Icons of Dissent with Jeremy Prestholdt


(upbeat music) – I want to begin by saying a word about how this project began. The project really began
with two basic questions that ultimately took me in the directions that I will speak about tonight. The first, why have certain figures become such powerful and
recognizable global symbols? And second, in some ways, the more
complicated question, how have they been
reinterpreted over time? In asking these questions, I was much less interested in biographies. All of these figures are the subject of many, many biographies. And certainly biography
is part of the story. But what I wanted to do
with this book was instead, understand why we see them
as important to begin with. Why audiences collectively interpret them in the way that they do, and how that perception changes. As a historian, I was
particularly interested in that second question. These are of course, very large questions, and to narrow this down,
I looked at roughly the last 50 years. A time during which the world
has seen a significant rise in the number and diversity
of globally recognizable images and personalities. Aided by diverse audiovisual technologies, the images and ideas of a
great many popular figures have circulated ever further, and have expanded our
shared catalog of symbols, a kind of common symbolic vocabulary. Like earlier icons, the
ones that have emerged or come to prominence in
the last half century, crystallize emotional, political,
and spiritual longings. And in this way, they function very much like religious objects, in this sense, the historic
term icon is valuable, in that individuals develop emotional, even quasi-spiritual
relationships with these figures. In my book, I focus on this phenomenon, in particular, with Bob Marley. But their particular power often lies in their form, in this human form, as they put flesh to the bones of mythos and ideals. So, the global icon, in many ways, gives physical form to human connection, and thus offers a means to articulate, both to articulate, I should
say, and imagine communities. Many, many different kinds of communities. Communities of ideology, of identity, and often less tangible communities, something I found
particularly interesting. Communities of shared sentiment. Of shared feelings. And this is a phenomenon
that’s equally visible, equally important with
the figures I look at, as well as someone like Frida Kahlo, or Princess Diana. Or Bruce Lee. Now, within this vast
field of global icons, what I wanted to do in the
book was focus one one subset. And so I focused on,
I think, a fascinating yet understudied subset,
the icon of dissent. What I call, for the purposes of the book, “The Icons of Dissent,” were figures that audiences perceived as challenging the socioeconomic and political order of the day. Figures that offer, in some ways, alternative visions for the world. Unlike other popular figures of which, thinking back to that previous slide, there are many, many recognizable figures of the last half-century or so. Audiences tend to identify
with icons of dissent on many levels. Politically, emotionally, even viscerally. And I think that’s what
makes icons of dissent a particularly interesting category. And they often become transcended because of these multifaceted meanings that are projected onto them. Of course, icons of dissent
also evidence another thing and that’s the strong
gendering of iconic categories. Audiences tend to associate dissent, for instance, with traits
stereotyped as male, aggression, bravery, violence, these sort of, again,
stereotypical male traits. So they’ve been celebrated, in many ways, because they perform or amplify reductive notions of masculinity. And we see this kind of gendering
in many iconic categories. But because the ones that I look at represent kind of extreme
forms of the modern icon, I think what they do, is they
illuminate particularly well the gendered, the political,
the cultural complexities of iconic figures more generally. So, that brings us to another question. Why Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, and Osama
Bin Laden together? That’s a question I get a lot, actually. Why these case studies? Well, part of the reason in choosing them is that they are otherwise very different. They fall into this category
that I’m calling icons of dissent, but otherwise,
they’re very different. They articulated divergent world views. They appealed, often,
to different audiences. They had very different
ideological underpinnings, but what’s important
here, and what I think is so curious, is that despite these differences, they were venerated, they were commodified,
as I’ll show in a moment, in remarkably similar ways. They were even conflated,
in fact, in some cases. So, I think that in looking at
these very different figures, you can see some common denominators in how audiences receive and project onto iconic figures. Now, by tracing these otherwise
very different figures over time, the book makes
