In the French discussion about the world after covid-19, a well-known figure has made a comeback: Jean Valjean, whose evolution from convict to benefactor and finally to saint is the focus of Victor Hugo's successful novel Les Misérables (1862). In recent years, the story and its characters have certainly not been forgotten. For instance, when the street artist Banksy denounced the use of tear gas in the Calais refugee camp in 2016, he sprayed a weeping Cosette on a London facade. The song of the young Gavroche has been taken up and adapted many times in the course of the yellow vest protests which began in 2018. And for his box office depiction of the violent conditions in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-Montfermeil, director Ladj Ly chose the title Les Misérables (2019).
Valjean hardly played a role in these political updates of Hugo's novel. A reason could be, that the figure of the converted convict who, as a factory manager, distributes benefits among the poor, was probably too religious, too bourgeois, and too paternalistic for the purposes of the current social movements. Now, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the actor Vincent Lindon nevertheless resorted to him. In view of the looming economic and social crisis, he demanded that an exceptional tax be set up to support the socially disadvantaged – a Jean Valjean tax, in fact. The call was intensively discussed and a bill was presented in French parliament. While some saw in the proposal the possibility of realizing Hugo's social-republican ideals, others mentioned other figures such as Javert or Gavroche in order to ridicule it. The literary scholar Pierre Assouline, however, warned against an „instrumentalization of The Misérables“, which he simply called an „assassination of literature“. As a representative of the „universal people of readers“, he called for the defense of all literary figures who, like Jean Valjean, were threatened with defamation by those seeking socio-political ends.
Last month we have seen the iconic potential of a cultural practice. This month we would like to turn our attention to gestures as ‘performative icons’. There is a whole world of performative icons: The victory “V” or the raised fist of the Black Panther Party. Those who perform them express their feeling of belonging or solidarity in the same way as heavy metal fans doing the “devil’s hand” or trekkis imitating the gesture of Mr. Spock. Groups or movements, may they be political or spiritual, use gestures as signifiers: The Nazis and their supporters raised (and unfortunately still raise) their hand, the Christians make the sign of the cross, Yogis bow their head to their clasped hands for a namaste.
The latest developments made an inconspicuous gesture iconic: The handshake. There are of course already iconic handshakes like the ones between Trump and Kim Jong Un or Itzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat but also between Hitler and Hindenburg. In the first two cases the handshake symbolizes peace, an intercultural political agreement, in the last case, however, the betrayal of democracy. Recently the chief of the European liberal party, Guy Verhofstadt, compared via Twitter the Hitler-Hindenburg-handshake to the one between the AfD politician Björn Höcke and the FDP (shortest time in history) prime minister of Thuringia Thomas Kemmerich. By doing so he disavowed the strategical move of the AfD right wing during the elections in 2020 as anti-democratic in the worst possible meaning.
Today, in times of a crisis caused by the corona virus we face a new situation. In times of social distancing the handshake itself becomes iconic as the epitome of contagiousness. Long gone are the days when the right, or rather the ‘perfect’ handshake could decide on career chances or identify someone as a member of a secret influential organization. Official institutions and media suggest the elbow bump as an alternative. The elbow bump edged the fist bump out and it unpredictable what will happen to the rap handshake etiquette. Other welcome rituals are hotly debated among them the “namaste” seems to align best with royal dignity. It is only matter of time until the obvious parallel between the corona virus and the Hindenburg-Hitler and Höcke-Kemmerich handshakes will be detected: Being stupid is terribly contagious…
Some cultural icons have neither a binding appearance nor a fixed sequence of sounds or words. Instead, sometimes cultural practices can also become iconic. Such an icon can be observed around March, in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar or optionally throughout the whole year: fasting. That the fasting period is often freely selectable today already points to the fact that this genuinely religious practice has to some extent detached itself from its context. Although the image reservoir of fasting includes mainly non-religious objects such as fruit (mainly apples), empty plates or light yellow tea, fasting always has a spiritual dimension. It cleanses body and mind. And fasting people prove that they can live a conscious and disciplined life. Thus, two cardinal virtues of our today's thoroughly optimized and sustainable lifestyle can be combined. People who participate in this practice of secularized spirituality can present themselves as both traditional and modern (which is also very up-to-date).
