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The terms "narrative" and "story" often recur in the vast and still rapidly growing research into the rhetoric of former US president Barack Obama. Although not surprising in itself—even prior to Obama's presidency, numerous scholars identified storytelling as "the essence of American presidential leadership, and the secret of presidential success" (Cornog 2004: 1)—the omnipresence, the impact, and the diversity of the stories told by and about Obama have turned investigations of such narratives not into an optional but an integral part of most accounts of the distinctive features of the communicative strategies Obama employed during his two terms as president. As Molly Andrews notes, "the strategic use of political storytelling is a hallmark of the Obama presidency, and has been applied in virtually every key moment when he has needed to get his message across to the American people" (2014: 85). Readings have focused on how Obama makes use of his personal biography [End Page 121] (Medhurst 2009; Hammack 2010); how he retells existing master plots or social myths in American society, such as American exceptionalism, the American dream, or ideas of American national identity (Rowland and Jones 2007; Ivie and Giner 2009; Hammer 2010; Murphy 2011); and how he uses others' personal narratives, often weaving these together with cultural master plots as well as with autobiographical material (Andrews 2014; Iversen and Pers-Højholt, forthcoming).

It is notable that, despite the mapping of how Obama shaped ideas and values and negotiated ideologies through the use of personal and cultural narratives, there has been no systematic analysis of how he used narratives based in the overtly invented and imagined as part of his communicative strategy. This article is concerned with the logic and affordances of these specific narratives embedded in Obama's rhetoric. What we wish to highlight is the fact that prior to and during his presidency, Obama quite often used the overtly invented and imagined to motivate actual interventions. He frequently talked about the non-actual and the non-true in a manner not aimed to deceive but constructed to invite listeners to understand that he talks about the non-actual, with the intention of shaping the beliefs and actions of his audience.

Existing research that has some affinity to our endeavor because, broadly speaking, it concerns various ideas of the forms and functions of what is referred to as "fiction" in Obama's rhetoric may be generally said to subscribe to one of three very different ideas about what fiction is. The first is that the invented or the imaginary belongs to one or more genres of fiction, distinct from the genres of, say, political discourse. Drawing on this idea, several have analyzed how Obama, an avid consumer of American, European, and African fiction, was inspired by, and at times even borrowed from, existing works of literature and movies (Kloppenberg 2011; Ferrara 2013). The second holds that fiction or fictionalization should be considered synonymous with any act of bringing things together in a semiotic construct (e.g., "a narrative persona is fictionalized in the act of sorting through the events of the past and selectively reconstituting them" [Ferrara 2013: 126]).1 The third equates fiction with lies.

In contrast to these three ideas of invented discourse, we suggest using [End Page 122] the term "fictionality" to describe instances of communication that overtly invite the audience to consider the communicated as invented. This makes it possible to consider imaginative discourse as something not restricted to generic fiction and as something distinct from any act of construction, as well as distinct from falsely pretending to be speaking the truth. From this it also follows that fictionalized discourse, as we understand it, is not tied solely to satirical, ironic, or humorous types of discourse. A growing body of work investigates how Obama used different forms of humor as well as the ideological implications of this use (see Waisanen 2015; Becker and Waisanen 2017; Isaksen 2017). Although some of the cases addressed by that research coincide with some of the cases we consider, important differences exist: the use of humor is not restricted to fictionalized discourse, and fictionalized discourse is not necessarily engaged in producing laughter, as we will attempt to show in our readings.

Distributed across Obama's rhetorical practice one finds a string of narrative interventions that negotiate ideologies and values through the manifestly imagined. Let us start with an example: on April 27, 2013, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner (see also Nielsen et al. 2015), Obama greeted members of the audience by saying, "I want to acknowledge a wonderful friend, Steven Spielberg, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who are here tonight," before announcing a first look at Spielberg's most recent movie (Obama 2013). What followed at first appeared to be trailer for a Spielberg production called Obama. It opens with the actual Spielberg enthusiastically and proudly announcing how the production of this soon-to-be-released movie only fell into place once they had the right actor to play Obama, namely, the London-born, Northern Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The subsequent clip shows what is unmistakably the real Obama, pretending to be Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Obama. After this highly unlikely character mismatch, the trailer is clearly presented as, and supposed to be taken as, an invitation to imagine.

