Pop Semiotics (v. 10):
Obama and the Post-Authentic Condition

Jasper John's White Flag Hanging on the walls of my office at work are several variations of Jasper Johns’s paintings of the American flag. Few people ever comment, but I’m always curious how my colleagues perceive the paintings Do they think they’re intended to be ironic, hyper-patriotic, merely decorative?
I also have no idea what Johns thought about the works or what he intended by the paintings. In fact, I’ve actively avoided finding out so that his artistic intent doesn’t interfere with my own personal, peculiar interpretation. For me, seeing the Flags helps me to better see the Flag.
Normally when I look at an American flag I see — an American flag. Although not consciously recognized, there is a certain semiotic understanding that the flag (a cloth with stars and stripes) is merely the signifier (the form the symbol takes) while the signified (the concept it represents) is America. Of course this leads to another level of recursion since “America” is also a sign that stands in for a variety of signified concepts, both tangible (our homeland) and intangible (our ideals).
Jasper Johns' Green FlagWhen I look at Johns’s Flags, though, I see something different: an abstract representation of an abstract symbol that itself represents abstract concepts. In looking at the paintings I no longer see “American Flag” but see past the symbol to what it represents. The paintings help me to “see” the authenticity of the flag in a way that I often miss when I encounter it flying on a flagpole.
Without Johns’s painting to keep me focused, it would be easy for me to see the American Flag in a clichéd manner. This is why I was initially sympathetic to Barack Obama’s claim that he doesn’t wear the American flag lapel pin anymore because it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Someone noticed I wasn’t wearing a flag lapel pin but I am less concerned with what you are wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart… We have to lead on our values and our ideals.

He is absolutely right that the pins can be used as a substitute for a concept (patriotism) that has lost its meaning. But then I heard his explanation, and I realized there was something else going on. According to ABC News (via Marc Ambinder), Obama said:

“You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said Wednesday. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”

Obama isn’t just saying that the pins have become a cliché.* He is saying that he no longer wears the pins because they are no longer–at least for him–authentic symbols. In other words, the reason Obama won’t wear the pin on his chest is not that he isn’t patriotic, but because he is “post-authentic.”
Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. For instance, a WWII veteran might wear a flag label pin because he has an authentic love of country. His intention in wearing the symbol is to convey a sincere non-ironic expression of patriotism.
Someone who is post-authentic would wear (or not wear) the pin for a quite different reason. Although it is not intended to be ironic, it does share some characteristics of “hipster irony.” Hipster irony is a self-awareness of one’s behavior “insofar as that behavior is incongruent with what is expected and what actually occurs.” For the ironic hipster, wearing a flag pin would be communicating, “Isn’t it ironic that someone as cool as me would wear such a lame symbol?”
In contrast, the post-authentic person is also painfully self-aware of what they are communicating, but unlike the ironist, they wear the symbol to be congruent with the intended meaning. However, they are uncomfortable with the meanings of the signified concepts as commonly held. They do want the symbols to be authentic but only after the symbol has been recalibrated, returned to an original, pure, or redefined meaning of the concept signified.
For the post-authentic, the quest for authenticity also becomes a purpose unto itself. Take, for instance, the Emerging Church movement, an exemplar of post-authenticity. An example of this can be found in Scott McKnight’s post What is the Emerging Church?

There is much talk among the emerging folk about “authenticity” and sometimes one gets the impression that the Emerging Movement has a corner on authenticity: such a claim, if it is made, is inconsistent with its central affirmation that no one is completely authentic and no movement is completely authentic. But, striving for such transcends, so we believe, what is often on display in many churches in the world.

