On Modern Retellings

By Savannah Finver

Photo of Lin Manuel Miranda in musical Hamilton

Given the explosive popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton, it appears that the United States has recently been preoccupied with questions regarding the history of its citizens of African heritage and the slave trade which brought so many of them to American soil. One of my favorite songs on the Hamilton soundtrack is “Cabinet Battle #1”in which Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson go head-to-head over states’ rights. During his portion of the rap battle, Hamilton mocks Jefferson by repeating one of his earlier lines: “’We plant seeds in the south. We create.’ Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting.”

Though Miranda conducted a good deal of research for his project, he is clear that it is meant to be a “modern retelling,” one adapted for the stage and composed mostly in song. The project is meant to be a representation of history rather than a detailed account of how a given event actually occurred. In this format, Miranda utilizes the process of selective privileging—which I describe in an earlier post—to determine which events in Hamilton’s life he felt were the most important to include given Miranda’s interest in exploring racial tension in the U.S.

But what do we do with those sources, such as history books, that purport to be giving us “facts?” We often assume the narrative presented to us in these kinds of sources to be true, and we’re taught from a young age that we can “trust” them.

School textbook page titled How the Negroes Lived under Slavery

Consider the language in the image above, which shows a page from the textbook Virginia: History, Government, Geographyby Francis Butler Simkins (1957). The passage refers to slaves as “servants” and suggests that owners treated their slaves with kindness in order to win their “confidence and affection.” The passage also details a number of activities that slaves were “allowed” to participate in, making it seem like slavery had a small impact on slaves’ personal freedoms, especially freedom of worship. Even the image, showing a white man and a black man cordially shaking hands, seems to indicate a positive, respectful relationship between masters and slaves. How “complete” this narrative is, however, is up for debate, and Simkins gives no clear citation of his evidence for his assumptions on the page provided.

Sign presenting narrative of lynchings at memorial in Montgomery Alabama

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama, tell a very different tale than the textbook above. The Legacy Museum utilizes quotes, videos, and photographs to tell the stories of black families being torn apart during the slave trade and being sold off like cattle at auctions to the highest bidder, as well as how mass incarceration extends racial tensions in America to this day. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice focuses on the terrors of the lynchings of black Americans which took place throughout the American South up to as recently as 1950. The two work well together in exploring another side of race relations in the U.S.

Often, when we read textbooks or visit museums and memorials, we expect to be given the “truth” about our history, neatly prepared for us like the story in the picture sequencing worksheet I included in my last post. Yet, just as with the worksheet and in Hamilton, these sources are designed and created by individuals with interests. We must ask ourselves what details have been privileged and excluded in any presentation of any history and why. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative—the organization responsible for the museum and memorial in Montgomery—has been consistently clear in his reasoning for creating the memorial and has stated that the memorial is designed to present “the truth” about treatment of black Americans following the abolition of slavery in the hopes that southern communities will begin to take responsibility for the lynchings, leading ultimately to a path of healing.

The purpose of this post is not to engage in a thorough examination of the evidence behind each retelling. Rather, it is to suggest that all presentations of history, regardless of their form, are motivated by the interests of the writer. Further, certain details are selected and presented to serve a purpose. Instead of asking ourselves whose version of the past is more or less accurate, we may choose to focus on how the details appearing in each account serve to advance particular worldviews. In other words, naturalizing a specific representation of historical events is never a neutral act. These accounts often tell us more about the author’s or creator’s social interests at the time than they do about what “actually happened” in the past they claim to represent.


Photo credits: Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton Live in NY by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Textbook image via Richmond Times-Dispatch

Lynching memorial sign photo by Steven Ramey

Selective Storytelling

By Savannah Finver

“Hey, how was your weekend?”

It’s a question we hear all the time, one which we don’t put much thought into. After all, we spend a good portion of our lives telling stories. Storytelling, however, is a social tool we use to exchange information, and like any skill, it needs to be taught to us if we want to be able to use it effectively. What often goes unexplored, however, is that how we narrate our stories depends upon who is asking us about our weekend in the first place and why. And telling the stories of history is no different.