Obama was not trying to deceive anyone into thinking that this particular movie would actually show at theaters. However, it does present Obama as good-hearted, as a president comparable to Lincoln (who was the subject of a biopic directed by Spielberg), and as self-controlled [End Page 123] ("I would be mad all the time," he has his Daniel Day-Lewis character say of his experience of being Obama). The trailer is overtly invented and humorous, yet serious. With the laughter caused by the idea that a white actor could play a black character and vice versa follow serious thoughts such as What if we didn't divide people by race? What if we really understood why Obama "pursue[d] healthcare first"? Is there such a thing as acting white or acting black?— and so on. Obama accomplished something serious and real in a non-deceptive way by using fictionalized discourse in an attempt to influence real opinions through the form of a narrative that intentionally signals its own invented nature.2

In this article, we read two cases of inventions such as the foregoing as eminently ideological by drawing on the concept of fictionality, as this has recently been developed in rhetorical narrative theory.3 The concept of fictionality makes it possible to analyze how the evidently imagined influences our thinking about the actual (like Obama playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing Obama), and how thinking about changing the actual at times draws on the imagined. The article consists of three parts. First, we present the pragmatic, rhetorical approach to invention in discourse; second, we apply the concept of fictionality to the reading of two cases during Obama's presidency; and finally, we reconsider some of the perspectives of our approach.4

The Concept of Fictionality

In the wake of Richard Walsh's The Rhetoric of Fictionality (2007), narrative theory has seen a surge of interest in separating the quality of fictionality from a one-to-one relationship with fiction as a genre (see Nielsen et al. 2015; Iversen and Nielsen 2016; Zetterberg Gjerlevsen 2016; Nielsen and Phelan 2017; and Nielsen and Zetterberg Gjerlevsen, forthcoming). Prior to this paradigm shift, approaches to narrative theory tended to deal with the question of fictionality as a question of fiction as a genre (see Banfield 1982; Genette 1990; Hamburger 1957/1993; Cohn 1999). Conversely, the new paradigm is fundamentally communicative in its approach, rather than genre oriented, and is interested in the overtly invented, not only in novels and movies but also in oral conversations, on social media, in commercials, and so forth. [End Page 124]

This does not mean we want to extend the scope of fictionality to all forms of narrative. Marie-Laure Ryan (1997) calls the assumption that all narratives are fictional because they are discursive constructs the "panfictionality thesis." Our approach holds that while fictionality is not limited to fiction genres, it is not everywhere and unavoidable, and therefore not susceptible to an accusation of panfictionalism. The idea we present here is also distinct from approaches that dismiss fictions as a second-order or non-serious discourse, or as "make-believe," "pretense," or "suspension of disbelief," and finally, as mentioned, different from earlier approaches that tied the question of fictionality as communicative strategy to the question of fiction as a genre. Unlike Cohn, we do not subscribe to an idea of ontological exceptionalism, but to the assumption of contextual interpretational difference.

Along the lines of the argument made by, and the definition proposed in "Distinguishing Fictionality" (Nielsen and Zetterberg Gjerlevsen, forthcoming), we suggest defining fictionality as intentionally signaled invention in communication. Unlike assertions about actual states of affairs, fictional utterances work independently of truth value. First, from this perspective, fictional discourse is different from nonfictional discourse in intentionally signaling its invented nature, although fictional discourse is not restricted to fiction as a genre. Second, it is a serious kind of communication used to influence perceptions of what is true, right, and real. The use of fictionality (whether inside or outside generic fiction) is not a turning away from the actual world but a specific communicative strategy within that world and a way of interacting with it and with the receiver's understanding of it. At a fundamental level, this means that we contend that the alleged opposition of fictional and rhetorical discourses is a false one. Rather, as James Phelan states (2005), fictionality is a subset of rhetoric, just as nonfictionality is. Third, the way in which fictionality influences beliefs is itself distinct and different from other, nonfictionalized ways of influencing beliefs and opinions, and this distinctiveness may be quite accurately described in ways that are more precise than earlier approaches to fictionality as anomalous or as second-order language. Our approach distinguishes itself from earlier approaches by (1) being more specific about the effects and distinctiveness of what we call "fictional discourse" and (2) [End Page 125] neither limiting fictionalized discourse to fiction nor seeing it as allpervasive. Thus, the notion of fictionality has been closely associated with fiction as a generic category, whereas our approach is distinct by extricating fictionality as a communicative and rhetorical strategy from fiction in a generic sense. Traditionally, fictionality has been investigated in terms of the qualities, characteristics, and affordances of fiction as a genre. This focus has severely limited investigations of rhetorical uses of fictionality, since it would be ill-advised to say that a speaker employing fictionality is always creating a fiction. Fourth, we contend that in addition to gaining the ability to better understand and explain differences between fictional and nonfictional forms of appeal, the approach described above also gives us the ability to better account for the similarities between fictionalized discourse and forms of appeal inside and outside generic fiction.

