In 1934, Gertrude Stein travels back to her native country afterhaving spent thirty years in France. Upon arrival on New York city, both Stein and Toklas are treated like celebrities and Stein is established as the living icon of literary modernity. Such a process, is a most astonishing one if we take into accont that, as Kellner has written, she probably was "the best known unread writer in American literature" (1). The paper wishes the explore the very process by which Stein became such a popular icon through her own biographical accounts,the accounts by those who met her and the long campaigns of ridicule and parody both of her writing and physical ppearance in the newspapers. The paper will also analyze the ways in which her writing came to be associated with a certain view on modernism that linked experimentation with unintelligibility.
The Office of the Twin Towers; or, Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
In my paper I discuss the Twin Towers as a cultural icon that has taken on great significance as an absence. Since September 11 of 2001, the Twin Towers have come to function as a symbol for U.S. culture. The psychoanalytic explanation that the United States was “castrated” by the leveling of the towers might seem all too obvious. And yet, the dominant narrative of my national culture suggests that, far from being “bobbitted,” we have reclaimed the power of the phallus.
As Jane Gallop suggests, symbolic castration leads to anxiety about power. In equating the penis and architectural replications thereof with the phallus, we ascribe to them a generalized social authority—aka “phallic power.” When the penis or its architectural replication is “castrated”—as in the Bobbitt case and 9-11 respectively--we are forced to recognize that no single individual or institution actually possesses the phallus—and certainly not intrinsically.
And yet the leveling of the Twin Towers did not dislodge my country’s sense of its intrinsic global authority. In fact, though the initial narratives suggested an outraged vulnerability comparable to that of the infamous Mr, Bobbitt’s, later narratives (including support-the-troops campaigns) began to suggest a reclamation of phallic power even despite the insistence that the icon not be rebuilt.
The infamous Bobbitt remains in the memories of most of us as rather a laughingstock, despite the surprising number of women who offered to date the man after his altercation with Lorena. For a nation castrated, the stakes were quite a bit higher. So, too, the narrative has been more complex, contested, and evolving.
For New Yorkers, the idea that their seat of commerce has become a national icon—and the fact that Manhattan has come to represent America—is hardly a matter of straightforward syllogist. Some New Yorkers in fact resent or resist this cooptation. Still, somehow it seems that the Big Apple continues to be swallowed by a dominant national narrative.
The dominant narrative itself thrives by evolving. However conscious or unconscious this process, the narrative of the Twin Towers has altered from a narrative of castration to a narrative of self-censure (in Freudian terms, the development of the super-ego).
Lacan suggests that the power of a symbol is most precisely its power to dissolve itself into the object it represents. We have seen this phenomenon in Hawthorne’s most American of novels. Sacvan Bercovitch reminds us that Hawthorne only grants that “the scarlet letter had done its office” after the letter has burned its way into Hester Prynne’s heart, after the sign itself had been removed from Hester Prynne’s chest. Similarly, the Twin Towers, ablaze as so many of us still envision it, were also removed, even piece by dusty piece. Still, like Hester’s heart, the gravesite, and the sky in Hawthorne’s novel, Ground Zero remains as hallowed ground. This is the place, our newspapers and memoirs report, where we go to remember, and never to forget.
When Cultural Icons Cross the Media Divide:
Lady Lara Croft goes to the Movies
Despite or perhaps even because of her origins in Britain, both as a real-life icon and multi-media product and as a fictional character, Lady Lara Croft has become one of the most prominent fictional characters among contemporary US cultural icons. As Lara Croft (and the Tomb Raider games) are fairly recent and commercially produced and “controlled” phenomena, one might expect to find relatively clear cut answers to question as to how “she” came into being as an icon and who controls “her” shaping. More specficially, I want to explore the reltion of Lara Croft as an icon in her relation to the mass media and how “she” and “her” reception has changed historically with her (repeated) crossing(s) of the media divide. Before the background of Lara’s intensive history of multi-medial mediation, the recent Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film will form the focus of my paper. Beside a semiotic analysis of the filmic text vis-a-vie the original game version(s) of Lara, I will be interested in analyzing the film’s reception by two distinct and recognizable discursive communities: film critics in the (U.S.) press and the game’s fan community. The perspective which will emerge from these concerns is one of Lara Croft as a cultural icon that is very much in the process of being contested and appropriated by a number of cultural forces, ranging from multi-million dollar film productions in the style of the Hollywood blockbuster to the individual fan writing a piece of what is called fan fiction on his personal computer.
