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14.7.08

Polysemic Cartoons and Editorial Ethics

I think there's a clause in my blogger contract that says I have to post about the cover of the latest New Yorker, which is a cartoon of Barack Obama in a turban, fist-bumping Michele, who's wearing a Black Panther type outfit, while a picture of bin Laden hangs on their wall and an American flag burns in the fireplace (you can see it at any of the links below).

My inclination is to read the cover much like Ampersand -- as a satire that mocks the racist and anti-Muslim smears against the Obamas. Others, however, have different readings -- either that the cover simply reinforces, rather than breaking down, those smears, or that it's bigoted in less obvious ways (I find womanistmusings's argument -- that the cartoon errs in mocking the smears by making the Obamas look ridiculous while the actual smear-merchants remain invisible off-stage -- particularly insightful).

There seems to be an unstated presumption in most of the discussion of the cartoon that there is one correct reading -- either it really is pro-Obama satire, or it really is anti-Obama bigotry. I would rather say that this is a good example of the postmodern idea of polysemy -- that any one text* is open to multiple readings (an idea I'd hasten to distinguish from pansemy, the idea that a text is open to any reading at all, which is not to say we can ever be certain we know the limits of the possible readings of a text even within a single historical-cultural frame). Neither the intent of the author nor the inherent features of the text determine the one correct meaning, and the fact that many people have authentically come to both the satire and bigotry readings, and that neither reading has evaporated in the face of understanding the other, shows they're both within the bounds of the cartoon's polysemy.

Since I've invoked postmodernism, you may think I intend to just leave it there -- the text has multiple readings, none more legitimate than the other. But I think polysemy presents an ethical dilemma to the text-maker and text-distributor (at least insofar as they can be expected to forsee certain readings, and in the present case I think we can expect that of the artist and editor of the New Yorker). Different readings have different value -- here, the "satire" reading has positive value, while "bigotry" readings have negative value (according to my understanding of objective moral truth). So it's up to the artist and editor to weigh the values of the different readings against each other in order to decide whether a given item needs more work or should be cut entirely. It's possible that one or more readings have so much positive value that it's worth publishing something despite it also having some negative value readings. (I'm not necessarily arguing for any particular algorithm for weighting the various values and disvalues -- one could even make an argument that certain values or disvalues -- for example, the disvalue of reinforcing anti-black racism -- ought to be trumps that prevail over any amount of countervailing value.)

In the specific case of the New Yorker cover, I think the artist and editor made the wrong choice. I think the satire in this image is pretty uncreative and low-value. It doesn’t make any new connections or re-contextualize the smears to expose new ideas about them, it doesn’t do a reductio that makes the smears look more absurd than any thinking person already knew they were, and it’s not funny at all. So from the perspective of the editor, the satire reading should have carried very little weight when balanced against the disvalue created by reading it, as so many people have, as racist and anti-Muslim.


* As my previous post suggests, I think even the Bible is polysemous. It's sometimes said that the roots of literary analysis in Biblical hermeneutics explains why the idea of polysemy took so long to gain currency -- from a faithful Christian perspective, the Bible really does have just one meaning. But I think here, the assumption of Biblical monosemy rests on a suppressed pragmatic step in the argument. The Bible has just one meaning insofar as the Bible is being used as a tool to discern God's will (since I assume Christians' real allegiance is to God as expressed through the Bible, not to the Bible which happened to need God to write it). The one true reading in such a case can be theoretically verified by the external criterion of whether it results in a correct understanding of God's will. But using it to understand God's will is not the only thing a person, even a faithful Christian, can do with the Bible. Similarly, if our goal were to discern what was in the artist's head when they drew the cartoon, then one reading -- the satire one -- would be more correct than others (though there may still be some polysemy if the author was conflicted). However, worrying about the author's intent is in some ways backward for looking at art. We value art for its own sake for the meanings we get from reading at it, and the author's intent is just a means by which art is produced -- as opposed to valuing the author's intent and seeing the cartoon as just our means to learning the intent. (Which is not to say that artists can't be frustrated that they intended people to make a certain reading of their work but instead the audience made some other reading that the artist considers lower-value. On the other hand, the artist may be pleased that the audience discovered interesting meanings in their work that they didn't consciously put there.)

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