From a very young age, American schoolchildren are taught the importance of narrative form—that is, that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you’ve been through the public school system, it’s very likely that, sometime in grade school, you came across a worksheet that looks like this:

worksheet with steps for baking cookies to be put in chronological order

You were likely told to put the pictures in number order, from 1-5, in such a way that the pictures and text made up a coherent story; that is, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We learn to use this format to structure all the stories we tell. When, for example, someone asks you what you did over the weekend, you probably say something like, “Well first, on Friday night I decided to stay in and watch a movie. Next, on Saturday…Then, on Sunday morning…” If our entire lives are simply one long story about our past, it stands to reason that history functions in more or less exactly the same way: chronologically, linearly, and with a clear sense of how events begin, progress, and end.

Or does it?

What is often left out of our conversations about storytelling is the role of the author/narrator in constructing certain events to look a certain way, depending on their respective intended goals. When you tell a story about your weekend, depending on the intended audience, the details you choose to include in your narrative change. For example, I may tell my friend about how many drinks I had at the bar on Saturday night or how I was binge-watching the Office on Netflix on Sunday instead of doing my homework, but I likely wouldn’t tell the same tale to my professor on Monday morning.

So why does my social location as the narrator of this weekend tale matter? Because, depending on whom I’m talking to, I’m actually telling two very different stories about my weekend. It’s not so much that one particular version of events has more inherent truth-value than the other, but simply that certain details become more or less important to my message in different contexts.

This selection of details, often referred to as “selective privileging,” does not simply occur when we narrate our own stories for others or, say, write a novel, but when anystory about anygroup is told. And if history can be seen as a collection of stories about the past (perhaps prompting us to consider talking about histories, in the plural), we can rightly deduce that telling any history is not as simple as placing self-evident events, such as the events drawn in the pictures above, into chronological order and slapping a bow-tie on top. Rather, stories about the past are told by parties with particular interests and goals to listeners with equally particular interests and goals. We can imagine, therefore, how certain details are selectively privileged depending on the context in which the story is told.

If we consider the story drawn out for us in the image above, for example, we may ask ourselves why the author and/or artist decided to only include certain information regarding the process of baking. We don’t get to see, for example, the baker shopping for ingredients. We don’t get to see where those ingredients came from, either, or how much they cost. Indeed, we are never even explicitly given the reason why the cookies are being made.

Of course, for this example, we could say that the story is missing many elements for the very purpose of remaining simple. It’s a worksheet intended for young children, after all. But what do we do when the example is not so simple, e.g., when a history is being offered in which a group’s values are at stake? In such a case, asking ourselves what information gets to be included in the story and why can be even more revealing than the story itself.


Worksheet image credit: TurtleDiary

Disconnecting Truth from Free Speech

Image of cylinder with shadows of square and circle, illustrating perception does not equal truth

By Ana Schuber

Harry Potter, or in human form Daniel Radcliff, is currently acting in an off-Broadway play titled The Lifespan of a Fact.  Timely and satirical, the play posits a contemporary political pastime of major and minor news agencies across the world:  fact-checking truth.  Perhaps the more important question one might ask today is:  is there truth out there to be found by all these fact checkers?   For Radcliff, there are no magic wands, no all-knowing Hermione Grangers and no easy answer to this question as he portrays the dedicated fact checker. Tim Teemen in his review of this play for the Daily Beast explains that the play is about “what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.” Continue reading “Disconnecting Truth from Free Speech”

Is this “Rising” or even Equal?

By Ana Schuber

So, here in the middle, actually right up on the final run toward the mid-term 2018 elections, it was amazing to see a political advertisement that turned the standard dialogue about women running for office on its head.  Paid for by the Serve America PAC, a democratic effort, this ad features eight first time congressional female candidates running across the United States for elected office. You should watch it here:

I have a long and varied path from my early identification as a feminist in the 1960s to the present Pussy Hat wearing throng of women with political ambition or political desire.  This ad was new. Continue reading “Is this “Rising” or even Equal?”

Who’s a Good Boy?: Moonrise Kingdom and Value Judgements

By Emma Gibson

If you have not seen Moonrise Kingdom it is about two children–Sam and Suzy–who fall in love and runaway from their troubled lives together. There is a scene in the movie when the two encounter Sam’s Khaki Scout troop while navigating through the woods. Things turn violent when the Khaki Scouts try and capture Sam and Suzy to bring them back to their families and the Khaki Scout dog, Snoopy, is shot in the neck with an arrow and killed during the altercation. When the Khaki Scouts retreat, Suzy looks over Snoopy and asks, “Was he a good dog?” To which Sam responds, “Who’s to say?” (See clip here.)