The very idea that language can be inventive rather than reportive because of contextual signals as opposed to generic relationships is new. Even fiction studies—along with narrative theory (cf. Genette 1990; Phelan 2005; Herman 2009)—have inherited from Saussure and Benveniste and followers in the linguistic tradition the tacit linguistic assumption that all language use follows the rules of non-inventive language. Even as Cohn and others have discussed the distinction of fiction, as Kendall Walton discusses games of make-believe, and as Banfield addresses unspeakable sentences as a possibility in fiction, the idea of inventive language as a form of discourse not limited to fiction genres remains unexamined.5

We now turn to the question of the types of appeal that fictional discourse makes. Opinions about real life may in fact be strongly affected and changed by fictional stories, the specificity of which lies in their invented and imagined nature, and in their non-restriction to describing what is actual and real.6 It is simultaneously a bit of a mystery and a shared, commonsense, everyday experience that fiction affects us. While watching Kathryn Bigelow's film The Hurt Locker (2008), viewers think about US soldiers, about Iraq, about justice, and about war. So much so that some may even feel compelled or induced to take action of some kind, from volunteering, to participating in antiwar (or anti-Hollywood) demonstrations, to donating money to charity. Readers or [End Page 126] viewers of Romeo and Juliet may find that their perceptions of faith, destiny, and love change. In both cases, everyone is fully aware that the depicted events never existed in real life. And yet perceptions of real life, real war, and real love are what change, not just perceptions of some fictional war and love.

The move from generic approaches to fiction to approaching fictionality in a rhetorical framework allows for an approach in which employing fictionality is both an author's or speaker's intentional communicative choice and an interpretational attribution by a receiver. A receiver may attribute fictionality to a discourse in order to understand it and make it meaningful and relevant, and that very attribution in and of itself entails the assumption that someone outside the discourse has intentionally used fictionality to signal the invented or imagined nature of the discourse. This still does not go far enough in answering why invented stories affect actual belief systems.

We will argue that the deployment of fictionality invites an audience to create a double exposure of the invented and the real, or in other words, to map representations of what is not onto what is. This, in turn, means that we will also focus on the effects of fictionality. The effects of fictionality lie not so much in the fictional universe it allegedly creates, or in the non-actuality of its events, characters, and entities in themselves, or in the appeal it makes to imagining what is not, or is only possible, or is utterly impossible in itself. Instead, the effects of fictionality concern the ways in which a receiver inevitably and often even unknowingly makes any and all of the above relevant by trying to interpret how they do or should or could affect his or her perception and understanding of nonfictional states of affairs. Fictionality is a means of asking "What if?" But as is already clear from the very semantics of the expression "What if?", its function is not to detach and to say "It is not the case that this actually happens," but to attach and to form an anchor point and point of contiguity between the actual and the non-actual so that the imagined is brought to bear on the real in the sense that it invites questions such as "What if my reality was partly or wholly in this way, which is different from how I perceive it now?"; "What would it mean to be 'star-cross'd lovers'" (Romeo and Juliet); and "What if war is [End Page 127] actually sometimes a charitable act to help an underdeveloped people not self-destruct?" (as in The Hurt Locker).

We now turn from the framework and the conception of fictionality in general to our two case studies of fictionality in Obama's political discourse. Politicians often use dreams, thought experiments, and full-fledged counterfactual inventions to move their audience's perception of what is right and what is real by encouraging the audience to map the imagined onto the real. Fictionality may be a means of inviting the receiver to map an imagined future or an invented past onto a present that is very different, and to do so for deliberative political purposes. It is no wonder that fictionality is a frequently employed mode of discourse in contemporary politics and rhetoric.

