Obama’s jacket and personal territory

Browsing through the White House’s photography archives provides a fascinating insight into President Barack Obama’s use of clothes, both on and off his body. In particular, images depicting Obama in the Oval office show the president in his home territory, comfortable enough to remove his jacket and drape it over a chair.

Obama's feet on the resolute desk

This image of Obama provoked debate as a result of his apparently casual attitude to his role, as indicated by his feet resting on the desk (a pose previously adopted by former presidents including Bush and Ford). The image is also noteworthy as evidence of Obama’s territorial claim not only to the desk, but also to the neighbouring chair, where he has draped his jacket.

By placing that coat on a seat or chair, an individual marks his or her temporary occupation of that space. Territorial markers extend the presence of an individual beyond his or her body, and thereby temporarily modify the rules of ownership. For President Obama, the Oval Office is a temporary territory, held in guardianship for the victor of the 2016 presidential election, and the many future leaders who will follow. He has no right of ownership, but rather acts as a custodian of the office. Obama is one of millions of office workers the world over who occupy a designated space for most of their waking hours without having any claim of ownership of that space or the objects within it. In the home, ‘there is no reason for territorial behaviour [as] one has psychological ownership of objects that are not in a social realm’ [1].  In contrast, in a place of work employees may occupy an office indefinitely, using the same desk and chair for years, knowing that those objects are the property of an organisation. In such environments, employees feel the urge to mark territory as their own, by providing physical evidence of their right of occupation [2].

Images from the first 100 days of the presidency in particular show Obama asserting his right to occupy the seats around his desk.

Images from the first 100 days of the presidency in particular show Obama asserting his right to occupy the seats around his desk.

Individuals and groups can claim space for their personal use by marking it with objects that are not native to the environment – brought from elsewhere. These territorial markers ‘reduce the likelihood of an invasion of personal space’ by others [B]. Clothes are particularly effective territorial markers because they are so often viewed as an extension of the body. The removal and purposeful placement of a garment extends the body into the surrounding area, thereby establishing new boundaries between self and others beyond the outer layer of worn clothing. Typically, an item of clothing may be left on a seat to mark territory in the wearer’s absence, while he or she is temporarily away, signifying his or her intention to return. In Obama’s case, however, territory is extended beyond his own chair to one of those that sit either side of the Resolute Desk.

Obama chooses a chair

Even before Obama had chosen his chair, he claimed his right to sit at the Resolute Desk by draping his coat alongside it.

In photographs of the first years of his presidency, Obama’s jacket is invariably draped not over his own chair, but on one of the smaller chairs that sit either side of his desk. Official Whitehouse photographer Pete Souza has captured Obama’s jacket draped on one of the chairs either side of his desk on a number of occasions, including many within his first 100 days in office, and continuing into his second term, including a infamous image of Obama leaning back in his chair, with his feet on the desk, on 25 February 2013 (see above). As a boundary marker, the jacket serves to prevent others from sitting either side of the desk, asserting his right as its sole user, and prompting colleagues and visitors to keep their distance by standing or sitting elsewhere. Childress’ exploration of teenage territory may provide an explanation for the position of Obama’s draped jacket [4]. If, as Childress observes, those ‘prohibited from property ownership’ are more inclined to mark their temporary residence, then perhaps Obama too feels inclined to mark his territory as compensation for the impermanence of his role. The Oval Office is not his own, and as a mere custodian of the space he may seek means of asserting his right of occupation.

An October 2014 photograph shows Obama occupying 2 seats simultaneously, with his body and his jacket - an extension of his body - so that an aide must stand rather than sit next to him.

An October 2014 photograph shows Obama occupying two seats simultaneously, with his body and his jacket – an extension of his body – so that an aide must stand rather than sit next to him.

In much more recent photographs, a significant change appears to have taken place. Now that Obama’s time is office is coming to an end, his jacket is photographed more regularly on the back of his own chair. More recent photographs of Obama in his office show his territorial claim receding, suggesting that towards the end of his term in office he is accepting of his inevitable exit from this contested territory. As he graciously makes way for the next president, he expects to take his jacket with him.

An image captured on 29 October 2014 shows Obama seated in his jacket,  allowing others to occupy the spare seats.

An image captured on 29 October 2014 shows Obama seated in his jacket, allowing others to occupy the spare seats.

References
[1] Brown, G., Lawrence, T. B. and Robinson, S. L. (2005), ‘Territoriality in Organizations’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 30, no. 3,  p. 579.
[2] Ley, D. and Cybriwsky, R. (1974), ‘Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 64, no. 4, p. 357.
[3] Cassidy, T. (1997), Environmental Psychology: Behaviour and experience in context, New York: Psychology Press, p. 135.
[4] Childress, H. (2004), ‘Teenagers, Territory and the Appropriation of Space’, Childhood, vol. 11, no. 2, p. 196.

Note: This blog post is in no way intended to comment on aspects of Obama’s presidency, rather to illustrate the claiming of territory in temporarily occupied office spaces. Further discussion of this topic is available in my forthcoming book, Acts of Undressing (Bloomsbury, 2016).

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