The syllable has taken on a political and cultural life of its own
O for a muse of fire, the Chorus declaims at the start of Shakespeares Henry V. It celebrates a youthful,inspiring national leader. Imagine a slightly different play. It,too,celebrates a youthful,inspiring national leader,except this plays not history. Call the play Barack I. It starts the same way Shakespeares does,only the emphasis comes on the very first syllable: O.
You already know what the poster looks like. O is the letter of the hour. Its all things to all men (all women,too): open and opaque,old and original,opinionated and objective,organic and opportunistic,outstanding and overdone,ordinary and ostentatious,oratorical and oracular.
Time named the November 17,2008 New Yorker,with Bob Staakes illustration of the o in the magazines name hanging over the Lincoln Memorial like a full moon,as cover of the year. The cover,Time suggests,whispers Everythings okay nowwe have our country.
O is constant and self-contained. O is the symbol for oxygen. It also has a numerical near-twin,zero,and the two can seem as indistinguishable at times as Sarah Palin and Tina Fey. That indistinguishability is the letters symbolic limitations. One voters O is anothers 0. The letter is as much absence as presence,no less likely to be uttered as lamentation as delight.
It was O rings that undid the space shuttle Challenger. A fuzzy red O was the logo for Lucent,that strange hybrid of dot.com frenzy and industrial dinosaur. Uh-ohor,better yet,uh-O.
The mystique of the Obama O began with the campaign logo. Combining understatement and assertion,its visual sloganeering at its most economically eloquent.
The elements are simplicity itself. The colours are the standard patriotic trio: red,white,bluewith a subtle difference. The blue is sky blue,evoking a sense of promise as well as a pleasing sense of variation (innovation?).
Another flag allusion is the set of curved stripes that cover the lower half of the circle. Are they plowed fields or roads? That ambiguity is one of the designs few weaknesses. Another,which can just as well be seen as a strength,is its vaguely feminine quality: all curves,no sharp edges. Is it too much to also read a bit of the Tao in the design? The logo does have a faintly New Age feel. Call it Uncle Sam Mystical.
Pepsi,knowing a bandwagon when it sees one,has rolled out a new ad campaign that piggybacks on this mutual O-ness.
This isnt the first time a letter has taken on a political/cultural life of its own. Os usually come with Xs,and thats the case here. A quarter century after his murder,Malcolm X became a cultural phenomenon and X,a very different proposition from O both visually and metaphorically,became the letter of that equally different cultural hour.
Xs angularity is confrontational,yet X is also the classic indicator of anonymity. The contrast with Ono sharp edges,a void,a blank space waiting to be filled in (as on a ballot?)is obvious. Yet X and O,as any tic-tac-toe player knows,are an inevitable,even necessary,pairing. Theyre counterparts. And so it is with Malcolm and Obama. The separatist activist who became a Muslim vs. the assimilationist politician who had a Muslim father. Conversely,just as slender,intense,light-skinned Malcolm was a gifted orator and writer,so is Obama.
George W. Bush has been a letter man,too. His letter has two syllables,dubya. The clunkier sound is indicative of a more muddled cultural significance generally. W signifies a win,but such triumphalism doesnt quite gibe with W.,the fashion magazine,let alone the dimwit thrust of W. the Bush biopic.
O for a muse of fire,yes,but W for a muse of ire.