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Occidentalist Visual Politics. 'Orientalizing' Barack Obama and Angela Merkel.

In last decades photos and other visual media representation developed into central tools of political staging. (Bennett & Entman, 2000). Media scholar Kristen Marek (2007: 27) concludes, that politics has always to be understood as ‘order of images’, engendering visibility and spatiality. In the last Iraq war the US press corps waited for days to cover the symbolic act of tearing down a Saddam Hussein monument by enraged Iraqis. They finally gave in, leaving the symbolic act to US soldiers and documenting it anyway. Barack Obama – then candidate for the US presidency – held a foreign policy speech in Berlin and aimed for TV footage in front of the Brandenburg Gate, in order to attach himself to the iconography of the last ‘just’ American war and its symbols such as the airlift and the tumbling of the ‘Wall’. German chancellor Angela Merkel – stingy with German cultural capital – did not allow Obama to use the historically charged site, indicating that the speaker is only a candidate and not an elected president.

Obama’s objective was nonetheless achieved. He chose a nearby site, where the Brandenburg Gate could be zoomed in. In this regard Obama was able to control the backdrop of performance. He could not have done that in a different terrain. During the presidential campaign, political adversaries and foes launched images and caricatures alluding to Obama as Muslim. Photos were circulated displaying the candidate with a turban – shot on the occasion of a family visit in Kenya, where he donned traditional attire – and the noble New Yorker published a less than flattering cover caricature aligning Obama with beard, caftan, and turban to Osama bin Laden. This kind of visual politic is aimed to place the candidate in the heart of the enemy-camp, Islamist terrorism.

Chancellor Merkel wanted to evade something similar a week before Obama’s Berlin speech. She declined to visit a mosque during a state visit in Algeria, in order not to be photographed by wearing a headscarf, which she would have to put on in regard to religious sensibilities of her hosts.[1] But Merkel honored the construction site of a mosque – without headscarf because the building was not yet consecrated – with a visit, because German architects had built it. Whereas Merkel could avoid to be pictured in a Muslim sign system without much ado, Obama’s campaign managers created a major embarrassment by asking two girls with Muslim headscarves in Detroit to step aside in order not to be filmed during his speech.

Why is this that those two politicians are endangered by getting connected to Muslim paraphernalia? The working hypothesis is that ‘lack’ might play a major role. Both lack certain criteria needed to incorporate Western occidental superiority. Obama lacks whiteness and American upbringing. His religion is dubious. He is suspected either being affiliated with radical Afro-American reverends such as Jeremiah Wright or having been a Muslim all along because of his middle name Hussein. Merkel lacks masculinity, Western upbringing as former GDR citizen, and possibly religion at all. By deviating from the norm in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, locality and religion both politicians cannot inscribe themselves in the ‘occidental memory of images’ (okzidentales Bildgedächtnis) (Osten, 2007: 176). This stock of images acknowledges – with the notable exception of dynastic succession – features solely male white representations. Being marked as ‘female’ or ‘black’ disturbs the central perspective. Regarding visual images, Kaja Silverman talks about a ‘screen’ where, quite similar to language, parameters of representation – already preconfigured – organize what and how we see (Silverman, 1997: 58).

Merkel and Obama epitomize two historically consecutive discourses and corresponding ‘screens’. Both screens have been paramount in the Western claim for supremacy: First the axle East/West, and then the axle Orient/Occident. Until the iron curtain came down the ‘West’ was constructed via binaries such as capitalism versus socialism, democracy versus dictatorship, private property versus state property. With the breakdown of the Eastern bloc, the ‘constitutive other’ vanished. There are good reasons to suggest, that the East/West binary is now replaced with the axle Orient/Occident (Dietze, 2006; Schulze, 2007). Evidence for this hypothesis can be found in two different sites. First the Near- and Middle-East-Terror-Complex connecting the Israel-Palestine conflict with 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from Western security concerns the hunger for fossil fuels such as oil and gas energized the quest. As second site one could propose a ‘Postcolonial-Migration-Complex’ (which applies more to Europe). This site focuses increasingly on religious beliefs and allegedly ‘oriental’ mores – notably sexual politics – of Muslim migrants. Considerable amounts of European migrant populations of North African (France), Pakistani (UK) and Turkish (Germany) descent loom large and xenophobic discourses such as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (Huntington, 1996) provide interpretation. Both fields coincided to patterns of resentment, which can be called ‘neo-orientalist’ (Al-Azmeh, 1993: 22ff) or occidentalist in order to focus on the agency which discriminates instead of focusing on the people being discriminated against (Coronil, 2002). Associating Angela Merkel and Barack Obama with neo-orientalist or occidentalist sign systems places them in the midst of the occident’s nemesis.