Whoever finds this silly can (as with any icon) make fun of it. But even this only confirms (as with any icon) its validity. The diocese of Aachen has recognized the popular potential of post-carnival abstinence and offers car or plastic fasting. Who searches for something different can also try carbon fasting, digital fasting, fasting vacation or simply not eating. Those who still can’t decide can get information about the best fasting practice to save money. Fasting has not only become iconic, but has also completely arrived in the commercialized popular culture.
If you think that printed quotations on postcards, napkins, bags or on social media walls is nothing but a newfangled phenomenon, read the following excerpt from the Illustrierte Kronen-Zeitung from 1905: "'Without music, life would be a mistake'. I bow to the greatness of Friedrich Nietzsche, but I cannot forgive the great philosopher for writing this sentence. Not by any stretch of the imagination. That was certainly not philanthropic. The word has flown out into the wide world, and today, its copies are hanging on the walls in the palace of the rich and in the hut of the poor. A kind of profession of faith. Or rather, a license for all musical iniquity." Firstly, the article tends to prove that wall tattoos already existed at the turn of the 20th century. And secondly, that Nietzsche was not only an astute observer of human nature, but also a pretty good copywriter. With the formula "Without music, life would be a mistake" he coined a multifunctional phrase that can express the unconditional devotion to nearly everything.
There are two sources for this verbal icon that continues to circulate in all possible languages and forms today. The first one can be found in Götzen-Dämmerung, written in 1888 in the context of the controversy with Richard Wagner. "33. How little is required for happiness! The sound of a bagpipe. - Without music, life would be a mistake. The Germans even imagine God singing songs." (translated by Judith Norman) Occuring between bagpipes and the grotesque idea of a self-confident, singing German God, the phrase does not sound like a "profession of faith", but like a kind of platitude. At the moment Nietzsche invents the perfect formula for all music lovers of the universe, he marks it as an empty, kitschy phrase. Seen in this light, we can imagine the philosopher rubbing his hands in consideration of the affirmative uses of his quotation today.
However, the second source shows that he meant it seriously as well. In a letter to the composer Peter Gast, written during the same period, he reports on exhilarating experiences while listening to Bizet's Carmen and writes, quoting himself: "Music, these days, gives me sensations which I have never known. It frees me, it lets me recover from the intoxication of myself; I seem to consider myself from a great height, to feel myself from a great height […]. Without music life is merely a mistake, a weariness, an exile." (translated by J.M. Hone) How can we interpret these conflicting uses of the same formula? Perhaps like this: Passionate devotion, whether to (rock) music, beer or even cute animals with fur and moustaches, always bears the risk to turn from commitment to sentimentalizing. The German comedian Loriot probably understood this best. With the poem SINNLOS ("A life without pugs/ Is possible but senseless") he coined the verbal icon for a self-assured philistinism.
Who came first: the leitmotif or Richard Wagner? Even today, musicologists do not agree on this question. The term was introduced at the end of the 19th century to describe a typical Wagnerian compositional technique: the association between musical figures and persons, objects, ideas or even emotional states. It has been popularised by opera guides in which leitmotifs were registered and named. Henceforward, Ring fans could pilgrimage to Bayreuth well prepared to grasp all the nuances of the music drama. Wagner commented this practice of decoding his work: „In the end, people believe that such nonsense is happening at my suggestion!“
The concept of the leitmotif is iconic because it rapidly disseminated beyond the borders of Germany and even outside the Wagner community. Inspired by Thomas Mann - himself an acknowledged Wagner expert - literary studies developed the ‘leitmotif’ as an instrument of literary analysis. And nowadays, mottoes, central ideas, recurring themes or persistent tendencies in politics, economics, sports, arts, culture, and many other areas can also be called leitmotifs. The concept serves as well as a means of self-presentation, for example when the "Wetten dass..." presenter Michelle Hunziker explains: "Love is my leitmotif in life." Admittedly, this vernacular usage has little to do with music drama. The term implies at least the idea of highbrow culture throughout different languages and cultural areas.
