Obama’s Debord-ian Dog Whistle

I have previously suggested that in not releasing the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, President Obama was deliberately seeking to break out of the logic of bin Laden and the Bush Administration’s war of dueling spectacles (“World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton, 20 October 2011). I made this suggestion somewhat farcically. Has President Obama set himself against the spectacle? Effectively he may have — and that’s intriguing in itself — but has he done so consciously, intentionally? Has the President read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle? Or does the President have some ideas whose provenance is unknown to him? Are French Marxist theories of capitalist propaganda and false consciousness influencing U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism? It doesn’t even rise to the level of surmise.

But then last night I was listening again to then candidate Senator Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech (Wikipedia | YouTube), delivered in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy (National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 March 2008), where he says the following about racial controversies (starting at 28:56 in the video):

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the OJ trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

Two points:

  1. In common use, the word “spectacle” is an indefinite noun. People who aren’t invoking the theories of Debord would say, “We can tackle race only as a spectacle”. “Spectacle” used without an article, or “the spectacle”, with an article indicating a proper noun, are how people with Debord on the brain use it.

  2. As a brief explanation of the machinations of the spectacle, one that appeals to common language and experience, this is not bad.

At this point I think it is within the realm of possibility that President Obama has consciously and intentionally set himself against the spectacle. Of course President Obama is not a radical, but a meliorist and an incrementalist (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”). He is not about to explode the spectacle tomorrow. Audacity is apparently formal; it is for hope, ambition, dreams. Small opportunistic (almost Clintonian) victories are for real-world policy. But I think when the opportunity presents itself, President Obama does seek to reject and counteract the logic of the spectacle.

I don’t want to throw fuel on the right-wing illuminati — this is like my own little D’Souza-esque conspiracy — but how strange would it be if President Obama were engaged in covert acts of sublimated high philosophy, if the ideas of Guy Debord were actually influencing the President’s thinking about strategy in the war on terrorism and cultural narratives in media? If the U.S. had actually, explicitly (at least in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief) broken with the logic of dueling spectacles, to — I don’t know what — something else, it would as if Nietzsche’s “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” (Beyond Good and Evil §285) were playing out right here in the Capital today.

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Destroy This Mad Brute

H.R. Hopps, U.S. Army First World War propaganda poster, "Destroy This Mad Brute — Enlist", 1917

Jill Filipovic at Feminista and Erica Barnett at The Stranger both think the cover of the April 2008 issue of Vogue (above, right) is some weird racist adumbration to King Kong (“I Know Vogue Isn’t Exactly Racially Conscious, But…,” 15 March 2008; “The LeBron James Vogue Cover Controversy,” 26 March 2008, respectively). In comments a lot of people discount the idea by pointing out the faint resemblance and go on to suggest that making such a leap when the source material is so vague is suggestive of some racist machinery at work in the minds of Mses. Filipovic and Barnett. SLOG has made it a poll with 88 percent of respondents — in crunchy Seattle even — declaring it not racist.

Every time I’ve walked past this issue of Vogue it has caught my attention — it’s a striking, if not attractive, photograph — but I haven’t been able to say why and just dismissed it as some visual itch that I can’t scratch. Then I read Ms. Barnett’s post on SLOG and recognized it immediately. Mses. Filipovic and Barnett are right about what’s going on here, they just have the wrong source material. The resemblance to the King Kong cell may be distant, but it is more than unmistakable that the reference to this poster is intended. The posture, the facial expression, the basketball in place of the club, even the color of Ms. Bundchen’s dress all match. In fact, to get such a resemblance I imagine that Annie Leibovitz must have had to show them the image that she was trying to recreate.

While fielding PC service calls at Amazon.com in the late 1990s I came across this H.R. Hopps U.S. Army First World War propaganda poster hanging in someone’s office (the 4th floor of the 2nd and Pike building) and immediately fell in love with it. It’s one of those images has managed to distills the worldview of an era into a single flash of the eye. And it rewards deeper viewing. I have had it hanging in my bedroom for years now and careful consideration rarely fails to inspire some new thought about the perversities of the American worldview represented therein.

In the distance the crumbling ruins of old Europe, strangely suggestive of the outcome of the air power attacks still 30 years in the future. A gorilla with a Kaiser Wilhelm II mustache and a German Pickelhaube emerging from presumably the Atlantic Ocean onto the shores of America. The helmet says “Militarism,” the bloody club “Kultur.” That Europe is portrayed as decrepit, barbaric and militaristic. What can it mean that culture is considered on par with militarism among the horrors that this mad brute visits upon the shores of America? Or that the proper metaphor for culture is a bludgeon? Is it any wonder that Americans are such philistines with a history like this?

