Here and Everywhere: the Icons of Global Consciousness

Glenn Arbery, Ph.D.

I should begin with a confession. Until December of 1999, in the last days before Y2K, I did not think in terms of globalization. It wasn’t as though I knew nothing about it. Like most people, if you had pressed me, I could have said more or less what the word meant; I had an intuition of it from TV ads, such as the one in which people from all over the world, against all kinds of different cultural landmarks, speak a word or two in what becomes a single sentence, suggesting that meaning today is constituted by the whole world, not by one dominant part of it. But I was also aware that local things tend to be threatened or at least feel threatened by globalization. Corporate friends had said that business leaders are no longer as involved as they once were in the life of Dallas because of their constant travel and their international commitments. Corporations that do have local involvements somehow make it feel contrived. On NPR every morning, I would hear a spot for “Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark.” Kleenex is not a product that I immediately associate with Dallas, and it puzzled me enough that I checked and found that they have their world headquarters out toward the airport. But on their website, the emphasis is global, certainly not local: “Whether in the streets of New York City or the far reaches of the Australian outback, consumers worldwide trust Kimberly-Clark brands. In fact, Kleenex consistently makes the top 10 list of the most widely recognized brands in the world.” The history of the company makes clear that its real beginnings were in Keenah, Wisconsin; Dallas doesn’t even make it onto their history page.

So I knew that the local presence of multinational corporations usually does not have deep roots, and I also knew that there have been protests against such corporations for at least a generation, especially the ones with the most recognizable logos: the golden arches, the Nike swoosh, the Coca-Cola script. In the mid-’90’s, when I would teach in Rome for a few weeks every year, I used to walk past the McDonald’s several blocks from Santa Maria in Trastevere, a church that dates back to the first centuries of Christianity in Rome. There was graffiti in Italian on the ancient walls of the neighborhood claiming that McDonald’s was raping the third world, or something to that effect. But I thought of it as anti-American rhetoric, a matter of one nation or culture disliking another one. But a number of disparate things converged in November and December of last year that made me start thinking specifically in terms of globalization and what it means: the end of the millennium; an essay by Wolfgang Giegerich that I had been thinking about for a year or two; Derek Walcott’s recent epic poem Omeros, which we had taught in the contemporary epic course; a talk by Peter Seligmann, head of Conservation International, at a Dallas Institute Forum luncheon; the violent protests at the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle; and the opening paragraph of an online article by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck.

Let me start with the last of these. Beck’s article, entitled “Beyond the Nation State,” is an excerpt from his book What is Globalization? reprinted in The New Statesman and linked, sometime in early December, to a portal site that I like, called Arts and Letters Daily. Beck describes a woman’s voice on the loudspeaker at 10 p.m. in Berlin’s Tegel airport announcing that the flight to Hamburg is ready for boarding. Now this is what startled me: Beck writes,

But the voice does not come from inside the airport, or anywhere near it; the speaker is a woman sitting in front of a console in California. After 6 p.m. Berlin time, Tegel’s announcement service is provided online from California. The reasons are as simple as they are understandable: in California, no extra payment has to be made for late working because it is still daytime, and indirect labour costs are, in any case, lower than in Germany. (Beck)

Beck goes on to point out that the problems with this kind of arrangement have to do with the support systems of nations, such as taxation. “Companies,” he points out, “can now produce in one country, pay taxes in another and demand state infrastructural spending in yet another.” As a result, the traditional sources of revenue for nations are being undermined, even as the demand for services rises. What was jarring to me, however, had less to do with the economic consequences of these practices than with a kind of rupture in the spatial imagination that I experienced reading it: the voice of a woman in California seamlessly inserted–in real time (that slightly disorienting phrase)–into a system halfway across the world, as though space itself were somehow fictional.

