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!