From a paper titled “The Personification of Barack Obama” (written for a class assignment 2 days before election day). Here’s the concluding section, summarizing my thoughts and fears of what lies ahead for Barack Obama.
Through the careful manipulation of images and text, Barack Obama became the personification of American democratic ideals, legitimatized and empowered by the mass. The amplification and proliferation of the Obama spell through social web media ensures confirmation of consent, given with much self-awareness without a touch of Baudrillard or mass culture theory’s irony. Undoubtedly, like President John F. Kennedy’s appearance on national television, it is the Obama campaign’s use of the web that will have a lasting effect on the way in which political processes are enacted in post-modern society. The implications of this social experiment are worth critical investigation.
The first and most obvious affect of the Obama campaign’s use of the Internet is that it is no longer an anonymous private medium. Participation in myobama.com and Facebook involves registration and documentation of private details (name, age, gender, contact information) viewable and usable by those who control the applications. As social media becomes a primary means of citizenry, the Internet’s promise of anonymous sanctuary is no longer true.
Furthermore, the Obama’s successful use of the Internet also formally instates a new class of power elites: those who control Internet technology. This presents a new incarnation of Mills’ power elite (1956) and also serves as a rejuvenation of power and status in the hands of a few. In fact, the other institutions of politics, economy and military are subservient to this new elite. All it will take is a click of a mouse and entire institutional systems can be shut down or inundated. The presence of a new entity that does not derive its power from the popular will inevitably shift the power pendulum once again.
The move of active political citizenry onto the Internet is also a milestone marking hyperreality’s final transformation into the new reality. The millions of users, who log on each day to browse, read and interact with the spell of Obama do not question whether or not their relationship with him is real. There is no need to question the reality of Obama because they already know that they are interacting with his simulacra. There is an acceptance of this as a new reality and to dwell on its hyperreality would only hinder one’s participation in society. It is acceptable, even if it means sacrificing the sublime.
As Walter Benjamin probably wouldn’t put it, there’s no point in clinging to what used to seem to be real. But I’m still waiting for the author who, without being like the guy who defended scribes in print, finds a way to say that we shouldn’t let this stuff run amok just because it can and it wants to. Because it does want to. (Celebrity blogger Emily Gould, It’s Not a Revolution if Nobody Loses, Technology Review, 2008)
The above excerpt is a prime example of someone who is aware of the changing nature of perceived reality but experiences no irony or qualms in accepting it. Hyperreality has become so pervasive that there is no distinction between it and the sublime anymore. However, the excerpt also alludes to the tentative nature of this new reality. How sustainable is it?
If Obama’s administration, or that of the next president, is unable or unwilling to foster the same kind of citizenry he accomplished in his campaign, it will be a devastating blow to the mass’ struggle for political power with the elite. It will mean that the power elite has won back control by manipulating the masses through this new technology. They have tamed the Internet. On the other hand, if the next administration is able and chooses to sustain the same kind of political participation, the 2008 election will mark a new era for the masses. Vibrant grassroots activity, like that of the 1960s, can co-exist peacefully with bureaucratic politics.
The final litmus test of whether a new era of political change will be Obama’s transition into routine. Critics of the Obama campaign’s drive for political participation are already voicing their skepticism about his ability to uphold his campaign’s promise for an open government, be it simulated or in the sublime (Brown, 2008). Max Weber believes that charisma cannot exist once it becomes subsumed into the rational and the routine (1978). In fact, many of the great leaders embellished into America’s mythical canon were assassinated at the peak of their charismatic careers. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were perfect leaders because their lives were taken before their charismatic authority could be stripped by routinization or scandal.
This all implies that Barack Obama’s ultimate triumph will also be his destruction. By entering the mundane, Obama’s charisma will be inevitably compromised and sullied. To sustain the momentum of citizenry so as to fulfill his brand of change for the long run, Obama must therefore forsake his vestiges of his physical being to fully embody the extra-textual myth of charismatic authority. This is the ultimate paradox of the personification of Barack Obama.