Beck’s article was printed in The New Statesman as part of their coverage of the demonstrations in Seattle that disrupted the proceedings of the World Trade Organization in late November. These violent protests made it clear that whatever globalization is, many people find it ominous, even apocalyptic. “Before the first week in December,” one editorial said, “few Americans had even heard of the WTO, but now many tell pollsters that they view it as a sinister world government.” Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman, the columnist for the New York Times who wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree, was writing about the short-sightedness of the protests every chance he got. Others were commenting on the strange coalition of American protesters. A journalist writing for the leftist French journal Liberation profiled five of them: a woman dressed as a sea turtle, an unemployed steelworker, a priest, an anarchist, and a militant lawyer. The woman was concerned about the turtles that get caught in shrimping nets; the anarchist hated capitalism in any form; the steelworker thought that the W.T.O. and its agreements only benefitted the huge multinationals. “We are not against trade or against the regulation of international trade,” he told the report, “but the rules that the WTO put in place only benefit the multinationals, not the workers. When companies close our factories and go to Mexico, it is not to raise the standard of living there. They are happy to exploit the workers there the way they could not do here.” (Sabatier) Is it true that the huge multinational corporations reap all the benefits and that the workers are exploited? The claims are contradictory. A recent article in The Economist says that

Big companies now come and go at lightning speed: one-third of the giants in America’s Fortune 500 in1980 had lost their independence by 1990 and another 40% were gone five years later. Globalisation is as much of a threat to lumbering giants as to smaller folk, and often a boon for the nippy little firms that create most of today’s new employment and wealth. (Economist)

And apropos of the exploitation of workers, the libertarian editor of Reason magazine, Virginia Postrel, cites with evident relish this editorial comment by someone from a nation supposedly being exploited:

The protesters, wrote Lim Say Boon in the South China Morning Post, were “rich bullies” determined to maintain their lifestyle fetishes, with disdain for Third World workers: “They would be quite happy to keep Asians in their place to satisfy their Hollywood stereotypes of what we are supposed to be. The holiday experience would not be complete without the sight of Chinese living in boats off Hong Kong; Ibans in their jungle long-house in Sarawak; or Javanese women toiling in the rice fields.” (Postrel)

Being called a “rich bully” with “lifestyle fetishes” would certainly bemuse the unemployed steelworker. But on the other hand, there is undoubtedly something to the general thrust of this analysis. Americans do in fact have a powerful nostalgia for the simpler life; we tend to regard almost any primitive economy as richer in essential qualities than our own. In certain moods, we long for the particularity and local connectedness of Javanese women, close to the earth; Wordsworth spoke of this feeling in a sonnet composed in 1802, when early industrialism was already making major inroads on the imagination: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in nature that is ours.” A few years later, after reading a sentence in Thomas Wilkinson’s Tour in Scotlandabout a Highland girl singing in Erse (Scottish Gaelic), he composed a poem about it called “The Solitary Reaper” that begins,

Behold her, single in the field,

Yon solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself;

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! For the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

Part of the attraction for Wordsworth, even then, was the sense of a labor rooted in the place and its traditions–the girl singing the untranslatable poetry of the earth. She is the 1805 version of the Javanese women in the rice fields. Taken up by her music, the traveler does not to want to see her farm industrialized in a modern economy–the kind of thing that Thomas Hardy would show in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Wordsworth does not ask whether this Highland Lass wants more rational choices about how she lives and what work she does. She has her whole wealth for him in the depth of the image, not only the look of her working, but also the mystery of the song that makes her so vitally Other. She embodies a kind of remnant, a way back into the nature that is no longer ours. Because her lyrics cannot beunderstood, she fits more easily into a unity with the earth. Understanding her would put the listener back into a known context and separate him from this mystery of presence in the image.