Subversive Humor and Acid Wit in the Works of Sherman Alexie
Two of the most readily recognized icons in the United States today are the cowboy and the Indian. Whether expressed generally as in the above categories or specifically in the form of John Wayne, Geronimo, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Crazy Horse, or Sitting Bull, these two images more than any others are emblematic of American culture and, more importantly, of the disproportionate balance of power between the colonizer and the native. From the time the first wave of colonizers hit the shores of what was to become the United States of America, pushing steadily west in an effort to tame the land, the cowboy has had the upper hand. What happens, though, when the colonized iconic group seizes control and subverts that icon for their own purposes? That is what is happening in the United States today. Increasingly, Native Americans are taking the tools of the colonizer and using them to achieve their own voice, their own power. Nowhere is this more evident than in contemporary Native American fiction and, in particular, Sherman Alexie’s fiction. More than any other Native American author today, Alexie has achieved a voice that has made the American public aware of just what it is like to be Indian today, the heir of centuries of colonization, and he has accomplished this feat primarily through humor.
It has often been noted that humor–subversive humor in particular–helped Jews survive the Holocaust. It might equally be said that such humor has also helped many American Indians to survive: acculturation, assimilation, annihilation, and, more recently, termination–and over a much longer period of time. How else could Native Americans have survived more than 500 years of attempts to wipe out two thousand indigenous cultures in the West? Nowhere is this more evident today than in the works of Sherman Alexie, who alternately plays anger and humor in subtly shifting waves against an often desolate backdrop of life on the Rez.
Did you know that in 1492 every Indian instantly became an extra in the Great American Western? Sherman Alexie
********** In contrast to the common stereotypes of noble savage, stoic warrior, subservient squaw or sexy Indian maiden invented by the dominant culture for many different reasons, Indians, like any other ethnicity, come in all shapes, sizes, political awareness and levels of intellectualism: “[T]he Indian is actually a very human person,” says Stanley Vestal in “The Hollywooden Indian,” “–humorous, sexy, sensitive, touchy and quick-tempered, a great gossip and practical joker, a born mimic, a politician from infancy, and an incorrigible lover of human society.” If one is to believe all the adjectives applied to Sherman Alexie--as a poet, as a novelist, a screenwriter, a biting satirist--Vestal’s description stands. But the qualities that are most often cited concerning Alexie’s writing are his acerbic wit and devastating use of humor in order to point out the painful injustices of everyday Indian life. “Being Indian,” Kenneth Lincoln notes of Alexie’s fiction, “means you’re hanging on for dear life, hanging in there with catastrophic humor, kicking back at sunset, staggering through the ‘49 to dawn, [and] laughing your ass off and on again.”
How do you explain the survival of all of us who were never meant to survive? Sherman Alexie
********** But survive they do; by bonding together, by humorously projecting onto a sterile society the inverted injustices they themselves so often experience, contemporary Indians survive, and Alexie is a master of such subversions. Vine Deloria says, “When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive.” Some would argue that Alexie pushes the borders of extremity in both his poetry and his prose, but none would argue that he does so effectively and that one of the major tools he uses to balance his often black viewpoint of contemporary Indian life is his subversive humor. What this paper will examine is how, in such works as The Business of Fancydancing through Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to his latest collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, Alexie seizes control of this major iconic figure of U.S. culture, subverting it for his own means to convey the perspective of Native Americans today.
Brad Pitt and the Symptoms of Tense Iconicity
Do the cinematic characterizations of Brad Pitt shape or subvert American ideals? In the various deployments of this popular actor, we can read symptoms of a tense iconicity that resists settlement: Brad Pitt is an icon of cultural tension—what his characters mean (in terms of social, political, and philosophical implications) is never settled and often verges toward extreme ends. Through critical readings of Pitt’s performative personae, I will analyze three recurrent discourses that play out across a range of films in order to argue that Brad Pitt’s distinctly American iconicity (re)lies on unsettled ground.
On Wildness and Being at Home
Pitt’s characters often seem to exhibit a sense (however strange) of bioregional localism while they simultaneously express insatiable craving for power and agency—often to stereotypically macho-heroic ends. Films that trace this rupture include Legends of the Fall, A River Runs Through It, Fight Club, and Snatch.
The Death Drive: Unanticipated Terrorist, or Just Another White Guy?
In Meet Joe Black, Pitt plays the figure of Death—why should Death be depicted as The Sexiest Man Alive? In Fight Club, perhaps one of Pitt’s most overtly staged iconoclastic roles, his character Tyler Durden becomes the spectacle of this paradox: here is a desperate plunge into anarchy and the annihilation of Western thought that uses hegemonic strength and ruling tendencies in order to undo precisely these modes of authority and control. Must U.S. icons be terrorists? That is, must popular iconicity always be capable of self-destruction, thus rerouting otherwise secure socio-cultural intentions? (Twelve Monkeys represents another apt point of entry into this discussion.)
Pitt’s Native Others
In Spy Game, Pitt’s character Tom Bishop is an American sniper in the Vietnam War who works with a Vietnamese sidekick—his “Tonto” figure. We see this theme elsewhere: in Legends of the Fall and A River Runs Through It, Pitt either dates or marries Native American women. How does the Other (portrayed as native friends and/or lovers) represent contested space around Pitt’s characters? What does this suggest about either colonial inclinations or the problematic desire to constantly re-ground (re-settle, re-territorialize) U.S. iconicity?