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by Rob Horning

9 May 2009

I attended the opening ceremonies for the Blowing Up the Brand conference at NYU yesterday and heard Rob Walker give a talk about branding’s current status as a kind of governing cultural metaphor. Not only are lay discussions of how successfuly or ingenious marketing has become commonplace now, but the “self as brand” has become a ready-at-hand way of conceptualizing our motives for ourselves, for organizing our incentives and our goals. It seems an offshoot of the building preoccupation with identity and self-actualization. It’s no accident that “authenticity”—which came up a bit in the Q&A with Walker after the talk—features prominently in discussions of brands and self-fashioning. (In fact, I wonder if brand managers could get a PowerPoint presentation out of reading Stephen Greenblatt.) The properly groomed brand image will reveal the enduring truth about us that others will invariably recognize, or alternatively, in will supply others with the raw material (or perhaps the playing field) with which to shape the meaning of our social being. In other words, the transaction involved in brand recognition is now the way we understand how we affect and are affected by others; the brand is what we imagine gets fixed as permanent about ourselves after series of social interactions. If that is so, then—and I took this as Walker’s point—it will be efficacious to self-brand. People will recognize what you are doing, will interpret it properly, will slot it in with a set of values that have (through the ubiquity of brand talk) established themselves as creditable. But, as Walker suggested, we are also in danger of reducing our own complexities and the nuances of our relationships to the shape of the brand, to the commercial verities of guarded and proprietary corporate communication. Self-actualization becomes perpetual self-promotion. And worse everyone collaborates to keep it limited to this—every one agrees to “follow you if you follow me.” (Fittingly, in such a culture with so many mutual followers, there can be no leaders.) Technology plays in to this because it supplies us with a way of measuring our reach, of rating ourselves the way a TV show is rated by Nielsen. We degenerate into vulgar utilitarians. This drives us to be fixated on our metrics, and ultimately necessarily nebulous concerns about quality are shunted aside for an overriding concern for quantity—which is far more convenient to wrangle with since it is so cut and dried. (This is also the problem with positivism and enlightenment techno-rationality.)

My own thinking about the brand begins with this: Branding coopts a vital and socially necessary process—signification; negotiating and fixing the meaning of signs—and commercializes it. Rather than work to fix meanings (as do signification processes traditionally), branding tends to render signs permanently provisional, always open-ended, so that they can be adapted to whatever commercial purposes suit a given moment. But the commercial aura of this kind of communication gives it a kind of validity that the onslaught of postmodernity had threatened to strip from signification. This vindicating, validating authority from branding as signifying practice derives from its association with structures that in capitalist society come to seem eternal and primary—the market and a fundamentally “rational” selfishness. (For example: If one can see what a person has to gain by saying something, one understands the “truth” of that statement.) Brands makes us believe the uncertain process of signification has been professionalized.

So brands are always indeterminate, negotiable, but they also aspire to connote permanence, stable meanings. I think this has the effect of making us experience or consume brands for this specific feeling of permanent truth—we consume the permanence they signify and suspend our knowledge that that meaning is an illusion born in the moment of consumption. We suspend our concern with the fragility of meaning, with its fundamental ambiguity, which seems banished by the clarity of commercial exchanges. Brands offer us a series of engagements with the promise of forever in a transitory moment. The best of both worlds.

by PopMatters Staff

9 May 2009

Whatever Works
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Larry David, Ed Begley Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Conleth Hill, Michael McKean, Evan Rachel Wood
Opening: 19 June 2009
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

 

Plot summary: An eccentric New Yorker played by Larry David abandons his upper class life to lead a more bohemian existence. He meets a young girl from the south and her family and no two people seem to get along in the entanglements that follow. Run time: 92 minutes. Rated: PG-13 [Sony Pictures Classics]

by PopMatters Staff

9 May 2009

John Mellencamp’s latest video from Life Death Love and Freedom was shot in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana and features a duet with country singer Karen Fairchild from Little Big Town.

by Rob Horning

8 May 2009

Via Barry Ritholtz comes this chart, depicting trends in consumption in China:

As Ritholtz notes, a similar chart for the U.S. would be somewhat different. Economists who are concerned about global trade imbalances have long wonder when the Chinese consumer will emerge and begin to soak up its share of the world’s output, instead of the Chinese Central Bank stockpiling foreign currencies. This chart seems to suggest that it won’t happen anytime soon. What data like this makes me wonder is how the Chinese experience their own relative prosperity, how the consequences of rampant economic growth are experienced if not in terms of increasing purchasing power and more goods and more choices.

Sometimes the argument is made that the Chinese must save more because the social safety net there is extremely tenuous—they don’t even have the comfort of titles to property and social services are spotty and the bureaucracy presumably needs to be greased with many bribes and that sort of thing. This sort of logic would then be flipped to argue that a low savings rate is proof of a just, confident, and well-functioning society—it’s not a matter of impulsive consumers as the wrongheaded moralists and anachronistic puritans would have you believe. It strikes me as a conundrum of consumerism that the failure to save could be read blithely and myopically as the accomplishment a successful economic equilibrium, as though the fund for future investment to sustain those consumption levels were entirely irrelevant. Consumerism—an economic order based on maximizing consumer spending—must encourage the idea that savings are a kind of “glut,” a residual that proves an inefficient sort of budgeting has taken place somewhere. Personal savings can then feel like a personal failure to find enough stuff to spend one’s earnings on, to be sufficiently full of desires, to make having worked worth it. In a culture in which we are basically compelled to spend to keep the world as we know it going, accruing savings can leave us feeling guilty for not wanting enough. It’s possible that at this point, we would feel too guilty to ever believe that we are satisfied with what we have.

by Rob Horning

8 May 2009

This is not a post about online pornography (though I expect it will attract a lot of comment spam). Rather it’s about this essay by Llewellyn Hinkes, which wonders about the status of fetish objects—he seems to have in mind the phenomenon of being seduced by the tangibility of an object for reasons above and beyond its usefulness—when digitization is making culture more and more virtual.

Having something like this stored digitally, where a single hard drive failure can destroy years of hoarding in an instant, is frightening. It’s as if mother-destroyer can enter your house at any moment, chop off the super-ego, and then throw it in the garbage. For a time, I hoarded gobs and gobs of mp3s of obscure psychedelic music: Japanese-Brazilian lounge albums, avant-garde noise compositions, anything by Gary Wilson. Then one day, I saw it all disappear. I made a stupid mistake when moving files from an external hard drive that cost me my entire music collection. And what frightened me was that it didn’t really mean that much.

I completely relate to this and not because I am also a fan of Gary Wilson. Still, I am trying hard not to be frightened by this new intangibility but to instead revel in it, experience it as liberation, or at least a step toward freeing myself of the hoarding impulses.

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