But it is possible to exploit precisely this kind of mystery and make it a commodity. Derek Walcott’s Omerosbegins with a local character, Philoctete, on the island of St. Lucia, exhibiting his scar for tourists and telling them about how the island’s fishermen made their canoes. Walcott makes it clear that Philoctete is ironically aware of selling his own “authentic” image to the tourists hungry for the life close to nature. The local sees that they feel an absence of the living whole in which the imagination can participate, and so he sells his image and their fantasy of the island to the tourists. Why? Because he needs to make a living, and the world market has driven up the price of such unspoiled places, and it costs him more to live there since his wound has taken him out of the loop of his own economy. This consideration leads to Peter Seligmann’s talk about the work of Conservation International. Seligmann gave a number of examples of a new kind of cooperation between his organization and various corporations. One example concerned the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, the last remaining cloud forest in southern Mexico. The usual practice of coffee-growers, I take it, is to clear the forest to plant coffee trees. Conservation International worked with Starbucks (speaking of Seattle) to promote the use of coffee trees that grow just as well in the shade, thus saving the cloud forest and, not coincidentally, giving Starbucks something to publicize about its environmental concerns. Seligmann’s approach is extremely appealing, because it suggests a way for conservationists to cooperate with local communities and multinational corporations to preserve the environment, give economic opportunities to the people in what he calls the “hotspots” of biodiversity, and at the same time allow businesses to make a profit. It should be put together, it seems to me, with the argument of the new book by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins called Natural Capitalism. This book has received extravagant praise; reputable people have called it “the most important book of our times,” “a field guide to sustainability,” and “a design manual for the 21stcentury” The argument, put simply, is that we are now undergoing “the second of the two great intellectual shifts of the late twentieth century. The end of the Cold War and the fall of communism was the first such shift; the second, now quietly emerging, is the end of the war against life on earth, and the eventual ascendance of what we call natural capitalism” ( Hawken 5). In other words, globalization is being accompanied by a shift in the way capital itself is conceived, away from an old exploitive model toward a new one imagined “as if living systems mattered,” and this new view includes some new assumptions. The authors list eight, of which these are the first two:

  • The environment is not a minor faction of production but rather is “an envelope containing, provisioning, and sustaining the entire economy.”
  • The limiting factor to future economic development is the availability and functionality of natural capital, in particular, life-supporting services that have no substitutes and currently have no market value. (Hawken 9)

In other words, new ways of conceiving the entire relation between ecology and economy, nature and technology, seem to be developing. These new ways require a shift in consciousness, away from old patterns in which the living whole is always threatened by an exploiter and into new modes of living commerce that do not violate the imagination. Against this view are those like the protesters in Seattle, who seem, from this perspective, simply to be benighted. Perhaps the Y2K non-catastrophe was a sufficient sign that globalization is not something to be feared: instead of the lights going off and the systems crashing across the globe, there was a slow, global tsunami of celebration that seemed to grow more grateful and intense as it became clear that no breakdowns or terrorist bombings were going to happen.

Still, the protests made it clear what the essential lines of opposition are. Those in favor of globalization–the heirs of the humanistic Enlightenment–tend to see the human good in the possibilities of choice and the opportunities for a rational life of material prosperity. They accept what William Bole calls the “official narrative of globalization”: a story that “opens with the breakdown of the Berlin Wall, the sundering of a bipolar world fragmented by superpower struggle, and the christening of a dynamic, interconnected global system.” They agree with the Merrill Lynch ad that appeared during the collapse of the Asian markets, claiming that “The World is Ten Years Old: It was born when the Wall fell in 1989. It’s no surprise that the world’s youngest economy–the global economy–is still finding its bearings. The spread of free markets and democracy around the world is permitting more people everywhere to turn their aspirations into achievements” (Bole). Those against globalization, I would suggest, may protest against various particular injuries that they think it brings about, but their real fear is the one most forcefully voiced in 1996 by the Jungian thinker Wolfgang Giegerich.

According to Giegerich, what we are calling globalization is a major process in the history of mankind: “What we are witnessing at present in our world is a gigantic revolution that makes the industrial revolution look harmless,” he writes. “In the entire economy a radical and extremely powerful process of restructuring, [of] downsizing, of rationalization is going on. It is a process that renders hundreds of thousands or millions of employees redundant and assigns to those remaining ones the logical status of a collective maneuverable mass” Contemporary man has as little choice in the matter as the slaves of ancient Egypt, he says, but the difference is that in antiquity, people had not achieved real selfhood; they were accustomed to grant actualized selfhood only to kings, whereas the process now being undergone happens “precisely to people who are defined as having their ‘majesty’, we call it human dignity, in themselves, as a constitutional human right. This is what today gives this process a logical, not merely empirical, significance, inasmuch as it hits the ‘metaphysical’ self” (Giegerich). What those in Seattle were protesting, it struck me, really stemmed from a similar intuition about globalization: that it denies the inmost quality of personhood and subordinates everything in the soul to profit.

