TEN STEPS TO THE CREATION OF A MODERN
Kingwell is the author of many books including Practical Judgments
(2002); and Catch & Release (2003), has been a political
columnist for Adbusters and the National Post,
television columnist for Saturday Night, and is currently the
cocktail columnist for Toro magazine. His writing on
culture and politics has appeared in more than 40
mainstream publications, including Harper's Magazine,
where he is a contributing editor, Utne Reader, the New
York Times Magazine, Forbes, Maclean's,
and the Globe and Mail, where he is a contributing book
1. 'Icon' is from the
Greek eikon, which means 'image,' which is everything: The name
of a camera. The word for all those little point-and-click pictures
on your computer screen. Greek and Roman Orthodox religious objects.
Little oil paintings of saints with elaborate gold panel coverings.
Anybody who represents something to someone somewhere. The image
that gives a debased Platonic suggestion of reality without ever
being it. So create an image -- one the cameras, and therefore
we, will love.
image must be drastically beautiful or else compellingly ugly.
It must, for women, show a smooth face of impenetrable maquillage
and impeccably 'tasteful' clothing (Chanel, Balenciaga, Rykiel;
not Versace, not Moschino, definitely not Gauthier), a flat surface
of emotional projection, the real-world equivalent of a keyboard
emoticon. Icon smiling at the cheering crowds: :-). Icon frowning
bravely at diseased child or crippled former soldier in hospital
bed: :-(. Icon winking slyly at the crush of press photographers
as she steps into the waiting limousine: ;-). There should be
only one name, for preference a chummy or faux-intimate diminutive:
Jackie, Di, Barbra. Sunglasses are mandatory whenever the ambient
light rises above building-code-normal 250-foot candles. These
can be removed or peered over to offer an image of blinking vulnerability.
Or else the image should be, in men, so overwhelmingly tawdry
and collapsed, preferably from some high-cheekbone peak of youthful
beauty, that it acquires a can't-look-away magnetism, the sick
pull of the human car wreck. (The only exceptions: (1) Athletes
-- Tiger, Michael -- whose downy smoothness and transcendental
physical abilities offer a male counterpoint that is almost female
in appeal; they are the contraltos of the icon chorus. And (2)
actors, whose malleable faces are so empty of particular meaning
as to be innocent of intelligence). Folds of leathery skin, evidence
of drug use and chain-smoking, the runes of dissipation etched
on the pitted skin of hard living -- they all have them. Johnny
Cash, Mick Jagger, Leonard Cohen, Kurt Cobain, Chet Baker, late
Elvis: the musician in ruins, the iconic face as crumbling stone
monument. Basic black attire is effective but must be Armani,
never Gap. This suggests wisdom and sexual power, deep and bitter
knowledge of the world -- but with dough. The face need never
change, its very stasis a sign of rich inner troubles. Sunglasses
are superfluous. They smack of effort.
must be a narrative structure that bathes the icon in the pure
light of the fairy tale or morality play. Beautiful princess beset
by ugly siblings or nasty stepmother. Lovely rich girl mistakes
the charisma of power for true character. Overweening ambition
turns simple boy into gun-toting, pill-popping maniac. Feisty
rebel takes on the establishment of (circle one) Hollywood/big
business/government/rock music/professional sports. Prodigy singled
out for great things at an early age by psycho father. Indispensable
words in the story: 'trapped,' 'betray,' 'tragic,' 'love,' 'promise'
(as both verb and noun), 'happiness' (always without irony), 'fame'
(always with venom), and 'money' (never spoken). The details of
the story may change, but the overarching structure cannot: you
can improvise and elaborate, but never deviate. Sometimes a new
story (thrill-happy slut consorts with swarthy and disreputable
jet-setter) will be temporarily substituted for an old one that
no longer applies (virginal bride is unloved by philandering husband).
We can't be sure which story will win out until . . .
Already, at step four? Yes, absolutely, for iconography is very
much a post mortem affair. The death ends the life but does not
quite complete it: that is the business of story-tellers and their
audience, the cameras and their lights. Death is just the beginning.
It should be, if possible, violent, messy and a bit mysterious.
Unwise confrontations with fast-moving industrial machines --
sports cars, airplanes, cargo trucks, high-speed trains, bullets.
