Redefining political imagery and the concept of ‘mythic speech’… That Sarah Palin Newsweek cover.

One of the more interesting aspects of the US Presidential Election in terms of visual imagery and identity was a small controversy that developed over the depiction of Sarah Palin on the cover of Newsweek last month.

As noted on political and current events website Slate.com

The photo is clearly untouched: stray eyebrow hair, large pores, and wrinkles are all visible on her face. The headline reads “She’s One of The Folks (And that’s the problem).”

But the outrage isn’t about the headline at all; it’s about the photo. When did untouched become “unfair,” as a Republican media consultant claims during the segment? And when did it become a requirement to retouch photos in news magazines rather than fashion ones?

The response from Republicans was unequivocal…

[A campaign] consultant went on to claim that the photo was “mortifying.”

It may well be so, although to my eye it provided a strong and not unflattering image which operated on the level of a representation as much as a caricature. The faux-realism of the image, ‘stray eyebrow hair, large pores and wrinkles’ and all is hardly inaccurate, or at least not markedly so than the highly finished sheen of most campaign photography. It is in those terms as positive or negative as all such imagery – Palin is, it should be noted, highly telegenic with a very distinctive visual identity that has operated in such a way as to make her an iconic figure for the Republican party. It is perhaps best described as a construct and one which is dependent upon the reading of the individual viewer for meaning.

An interesting exercise is to contrast it to the visual imagery that developed around Mary Robinson when she contested the Irish Presidency in 1990.

The Robinson campaign, atypically for one originating on the centre-left at that time, was willing to utilise promotional techniques which had hitherto been largely the preserve of the centre-right. The image of Robinson at the start of the campaign reflected her as the former politician, academic and barrister that she was. The reworked image sought to portray her in a more personality-led visual context. For example, Irish fashion photographer, Mike Bunn was employed to take promotional photographs including the one used on the campaign poster. Robinson also restyled her hair and clothing (for more on this see here).

In an ironic contrast to the Palin photograph the complaint was that Robinson had in some sense generated an ‘artificial’ imagery. Most famously this critique was made by Fianna Fáil Minister Padraig Flynn when he suggested that “…none of those who knew Mary Robinson very well in previous incarnations…” would recognise this new version.

So here we see a directly opposite dynamic to that of Palin. For Padraig Flynn the imagery of Mary Robinson was an artificial construct which did not represent her political and – arguably – actual ‘reality’. For the unnamed Republican campaign consultant the ‘mortifying’ insult is in the lack of artificiality of the Palin image.

Inevitably any image of a candidate is going to embody referents, both positive and negative, and much may depend upon the political stance of the viewer. And that is why the supposed ‘artificiality’ of Robinson, and the supposed ‘untouched’ aspect of the Palin photograph raise such emotion and dissent. That it can operate in such seemingly contradictory ways is testament to the enduring power of imagery in political contests, as well as the propensity for political adversaries and allies to use that power to their own ends – not only through design but also through interpretation.

And to repeat the point made earlier, the reality that all images are constructs is evaded by both. The controversies overshadow a larger indifference, or plain good sense, on the part of the public to assimilate such imagery without being overly worried about its provenance. Moreover it is important not to exaggerate the power of such imagery. Barthes concept of ‘mythic speech’ is enormously powerful as a methodological tool and its applicability to imagery such as this is undeniable. Palin has become a uniquely potent signifier of a brand of US Republicanism. Her visual image is a crucial part of a ‘mythic’ narrative.

Ellen Lupton and J. Abbot Miller in Design Writing and Research argued that while:

An audience can recognize ‘mythic speech’ as ideological… recognition does not necessarily defuse the power of the myth. We can consume stereotypes and clichés knowingly, but this knowledge does not preclude the ability of such images to shape beliefs’.

The problem here is that we live in a media environment where there is a multiplicity of images that seek to shape belief. And the power of the individual image is – inevitably – lessened by the overwhelming volume. So, even if it were true that the Palin image was regarded as uniquely negative – a highly questionable assertion – it would only be one amongst many many others with a consequent power or authority. Furthermore given the clear pre-dominance of television as the major channel of political communication in the US Election, and note how Barack Obama purchased an half hour of television time in the final days of the campaign, the reach of the Newsweek cover would be limited.

This is not to say that it would have no influence our perception of Palin. A series of television interviews she conducted over the campaign generated a sense of a candidate not quite ready for the rigours of the US Presidency. And the Newsweek image could feed into that, albeit at a low level. Yet it was only one of many images both supportive or otherwise of the candidate. Even the Mary Robinson campaign image, which had a far greater ubiquity in the context of the Irish Presidential campaign than the Newsweek cover would in the US campaign, would be highly unlikely to have a pivotal influence. At best it could only be one amongst many, although its centrality as the image chosen by her campaign would make it potentially the most important image of the campaign.

So it may well be time to rework our approaches to the concept of ‘mythic speech’ and recognise that it has clear limitations, not merely in terms of the ability of audiences to read it in a more critical fashion than Barthes originally proposed but also in terms of the diminishing power of the imagery associated with it in a wildly pluralistic visual environment.

After all, if everyone is speaking at the same time what exactly do we hear?

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