But Giegerich puts it still more uncomfortably. Claiming that the supreme value of today is “maximizing profit in the context of global competition,” he goes on to absolve those ostensibly in charge. He does not blame the multinational corporations or their directors, because they are just as caught up in the process as those at the bottom: “Much like the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, profit maximization is the sun around which we humans today have been assigned to revolve, by no means because of the personal greed of those who profit from this profit, but because the Copernican Revolution has redefined the role of humans as mere satellites.” For Giegerich, it does no good, when the world is too much with us, to imagine the solitary reaper, because she and her song are both destined to be subjected to the same forces of profit. Accepting the fact of globalization means ceasing to pretend that we can get back to nature or recover the soul of the world; rather, it means objectively working through this crushing reality. “Not individuation, butglobalization is the soul’s magnum opus of today,” he says, and the purpose of it is to bring about an entirely new development in human consciousness by destroying the “anthropological fallacy, i.e., . . . the assumption that the psyche is a part of humans, a kind of ‘attribute’ of the ‘substance’ called people, so that psychology would ultimately be about human beings rather than about the soul.” The soul in his view includes us, instead of being included by us, and it has its own logical life. Therefore, from this radical perspective, globalization is not the result of anything that anyone has chosen to do, but the logic of the soul in our time:

If, as we have seen, the telos and meaning of the opus of maximizing profit is to render people redundant, does this moment of the symbolic life not serve as our initiation into what I call the ‘psychological difference’, the difference between human and soul? Do we not have to acknowledge it as our psychopomp guiding us out of the anthropological or ontological fallacy dominating the present consciousness and into a new form of consciousness?

In other words, a consciousness is something that we inhabit, not something inside us. For example, the Israelites in Egypt existed in a slave consciousness. To be led into a new consciousness is a difficult, crushing work, and part of the process lies, not simply in escaping, but in enduring that slavery to Pharoah; but to endure this humiliation, to be taught by it, suggests something like the movement of the Israelites out of Egypt into a new consciousness of God and of themselves as a unified people. Giegerich would not put it that way. He would say that in our circumstances, we are being led out of a false distinction between individual and collective, and into an awareness of psyche as such–but psyche is not something human.


It is difficult to reconcile this vision of metaphysical displacement and enslavement with the optimistic tone of Thomas Friedman, Virginia Postrel, and the other advocates of globalization. One sees the spread of market forces as Pharoah and the end of humanism, the other as a liberating, decentralized explosion of humanistic opportunity. The question seems to have to do, as Giegerich says, with how we understand the relation of globalization to consciousness, but I find his perspective uncannily disturbing in its insistence that those who understand what is happening must consciously submit to it: “We must not dissociate ourselves from what is happening, whatever it may be,” he writes. “On the contrary, much as Jung said about God that He needs us for His becoming conscious, this process needs us, needs our heart, our feeling, our imaginative attention and rigorous thinking effort so as to have a chance to become instilled with mind, with feeling, with soul.” Noble as this sounds, he seems to be using “soul” in a second sense here: how could globalization be “the present form of the soul’s symbolic life,” as he says earlier, and at the same time need to be instilled with “soul,” as he writes here? Giegerich seems to me a little too eager to help steer and make conscious a process that will help to get rid of the “the notion of human being, or ‘people’” that has kept us from “becoming truly psychological.” I feel a little uncomfortable about becoming psychological under those conditions.

On the other hand, Giegerich seems to me at least cognizant of the potential oppression in globalization. Thomas Friedman’s view as stated in a recent article for Foreign Policy lacks this dimension almost entirely. Contrasting the present system to what prevailed in the Cold War, he writes,

Today’s globalization system has some very different attributes, but it is equally influential. The cold war system was characterized by division, symbolized by a single image: the Wall. The globalization system also has one overarching characteristic: integration. Today, both the threats and opportunities facing a country grow from who it is connected to. This system is also captured by a single symbol: the World Wide Web.