Henrik Skov Nielsen et al.'s (2015) eighth thesis concerning fictionality states that "fictionality often provides for a double exposure of imagined and real," and then goes on to discuss Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963. Here, we wish to unpack the metaphor of double exposure a bit before discussing it in relation to Obama's use of fictionality. "Double exposure" is a term normally associated with visual media, especially photography. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "(a) an accidental exposure of the same plate or film twice; (b) the deliberate superimposition of a second image on an exposure already made." In photography, double exposure is a technique in which a piece of film is exposed twice so that the resulting photographic image shows the two images superimposed. If we see each of the two exposures fused together (perhaps without knowing which is which) and the image they create together, fictionality often superimposes an image of something invented on an image of something in the real world. In photography or film, double exposure brings together two or more images that are temporally or spatially distinct. Fictionality, whether written or visual, aims to make the reader's or receiver's knowledge of the author/sender (from interviews, biographies, the media, etc.) contribute to his or her view of the invented, and vice versa: exaggerations, fictional inventions, narrative fantasies, and so on contribute to rumors and fantasies about the author/sender/rhetor, and knowledge about reality heavily influences the interpretation of the invented.

In most fictional discourse, the receiver sees the sum of two pictures [End Page 128] or two narratives superimposed on each other. In the following pages we examine the consequences of suggesting that the use of fictionality creates the suggested double exposure of imagined and real in two different instances of fictionality in Obama's rhetoric. We will first look at an untraditional political speech that emphatically (and satirically) employs fictionality, and then move on to a traditional political speech that less emphatically (but still significantly) employs fictionality. We conclude by mentioning a range of other examples of Obama's use of fictionality. In each case the double exposure created by fictionality results in our inevitably and irreducibly seeing both the invented and the real at the same time, and each recursively affecting the perception of the other.

The Lion King

The first case we explore is Obama's remarks at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner (WHCD). Drawing on Mark Katz's Clinton and Me (2003), Don Waisanen describes a core constraint on any WHCD as follows: "over time, an expectation has arisen for presidents to deliver an annual 'funny' speech during each WHCD, which spotlights the changing nature of the presidency itself. For scope, the WHCD dinners were selected as the president's most public and highly regarded of the entertaining dinners in Washington, DC, every year. . . . By presidential joke writers' own admissions, the WHCD dinner speeches are now approached with strategic purpose" (2015: 336). Strategic purposes were very much on the agenda in 2011, and fictionality was one of the main means used for achieving them. As always, the dinner took place on the last Saturday in April. In 2011 this was on April 30, three days after Obama had the State of Hawai'i release his long-form birth certificate in response to the long "birther" debate, fronted by Donald Trump among others. Although one might expect the debate to have come to a close with this release, there were several questions connected to the debate and the release, and they added to the urgency of the rhetorical situation.

First, Americans in general, and conservative Republicans in particular, had been skeptical of Obama's legitimacy and eligibility for several [End Page 129] years, despite the lack of any evidence for this, and even after the release of the birth certificate (see also Howell 2012). Second, Obama faced a challenge that went beyond the mere presentation of the birth certificate and the proof that he was eligible to be president, which would be the case only if he was born on American soil. Another challenging aspect of the situation was that complying with the demand for proof of his eligibility seemed almost as bad for Obama as not presenting the certificate at all. In a sense, he had to do it "to put all doubts to rest," as he said, but he was simultaneously in danger of damaging his integrity as American president and of having to participate on a level not worthy of an American citizen, let alone of the president. Together, these two challenges meant that the release of the certificate was not enough and too much at the same time. Faced with this rhetorical challenge, Obama explained on The Oprah Winfrey Show that he had it released in order to be able to turn to more important matters, such as economic reforms. He also made the matter of the birther debate, and especially Trump's role in it and his character in general, the central feature of the WHCD three days later, when he used fictionality as the most important means to face and tackle this rhetorical challenge. At the WHCD, where Trump himself was present in the audience, Obama first screened footage of very American pastimes like basketball, horseback riding, and wrestling to the music of "I am a real American." He then claimed that after having his birth certificate released, he was now prepared to go a step further and show his actual birth video, only to actually screen the birth scene from the Disney animated feature film The Lion King (1994), directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, where the whole of nature and all the animals greet the newborn Simba.

