Sunday, March 28, 2010

Image Rhetoric & Politics

One of the repeated subjects in my multimedia comp exam reading list has been images in general. Basically, the question is, how do you do a close reading of a picture? And, for that matter, why would you want to?

Well, here's one answer:

This image is "title page" image of the Facebook group "I hate it when I wake up in the morning and Barack Obama is President." I've been meaning to do a post about the group at large ever since I saw it. And I might still, at some point. But since it involved both religion and politics, things were going to get a little heated. So we'll stick to the picture. Because by most measures, it's a pretty effective piece of rhetoric all by itself.

As a starting point, the pic is an altered version of this movie poster:

According to Roland Barthes, there are three levels to consider in a photograph: the relationship between text and image; the photo itself, which is a "text without a code," and the cultural connotations of the image. So let's look at each of these, in turn.

1) Text and image. Taken alone, the text makes good use of loaded words. First, "political virgin" is, at the time of the election, at least, one of the more credible arguments against Obama; compared to McCain, and most of the Democratic and Republican candidates, he had significantly less political experience. At the same time, in Western culture, the term "virgin," especially when applied to males, connotes a sense that the individual is unusual and, pushed to the extreme, dysfunctional and unmasculine. This sense is further extended to the byline: "He's Come Too Soon." Though the straightforward reading is that it's supporting the previous point, that he is too inexperienced to be president, it also refers to another failure at being "truly" masculine, the premature ejaculation. The slogan takes what is usually perceived as one of Obama's previous positive points--his positive message and push for change, represented by the grin in the picture--and turns it into a sexual eagerness that prevents him from reaching full manhood.

2) The photo itself. Barthes claimed that photographs were texts without codes, because they represented reality purely. This assumption concerning the photograph's access to reality was common in 60s writing on the camera, and is just as commonly shunned now. In an age of Photoshop, reality is, at best, "reality."

However, I'd argue that this twist on reality works in the picture's favor. To borrow from another set of theorists, Grusin and Bolter, new media forms tend to work through remediation--through repurposing old media forms into new combinations. If this new form tries to appear as seamless reality, it is claiming a sense of immediacy. If it draws attention to its composite nature, it is claiming a sense of hypermediacy. I think that photoshopped images have gone all the way around. That is, an image like this one is no longer pretending to be seamless reality, but a violation of it. As such, its purpose is to draw attention to the skill of the distorter, in reappropriating the image for a new context. In this case, the image claims that its designer has a certain level of computer savvy, and is familiar enough with both Republican arguments and pop culture to be able to mix them in such a form. Typically, right-wingers in the United States have a reputation for being somewhat traditional and humourless; this sort of image allows them to state their case while defying this stereotype.

3) Cultural Connotations. I've already alluded to these elements in the previous points, but that's okay, because personally I think that one of the big problems of semiology is that it tends to become blurry when you start to distance yourself from linguistics. Anyway, the immediate context of this picture is the rest of the website. Part of the underlying joke of the site, as suggested by the title, is that Obama's presidency is (or should be)nothing but a bad dream caused by head trauma. The picture works in that context, contributing to the humor. However, there is a clear problem with the picture: if the joke is that Obama lacks experience, it becomes less and less effective the further Obama's presidency progresses. After all, he certainly has more presidential experience at this point than anyone he ran against. The discrepancy reflects something that I didn't notice until a closer inspection. As the right hand bottom corner of the picture suggests, the image is actually taken from MAD magazine.

In its original context, (that is, the original context of the photoshopped image that is already taken out of the ad-based context of the actual original image) the picture is part of a series of images in a MAD magazine published before the election. The series depicts multiple similarly distorted images satirizing both candidates, thus demonstrating that the original focus is not to support any one political agenda, but to simultaneously provide humour at the expense of politics in general, and to demonstrate the proficiency of MAD writers to create images that make political arguments.

This realization changes the elements I was arguing in favor for in point 2. The author of the site is no longer demonstrating his own savvy in being able to photoshop an image. Instead, it comes from being able to link the image to his own site, and to change its context from something nonpartisan into something partisan--a much lower accomplishment on the computer-skill level. (Hell, if I can do it...) In fact, if someone comes to the site, sees the image, and doesn't realize until later that it was a copied image (someone, say, like me), then far from being to the page's author's credit, the image's presence discredits the page. Thus, we see the full complexity of the remediation balance. While originally, it seemed like a simple matter of immediacy giving way to the hypermediacy of the photoshopped image, adding another level of hypermediacy by placing the image in a new context damages my sense of the picture's immediacy, in that I no longer feel connected to the page's author as the image's creator/distorter.

And yet, there is still another level where the image works--the level of Internet community. By sharing a picture that has been in wide circulation, the author of the page identifies himself as a member of a community that distributes the picture. A person who shares similar political beliefs sees the image, and knows that he or she has found some common ground. The image, then, is less about attracting neutral parties and more about shouting the author's position to those who already agree with him. And really, isn't that what politics are all about?

Yeah, so all this is really sort of a dry run for my object test essay for the comp exam. But when I regurgitate it in 2 months, try to look surprised.

Later Days.

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