Tag Archives: humour

Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.

More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

Reading Humour (No Smiling Allowed)

The Librarian And Information Science News blog called my attention back to The Onion, which I used to read religiously, but haven’t been back to in a number of years. Once there I found some really hysterical stuff on reading that they’ve put out over the last few years. Some excerpts of the better articles I ran across in just the first fifty or so articles out of about 500 the search engine called up are below. A few laughs for sure, but I’m glad to see that The Onion is still using the laughter for some thoughtful cultural commentary.

Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book
January 19, 2008 | Issue 44•03

GREENWOOD, IN—Sitting in a quiet downtown diner, local hospital administrator Philip Meyer looks as normal and well-adjusted as can be. Yet, there’s more to this 27-year-old than first meets the eye: Meyer has recently finished reading a book.

Even outdoors, Meyer can’t seem to think of anything better to do than flip through some American classic.

Yes, the whole thing.

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Even more bizarre, Meyer is believed to have done most of his reading during his spare time—time when the outwardly healthy and stable resident could have literally been doing anything else, be it aimlessly surfing the Internet, taking a nap, or simply just staring at his bedroom wall.

“It’d be nice to read it again at some point,” Meyer continued, as if that were a perfectly natural thing to say.

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According to behavioral psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Schulz, Meyer’s reading of entire books is abnormal and may be indicative of a more serious obsession with reading.

“Instead of just zoning out during a bus ride or spending hour after hour watching YouTube videos at night, Mr. Meyer, unlike most healthy males, looks to books for gratification,” Schulz said. “Really, it’s a classic case of deviant behavior.”

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As bizarre as it may seem, Meyer isn’t alone. Once a month, he and several other Greenwood residents reportedly gather at night not only to read books all the way through, but also to discuss them at length.

“I don’t know, it’s like this weird ‘book club’ they’re all a part of,” said Brian Cummings, a longtime coworker and friend of Meyer’s. “Seriously, what a bunch of freaks.”:

Comment: I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that recognizes reading is deeply related to deviant psychological profiles. See my post on this very subject.

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Reading-Is-Fundamentalists Slaughter 52 Illiterates
October 29, 1997 | Issue 32•13

ROCKVILLE, MD—Militant pro-literacy terrorists struck here Friday night, as a pipe bomb exploded at Rockville Adult Learning Annex, killing 52 illiterates and injuring dozens more. Hours later, RIF, a radical reading-is-fundamentalist terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

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According to the group’s 900-page manifesto, RIF is committed to fighting illiteracy by “first-hand targeting of illiterates.” The manifesto also outlines a three-point plan to achieve its goals by “speaking to schoolchildren about the importance of reading, lobbying Congress for increased funding for literacy-awareness programs, and banishing illiterates to the very bowels of Hell.”

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In addition to using terror, RIF has sought to eradicate illiteracy via a series of spots airing on Saturday-morning television, in which a hooded, armed representative of the faction warns children to read “as if your life depends on it—for it does.” The group has also distributed videotapes to over 3,700 U.S. elementary schools featuring footage of abducted illiterates being shot in the back of the head by RIF members, followed by a music video, “Reading Is Where It’s At,” starring the group’s mascot, Pages The Rappin’ Raccoon.

Comment: Little known fact. My blog is a front for the RIF. We’ve merely been in hiding for the past seven years, lulling illiterates into a false sense of security as they descend in to corruption through non-reading. Somewhat like Islamic terrorists who are largely lead by disaffected members of the elite who have been educated in Western societies, RIF is made up of dedicated readers who once worked for Microsoft and Electornic Arts Incorporated , but then found themselves dismayed at the corruption of the technological world around them and longed for a resurrected and glorified literacy. Well known but as yet unidentified members of our group include John Updike, Doris Lessing, Michael Dirda, and many others who keep Barnes and Nobles in business.

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Books Don’t Take You Anywhere
December 16, 1997 | Issue 32•19

WASHINGTON, DC—A study released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that, contrary to the longtime claims of librarians and teachers, books do not take you anywhere.

“For years, countless educators have asserted that books give readers a chance to journey to exotic, far-off lands and meet strange, exciting new people,” Education Secretary Richard Riley told reporters. “We have found this is simply not the case.”

Comment: As I’ve been saying. PhotoSynth is better anyway.

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Area Man Well-Versed In First Thirds Of Great Literature
April 27, 2005 | Issue 41•17

KANSAS CITY, MO—Malcolm Seward is a 38-year-old commercial kitchen designer, baseball fan, and avid supporter of public radio, but he said there’s nothing he likes better than hunkering down in a comfortable chair, cracking open a brand-new copy of one of the world’s literary classics, and reading the first 100 pages or so.

“Listen, I’m no book snob,” said Seward, settled into his favorite reading chair and running his hand over a nearly half-well-thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice. “It’s just that I love cracking the binding on a truly good book and reading until I drift off. I’d say it’s something I do two or three times a week.”

Seward, whose bookshelves house over 500 well-regarded and eagerly begun novels, developed his voracious appetite for starting books at a young age.

Comment: Pierre Bayard’s Ideal Reader. See my post on this topic.

Seriously though–who among us does not have to confess that we start or otherwise partially read a great many more books than we actually finish. On my list of books I have not yet finished (and am unlikely ever to do so)

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke–I know it’s supposed to be a masterpiece, but, frankly, after 100 pages, I didn’t care. I’ll wait for the movie.

Anything by Alice Walker since Possessing the Secret of Joy–Does this really need explanation? I’ve even written essays on the woman and can’t bring myself to open her books anymore. The sad fact is that she was a writer worth listening to before she decided it was more important to be a prophet who sounds vaguely like Shirley McLane.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot–I tried to read this through DailyLit.com. I did. I really truly did. I got tired of trying to find deleted emails that would remind me who these characters were again. I finally decided the characters weren’t worth the effort. I’ll probably try again, both with Dostoevsky and with DailyLit, though not both at the same time.

Toni Morrison’s Jazz–I’m ashamed to admit it, but yes. I’ve started this book at least a dozen times and am bored to tears every single time. Perhaps it’s not her fault. I think Beloved is one of the two or three great novels of the 20th century. Everything since is disappointing even when it’s good. Felt this way about both Paradise and Love. “Good book,” I’d say to myself, “but it’s no Beloved.” Actually, it may be that I finished Jazz at some point. I think I forced myself, but I honestly can’t remember anything about it. In Pierre Bayard’s universe, I may as well not have read it.