Phenomenology :: Deconstruction :: Obey!

[written a while ago for a venture that didn’t pan out… enjoy!]

NOTE: Hey folks, this page seems to get a lot of views – please comment and tell me what you think of it!

The ‘Obey Giant’ sticker campaign which began in the early 1990’s, has spiraled into a subcultural phenomenon. This campaign is not only a phenomenon in the exclamatory sense, but also in the proper phenomenological sense. Led by the artist Shepard Fairey, the initiative to distribute stickers with the Obey logo was intended to be an “experiment in Phenomenology” and was inspired in some way by the work of Martin Heidegger, the originator of the philosophical school of thought.[1] On the back of the Fairey-sanctioned book entitled The Philosophy of Obey, editor Sarah Williams writes that “discourse is something we use to examine reality which is in itself both elusive and unobtainable”.[2] The argument I will make in the following is that the Obey campaign embodies a spirit that is fundamentally opposed to celebrity, with this ‘examination of reality’ at its core. The way that this will be accomplished will be through two philosophical schools of thought: Heidegger’s phenomenology and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes in the introduction of Being and Time, after giving credit to his mentor Husserl, that “[h]igher than actuality stands possibility. We can understand phenomenology only by seizing upon it as a possibility.”[3] This radical operation of ‘seizing possibility’ is very characteristic of the grassroots nature of the Obey campaign and the phenomenological imperative to return to the things in themselves (dinge an sich). This primordial sentiment is clearly echoed in Fairey’s mandate to “enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation”, as outlined in his online “Manifesto”.[4] This return to the categories of the primordial and the preconceived is a distinctly phenomenological exercise which, as Fairey writes further, serves to “reawaken a sense of wonder”.[5]

The question remains: how is this manifestation of phenomenology opposed to the category of celebrity? I would claim that the action of asking the question of being, as Heidegger does, is irreconcilable with the superficiality of celebrity. In order to oppose the idea of celebrity the idea should now be more clearly defined. We will demarcate the idea of celebrity for our purposes as existing in the popular collective consciousness, and belonging to the categories of popularity, availability, titillation and novelty. This categorization, fair or not, is reflected at least in part by Hollywood, media giants, and popular culture.

From here we can find that are many places where the anti-establishmentarian attitudes of the Obey campaign that intersect with Heideggerian phenomenology. The campaign itself is a rebellious counter-cultural exercise, which Fairey claims is opposed to what he terms to be the ‘conspicuous consumption’ present in contemporary society. Whether or not the Obey campaign is consumptive by nature (tee-shirt sales etc.) remains to be seen. The intent as outlined in the “Manifesto” is clearly opposed to societal ignorance; or as he states ‘the paranoid or conservative viewer’.[6] However, the campaign as it presents itself is not merely a passive anti-institutional ideology. I would claim instead, that by nature it is a force that phenomenologically deconstructs the unquestioning attitudes of the cultural status quo.

It is here where Heideggerian phenomenology intersects with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and deconstruction proper. Derrida admits that his textual strategy of deconstruction was preceded by Heidegger’s concept of destruktion present in his magnum opus Being and Time. This idea of destruktion can be traced even further, back to Husserl as is indicated in the passage below from Dermot Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology:

“Quite early on—around 1919—Heidegger began to conceive of the way forward in philosophy as requiring a kind of ‘destruction’ (Destruktion) or ‘dismantling’ (Abbau) of the tradition. Heidegger may have found this notion of ‘destruction’ (destructio) in Luther (who wished to destroy the Aristotelianism in the Christian heritage), but it was certainly also present in Husserl who spoke of Abbau in several key texts.”[7]

Where deconstruction is concerned, Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida seem to hold to an operation or strategy that is critically disassembles, but is not destructive. Translations of the term destruktion are often close to ‘dismantling’ or ‘de-building’ (as mentioned above) rather than true destruction. Critical theorist Dan Latimer writes in Contemporary Critical Theory saying that philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer recalls Heidegger’s “iconoclastic hammer blows to beat down ‘fashionable expectations.’ and ‘destabilizing, radical’ followers… whose questions seemed to older professors to break ‘all the rules of human decency’.”[8] This destabilizing action taken against cultural ‘expectations’ is very similar to the phenomenological deconstruction present in the Obey campaign and its treatment of celebrity. Derrida writes of the phenomenological in Of Grammatology saying that:

