Semiotics of Power (part 2)

In an earlier post, I analyzed Senator Obama's campaign kickoff strategy--launching in a location associated with Abraham Lincoln, echoing Lincoln's words, dressing in a greatcoat that evokes Lincoln's trademark severe attire, and positioning himself at an angle where photographers would most likely emphasize or accentuate height and a lanky physique. This strategy snapshot is easy to capture and describe. What is not so easy is tracking the effects of the combination of words and images through the cultural circuit. An analysis at CNN gives a bit of a glimpse of what happens on the way through the circuit by way of rhetorical foreign object debris. One thing that often happens in the discursive development of a particular identity are counter-discourses that attempt to derail or discredit particular semiotic constructions. One old standard is characterizing Republican slipups, gaffes, or simply normal speech as a "lack of intelligence." Another pretty usual move is to try to locate images, stories (some fabricated), or evidence of Democratic sexual impropriety. Some less-obvious, but deeply-embedded strategies involve playing on prejudice, gender stereotype, and racism.

A piece on CNN's website by news analyst Bill Schneider (a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute) illustrates just how subtlely a writer can ply on these prejudices without coming out and using obviously offensive language or reasoning.

His piece starts by indicating that there was some sort of "fight" between Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Barak Obama (Ms. Rodham-Clinton had an issue with a very public Mr. Geffen when he criticized her. She responded by asking Mr. Obama to return campaign funds. When asked, Mr. Obama failed to see how a supporter's comments about his opponent made him culpable).

The dust-up also raises issues for Obama. Is he really a different kind of politician? Just last Sunday, Obama denounced what he called "slash and burn'' politics, but his campaign issued a slashing attack on Clinton.

"It's not clear to me why would I be apologizing for someone else's remarks," Obama said in Iowa Wednesday night,

"My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons," Obama said. "That doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign."

Obama, though, quickly got back on the high road.

Mr. Schneider's characterizes Mr. Obama's non-involvement and non-apology as "slash and burn," defies common sense and borders on semantic meaningless (if I pay Albertson's money for milk and then complain about Kroger, would Albertson's refusal to return my money or to apologize to Kroger be reasonably interpreted as "slash and burn"? Hardly). This non-sequitur isn't necessarily evidence of "bias" (as some might complain), but is actually more of a trojan horse for the real question posed--is Hillary or Obama electable? The real question is more basic, is a black man or a woman going to get your vote when there are no substantive issues on the table? The non-intelligibilty of the cooked-up "controversy," when juxtaposed against the stripped-down iconography of the aging woman and the head shot of the African-American indicates pretty clearly that the writer thinks the answer is "no." Clearly, this question is never asked of McCain or Guliani (even though the article ends with the real meat of the story "Five national polls have come out this month pitting Clinton and Obama against Republican front-runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. The results are always very close -- usually within the margin of error.")

Apparently, the only "high road" for women or non-white candidates is one that involves being stripped down to a racial or gendered symbol. This technique of stripping people down to their basic sign ("woman," "black," or even "rich") is only one pernicious way of creating a counter-discourse to unravel any number of carefully crafted messages by a particular candidate.


Sport said...

I'm guessing that your inclusion of the adjective "aging" has to do with the images the CNN piece used and how they might highlight Rodham Clinton's age for their own reasons. Please tell me I'm right and you aren't bringing up her age in the current field (How old is McCain anyway?) for some other reason.

Doc Mara said...

Go look at the picture at the story website. Two most unflattering pictures (the Obama "angry black" photo and "my isn't Hillary old" photo).

And, yes, McCain is much older. So old, in fact, that he would be the oldest inaugurated U.S. President if he wins. Hard to cover that up without a big and well-placed "Maverick" photoshopped title.