Tag Archives: che

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!