Icons of Dissent

How new audiences help shape ideology.

Che Guevara. Bob Marley. Tupac Shakur. Osama bin Laden. These are major “dissenters,” according to UC San Diego history professor Jeremy Prestholdt—four highly recognizable figures who have represented challenges to the world order. And while they originally stood for very different causes, Prestholdt believes they have been similarly revered by the changing face of an increasingly connected society: a face that alters history to suit its ever-evolving ideologies.

The remarkably similar myth-like representations of these very different men is one of the takeaways from Prestholdt’s research, published this spring in the book Icons of Dissent: The Global Resonance of Che, Marley, Tupac, and Bin Laden. Prestholdt discovers that what each icon symbolizes in society’s collective memory depends exactly on that: the “collective memory” of need and desire, where historical facts are not always relevant. What’s more, the meaning of each icon changes over time.

“These are icons that have been able to capture a popular imagination for social or political change,” Prestholdt says. “They don’t necessarily have the same vision nor did they necessarily attract the same followers, but they evidence a recurring phenomenon: they attract large, global audiences who perceive them as symbols that challenge the predominant sociopolitical order in the world.”

Prestholdt breaks apart the history and often misremembered life of each icon: Marley, for example, was a musician who was “avowedly antipolitical,” yet his songs about the experiences of the Jamaican underclass became clarion calls for political and cultural liberation by those who understood little about Jamaica or Marley’s beliefs. Similarly, Tupac’s critiques of U.S. social inequalities have been generalized as indignation and rejection of the status quo. “What is critical to understand is their resonance,” Prestholdt says. “How they have been interpreted and reimagined by artists and audiences to address particular sociocultural concerns.”

Prestholdt’s courses on African and global history are popular with undergraduates; they draw on his research into the popularity and impact of these four individuals. By looking at the commercials, murals, graffiti and mass-produced symbols of these figures, Prestholdt says global icons are “born of transnational dialogue” while being “domesticated by diverse audiences.”

And while it may come as a surprise that some global audiences adopted bin Laden’s image as a symbol for those who felt the West was indifferent to the suffering of Muslims, it’s what happens over and over with figures like him. “While their ideological positions may contribute to their initial resonance,” Prestholdt says, “they tend to gain larger audiences as they are distilled into essences of general sentiment or common interests.”

They become “fictions,” a condensed history of dynamic images. But Prestholdt is clear that it is the changing human condition—through consumerism, globalization, and the rise of millennials seeking a common rallying point—that affects how such icons are interpreted.

“For iconic figures like these to remain relevant, they must be reimagined,” he says. “The figures that remain in the popular imagination often do so because audiences see them differently in each new historical moment. They ascribe alternative meanings to them, which keeps them solidly in the collective memory.”