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A Deeper Look at Global Icons

UC San Diego Department of History professor Jeremy Prestholdt discusses his latest book “Icons of Dissent: The Global Resonance of Che, Marley, Tupac, and Bin Laden” in this Q&A

Icons Dissent cover

What would you want the reader to understand the most, when they finish reading “Icons of Dissent”?

Icons are more than recognizable people — they are individuals who have become larger-than-life, almost myth-like symbols that communicate ideals, sentiments or aspirations. A major takeaway from the book is that, as symbols, iconic figures are what we make of them. While their ideological or political positions contribute to their initial popularity (or notoriety), icons of dissent obtain their greatest audiences when they no longer represent a particular cause and instead stand for common ideals such as courage, freedom or a rejection of the status quo.

This book began with a central question: Why do certain figures resonate with diverse global audiences? While icons are omnipresent in contemporary culture, we rarely think about why specific individuals resonate in the way they do. Instead, we tend to focus on their biographies, which reinforces the idea that natural talent or charisma confers iconic status. I argue that attributes such as charisma are only part of the story of icons and that biographical approaches often reveal little about how audiences perceive and interpret the lives of well-known figures. They also obscure the double lives of icons, or how they connect individuals with transnational currents while speaking to specific local and personal circumstances. Recognizing this simultaneous universality and specificity is essential to understanding the global icon.

To better understand why icons resonate, my book explores the circuitous routes and historical circumstances through which individuals gain international attention and, just as importantly, how perceptions of them change over time. What I found in my research on Che, Marley, Tupac and Bin Laden is that we are perennially reinterpreting such figures. In this sense, you might say that even the dead are changing with the times! By the same token, those icons that are not reinterpreted over time tend to fade from the collective memory.

What were you most surprised about when doing the research?

There were many surprises in this research. For instance, before researching this book I would not have guessed that the famous image of Che Guevara with a beard and beret is the most reproduced image in history, or that in 1999 the BBC named Bob Marley’s “One Love” the “song of the millennium.” It was also surprising to learn that Tupac Shakur T-shirts were used as military uniforms in several countries, and that Osama bin Laden was a cologne brand.

What surprised me the most, however, was the bigger picture: the recurring patterns in how people create icons collectively and in dialog with others around the world.

The process of a person becoming a symbol is one of selective interpretation, or their reduction to a limited set of images or refrains, such as Marley’s “One Love.” In general, we are drawn to symbols that can stand for the essence of a movement or embody a zeitgeist, and so the icons that attract the largest audiences tend to be those that have been reduced to simplified references. In this way, the making of an icon is really a practice of seeing individuals as symbols and then investing them with profound, yet quite narrow meaning.

The other thing that surprised me is how much our perceptions of icons shift over time. Usually, this isn’t the result of actions on the part of an iconic individual but rather a consequence of changing social, cultural or political circumstances. We see figures in different ways over time and we collectively reimagine them in relation to new interests or concerns. I return to this point throughout the book because it accounts for the declining popularity of some figures and the increasing resonance of others.

For instance, Bob Marley became an important international reference for liberation and social justice in the 1970s, but after his death in 1981 emphasis on the spiritual elements of his canon transformed him into a transcendent, quasi-religious figure. This, in turn, contributed to an exponential increase in his popularity.

Why the anti-establishment, “icon of dissent?” What drew your interest in this direction?

I focus on icons of dissent because, as figures that embody significant resistance to the status quo, they resonate more profoundly than most political figures or celebrities. Since people see them as so consequential, they are like mirrors that allow us to look back at society, at our shared interests and concerns. Moreover, many icons of dissent reflect the sentiments of the disenfranchised and marginalized, those written out of dominant historical narratives. As a result, studying global icons of dissent can highlight the perceptions and dreams of a broad cross-section of humanity.

Icons of dissent are also unusually powerful bridges, or points of solidarity. In fact, the popularity of a figure such as Che Guevara, who was the only global icon referenced by Arab Spring demonstrators, anti-austerity protestors in Europe and Occupy activists, represents a desire to be connected, to be part of a wider struggle. This desire to be connected, which nourishes diverse media platforms, has been a more powerful social force than we generally recognize. And this yearning for connection has affected many aspects of social life, from political agitation to revolution and consumer culture.

Finally, the book tells the story of four very different — and in some cases highly controversial — anti-establishment figures because this comparative approach reveals patterns across social and ideological divides that would otherwise be difficult to see. Guevara, Marley, Shakur and Bin Laden held very different beliefs and spoke to different audiences, but the ways in which they resonate, including the fact that people have turned their images into consumer goods, have been remarkably similar.

Let’s talk about gender. Why haven’t Angela Davis, Rosa Parks or other female “dissenters” risen to the same stature as the four you explore? What are you discovering?

This is a very important question, which relates to how global audiences construct iconic categories. It’s often hard to explain why individual iconic trajectories diverge, but we must appreciate that iconic categories, from the superhero to the dissenter, evidence conspicuous gender biases. One can point to a great many female anti-establishment figures, yet international audiences have more often celebrated their male peers.

Key to understanding this divergence is the fact that male icons, such as those in my book, have been vaunted for archetypal masculine traits. For example, global audiences celebrated Che Guevara and Osama bin Laden as hyper-masculine “men of action” willing to translate their ideas into extreme acts. Since dissent is so closely associated with traits widely perceived to be masculine, audiences have habitually lionized men as icons of dissent, often to the exclusion of women.

In different ways, each of the icons in the book evidences a wider pattern of reducing individuals to gender stereotypes. And the larger the international audience for a figure, the more we tend to see extreme forms of gender reduction. This is another manifestation of a phenomenon I mentioned earlier: the allure of iconic figures is in many cases directly linked to the distillation of their personas and actions into simplified form, which includes reductive notions of gender performance. So, many prominent icons of dissent have proven attractive because they embody and amplify what we interpret as conventional male traits, including aggression or rebelliousness.

The research is very robust in historical fact — you are, after all, a historian. Why is it important to understand and discover history as a means to navigating in the world both today, and tomorrow?

History is an essential discipline. We can only comprehend the world around us through asking questions about the past: How did the circumstances we find ourselves in come into being? What choices did people make to create the world in which we live and what other courses were possible? In studying the past, we see that nothing is inevitable, everything can change and the world isn’t the way that it is for the reasons that we assume. Thus, history can illuminate injustices and offer cautionary tales while providing frames for understanding and addressing our current concerns.

We should also remember that history, as field of study, is dynamic; our perceptions and interpretations of the past change. This insight is key to understanding the trajectory of icons such as Che, Marley, Tupac and Bin Laden. In the book, I plot the global trajectories of each figure. In each case, their trajectory was defined by the perceptions of diverse audiences, and changing historical circumstances, in turn, shaped those perceptions. For instance, Che Guevara became more popular after the end of the Cold War than he was in the 1960s, a fact that was almost unimaginable in the 1980s and that we can only understand through a close consideration of a shifting political landscape, new cultural trends and emerging communication technologies.

Looking at icons in historical perspective also reveals the “symbolic convergence” at the heart of the Information Age: as we have been exposed to the same images, music and ideas, we have become increasingly invested in a common audio-visual lexicon. Tupac Shakur, for instance, has become a shared global reference for resilience. If it is true that perceptions of icons change in response to cultural and political currents, then studying the history of iconography offers an invaluable means to comprehend a changing world.

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