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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of PDA and PDA (Or, Welcome to the Synopticon)

In the days immediately before the inauguration there was much talk about whether the new president would have to give up his Blackberry personal digital assistant. Every president before him has, ostensibly due to concerns about security, given up e-mailing before taking office. It is one of the many losses of privacy that come with being leader of the country (and of the “free world”, as many media sources remind us). The new president, however, found this a difficult pill to swallow since he is said to be, like many users of the device, almost addicted to using it. There is a reason that some people call it Crackberry. Ultimately, President Obama won the fight and will be allowed to use a new, specially designed PDA.

Now, I don’t have a Blackberry. My lack is not because I am some sort of Luddite but because since I left the world of private law practice some years ago I just haven’t been able to afford all of the coolest electronic gadgets. Still, I am enough of a techie to see how not being able to e-mail, IM, text and telephone one’s contacts at will could feel like a form of death. I think that in a contemporary version of Dante’s Inferno, one of the circles of hell would be a place where there is no Internet of any kind. A slightly higher circle would have Internet but it would be dial-up service only.

There were a couple of often repeated objections to allowing President Obama to retain his Blackberry. First, someone might be able to intercept his messages, thus compromising national security. After all, wireless communications are famously hackable. Next, theoretically any written communications sent with such a device become part of the official correspondence of the office of the president and may be subject to subpoena by Congress and the courts. Such e-mails may also be subject to public records laws, such as the Presidential Records Act, which requires the National Archives to preserve presidential records.

Both of these objections can be overcome. As to hacking the President’s PDA, it is said that the device to be used by President Obama will be an uber-PDA, one which, while not impossible to hack, will offer security beyond that found in a standard device. As to the possibility of having to archive routine private or familial communications not intended to have much official import (“Hey Michelle, are you going to Malia’s teacher conference today?”), there are exceptions in records keeping laws for purely private communications. At the end of the day, it is likely that Obama’s PDA use will not compromise national security, but will instead be a way for him to stay in contact with his family and close associates. So, what’s the big deal about Obama’s PDA?

I think that part of the big deal about his PDA has to do with the other kind of PDA surrounding the Obamas—that’s Public Display of Affection. Thanks to twenty-four hour news channels, the Obamas PDA was frequently on view during the campaign (remember that affectionate fist bump that got transformed into a “terrorist fist jab” courtesy of Fox News?), during the inaugural parade (serial hand-holding) and most notably during the inaugural balls (lots of lovey dovey, close, but not dirty, dancing). Both types of PDA have to do with the articulation of the traditional binary public-private distinction. This distinction appears to be an expression of a particular point of view in which the public sphere is carefully distinguished from the private sphere. Things associated with the family, with the body, or with any form of intimacy were to be tightly bound within the private realm. Women, and especially men’s intimate relationships with women, were clearly part of that private world. But something odd goes on when dealing with major political office such as the president of the United States. The rules are different, and power is exercised not through keeping intimacy private but through making public certain legitimate, state-sanctioned forms of intimacy. It is a synoptic relationship: the many observe the few, and from those observations, the many draw a sense of discipline, order, and propriety. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observed, postmodern compliance to social standards is achieved via enticement and seduction rather than by coercion. This enticement comes in the guise of free will, transparency and access, rather than revealing itself as an external force. The whole notion of a “First Lady” is exemplary of this process. The First Lady is First Wife and First Mother to the President and to the nation at large, and such, is our guide to behavior.

Given the symbolic importance of the First Lady, what happens when she is black? Whether we deal in private text messages on a PDA or romantic little hand-squeezes between the Obamas, both are carried out in the context of a culture marked with complex mythologies about black family life and sexuality, and especially about black women. Black women, while long eroticized, have rarely been viewed as having sufficient aesthetic, cultural or intellectual appeal to become models of virtuous Womanhood.

With both PDA and PDA the Obamas are not only redrawing public/ private boundaries but charting new terrain altogether.

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