Casey’s analysis of the Che image is unique among our readings in that it does not derive from a complete critique of capitalism. Though Casey is quick to point out the contradictory and ironic ways people have used the Che image, turning it into a Che himself into a commodity, he is not illuminating these instances to show how capitalism is evil and awful and must be overcome but is impossible to overcome, as many of our other readings have. Instead, Casey, particularly in his descriptions of Cuba’s current political and economic situation, is quick to criticize anti-communist ideals. On page 284, he calls Che “hyperidealistic” and shows the ways his ideas decreased productivity. Casey goes on to cite economists who claim that “society pays a high cost for suppressing the individual’s drive for material betterment,” a mainstay of capitalist dogma.
He goes on to describe those who “agitate for social change” as “idealists” and asks “Why can’t we believe that human beings can change?” (284-285). Casey does not seem concerned with finding real, material ways to promote societal change, instead (in a rather Hegel-like move) taking the discussion back to grand questions of human beings and the human spirit.
This was confusing and rather unsatisfying to me. I have, because of the way we have discussed the evolution of cultural studies, assumed that cultural studies must be based in a critique of capitalism and the desire for material change. But is this really the case? Can a work like Casey’s instead make capitalism seem inevitable and – gasp – beneficial?
From an aesthetic perspective, I found the choices which the photographer, Alberto Korda made in his production/distribution of the image to be interesting. First, the fact that he chose to crop the image, taking it completely out of context and immortalizing El Che as some sort of statue bust floating in a gray haze. I think that this is the major aspect which affected the popularity of the image as an icon rather than a photograph (to be honest I really sort of forgot, as I’m sure many people do that the image itself actually came from an original photograph and thought that it was drawn or produced in some other way). Second, I find it interesting that the image did not make it out until 1967, after Che’s untimely death. In a sense, the fact that both the image of his dead body and the Korda image came out at the same time crystallized his portrayal as a martyr and an icon of revolution. On one hand, as Casey puts it, the death picture exudes some sense of serenity in a Christlike way (not a weakness which his killers had hoped to portray), while the Korda image takes care of the powerful, moral figure side of his culturally constructed self. I think in a sense the images work together to piece Che into the icon we see in the Korda image. I really liked the first chapter because it deals with the aesthetics integral in the creation of the icon as well as breaks down the creation of the image, and it’s significance at the time it was shot. Really it helps to put the photo, not the icon into context for me.
In Che’s Afterlife, Casey does a good job of showing the process through which history is made. First, I liked his analysis of how Che’s writings are his attempts to control what others think of him: “Indeed, in stripping out facts, sanitizing, embellishing, or otherwise altering details for the official record, Che played a hands-on role in the construction of an apocryphal Cuban history. The book shows Che as both censor and poet, the Homer of Cuban mythology” (53). It’s interesting that one of the first people to manipulate Che’s image is Che himself. Not only did this writing influence what others thought of him, but it actually influenced how Che himself acted. As Casey points out, his actions almost seem determined by what he has already written, by his expressed beliefs: “In writing down his ideas he pushed himself to do as he preached, lest he be found guilty of the same apathy and fear of which he accused Communist Party leaders, whom he blamed for neglecting the rights of the poor to a liberation struggle” (55). As Casey would have it, Che influences Che’s actions through his writing.
This same historical “creation” plays out later in Casey’s analysis of a famous photo Alberto Korda cropped (but did not actually take) that, through the cropping, does not show Huber Matos, who Castro killed later because of his questioning of Castro’s regime. Here, Casey quotes Korda explaining why he kept certain images from being published: “Why? Because in fifty or a hundred years, there will be people writing about the Cuban revolution and this [archive] is a historical fact” (82). Korda recognizes that each image, as it is interpreted, becomes a historical fact—the reproduction of the print can give voice either to the unity or the disrepair of a regime. Interestingly, Korda expresses the same thing Casey reads into Che—that history is a process of negotiating meaning through reproductions of things that can be read (images, texts, etc). It brings to mind Raymond Williams’s discussion of the “selective tradition”, whereby certain meanings are selected out of the vast array that are possible in order to maintain control over a population.
Thanks to the cultural entrenchment of the image on a global scale, Korda’s Che graphic has become iconic; that is to say, it carries a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, and has come to not only represent a vague spirit of revolution but the process of globalization itself. As Casey says on p. 260, the sort of specialized co-opting of Korda’s image that occurs differently in each country is a method of “legitimizing [that country’s] place in a supposedly unbroken global narrative of revolution and rebellion.” Since the image has indeed grown to encompass more than Che’s legacy and ideals, how does one dismantle the many narratives (some of them ideologically opposite of one another) that all lead to an exaltation of Che as a representation?