a number of suggestions. But let me just give you a sense of the three general suggestions I’d like you to take away. First, the meaning of these figures derive from collective interpretations. But those interpretations
are highly, highly selective. This entails, often, a
distillation into just a handful of memorable images or phrases. So, we can think, for instance, about Tupac’s refrain,
“Me against the world,” something that is very commonly repeated in association with him. Bob Marley’s one love,
which I’ll come back to in a minute. This has become, in
some ways, the dominant concept associated with Bob Marley. And, if we go back a
little bit further in time, this image of Che Guevara, image originally dubbed
The Heroic Guerrilla. It’s his image from 1972, but this is probably the image that everyone is familiar with. And I’ll talk about
some of the permutations of that image in a second. But why, out of thousands
of images of Che Guevara, why is this the image
that became serialized as early as 1967? Why is this the image that
we’re all familiar with, even if we don’t know who it is? Interestingly. So, again, what we see
is often the reduction of individuals to one particular trope, one particular concept,
one particular image, and so forth. Of course, what this process
does, is it strips figures of their ideological nuance. But it also facilitates
their wider appeal. And it also facilitates
their remarkable ease in reinterpretation
of, the remarkable ease of reinterpretation of
these figures over time. And that takes me to point number two. Though icons often gain
general symbolic meanings, and of course varied local connotations alongside those general meanings, these general meanings are
often greatly malleable. I think far more so than
we tend to recognize. They’re malleable over time, which is kind of the crux of
what I want to explore today. So, someone like Che
Guevara, for instance. Che was made into much more
than a socialist revolutionary. By the late 1990s, he came to be seen as, in many ways, a rebel
for nearly any cause, not tied to any particular ideology. And, I think the genius of this street art from Norway in circa 2006, Che Guevara wearing a Che Guevara tee shirt. Attempting to speak to that irony again, which I’ll come back to in a moment. And that takes me to the final point, and that’s that malleability is critical to their longevity. These figures stay in
the popular imagination precisely because they change. Because they change over
time, because we want to see new things in them. So their malleability isn’t just critical to their global resonance
in any particular moment, but also to their longevity
in the popular sphere. In fact, the figures
that remain most relevant tend to be those, like Tupac Shakur, or Freddie Mercury for instance,
as we’ve seen recently, that are collectively re-imagined for new historical moments. They’re not simply inherited,
we see something new in them. Let me give you a sense
of what I try to do with each of these figures. And I should say by way of introduction, that each case study in this book looks at the particular trajectory
of an iconic figure. But also the context of their resonance. Why they gain the kind of
global stage that they do, and most importantly, I look
at the people that embrace these icons in different
cultural and political context. So let me start with Che. Che presents us with a
number of conundrums. This is the photograph that
would ultimately launch the more stylized image
that we more frequently see. It was a photo taken in 1960
by Alberto “Korda” Diaz, a Cuban photographer. But really wouldn’t begin circulating for many, many, almost
a decade thereafter. Of course, we know Che Guevara
as a kind of revolutionary, a seductive counter cultural
figure in the 1960s and ’70s. But why did Che gain the
kind of level of resonance that others didn’t? Why more than others? And if we fast forward
to the current decade, why was he the only global icon referenced by Arab Spring demonstrators from Morocco all the way to Yemen? By anti-austerity protestors in Europe? Why was he the only one also referenced by Occupy activists around the world? Let me back up and say
a few things about Che in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s and ’70s, Che Guevara emerges as a powerful symbol
of a kind of commitment to antiestablishment struggle. He also becomes an important symbol for transnational solidarity. The image on the left is of Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael, in Paris, Washington
D.C. 1967, both from ’67. The picture on the right, very soon after Che’s death. The first major national
anti-Vietnam War protest. He represents a kind of promise of socialist internationalism
in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, and in many ways, Che emerges
as a martyr for that vision. That makes him quite
different from Fidel Castro, for instance, or from Mao
Tse-tung for that matter. So, if we look at Che’s symbolic value in the late 1960s, we
see this stylized image by a Irish artist named
Jim Fitzpatrick in 1968, circulating very, very
quickly in the spring and summer of ’68, especially in western Europe, in Mexico, here’s an