And race imagery was common in these old propaganda pieces. Witness the exaggerated, flabby lower lip on the gorilla above (do gorillas even have large lips?).

It’s fairly obvious that this imagery derived parts of its power from tapping into that same set of ideas as the verbal formulations of white mans’ burden, mission civilisatrice, the dark continent, et cetera. People imagined a spectrum running from Christian, white European civilization to black, pagan African barbarism. Much of the dialog in the segregated U.S. partook of this scheme with a considerable discourse around the relative levels of sexuality, animal vigor, impulse control, intellectual capability and moral sociability of the races.

So whenever the time came for the denigration and dehumanization of an enemy people, this stock of tropes, civilization and barbarism, Europe and Africa, white and black was rolled out. And to add to the sense of barbarism and the anxiety of the viewer, an image of sexual peril was often thrown in. Here you have Germans depicted as an Africanized gorilla. During the Second World War depictions of Japanese in the propaganda posters were routinely made with what were then referred to as “negroid” features — dark skin, large lips and broad, flat noses — though today we might conceive Asian people as being farther down the spectrum from Africans than are Europeans. The depiction of Japanese as posing a sexual threat to white women was also a common theme.

One of the brilliant aspects of this propaganda piece is its ironic turn of the civilization and barbarism narrative against the Europeans themselves. White Americans have always considered themselves superior to their European forbearers. Set apart by the Atlantic Ocean from the corrupt realpolitik of the Continent, protected by its manifest destiny from the national compromises foisted upon a people by the necessities of maneuver against peer competitors, the United States could cultivate virtue and prosperity in peace. Purified of the distractions of vulgar kultur, America would be the new Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill. Against this development, Europeans were the first gradation of barbarism on the way to Africa. And within Europe there has always been a discourse regarding the relative levels of civilization of the various white races with the Germanic and Slavic people on the defensive. So depicting the Germans as African was natural in this context.

These are all tendencies that persist to this day. Witness the uproar over Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of “old Europe” or the dialog on the right where the characterization of the United States as “the last, best hope for humanity” has become a constant cliché (President Bush used the phrase in a Commencement Address at Ohio State University on 14 June 2002; William Bennett used it for the title of his two volume history of the U.S.; John McCain has used it about three dozen times on the campaign trail). On the true right — and its mirror image in fundamental American culture, the left — Henry Kissinger is reviled: a German import: too much Metternich and Talleyrand for America.

It is exactly this cultural reservoir that the imagery of the propaganda poster and through it, the cover of Vogue magazine draw. Ms. Bundchen smiles, easing the element of sexual peril — at least on the part of the participants, if not all viewers — but Mr. James lowers himself from the upright, slender man that he is to the same hunched-back incoherently yelling thug of a century ago.

Are our race perceptions so firmly entombed in the past that it’s safe to break out such images, tongue in cheek? With media spectacles of dog fighting and sex with underage groupies even among the economically successful in the African American community, horror movies depicting Eastern Europeans and Central Americans dismembering innocent Americans on vacation and constant real life stories of nice young blond American girls going missing amidst the brown peoples of the world still sewing questions in the minds of white people, does Vogue really feel that homage to some antique propaganda dredged from a crude and anxiety ridden past is in order? Or do they just channel the Zeitgeist? It would seem to me that just below the level of official or explicit statement is a raging discourse of symbols and narratives, whose points lay between the lines, regarding race which is not too far removed from the uglier, more explicit discourses of the past.

Whenever something like this happens — some ridiculously non-PC image making it into the mass media — I wonder how it was that it came about. Is some smarty-pants photographer pulling a fast one on an under-educated editor — intentionally selling them a bill of goods? Or was everyone in on the joke — it’s just that everyone top to bottom signed off on it. Or are there just cultural coincidences of this magnitude? Is it like some mental urp of the collective unconscious? Or — most likely — are our media mandarins really so cynical that something like an homage to a gang rape à la the Dolce & Gabbana advertisement seems like a good way to move product. No publicity is bad publicity.

I can understand LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen being too dense to see what’s going on in this poster, but how it is that Annie Leibovitz participated in the production of such an image is completely beyond me. I seriously wonder what Susan Sontag would have had to say about it. She certainly wouldn’t have discounted such visual allusions. Oh, to know what the state of discussion was around their apartment.