by Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz
July 2003

As the October 2003 gubernatorial recall election in California draws closer, the significance of Arnold Schwarzenegger's potential candidacy is not being well defined. While Arnold's own Republican party argues about which candidate to support, no one who has watched Schwarzenegger closely for the past 20 years would doubt his ability to win the election handily. His appeal is not necessarily to the party machine but to the disgruntled voters who immediately understand efforts to "terminate" Governor Davis.

The reason for that is not simply the celebrity factor but rather what Schwarzenegger has to offer as an icon in American culture:Arnold as film superstar, as political figure, as generator of catch-phrases (“I’ll be back!” and “Hasta la vista, baby!”), as purveyor of male-reproduction, as possible Nazi sympathizer, as champion body-builder, famous in-law, fitness czar, commercial entrepreneur, and as the embodiment of the American Dream. At a time when few if any politicians offers even one iconic appeal, Arnold easily embodies many of them.

Arnold’s ability to insinuate himself into any discourse or any metaphoric moment or any narrative thread is a remarkable feature of his stardom. What it suggests to us is what has come to be called and "idea virus." Arnold Schwarzenegger is the name we give to a collection of ideas which has spread in our culture over the last 30 years.

The viral complex called Arnold Schwarzenegger is not just referring to the actual person, but to the entire collection of ideas, images, actions, stories, metaphors, jokes, rumors, films, websites, fan activities, magazine covers, dreams, weight-training equipment, food supplements, t-shirts, interviews, photographs, memorabilia, film posters, newspaper articles, etc. that spread Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s life, more than any example we can think of, represents the trajectory of an idea that spreads not because it is good or valuable or true, but because a place is available for it in the culture at a particular point in time and because it can find new niches and hiding places as it develops.

How and why an idea like Arnold Schwarzenegger does this reveals a tremendous amount about the culture that employs it. Like other forms of shared cultural activities—myths, rituals, symbols—idea viruses that are this pervasive provide excellent entry points into the structure as well as the fluid features of a culture. To look at Arnold Schwarzenegger is to understand what this culture has accepted right now as good and right and true. His movies are not to be dismissed as mere fantasy-violent entertainment nor is the bodybuilding to be ignored as a minor activity along the path to fame: each part of his life is a piece of a whole allegory about the way the world, according to Arnold, should be. And they shape the way we think about ourselves and each other while they influence our actions and decisions.

For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, both the name and the idea, has been used as an adjective, a metaphor, an adverb, and a simile for those trying to talk about things big, expensive, powerful, violent, tough, and successful. He is quite simply an easy-to-use reference point or perfect example, the prototype that is immediately understood and recognized. What he points to is a model of behavior that values persistence, force, self-determination, physical strength, power, positive action, uniqueness, and destruction.

For California voters, this means that they would be electing a moral model for a certain type of behavior that could result in unprecedented policies. Political columnist George Will described it well when he said in a recent Newsweek editorial that California needs a government that functions "despite the people," not for them or through them. This is the kind of thinking we think Arnold also represents. We are potentially looking at a new form of democracy (or anti-democracy) not only because the election will have the most undemocratic form possible, but also because his entire history suggests a singlemindedness of thought and purpose that are dangerous in a free society. .

We have been trying for 20 years to understand how Arnold Schwarzenegger came to be one of the scales against which we measured our highest values and principles and why at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of thetwenty-first we could have created a culture that always seems to have a prominent place for him. It seems to us that we are about to understand this more vividly than we ever imagined.

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For more information of the concept of Arnold as an idea virus, see our essay:

The Replicator: Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Great Meme–Machine