The prefix “post” (after) in post-authentic is this constant “striving” for a more genuine genuineness. The authentic is condition of truthfulness and sincerity. The post-authentic is a condition of truthfulness and sincerity…but with an asterisk. The WWII vet wears the flag pin as an authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country.” Obama chooses to not wear the pin as a post-authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country, but…”
Obama may very well be our first post-authentic candidate. But he certainly won’t be the last.
*As Eugene Volokh notes, “Wearing a flag pin is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument, just as “I love you” is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument. It’s supposed to be a traditional statement of affection, powerful because it’s cliché.”
Other posts in this series:

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    Senator Obama, you can do whatever you want with your flag pins.
    Trying to defund our troops in Iraq while they are fighting and dying to win is a big mistake though.
    A lot of our soldiers would like to come home tomorrow. But to pull the plug on them while they are in the heat of an uncertain battle is to betray their mission and squander their sacrifices.
    If you and other leaders believe otherwise, then I respectfully suggest you had better be d–m sure you know what you are talking about. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Like when the Democratic caucus flips from demanding a surge to obstructing a surge in the space of two months.
    None of this should be interpreted as questioning your patriotism. It’s just a request that you responsibly handle your duties as our elected representative.

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Obama isn’t just saying that the pins have become a cliché.* He is saying that he no longer wears the pins because they are no longer–at least for him–authentic symbols. In other words, the reason Obama won’t wear the pin on his chest is not that he isn’t patriotic, but because he is “post-authentic.”
    This is an interesting post. The distinction Joe makes between signifier and the signified is, I think, the key to the understanding:
    signifier (the form the symbol takes) while the signified (the concept it represents) is America
    While verbally there’s a black and white difference between the two words in real life there cannot be. The distinction becomes blurred over time as the signifier becomes its own signified. In other words, Joe has a hip collection of American Flag prints. If everyone started getting these prints for their pads the distinction changes. Now it isn’t about what the flag prints signify but it’s about who are the flag print people and who are not flag print people. Anyone who orignially had the prints because they wanted to signify the original signified is now going to have to find some new signifier (pins perhaps…or maybe flag bumper stickers).
    Fashion is in a permanant state of change because of this. A new fashion starts with signifing “I’m different”. Then it becomes “I’m with it” and then finally it becomes “I found this on sale”. If you wanted to signifiy “I’m different” you got to move on to something else after step two, hopefully before step three.
    The flag pin may have started with “I’m in sympathy with 9/11″, became “I support the Iraq War” and may now be heading towards “I’m just wearing the standard uniform”.
    The nice thing is that while there’s probably no escape from this trap we can employ reincarnation. Instead of trying to invent some new signifier that may become embrassing to future generations (animated ties with a waving holographic flag?) we can revert to some old signifier for a while and then the pin will look new again.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    If not wearing an American flag pin is an indicator of one’s patriotism, does the fact that one is not wearing a swastika pin indicate that one is a Nazi in his heart?

  • Oclarki

    It’s not the lack of wearing the flag pin that bothers me, it’s Obama’s explanation why he’s no longer wearing it.
    It’s apparent that in order to win votes in the democrat party, one has to distance themselves from the history, accomplishments and values this nation was founded upon. Instead of taking pride in a nation that produced Abraham Lincoln, wrestled with the question of slavery, fought a bloody war to right that wrong and still remain a Union, the left dismisses the entire American enterprise as corrupt and evil. Instead of marvelling at how a fledgling nation was able to expand across a continent, and rise to be an economic powerhouse, the left only sees exploitation. Instead of thankfulness that our nation was founded upon a model of religious liberty and based on Judeo-Christian values, the left only sees the the bogey man of the “religious-right”.
    When one can’t say, “I prefer the values and culture of my own nation to another” it’s no surprise when they accept millions of non-assimilated aliens invading their nation, or balk at the idea that their nation is ever right in fighting to protect itself.

  • Mike O

    “The prefix “post” (after) in post-authentic is this constant “striving” for a more genuine genuineness. To quote one of the Geiko cavemen: What?
    Maybe Obamma can get Michael Moore to send him a baseball cap for him to wear his pin on.