What Friedman does makes me see, however, is how thoroughly all these converging influences have made me recognize globalization as something that had already been almost overwhelmingly present. I want to accept the World Wide Web as the symbol–or better, the icon, usually a small webbed globe–of globalization. I want to ask what globalization does to the constitution of consciousness, to what Hopkins calls “the being indoors each one dwells.” What, beyond a certain level of convenience, does it change, for example, to know that in a minute or so I can know the local weather conditions in Canberra, Australia, or that I can send a recommendation for a former student by email to the school where he was applying in Rome? Or that I can go online and pull up a painting by Breugel or Botticelli or Cimabue and save it as the wallpaper on my desktop? Instead of having to go to the library, I can access the library’s EBSCOhost Periodical Index, enter my card number, and pull up onscreen hundreds, even thousands, of full text articles from current magazines and journals. For instance, I type in “globalization,” and the search returns 2300 articles, beginning with the most recent from the March 13 issue of Time, but also including scholarly articles from Foreign AffairsPolitics & Society, and other journals. With a few clicks, I can listen to Seamus Heaney on an archived edition of Fresh Air, or find a link that has a voice recording of Ezra Pound or Allen Tate, in case I want to know what they sounded like. When I write about Shakespeare, I click back and forth between my document and a site online (one of several, unfortunately none containing voice recordings of him) that allows me to search all the plays in a few seconds for a particular word or phrase. Instead of typing in text for quotations, I cut and paste it from the online play. If I need to research something in a Greek or Latin text, I go to the Perseus Project site that has almost every text of importance in the original and in as many as six translations, with every word linked to Liddell and Scott lexicon. If I’m working on something else and want to take a short break, I can check my mail, order a book I read about online–such as Natural Capitalism–from or BarnesandNoble, look at the latest news stories from Reuters, see what’s playing at Cityplace or the Inwood, find out what’s going on with the Dow and the Nasdaq, pay my American Express bill (for all those books from Amazon), and check on the progress of an arriving guest’s flight. If my wife needs to know how to get somewhere, I can find the address and print out point-to-point driving directions–with maps–within a minute or two. To get some perspective on this access to information and on what has happened to the technology of writing, it is only necessary for me to remember that when I was finishing my dissertation in 1982, there was no such thing as online, and cutting and pasting was not a metaphor. I sat in a room a few miles from here with a pair of scissors and a jar of rubber cement cutting apart and re-piecing my text to keep from having to retype the whole damn thing any time I made a revision. These days, for the volume we are editing on tragedy, the contributors send their essays as file attachments to an email, and we can exchange edited versions–with comments, highlighted passages, suggested revisions, even inserted voice messages–without ever touching a piece of paper.

Most of us now, I would guess, increasingly depend on the Internet in our daily experience, and to some of you, what I have just described no doubt sounds a little rustic, a little country-come-to-town, when it comes to the more interesting possibilities of the Web. But my question has to do with consciousness and with the way that this experience, which according to Friedman symbolizes globalization, represents an alteration in consciousness itself, if in fact it does. Let me put it as extravagantly as possible: when I am online, my computer screen is the threshold of the coming to consciousness of the global mind, the whole human range, from the basest and most predatory to the most spiritual and exalted. What used to require libraries and museums and symphony halls now exists behind a little icon and a deliberately democratized and unthreatening welcome page. For instance, on AOL this morning, there was a little picture of a man’s arm and hand, a newspaper or file folder tucked under the overcoated arm, the hand holding a black briefcase. Off to the side was a headline reading “Your Job a Joke?” and beside it an underlined blue link reading “Search for a New One.” The photograph itself would be considered metonymy in classical rhetoric: the image summons up instantly the whole corporate culture associated, accurately or not, with the briefcase; it instantly implies a subjugation of individual identity to the demands of the Pharoah of profit maximization. But the picture–an icon of Giegerich’s vision of globalization–is also a live link to AOL Workplace, which has other links to job listings in various fields across the country.

One thing that global consciousness requires, it would seem, is a constant process of (forgive me) metonymic iconization. Complex realities need to become instantly recognizable in an iconic form, because the whole principle of the Internet is constant motion. If you stop in one place for too long on AOL, for example, a message will come up asking if you want to stay online, yes or no. If you don’t respond to that, you will be logged off. Long meditative pauses, in other words, are not encouraged, but instead a constant flow from screen to screen, frame to frame, guided by icons and hypertext. I am reminded of Csikszentmihalyi’s (chick-ZENT-me-high’s) theory of flow; it is as though the experience of the Internet were always meant to realize or externalize the flow of words, images, metaphors, impulses endlessly moving, almost unnoticed, into consciousness itself. What happens, in other words, imitates what we mean when we say that something “becomes conscious.” On what threshold or screen does it appear out of what had, an instant before, been pre-conscious? If you would, try this small experiment: I am going to say to say a word, and I want you to attend to what “becomes conscious” when I say it: trout. What happened was something like this, I suspect. You cleared a “space” so that you could witness the emergence of something in your own consciousness; you paid attention to an instant in the “stream of consciousness” in a way that James Joyce did on an astonishing scale in his novel Ulysses, or Faulkner inThe Sound and the Fury. If you were really paying attention, there was probably enough in that instant to warrant a few hours of analysis–all the word links, half-articulated metaphors, emotional associations, strangely evoked memories–but there was also probably an image that you instantly settled on; for me, it’s something like this: a mountain stream, a fly-fisherman in hip boots, the backdrawn rod bent, the arched glint of the fighting fish. This image has been prepared, needless to say, by movies like A River Runs Through It and the covers of Field and Stream and hundreds of similar images in ads and elsewhere.

