Their Obamas, Their Black Campaigning Obamas, are Militant 3

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kasey left another fantastic comment:

First off, wow–I just found out how much news coverage this thing is actually getting. I had no idea. I thought it was just some blog meme. Ridiculous.

Re: “soft satire”: I just don’t get it. What would be an example of art that is “itself” satirical, apart from any presentational context? Isn’t the whole definition of satire that it takes the form of a mirroring, a parodic representation of its target? And thus, isn’t all satire soft satire? I mean, what would “hard” satire be other than just a direct critique–i.e., not satire at all?

So, if that’s the objection–that all satire in and of itself is always offensive, because it necessarily just holds up a mirror rather than somehow “smashing” it, then OK. I don’t agree, but at least I understand the position. But that can’t be your position, can it?

A friend called me in the middle of writing this comment and brought up a problem that I do think is real: in a country with so many stupid people (I mean people who really can’t tell it’s satire at all, the same people who think Stephen Colbert is really a Republican), the cover does potentially damage Obama’s campaign just by bringing so much attention to the accusations against him in the first place, and thus making said stupid people more nervous that Obama really might be a terrorist or something. And that’s so sad I can’t even talk about it.

–Stephen Colbert is not really a Republican!!! next you’re gonna tell me that Jon Stewart is not an investigatory journalist!!!

to clarify: my position is that there is satire in which its satiric qualities exist within the content itself. this kind of satire is usually not offensive (unless it’s trying to be). soft satire is satire that relies on its context for its satiric qualities. for example, nothing in the content of Blitt’s comic is a “parodic representation of its target”–it’s simply a presentation of its targets. this makes his comic offensive because it simply presents offensive targets.

what strikes me odd about a lot of the discussion is the question on whether or not the cover is Satire OR Offensive. well, it’s BOTH. the fact that many people find the comic offensive and many people find it satirical seems to prove the point.

Speaking of investigatory journalism, thanks to Gary for linking to these two clips: again, they prove the point:

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also wanted to draw up pam’s insightful comment, which i hope people will perhaps respond to (i know i will!!!–soon):

hmm…i’m not really sure quite what to make of this yet. on the one hand, this is a new yorker cover, and new yorker covers, increasingly over the past couple years, have been edited with a kind of quick “double-take” satire in mind, assuming that the typical blue state liberal elitist reader will first glance at the literal image in horror and be forced to do a double-take, scour their memory of recent media/pop-culture events for a moment until they locate the obejct of satire (in this case lamo rightwing commentary on the “radical” fist bump on fox, was it?), so that they can relax, settle back with a smile of mild bemusement at having “gotten” the joke, rendering the once-threatening image harmless, cute even.

the object of satire always resides outside the frame of the new yorker cover (except perhaps, cf. the earlier double-take “eustace tillarobama” cover of the anniversary issue showing mirror images of hillary & obama in dandy white man drag, where the objects are both outside the frame (close-shave Democratic contest involving unconventional candidates w/respect to gender & race) and inside the frame itself (the dandy character pulled in year after year for this special issue)); the challenge of locating the object outside the frame is one of the ways the new yorker habitually winks at its readers through puzzles, like “here’s a test to see if you’re smart enough to read this magazine.”

so in this sense the blitt cover does successfully achieve what it sets out to do. there’s a clear one-to-one correspondence between the image and the object it seeks to satirize, and this correspondence is obvious enough to be gotten in a moment. in this sense too, it differs from flarf, the frisson of which largely depends on the indeterminancy of which object or objects are being satirized, as well as the indeterminancy of how & when these objects cease to be mere objects and become the voice or subject or aesthetic content of the poem itself.

so i don’t think the new yorker cover technically fails as satire, at least within the narrow parameters that it’s set up for itself and assumes its readers will abide by.

where i think the discussion gets interesting, and what i think critics of the piece are essentially drawing their objections on, is *why* this particular instance of satire at this time, and why be satisfied with the level of satire it performs at this time? barbara has a point, i think, when she critiques the cover for not going far enough, particularly in the context of liberal bunglings of racial politics. is race destined to manifest as a topic in this presidential election in only the crudest, most cliched terms imaginable, even in the midst of a purported critique of these very terms?

also, as somewhat of a side note, i look at the historical black panther photos in barbara’s post and want to think about pop culture’s drive to neutralize, kitschify, and cutify certain images of 60s/70s racialized radicalism. the black power salute at the 1968 mexico city olympics endlessly replicated, warhol-like, on silkscreened t-shirts and hemp purses to be worn by pierced teens shopping for tunes at amoeba records. michelle’s coy afro-bob head tilt being a lite version of an already lite-ening movement afoot to render these images “harmless” by stripping them of their political meaning and disconnecting them from the concrete systemic inequalities that continue to exist today.

ah, but i don’t want to be taking this cover so seriously! i won’t be canceling my subscription anytime soon; the new yorker is what it is with all its limitations, a purveyor of complacent left-bourgeois sensibilities on the one hand, an anything-but-complacent vehicle for certain journalists & critics on the other hand. the art editors prescribe looking outside the frame for meaningful content. critics of this cover prescribe looking a few degrees beyond that for more meaningful, and often overlooked, content.

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6 thoughts on “Their Obamas, Their Black Campaigning Obamas, are Militant 3

  1. I think Pam’s analysis of how the cover is designed to work is more or less on target, although I’d want to see some more of these double-take covers she suggests are a NYer staple.

    (Looking at Blitt’s other work for the magazine, that doesn’t appear to be the case, and I can’t think of any by anyone else at the moment.)