In English, Spanish, French, Portuguese or Russian, 'leitmotiv' or 'leitmotif' became vernacular as a loanword. Notwithstanding other idiomatic expressions, which have basically the same meaning, people stick to the leitmotif. French RnB singer M. Pokora, for example, claims: "Ne jamais décevoir, c'est mon leitmotiv" ("Never disappoint, that's my leitmotif") instead of saying: "Ne jamais décevoir, c'est ma devise". Whether conscious or not - Wagner's formulation dignifies the self-representation of an artist who does not want to appear merely as an entertainer any longer, but as an artist with an own agenda.
Christmas or Chanukkah? Turkey, carp, or vegan? Christmas is a time of fundamental decisions. The German "Gretchenfrage", an ‘untranslatable’ as Emily Apter would call it, is an idiom for questions, which force the person in demand to reveal her or his ethical attitude. The phrase never occurs in Goethes Faust, but all the more frequently in vernacular and advertising language. The question "How do you feel about religion" used as a motto of the Evangelische Kirchentag can serve as an invitation to open an interreligious dialogue. By no means was this, what Margarethe had in mind, when she posed this question to Heinrich Faust. She put the multiple scholar in midlife crisis in much distress as he just made a pact with the devil and had on his mind not salvation but the kind of earthly pleasure that would lead to the tragic death of the young woman.
Whenever a question puts someone’s back against the wall, the Germans speak of the "Gretchen question". It is a late triumph of the seduced virgin for the elusive answer did not naturalize as "Faust replica" or "doing the Faust". The present time has obviously its own Gretchen who is in charge for the fundamental question "how do you feel about climate change". And the world? Is "doing the Faust".
To establish a brand succesfully, its name should connected to the launched product– at least that is what marketing guides say. In the best case, the brand name is expected to evoke the origin and aspiration of the company, and it is even better if derives from the appearance or function of the product. Well-known examples are Twitter, Reebok or Lego. Yet, there is a wide range of of companies that name themselves after a writer or a literary character: You can eat Leibniz cookies, drink Pushkin vodka or Balzac coffee, perfume yourself with Valmont, wear a Victor Hugo handbag or Antigone’s clothes. And although the motivation behind the name is hardly apparent at a first glance, this kind of branding seems rather successful: Unlike the Mozartkugel, Starbucks coffee has not yet become a generic name. But today only few people will associate the lexeme « Starbuck » with a character from Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick.
If presented as tribute of the company founders to an admired writer or piece of work – as for example the Starbucks’ founder does –, the choice of an author or novel character as brand name can be part of the company’s storytelling and, thus a marketing strategy. The message for the consumer is that behind the particular product stands an individual with his or her very own preferences. However, there may be other reasons for naming a product after a literary work. In some cases, the famous but not very well known name is probably supposed to give an exotic cultural touch. This is the only way to explain that the initials of the not at all glamorous Victor Hugo can be found on stylish ready-made handbags in the USA, or that the martial Antigone is experiencing her comeback in frilled dresses in Japan. The recourse to literary characters seems more consequential in the perfume industry: Here they evoke certain types which are represented by literary names, such as the seducers Bel Ami (Hermès) and Coriolan (Guerlain) or the passionate child Lolita (Lolita Lempicka).
The playful use of literary names can also provide information about a company’s self-image: The name of the French leather goods store Victor&Hugo make the grand homme appear, if not more glamorous, then at least more funny. And when even ministers in the public declare the name of the fashion label Zadig & Voltaire to be their favourite book, then the marketing strategy proved itself successful.
Annually recurring festivals often contribute as much to the iconization of the event itself as to the occurrences that originally caused them. This is obvious regarding Christmas or Gay Pride Parades, but in terms of the Oktoberfest things might be a little bit more complicated. The Oktoberfest originally took place in honor of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig (the later Bavarian King Ludwig I) and Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810. The princess had been allowed to give the venue its name, but beyond that she couldn’t contribute to the events iconization.
Today, the Oktoberfest is simply its own icon. It stands for THE German folk festival, if not for folk festivals in general. Of course, visitors of the Cannstatter Wasen or the Bremen Freimarkt may disagree, but whether they like it or not they'll have to admit, that people in Tokyo, Brisbane or Blumenau (Brazil) like to celebrate German folk festivals too and they all call them "Oktoberfest".
