Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.


More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

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3 thoughts on “Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

  1. Audience is everything. The New Yorker has spent a lot of time cultivating and grooming a narrowly-defined audience intelligencia that they’ve forgotten the difference between satire and sarcasm. The “You’re not smart enough to really get it” excuse isn’t working now. I guess they’ll have to reevaluate their audience instead of continuing to roll their eyes at them.

    I say “them” and not “us” because I found the New Yorker tiresome a couple of years ago when it dawned on me they were all writing to each other. It’s a shame. I used to enjoy that magazine before it became intellectually inbred.

  2. Pingback: Lee Siegel on Obama and the New Yorker: or, I feel smarter when people in the NYTimes have the same ideas I do « Read, Write, Now

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