A few months ago, I received an email asking whether I thought Barack Obama might be something like a postironic presidential candidate. I ignored the email at the time, too busy doing research on trendspotters and writing Pop Apocalypse (a decidedly ironic book). After the caucuses in Iowa, I listened to Obama’s victory speech on YouTube and have started to think more deeply about the question. Is Obama postironic?
Inasmuch as our presidential elections are not only contests over ideologies and policies but also contests over our cultural values, it is inevitable that trends affecting the arts will also, eventually, affect our politics. If you share my temperament and political sensibility, you might even say that our political process is all culture all the way down, given that the range of effective policy choice is quite narrow.
Regardless of questions of content, Barack Obama seems undeniably a candidate whose style should be described as postironic. This label would not exactly constitute a historical argument: the etiology of political style does not track that of literary style. David Foster Wallace, for example, came of age and developed his literary commitments in very specific historical-academic contexts, which my dissertation reconstructs. Obama, meanwhile, has his own history and I would not make any substantive claims, without further research, about how Obama came to articulate his particular political style.
To call Obama postironic is instead to make a claim about the receptivity of young audiences to Obama’s message. These audiences grew up in a hypermediated environment. As William Gibson has put it, they have a sense that “accessing media is what we do.” They crave but are also suspicious of authenticity. Obama’s political talent is to seem authentic to voters suspicious of the very concept of authenticity, voters who think they’re smart enough to see through lies and deceits, who think they’re much smarter than the people producing content on the other side of their screens.
Obama is a kind of performance artist whose character and sensibility harmonize with the post-New Left, post-’60s cultural commitments of Generation X-type voters. And given the similarity of Clinton’s and Obama’s policy offerings, political style has come to be the main factor that distinguishes them. Whatever else one might think about Obama, it seems undeniable that he’s an incredibly talented political performer, someone almost engineered to energize voters between the ages of 18 and 45. He is something like the political equivalent of The Believer (which of course was originally going to be called The Optimist).
Is that a problem? I’m not sure. Do you believe in change?