A few thoughts on the New Yorker / Obama cover kerfuffle [UPDATED]
In the comments to Karl’s earlier post on this subject, Lisa writes:
Yeah, I get that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s satire. But, ya know, maybe itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s, um, a little ahead of its time, given that approximately half the country would forward this picture to a relative with the note: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Even the New Yorker thinks theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re black power terrorists!Ã¢â‚¬Â without a trace of irony.
Appropriately, I think, Education Guy replies thusly:
No offense Lisa, but so the fuck what. Are we now supposed to not say anything that could be misconstrued? Are we to live our lives totally at the whim of the least common denominator?
This response is, of course, precisely correct.
Everyone who’s read here long enough knows my position on such things — and I’ve taken to the woodshed over attempts to marginalize intentionalism (which I’ve noted is simply the natural order of things) not just well-documented idiots like Oliver Willis or opportunistic hacks like the folks at Think Progress, but also Bill Kristol, the White House, and many on the right side of the sphere who were up in arms over a memorial designed to resemble an arch.
Clearly, this magazine cover was an attack on a cartoonish version of rightwing critics of the Obamas who the artist recognizes aren’t happy with the couples’ past associations or some of their publicized rhetoric and published writings. Hell, it could have been drawn by our old buddy thor, if you think about it — given that it attempts to ironize away any and all suspicions people have about the Obamas’ worldview and their social and professional coteries by over-exaggerating those suspicions to the point where they will (the artist hopes) appear downright silly. And in so doing, the intent is to shame those who would in the future raise such questions about the Obamas and their associations — or at the very least, to have a readily available iconic referent that indexes such knowing mockery.
The thing is, if everyone today scurrying about Obamalot (and the left side of the sphere) wasn’t so busy fearing that people they’ve long convinced themselves are uneducated enough to get the satire aren’t going to, you know, get the satire, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
The irony here — and it is choice, believe me — is that this satire was intended as an attack on the right. But now, because the artist tried to attack the right in a way he believed clever and ironic, he is being attacked by the left — his own tribe! — for launching an attack on the right that those on the right, the left is coming to fear, could use against the Obamas, either out of idiocy or malice.
This position, of course, assumes that those on the right are so stupid or unworldly that they aren’t able to suss out satire directed their way — and this is (deliciously!) the fear of some on the left, one born of their own prejudices. These leftwingers, of course, “get it” themselves, so it is really not the cover itself that angers them. Rather, these would-be pragmatists worry that the illiterate righties who people their fevered dreams might not. And then what?
Sadly, this is a bit like taking Swift to the woodshed over “A Modest Proposal,” or Christopher Guest to the woodshed over This is Spinal Tap.
What the progressive handwringers should be doing is gleefully and full-throatedly noting the satire, then preparing to laugh at anyone who sees this as an accurate depiction of Obama. What they should be doing is enjoying a wry smile at their next cocktail party over the (presumed) idiocy of the rightwingers who might take this cover at face value, so shallow is their understanding of the literary arts.
But the real irony here is they can’t do that — and that’s precisely because their worldview is predicated on being able to control “meaning” by consensus. And one of the problems with such an incoherent method for determining meaning (by way of reliance on a given interpretive community’s ability to shout down competing interpretations), is that, at least in theory, another interpretive community can come along and claim another, diametrically opposed meaning, and — if their will to power is stronger — control the narrative by way of severing any ties to original intent.
In short, the left fears being hoist by its own incoherent linguistic petard.
To further the irony here, such a scenario, which is what the left is now guarding against, is predicated on the belief that others have accepted their view of how “meaning” works. And so they are essentially fighting themselves and those they’ve trained (by way of the last thirty or so years of interpretive theory) — and in doing so, fighting the kind of interpretive paradigm that animates progressive and authoritarian worldviews.
Again. Hoist by their own petard.
And so we have the wonderful spectacle of (some — not all, naturally; hi, Scott!) leftwingers falling all over themselves to denounce a satire that they themselves understand and can readily recognize (and would probably enjoy) because they fear that it can be “used” against them by rightwing caricatures who they fear either are too daft to understand the satire, or else might adopt the same incoherent interpretive method that certain worldviews rely upon to destabilize meaning and turn it into what is essentially a battle of interpretive will.
At this, I chuckle. Because it was bound to happen, and will continue to happen so long as we as a culture privilege such nonsensical ideas about how meaning is created.
Here, the artist meant something particular. And what he meant is what this cartoon means, from a strictly semiotic standpoint: he has given us signs, not signifiers, and a sign is, by its very nature, already imbued with signification. Others may interpret it differently — and if they do, that is what the cartoon means to them — but to do so, they have to look at signs and think of them as signifiers, then worry about what, precisely, might be attached to those signifiers.
The question is, why privilege the interpretive maneuverings — and thus the intent — of the receiver of a text rather than the intent of the person who conceived of the text and imbued it with meaning to begin with? After all, the artist was trying to communicate something. And all it takes to break free from this laughable spectacle of denouncement and misinterpretation is to note, as Education Guy has, that we refuse to worry that our communications can be willfully misconstrued.
Else, we’ll be seeing these kinds of ridiculous dustups being played out again and again and again.
update: See, courtesy of Chris Matthews and Hot Air, Ryan Lizza and Ron Brownstein talking about the New Yorker cover, and speaking a bit about intention — as well as about how satire and the literary arts can’t concern themselves with appealing to the lowest common denominator (read: those who are either going to misinterpret the cover and miss the satire, or use it for their own cynical purposes — the latter of which would be impossible in a hermeneutic culture wherein original intent wasn’t considered on par with whatever idiotic interpretations a diverse readership with its own baggage and agendas can potentially divine from a set of signifiers).