But what I want to stress is that flow on the Internet works with a cultural shorthand of icons like this one. AOL, for example, has to anticipate them and link them to other sites in ways that externalize the movement of associations in the mind, so that my interior flow of consciousness from instant to instant does not experience a dissonance with what happens on the screen. Icons have to be imagistic cliches, almost absolutely predictable nodes of associational linkage. New metaphors obvious won’t work in this context, because they open onto a different kind of contemplative depth–not that these depths are prohibited by the Internet. The other day I read a poetry review in Salon about a new book of poetry, and I was struck by this metaphor in a poem by Larissa Szporluk:

The moon makes my son go silent.It sucks the fight from his mind, leaving him hollow in my arms, like a final piece of tunnel diminished between lights.

A metaphor like this one startles by its unexpectedness; if I click on “tunnel” I am not automatically linked to “son in my arms.” Icons, on the other hand, have to be automatic: the mailbox icon, the printer icon, the calendar icon, the pencil and paper icon, and so on. If I click on the icon of the trout fisherman, I do not expect to enter the depth of the image, to dwell in it as I do in the image of the solitary reaper, but to use it as a live, functional surface that reacts by taking me to still another image or text, a Montana resort’s webpage or a book on fly-fishing. If the next screen takes too long to load, it’s already lost me. To the extent that the Internet reacts and moves at something that approaches my interior pace, it is mesmerizing, like driving on an unobstructed road. I noticed yesterday that my impatience with literal traffic was exactly analogous to my impatience with a slow link on the Internet. When it moves at the speed of my own associations, the Internet becomes my act of attention, and what it asks of me is that I be constantly on the move; the term “information superhighway” is an icon that means, above all, Do not stop, Do not stop, any more than you stop on a superhighway. It does not discourage thought, but it actively conditions consciousness toward motion, never toward stillness. To be online means, on the one hand, to be one of millions of ordinary customers of an Internet Service Provider like AOL, and on the other, to be actively eliciting the potencies of the world mind in its threshold act of becoming conscious, but it is a world mind ultimately demanding a speed that we have not seen since we lost the Ptolemaic cosmos to the Copernican one. In the Ptolemaic universe, as you know, everything moved around the earth; the farther out and more inclusive it was, the faster it had to go; therefore, the most distant, outermost spheres had to be moving with almost unimaginable speed.

As Bainard Cowan was pointing out two weeks ago, global consciousness is radically netted or webbed. I would add that the commercial success of globalization and the continued presence of the World Wide Web as its symbol depends on icons that have the automatic connective indifference of cliches. There is nothing to stop some new Shakespeare of the Internet from inventing sites in which all the links require that one think in stunning new metaphors. But the global economy does not work that way, and it would be interesting to know why, given this economic context, the word icon is the one used for the graphic symbols that serve the smoothly functioning cliches of globalized consciousness. Traditionally, given the religious associations, one would contrast icon to idol. For most of the 20th century, the word idol had the clear advantage, because it described someone–usually a singer or movie star–who roused a kind of adulation now distinctly at odds with the postmodern mood. Idols were in effect sacrificed to their own fame, like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis. But now, the most famous people are extremely conscious, meta-conscious, of themselves as images, and to the extent that they can be said to master the functioning of the fantasies and idolatries they arouse, we call them now icons of popular culture. I think of Madonna and Michael Jordan, both extremely intelligent, both clearly rejecting victimhood, both global, both iconic in this canny sense. An idol, let us say, is the recipient of a kind of dazed, self-abasing devotion; an icon is a live, power-bearing, directive representation–it goes somewhere, it lends you motion. Relatively speaking, the word idol has dropped out of use. When I type in idol on Alta Vista, I get 123,915 hits, and that sounds impressive until I type icon, which gets 2,606,950.

