This article builds on the cultural sociological program for the study of materiality, material symbolism, and iconic power. Having a theoretical basis in Durkheim’s claims regarding the social potency of totems and other material symbols, two new concepts – sensuous surface and conductive surface – are introduced. These concepts, which distinguish between icons’ formal aesthetic power and their power as repositories and conduits of symbolic principles of control, elaborate and extend Jeffrey Alexander’s notion of iconic surface. The analytical purchase of these concepts is demonstrated in an analysis of the works of the 19th century American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt. Bierstadt played a key role in the genesis of the variety of iconic nature – the aesthetically potent, symbolically resonant, and conductively efficacious image of the physical landscape – characteristic of American modernity. The sensuous features of Bierstadt’s work offer a representation of nature carrying constitutive power that is autonomous from its symbolic resonances. This case is significant, given the role played by iconic nature in modern American experience. By shining light on the genetic roots of the American variety of iconic nature, this article helps nuance accounts of the role played by material symbols in the process of cultural differentiation.
American Journal of Cultural Sociology – Springer Journals
Published: Sep 20, 2016
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