Obama and the Age of Iconicity

January 7, 2010 at 2:30 am 3 comments

For those of us who came out of school and into the “real” world this past year it has been a disheartening time, to say the least: with the economy in shambles, and entry-level jobs disappearing more rapidly than free beer at a college kegger, we’ve watched the seemingly sudden evisceration of the American workplace as we (or rather, our parents) knew it. Freshly endowed with our flashy diplomas and a skill-set supposedly primed to find us a place in the “new” knowledge economy, we instead found ourselves signing on for yearlong unpaid internships, taking jobs we’d turned down at seventeen (Starbucks, anyone?) or, like me, beating a hasty retreat towards the preserving walls of academia.

For some, the bleakness of our immediate economic prospects has been mitigated by a perceived political renewal, a sort of purgation or rebirth of our nation’s (guilty) conscience. According to this narrative, America would have been brought to the very brink of moral, economic and societal bankruptcy only to be pulled back –“saved”– at the last possible moment by a renewed assertion of faith (in our “true” values, in democracy, non-agression, multiculturalism, etc. etc.).

My choice of religious language here is of course intentional: this chronicle of near-damnation and final salvation has distinctly theological overtones. Ultimately I think this narrative is as desperately naïve –and as dangerous– as the credos of the right-wing fringe, and perhaps even more so. Like all faith-based ideologies, it simultaneously harks back to a Golden Age (the pre-Bush years as a desirable political legacy, instead of a “soft” version of our continually criminal policy) and looks forward to  a new one (in which, in contradiction to all outward appearances, Obama will reveal himself as a true, blue, social-democratic leftist).

And, just like religious dogmatism, this belief requires a curious mix of exegesis (in the biblical sense) and literalism (ditto):

Exegesis: where Obama’s statements and actions are to be “read” according to their secret, gnostic, hidden or resistant “meaning,” available only to the enlightened or chosen few. Thus (for example) when Obama speaks against gay marriage this is read –or “revealed”– as a necessary, appeasing gesture towards conservative voters, as opposed to a genuine assertion of personal (ironically faith-based) conviction. Obama is, in fact, “really” in favor of gay marriage, but is forced to conceal this; just as, in the hermeneutic tradition, the secret truth sits silently behind the text, so too the “real” Obama lies –silent, but accessible– beneath/behind his “enigmatic” utterances.

Literalism. Inversely (and astoundingly) when Obama makes a statement with which “we liberals” can agree, it must be taken literally and at face value. Thus the decision to close Guantanamo Bay was loudly touted, ignoring the fact that this “closure” (in multiple senses) did not and does not involve an end to a chapter of illegal detentions and torture; in point of fact these detainees will continue to be held at other high-security internment facilities –whether at home or abroad– without ever being charged with anything and without being granted the basic rights enshrined in the 5th and 14th Amendments. This “change” is, at every level, superficial (and liberals should by now be able to recognize a canny PR move cum slight-of-hand when they see one) but here as elsewhere we liberals evince a disturbing willingness to accept (unquestioningly) the utterances of our “savior” –except, of course, where these statements must be taken to sign the exact opposite of their apparent meaning.

My assertion, then, is that our continued “belief” in President Obama requires, in point of fact, a suspension of disbelief, and in particular a use of two contradictory reading strategies (exegesis and literalism) which link us to the very faith-based fundamentalism that American liberalism is (ostensibly) opposed to. For those who are interested in this topic, Glenn Greenwald has written extensively on the subject (and with particular attention to Obama’s surveillance policies); if you aren’t already familiar with his work over at Salon, I should add that I think reading his column regularly is perhaps the single biggest (and simplest) step liberals could/should take towards transforming our consciousness of American foreign policy and legal policy (and, ultimately, towards transforming those policies themselves).

But I wanted to make another point about the tropes of Obamadolatry – one about Obama’s curious status as cultural icon. I intend for this word to have religious connotations, of course, but I mean it predominantly in a Peircian sense, in terms of his set ICON, INDEX, SYMBOL. In asserting that we view Obama (predominantly) iconically, I’m suggesting that we don’t even “read” him primarily in terms of his statements but rather that we read him directly, or iconically, in terms of what he seems to represent.

The best example I can think of to clarify my point comes from an N+1 article published in December 2008, that is shortly after Obama was elected to office. In “Privacy in the Age of Obama,” Eli S. Evans asserts (correctly) that the Bush years saw an unprecedented stripping away of our basic privacy rights as enshrined in the Constitution. In the second half of his article, Evans predicts that the Obama era will usher in an era of renewed assertion of privacy, in which the surveillance tactics of the Bush administration will give way to “that sacred space at the heart of every intimacy.”

On what is Evans basing his prediction? For I confess that it shocked me. In point of fact, Obama has not reversed but rather expanded upon the warrantless wiretapping program since assuming office – taking steps not to restore but to further erode our core privacies. True, in December 2008 Evans could not have known this; and yet Obama had already signalled his intentions quite clearly when, in July 2008, he voted in favor of a bill to retroactively legalize Bush’s (blatantly illegal) surveillance program, in direct contradiction to previous campaign promises not just to oppose but to fillibuster the bill (and without any explanation for that “change of heart”).

