Justin E. H. Smith in Paper Monument:
Jeremy Bentham thought that we no longer needed statues, or other post-mortem representations of ourselves, since innovations in the science of embalming had brought it about that we could each be our own statue after death. Bentham’s own embalmers botched the job, leaving the utilitarian’s own auto-icon with a head of wax, which kind of negates his argument, even as it stimulates further reflection among the living as to what it means exactly to be memorialized, to be iconized, when one is no longer.
If you made an effort, circa 2009, to master the news about Lady Gaga, you will by now have come to regret this unwise disposal of your time. Gaga had been an American performer of some repute, a singer and dancer, and she was held for a brief time to be shaking things up, to be causing us to see things in new ways. This perception had mostly to do with her manipulation of gender signifiers, but in this what little claim she had to iconic status was derived, mostly unconsciously, from her status as an iteration of a type that had far more blazing tokens nearly a century ago. The type passes through Madonna, on whom one was probably right to expend some mental energy, and back through the great film stars Madonna so diligently imitated, and so lovingly praised in the shout-out portion of “Vogue.” And it passes on, too, to someone who was not credited in Madonna’s 1990 hit, yet whose paintings seem to have done more to concretize the figure of the modern woman to which these later pop stars would work so hard to fit themselves, the figure that always seems so modern and insolite, while remaining eternally rooted in a mythical 1925 Paris, in the moment when Tamara de Lempicka (who had fled St. Petersburg in 1917) painted it in cool neo-cubist blues: la garçonne, the female boy, artificial and contrived even grammatically, always a surprise, always as if new, even when its long chain of iterations is revealed.
We are also iterations of ourselves through time: receding series, as Vladimir Nabokov (who also fled St. Petersburg in 1917) wrote of his Lucette at the moment of her drowning. And sometimes new series spin off from moments, and are taken up by others, while we come to look less like ourselves than our imitators do.