Mr O

Photoshop at its finest

Photoshop at its finest

From a friend of the blog:

I’ve been reflecting on how, in these very early days of the Obama administration, there is such relentless focus upon the person of Barack Obama himself, as if the man constitutes the real locus of substantiality in this situation.  Ironically, the case is tending so much to the diametric opposite:  Obama is a virtual spectre, a wraith, an empty place-holder.  He is, top-to-bottom, configured by the present complex of circumstances facing the country and earth (although world conditions have chillingly small bearing on the highly-inward gaze which is the hallmark of US political perspective) … This complex of circumstances, the range of plausible methods to engage it, and the particular types of public reaction that these methods will inexorably evoke:  all of this amounts to an essential structure of near-fatalism:  A pine cone will not fall up; water will not freeze at boiling temperature.  In the same way, the deep-rooted urge to ogle Das Leader, whatever it’s all about, certainly is linked to a voracious need to place the mask of a human face upon a disconcerting, and highly impersonal, black vortex of historical forces.  We believe that, because we can see Obama physically upon the TV screen, therefore we can truly see him.  What’s even more frightening than the realization that Das Leader is, at bottom, a social construction, is the uneasy suspicion that that social construction is being – cunningly, indefatigably – moulded and tweaked for public consumption by the mind-nexus of power-wealth.  Consider the recent news that a US “remote unit” in a border region of Pakistan has killed twenty-two people.  Das Leader has not been in power for one week, and he’s already handed down orders to kill people:  no evidence required, no judicial process.  Pharaoh has put them to death, for he is Pharaoh.  And since they (a) were almost certainly not US citizens, and (b) may have satisfied a definition of “terrorist,” they are in consequence right-less subhumans on both counts.  The fact that the sarcastic final clause of my prior sentence would meet with a thoroughly above-board “yeah” of acknowledgment from vast legions of Americans, with no ensuing deeper rumination, is a sobering index of where we are.”

From Acilius’ reply:

“good points about Mr O.  one of the reasons i like to call him “Mr O” is that the letter O does suggest the “empty place-holder” 0.  he is a vacant space which the spectator can fill with any image s/he may wish.  his accession to the presidency invites us to construct in our minds any narrative that may help us to live with “a disconcerting, and highly impersonal, black vortex of historical forces.”  (america’s 44th, and first black, vortex of historical forces.)  that narrative may concern a redeemer prince who embodies our highest hopes or a leering tyrant who confirms our deepest fears.  in either case, we can feel that the processes in which we are enmeshed are familiar, intelligible, human.  it isn’t too different from what we were talking about before.  those of us who don’t understand theoretical physics can listen to an explanation of the big bang, visualize eggs hatching, and tell ourselves that the familiar image we have thereby produced is the way it really happened.  it then seems to us that the physical world isn’t so puzzling after all.  if we can understand ordinary eggs, how much harder could it be to make sense of a cosmic egg?  the social world might also seem less mystifying if we can reduce its larger scale processes to personal narratives.  and not the personal narratives of actual, complex human beings, but the personal narratives of archetypal figures familiar in legends as old as the stone age and as fresh as the movies.” 

Let me clarify my remarks here.  These remarks are from an email discussion that had, the week before, centered on what goes in the minds of scientific illiterates such as myself when we hear experts try to explain the Big Bang theory.  My idea was that as we listen, we tend to draw on the same kind of nature imagery that people have been using since prehistoric times to devise myths that would help make the confusing, dangerous, frustrating aspects of reality seem familiar and comprehensible.  So whatever the physicists on the History Channel’s The Universe may be trying to say, what I and people like me end up believing we heard is a Cosmic Egg creation story that could have been told around any Neolithic campfire.  

In my reply above, I suggest that the fixation on Mr O may be part of a similar phenomenon.  I do not mean to suggest that my correspondent is trying to cast Mr O as a “leering tyrant” and thereby to make his own myth about him.  This last point would likely have been clear in the original context, since my correspondent voted for Mr O and has in the past supported other politicians whom no one would regard as incapable of the “Pharaonic” behavior he laments.  Nor do I mean to deny that there may be situations in which an individual can take an action that will change the course of history.    

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  1. cymast

     /  January 26, 2009

    2 things I’m pretty sure about Obama- he sold his soul a long time ago, and he makes a good case for fatalism, though he would call it something else, like “destiny,” though he would not say that word out loud.

  2. cymast

     /  January 26, 2009

    While it is vastly important to many people to label Obama as the first BLACK President of the USA, I think the more accurate description would be “the most darkly-pigmented President of the USA as of 2009.”

  3. acilius

     /  January 26, 2009

    Well, Mr O has always identified himself as black. I haven’t read much of DREAMS FROM MY FATHER: A STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE, but I gather that the major theme of it was his attempt to figure out how he would go about being a black man in America. And certainly, if he were riding a bus in Alabama in the 50s there’s no doubt where they would have told him to sit. So I don’t object to calling him the first black president.

  4. cymast

     /  January 27, 2009

    I don’t object either. I’m just wondering if the “1 drop” rule applies to the Presidency.

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