There’s been much ado about the recent New Yorker cover featuring an inflammatory depiction of presidential nominee Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. For brevity I’ll refer to the Wikipedia description of the illustration (on the off-chance you haven’t already seen it twenty times on the TV news):
“The magazine’s July 21, 2008 cover sparked criticism with its depiction of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama dressed in traditional Muslim garb and his wife, Michelle, in military-style camouflage and carrying a machine-gun, standing in the Oval Office with a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hanging on the wall. An American flag burns in the fireplace in the background.”
New Yorker Editor David Remnik explained the intent behind the cartoon in this interview:
“The intent of the cover is to satirize the vicious and racist attacks and rumors and misconceptions about the Obamas that have been floating around in the blogosphere and are reflected in public opinion polls. […] What we set out to do was to throw all these images together, which are all over the top and to shine a kind of harsh light on them, to satirize them. That’s part of what we do.”
The way this story has played out illustrates how rich, fluid and textured our methods of communication are. Trying to convey that reality is the goal of a course I’ve taught at GVSU; “COM 320: Vision and Culture.”
One of the principles of communications philosophy that parsimoniously describes the conflict is that of “discourse communities,” which are defined by Kostelnick and Hassett (in “Visual Language, Discourse Communities and the Inherently Social Nature of Conventions,” 2003) as groups of users of particular codes who maintain a ‘collective enterprise’ in the use and understanding of those codes. Plato observed that written language “rolls around” (IE that it is flexible and is modified as it passes from user to user). Kostelnick and Hassett argue that visual language is even more fluid than written language due to the greater variety of context it can draw upon to create meaning. Therein lies the rub.
The readership of the New Yorker is a discourse community. To that discourse community (established as readers absorb the content of the magazine, thereby familiarizing themselves with various concepts like the ‘right-wing media’), certain concepts and how they are represented visually become coherent and intelligible. When the symbols are interpreted by members of the discourse community, there is no problem.
When the symbols are cast out into the mainstream they can be freely interpreted by people of other discourse communities without the benefit of a translator from the New Yorker to provide the context that conveys the original meaning. The irony is that the mainstream media, in chastising the New Yorker for creating an esoteric satirical image that could be misunderstood by the masses, flung the image out to a vastly larger segment of the masses.
As Kostelnick and Hassett describe: “like a white-water river surging over the rocks, [visual language’s] relentless and seemingly chaotic presence demands our attention, while at the same time conceals its underlying foundation.”