Monday, February 11, 2008

Barack Obama: An old medium for a new media age

Cynical, jaded age of media savvy… meet Barack Obama. Despite all your postmodern disillusionment, your mistrust and confusion, despite the transparent opacity of your catch phrases and rhetorical maneuvers, you’ve still left a space for someone to make an impression, and Barack Obama has come to fill that space. How has Obama managed to penetrate our national defenses? And more importantly, should we still guard ourselves against his dulcet tones?

Obama’s online presence is a critical factor. His mainstream media presence? Perhaps less so, but still important. Even the aggrieved attention of his opponents, the attack dogs on both the right and the left wings, are probably bolstering the power of his campaign with their misguided hostility. Somebody who draws that much fire is a big target, and paradoxically, the mud-slinging seems to be making him more noticeable.

However, I believe it’s the power of the oldest of media that’s managing to penetrate a society that’s colored by the newest. Sure, the Internet and YouTube are powerful things, but Ron Paul certainly didn’t win the Republican nomination… and if the Internet was going to choose a president, Ron Paul would probably win by a landslide. Obama’s sudden rush of endorsements and his unstoppable momentum in the primaries must be due to some other factor.

Myself, I think the critical factor is Obama’s oratory skill, and the new development is the fact that he’s getting more opportunities to present himself personally to the American people. A few wins in the primaries put his face on a lot of television screens, and they gave new a new spark to his public addresses… a platform of victory, even if it’s partial, is a great place to construct oneself as a public image. Obama’s speeches have been reaching more and more ears as his momentum has increased, and I include my own among those new additions.

There, on that podium, is where Obama finds his greatest strength. People will attribute it to his deep voice, but that’s just a shiny paint-job. It’s the muscle car underneath that’s really carrying the campaign. Obama’s content is hopeful and idealistic, but his voice and his delivery are full of conviction, free of hesitation or apology, and this is bound to strike a cord with a jaded voter.

Jesus, so the man is good at public speaking… what are we all so excited about this?

Well, on a simple cultural level, we’ve always placed a profound emphasis on verbal communication. From Plato to the bible to Saussure, the spoken word has always been considered the voice of the soul, and written communication has been seen as a pale reflection of that voice. We’ve got a bit of a cultural prejudice in favor of verbal communication, and whether we see the man speak on TV or on YouTube or in person, the fact that he has a body and a voice are bound to give him some extra weight.

Aside from that, though, I think that it’s more difficult to hide fear and uncertainty in a verbal speech than in a written statement. There are certainly failures of verbal communication – we’ve all tried to communicate something and failed in the delivery – but a successful speech, statement, or assertion is worthy of a great amount of trust, because human beings have a penetrating intuition when it comes to tone of voice and gesture. People who bought into Bush’s stage character may have bought his rhetoric, but I think very few of us trusted him… especially those of us who know about the glamour of prepared speeches and catch-phrases. The media-savvy community was never really convinced by Bush. Obama, on the other hand, has convinced a lot of us.

The speeches themselves are brilliant, and they often confront our cynicism directly, on its own terms. One of the most powerful phrases I’ve heard Obama use was “That cynicism, that sometimes masquerades as wisdom, but is really just a fear of reaching for something higher.” This is rhetorical sharp-shooting at its finest: Obama implicitly asks us to question the naïve sense of superiority that many politicians bring to the table, which so many of us accepts without question. At the same time, he asks us to question our own cynicism, which feeds from this self-satisfied disillusionment that so often turns into hopelessness. So yeah, good speeches.

It’s the questions, though… Obama fielding the inquiries of individuals… that pinpoint him as a man who may be worthy of our trust. If it’s difficult to disguise hesitation in a the delivery of a prepared speech, it’s next to impossible to disguise it in a series of impromptu answers to unscripted questions. Obama fields each of these confidently, with a thought-out answer, and his confidence attests to his authenticity.

Thus, a description of Obama’s persuasive method, but also an argument for people to put trust in it. Obama is an old orator for a new age, and the meta-media of the Internet and cable news have become a mere vehicle for a voice that they can’t distract us from. If we can’t trust anything anymore, why does this guy sound so damn convincing? And shouldn’t we trust that last vestige of intuition we’ve got, and start placing our trust in him?


Anonymous said...

Be careful with charisma and its powers.

Jesse M said...

I appreciate the sentiment, but need more information if I'm going to take it into account. All I can see of either candidate is a hyperbolized public image... research doesn't help a whole lot, either, because every study and commentary has a partisan (or sub-partisan) spin.

All I have to go for right now is a sense of the candidates' personal commitments, gathered from my limited exposure to their respective media presences. My (admittedly subjective) sense of their authenticity is the only yardstick that seems to be of any use at the moment.

If this is what you call "charisma," then I'll be careful of it, but I can't reject it out of hand.

I also haven't made a personal decision between these two... but the things which HAVE been brought to light are generally pointing me in Obama's direction.

I'd love to hear more from the other side, though.