Starting on page 267, Casey examines several instances of what I would call image remixing. From parodies to deliberate political subversions, the Che image has been reworked and combined with other “socially installed” images in order to capitalize on the instinctive public reaction to the image and other visual stimuli (i.e. the skull Che on 270). Artist Sergio Langer says he reinterprets the graphic and other cultural markers “without devotion or respect.” This rejection of boundaries of taste and of historically ingrained significance hearkens back to the postmodern notion of pastiche and constant deconstruction/distrust of ideology and its visual hallmarks. By pitting two cultural forces against each other within a symbol (such as “El Reagan” on p. 268) a cultural critic draws attention to the images as empty vessels waiting to be imbued with meaning – and also contributes to a global cultural which recognizes itself as a giant remix.
Author Dominick Strinati helps to elucidate this in An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, which delves deeply into postmodern phenomena. In his discussion of the remix, he mentions “the quoting and ‘tasting’ of distinct [elements] in order to create new sub- and pan-cultural identities.” This helped me to get more of a grip on Casey’s stance, which does not seem to be that recreating the Che image weakens it ideologically, but subsumes it into a rapidly congealing global narrative. The remixing of the image contributes to that “pan-cultural identity” in that completely disparate populations are equally capable of recognizing the significance of the image; it is available for global consumption. It has completely eclipsed its original historical context.
Angela McRobbie’s notion that “representations are interpretations” which Radway mentions in the introduction of Reading the Romance seems pertinent to Casey’s discussion of the image of Che. Michael Casey, rather frustratingly, seems to flip back and forth between describing the meanings associated with Che as a social construction: “We are not passive viewers of Korda’s frozen moment, which for all its beauty is really just a static template. No, quite the opposite we have collectively filled the image with meaning” (5) and, describing it as an image with an innate importance. For example he argues that Korda “had captured the unspoken essence of Che” (45). Though perhaps the latter example just demonstrates that Casey too gets caught up in the glorified and romantic notion of Che as a handsome, powerful, alpha-male, revolutionary.
Casey notes that it is this sensation of seeing the true “essensce of Che” which gives not only the image, of the texts written by Che their great appeal: “The appeal of reading Che’s words….comes from the sensation that they are hearing the pure, unfiltered, voice of an icon” (56). Which leads me to the questions that Che’s Afterlife really raised for me (I haven’t read the whole thing so this may just sound silly.) Dick Hebdige describes bricolage as the practice by which subcultures reassign meaning to various mainstream culture symbols or artifacts. The Che image has come to symbolism many things, yet it is grounded in the notion of resistance to capitalism. I wonder then, to what extent you can appropriate a symbol without knowing the history behind the image. Clearly, this can happen, but to what extent is it more or less powerful to appropriate an image while being aware of its historical meaning. Perhaps powerful is the wrong word. It seems as though it is almost theft or at the very least simply a disrespectful gesture to make use of a symbol which you do not know much about. Particularly in situations such as Che’s image which is grounded in a story which involved a great deal of death.
I was interested in the repeated references to the “prettiness” of the Korda Che as the root of its appeal. Of course, Casey starts out by saying that the sexiness of the image is not nearly enough to explain its widespread and long-living popularity. This seems like a substantial claim; Casey justifies it by saying that although
“linking rebellion and sex has always sold well…Elvis, the Beatles,…James Dean…but…if it had been nothing more than the superficial packaging of chic rebellion, the mass marketing of the image would have milked it dry years ago, killing its appeal…the resilience of the Che…icon…lies in the political reality…, not in the stylistic interpretations advertisers later gave to it” (32-33).
Yet although the book is supposed to be about all the things that go into the Che image that are not based on its sexiness, the pretty factor returns again as the most basic reason why all of the other appealing aspects of the photo can exist at all. Alberto Korda is described as discovering his interest in photography when he was a young boy fascinated by “’the immense attraction of the image itself,’” and he kept a scrapbook of “’things he found pretty;’” when he did start taking pictures it was to “capture that image,’” rather than to be published (73). Korda’s world is described as “a veritable parade of beautiful women” (74). Che is described as “a striking-looking human being, supremely photogenic:” the perfect subject for a fashion photographer who is interested in images above all else (89).