The foregoing example is intended to highlight the specific effects of using fictionality and the various consequences and interpretations to which it leads because of the double exposure of the invented and the real. Again, the argument is that the viewer's perception of reality is influenced by what is emphatically not real. Obama uses fictionality as a means to at least control, if not close, the debate about his eligibility, without compromising his integrity. At the same time, he uses the occasion to take a stab at the trustworthiness of Donald Trump and Fox News. The words of the introductory music, "If you hurt my friends, [End Page 130] then you hurt my pride / I gotta be a man, I can't let it slide," seemed to be put almost violently into action.

Trump is depicted as conspiratorial and unable to distinguish between fantasy, reality, and illusion, and therefore confusing rumor with reality. In contrast to him, Obama appears highly capable of maneuvering among lies and "alternative facts" and of mastering truth and fictionality, such as when he says: "I want to make clear to the Fox News table: That was a joke. That was not my real birth video. That was a children's cartoon" (Obama 2011). Obama manages to implicitly say things about Trump and about himself that could not have otherwise been said, but will—in some form or version—be tacitly understood by most receivers. This is where the double exposure comes into play. It works by clearly implying, with little distance between the invented and the real, that electing a man without the ability to distinguish between truths and lies (interested in finding Bigfoot in the invented version, and in seeing Obama as not American in the real) and without political skills would be a catastrophe.

The use of the double exposure also works where there is considerably more distance between the invented and the real, as when Obama superimposes the cartoon lion king on the real president of the United States. The effect not only allows Obama to jokingly play with the prejudiced misconception that he was born in Africa, but also creates a complex image that reveals him as someone who is, in a sense, born to rule. Presenting the president as the king and alluding to the lion's role in relation to other animals as structurally similar to America's role in relation to other countries created a powerful image of Obama as ruler of the world. At the same time, the audience was invited to imagine the benevolent qualities of Simba transferred to Obama.7 Thus, the use of an edited montage of scenes from the beginning of Disney's The Lion King, showing the proud father and king of the lions, Mufasa, as he raises his newborn child and protagonist of the film, Simba, to the heavens, bathed in a light from above and accompanied by a choir of angelic voices, as a fictionalized birth video provides a striking example of double exposure. The audience was invited "to map an engagement with representations of what is not onto what is" (Nielsen et al. 2015: 58) with the cartoon serving the role of what is not, and Obama's birth serving [End Page 131] the role of what is. The talk at the 2011 WHCD contained a whole series of such obvious, spectacular, and laughter-provoking superimpositions, some clearly narrative in nature, others less so.

Among the latter was a visual fictionalization of what would happen if Trump, who, as noted in 2011, was considering running for president, were to become president. "Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House," said Obama before presenting the audience with a manipulated image of the White House, transformed into what may be described as a Las Vegas hotel cliché, complete with the word "TRUMP" in capital letters, a huge purple neon sign, a monumental chandelier, and shiny golden columns. As with The Lion King example, the use of fictionalization was blatant, and the signaled invention was visible in a very literal sense. Even so, this only works if the audience, albeit for a brief period of time, subscribes to certain ideas about the layers of the double exposure. This particular vision of Trump's transformation of the White House comes with a string of assumptions about Trump, each of which is a variation on the theme of what is typically considered bad or questionable taste (an excess of bright and shiny colors, the extreme highlighting of one's own name, the monetization of historical heritage, etc.). Although not claiming to be anything but invented, the power of the image is unmissable: Obama does not represent an actual transformation; rather, his representation will transform the image of the actual Trump.

The Knox College Commencement Address

The overtness of the invention in the case above is not a necessary precondition for the presence and effects of fictionality. We now turn to a case where double exposure and invitations to imagine are equally important, although manifested through very different means. At his commencement address at Knox College on June 4, 2005, Obama said the following:

Let's imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century. What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new [End Page 132] economy? If we made sure that college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and we said "Your old job is not coming back, but a new job will be there because we're going to seriously retrain you and there's life-long education that's waiting for you."