image from Mexico City in August of 1968. So, one image of Che Guevara
was already beginning to circulate as a powerful
and evocative image of international solidarity, of left movements around the world. Student movements, and so forth around the world. We see him even emerging as early as, as late 1968 in terms of sort of a cottage
industry in consumer goods. Again, using this particular image. But it’s important to recognize
that his political valence was quite strong, even
if people didn’t describe to the same, necessarily
the same political vision. Now, we can see resonances of this if we fast forward into the 1990s. The Zapatistas, the EZLN in Chiapas, Mexico borrowed heavily from Che iconography, used Che iconography significant, this is an image of a
mural painted in 1997, in one of the Zapatista autonomous zones. But Che became a kind of linking point to international left movements at that juncture, so he had a
very clear political valence. But another thing was
happening, and that was, Che was more forcefully
working into popular culture in the mid and late 1990s. He regains popular attention,
he regains political allure in the post-Cold War era, but
his image was slowly emptied of its socialist connotations, at least in popular culture. He regains political allure,
but he’s also transformed into a kind of brand-like logo, a fashion logo, and a kind of logo for contemporary rebellion without a clear ideological underpinning. So, I think maybe some of
you have seen this film, Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries. It came out in 2004,
it represents, I think, a turning point. Let’s remember, The
Motorcycle Diaries themselves weren’t published during Che’s lifetime. The books that were
popular about Che were not biographical per se, during his life. But in the afterlife, focuses on his biography became primary. And so we see “Motorcycle
Diaries” emerging as a kind of a bestseller, translated into many languages. And I think what’s important is that this represents a kind
of pre-political Che. It’s not about the Cuban Revolution. It’s not about the revolution in Bolivia that would ultimately lead to his death. It’s about a sort of
budding revolutionary, not tethered to any specific ideology. It’s about his personal story,
and that’s what’s important, because that’s the biography
that attracted many people in the 1990s. We see this rampant
commodification of Che. El Che cigarettes on the left from Peru. Again, with the Diaz of Fitzpatrick Che. El Che cola from Mexico, and many, many, many, other examples. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the way in which he became a sort
of pop culture symbol in this moment, used to kind of sell many many different products. Here’s a photo from 2005, Mombasa, Kenya, where he’s interpolated into other brands, brands of shoes in this case. Adidas, Nike, Puma, Che Guevara. So he’s abstracted in many ways from his political underpinnings. But I think one critical
turn at this very moment is that as Che’s being
introduced to a new generation, or multiple new generations, through this kind of commercialization, he’s also being interpolated once again into the political sphere. People are exposed to him
through commercialization, but then he’s re-politicized in the 2000s. And that’s what takes us to his prominence in the Arab Spring, for instance. Well, maybe most notably, Heroic Guerrilla is the template
that Shepard Fairey uses in 2008 for this very famous image, which is of course, the
most memorable image of the Barack Obama campaign. So we see ways in which
the images re-politicize. But re-politicized in many, many ways across a political spectrum. Fast forward a few years to
Occupy Wall Street in 2011, we see the use of Che Guevara as well, in a very, very
politicized context. So the point that I’d
like to make is that, is this commercialization
propels Che’s image, but commercialization in politics become mutually reinforcing. And I think that’s the critical
point that’s often lost when we look at his commercialization, is that, that becomes one
avenue towards his reentrance into the political sphere. In fact, in an even more
forceful way than in the 1990s. We see him in Libya in 2011, as well, in many, many contexts. Including, fast forward to 2016, these tee shirts which
may not have been approved by the Bernie campaign, but
certainly were widely available. Where Bernie is himself
interpolated into this, into, you might say, the
matrix of Che, again, as the quintessential
revolutionary figure. That’s the connotation
that he had taken on. So let me switch to say a
few words about Bob Marley. Because I look at Bob
Marley’s symbolic resonance from his rise to stardom in
the 1970s to the present. Now, Bob Marley emerged
as a celebrated artist and international symbol for social justice. And this, in many ways,
accelerated his rise to super stardom in the 1970s. His label, Island Records
absolutely marketed him as a rebel to be sure, this is the album cover
of his first LP released in 1973 a highly charged,
politically charged album. He was often criticized in the media, disparaged as a quote,