As stated above, female and black leading political figures are subjected to seemingly ridiculous suspicions (Obama) or have to go a long way to deny any cultural association with ‘the Other’ (Merkel). Their compulsory ‘Othering’ by various discourses derives from the fact that they are seen as inappropriate representatives of the universal, because they themselves incorporate ‘the Other’. That some of the strategies focus on ‘orientalizing’ is due to the fact, that both are heads of the utive branch. Associating them with ‘the enemy’ is one of the most effective tools to de-authorize their entitlement to lead a Western nation.

Some more aspects of gender and ‘race’ are to consider, before finally coming back to the subject of orientalizing. A very ambivalent site of gender empowerment or de-authorization is female beauty. Under certain circumstances the symbolic/cultural capital of female beauty can be traded for political capital, especially with reference to visual media. This phenomenon could be studied in Germany as the attractive state politician Gabriele Pauli was photographed (and written) into the position of a female regicide to the governor (Ministerpräsident) of Bavaria. By presenting beautiful images of the originally quite unimportant politician, boulevard TV and print media promoted her (and their) cause, to get rid of an lengthy incumbent governor. Her initiative was successful and the governor resigned. Another more recent case is the former beauty queen Sara Palin, vice-president candidate for the Republican ticket in the US election, who won popularity and acceptance via photo series in yellow press magazines such as People and the National Inquirer.

The cultural capital of beauty runs into trouble if sexuality – especially in visual terms – comes into play. Female political power depends heavily on conveying a near neutral image. When she makes herself available to (male) ‘visual desire’, the beauty looses agency very quickly. Carried away by her success in forcing the governor to step down, Gabriele Pauli decided to pose for a photo in a glamour magazine, portraying her as domina with latex gloves. This error of judgment proved to be fatal and cut her career short. The figuration Angela Merkel works possibly so well, because she has consequently avoided eroticized femininity. She was smart enough to evade the neo-oriental ‘screen’ and therefore emphasized her entitlement to occidental superiority.

It is much more complicated to trade aspects of ‘race’ – especially Blackness – from cultural capital into political capital. What might be admired or awed in white fantasies about black men in the cultural sphere – athletic and sexual prowess, sublimated aggression – proves to be deadly in the political sphere. Barack Obama takes extraordinary pains to undercut any resemblance to the stereotype of an ‘angry black man’, knowing a majority of white people would not vote for. He presents himself as extremely balanced, rational and restrained.

Now returning a last time to neo-orientalist or occidentalist visual politics: Obama’s extremely civil demeanor seems to foreclose the ‘angry black man stereotype’ as the most effective tool to bar his potential victory. During the campaign three figures evoked the stereotype nonetheless. First: the figure of the fanatic was hammered in by the ‘Obama-Muslim-Campaign’. The narrative displaced the resentment related to color to a measured judgment concerning dangerous ‘other’ culture impersonated by the Islamist terrorist. The again and again recycled image ‘Obama with turban’ gets thereby glued to the politician virtually. All visual images – especially press releases – engender immediacy and irrefutable ‘reality effects’ such as ‘it must be true, I have seen it with my own eyes’. Occidentalist visual politics then has a nice side effect. Voters believe that they cannot vote for Obama because they have seen the truth. They think they act on sound judgment and thereby suppress the underlying resentment. Occidentalist visual politics in this perspective restages anti-black racisms and sexisms into discourses of cultural critique and civilizing superiority.

The second figure alluding to the image of the ‘angry black man’ is related to Obama’s earlier connection to the Afrocentric radical, the reverend Jeremiah Wright, who, in 2001, had condemned America saying: ‘God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme … God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.’ (ABC, March 13th, 2008) Though Obama had severed his ties to the radical reverend in public announcements, the argument was repeated relentlessly.