This exchange got me thinking about the use of categories like goodness and badness as tools for authorizing one’s personal interests.

Suzy’s impulse to measure the value of Snoopy’s life in terms of “good” or “bad” is a move that reduces a lifetime into a single label, a move that Sam avoids. “Good” is not a universally agreed upon concept. A hunter may believe a dog is good if it is obedient while a family might argue a dog is good if it is loving. Some cultures see dogs as a nuisance rather than pets which would lead to an entirely different approach to the animal’s death. The goodness or badness of the dog’s life may be irrelevant in the moment of death because value judgements are overpowered by the fact that the number of stray dogs in a particular area is causes several problems for the community. The death of the dog may help solve a larger problem of overpopulation.

Sam’s question “Who’s to say?” pushes the viewer to rethink who gets to decide which person, society, or culture gets to define what it means to be good.

Snoopy might be a good dog in the eyes of the Khaki Scouts because he is a faithful companion to the boys all summer, not because his attributes are inherently “good”. If Sam told Suzy that Snoopy was good, Suzy’s idea of Snoopy is influenced even though she never knew him. To acknowledge that he does not have the ability to authorize goodness or badness, Sam avoids marginalizing those who disagree with him. He recognizes the implications that come when one assumes authority over value judgements. To deem Snoopy a good dog ignores the fact that reality is made up of multiple conceptions of goodness. Sam opens the doors for discourse that does not submit to categories, but wrestles with the intricacies of belief, authority, multiplicity, and truth claims.

“Hello, from the children of the planet Earth!” : The Voyager Golden Record and Judith Butler

By Emma Gibson

Before Voyagers 1 and 2 were sent into space in 1977, a golden record was attached to the outside of each. The record includes encoded images, an introduction by the U.N. Secretary at the the time, spoken greetings in many different languages (The title of this post comes from this section.), a compilation of the sounds of Earth, and a musical playlist comprised of twenty-seven songs. It was put together by a small team led by Carl Sagan during the months leading up to the launch and sought to capture the essence of human beings through media created for any form of life that happens to find the record floating in space. (Included in my post are a few of the encoded images on the record.)

This record reminded me of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself and her claim that accounts given by a subject are tailored around their interests because they are put together in response to a call from the other. Butler asserts that people would not give an account of themselves to themselves. It is only when ‘the other’ requires that we give an account that we are inclined to give one. By ‘other’ she means that-which-is-other-than-ourselves–whether that be another individual or any circumstance that prompts us to reflect on ourselves. An ‘account’ is essentially a narrative given to paint a specific picture for the other, a picture that maintains the interests of the subject giving the account.


After passing by Jupiter, the Voyagers are on course to continue their journey into deep space forever (or until they fall apart) which, I believe, acts as the call from the ‘other’. The possibility of a human object venturing into the unknown prompted NASA to try and answer the question, “Who are we?” Looking at the contents of the record, I would argue that the creators wanted anyone who found the record to see humans as peaceful, diverse, and rich in culture. There images are of people eating, human anatomy, objects and beautiful landscapes but none of war, murder, or illness. There are sounds of laughter and heartbeats but none of screaming or weeping (with the exception of a baby crying). Atrocities are left out because, ultimately, accounts are for the people who make them. The account given on the Golden Record was fabricated to satisfy the interests of Carl Sagan and his team: to persuade life in other galaxies to think fondly of us here on Earth.


And I am not trying to say the record should never have been created. I love the soundtrack and highly recommend listening to it all the way through. I am only suggesting that it is merely another account that ignores a reality that rests in a slew of experiences and interactions that in no way amount to a single linear, digestible narrative.

First image from Flikr user Ian Burt. CC BY 2.0.                               https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/#

Other images from Flickr user Jerome Gangneux. Public Domain Mark 1.0. https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/  

True Crime and Truth Claims

portrait drawing of Grace Marks and James McDermott


By Sarah Griswold

I recently finished watching the Netflix Original series Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s book by the same name. I haven’t yet read the book (I do plan to), but would I have understood or enjoyed the series differently if I had?