unquote cult leader. But his emancipatory message captured the imagination
of people around the world, particularly in the Caribbean, but also post-colonial Africa, Pacific Islands, in the
west, and so on and so forth. His political message had
deep resonance in the 1970s, and into the early 1980s. In fact, what was at the
center of his popularity in his lifetime was this
song and reference and phrase get up, stand up, stand
up for your rights. This is a promotional poster
from his very last tour promoting the album Uprising, a series of politically, very strongly politically oriented albums from the late ’70s until 1980. So, get up stand up is
repeated at Tiananmen Square, it’s repeated at the Berlin
Wall in the late 1980s, it becomes the kind of clarion call of many left movements in particular in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Now, by the end of the 1990s, well after Bob Marley’s death, he becomes one of the most
widely recognized musical artists in the world. But, this is an image
taken right at the end of Bob Marley’s life, his final tour, this is an image from
Milan in a stadium that drew a larger audience to see Bob Marley than drew to see the Pope a few weeks before. So, Bob Marley was a superstar
at the end of his life. But his emancipatory message became superseded you might say, in the years immediately after his death. In fact, his ubiquity as a globally recognizable
figure had a lot to do with a shift of emphasis
away from Get Up, Stand Up, to this mantra One Love. His ubiquity in the ’90s was in many ways, the consequence of a re-conceptualization of Bob Marley as a kind
of quasi-religious icon. A kind of supra religious icon. This is a tee shirt, a vintage tee shirt, again, focusing on this phrase. Here we have a shift towards a very narrow dimension of his canon. One Love captures a kind of
desire for a more concordant world in the midst of
emerging globalization. And One Love begins to overshadow this theme of Get Up, Stand Up. And in many ways, this compromises
the more radical nature of his message, his label
is absolutely part of this, they begin to rerelease his material. One Love, remarkably,
was released as a single, rereleased as a single
many years after his death, with a video and rose in the charts. So there were many dimensions of the rethinking of his image that had to do with marketing as well. Also, there was a widespread
kind of piracy of his image, including things like this. So, the commercialization of his image took his image in many, many,
many different directions. Now, I should say that One Love became so ubiquitous as an anthem, it was, some of you may
remember, it was used, the tune at least, was used
by the Jamaican government as a means of marketing
tourism in Jamaica. But it had become such
a popular anthem that even though Bob Marley
was heavily criticized by the media in the United States during his life, the song One Love was played on the National Mall at
the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 2000. As it was on the BBC, every hour as the world moved into
the new millennium. So there was a widespread
embrace of Bob Marley, and, not just any song,
but One Love specifically. Now, Bob Marley’s heirs, this is a dimension of
the story that’s maybe a little different from
some of these figures, but Bob Marley’s heirs
have tried to rein in some of this rampant commercialization. But have, in turn also
released a number of, or authorized a range of
other products related to Bob Marley. I think in many ways, the
commercialization has opened up a wider contemporary debate
about the meaning of Bob Marley. Probably more so now
than even in the 1990s or the early 2000s. So let me quickly switch
to talk about Tupac Shakur, who, after his murder in 1996, became an omnipresent voice of post-Cold War disillusionment. Now, Tupac had a very prolific career. Both in music, as we remember, but also in film. He starred in a number of very
successful Hollywood films. But his renown grew in
the years after his death, and this tracked closely to the rising popularity, the international popularity of hip hop as a genre,
as hip hop was becoming an increasingly dominant musical form. So in many ways, Tupac’s death, in a similar way to Che Guevara’s, his death, I should say, propelled his stardom to ever higher levels. Now, Tupac was also vilified
by political leaders in the United States, often
disparaged in the media during his life. But after his death, a kind of reinterpretation occurred. So, immediately after his death in 1996, what we see is Tupac emerging, especially among young
people, in many different social environments, as a kind of icon of masculinity. A powerful voice of alienation, of individual and communal alienation. Alienation in a new era
of global inequality in the late ’90s and the early 2000s. A lodestar for rebellion. This is one of the things
that I focus on in the book, this is an image from Cape Town in 2002, a mural that was, obviously featuring an image very similar to the Rolling Stone cover painted several years earlier. But he became a lodestar for rebellion. In the book I write in
