Drawn thingys

The controversy over the New Yorker cover is an interesting case study of how culture reads culture. The critics of the cover object to the representation of Barack and Michelle as extremists of Black Power and Islam. The association is a falsehood, although one that some news media will sometimes insinuate to feed punditry. The trouble is that the medium of the representation was not the news media with its normative claim to objectivity. It was what the New Yorker calls a cartoon.

Since there is a wide range of visuals that fall under the heading of cartoon, we are steeped in murky semiotic waters. The critics and the supporters of the cover distributed themselves into two camps. The critics called the cartoon a caricature. The supporters called the cartoon a satire. Hence the debate turned ontological: an agreement ought to be reached on what the thing is. A caricature purports to enhance certain aspects of reality, and by bringing the hidden into focus, it can claim a measure of objectivity. A satire serves not the purpose of truth and faithful representation, it seeks the absurd by bringing an argument to its excessive conclusions.

The controversy about the cover is no longer about the cover. The new subject is the legitimate social sphere of satire. Fine and dandy to have New Yorker magazines delivered in the mailbox of the intellectual classes (like me, who have yet to receive this issue, and losing hope of ever getting such an incendiary item). Not so nice to have New Yorker magazines in newsstands since the public is ignorant of subtlety and will subscribe to whatever meets their eyes.


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