Global Icons. Apertures to the Popular
by Bishnupriya Ghosh
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2011
383 pp., 38 b/w illus. Trade, $94.95; paper, $25.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5004-0; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5016-3.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Global Icons is a book on the power of “bio-icons”, highly visible public figures capable of raising immense affects in local and global audiences. More precisely, Bishnupriya Ghosh studies three of such icons, all female and all South-Asian: Phoolan Devi, India’s famous bandit queen (who will surrender to police and after many years in jail become a member of parliament in 1994, the voice of the voiceless), Mother Theresa (who had to become a media star in the late 70S before being accepted as a Catholic saint), and Arundhati Roy (the Indian writer who after her Booker Prize in 1988 became the spokeswoman of environmental activism). The study, however, does apply to all global icons, South-Asian and others (but why not confess that it is a relief to see that star and celebrity studies are not condemned to focus on Lady Gaga Di and tutti quanti).
Each word of title and subtitle matter here, and deserve a small comment. By using the word “icon,” the author uses on purpose a multilayered concept that underlines from the very beginning the fact that the images under scrutiny cannot be reduced to their mere objecthood: it is their social life that matters, and that life is dramatically material. Global icons are not just images that exert a strong influence or that are being admired (or hated, of course), but also images that are being produced, circulated, received, and transformed in ways that can only be understood if one traces the material context in which these processes take place (as shown for instance by the role played by Time magazine, the BBC, Magnum photographers, local newspapers, online souvenir shops etc. in the gradual canonization or debunking of Mother Theresa). In this regard, it should be clear that for Ghosh the icon includes a strong verbal component: visual representation and storytelling cannot be separated, and all her examples highlight this interaction very well. Second, by using the word “global”, Ghosh stresses another aspect of their multiplicity and ambivalence: the fact that these images function locally as well as globally, but never in similar terms (as seen as well in the posthumous debates on the “ownership” of Mother Theresa, whose recuperation by the Vatican was in contradiction with the claims of the local population, for whom the nun was “their” saint). An icon, the author argues, can only become global if its meaning can be reoriented toward new agendas and new expectations, but in all cases the permanent blurring of boundaries between the local, the glocal and the global are paramount to the success of the icon. Third, by using the term “the popular”, Ghosh makes a strong statement on agency, making a distinction between “populism”, which puts between brackets the differences in a given social context (that of the people surrendering to a unified whole, often manipulated by media concerns or political leaders) and “the popular”, which leaves room for the grassroots formulation of local and particular demands and which supposes a dynamics of empowerment (a thesis that is not automatically accepted in global media studies, in which often a strong accent is put on the homogenizing and alienating effects of the media).
The major merit of Global Icons (but the book has many other important qualities as well) is to propose a rematerialization of the icon. The image, here, is once again the material object and the nodal point of a wide range of materially organized and determined communicative acts, and this dramatic emphasis on the image’s body as well as the materiality of its ceaseless interpretations and reinterpretations can only be welcomed in a scientific context that emphasizes very heavily the cognitive aspects of hermeneutic processes (of course cognitive studies are not by definition tempted by dematerialization, on the contrary, but the hypermaterialist stance of Ghosh is an excellent reminder of the necessity of reading images and their meaning making as observable, describable, historcizable artefacts). The great model of the book is undoubtedly the work of Antonio Gramsci, and Global Icons can certainly be read as an exercise in hegemony studies. However, the range of the author’s references is much broader, so that the book can also be used as an overview of icon (and even iconology) studies: “classic” authors as Barthes, Panofsky, Peirce, and Bataille, among many others, but also more recent critics such as Dyer, Negri, Belting, and Butler, here as well among many others, are presented and discussed with great clarity and relevance, so that Global Icons has everything to interest both beginning and advanced readers (this too is a great quality, for it is not easy to write for a double audience, while managing to convince each of them).
The book of Ghosh is an endless source of discoveries and provocative thinking in the field of postcolonial studies and the way in which she continues to disclose throughout the whole book always new dimensions of the three examples studied is admirable, but beyond this discipline it offers also many innovative insights at the crossroads of star studies, audience studies, and critical theory. It offers an extremely valuable contribution to the study of the “life” of icon.