I've been mulling over these kinds of images for a while now, but especially since The New Yorker appeared in my mailbox last week. From left to right, we've got pop artist Ron English's "Abraham Obama," a Time magazine cover from November 2008, and Drew Friedman's image titled "The First." What's the best way to read these? Most folks would suggest that these are analogies. And that makes sense, especially because Obama, as he put it himself, doesn't look like the guys on our money. In this vein, we could say that white America, the mainstream media, etc. need to compare the supposedly unfamiliar/new experience of the first African American president to things more familiar. And indeed, in these images it seems we are meant to compare. But what, exactly, is being compared? And does analogy really get at everything that's going on in these images? At some point analogy falls apart and we get into other territory: appropriation and even absorption.
1. Greatness analogized. Most broadly, and perhaps most obviously, each of the images invites us to consider how Obama might measure up to other presidents on the greatness meter. The Obama-as-FDR cover is the most historically specific in this regard: we see in our current situation a parallel to the Depression-era past, so we look to FDR to see what Obama might do or be; that's what Time is visualizing. The analogy to Lincoln implied in English's image, and shamelessly exploited by Obama himself, lies more in public memory of Lincoln's judgment and temperament: to be "Lincolnish," as Stephen Colbert likes to put it, is to perform leadership judiciously and honorably. To see Obama as Lincoln is to see the possibilities of similar greatness at a defining moment in history. Finally, the analogy to Washington is made explicit in the title of Friedman's image: "The First." Yet here analogy starts to fall apart if it ever really held together: what does it mean to draw Obama as Washington and title it "the first"? Just as Washington was the first white president, Obama is the first black president? That seems hackneyed. Does Obama replace "the first" with a new "first," a more diverse and representative one? Maybe. Perhaps more than the other two images, this image suggests to me the limits of analogy as a useful way to talk about these images.
2. Appropriating who? These are also appropriations, images that borrow elements of others for the purpose of creating something new. If we want to consider these as appropriations, I think it makes more sense to consider them as appropriations of Obama rather than appropriations of Lincoln, FDR, etc. Visually, the images signal this. In each image the figure wears the clothes and even drives the car and smokes the cigarette of the earlier president. Obama is what's new. In this vein, the question becomes not what Lincoln gives to Obama, but what Obama gives to Lincoln. Thinking of these images as appropriations of Obama gets us into some pretty interesting territory, asking us to consider how do we see these men differently, or the presidency differently, or history differently, if Obama is the borrowed element. (Washington=slaveholder, anyone?) But the manner in which Obama is borrowed is also problematic.
3. Bodies absorbed. At a certain point the appropriation of Obama goes beyond mere borrowing and veers toward something like absorption. The Ron English piece merges the facial features of the two men so that one cannot tell where Lincoln's face begins and where Obama's face ends; even so, the garb is Lincoln's. The hat, car, and cigarette are FDR's. The ponytail, wig, and cravat are Washington's. What, then, is left of Obama as a material body? The face, perhaps, but not even the facial expressions are his; in each image Obama's expression conforms to the other man's iconic visage. Stripped of his own body, his own clothing, his own surroundings, and even his own affect, we've moved into the realm of absorption: Obama is not his own man. The ultimate question, then, may be the very question that first popped into my mind when I pulled The New Yorker out of my mailbox last week: Why can't we just let Obama be Obama?