some detail about the war in Sierra Leone in West
Africa in the 1990s where the main rebel group,
the Revolutionary United Front in ’98, ’99, and towards
the end of the war, used Tupac tee shirts,
as we see in this image, as military uniforms. He became such an important figure in the Revolutionary
United Front thinking. But this wasn’t just Sierra Leone. We see something similar
happening in Guadalcanal, fast forward to Libya in 2011, Tupac is also a really
important figure for revolution. And I think in many ways, his
message of social criticism became increasingly
amplified in the 2000s. This is another image from Sierra Leone, from Freetown in 2000, another Tupac mural. Not associated with the
Revolutionary United Front. Painted by a different group, or commissioned by a
different group altogether. Now we see Tupac’s image taking
on new form in the 2000s. His message of social criticism, as I mentioned, was amplified, particularly as the
controversies around his life that defined his public
image in life began to fade. Now, Tupac of course was a
commercial success in life. But he was much more heavily commodified after his death. More albums of new material,
and that’s an important point. More albums of new material
were released after his death than during his life. He was the subject of this Broadway musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, the musical inspired by
the lyrics of Tupac Shakur. In fact, Tupac was even resurrected, in a much more dramatic way than any of the other figures that I consider. Perhaps some of you remember this. Coachella 2012, this, what was called a hologram, but this image of Tupac was projected onto the stage and he performed with Snoop Dogg at Coachella. This had a kind of electric effect, especially for a generation of people who didn’t know Tupac in life. Seeing him perform, albeit in this form, had a very strong effect on
audiences around the world. But he also appeared in Powerade ads, his voice and his poetry,
the Broadway musical that I mentioned, and recently
we’ve seen the redemption of his image in many, many forms. The redemption of his image with a focus on specific
elements of his canon. Perhaps some of you
heard this very recently, Presidential candidate Andrew Yang claimed Tupac as one of his heroes. Marco Rubio actually has also spoken about being a Tupac fan. So, Tupac’s resonance is in some ways greater now than it has ever
been, but this is in part a result of the focus on certain dimensions of Tupac’s canon. Now, let me end by saying a few
words about Osama Bin Laden. Of course, the years
after 9/11 saw a avalanche of literature and reporting
on Osama Bin Laden. Just trying to count up the
biographies of Osama Bin Laden is quite a task. Of course, Osama Bin Laden was the focus of intense attention after 9/11. But what is interesting
is that, in all of this, there was very little reflection
on the symbolic meanings of Osama Bin Laden, the
uses of Osama Bin Laden as a symbol, and those
uses were quite diverse, as I want to talk about now. He became a symbol onto which
diverse audiences projected a wide range of sentiments, of fears, and more surprisingly, as I
show in the book, aspirations. In many ways, Osama Bin Laden
became a myth-like figure immediately after 9/11 and for
many, many years thereafter. Of course, he was a
ubiquitous symbol that focused American anger, and angst, and anxiety after 9/11. And in fact, he came to
symbolize terrorism writ large on a global scale. Now of course many viewed him
as simply a mass murderer, but he also became a figure of
almost superhuman proportions in the way that he was
constantly replicated and used by politicians, used as a symbol. But the flip side of
this was that he became an antiestablishment symbol for some. A symbol of resistance for some. A symbol used to represent shared social and political grievances. This is an image, actually two images from Pakistan, the image on the left circulated quite widely beyond Pakistan. And a symbol of shared social
and political grievances among non-Muslims and Muslims alike. So I use examples in the
book, not just from Pakistan, but from across the African continent, from Latin America, from south Asia, as well as southeast Asia. And I focus on the myriad
ways in which Bin Laden was used to represent alienation
amongst diverse audiences. Used to represent frustration with domestic political repression. With global inequalities generally. The US invasions of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, and Western economic and
military power in the world. Now, the interest in Bin
Laden was often rooted in the notion that one’s
individual or communal experiences were part of a larger system
of repression and inequality that Bin Ladin’s actions
appeared to address. And so you see, Bin Laden
represented often in posters and in tee shirts in a
very similar fashion, as sort of one man taking
on these great forces. As you can see, the
jets in the background, the bombs going off, even what looks like a nuclear explosion on the bottom right, these were