Icon comes originally from the Greek in which it meant an image, a pictorial representation. The word was later used to refer to religious art of a particular kind, to which I will return in a moment. Later it took on the meaning of an emblem or symbol, and very recently, its latest meaning,, “a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that suggests the purpose of an available function,” to quote Merriam Webster. I suspect that increasing Internet use also affects the way that figures like Michael Jordan are represented in other global media, such as TV. Which is more powerful: to show Jordan floating through bodies to slam dunk the ball backwards, or to show the immediately recognizable but abstract silhouette of his head and torso? The latter. Iconization always prefers a radically minimal referent, a mere shape, the more minimal the more powerful. It moves you, not into its depths, but into links of motion and activity, especially the activity of buying and selling that sustains the global web. The icon assumes a narrative (the six N.B.A. championships with the Bulls), but part of that narrative is the self-conscious, savvy transformation of the famous self into a one-click connectivity of global meaning. Jordan becomes the icon of absolute masculine competition, and part of his competitive advantage–say, over other athletes, not to mention mere presidents and kings–is being in the position to have huge multinational corporations compete to purchase this one-click meaning as a link to their own icons: I think immediately of Nike and McDonald’s. One writer who calls Jordan “the god of late capitalism” says that, “In 1992 Jordan reportedly earned $20 million from Nike, according to Forbes, Nov. 23, 1992.” By contrast, “The 25,000 workers [in the Indonesian shoe industry employed by Nike] each earned $400 to $500 a year at most, or about $12.5 million in total”

The ambition both of companies and of anyone seeking fame is to achieve this iconic status in which money has an unobstructed global flow. To make certain kinds of images iconic–the Calvin Klein androgynous or homoerotic look, the shape of the Absolut vodka bottle, the little Polo emblem, the red Levi’s tab–is to become the recipient of the flow of world wealth. What exactly is signified by these icons? How do we account for their power? They succeed, I think, because they manage to convey the sense that we, as participants in their global “product-culture,”exist in a narrative being unfolded into the world imaginatively, here and everywhere. Think of the edgy Nike ads, say the one in which you as viewer race the newly freshly famous woman sprinter Marion Jones through a crowded inner-city neighborhood: all kinds of narratives can be generated from the ad, not least escape by speed from the inner city neighborhood. You enter a Nike imagination of what it means to be alive: venture, risk, speed, unreflectiveness–a sense that the future (the very character of the future) somehow comes, not exactly through a specific product, but through a way of participating in the culture implied by that brand. No specific product is being advertised: you will not see ads for a particular running shoe or basketball shoe, not at this point. The swoosh is a just-do-it icon, linked to MJ, linked to a competitive global way of life, a way of being-in-the-world. (If you’re interested, Naomi Klein, in her recent book No Logo, attacks Nike for exploiting ghetto kids; Nike gives an extended response on its webpage: Cultural criticism is also part of the consciousness of globalization; popular culture is instantly readable in the close ways that once characterized New Critical exegeses of poems. There is an essay (cited earlier) called “Star-Spangled Business: Labor, Patriotism and Michael Jordan in a Nike Advertisement” in an online journal published by the English Department at Binghampton University. And this talk, by the way, will be up on our website tomorrow.


So (as Seamus Heaney writes at the beginning of his new translation of Beowulf). So. John O’Donohue has a story in his book Anam Cara about a man exploring Africa:

He was in a desperate hurry on a journey through the jungle. He had three or four Africans helping him carry his equipment. They raced onward for about three days. At the end of the third day, the Africans sat down and would not move. He urged them to get up, telling them of the pressure he was under to reach his destination before a certain date. They refused to move. He could not understand this; after much persuasion, they still refused to move. Finally, he got one of them to admit the reason. The native said, “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we need to wait to give our spirits a chance to catch up with us.” (O’Donohue 151)

This story gets at what I want to end with and also illustrates, I am afraid, another version of iconization: the native porters in this story are a one-click link to indigenous, still-authentic, non-Western cultures embodying the living whole–a little too easily arrived at, in other words. On the other hand, it is true that globalization encourages a consciousness that goes too fast and needs, more than ever, a way into the contemplative stillness that can balance it, in something like the way the speed of the angels of the outermost sphere in Dante’s Paradiso is balanced and focused by the single, burning spaceless point of the Godhead, that T. S. Eliot in “Burnt Norton” calls “the still point of the turning world.”