The recognizability is easy to guarantee: beer is needed, a lot of beer, preferably in large jugs. Adding then alternatively sausages, pretzels or coleslaw combined with white-blue rhombuses, brass music or an allegedly original outfit, leads unmistakably to a Wiesn flair. Nevertheless, still many people want to visit the original Oktoberfest. In 2014 14% of the 6.3 million visitors came from foreign countries. Their arrival is not taken into account in the climate footprint of the Oktoberfest. And because the CO2 emissions this year will be approximately 10,000 tons and the Oktoberfest does not want to become the new icon for ruthless global warming, there are increasing efforts to celebrate the Wiesn sustainably. Among other things: a CO2-neutral beer. Well, Cheers!
This opening of fairy tales evokes expectations of a story with a simple plot, a well-defined structure of good vs. evil, miraculous objects, animals, or characters, a usually male hero who masters difficulties and marries the princess, and last but not least a feeling of nostalgia.
The formula has been introduced to the public by the Brothers Grimm in their collection of Children's and Household Tales. Before Jacob und Wilhelm strived for an ideal form of tales for children, fairy tales used to be a genre for adults, a possibility to demonstrate philosophical ideas, entertain with eroticism or to criticize the king, the court or the church.
Our today’s imagination of fairy tales is determined of the idea of the Grimm’s “Volksmärchen”/ “Folktales” even if it is widely known, that their collection does not contain examples of oral tradition but artificial rewritings of mostly French and Italian literary fairy tales. The key icon, the essence of the fairy tale is the opening: “Once upon a time…”.
It became iconic for the genre’s aesthetics to such a high degree that it feeds back from the children’s tales to the critical tales for adults. For example, writers use it to establish a meta-discourse and reveal misogynic or sexual patterns as well as stereotypical illogical structures. The icon also indicates that the following story is displaced from a historical reality. Thus, another subversive strategy is to continue with a critical or, in contrary, ideologically committed story after the iconic opening.
The connotations as listed above invite artists and marketing experts to make use of the icon and present it as album titles as well as in manifold variations on shirts. Numerous films hold the formula in their title. Thus, once upon a time something happened in America, in Anatolia, in Brooklyn, in China, in China and America, in Hollywood, in Mexico, in Venice, in the West, or in Wonderland. The title might indicate a fantastic, fairy tale like plot like in the TV series. It might also subvert the expectations by telling a particularly violent and cruel story like Robert Rodriguez or Sergio Leone did in their movies.
The formula is catching: it remains recognizable even when it is changed to Once Upon a Mattress, a musical inspired by the fairy tale Princess on the Pea, or to Once Upon a Dog in a Soviet cartoon. A marketing mastermind adapted this title to an on stage tour of a US-American TV show about the dog trainer Cesar Milan. As his show is tremendously successful, “Once Upon a Dog” circulates during his tour around the world on posters and shirts.
The “Once upon a (time)”-formula’s intermedia presence leads us to the question on its purpose. Why do film and music artist use it to refer to their works? Why do people wear shirts with this line? The answer is: Because they know, where an opening is, there is an ending.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The controversies about the appropriation of cultural icons can often be seen in an ideal form when it comes to icons that are used for the politics of memory. This could be experienced in Germany this year on July 20th. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg is the name of the icon of German resistance against National Socialism. It still is, one must say. The Federal Republic made great efforts to popularise it. In every larger city a street or a square was named after him and the history of the Bundeswehr is inconceivable without the commemoration of the resistance of July 20th, 1944. In the reunited Germany this commemoration takes place at the Berlin seat of the Federal Ministry of Defence in the Stauffenbergstraße, in the Bendlerblock, in which Stauffenberg and other participating officers were shot in the night of July 20th. The site of the assassination attempt, the Wolfsschanze Führer Headquarters, has not yet been used for commemorative ceremonies. Until recently, the Polish Wilczy Szaniec was a Militaria-Disneyland, where tourists in steel helmets could drive Wehrmacht vehicles through a bizarre landscape and play paintball. Now the new operator is trying to regain the site as a memorial: with a reconstruction of the July 20 assassination attempt and an exhibition on the Warsaw Uprising, which took place just 300 km away.
