Obama, Socialist Realism and the Inventory of Expressive Units of Culture

Obama and swaying fields of corn was a major theme of his 30-minute pre-election and then Elizabeth Alexander's poem at the inauguration brought it home during the inauguration:

Transcript - Inaugural Poem - Text - NYTimes.com Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

Poem's like these were being written during communist transitions by greats like Mayakovski, Nezval or Seifert. The imagery was great and beautiful. As was the imagery of the Chinese cultural revolution of which Shepard Fairey's icon is more than a little reminiscent.


Immediately upon swearing in Whitehouse.gov changed (for the better by including a blog) but for more interesting by choice of pictures such as this of Obama with the 'workers':

Now, this is all interesting not by revealing how Obama is a secret socialist but rather how imagery and rhetoric can easily be divorced from actions. Bush afterall once said something along the lines of 'Everyone in America who wants a job should be able to get a job.' This is an indicator of what I would call, following Langacker, an inventory of expressive constructions. They may add up to a language but they reflect what is available to us to utilise in discourse rather than some hidden ideology. For instance, another picture on the White House web is distinctly non-socialist:

Paradoxically, leaders helping out in charitable efforts was not part of the inventory of socialist realism and it is a significant part of the expressive inventory of US political discourse.


And just like these two images, Soviet Union of 50 years ago and the United States of today evince as many similarities as differences. But why any similarities at all? And do they matter? I would argue that the similarities are a consequence of what I call the logistics of language and culture. Simply a result of the necessity of getting from point A to point B. Language and culture are not just there to carry our messages and interactions. They have to carry their own weight just like much of the structure of the bridge is there just to support the weight of its own materials and the personnel of a marching army includes as many of those deal with food, fuel and excrement as those shooting guns.

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