  • http://www.webguy-prod.com/stimpfam/mike/applied.html Mike Stimpson

    The other day, I stopped and looked at a flag on a flagpole, and wondered, “Does it still stand for what it once did?”
    I’m not talking about it being diluted by mindless patriotism. I’m talking about rendition, wiretapping, and all the other war-on-terror incursions on our civil liberties. That stuff bother me. A lot. It makes me think we’re losing what made America America. And I’m a conservative.
    But I think the whole introspective naval-gazing about “authenticity” misses the point. A symbol means something to you; it means something to others. If they match, and you use the symbol, you’re authentic. If you use the symbol because it will go over well with other people but it doesn’t match your position, you’re not authentic. If the symbol means differing things to you and your audience, using it causes mis-communication (perhaps deliberately). There’s no need to make it more complicated.

  • George 2

    Let’s be charitable here. Obama is not wearing a flag pin. He chooses not to because he rejects not the country but the implication that to wear it is a true measure of patriotism.
    Practically speaking, I guess I agree, as I don’t wear one, either. The main reason has been I’m too lazy, but if pushed I would say that my voluntary year in VN is a sufficient indicator.
    Joe displays pictures of flags that would have once — not too long ago, and even now, down at the American Legion — be considered disrespectful. Are they? Even tho I still cringe a bit, I have to acknowledge that the “rules” have de facto loosened up a bit, and it would be wrong of me to condemn either Obama or Joe for a display done in good faith.
    Did Obama act in good faith? As long as good faith does not mean: sees things as I do, then yeah, it seems to me Obama acted in good faith.

  • smmtheory

    I’m talking about rendition, wiretapping, and all the other war-on-terror incursions on our civil liberties.

    Rendition? Yeah, that’s definitely American. What other country would turn an American over to America if they captured him and suspected him of subversive and terroristic activities? Odds are he’d end up in a shallow unmarked grave. And truly, rendition’s got nothing to do with the civil liberties of Americans when it is foreigners being turned over to their native lands for questioning.
    Oh, and you think George Washington and the Continental Congress wouldn’t have used wire-tapping to keep tabs on British actions in the Revolutionary War if they had had the opportunity? Give me a break!

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Instead of marvelling at how a fledgling nation was able to expand across a continent, and rise to be an economic powerhouse, the left only sees exploitation.
    I think you’ve read very little, if any, of what Obama has said or written. True to form you pull out your list of what you think a liberal would say and proceed with your prewritten screed from there. Too bad for you this election will probably require a little bit more thinking than the last few.
    The other day, I stopped and looked at a flag on a flagpole, and wondered, “Does it still stand for what it once did?”
    Old zen story about some monks meditating when the wind blows and a flag flaps. The youngest says “wind is blowing”. The next says “the flag is flapping” and the next says “wind is flapping”, the next says “the mind is flapping”. Finally the oldest ends it with “lips are flapping!”
    It never stood for anything, it stands for whatever you think at this moment it stands for. If you think it stands for supporting Bush in Iraq then wave it if you support Bush in Iraq or don’t if you don’t. Likewise don’t make any assumptions about others. If Mr X is waving the flag don’t assume he agrees or disagrees with your feeling that it stands for supporting Bush in Iraq.
    In general the best policy is probably to assume the most benign motives for others unless you have good reasons to think otherwise. Likewise one shouldn’t get in the habit of trying to force symbolism down anyone’s throat. It’s nice that some Americans wear flag pins sometimes. It would be horrible if everyone felt compelled to wear a flag pin all the time.

  • JohnW

    You really put together some real lofty patriotic sounding words, but you could have just simply said, “democrats hate america” or “‘the left’ hates America”
    The truth is that both parties have “distanced themselves from the history, accomplishments and values this nation was founded”. We know longer have a responsive democracy that follows the constitution-voting in the democrats will not be enough to remedy the situation, but continueing the policies of the current administration will definitely not improve things.
    [Another post were I didn’t mention the name of the country our military is currently occupying in the middle east…]

  • Oclarki

    “Too bad for you this election will probably require a little bit more thinking than the last few.”
    What does that even mean? Was there ever a time in your life when you weren’t a complete tool?