    I think all satire, call it soft or hard, offends some people all of the time. And I don’t think going over the top ever makes it clear to everyone.

    I once posted “A Modest Proposal for the Abolition of Menstruation” on my blog, wherein I took an anti-abortion pamphlet and did some word replacement so as to propose that menstruation killed billions of unborn babies every year and that we needed to stop it.

    My proposal was to inseminate girls once they hit puberty, to nip the menstruation cycle in the bud, and that, if we artificially inseminated them using robots, it would still leave them technically virgins when they were ready to get married.

    Days later I received an angry e-mail from a woman who called me a sexist and a moron for suggesting that women could stop a natural cycle from occurring. I wrote back and explained it was a satire aimed at anti-abortion propaganda, and she wrote back to inform me that I had been irresponsible for not having been more obvious about that.

    I’m with Francois Luong, who wrote in to Barbara’s blog to say that Blitt’s “image is so over the top it can’t help but be ridiculous.” Barbara refuted that, but I don’t see how that image is anything but, even if it is an accurate portrayal of how some of the mainstream/righ media has portrayed the Obamas. The mainstream/right media’s portrayals and implications have consistently been over the top, and we have heard less outcry about that than we have about the NYer cover.

    Barbara also said that “i am saying it’s failed because the response to it isn’t ‘oh look that’s funny, how absurd. i get it.’ but rather that people are looking at this and going ‘OMG! this is portraying obama negatively…'”

    Nada overheard a woman on the subway platform yesterday saying just that, horrified by the image, and while I appreciate that there are people who don’t see it as it was intended to be seen, I think it ultimately makes those people more sympathetic to Obama than less so, assuming they were already sympathetic.

    The people who are already buying the right wing lies and implications about Obama aren’t going to change their minds anyway, and I don’t think this cover is making them any less thoughtful than they already are.

    Neither a postive cover of Obama nor a more over the top cover (baby eating, as Francois suggested?) would seem to change any of this.

    What the cover does do, positively, is to put together a number of various mainstream distortions into one handy package: Here you go, this is what’s being said and implied. Now what are you going to do about that?

    One thing the Jon Stewart video seems to suggest–and I agree with this–is that the mainstream/right wing media is using the cover as a target with which to deflect criticism from their own heinous practicies.

    Given that, it seems maybe worthwhile to point out that the cover is a fairly accurate representation in visual imagery of what the mainstream/right wing media has been doing to the Obamas all along, and that our real object of condemnation ought to be Fox, CNN, etc., etc., etc.

  2. Just thought I’d pop in to let people know about my favorite article about this whole thing, from Gary Kamiya at Salon. I put this excerpt on my blog:

    “After 9/11, some pious nitwits, suffering from an America-centrism akin to the medieval belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, intoned that “irony was dead.” Seven years later, they’ve been proven right — but not in the way they intended. Irony may have been killed, but not by sincerity — it’s been killed by cynicism. Vast swaths of the left have apparently been so traumatized by the Big Lie techniques employed by the Bush administration, its media lickspittles like Fox News, and the right-wing attack machine that they have come to regard all images or texts that contain negative stereotypes as too politically dangerous to run. If you satirically depict Obama as an Islamist terrorist, in this view, you are only reinforcing and giving broader currency to right-wing smears.”

    Good stuff.

  3. Craig, you write that “nothing in the content of Blitt’s comic is a ‘parodic representation of its target’–it’s simply a presentation of its targets.” But this just isn’t right, if by “targets” you mean the Obamas. The target of the cover is McCain and other paranoid/cynical commentators on the right, who are definitely “represented” parodically. The Obamas are represented (i.e., depicted) only insofar as they evoke the content of McCain et al.’s remarks. Those critics of the cover who say Blitt should have drawn McCain with a thought bubble coming out of his head etc. are like the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream who propose that the lion should explain to the ladies in the court that he is not really a lion, but an actor playing one.

  4. hey Craig, thanks for highlighting my comment. Look forward to any responses you might have. (Actually, I got worried last night that you might freak out after seeing the comment and delete it. 😉 )

    hey Gary, I’d say that pretty much all NYer covers nowadays that reference current events operate according to the double-take principle, including many of the Blitt pieces in the slide show you linked to. The difference being that not many of these depict as immediately threatening an image as the current Blitt cover. One exception might be the Ahmadinejad cover from Oct. 2007; I remember really staring at that one for a while before I could go, everything’s okay, everything’s fine, these are not the droids you want. The “threat” of that piece had to do with my initial reaction of OMG is the NYer trying to start WWIII with Iran? But after processing the image through the fiasco of Ahmadinejad’s “gay comments” at Columbia, the threat gets neutralized. In any case, another double-take.

    I’m interested in the strand of this conversation that wonders more generally about the relation between satire and offensiveness. I guess I’d say all satire by definition bites, performs a certain conceptual violence on both the target of satire and the audience, and offensiveness is just one way of achieving that bite. Conversely, not all works that play with the notion of offense are automatically satire. I’d also say that satire by this definition implies an underlying ethical stance, however disguised or ironized this stance may be. But maybe I’m misunderstanding what other people mean when they say satire. Maybe this is getting at the root of why I can’t buy the mirror-metaphor definition of satire, unless it’s a convex mirror, that shoots daggers. And the very fact that it shoots daggers at something implies that some kind of ethical valuation (good, bad) is being made. Just holding up the mirror on its own doesn’t seem like enough to make something satire.

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