Becoming Iconic

Barry King


Contemporary popular journalism and cultural commentary are marked by the widespread proliferation of the term “iconic” in a way that departs from its traditional, sacred meaning, albeit carrying the aura of the former into a new context of representation. The semiotic processes underpinning this usage are explored to expose the shifting relationship between sign forms and the construction of cultural value under advanced capitalism. Linking Peircean semiotics to Marxian sociological categories, a new “formation of celebrities” (the Iconae) is identified that melds market success with the concept of the intrinsic qualities of persons and things—though in celebrity discourse things are the properties of persons. The immediate rhetorical function of the term “iconic” is to promote celebrities as the victors of a tournament for popular approval. In this process, the concept of the popular becomes subjected to the formation of a hierarchy as the ostensible expression of “natural” talent.


Frankfurt School, iconic power, commodification, reification and personification, physiognomy, physiocratic inequality and hierarchy

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