Obama’s existing record on privacy and civil liberties issues thus directly contradicted the assertion made by Evans in his article; and, in point of fact, Evans does not even spare a glance at Obama’s actual voting record –or even his official statements– on surveillance. Rather, Evans argues, the new era will represent a return to privacy because Obama is a private person; for throughout the campaign Evans has “noticed” many moments in which Obama asserts his “radical privacy”:

The first such moment that caught my attention came after Obama’s June speech in which he proclaimed victory in the Democratic primary. When his wife Michelle came onto the stage to greet him, before the expected and conventional conjugal embrace, the two touched fists. That fist bump, although perfectly familiar to anybody who watches sports or is under the age of 50, was a private language—the kind of secret code languages children invent together—distinct from the very public language of the embrace that followed, evoking a deep mutuality.

The “argument” that Obama will usher in an era of privacy because he is by nature “private”–because of a fist bump– is among the most spurious and ridiculous of  fallacies, the kind they used to teach you in elementary logic (or, hell, rhetoric) classes. To show the sheer ludicrousness of this claim I could simply point to (say) Dick Cheney, who despite being an avowedly private person is hardly a paragon of civil liberties protection. But, of course, this kind of patently false logic is the only one available to Evans, precisely because every act of Obama –every campaign statement, every vote– directly contradicted the “message” that Evans was “extrapolating.”

To return to iconicity: Obama is seen to “stand for” privacy not because of any external signal (not because of, say, his legislative record); rather, he is made to “stand” for privacy, here, in the way that a holy image “stands” for the thing it represents. In Peirce’s typology the “icon” (also called “semblance” or “likeness”) is a sign which denotes its object through an innate or physical resemblance with the thing for which it stands. Here Obama is read as an “icon” of privacy in that he physically appears to resemble the concept “privacy” (in a sort of reverse personification). This iconic signalling can be read, according to Evans, via the “secret code” (note the gnosticism) of fist-bumps, eskimo kisses (I’m not kidding) and “private” tears.

Ultimately I think Evans is fairly representative of a disturbing trend in the American political consciousness to read Obama as icon – to read him as “standing for” that which he seems to be. (In addition to the blatant superficiality of such analysis, it also contains a certain tautology.) I would argue that many of the “images” through which we “read” Obama function in an analogous manner to Evans’ attempted equation of “Obama=privacy,” until this becomes a sort of infinite equation in which the latter term becomes freely interchangeable with, say,  “culture” or “intellectuality.” The age of Obama does not represent the transition from a surveillance state to one of civil liberties; rather we’ve gone from the age of American Idol to the age of the American Icon.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. elisevans  |  September 21, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Quite a ball buster, Bennett. But I didn’t really mean to say that I thought Obama would (or would not, as it turns out) usher in some new age of privacy, but only to try to think through one of the less commented on ways (I thought) in which he and his campaign had imagined to capture the collective imagination of the country so much that a black democrat could be elected president – pretty unprecedented. Anyhow, that little piece wasn’t precisely an argument from my perspective, though I understand that in those rhetoric classes of yours they make sure to teach you how to read everything as an argument.

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  • 2. bennettabroad  |  September 22, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Eli, I’m sorry if I made you a bit of a scapegoat for a broader trend which I obviously find quite disturbing. That said, I do think the tenor of your piece contained at least the implicit suggestion of a “new age of privacy,” beginning with the very title. But even (or especially!) if that’s not the case, the iconic element is troubling. I mean, if you argued “Obama may not halt and may indeed perpetuate Bush’s assault on privacy, but gosh doesn’t he seem like a private person on the campaign trail!” that would only further the disjunct between policy and personality (with the emphasis laying heavily on the latter) that is responsible, or so I’m arguing, for very real, and grave, problems in American politics.

    At the risk of treading on dangerous territory, I think the discourse of the “first black president” contains an even stronger, if subtler, risk in terms of how it functions iconically. I do not mean to denigrate the enormous symbolic victory of electing a black president after five hundred years (and counting) of racial oppression and discrimination. Quite the contrary. But if (let us say, hypothetically) Obama were to perpetuate those policies responsible for the continual and disproportionate marginalization of many people of color, in what sense would this be a victory? Put in a different way, if Condoleeza Rice ran for office, would I be obliged to applaud her victory as the first female black president? The risk is that the “unprecedented” victory conceals a very strong precedent in terms of, say, global military domination, the evisceration of the middle classes, oppression of the poor, and the continuing triumph of (neo)liberalization. A.k.a. politics as usual.

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  • 3. elisevans  |  September 22, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Agreed, Bennet. I suppose that piece was more an effort to feel my way into one of the ways Obama was captivating in precisely the way you describe–the way an icon is, as per the monstrous Shepherd Fairey image–that I wasn’t sure had been thought through yet. I, like a lot of other people (enough to elect a black democrat0, was gripped, even at times in spite of myself, and I think a certain gesture toward some privacy that eludes surveillance, in the wake of all of the increased surveillance of Bush era and whatnot, was a part of the captivation. Of course, given the redoubling of all those intrusions, perhaps as a campaign mechanism, or even the subtlest ideological maneuver, it appears more insidious now than then, when, you know, hope and all that. Anyhow, yeah, I don’t disagree with you, I just stumbled across this googling myself (a comment in itself on privacy, though I was, to be fair, checking on something in particular) and thought maybe I’d been made a bit of a straw man. Cheers. E

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About

Bennett Carpenter
Leiden, Netherlands

Random musings about literature, art, politics and (occasionally) my life as a graduate student in sunny Holland. Click on the pic for more about me.

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