“US Icons and Iconicity” was the topic of the 30th annual conference of the AAAS. The event took place on November 7-9, 2003, at the University of Graz.
US cultural icons fall into three main groups: a) fictional as well as historical characters (Daisy Duck to Harvey Milk); b) sites, monuments, natural elements (Ground Zero, Vietnam War Memorial, Buffalos); and c) logos, isotropes, and computer icons (pink triangle, dot-com, Windows, trash bin, etc.).
How do these icons come into being? Who controls their shaping? What aspects of an emotionally, socially and historically complex phenomenon do they cover? What aspects are left out? What denotations and connotations do they carry? What are cultural or political consequences of these icons? What is their relation to the mass media? How do they or their reception change historically? How are they challenged or toppled? Can we do without iconicity? How are these icons appropriated by those on the margins? Icons being symbols of the ruling ideas, what do they tell us about the relations between classes, ethnic groups and genders? And, above all, are they rather manifestations of hegemonic rule (Gramsci, Foucault, Laclau & Mouffe) or manifestations of a shared body of norms and values and therefore democratic elements (Durkheim, Parsons)?
Most social theories today would accept that icons constitute an attempt to focus and anchor the sliding of signification, to freeze the social indetermination into hegemonic forms, and to foster social cohesion by placing consensus over conflict. They are, in short, a central element in the manufacturing of consent. Through their employment, the underlying relationships of historical processes are hidden from our perception; instead, we build our understanding of the world on (mass mediated) appearances.
On the other hand, icons are perhaps best understood as over-determined, as having multiple causations. They are, moreover, like any sign, readable in different ways, carrying endlessly different connotations, betraying in precisely their structure and structural omissions the intangibility of meaning. And, finally, they depend on being accepted by a large number of people and therefore have to win the consent also of the marginalized and the subordinated.
It may be particularly interesting to analyze cultural icons which are contested, ridiculed, appropriated, attacked, supplemented by counter-icons or simply still in the making.
Impressions from the Conference: