Back to the Political Future: Coping with Crisis Through Radical Nostalgia for Revolutionary Icons

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Truman, Emily Janet




This dissertation examines the presence of revolutionary icons in North American popular culture against the backdrop of the conjunctural event of the 2008–09 financial crisis. Here I argue that radical nostalgia for revolutionary icons of the past appears in popular culture as a visual aesthetic present in/on a myriad of cultural texts (i.e. from traditional forms of media, such as magazine covers and editorial cartoons, to a range of material objects, such as t-shirts and collectible toys). I treat the appearance and circulation of radical nostalgia as a response to the broader level of
general anxiety generated by the crisis moment of (economic) uncertainty.
Through the case studies of Marie Antoinette, Rosie the Riveter, and Barack Obama, I argue for the prevalence of revolutionary icons as a popular category of visual imagery in the current historical moment to be read as evidence for the presence of a critical public through which our collective political future is examined and explored. I argue that the primary site of analysis from which to evaluate the presence and potential effect of radical nostalgia is the image icon: a preferred visual text for representing a
revolutionary icon. More broadly, as public icons, these revolutionary figures embody cultural anxieties about both the presence and absence of key cultural values connected to progressive viewpoints (i.e. such as too much “excess,” and not enough “equality” and “unity”). The “political elasticity” of their symbolism is explored in detail through a critical analysis of three different “iconographic happenings” where the favoured meaning of the revolutionary icon is contested through a set of controversial representations of the image icon that feature the visual layering of revolutionary
icons of the past with American political figures of the present.
Through a detailed analysis of the circulation of image icons related to my three case studies, I conclude that the popular political discourse produced by revolutionary public culture is distinct because it acts as a space in which social actors question and test the relationships between themselves, political figures of the present, and the nature of conjunctural moments of cultural crisis.


Mass Communications




Carleton University

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