common ways of representing images of Osama Bin Laden, almost always as this singular figure, which speaks to the way in
which he became this kind of symbolic representation. But I think the critical point is that, this was possible at least to a degree because many outside the US read 9/11 as a kind of inversion
of the global order, an inversion of the world order. And the critical point
here is that many audiences thereby uncoupled his image from his own narrow political vision, and harnessed it as a much
more general and imprecise multifaceted symbol of discontent. Even just a symbol of current
events, this is a photo from Nairobi circa 2007, a city that had suffered immensely from an al-Qaeda attack in 1997. And yet, here you also see
images of Osama Bin Laden. But as a result of this,
much like Che Guevara, Tupac Shakur, and Bob Marley, Osama Bin Laden was also
very quickly commercialized. And commercialized in some shocking ways, some surprising ways to say the least. He was heavily commodified
and widely reproduced as a popular logo. As cologne, as we see here, and in many cases, these
stripped Osama Bin Laden of any kind of political meaning at all. In fact, here’s a very common tee shirt, this is a image that was
taken in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but this was a tee shirt
that I’ve seen evidence of in many parts of the world with the simple caption, “well known.” Osama Bin Laden as a reference, not to any particular
ideology, or any particular political position, but rather as a reference to a kind of historical moment. So, the kind of even apolitical uses of Osama Bin Ladin we see
in multiple world regions. So, let me wrap up with
a few thoughts to kind of bring all of these strands together. First off, these icons, as you can see from this very short presentation,
have been made and remade in a very complex and often
surprising international dialog. One that demonstrates
a profound convergence of a number of things, but most notably, political sentiment and consumer culture. And this is true since the 1960s. Maybe we see more extreme
forms in the recent past, but we see the commodification of Che as early as the
days after his death. And I think all of this,
both the political side and the commercial side represent a kind of intense yearning for
meaningful connection in a global age. Moreover, these case studies
suggest that attraction to icons is often not the
idealization of that individual. In fact, that individual’s
life can be remarkably abstracted from the
iconic symbolism itself. It’s not the idealization
of the individual per se, or even their ideas, in many instances. Rather, attraction to
them is more often rooted in the idealization of
what they symbolize. Of possibility, or some other number in a range of sentiments and values. To put it another way, the
critical elements in the making of myth-like icons are the
sentiments and the values that their audiences,
very diverse audiences, wish to see in them. And this is why the
meaning of icons can change so dramatically over time. Ultimately, the appeal of
icons is their dual aspect, or their kind of double lives. How they connect individuals with broad transnational currents, while at the same time, seeming to speak to very specific local circumstances even personal circumstances. In short, global icons of dissent tend to
globalize local concerns and demands, and give them the weight, either real or imagined,
of international consensus. This accounts for their
unusual and indeed, their remarkable allure. I’ll stop there. – [Audience Member] Since
you’ve seen these icons of dissent, and you’ve talked
about how you see other icons, do you have any interest
in like, further writing about this and seeing other patterns? – Yes, thank you for that question. I would, of course, in writing any book, more questions come to your
mind than you can answer in the confines of a book. And I think one of the
things about this book about the research for this book, that was exciting to me, is I realized a lot of what I was talking about, a lot of what I was
finding in the research was relevant to figures beyond those that I was looking at. And in fact, beyond the category of dissent figures, or figures
associated with dissent. So, I guess the short answer
to your question is that, what I’d like to do is expand this to look at a much greater diversity of figures. Figures, for instance, aren’t even real. ‘Cause these, yes, these were real people who are made into myth-like objects, but what about you know, characters who are simply invented? Fictional characters who take on some sort of real life resonance that people, like superheroes that people see something very powerful and emotive in them. Or Rambo? I write about Rambo in the book. How the seductive power
of Rambo in the 1980s and into the 1990s was really remarkable. I write about this in
the context of the war in Sierra Leone specifically,
but I think you can look at examples from around the world where a fictional character like that seemed to resonate quite
