Immoral Appropriation of Images?

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.

Che’s Beauty/the Pretty factor

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.

Che: An idol without a nation

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.

¡Che libre!

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!

Soderbergh’s Che

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….)

The iconic branding of CHE

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.

Relative Taste

I’m having a really hard time with the idea that taste is merely relative. Of course, I agree with Bourdieu that our taste is shaped from an early age and is shaped by a various forms of knowledge. However, despite acknowledging rationally that there is no real foundation for a hierarchy of taste and culture, my gut instinct is that the idea of pure relativity in terms of taste is false. ( I have the same problem with supposed relativity of morals.)
In Jenkins’ Textual Poachers it almost seems that in the cultural studies shift to looking at the individual’s method of relating to and using an object has gone too far. Jenkins argues that “Fan culture muddies” the boundaries between legitimate and non-legitimate culture (or taste) by “treating popular texts as if they merited the same degree of attention as canonical texts.” However it seems clear to me that the fact that fans of star trek are interacting with star trek in the same way academics interact with Dostoevsky does not immediately mean that both Dostoevsky and Star Trek are on equal playing fields. It seems to be that there is a huge discrepancy between knowing and interpreting Dostoevsky’s work because it fascinatingly and imaginatively grapples with huge problems, such as the role of the Catholic Church, the problem of evil, man’s relationship to freedom, etc. etc. and knowing and interpreting a particular chick flick because it fascinatingly and imaginatively grapples with problems of finding and and seducing a goofy, nearly useless husband. (Wow this is really going off a deep and mushy end, but even if you look at food, it seems very hard to argue that something such as Warheads cannot be seen as anything other that worse taste than fresh bread. Bread provides nutrition in a way that warheads don’t and Crime and Punishments provides more nourishment for the “soul” than a chick flick ever could… I know some of you are going to rip me apart for this. In my defense I haven’t been sleeping lately.) Although, to kind of argue against my own point, Jenkins also seems to suggest that fans are not messing with the legitimized hierarchy of taste with the recognition that culture should not be hierarchical. Rather they are “muddying” the boundaries because they believe that the work which they are a fan of is superior to other works. Jenkins gives the example of a fan of Beauty and the Beast who paints a history of TV shows which is dominated by particular works that stand out from the crowd of broadcasts that are “characterized by their ‘poor writing, ridiculous conflicts offering no moral or ethical choices, predictable and cardboard characterizations……’”(17).
I’m not sure what to make of this…

Gender and Fandom

I really enjoyed Jenkins section on “Emotional Realism and Gendered Readers.” He defines emotional realism through Ien Ang as way to describe how viewers relate to the situations in television shows as “symbolic representations of more general living experiences.” The ways that viewers can emotionally invest in television shows, especially when they feel they have created an emotional attachment to a certain character, points to an increase in television fandom.

Jenkins discusses how emotional realism can be applied to gendered readings of a text. Women engaged with the text (television show) emotionally, investing in the relationships, while the men focused more on the writing of the story and external structure of the narrative. The example of Star Trek and Twin Peaks was used to show how women identified with the character development of ST while the male viewers of TP used the Internet to discuss the overall mystery of the murder on the show. Jenkins also points out that the female fans used a discussion of the show to fuel a gossip session where they related events in the show to their own lives; this type of discussion was completely absent from the male dominated message boards on the internet.

I was interested in how Jenkins took this discussion further to analyze how women have a more nuanced readings of texts because they are forced to circumnavigate a predominantly male driven field. Female viewers dissect the character development of shows so that they can rewrite the shows in some way that can serve their own entertainment interests. This was also applied to the ways that women will watch male gendered shows with other male viewers, such as cop shows, action movies, and science fiction shows, and be able rewrite the show in a way that gives them pleasure. By contrast, men rarely do this with female gendered shows such as soap operas and melodramas. Therefore, although the production of television may be male dominated, women have found ways to empower themselves as viewers by learning nuanced viewing techniques, which give them ability to re-appropriate texts in a way that is not seen with the male population. Males are taught to just de-value the female centered shows. Jenkins acknowledges that this only harms both populations. He quotes Segal and says, “Every trespass onto masculine fiction terrain by girls must have reinforced the awareness of their own inferiority in society’s view.”

This discussion goes back to the ways that from birth we are put into specific gender roles, brought on by gender stereotypes that are embedded into childhood rearing practices. I am not sure what Jenkins would advocate. Would he want to see more shows with gender neutrality? Or a balance of shows offered to each gender? Does marketing to a specific gender only reinforce gender stereotypes instead of opening up a discussion of gender? Or, does only focusing on gender neutral shows leave out issues that might appeal to one sex or the other?

Expecto Fanfictionum!

If anyone is dorky enough to desire further information/fun reading on fanfiction, check these out:
Here you can read about the countless genres contained under FF’s umbrella. The categories are kind of mindblowing in their variety and application to different original source materials.

“The Draco Trilogy” – Cassandra Claire
This is a fanfiction based on Harry Potter. It’s also more than 2,500 pages long. Seriously. It’s considered one of the most legitimate Harry Potter fanworks out there and has been reproduced in print and in downloadable PDF form online. It’s super entertaining and very inventive, sticking faithfully with JK Rowling’s writing style. It’s no longer available online but, um…I have it on a flash drive.

Sh*tty writing – it’s a cultural thing

I watched this video about different cultural styles of writing the other day, and though fairly ridiculous (scenes of brush painting were followed by those of a close-up of a hand writing in Arabic, all nicely accompanied by generic “exotic” music) it made me think twice about my all-too-common rants against the incomprehensible writing styles of the theorists we read.  How much of their styles can be attributed to different cultural conventions for writing, and how much of my own dissatisfaction – well, let’s be honest here, anger verging occasionally on hatred – is due to my training to write in a more direct and explicit “American” style?  And though I do still hold that there is something deeply hypocritically about critiquing the classed nature of taste or the hegemonic function of the traditional intellectual while writing in a way only accessible to those deeply entrenched in academia, I wonder what would be lost if all theorists were as straightforward as I wish I could demand them to be.

Just something that’s been rolling around the brain.  And, if anyone wants to watch Writing Across Borders and be carried away to a magical land where music involves a lot of reed pipes and writing is likened to entering a cultural jungle, I’ve got the hookup…