When compared to the examples from the rather atypical communication environment of the WHCD, most would probably see this passage, and the speech as a whole, as doing something completely different, if for no other reason than because of the differences in genres. The implausible and clearly exaggerated vision of Trump's version of the White House, with its blending of front- and backstage features, situates it within the satirical mode. It is supposed to provoke reflection through laughter. The Knox speech is a commencement address, given by then senator Obama to graduates of Knox College, Illinois. It belongs to the genre of epideictic rhetoric, which, going back to Aristotle, has traditionally been seen as speech that is primarily ceremonial, invested in the present, and that consists mostly of "praise and blame" (Chase 1961: 293). Celeste Condit challenged this limited understanding of the reach of the epideictic, arguing that "it works not only to maintain community values . . . but also to accomplish the progressive function of adapting our community to new times, technologies, geographies, and events" and to "provide important understandings, allow the sharing of community, and permit future leaders to display their eloquence for the judgment of the community" (1985: 297, 296). These community-building and future-adapting functions are ubiquitous in Obama's speech.

We argue that Obama's Knox College commencement speech utilizes fictionality in that it is invested in a narrative about what is not, even as it attempts to intervene in what is. It seeks to intervene though invention, and it does so primarily through Obama's particular use of what is perhaps the most recurrent motif in his rhetoric, namely, the notion of the dream.8 Homing in on and limiting our investigation to how the idea of the dream is presented and used in the speech, we find a certain temporal logic that may be formalized as a move from the past through the present to an imagined future. In his presentation of the past, Obama ties the [End Page 133] notion of the dream to previous instances of overcoming hardships and difficulties: "It is this hope that has sustained us through revolution and civil war, depression and world war, a struggle for civil and social rights and the brink of nuclear crisis. And it is because our dreamers dreamed that we have emerged from each challenge more united, more prosperous, and more admired than before." This retrospective view leads to the function of the dream, and the act of dreaming in the present: "So let's dream. Instead of doing nothing or simply defending twentieth-century solutions, let's imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century." These dreams then give rise to an imagined future: "What if we prepared every child in America. . . . What if no matter where you worked . . ." Here, the crucial idea is that the imagined future depends on choices in the present: "All of that is possible but none of it will come easy. . . . It won't be easy, but it can be done. It can be our future. We have the talent and the resources and brainpower. But now we need the political will. We need a national commitment. And we need each of you."

Obama presents the desired future as directly dependent on the choices of each member of his audience. In turn, these are determined by their willingness to dream. The typical approach would be to contrast dreaming to actually doing or accomplishing something. Obama constructs exactly the opposite dichotomy: "So let's dream . . . instead of doing nothing." This gesture then turns affirmatively back on itself because its appeal becomes almost circular in the following way: "Our future will be better if we allow ourselves to dream, because then ours dream will come true, but only if we dream, because . . ." We also wish to highlight the substantial similarities between the strongly fictionalized WHCD speech and this commencement address, both of which establish a strong bond between speaker and audience as "Fellow Americans" who share a dream and a national identity, and the ability to overcome hardship and crisis, and to come out stronger after each challenge.9 "Together and collectively we are this type of nation," state both speeches, by very different means. The "What if Donald Trump inhabited the White House?" construct is structurally similar to "What if we prepared every child in America?" In both cases, double exposures are [End Page 134] created by viewing the choices of the present through images of possible (whether likely or unlikely) futures.


In this article we set out to investigate a certain prevalent but underresearched component of Obama's rhetorical practice, namely, his use of invented narratives to make certain ideological points, thus performing actual interventions. Using the concept of fictionality and the notion of the double exposure, we have highlighted how the rhetoric of the non-actual is not restricted to certain genres, is not in opposition to being serious, even if it is not necessarily humorous, and is not the opposite of telling the truth. Obama's use of fictionality appears across various genres. It is intentional, deliberate, and signaled to by the audience. His rhetoric is inventive in that it draws out events, persons, or feelings that, strictly speaking, are not really present. It is interventional because its double exposure of what is and what might be motivates different thoughts about the real and the possible, potentially leading audiences to change their stances, or act on, real-life matters. To put the last point differently, fictionalized discourse, even when employed in nonfictive modes, has a peculiar, irreducible quality. Even though it often explicitly engages with real-world affairs, because fictionality deals with and in invented states of affairs, it communicates something that is not fully transparent, or translatable into nonfictionalized discourse.

Fictionality is intentional, inventive, interventional, and irreducible. Using fictionalized discourse that goes beyond the genres of fiction is by no means unique to Obama; it happens whenever someone says "Imagine that . . ." or "What if?" If a politician says, "Imagine that Europe experienced a large pandemic outbreak tomorrow," responses such as "No, it will not" or "You are lying" are not relevant because they treat one kind of speech act (about the overtly imagined) as if it were another (a lie misrepresenting reality). We have tried to demonstrate how Obama's use of imagined and invented stories is more complex and often less conventional than such common phrases. We have focused on two very different cases and argued that beyond the difference in genre [End Page 135] lie similarities in the ideological effects of talking about what is not. In both cases, we saw a double exposure of the real and the invented, with Obama's legitimacy viewed through The Lion King in the first case, and the choices of the present seen through past and future choices in the second.