The book concludes with a crew of journalists interviewing a 14-year-old girl called “Chica del Che” because she always wore a Che T-shirt. The interview was mostly intimidating to the girl, who “seemed to assume she was being subjected to a history exam” (345). Mostly, she was unable to say anything articulate, and most of what she did say were erroneous tidbits about Che’s life. However, Casey points out that the few genuine explanations she did offer were along the lines of, “’Because he is beautiful,’” and “’I always sleep with him;’” Casey’s point is that her version of Che “was bound up in ideas of beauty, love, and dreams…what she sought in his image was beauty” (346).
I thought that where Casey went with this point was really interesting. He considers the girl, Jaquelin, to have a future that “is fairly bleak” (346). Realistically, he considers that “her escape from this depressing situation [lies] not in political mobilization but in the refuge of beauty” (347). In this case, beauty refers not only to the glamour or “prettiness,” but also to the way in which “making the …Korda Che a part of herself …allows [her] to dream, to imagine, to believe in magic, to do all those things that make her human and give her life purpose” (347). This seems like the most interesting of all the contradictory uses of the Che image. He is used by communist and capitalist camps alike, but the tenacity of his expression and the ideas he represents (even where they are debated) seem to at least all amount to a call to action. Here the image is being used as a way to make peace with an underprivileged existence.
It is amazing to me that some people think that “the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe, her skirt rising as she stands over a subway grate, has been more reproduced” than the iconic image of Che (Casey 28). I fully believe Michael Casey’s assertion of the opposite. Che’s image is literally everywhere, and since it’s release in 1967 has been constantly reproduced and remade. It’s unclear how long it will last, but at this point it seems possible that Che’s image will continue to dominate visual culture for decades. One of the more interesting facts about Che’s life, giving up Cuban citizenship, in a way foreshadowed his popularity in death: “The renunciation of citizenship was effectively a declaration of statelessness: Che belonged nowhere, which also meant he belonged everywhere” (59). The image of Che literally belongs everywhere, because it is so globally recognized. Even more important with regard to Casey’s statement, Che represented Marx’s countryless proletarian. If you recall, for Marx, the proletarian had no nation because he owned no land and because he was oppressed in that nation; especially if one considers a nation to be an imagined community, the proletarian does not feel connected to that community. Thus, Marx said, the proletariat class of every nation should band together for a global revolution. In renouncing his citizenship, Che declares that universal proletariat status as he fights to create that Marxist utopia. Casey suggests Che’s renunciation was done so as not to implicate the Cuban government in any of his actions, but I think it is just as likely, and certainly more idealistic to think, that he did it to more fully embody the Marxist principles he set out to defend.
The question of idealizing Che is obviously another huge issue at stake both in Casey’s book and in society at large. Casey points out, “With the exception of eleven million information-starved Cubans, we all have easy access to this archive [of Guevara’s actions and personality traits]. So this is not a debate about the facts surrounding Che’s life; rather, it’s a question of whether society should idolize a man with such a record. And from there we enter into a quarrel as old as history” (64-5). My first reaction to this was actually to consider the implications that eleven million Cubans did not have access to the facts behind the life of one of their most (if not the most) influential figures. It would be like Americans not being able to read up on Martin Luther King, Jr., or something. It’s crazy! But back to the larger issue: we know Che’s record. He did a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. Some of these things can be seen either way depending on your point of view. If we take him to represent his principles rather than his actions, it might put his image in better light than the other way around. Should we idolize him? As Casey observes, any answer to that question won’t be universally accepted, but I can certainly provide my own, humble opinion: it’s perfectly reasonable to idolize him. Sometimes we need historical figures to be larger than life because they provide us with aspirations to be as focused, determined, and strong in fighting for what we believe in—even if we don’t believe in exactly the same things that original figure did. After all, the Che image is used to spark revolutionary spirit even in people with principles either opposing Guevara’s or completely unrelated. Casey suggests, “wherever young people rise up, Korda’s Che is there, crossing religious, ethnic, and even political divides with abandon” (31). It is certainly possible to take any idolatry too far, but this is where knowledge of the facts can always help. And if a simple image of a revolutionary from another time can make others feel more confident in their own power as individual people, I think that’s great.
Casey concludes that the immediate, evocative qualities of the Che image–his proud, defiant expression, perhaps vague connotations of ‘revolution’–will always transcend his life, his political affiliations, or his position in history. Che appeals to us, first and foremost, because it’s a beautiful image, and ultimately its meaning will depend on how the viewer chooses to make it fit into their personal system of values. This reminded me of Dick Hebdige’s notion of subcultural ‘bricolage’: groups and individuals construct coherent systems of objects (or images) that make them able to ‘think their world.’ These ideas are also significant to Casey’s book because, according to Hebdige, subcultural bricolage takes place within the realm of commodities. Hence, Hebdige argues, all commodities are subject to ‘polysemy’–a potentially infinite range of meanings between their intended value and actual use. Casey reaches more or less the same conclusion about the Che image.