The supreme mode of this stillness, ironically, is the icon. A few weeks ago, I was brought to a halt by an icon that we happen to have in our house: the Madonna holding the elongated body of the child Christ, his face upturned on a strangely powerful neck. Looking at her face, I was struck at first by its almost unbearable sadness, but then by a certain quality in her eyes–of immense suffering, an abyss of endured suffering that was nonetheless had not closed or numbed her, but opened a soul without bottom, infinitely alive and loving. To end, as I began, with a confession, everything that I brought to that gaze was immediately plunged into it and borne back to me as vanity and striving after wind, as Ecclesiastes puts it. Later, though I should have recognized it at the time, I found that it was the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, revered in Russia since it was first brought from Constantinople to Kiev in 1131. Paul Evdokimov describes the icon in this way:

The shadows of the eyelashes make the pupils appear darker, and the eyes seem to be plunged into an unfathomable depth, inaccessible to the look of the spectator. . . . Christ has a reassuring caress for his mother. His right hand holds her maphorion, while the left hand is tenderly placed on her neck. Mary is gripped by the shadow of Christ’s coming sufferings. Her head is slightly inclined toward Christ and softens her majestic dignity as the Mother of God. . . . Her wide open eyes are fixed on infinity and at the same time turned inward. It is an immense compassion . . . towards suffering, that unavoidable fact of human existence . . . . (Evdokimov 265-67)

Something about this original iconic representation has a particular address to us, as the iconic tradition itself does in the age of globalization. I will not go into its theology, which is not that of my own tradition. But Evdokimov points out how icons invert perspective, instead of drawing the viewer into the depths of the depicted image, and “the effect is startling because the perspective originates in the person who is looking at the icon. The lines thus come together in the spectator” (225). He writes that “The icon ‘de-thingifies,’ dematerializes, and lightens reality but does not disintegrate it. The weight and opacity of matter seem to disappear, and fine, closely draw, golden lines spiritualize the human body. . . . The icon represents a world apart, renewed, in which persons with eternity written on their faces live freely together with the divine energies” (221). If globalization leads to the question of what our new consciousness ought to be, the eyes of Our Lady of Vladimir address that crucial inner threshold–not so much moral as metaphysical and creative–where the world in our response to it is always becoming conscious. They radically question it, they bring to it an infinite pain and compassion, so that the lines of perspective in the divine energies converge, without condemnation, exactly there, as though what we call globalization had been playing forever before those eyes.

Works Cited

Beck, Ulrich. “Beyond the Nation State.” The New Statesman. 6 December 1999.

Bole, William. “Tales of Globalization.” America, 12/04/99, Vol. 181, Issue 18, 14-16. MasterFILE Premier on-line. EBSCO Publishing. 13 March 2000.

The Economist, 01/29/2000, Vol. 354, Issue 8155, p21. MasterFILE Premier on-line. EBSCO Publishing. 13 March 2000.

Evdokimov, Paul. The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty. Oakwood: Festal Creations, 1989.

Giegerich, Wolfgang. “The Opposition of ‘Individual’ and ‘Collective’– Psychology’s Basic Fault: Reflections On Today’s Magnum Opus of the Soul.” Reprinted with the permission of the publisher from Harvest: Journal for Jungian Studies, 1996. V. 42, No. 2, pp. 7-27.

Hawken, Paul, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1999.

Postrel, Virginia. “Seattle Surprise.” Reason, Feb 2000, Vol. 31 Issue 9, p4-6. MasterFILE Premier on-line. EBSCO Publishing. 13 March 2000.

Sabatier, Patrick. “Five Americans at War with Globalization.” World Press Review, Feb 2000, Vol. 47 Issue 2, p31. MasterFILE Premier on-line. EBSCO Publishing. 13 March 2000.

© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.

  • © 2016 Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - Contact Us - Admin Login -