  • berean77

    I don’t really care whether a candidate wears a flag pin or not. Many true patriots don’t see a need to wear any such pin, and many scoundrels conspicuously sport them on their lapels. I don’t know Obama’s “heart”.
    The interesting thing, to me, is that Obama saw fit to call attention to the fact. He didn’t have to do that publicly. We can be fairly confident that his comments were not a casual aside, but a calculated statement, designed to have a particular impact on his hearers. He is no different than any other presidential candidate in this regard.
    From a pragmatic viewpoint, Obama thinks that such a statement will benefit his candidacy. I think it is a miscalculation – this will come back to haunt him if he gets past the primaries (whether as a Pres. or a VP candidate).

  • http://TheEverWiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    It seems that Obama was asked about the pin and he answered. I’m not sure what it is you think he ‘calculated’. I’m not quite sure who will haunt someone for saying that they want to show patriotism through their actions and values. Perhaps you have a very low opinion of the American people. I wouldn’t be so cynical. On average they do tend to be nicer and smarter than the crowd here.

  • Dave

    Um, no. Obama was saying that the signified (the patriotism) of people wearing flag lapel pins is inauthentic. Not that the signifier (lapel flag) is inauthentic.

  • Berean77

    We’ll see.

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    Joe, I have almost no idea what you mean about Obama and about the Emerging Church. However, I want to note that you display a great sense of hipster irony in discussing signification in this manner. I’m so . . . so . . . Saussure!

  • http://www.dailyduck.blogspot.com Robert Duquette

    Interesting post. My opinion on authenticity is that it’s an affectation. If you have to be self conscious of your status as an authentic (fill in blank) then you’re not. It’s like the quote about being wealthy, from I think J.P Morgan. If you have to ask how much something costs, then you’re not wealthy.
    I don’t know anything about the emerging church movement, but if it’s anything like the crunchy conservative movement, then I’d say that it’s an affectation posing as something serious. The whole search for authenticity is based on the theory that people of another time or place were living more in tune to the way human beings are supposed to live. It’s a silly quest for some Holy Grail of lifestyle that’s supposed to endow the seeker who achieves true authenticity with some aura of well-being, or wholeness, or some other equally indefinable state of transcendent goodness.
    It is so common to think that agriculture is the authentic lifestyle for human beings, but if you take the archaeological and anthropological evidence for our pre-agrarian ancestry seriously, then settled agriculture looks to be a very inauthentic way for humans to live. It’s not called the Agricultural Revolution for nothing. It was a revolution that negatively impacted the health and shortened the lifespans of the great majority of the countless millions that lived their lives tied to the land. Frankly I’m glad to not have to live that way.

  • http://benedictionblogson.com Bene D

    Berean77 that is not how it happened.
    On October 3 on KCRG (ABC affiliate Iowa)
    this candidate didn’t bring the pin thing up, his interviewer did.
    The AP moved the story under the headline ” Obama Ditches American Flag Pin: Has Become a Substitute for ‘True Patriotism’
    which was picked up and changed by Druge October 4, 2007 as “Obama Stops Wearing Flag Pin”.
    At 2:33 pm Drudge headlined it as ” Obama Drops American Flag Pin.”
    Of couse media outlets didn’t source and went on to carry it as it was a recent decision and fresh news.
    John Edwards wears his son’s Outward Bound Pin, Hilary Clinton doesn’t always wear a pin. Giuliani mostly wears a flag pin. It is a personal choice of all party candidates.
    Rumsfield stopped wearing one 2 years after the start of the Iraq War.
    It appears some people have fallen for a case of the Drudges and jingoism.

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