The name 'Stauffenberg' does not play a particular role in this project. It does, however, in Germany, where popular knowledge of the July 20 resistance has progressively focussed on his name. This can be illustrated by a look at the history of film. Two German feature films from 1955, that were made the same year the Bundeswehr was founded, were titled "Der 20. Juli" and "Es geschah am 20. Juli". From 1990 onwards, the name Stauffenberg came to the fore. Film history also shows that this is an exclusively German icon. The attempt of the US produced “Valkyrie” to popularise the story in the USA drew little interest from the American audience. This was probably not only due to Tom Cruise, but rather to the fact that heroes in Wehrmacht uniforms were a bit too unusual. In Germany, on the other hand, the film was quite successful. This was probably not only due to Tom Cruise, because the peculiarity of the icon Stauffenberg lies strangely in the fact that only his name is widely known, but not his appearance. His photo might show a bit too clearly that this icon was a colonel of the Wehrmacht, which brings us to today's debates.
On July 20th, Liane Bednarz summarised the problem on Deutschlandfunk Kultur: Stauffenberg was crucial for the events of July 20, so a commemoration of him is justified. However, an appropriation on the part of the New Right is taking place. In moderate circles the icon of the German resistance became that of a conservative hero and patriot. In radical circles Stauffenberg is regarded as an icon of resistance too, but it is not that much the resistance of a certain circle but pre-eminently against an injustice regime, which right-wing extremist blockheads do not precisely recognize as National Socialism and carry it off to today's Federal Republic. The latter reinterpretation of the icon will probably remain limited to the circle of politically uneducated conspiracy theorists and it could be that their maximum provocation against the popular reading of the icon will stop to be working soon. Hans Coppi junior, son of the members of the Red Chapel Hilde and Hans Coppi, who were executed in 1942 and 1943, recommended to deallocate the remembrance of the German resistance against Hitler for the multiplicity of resistance during National Socialism. Joachim Käppner argued similarly on this day in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg seems to be losing his claim to be regarded as the iconic representation of the German resistance during National Socialism. Perhaps it will then become apparent that the resistance against National Socialism was upheld by many different actors*, so that the iconisation of a single individual does not make sense at all.
The stuff, of which this month’s icon was first made of, is bird-shaped. It appears for the first time in the final act of the seminal film noir The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941, WB, USA). Private Eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) has just delivered the movie’s femme fatale to the police. While she is led off, one officer is holding the bird figurine, that the characters were chasing. „It’s heavy. What is that?“, he asks Spade. „The stuff … uh“, he begins to answer and catches a last glimpse of the woman, „..that dreams are made of.“ His phrasing traces back to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Here the magician Prospero makes the spirits disappear, that he had called before in order to perform a play. He describes, how with them disappearing their whole world is dissolving too, and eventually concludes his speech: „We are such stuff As dreams are made on, And our little life is rounded with a sleep.“
Today Bogart and his concluding sentence are iconic for the American cinema and the „dream factory“ of Hollywood. In Germany, the trope came to it’s common form when Johannes Simmel titled his book on the yellow press from 1971 „Der Stoff aus dem die Träume sind“. A year later it was made into a film (Vohrer, Roxy, BRD). The iconic rank of Simmel’s phrasing is documented at the latest with the obituary on the author, that the German magazine Der Spiegel published in 2009 („The stuff, that bestsellers are made of“). Stephen Hawking uses an inverted but still recognizable version of the icon in the title of his book on Quantum Physics to paraphrase the state of theory.
Both, in German and English the icon circulates in different contexts, utilizations and modifications, usually to express an imaginary or ideal quality or to mark substantiality. It is used to describe the material properties of wood or synthetic material, the component parts of planets or it is applied to textiles, like this design project of the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar does. In the US, the singer Carly Simon has her 12th top ten hit in 1987 with a ballad that calls up to appreciate the small things of one’s own life instead of the seemingly dreamlike lifes of the others. But the icon can also be found beyond the 80’s mainstream, in English as well as in German song titles and album names. Often the icon proves oneself more in a playful formal way than contentual. Occasionally, thereby the original meaning gets abbreviated paradoxically. Because, like Prospero’s spirits and their world, like the private eye’s assumed reverie of a love affair and like the whole narrated world, the dream in the original meaning comes to an end, at which it unveils it’s irreality. This holds also true for the Maltese Falcon, which has turned out to be a fake, just before Bogart’s concluding sentence. Pop music and building industry are not to be deterred by that. Neither Shakespeare nor Bogart can dictate to culture, what stuff to dream of.
