Iconic Submersion: The Consumption of Modern Myth and the Disneyform Condition
Mythical and popular icons, their consumption and their reproduction tolerate a "margin of mess" (Dennis Tedlock) on which conscious as well as accidental ironic as well as satirical subversions not only occur, but apparently fulfill a social function in space and time. It needs to be asked what this function is, and where its borderlines are. Hypothetically, in democratic and polyvocal societies these subversions of mythical iconicity are part of a dissident fringe still within the current form of hegemonial discourse, providing carnivalesque countercurrents of meaning. But what about the post-democratic societies of the virtual / disneyform modern?
The presentation will try to direct attention to aspects of this margin of myth consumption and reproduction, reviewing iconic forms ranging from Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln via the Statue of Liberty to the Titanic.
J. Heffernan's notion of "lusting for a natural sign"in review of Murray Krieger's Ekphrasis (1993) neatly conditions a treatment of two troubled and conflicting icons-The Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire and The Presidential images on Mt. Rushmore. Both icons have what Ripa would call a fatto, or illustration; both icons have been shrines for numinous cultural values; both icons have confronted the fate of all cantilevered rock masses, the Great Stone Face having recently crashed (May 2 or 3, 2003) and the images at Mt. Rushmore recently undergoing support engineering. Heffernan offers ekphrastic configurations of sign: 1) the visual impact of a natural image and 2) its use as a cultural hermeneutic. Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face," as fatto for the New Hampshire icon,
reveals its antiquity in native lore prophesying that its noble form would descend as a consummate blessing on the land. The narrative shows a series of American worthies claiming to fulfill the prophecy unworthy of the honour. The fatto for the Mt. Rushmore icon is more complex, but it is neatly summarized in the report by People Weekly (Sept. 1991) of President George H. W. Bush's mission to dedicate Federal funds to combating the erosion of Gutzon Borglum's "Shrine of Democracy"-the icon as artifact lusting for a natural sign. The article features Tim Giago, editor of Lakota Times, who retitled the icons "the shrine of hypocrisy"citing theft, betrayal and desecration as the history contrasting the iconography of the enshrined democracy. Hawthorne's interpretation of the New Hampshire icon offers a sharp critique of the inscribed icon on Mt. Rushmore, Giago having accused all four Presidents of atrocities against the native people. The icon as artifact struggles uneasily in its "lusting" for status as a natural sign.
Chu, Daniel and Bill Shaw. "About Faces," People 36:68-70.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Great Stone Face."
Heffernan, J. A. W. "Lusting for a Natural Sign," Semiotica 98:219-228.
“a heartbeat away from the Incarnation”: Uncle Sam as Political Icon in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning
In the United States and other nations, the government endorses official symbols and
icons, encouraging its citizens to identify with these figures as a means of encouraging patriotism and maintaining social control. Uncle Sam is one of the prominent characters in American political iconography; the American-flag-wearing, finger-pointing uncle was featured in recruitment campaigns for the Army during WWI and has been a favorite of political cartoonists for over a hundred years. In the famous painting of Sam by James Montgomery Flagg, Sam stares into the eyes of the viewer, points at him, and declares, “I WANT YOU.” The painting recruits as it forms the subject; it is a mass message received in a personal context and
conjures the subject it requires in the act of calling.
This paper analyzes Uncle Sam from the standpoint of Lacanian psychoanalysis, focusing on Robert Coover’s novel The Public Burning, which presents a fictionalized account of the Rosenberg executions. Expanding on the frozen moment in Flagg’s painting, Coover presents Sam as a living character. Uncle Sam symbolizes the 1950’s American spirit: freedom, politics, anti-communism, baseball, mom, and apple pie. Sam reconciles the paradoxes of American consciousness into a cohesive whole. However, the other characters in the novel are plagued by the inconsistencies of American thinking. Coover personalizes this conflict between the individual subject and the dominant ideology (Sam) through the character of Richard Nixon, who comes to doubt the wisdom and legality of executing the Rosenbergs. Simultaneously, Nixon elieves that to attain the presidency is synonymous with becoming the incarnation of
Uncle Sam. Nixon, then, is a bifurcated subject, and Sam is his Ideal-I, but, for Nixon, Sam is also the transcendental signifier that grounds the structure of American culture. Coover utilizes the split between Uncle Sam and Nixon in The Public Burning as a metaphor for the gap between individual subjects and the collective ideology of the American populace.
THE CULTURAL CANNIBALISM OF A NON-CONFORMIST ICON
Madonna is a cultural cannibal. She has embraced and consumed a dazzling variety of ethnic, religious and sexual sources. Aesthetically stimulated by Hispanic, Anglo-European, African-American, Asian, Middle Eastern and Jewish cultures, she is also fascinated by the sacred, by Catholicism and Jewish mysticism, as she is intrigued by secular, universal forces like Hollywood. Conscious of her femininity, Madonna equally claims identification with a variety of historical female characters such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Evita Peron and Frida Kahlo. She has embodied a variety of archetypal yet culturally diverse female roles from pregnant teenagers to women of power, from Œbad girls¹ to martyrs, from geisha to dominatrix, from femme fatale to Everywoman. Madonna assimilates Œhigh¹ and Œlow¹ cultures. She devours distinctions. Moreover, Madonna subscribes to gay culture and has flirted with sexual subcultures. She consistently celebrated all forms of sexuality. Everything must be tasted.
What are we to make of her assimilation of such a diverse array of sources, particularly her assimilation of Œminority¹ cultures? Is Madonna a sexual and cultural tourist? Does her entire career constitute American globalisation at its seductive best? Has she not accrued millions by stealing Œexotic¹ images and sounds and repackaging them in a clean and sleek all-American fashion? Furthermore, are her attractive representations of gender-bending finally safe and fake? In the following paper, I will address these questions which, it must be said, would serve to portray Madonna as a cultural reactionary. It is not a portrait, however, which I ultimately recognise. Madonna has been frequently been perceived by the mainstream culture as a radical popular cultural force. Her powerful and challenging femininity still inspires awe and hate. It is also cynical to believe that her identification with many of her sources is not grounded in personal passion. Secondly, such an interpretation ignores the powerful and thrilling ambivalence which she offers. Madonna is a cultural cannibal. As Maggie Kilgour has written, the cannibal simultaneously desires autonomy and identification as he seeks to intensify and destroy boundaries. Furthermore, Madonna¹s images are often ambivalent. They may be read as conservative or dissident. They may mock or revere. Icons may be give new meaning. They may be subverted or radicalised. Madonna is a natural post-modern performer. As a post-feminist icon, she is an ambiguous figure. Identifying with both genders, she understands the allure and abuses of masculinity as she is attracted to subversive same-sex desire. Ultimately, I argue, Madonna is the most influential popular feminist per se in contemporary culture.
Madonna is a pluralist. As a popular artist, her eye for what is beautiful, interesting and provocative appears unrivalled. Incorporating various cultural and sexual influences, she has sought to diversify insular American popular culture by mixing the alternative and distinct with the conventional and dominant. As an often transgressive performer, she provides a model of femininity which is at once radical and popular, counter-cultural and cross-cultural. Madonna¹s cultural cannibalism incorporates the heterogeneous impulse.