The series is marketed as an historical fiction. It would seem that this term is self-contradictory. If fiction is by definition a falsehood, why pair it with “historical” which elicits ideas of fact and truth? The very ideas of these terms contradict one another. But I would propose a more complex reframing. What if it is not truth, but rather truth claims? Whenever a history is told, it’s always in the form of some type of narrative — be it literary like in the form of a book or in physical sites like the well at Cawnpore or other memorials. Narratives necessarily exclude some information and embellish in certain areas for the sake of comprehension. The term “historical” doesn’t necessarily imply complete truth, but rather truth to the person telling the history. So perhaps the term “historical fiction” makes perfect sense.  And this is precisely what we’re given with Alias Grace, a historical fiction that at once claims truth and falsehood. But why has it been classified as historical fiction and not true crime? And what difference does that classification make?

When I first came across the series, I was hardly familiar. I watched the first episode knowing only that it was set in Canada during the 19th century. And I was hooked. The story itself feels novel and yet familiar. As a casual fan of true crime, I’m familiar with how the story is structured. Something bad happened. We don’t really know what, but we do know who has been blamed. We’re then taken through a serialized journey to discover what happened and who did it. Or maybe we’re left hanging, having to come to our own conclusions. In each episode one major twist and several minor clues are revealed — breadcrumbs on the proverbial path. In Alias Grace episodes two and three seem to divert from the path until connections are made later on that lead to the peak of the narrative hill.

It was around these episodes that I started to google and learn more about the series. This was when I learned the book on which it was based was written by Margaret Atwood. Personally (and I know this is controversial), I’m not that into Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale, set it aside, and didn’t particularly care to return. This is not to say that I don’t recognize its value and contribution to popular culture. I just doubt I would’ve watched Alias Grace if I had known going in about its connection to Atwood. Our own preconceived notions of what a thing is determine how we consume or interact with it. Starting this series with fewer preconceived notions allowed me to give it a fair shake. Later, once I had done more reading, I learned Atwood based her novel on real events, keeping as close to the historical record as possible. This becomes much more complicated in analyzing Atwood’s own understanding of the events. What were her preconceived notions? Why did she interpret the court records in certain ways? These are all important questions to explore.

But this all leads me to wonder, why has Alias Grace been classified as historical fiction rather than true crime? Are true crime narratives somehow not historical fiction? Atwood seemingly adhered tightly to what might be considered the “facts” of the case. Perhaps it has to do with when the murders and trial took place. Perhaps it had to do with (spoiler alert) Mary Whitney’s apparent possession of Grace Marks. Perhaps it even has to do with Atwood’s identification as a fiction writer rather than a reporter or historian. Or perhaps all of these and other factors I haven’t even thought of play a role in this classification. But at the end of the day does the classification of Alias Grace as historical fiction rather than true crime effect how we interact with it? For me (and probably you), the answer is a hard and resounding yes.


Photo credit: Special Collections Toronto Public Library via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ignatian Yoga?


By Sarah Griswold

Recently, while I was sitting on my couch, scrolling through social media with Netflix playing in the background, I came across this post on Facebook. At first I was taken aback. Ignatian spirituality and yoga didn’t seem to make sense together in my immediate reaction. Then I remembered all the other things I had seen like it in recent years — SoulCore and Holy Yoga among them. Ignatian Yoga actually isn’t any different than these other forms of Christian influenced yoga. The only thing that was new to me was seeing something that was both explicitly Catholic and explicitly yoga. So what is Ignatian Yoga anyway? And what were my preconceptions of these terms that contributed to my initial surprise?

First, “Ignatian” refers to a particular type of Catholic spirituality founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which now has more than 16,000 members. One of the Jesuits’ foci is on spiritual direction. It follows, then, that their retreats (including this one for Ignatian Yoga) would feature talks on Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction. While the Jesuits (like all groups) face opposition to their ideas from time to time, the idea of Ignatian spirituality seems fairly straightforward — at least in concept.

More complicated, however, is the idea of yoga. What is yoga? Is it religious? I vividly remember a yoga instructor once beginning an academic class on the subject by saying, “Before we begin, you all know yoga’s not a religion, right?” For the purposes of teaching yoga as an academic class at a public university in the United States, this claim makes perfect sense. By declaring yoga to not be a religion, the instructor was intentionally creating a barrier between yoga as good exercise and yoga as religious to avoid trouble under the first amendment. But the religiosity of yoga is actually a lot more complicated than that. The history of yoga in the United States is complex, but includes a particular trajectory of secularization — or does it? Andrea Jain has an interesting and concise book about this history. Suffice it to say that “yoga is not religious” is quite a bold claim.* To many (particularly outside of the U.S.), yoga is religious. Some see it as a positive, others see it as a threat to their own religious life. But none of this explains why the words “Ignatian” and “yoga” were put next to each other to describe this retreat.

