot more about the inauguration in the next few days, but it's worth noting that the city of Washington is more than ready for its new president to show up. Recently, one of the semi-Obamians had a chance to go to Washington D.C. Not surprisingly, semiotic cues regarding the coming inauguration of Barack Obama were in abundance. 

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.

On the other side of the bus stop is an ad for BET television, which also claims participation in Obama's election.

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

When the Superhero needs a Superhero: Spiderman II

As we discussed earlier, Marvel is coming out with the Spiderman comic.  There are so many fascinating inaugural texts that demand the SemiObama lens, but this one seemed to need another take--especially given the header photo on our main page.

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.'"

History indeed.

There is even a fist-bump.

Stick that in your web E. D. Hill . . . .


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Inaugural Poster

When it was first announced that Shepard Fairey would be designing President-elect Obama's inaugural poster, it was the first time this institutional semiotic project was given to someone whose iconography is all about fringe. It is amazing to consider that a guy who got his start doing radical street art would, just a few years later,
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

Top Obama Mugs

Who can resist the double entendre of Obama mug?

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.


Ben and Jerry pun alert

"Yes Pecan" hits the stores....

Obama as Superhero

News from Marvel: Obama will be on the cover of a special issue of Spiderman.

As quoted in Wired, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada said: 

"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."

Obama will not be a superhero in the comic--the plot revolves around his inauguration. Still, the historic nature of his presidency gives him the aura of comic book hero--the seeming invulnerability, the way he inspires, but most importantly, the way his audiences imbue him with the characteristics of a superhero. 

But like most superheroes, Obama is a reluctant one. And obviously, reality interferes with such a conception, as Obama himself would probably concur. Here's how a realistic conception of his superpowers might go: Inspires in a single speech, more powerful because of a dedicated web presence devoted to voter outreach, able to turn around the economy in  six months with appropriately robust stimulus legislation--he's a Illinoisian, he's a husband and a father, he's Obama-man!

Actually, that doesn't sound bad at all, given our current situation. In any case, the Spiderman cover is just another example of the ubiquity of Obama as a sign.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Favorite Obama cover?

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.

Utne is one of more than a dozen magazines, counting those with special inauguration issues, with Obama on the cover this week. But it's the only one that makes an appeal to cool. The sunglasses and the inclusion of "You," suggests that the magazine is appealing to its progressive audience through the idea that they can be part of what Obama represents and what that represents is cool.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Guest Post: Marilyn DeLaure on Obama as Lincoln, FDR

Obama as Lincoln, FDR

A guest post by Marilyn DeLaure

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

*Another* Time Cover

We were going to follow up our man of the year post with a provocative reading of Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" and its Jeff Faiery-like cover. We were one of the early readers of the Faiery posters when they started popping up around Los Angeles and here in San Francisco, and we looked forward to returning to that kind of text. But, alas, The Practice Blog beat us to it, with a smart decoding of the cover (at left).

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.