As we have focused on two quite different instances of fictionalized discourse in Obama's rhetoric, we wish to end this article by briefly mentioning some of the many other instances of invention used as part of Obama's efforts to move his audiences' ideas and values. The most spectacular and obvious examples are to be found in Obama's ventures into satirical, often humorous types of rhetorical exchange. All his WHCD appearances feature ample uses of invented discourse, invested in and commenting on real, more or less acute rhetorical situations. A few of the many possible examples include his participation in the fictionalized trailer for Obama in 2013, mentioned in our introduction, and in a 2015 collaboration with Jordan Peele from the Comedy Central series Key & Peele, bringing "Luther," his fictionalized anger translator with him onstage (Obama 2015).

Although not the first to collaborate actively with the growing industry of politically infused comedy shows, Obama took the extent of this collaboration to new heights, not only appearing repeatedly on popular talk shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live, Late Show with David Letter-man, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee but also stepping in and out of fictionalized parts, in line with the more experimental concepts in recent political entertainment. In 2014 he appeared as a guest on Between Two Ferns, a show in which seemingly clueless and wildly inappropriate host Zach Galifianakis creates an unpleasant mixture of insult and uncertainty, resulting in a state that Judy L. Isaksen aptly describes as a "full-blown incongruity" (2017: 13).

As we tried to emphasize in our discussion of the Knox commencement speech, Obama's use of fictionality was not restricted to appearances in satirical, ironic, or humorous modes; it also played an important part in many of Obama's traditionally more seriously toned appearances. During his campaign for reelection in 2012, Obama said the following in a speech at Fairfax, Virginia: "I mean, he's [Romney] changing up so much and backtracking and sidestepping—we've got to [End Page 136] name this condition that he's going through. I think it's called 'Romnesia.' That's what it's called. I think that's what he's going through. Now, I'm not a medical doctor, but I do want to go over some of the symptoms with you—because I want to make sure nobody else catches it" (Obama 2012; see also Nielsen et al. 2015). Although he did not himself invent the term "Romnesia," Obama's use of it had a measurable effect on the election, drawing heavy social media traffic and major headlines around the time of the speech, and serving as a clearly visible part of the Democratic vocabulary up until the end of the campaign.10 The invented health-condition narrative had rhetorical effects distinctive of fictionalized discourse: it let the audience participate through the co-construction called for by invoking imagined states of affairs. It is a "What if?" construction that operates without turning its host genre into generic fiction. It also makes it hard to counter the allegations, since it would make no sense for Romney to deny that he is actually suffering from Romnesia. Making nonfictional claims about fictional statements might even be perceived as pathological.

In conclusion, we wish to connect back to the point that opinions about real life may be strongly affected and changed by fictional stories, while fictionality inevitably remains irreducible. This is because the effects of fictionality lie in the ways in which audiences map the fictional discourse onto their perceptions of nonfictional states of affairs. Sometimes the leap is very small, such as when Obama joked about Hillary Clinton's allegedly very high speaking fees: "I think 2016 will come down to the issues—for example, equal pay," the president said. "Did you know that the average male presidential candidate earns $150,000 less per speech than a woman doing the same job? It's terrible. We got to fix that" (Boyer 2015). Here, all the reader or listener has to do is assume that Obama is actually making a claim about Hillary specifically, rather than about an empirical study that included many presidential candidates. The leap in The Lion King speech is considerably larger, and in other WHCD talks, greater yet.

