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The Spectacular Obama.

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“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

– President Barack Obama –

“WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME – – GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”

– Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man –

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There is now a new President of the United States of America. The world, or at least the parts of it my ears are closest to, seems to have made a very much audible sigh of relief. It seems as if we can all sit in our chairs a little more comfortably, or at least, that if the prospective economic factors will mean we shall be expected to sit in new ones we can do so with a little hope that it will not be forever.

It must be said that when I discovered that Barack Obama is a smoker with a history of reading Spider-Man comics, and was prone to the use of unverifiable, grandiose rhetoric, I have to admit, I believed he was too close to my own view of myself for me to not like him. And I did, he is one of my guys, and he holds one of the highest offices in the globe… His speeches on race, and his dignified and calm appearance very much warmed me to him.

But I find myself in a worry. As much as any man can be thought to be good, occupying public office cannot and should not be justified by appealing to a sense of the person who holds this office, but to the actual essence of holding such an office. I cannot simply rely upon my sense of Obama’s character, or person, to limit my criticisms, or opposition to the structural violence at the heart of the origin of American, and any other nations, democratic project. To abandon such a position, would in my view, be to leave the barricades before the revolution has been won.

This article then, is a public death, for that part of me that feels an involvement with the Obama mystique. It is very much my own relationship to this that is uncanny in the Freudian sense of the term… I am once at home and not in Obamamania, and for this I must commit ritual suicide upon that part of me that is a part of this mystique…

It seems we are placing our hopes, expectations, and desires for the future into the vessel we have made of a man, and even from a transatlantic perspective such as mine, these are palpable sentiments. But, to what extent has Obama already become, in some ways at least, a fiction? In what dimensions have we collectively already begun to operate within a spectacular generation of images, narratives, and ideas about what kind of impact Obama will have upon the way we will collectively remember his Presidency.

This is why Obama will have his own space upon this comics ‘blog, because I believe this medium, as the first amongst equals, has been responding with a voraciously speculative and productive pre-empting towards the idea of how this period of history will be remembered.

In the run up to the election, and in titles produced after the election Barack Obama has made multiple appearances as the President (-Elect) of varying fictional universes. This included both an endorsement by the titular character featured in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon comicbook, as well as a later appearance as President-Elect, giving Spider-Man a “home-boy” style fist-bump for saving his inauguration day from malevolent interruption by the disguise proficient villain known as The Chameleon. Whilst there has been a steady and conventional level of inclusion of ‘real-life’ public figures in the narratives of superhero (and other) comicbooks it is rare for a real-life figure to feature so prominently as an active agent in the fictional narrative and in such an avowedly partisan fashion.

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Obama has seemingly captured some sort of spirit of kinship with those that create stories and fictions about the meaning and nature of heroism. From the continued reiteration by the industry and it’s fan-base, we are told “Obama reads Spider-Man, Obama reads Spider-Man!”, as some sort of karmic mantra that will cause the ascension of the medium from some kind of imagined lack to some kind of imagined respectability.

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This is also not stated to diminish the manner in which Obama has attuned himself to the heroic expectations people have generated for him.

What is interesting in this scenario, is that what seems like a narrative or fictional matter, that of the place of a hero in any given story, is manifesting as a serious and vital component to the Realpolitiks of this particular given historical moment. The election of Barack Obama has become a self-reflexive meditation by the American electorate on how they wish to be viewed by the world, which, as it invariably always does in such a moment, means a narcissistic exercise in (re)inscribing certain values within the collective process that is the formation of a national identity. The election of Obama is less an act of political nuance and social responsibility, and is more of an exercise in exorcism, returning a seemingly corrupt public body to the status of international hero.

Even if we accept that Obama resembles Robert Downey Jnr.’s “Iron Man“, who sits pensively weighing up the responsibility of violent intervention and accepts his own implication in the mechanisms that bring violence, more than Christian Bale’s “Dark Knight”, who uses technology to perform extraordinary renditions and mass surveillance, as well as employing torture to gain information from suspected terrorists, he is still the interventionalist, albeit with a more acceptable face.

I believe this is the essense of Obama’s victory. The coinciding of the growth of the superhero myth, and the election of Obama, are in some ways connected. Whilst the collective fantasy that a saviour would come to protect and defend us from our own excesses explodes in a multitude of forms across the cinema screen, achieving some of the highest box-office and beyond earnings that any set of films have in recent industry history, and as a genre perhaps the most successful that has ever existed, we welcome in open arms a man who has been made into the festish-object of these selfsame fantasies. Obama has become  the singular by-proxy stand-in for our desires towards the universal values of truth and justice, but through the particular way of the American electoral machine.

