An iconoclast is a person who opposes long held, widely established cultural figures, beliefs or institutions. While the term typically invokes the image of statue smashers or book burners, everyone from the self-styled New Atheists to the feminist movement could fall under the term. While it doesn’t necessarily imply someone who destroys culture for the sake of having no culture I won’t deny that most people I’ve seen or met who are iconoclasts seem to have that motivation underlying their behavior. And iconoclasts don’t refer to people who only seek the overthrow of a single aspect of culture – they’re usually after broad chunks of it – so broad destruction is the outcome either way.
The desire to change a widely held belief or system isn’t bad by default, but when the urge moves beyond removing one or even a handful of cultural institutions it becomes dangerous. Culture is what binds groups of people together, and if its destroyed we’re left with individuals who must sort each and every conflict between one another in detail. You get anarchy, and in anarchy the powerful always wind up pushing around the weak. Culture must be changed carefully, and only when some new system is on hand that can fulfill the role of the old system being removed as well or better, otherwise collapse is immanent. We see this over and over again through history, most strongly in the French Revolution but in many other revolutionary ideologies in other places.
In modern Western culture we seem to be undergoing an iconoclasm, a wholesale destruction of institutions on all fronts. Family, marriage, religious organizations, longstanding cultural traditions, respected historical figures and even gender roles have come under the lens of the iconoclast, singled out as backwards and old fashioned by vandals who mouth platitudes to justify their gleeful destruction of things precious to others. In the midst of this mob, J.K. Rowling has an interesting place.
Rowling is a longstanding feminist, meaning she believes strongly in the movement most responsible for destroying the notion of family as a biologically knit, indivisible unit of mutual care and protection and replacing it with much flimsier notions of consent based emotional bonding. Now, understanding notions like emotional bonding and strong friendships (now mysteriously called ‘found family’) is very important but it doesn’t speak to the same kinds of relationships family does, the kinds of relationships that spring from a bond you can loosen but never sever, and which will mark you for good or ill for the rest of your life. The nuances of this could fill books, but such an endeavor is not my purpose here. Suffice it to say that, on this score, Rowling is herself an iconoclast, joining with those who have carved through old understandings of relationships and biological realities wholesale.
Rowling is also a cultural figure in and of herself. She’s the wealthiest author living, possibly the wealthiest of all time, and her meteoric ascent atop the Harry Potter franchise has reshaped the publishing world ever since, likely continuing to have impacts for decades to come. She’s the reason publishing companies now account for theme park attractions in their contracts. Many of the current generation of iconoclasts themselves see her – or at least her work – as a cultural icon.
Which is awkward, as Rowling is also a biological essentialist when it comes to gender. The modern iconoclasm has claimed even biology and sex as icons to shatter, and a feminist of Rowling’s stripe demands that men and women be separate and distinct things, opposed to one another in a constant battle of power and oppression. The two notions cannot coexist, and efforts to strip Rowling’s name from the cultural totems she set up are ongoing.
In a way, it’s fascinating to watch. As an author myself I understand why it’s so hard to strip the creator away from her work. While I never followed the Harry Potter franchise myself I know that every creative work has a great deal of the author in it and that reality, combined with the fact that Rowling benefits from every new person who engages with her franchise in any way, leaves most of the modern iconoclasts divided with themselves. They still love Rowling’s work but now she represents an icon they must destroy.
So far Rowling has weathered every attempt to tear down her work launched against her. But, given the attitudes displayed by so many of these rabid destroyers, it’s only a matter of time before the entire Potter edifice is thrown into the bonfire and all loyalty of youth and sentiment is lost. I strongly suspect that not even Rowling will survive that point, and her cultural influence will rapidly vanish unless she can find some new, more stable portion of the culture to anchor in.
The lessons of this disaster are few and troubling. Even an author 100% in tune with the cultural zeitgeist can lose sway in an instant. There’s little loyalty to creators in the general public, only loyalty to creations. And destruction of old institutions is a very shaky foundation for someone looking to set up one of their own. These aren’t exactly cheery thoughts for those of us looking to tell stories that will hopefully endure into the future. While I doubt anyone reading this will ever have the level of cultural influence Rowling does, these are things worth thinking about.
For my part, I hope that leaving iconoclastic fury to others and focusing exclusively on building and protecting my own corner of the cultural landscape will fortify my own work better.
Speaking of which! The time for essays has come and passed. I’m preparing my next project for you all now! I’ll be taking next Friday off, then coming back in two weeks with the Forward of Night Train to Hardwick, the second installment of the Roy Harper adventures. If you read and enjoyed Firespinner I hope to have your attention here as well! Thanks as always for reading!