deeply with people. So, what I’d like to do
is to kind of draw out some of the larger strains
of argument in the book, to look at a more diverse
group that includes both fictional figures
as well as real people across a much, much wider spectrum. Which kind of opens the aperture in ways to talk about things that
weren’t necessarily the focus with this subset specifically. Thank you. – [Audience Member]
Could you sort of tell us a bit more about your
process of actually picking these four figures a bit more? I know there are these
broader themes of masculinity and dissent, ’cause I just keep thinking, I start thinking about
people in my mind that would comfortably fit in here. Kurt Cobain, for example. So, and I wonder if the issue of death is sort of, all of these people having
died in a certain way, put their brand sort of on steroids? Do you expect a similar transformation when the Dalai Lama dies, or when, (laughs) Paul McCartney dies, you know? – When I started writing this book, Osama Bin Laden wasn’t dead. But he had faded from
the popular imagination in some remarkable ways. He wasn’t seen as relevant anymore by the time he was killed. And so, in many ways, his allure was
lost long before he died. Having said that, of course, when he died, the way in which his
symbolism was a concern of the Obama administration. The political uses of
his death, for instance. Those were very important,
and so I had to kind of go back and rewrite that chapter. But it’s absolutely true that, the particular image
that I was speaking about of Osama Bin Laden, began
to shift dramatically in around the middle 2000s. And so, his death didn’t
have the effect on his image the way in which Che Guevara’s death did. And so timing is a very critical element when we talk about the
kind of acceleration of the iconicity of figures. And that’s equally true with
Che Guevara, for instance, as it was with Tupac Shakur. Also, I think there’s
something really, really profound about death in youth, because we like to read
into that loss of potential. Potential unfilled. There was this possibility
of what this person could have been, that was cut short. That contributes to a kind
of romanticizing of them. And of course, that
certainly wasn’t the case with Osama Bin Laden. I mean, I think there are
many, many other figures that one could look
at, but in my research, in sort of looking at some other figures, what I’ve noticed is some
remarkable similarities with other icons of dissent, as well as icons that aren’t necessarily associated with dissent. I mean, I mentioned Freddie
Mercury, one of the fascinating things about Freddie
Mercury is, the way in which he’s resurrected in the recent past, has emphasis on different
dimensions of his life and his canon, his personality and so forth, as in the 1970s, let’s say,
during his rise to stardom. Or, the 1990s, around his death. So, I think we see this across the board with many, many figures. Now, let me address this
decontextualization question. The sort of phenomenon of
the meme is, in many ways, what I’m talking about in
this book, the sort of, the image with an idea, or a sentence, or a concept associated with them. That in itself isn’t a new phenomenon. The ease of replication, the
ease of decontextualization is in some ways more than in the past. So, I think it opens the door to, yes, anything becoming a brand, but anything sort of
transferring from one movement or from one context to another. I would say that there is an acceleration, absolutely, but not necessarily a radical conceptual difference between what I was talking about in the 1990s. Again, this image of Che Guevara, what Jim Fitzpatrick called Viva Che, the kind of stylized two
dimensional image of Che, that circulated even through the post, and more traditional
means, very, very quickly in the spring and summer of 1968. But again, that was sort
of passed amongst people in different movements
in different nations. So, the rapidity is of course
greater in the presence. But I think there are some
fundamental things that aren’t so different if we look at the circulation of symbols. What is really interesting,
this is maybe the last point I’ll make, is that the
resignification of these symbols is, in some ways, more
extreme in the present. If we go back, if we think
about that Tupac image of Tupac as an angel,
well again, it’s the image from the cover of Rolling Stone. But it’s not even necessarily
the case that everyone who uses that image knows
that it’s from this source. It could be reproduced in
many, many different ways. And in fact, that one
image of Tupac is primarily the one you see repeated
again, and again, and again. Because, for audiences around the world, it seems to tell the story of Tupac, as it presents the image of Tupac in ways that are much
more powerful or resonant, as one of thousands of images, than any other image, so,
I think the replication of a particular image is
probably just as likely now as it was in the 1960s or ’70s. Thank you. (audience applauds) (upbeat music)

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