Accidents are good, having as they do an aura of adventitious
innocence, followed closely in order of preference by murder,
assassination, execution and suicide. If suicide it must be either
a gun or an overdose of illicit drugs, usually in colorful and
nasty combination: alcohol and barbiturates, crack and benzedrine,
heroin and anything. In all cases, the death is 'shocking' and
'tragic,' though in neither instance literally.
an outbreak of hysterical mourning, baseless and all the more
intense for being so. (Nobody feels so strongly about someone
they actually know). Extended retrospectives on television. Numerous
panel discussions and attempts to 'make sense,' to 'assess the
life,' to 'provide context.' Long broadcasts of the funeral or
memorial service complete with lingering, loving shots of weeping
crowds. Greedy close-ups of the well-known people in attendance,
the bizarre fraternity of celebrity which dictates that those
famous for being born in a certain family has everything in common
with those famous for singing pop tunes or throwing a ball in
a designated manner. News agencies and networks must spend a great
deal of money sending a lot of people somewhere distant to cover
the death. They must then justify that expense with hours and
hours of coverage. We must see images of the iconic face, beautiful
or ruined, over and over and over. 'Ordinary' people must be shown,
on the media, insisting that the media have nothing to do with
their deep feelings of loss. They must say that they 'felt they
knew him (her),' that 'she (he) was like a member of the family.'
This keeps them happy and ensures that no larger form of public
participation -- say, protesting a tax hike or program cut, resisting
a corporate takeover -- will ever cross their minds as possible,
let alone desirable.
small backlash must gather strength, a token gesture of cultural
protest that, in pointing out the real faults and shortcomings
of the dead icon, unwittingly reinforces the growing 'larger-than-life'
status of the image. This is the culture's way of injecting itself
with a homeopathic inoculation, introducing a few strains of mild
virus that actually beef up the dominant media antibodies. Those
who have the temerity to suggest that the dead icon was not all
he (she) is thought to be will be publicly scorned, accused of
cynicism, insulted at dinner parties, but secretly welcomed. The
final storyline of the icon-life will now begin to set, rejecting
the foreign elements as dead-ends or narrative spurs, or else
accepting them as evidence that the icon was 'after all' human
-- a suggestion that, in its very making, implies the opposite.
The media coverage will fall into line in telling this story because
individual producers and anchors will be unable to imagine doing
otherwise. Tag-lines and feature-story titles will help set the
narrative epoxy for good, providing catchy mini-stories for us
to hang our thoughts on to. Quickie books with the same titles
will begin to appear -- things like Icon X: Tragic Ambition or
Icon Y: Little Girl in Trouble. The producers and anchors must
then claim that they are not creating this tale, simply 'giving
the people what they want.' Most people will accept this because
to do otherwise would hurt their brains.
image will now be so widely reproduced, so ubiquitously mediated
on television, at the supermarket, in the bookstore, that it seems
a permanent feature of the mediascape, naturalized and indispensable.
It will now begin its final divorce from the person depicted.
Any actual achievements -- touchdowns thrown, elections won, causes
championed -- fall away like the irrelevancies they are. The face
(or rather, The Face) looms outward from glossy paper, T-shirts,
fridge magnets, posters, Halloween masks and coffee mugs. Kitschification
of the image is to be welcomed, not feared. It proves that the
icon is here to stay. The basic unit of fame-measurement is of
course, as critic Cullen Murphy once argued, the warhol, a period
of celebrity equal to fifteen minutes. Kitsch versions of the
image augers well: we're talking at least a megawarhol icon or
better (that's 15 million minutes of fame, which is just over
10,400 days, or about 28.5 years -- enough to get you to those
standard silver-anniversary retrospectives). No kitsch, no staying
power: a 100 kilowarhols or less, a minicon.
follow academic studies, well-meaning but doomed counter-assessments,
sightings, and cameo appearances of the icon on a Star Trek spin-off
series or as an answer on Jeopardy. People begin to claim they
can commune with the spirit of the dead icon across vast distances
of psychic space. Conspiracy theories refuse to be settled by
overwhelming evidence of a boringly predictable chain of events
involving a drunk driver, too much speed, and unused seatbelts.
retrospectives every decade, with a mid-decade special at 25 years.
The final triumph of the image: entirely cut off now from its
original body, it is free-floating and richly polysemous. Always
more surface than depth, more depiction than reality, the icon
now becomes pure zero-degree image, a depicted lifestyle without
a life, a face without a person, a spiritual moment without context
or meaning. In other words, the pure pervasive triumph of cultural
exposure, a sign lacking both sense and referent. In still other
words, the everything (and nothing) we sought all along: communion
Now, for a religious experience, just point. And click.
with permission from Mark Kingwell, Marginalia: A Cultural
Reader (Penguin Books, 1999)