Cultural icons are popular. That is not to say, however, that they are part of popular culture. Some cultural icons are only common in parts of society we could call “bourgeois” or “highbrow.” e.g. saying that something is “too wide a field”. This phrase characterizes the aristocrat Briest who is the father of the eponymous protagonist of Theodor Fontane’s novel “Effi Briest”. The father has a habit of using this phrase to end discussions that confuse him. At the end of the 19th century the aristocracy also no longer possess the inherited certainties to cope with modern times. However, they still have the freedom of their class not always to need an answer to topical questions. Thereafter Fontane’s phrase of debonair cluelessness became a winged word in Germany. Although nowadays, those who utter it cannot claim aristocratic competence for themselves, but can instead claim the competence of a classically educated intellectual who has no answer at the ready other than a highbrow bon mot.
Günter Grass used the phrase as a title for his 1995 novel which was rendered in English as “Too Far Afield” in which he uses it as a comment on the German Wende. Although the novel’s title refers to the icon itself, it was a title page that became iconic: Literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki ripping the novel to pieces on the cover page of the magazine “Spiegel”. This dispute was, however, not able to harm the iconic Fontane phrase. The phrase can still be used to promote adult education courses in literature. Or one can combine the stance of Grass’s novel torward Germany’s (shameful) past with the literal meaning of the phrase and then create a title for an exhibition on the history of the Tempelhofer Feld.
It remains to be seen how the phrase will continue to be used in the Fontane year. Currently, Fontane’s pervasive presence might lead to him being the new icon of ‘19th century German literature’. Playmobil is already selling Fontane figures. The company has been popularizing German literature for years. However, that is another field entirely.
Paul Celans Todesfuge (‘Death Fugue’) is considered to be one of the key poems of the German post-war era. Like no other it expresses the horror of the Holocaust in Europe. Drafted in 1947 the title, which originally read ‚Todestango‘ (‚Death Tango‘), alluded to reports from the concentration camps, where wardens were said to have Jewish inmates playing tango music for them, while oblitering human life in the gas chambers next door.
To this day German students learn from the first line ‚Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends‘ (‚Black milk of dawn we drink you at dusktime‘) how to use an oxymoron as a figure of speech. Meanwhile the idiom ‚Death is a master from Germany‘, which is repeated three times in the poems last stanza, developed a life of its own. The title of a book published in 1990 by Lea Rosh and Eberhard Jäckel about the genocide of European Jews, that was also made into a documentary film, transformed the issue of national guilt into the iconic formula. To date the phrase serves as a warning of fascism made in Germany, as this mural painting of the Street Artist Klaus Paier from Aachen shows. It gets reactivated in new contexts too: After a series of attacks on the quarters of asylum seekers in the early 1990s the cultic German punk band Slime released a single with that title.
Although the poem explicitly refers to a specific situation, the idiom can be used at any point, where either German war guilt is assumed and where crimes are committed without unmistakable intervention of the German government. This can apply to weapon exports as well as to the fact, that police was unable to stop the activities of the right-wing extremist terror group NSU or at the same time to the refugee policy. For those who relate themselves with the Antifa scene, there is this patch or this T-Shirt to put it in the words of Celan.
One can argue about Icons. This is certainly true when different groups claim the same Icon for their label of identity (see the Icon of the month of March). It is also true, however, for small research groups who are concerned with Cultural Icons. We quickly came to an agreement that the term “Kafkaesque” is an Icon. But when we asked ourselves what this adjective, which is so peculiar and highly recognizable, actually means, things became significantly less clear. Does “Kafkaesque” refer to all kinds of situations in which we feel menaced by or at the mercy of some anonymous power? Or is there a specific reference to Kafka needed, for example, when describing a show trial as “Kafkaesque”? Or can “Kafkaesque” also refer to the stylistic qualities of narratives? After all, the term is also applied to fiction written by other authors. In these cases, “Kafkaesque” stands emphatically for a “modern and perplexing work of art.”