It is our fantasy of being saved, rather than a fantasy of saving ourselves that has led to the creation of such a spectacular public ritual of servitude and compliance. We have recognised a man as our hero, we have made a man into our hero, and it is the language of the superhero and the libidinal investment thereof, that best captures the values and risks of such a gesture. It is the fictionalisation of Obama within the realm of the hero, using the symbollic grammar of the superhero-myth that is providing a anaesthesic experience, dulling our collective faculties, allowing for an as yet unfulfilled historical inheritance to be a priori speculatively encoded into any future project of remembrance of these times. Obama is now already releaved of guilt, and punishment, for the actions of his future, because we have already accepted his “humanity”. This accceptance takes the form of mirroring the kind of narrative device used in the superhero movie genre, which philosopher Slavoj Zizek has publicly decried; this is the fiction of the inner life, of the internal and difficult task that violent intervention causes and exists as in the life of the superhero. He compared it to the IDF’s use of a similar narrative to normalise and justify the difficult but necessary job involved in administering “justice” within the occupied territories. Obama may have repealed the injustices of Guantanemo, and loosened constraints upon abortion provisions, but he has also ordered the renewal of military activites along the Pakistan border, and the militarization of America’s own border with Mexico. It seems he wants to protect the borders of his own sovereignty, but is willfully ignorant of those of others. This does appear somewhat standard operating procedure.

We have narrativised this man as more than what he is, by assuming an excess will flow from his election, pouring forth and leaving a sticky residue of parity upon the “blue-dress” that is the geopolitical landscape of the globe. He is made into the Richard Gere of our sullied hooker fantasies, where the last few years of our lives have been spent overcome (or is that come over) by the dirty politics of the Bush administration… We have been waiting for our charming prince to come and take away from the life of being fucked (over) for the bravado and coffers filled with other peoples money. We can feel freed and overjoyed that someone has appeared to respond to our curbcrawler’s calls out for a hero in the dead of the night.

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Even if Obama fails to meet what nebulous and spectral expectations we seem to have of him, he will be exonerated, cast as the man that saved us from George Walker Bush, saved us from our mistakes of the past, saved us from ourselves. Like the good-father, the pure Phallus, uncorrupted by being buried in the dirt of someone elses sandbox, he stands proudly embodying a spirit of certainty and self-belief, even if not quite embodying the now defunct conservative rhetoric of American certainty and self-belief. He has made America like the Spider-Man of the movie Spider-Man 2, having found himself without powers and living a safe, manageable risk-free life, he becomes awakened to his destiny and responsibilty as the only man to be capable of delivering true justice in the face of crime. But it is only through the awakening of the nascent powers within and his acceptance of a life greater than that of those who fill his world, that he is able to do so. This is the poltical unconscious of this version of the Spider-Man myth, that power is destined for some and not others, even if this power comes at a price. This power is American. Obama may emerge as the ultimate signifier of this American power, and American hegemony in the Twenty-First Century,  but this is only because he has been made so, not because he always has been so.

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The Empire has now a king who is not naked, but clothed in the cloth of the cape and cowl, and takes flight upon the power of his own righteousness. He has been given the historical role of the hero, because that is what the American populace desires themselves to be. The saviour of others, the hero who smites villains. As Bush attacked the phantom idea of Terror-as-Villain, reeking death and destruction as he rained his munitions upon the globe, so to will Obama, this time fighting the forces of Cynicism-as-Villain, the great ideological barrier to belief in hope and freedom America-style. He has placied the emphasis upon the need for “collective” solutions, whilst in real terms is merely reinforcing the values and fantasies that have underlied both the Bush and Obama models of the hero-saviour.

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“Obama” is the fetish-object, whose speculative fictionalisation as a “hero” maintains the fantasy of the American ideal used to spport the generalisation and defence of the capital-relation.

What is interesting about this mode of operation for our thinking, is that it is in some ways the contrary mechanism to the one which began it’s cycles during both Bush terms. During Bush’s tenure there was a radically productive move towards the production of facts, even if the particular fact in question were open to contestation. From the ascension of Michael Moore to the heights of media mogul, to the move towards decentred, citizen-journalists, and the emergence and normalisation of counter-positional media outlets, such as Indymedia, the Bush presidency has been nothing but productive for those who find themselves his political opponents. Movies such as Outfoxed, The Corporation, and Supersize Me all achieved a high level of media coverage, but were always only the tip of the radical iceberg when it came to proliferation and production of left-wing media projects… Will this phenomena melt before the incandescant glow of the angel Obama, will we see the whole drift itself evapotating before our eyes…?

