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The Many Lives of Che (pt. I)

In the mass media, Che Guevara is almost invariably invoked with a snide critique of what the Washington Post calls his "T-shirtification." Among intellectuals, few are not critical of his devolution into popular culture, but reviews of the man himself are mixed. Time Magazine admires:

"The powerful of the earth should take heed: deep inside that T shirt where we have tried to trap him, the eyes of Che Guevara are still burning with impatience."

Others admonish:
"The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster." -- Slate
Still others struggle to come to grips with the popular fascination he inspires:

"What is everyone trying to prove? Is it a sign of rebellion? Or are we more focused on his political views? If so, I'm shocked to see we have so many Marxists at DePaul [University]." -- The DePaulia

How does a man become an icon? What does "el Che" mean for us today? How has the commodification of his image changed that meaning? Sid Tarrow (1998) writes that social movements, upon fading away, leave traces in popular culture. What popular culture then does with those traces, he says nothing about.

What then of the widespread belief that pop culture cheapens, weakens, distorts, and co-opts. Whether an admirer or adversary, there is little doubt that the icon, Che Guevara, has changed since he emerged as a silk-screened superstar. Less than a year after the successful revolution in Cuba, the New York Times dubbed him "the enigma of the Castro regime," "Cuba's éminence grise," and the "shadowy power behind Castro." Yet, up to that point, it reports, "the Cuban people [had] never wholeheartedly taken Major Guevara as a revolutionary hero" (NYT 11/27/59; 6/19/60). Within two years those same Cuban people were parading his image through Havana alongside the likes of Karl Marx. From an unknown Argentine doctor to the economic mastermind of the Cuban Revolution, Che became a national hero. But his influence didn't stop there.

"In the last few months, an international Guevara cult has developed among young ultraleftists who are tired of the ideological disputes that are fracturing Communism, and who yearn for action...Mr. Guevara...has become an inspiratoin to youthful romantics throughout Latin America who likened him to Simón Bolívar, the Liberator." -- New York Times, Sept. 23, 1967 (emphasis added)

From Cuba to Africa, Pakistan, and the United States, his image has in the past thirty years turned up on coffee mugs, ashtrays, posters, album covers, music videos, and of course T-shirts. Here in Tucson, "Che's Lounge," while not a cooperatively organized bar for indigenous and local peasants, does serve up good, cheap drinks. So, now that it's mass produced, what does the Che Guevara icon mean? Or, as the student at DePaul put it, "what is everyone trying to prove?"

It's unlikely that Che means the same thing to the Tucson bar owner and the people of Cuba in 1959, or the anti-Neoliberal globalization protestors and the teenager who hangs him next to Bob Marley on his bedroom wall. His meaning differs among people who "consume" him, and their different uses of him in turn create new meanings. So, who consumes Che, and in which contexts is he invoked?

“The Many Lives of Che (pt. I)”

  1. Blogger Brayden Says:

    Hey Jeff, why didn't you tell me you had a blog? ;)

    It seems the conclusion you reach in this post (or at least the questions you ask) are straight out of Swidler. Icons, like any other cultural object, are tools that we use somewhat strategically to cultivate our identity or serve our rational purposes. Hence, the malleability of Che's image...

  2. Blogger Jeff Says:

    Hey Brayden - sorry, I felt vulnerable.

    Of course you're right. Swidler gives us a way of thinking about culture as objects - created, adopted, adapted, exchanged, examined, and discarded. The problems of how and why these processes happen are obviously complicated.

    Your comment resonates most closely, I think, with a consumption of culture argument. Take Bryson (1996), for example. She argues that the music we choose to consume or not consume contributes to boundary maintenance between social groups (race and class, in her case). By her example we should be asking who consumes Che and who openly dislikes him?

    There's another side to the story, the production of culture. Griswold (1992) provides a great example of how the organization of cultural production can shape the product that emerges. The Nigerian literature she studies disproportionately comes from British publishers and is intended for a Western audience. Consequently, she argues, it grossly misrepresents the Nigerian experience - not at all far from the production of Che for pop culture, I think. This is the question of the context in which icons are produced or invoked - something about which economic sociologists should have a lot to say, no?

    [As an aside, Swidler's much cited "toolkit" article (1986) suggests another way to think about cultural production that I'd like to give more thought to. Her distinction between "settled" and "unsettled cultural periods" reflects a distinction organizational theorists make between homogeneous and heterogeneous institutional logics (Clemens & Cook 1999; Friedland & Alford 1991). More on this later.]