“As for the concept of experience, it is most unwieldy here. Like all the notions I am using here, it belongs to the history of metaphysics and we can only use it under erasure [sous rature]. “Experience” has always designated the relationship with a presence… At any rate, we must, according to this sort of contortion and contention which the discourse is obliged to undergo, exhaust the resources of the concept of experience before attaining and in order to attain, by deconstruction, its ultimate foundation. It is the only way to escape “empiricism” and the “naïve” critiques of experience at the same time.” [9]

Calling it ‘experience’ Derrida sets out to find the underlying principles of the phenomenological which he claims as belonging to the history of metaphysical thought. He concludes with an important clarification, namely that there are two dangers when referring to experience: the empirical and naïve critiques.

The campaign, however, manages to escape both of these dangers as it deconstructs the foundations of consumer culture. The campaign is not empirical or ‘objective’ but rather it relies upon an experiential quality to maintain its trajectory. It also avoids any naïve critiquing because of its imitative quality. It cannot be unaware of the object of its critique as it is so close in nature to a celebrity-like icon. Theorist William Large writes that what “is at the heart of phenomenology is first of all a refusal of metaphysics and academic philosophy.”[10] This phenomenological attempt to overcome what Derrida terms to be the history of metaphysics is admirable. The attempt, successful or not, does succeed in suspending any fears of empiricism or naïveté.

The claim is not only that the Obey campaign, as an exercise in deconstructive phenomenology, is opposed to the superficiality of celebrity, but also that it deconstructs the posturing of celebrity in the process. The campaign promotes an awareness of the both the nature of advertising, and the ‘consumptive’ nature of western culture. In doing so it sheds light on the nature of celebrity as we see it. The essence of celebrity seems to be remarkably close to the Obey campaign, which only consists of small stickers sporting a logo, in that the image has gained popularity and has a novel feel to it. This, however, is exactly the manner in which the campaign deconstructs, dismantles, or de-builds the idea of celebrity. Fairey writes in the “Manifesto” that:

“Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.”[11]

The sticker campaign and the average celebrity are ironically close and share quite a few similar properties (popular, exciting, rebellious etc.), and this is what allows Obey to exist as an effective critique. After seeing one of Obey’s full page advertisements in Relevant Magazine I curiously typed the web URL into my browser, expecting to find a company that intended to sell something to me. This expectation was strangely incorrect, which caused me think further about my intentions and expectations regarding advertising and images. This is the Obey campaign’s phenomenological deconstruction of celebrity.

By combining an odd mix of the lens of phenomenology and the tool of deconstruction the Obey campaign, and its creator Shepard Fairey, have instigated a cultural event in the proper deconstructive sense. On the campaign website there are links to large murals on the walls of buildings, a myriad of tattoos and instructions regarding an ‘urban renewal kit’. Under the ‘essays’ link Fairey writes in response to allegations of validating the ‘conspicuous consumer’:

“The Giant campaign simply pokes fun at the process by teasing the consumer with propaganda for a product which is merely more propaganda for the campaign; very reflexive,.. the propaganda and the product are the same.”[12]

This echoes very clearly the ‘reflexive’ nature of the campaign which was mentioned earlier. The tautological essence of Obey is its deconstruction of culture. It is identical to its object of critique. This, I would argue, is the thrust of Fairey’s genius: phenomenological, deconstructive, tautological and subversive.

[1] Shepard Fairey, “Manifesto,” (accessed March 19, 2010).

[2] Sarah Jaye Williams, The Philosophy of Obey (London: Nerve Books, 2008), rear cover.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: SUNY Press, 1996), 62-63.

[4] Fairey, “Manifesto”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (New York: Routledge, 2000), 196.

[8] Dan Latimer, Contemporary Critical Theory (New York: HBJ Publishers, 1989), 124.

[9] Jacques Derrida, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak Of Grammatology (New York: John Hopkins University Press, 1974), 60.

[10] William Large, Heidegger’s Being and Time (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 4.

[11] Fairey, “Manifesto”

[12] Shepard Fairey, “Obey Commerce,” (accessed March 22, 2010).

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Maxwell Kennel is a PHD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University.

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