How it all fits together has recently been demonstrated in a fashion column in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin on designer sneakers. Here, a pair of sneakers was presented in a photograph together with some small yellow balls that reminded the columnist of Kafka’s story “Blumfeld, ein älterer Junggeselle.” And the columnist concluded: “The only thing to which the adjective really fits is Kafka’s oeuvre. With this photo, however, an exception could be granted.” There is little to add. Enhancing a fashionable shoe by means of an iconically condensed oeuvre works so well because the oeuvre has been used to enhance almost everything already. Regarding the history of literature, Kafka’s name is as inappropriate for a shoe ad as any other author’s name would be. A precious “Joyceesque” or “Proustesque” sneaker is simply nonsense. A “Kafkaesque” sneaker, however, reveals both the particular significance of Kafka in the history of literature and the specific history of his popular appropriation and dissemination.
What does “Kafkaesque” mean after all? The answer seems to be a case-by-case decision. Strictly speaking, the term should only be used with reference to Kafka’s texts. Luckily, popular culture is granting an exception from time to time.
18th of April in 1521, Imperial Diet of Worms: Martin Luther is summoned to revoke his doctrine by Charles V. The monk from Wittenberg rejects the emperorʼs claim, concluding his speech with the words: „I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” At least, that is what the early versions testify. But as early as the first reports are printed in Wittenberg an auxiliary appears: “Here I stand, I can do no other.“ This concluding sentence is later incorporated into Luthers writings and becomes part of the “Luther trademark ”, representative for his personality and the Reformationʼs message. Following the example of Rolland Baintons Here I stand. A life of Martin Luther (1950), the quote introduces dozens of biographies, but also childrenʼs books, exhibitions, musicals and parlor games on the life of the reformer.
The formula is also used in political discourse. In 2017 an election poster of the German right-wing extremist Party NPD caused indignation, promoting the partyʼs program with the words: „I would vote for the NPD, I could do no other“. The NPD reproduced a nationalistic connotation, which was established during the First World War, when it was used to encourage German soldiers. Within the popular reception associations of German identity and fighting spirit encounter values of civil courage and moral integrity: With the prize “Das unerschrockene Wort” (“the intrepid word”) the Union of the Luther cities awards people that stand up for the community; titled “Hier stehe ich” (“Here I stand”) Thomas Mayer published 30 biographies of people with integrity in 2016. Be it as an authoritarian or a democratic message, in the field of politics Lutherʼs quote is semantically enriched to a maximum.
In comical contexts the formula is disposed of its ideological and symbolic surplus. „Here I stand. I can do no other“ can be read on luther socks, the text of the advertisement promises self-confidence. This use has a comical effect because it profanes the religiously, historically and culturally meaningful. Comedy might not have been the primary intent of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, when they distributed condoms with Lutherʼs quote, making a pun on a German vernacular expression.
Only few themes in classical music are as widespread, memorable, and, at the same time, used in so versatile ways as is the beginning of Beethovens 5th Symphony. In Second World War it served as a sign of recognition for the Allies. This use relied first and foremost on pragmatic reason: The rhythmical reduction of the theme, 3 times long, 1 time short corresponds to the letter "V" in Morse code, which signifies "victory". Nevertheless, the choice of the melody did have some other reasons. The « Da-da-da-daaa » incorporated an ideational meaning: The opening motif indicates the whole symphony and thus its specific narrative structure, that evolves from a murky C minor into the vibrant C major of the finale (per aspera ad astra). It served to encourage the fighters against the National Socialists while, at the same time, it was representing a better, not only German, but European culture.
In today’s western world the icon is omnipresent. In combination with images of lonely (virile) heroes facing their fate it can impart a message of solemnity (often used in commercials). It is present within pop culture as well: it has been sampled in Hip Hop, Disco and Rap music, or it works as a gag in comedy shows like The Simpsons. There, the motif gives an idea of classical music or even the whole so called high brow culture. As a simple onomatopoeia it is also capable of showing tourists the way.