For the type of rhetorical approach advocated in this article, the ascription of intent to fictionalize amounts to an assumption that the discourse is inventive, but this does not entail that it is therefore irrelevant to the real world or that it only works by analogy. Fictionality is [End Page 137] a specific means for communicating seriously to influence perceptions and beliefs about the real world. This happens not only in politics, or in Obama's rhetoric, but also across genres, media, and discourses, and also in generic fiction. [End Page 138]

Stefan Iversen

stefan iversen is associate professor at Aarhus University (Denmark). He has published on narrative rhetoric, unnatural narratives, early modernism, autofiction, and fictionality in journals such as Narrative, Storyworlds, Style, Poetics Today, and EJES. His recent book-length publication is The Uncanny Narrative in the Early Works of Johannes V. Jensen (2018). Recently coedited works are a special issue of Poetics Today on "Unnatural and Cognitive Perspectives on Narrative: A Theory Crossover" (2018), the anthology Fictionality and Literature: Core Concepts Revisited (forthcoming), a special issue of Rhetorica Scandinavica on affect and feelings in rhetoric, and a special issue of Frontiers of Narrative Studies. Iversen leads the international PhD-level Summer Course in Narrative Studies (SINS), held annually in Denmark since 2013.

Henrik Skov Nielsen

henrik skov nielsen is professor at Aarhus University (Denmark), and between 2014 and 2018 he was visiting professor at Tampere University (Finland). His research contributes to conversations about three areas of narrative theory: first-person narration, unnatural narratology, and fictionality. His publications in English include "The Impersonal Voice in First-Person Narrative Fiction" (in Narrative, 2004), A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative, coedited with Jan Alber and Brian Richardson (2013), "Ten Theses about Fictionality" with James Phelan and Richard Walsh (in Narrative, 2015), and Narratology and Ideology, coedited with Divya Dwivedi and Richard Walsh (2018). Fiktionalitet (2013) won the prize as Danish textbook of the year across disciplines awarded by Samfundslitteratur. He heads the research group Narrative Research Lab and the Centre for Fictionality Studies.


1. Hayden White famously and influentially posited a similar idea about history writing in general: "by the very constitution of a set of events in such a way as to make a comprehensible story out of them, the historian charges those events with the symbolic significance of a plot structure. Historians may not like to think of their work as translations of facts into fictions; but this is one of the effects of their work" (1978: 92).

2. For an analysis of the use of real historical personae in a fictional context, see the article by Jana Gohrisch in this special section.

3. Although invention in communication often is perceived of as belonging mainly to the spheres of entertainment and aesthetics, it is very clear here that Obama uses it to influence ideas, values, and beliefs. Ideology is systematic: its social and political force depends upon a structure of values of some group (Eagleton 1991: 28–30; Dwivedi et al. 2018).

4. In this special section, Merle Tönnies looks at the ideological significance of certain keywords in speeches by Tony Blair, William Hague, David Cameron, Theresa May, and Jeremy Corbyn.

5. Both Cohn (1999) and Banfield (1982) contend that some sentences and representations are unique to fiction, but they both talk about fiction in the generic, literary sense. Compared to Walton's (1990) theory of make-believe, fictionality in the sense in which we use the term does not involve pretense or fictional worlds; from our perspective, it rather designates a serious communicative strategy.

6. For instance, consider the real-world impact of fictional narratives such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), George Orwell's novel Nineteenth Eighty-Four (1949), or Steven Spielberg's film Minority Report (2002)— and these are not exceptions, but paradigmatic cases.

7. Drawing on the same case in a similar vein while investigating Obama's use of humor as a means of negotiating racial identity, Isaksen concludes that "through enforcement of his own sense of male identity, Obama, in his sometimes subtle, sometimes bold use of humor, continually engages in signaling behaviors to those who disregard him as a leader, signaling behaviors that only embolden his identity as a strong, bold, and rhetorically witty Black man" (2017: 12).

8. As far back as his earliest publication, the memoir Dreams from My Father (1995), Obama has consistently used the dream motif, combining and elaborating on both salient and less-well-known instantiations of this motif in American culture. For some of the many investigations of this see Rowland and Jones (2007), Murphy (2011), and Sundquist (2011).

9. As noted by a reviewer, this constitutive calling forth of a unified American "we" is a core trope in most inaugural addresses in America (cf. Campbell and Jamieson 2008: 29–56).

10. Politico traces the term "Romnesia" back to liberal Twitter user @Breaking-Nuts, who hashtagged the word on March 23, 2012 (Cirilli 2012). Part of the interesting evidence of this is found in the term's turbulent life on Wikipedia, visible in Wikipedia's talk pages. An entry for the word was created on the same day Obama gave the speech, but it was flagged for deletion the day after, to be finally redirected—after intense debate—to "2012 United States presidential election" (see

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