By putting these two terms together the Jesuits running this particular retreat are making a few implicit claims just in calling it “Ignatian Yoga.” Because Ignatian spirituality and Christianity more generally act exclusively and reject non-Christian religion, “Ignatian yoga” can only exist if yoga is considered to not be religious. In this case, yoga provides the added component of exercise. Therefore, yoga could hardly be religious as Ignatian spirituality already fulfills that role. But beyond the question of whether or not these things are “religious,” we also see a combination of things from two seemingly different cultures.

In New York, the Jesuits ostensibly participate in and produce western and American cultures. On the other hand, yoga’s roots are often placed in Indian culture. From this perspective, how do we wind up with Ignatian Yoga if the two terms come from such different cultures? The answer here lies in how we conceptualize culture. Because of the more modern adaptations of yoga into American culture, the combination of Ignatian spirituality and yoga is actually not all that surprising. Cultures are often defined by their difference. So the idea of Ignatian yoga becomes possible first by the adoption of yoga into American culture itself. Then, after its recreation as non-religious exercise, it can be adopted into the folds of of Ignatian spirituality at this retreat (and other products like it).

The answer to how we wind up with “Ignatian Yoga,” then, seems to say a lot more about the person answering this question than anything else. So at first, I was surprised because this concept was outside of what I am most often exposed to. My preconceived notions of Ignatian spirituality and yoga were exclusive of one another. But as I thought about it more, I realized that this is precisely how culture is continually reproduced and recreated. After this brief pause, I kept scrolling through Facebook.


*For a fun introduction to the complications in this claim, I recommend Rough Translation‘s “Om Alone In India.”

Recordings from My Closet




By Sierra Lawson

Podcasts have become increasingly popular in academia, probably due to the increasing availability of technology across many Universities in the U.S. as well as abroad. For example, I’ve recently been listing to Invisibilia on NPR as well as a variety of podcasts produced by the Religious Studies Project. In my own graduate cohort we are currently in the process of creating our own episode of the department’s podcast Studying Religion. Under the guidance of Dr. Mike Altman, in one of our two foundations courses this Fall, we have begun learning the standard methods for creating a podcast, also benefiting from the advice of a digital expert at the University of Alabama.

Being the only one in our group to have produced podcasts in the past, I had a few pro tips for the others, such as how to save time (and, if you’re not affiliated with a university and lack resources, how to save money too!) in the production of a podcast. Most notably, I mentioned to my colleagues that a closet full of clothes, with the door closed, could function perfectly well as a recording studio, to which the expert at UA replied that while a closet could certainly fulfill that function the recording studio is ideal.

Naturally, the social theorist in me began to wonder what interests go into identifying something as a ‘recording studio’. Could it be the structure of the room itself? I think not, for both my closet and the ‘studio’ are ostensibly identical in structure in that they are rooms with four walls, no windows and a single door. So, could it be the content perhaps? Maybe, although beyond whatever high tech recording equipment it might have, the studio has noise-suppressing padding that is pretty much identical to my clothes, in that they are just objects that to fulfill the same purpose (i.e., suppressing sound). So instead of seeing them as all that different, I would like to suggest that the recording studio is only a recording studio, and my closet is only my closet, because we arbitrarily label them as such.

Sure, the recording studio that we’ve booked at UA may provide a public space that is more comfortable for collaborative podcasts (yes, it’s a little larger than my closet), but I remain convinced that there is no inherent quality or essence to the recording studio that demands that it be labeled as such within our system of language; it is only a ‘recording studio’ because we authorize that particular string of phonemes to create a word that we agree refers to an item in our material reality.

After all, doesn’t Marc Maron record his famous podcast in his garage—err…, his recording studio?

