Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Obama: This Time, The New Yorker Cover

NO ONE WAS PREPARED for the friendly fire caused by the recent New Yorker cover—certainly not Barack Obama and his army of over-prepared staff. But, the hardest bullets to dodge are the ones coming from your own side. With friends like The New Yorker, well, who needs friends?

Right now, The New Yorker needs a friend. Anger over its confusing cover is the talk of the town because of its seemingly stereotyped rendering of the Obamas. In case you haven’t seen it, the cover renders Obama as a Muslim and his wife Michelle as a camo-wearing gunslinging mercenary. The two are fist-bumping in the oval office where an American flag burns in the fireplace right beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden.

But, the question is, what, exactly, was The New Yorker’s misstep? Or, was there even a misstep? Is all of the drang an actual sturm? Or, is it merely a summer shower along the campaign’s dusty, mud-raked trail? Though the reaction to the cover has been tempestuous, the truth is, cartoonist Barry Blitt played fast and loose with sensitive semiotic images that became unusually strong cultural lighting rods.

The main problem lies in the ability of images to communicate through association and their inability to communicate through articulation. If there had been some sort of caption, or if the cartoon’s title “The Politics of Fear” had somehow accompanied the cover, readers might have been better prepared to read the image as satire. But, too few semiotic codes exist in the piece to help readers look at the cover through the lens of caricature; so instead, many saw it as commentary.

Blitt’s first mistake here was to incorporate too many factual details, a classic faux pas that often gets in the way of satire and parody. Guilty of what I call “shuffled signification,” Blitt jumbles authentic events that actually happened (like the fist bump) with fictional fears (like Obama’s Muslim roots), making it unclear if the artist is warning readers or mocking them. Similarly, the burning flag evokes rumors that Obama won’t salute Old Glory or wear the flag lapel pin (a canard put to rest, ironically, by the recent cover of Rolling Stone), while Blitt drapes him in African garb that looks too much like the clothes he wears in the oft-posted photo. Again, since Obama did pose for a photo in traditional African clothes—that is no urban legend—the cover sends mixed messages about its stance on rumor versus reality, fact versus fiction.

The staggering speed of the responses—by liberals and conservatives—is a testament to how electric these images are. “Despite the defenses by New Yorker staffers,” writes J.S. on the blog SemiObama, “and a pretty good online presence, I don't think they were prepared for the New Media reaction to [the cover], the nature of instant analysis, and response storm that follows every political and cultural development, especially in this campaign.”


Obama’s smartest reaction would be to laugh this one off. It would not only prove he is a savvy reader of complex texts, but it would also diffuse the shock value of all of the rumors, rendering them as ridiculous to everyone else as they are to The New Yorker. But, our culture has not yet gotten enough distance from incendiary images like a flaming flag or a portrait of Osama bin Laden to enable us to look through our associations of those images. The semiotics of the cover are so charged, so flammable, even fire-proof Obama can get burned.

No comments:

Post a Comment