Finally, the third and last figure always mentioned from adversaries is the former ‘domestic terrorist’ and Weatherman founder Bill Ayers, a Chicago neighbor, who happened to have served in a charity board with Obama. He is long rehabilitated by his fellow Chicago citizens and works as professor for education at an Illinois University.

Coming to a close: If one synthesizes the three major figures of anti-Obama propaganda developed above – the Muslim, the militant religious leader and the terrorist – one quintessential ‘angry black man’ leaps in one’s mind: Malcolm X, the militant converted Black Muslim preacher and activist. It takes a lot of complicated, even quite sophisticated and quite unconscious cultural operations to recode a soft spoken, measured, intellectual politician into a threat for mankind. But displacements, such as developed above, are common if the targeted leading persona is thought of as not fit to represent the universal on grounds of ‘Otherness’ such as not embodying the appropriate ‘race’ or gender.


[1] In contrast to Merkel, the Swiss ‘Bundesrat’ Micheline Clamy-Rheys has created a major national and international brouhaha by donning a headscarf while visiting the Iranian president Ahmadinejad (see:


Figure 1: For Obama bin Laden (MetroSpy.Com, 2008) at

Figure 2: Obama in Kenya (Sydney Morning Herald, 2008) at href=

Figure 3: Cover of the New Yorker, 22 July 2008 (New Yorker, Cartoonbank, 2008) at N52JSFPH59MU8MNWKUQDAKU9EE2Q4P8B&sitetype=1&did=5& sid=125383&pid=&advanced=1&keyword=obama&artist=& section=prints&caption=&artID=&topic=&pubDateFrom=&pubDateTo=& pubDateMon=&pubDateDay=&pubNY=&color=0&title=undefined& whichpage=1&sortBy=popular


Al-Azmeh, A. (1993) Die Islamisierung des Islam. Imaginäre Welten einer politischen Theorie. Frankfurt: Campus.

Bennett, L., Entman, R. L. (2000) Mediated Politics. Communication in the Future of Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coronil, F. (2002) ‘Jenseits des Okzidentalismus. Unterwegs zu nichtimperialen geohistorischen Kategorien’, in: Sebastian Conrad and Shalini Randeria (Eds.) Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften. Frankfurt: Campus, pp. 176-219.

Dietze, G. (2006) ‘Critical Whiteness Theory und Kritischer Okzidentalismus. Zwei Figurationen hegemonialer Selbstreflexion’, in: Martina Tißberger, Gabriele Dietze, Daniela Hrzán, Jana Husman-Kastein (Eds.) Weiß – Weißsein – Whiteness. Studien zu Rassismus und Geschlecht. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 219-249.

Huntington, S. (1996) Clash of Civilizations. Washington: Foreign Affairs.

Marek, K. (2007) ‘Überschuss und Dauer. Bildkörper als Topos des Politischen bei Agamben und Kantorowics’, in: Paula Diehl and Gertrud Koch (Eds.) Inszenierungen der Politik. Der Körper als Medium. München: Fink, pp. 26-54.

Osten, M. von (2007) ‘Eine Bewegung der Zukunft. Die Bedeutung des Blickregimes der Migration für die Produktion der Ausstellung Projekt Migration’, in: Transit Migration Forschungsgruppe (Eds.) Turbulente Ränder. Neue Perspektiven auf Migration an den Grenzen Europas. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 169-187.

Schulze, R. (2007) ‘Orientalismus. Zum Diskurs zwischen Orient und Okzident’, in: Amina Attia (Ed.) Orient- und Islambilder Interdisziplinäre Beiträge zu Orientalismus und antimuslimischem Rassismus. Münster: Unrast, pp. 45-71.

Silverman, K. (1997) ‘Dem Blickregime begegnen’, in: Christina Kravagna (Ed.) Privileg Blick. Kritik an der visuellen Kultur. Berlin: ID-Verlag, pp. 41-64.

Wenk, S. (2007) ‘Visuelle Politik und Körperbilder’, in: Paula Diehl and Gertrud Koch (Eds.) Inszenierungen der Politik. Der Körper als Medium. München: Fink Verlag, pp. 161-175.


Gabriele Dietze studied German and American literature and philosophy in Frankfurt (Main) and Berlin. She teaches gender- and cultural studies in Berlin, Austria and the US and her research and publication topics concern feminist theory, visual culture and migration.

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