Although language is an established system it is always evolving; it is social and thus collaborative, with no single agent to which it can be traced. Thus, no labels within language – whether recording studio or closet – refer to any static phenomena or natural object outside of language or discourse. Yet, despite claiming this, as scholars we often draw on bits of language as though they have a viable or obvious trans-historical meaning. ‘Religion’ is one such word sometimes taken to have a self-evident meaning that does not require temporal nor contextual elaboration (the old “I know it when I see it” school of thought). But, if we can posit that this word religion – like that other term, recording studio – only appears to refer to something outside of language because we authorize it to, because we use it that way, then perhaps we can begin to understand why it is problematic to make assumptions about the existence of something called ‘World Religions’ within the academic study of religion—as if they’re just out there, somewhere. And perhaps we can also understand how some might want to study how language (and the institutions in which it functions) is used to delineate not only religious from secular but particular factions of religions from one another, as if this one is more authentic, proper, or maybe even ideal, than that one.

But, who am I to tell you what to think about your notion of religion? After all, I’m some grad student who records podcasts in her closet, or should I say her home recording studio…?


The Human Tribe

By Sarah Griswold

What does it mean to greet someone in a different language? In this video, President Obama does just that, over and over again. The repetitive nature elicited by editing these clips together suggests an effort on his part to learn these greetings. This effort is further emphasized by the moment where he doesn’t get it quite right and admits to having practiced. He later appeals to the human tribe, citing familiarity and likeness across different cultures. Of course, the video produces a reminiscence for Obama’s presidency, but I can’t help but wonder: what is this “human tribe?”

Like The Family of Man, this video evokes feelings of camaraderie and a natural human similarity. This effort to learn a simple aspect of another culture highlights similarity through the difference of speech. These are greetings, after all. The similarity is inherent. The difference lies within expression both in language and in culture. The viewer is expected to feel that these differences are negligible, allowing for this “human tribe” to form.

Learning about each other and finding similarity through our cultural difference is presented as the ideal. But the limitations on adopting other cultures is reinforced. The video does not show Obama wearing non-Western clothing. It does not show him participating in events that would be jarring to an American audience. Rather, Obama remains dressed in a suit and plays with a ball. He sees the sights and pats babies’ heads. After all, that which represents American culture is not undercut by the presentation, at least to some.

Posted on the Facebook page USA New Today, a page that regularly posts content depicting Obama in a favorable manner, this video is presented as a nostalgic piece: something to remind viewers of the good times we all had under our former president. But those who do not remember Obama’s presidency positively may have a hard time getting the same thing out of this video. Obama was often perceived as being too soft on other nations and was often criticized for it. To those who remember Obama’s presidency as largely negative, this video may serve as a reminder of their frustrations. In fact, they may read the opposite of the points I have made above. They may focus on the difference rather than the similarities that the video attempts to highlight. So maybe there isn’t one “human tribe.” Maybe, instead, difference cannot be wiped out by similarity.

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies reads The Family of Man in a similar manner. He concludes that this presentation and assumption of likeness creates an alibi for the actions of man, rendering them harmless. If we are able to focus on the camaraderie and the interactions of cultures presented in this video, we are then able to ignore and dismiss other actions that may be deemed unfavorable.

Returning to the video’s presentation of Obama’s many greetings, the usage of these phrases can be read as a myth. In his concluding essay “Myth Today,” Barthes presents a method of understanding myth as a second-order semiological system. The chart he provides to explain this looks like this:

chart for Myth Today

So when, for example, Obama says “Grüß Gott,” he is saying much more than “God bless.” On the first-order of language, Obama makes the sounds of the phrase, forming the signifier. That which is signified is the meaning “God bless.” Together they form the sign which the audience hears and understands. But beyond its obvious meaning, each greeting demonstrates something else. The sign itself signifies something more. The audience doesn’t just understand the greeting. They understand that Obama has made an effort to be accepted with kindness and open arms. This is something you can almost see on Angela Merkel’s face as she processes the sounds she has just heard.

On the most basic level, we are presented with a video of President Obama greeting audiences in other languages. Beyond that, audiences within the video hear Obama and receive (perhaps to varying degree) his message of commonality. But another point is this: viewers will understand one of two things. Either they will understand that the former president’s era is to be missed for his outreach to other nations (the view encouraged by the video’s producers), or his opponents will see this effort as a symbol of his weakness.

The video may seem inconsequential to many. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people saw this in their feed and kept scrolling after less than a second. But videos, images, and texts such as these are doing a great deal of work to produce a particular affect on their audience. While the intent may have been to use the rhetoric in this video to convey a nostalgia for the former president’s affinity towards non-American cultures, there is much more heavy lifting behind the scenes.