Obama’s very own political campaign mechanisms were indebted to the use and mastery of the new forms of political agency, and sites for activism, that emerged out of this aforementioned creative climate.

So why now has it become a fictive modality? Why does it seem so ordinary for the Commander-in-Chief to be bumping fists with Spider-Man…? Why is it our collective response to this occassion hasn’t been sober and sombre reflection… but exultation, and celebration…?

This is the point at which fantasy, reality, fiction and fact become intertwinned, producing these kind of spectacular and speculative responses.

What can we argue is the implicit horizon, the assumed terrain of action, that accompanies the emergence of such an act of collective, active pre-empting of remembrance…?

In two separate, but equally useful articles, both Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek have spoken of the fantastic and fantasy based element of the Obama success, but both have in my opinion, left too much room for critical acquiescence which will only lead to the speculation to succeed. Whilst it is fair to agree with both of their respective positions vis-a-vis the progressive and positive meaning behind the election of a man who belongs to a marginalised minority, by a country that once afforded this minority next to no rights in eyes of the law, their pleas for a sober approach to the event and outcomes of this election will, in my humble opinion, fall short of the mark and upon many deaf ears.

This is because the language they utilise, the perspective they offer, has in many ways already become included in the ways in which the fantasy of Obama is being perpetuated. The normal understanding of Obama is that it is a massively progressive gesture for election, but at the same time, posits no immediate expectations for him. The election itself and his role as President has become the ends itself, not the means to any political, or instrumental set of demands. He has already been excused of the responsibility of maneouvring America, and it’s global relationships, into a more progressive space, by the implicit acceptance of the limitations of his capabilities in office by the objective conditions his Presidency is being assumed to operate within.

The presence of economic catastrophe, imperialist wars, and corporate irresponsiblity is not the fire which Obama is yet to extinguish, but the cause of the ashen peat from which his Presidency has grown so spectacularly… his election has signaled the normalisation, or at least the expectation thereof, by the electorate in regards to the political and economic problems that will tear at the world’s population over the coming years and the role they will play as the leaders of the globe in face of these crises. Obama is the symbollic gesture required to re-ordane capitalist-democratic authority and legitimacy.

It is then in this context that it can be said that it is not Obama the President that is becoming fictionalised, but Obama the man. It is his very character that is assumed as being of value for those that wish to fictionalise him, not his structural role as President, thus, he is divested of the responsibility of appearing to conform to the role he has been elected to play.

He has become an explicit meditation upon the value and realisability of that thing called ‘The American Dream’, and has given new faith to those that still maintain a fidelity to the hopes of the liberatory power of capitalism and the market. Both Butler and Zizek presume Obama represents progression, which I cannot see as moving beyond an infantilisation of him due to his inscribed racial character.

Obama is not so much an agent than a fetish. His fictionalisation is less of a comment on qualities inherent to his being, and more to do with fictionalisation of the desires of those that make of him a fetish. We not only fictionalise Obama, by making a hero of him, we also (re)inscribe a narrative of the values that we believe to be embodied by those we consider heroes.

We are now in a time of even greater potential for successes and losses than we ave been for the past two decades. Obama’s election is as much a symptom of this as it is an omen of where we might go wrong.

We cannot allow his election to define the limits of acceptable action on the behalf of those concerned with activism or action. This will be the greatest pull he has, to define the limits of what is acceptable for us to demand or do. Steve Hildebrand, the deputy national campaign director for Obama has fired the the first warning shot, albeit a tentative one,  across the bough of the left-wing allies who feel discomfort at Obama’s cabinet choices. This should not be seen as action merely suggesting a pragmatic usage of the best talents for governance, it represents Obama’s allegiance to the state body as an organ of rule not liberation.

As such, we cannot let his Presidency assuage our anxieties and the actions that emerge from it. From now on dissendance, activism, and agitation become more necessary than ever before. There will be a pervasive culture of quietism encouraged by the elected officials, used at sporadic times to quell, and marginalise the louder left-critics of the great hero Obama. Just as Captain America refused to hunt down his fellow superheroes when their activities were outlawed, so too must we not baulk at the option of distancing ourselves from Obama’s success. We must not let the progressive potential be lost, we must not allow ourselves to become isolated by one aspect of the movements success, but must continue the project.

Love and comics,

Luke

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Written by Luke Evans

January 24, 2009 at 4:31 pm