There was one aspect of his conclusion that I found a bit troubling, though: With respect to the ‘branding’ of Che, Casey argues, “While the language of branding is a product of modern U.S. capitalism, it is really just a commercially practical way to describe how symbols and images are used in many forms of communication.” (340) While this is essentially true, Casey’s statement glosses over the fact that when an image is associated with a commercial brand, brand owners carefully control their brand image and the channels through which it can be reproduced. Branding is indeed a form of communication, but it is by no means free communication, if the ultimate arbiter of brand ‘meaning’ is the copyright holder. To that end, I thought the most interesting part of Che’s Afterlife was the final chapter, “Merchants in the Temple,” which describes the ongoing copyright battle over the Che image.
Casey optimistically concludes that “so long as it remains more or less copyright free, it is available for anyone to attach hopes and dreams to” (347). But here we’re back to that same chicken-and-egg problem: if someone can own the image and control the means of production, how free are the rest of us to express our hopes and dreams through Che?
Guerilla appropriators unite. ¡Che libre!
In the spirit of this week’s reading, I watched part of Steven Soderbergh’s recent Che biopic over break (I say ‘part’ because the whole thing is about four hours long and, let’s face it, I’ve got papers to write):
Tons of interesting information to be gleaned from the film’s Wikipedia entry re: critical debate around the film’s success or failure to demystify Che, the film’s reception in Cuba and Latin America, and the ongoing struggle against cultural imperialism.
As I said, I haven’t had time to watch the whole thing yet, so I’m not in a position to make my own assessment of its merits, but so far it’s really helped me get a sense of El Che‘s historical and political context, as well as the moral complexity of his actions as a revolutionary leader. It rejects almost all of the glossy conventions of a traditional biopic, which makes it fascinating to watch, albeit at times pretty hard to digest.
Plus, if you buy Casey’s assertion that Che’s image became an icon partly because he was so damn handsome, then boy, let me tell you, it doesn’t get much better than Benicio del Toro. (The supporting cast ain’t bad, either….)
In Che’s Afterlife, Casey explores what has now become the brand of Che. The book outlines the ironic legacy of Che – a Marxist revolutionary who was completely against the commodity fetishization of capitalism – has become a cultural product made popular through the very channels of capitalism that Che sought to obliterate. Che, as the guerilla revolutionary, sought change through an armed revolution (much like how Fanon said that violence is necessary to achieve revolutionary ends.) However, many groups now use the iconic Korda image of Che to brand their revolutionary aims in posters, t-shirts, sweatbands, tattoos, and more. These new groups use the idea or ideal of Che as a way to gather support, yet the progress of these groups stops short of actual change. By hiding behind the branding of Che, these groups prove that ideas and ideals that may bring people together but will not bring about structural change; a brand cannot replace direct action.
Casey also explores the commodity tourism that the brand of Che has created. The powerful image broadcast globally is stripped from any photographic roots and replaced with an artistic illusive style; this has created a fetishization that brings travelers to South America to experience the life of Che. It is completely ironic that the legacy of Che is creating a market that many have exploited for profit. The tourists that buy into this market are not interested in the revolutionary ideas of Che but are instead drawn to the revolutionary spirit, which has inspired an eternal celebrity that lives through a youthful and sexy image. Casey compares the Che image to the iconic Marilyn Monroe picture and says that the Monroe picture is the only other image worldwide that has gained similar popularity. However Casey points to the fact that the Che image has achieved further global reach, appropriated by subcultures everywhere to stand for anything they wish. Casey tells us that, “The photos borrowed some of the sex appeal of pre-revolutionary Cuba and planted it in the framework of what many assumed would be a politically liberating new era. They turned Castro’s revolution into a top-selling cultural ‘product,’ an international brand” (88). This is completely contrary to the idea of the “new individual” that Che tried to emulate, “A New Man concerned not with material possessions but with ‘inner wealth’ and driven by a ‘love for humanity’… Utopia lay in the denial of desire” (60). Society today instead turned into a global culture motivated by our capitalist desires and a love for commodities. Che may originally embody ideals of the “new individual” but we have appropriated him to become a desirable commodity, one that can be used within our capitalist framework, appropriated by the youth who feel rebellious associating with the image, but would never want to leave the comforts of their material possessions.