From the Commodity Self to the Personal Brand

by Rob Horning

2 February 2011

Social media is a form of democratized bohemia, extending the design consciousness mentality and the opportunity for commodity-self-nourishing display to everyone, not just hipsters in the right neighborhoods, or not just urban people generally.

Not long ago I read Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson’s “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning” (pdf), a classic piece of 1990s advertising criticism. (Not everything academics did in the 1990s was superficial junk, notwithstanding this diatribe at Dissent‘s website about how vapid cultural-studies scholars supposedly were.)

The key point I took away from the article: ad discourse dissolves reality into free-floating signifiers and prompts us to adopt them as the language of self, replacing the identity-making role of tradition in a capitalist world that has eroded all traditional ways and demanded flexibility from its subjects. Design ideology makes that shift more palatable, and social media coincides with our taking a more active role circulating signs the way ads do. With social media we can readily represent ourselves as personal brands, and we shape our identity with that inescapable structuring metaphor in mind. We take the way ads may once have seemed to force us into a particular sort of cobbled-together self out of products and their associated signs and turn it into a positive active procedure, in which we build our personal brand and use our consumption as productive labor building our brand equity.
Some of this essay, from 1996, is dated, mainly because it couldn’t have anticipated how the internet would change what they call the “commodity self”—the identity we fashion for ourselves out of signifiers put into play through advertising discourse. Their key point derives from Baudrillard’s idea of the code—ads detach signifiers from some sort of organic, natural constellation of meaning and make them free-floating; ads marshal and mobilize signfiers and make them attachable to any product or idea. They become a kind of flexible language of images and memes that individuals can apply to their own identity construction; in fact, the chief accomplishment of ad discourse (of all the money put into making ads ubiquitous and their discourse and ideology hegemonic) is to make consumers bathe in ads and adopt its discourse as their own. “Advertising has established the premise that the most gratifying social relations are those associated with the confident, discriminating, sign user.” You know, the hipster (the good, on-trend consumer). We hate hipsters because the system, ads as a discourse, is making a promise about what it will be like to be a hipster that actual people who seem like hipsters can’t live up to. The prevalence of ad discourse generates outsize expectations of those subjectivated by it. We wish they would stop so we could, but it’s not them, it’s the entire structuring discourse in all its ubiquity.

Omnipresent ads make us think the language of self should also be the language of ads, which seem by their ubiquity to be the surest way of securing social recognition. Social recognition comes from sounding/seeming like ads, which are manifestly the dominant mode of public discourse. The language of power, measured by exposure, is ad discourse (a consequence of money buying exposure, of commercial media and the leasing of public space to private companies); hence to be powerful, we try to speak of ourselves in that discourse. Of course, ad discourse, as Goldman and Papson point out, “tends to further the hegemony of commodity and market relations” without their being any conscious effort on the part of any evil masterminds ruling from the commanding heights. They “reflect the logic of capital” while they “disguise and suppress inequalities, injustices, irrationalities, and contradictions.”

The authors argue that advertising was “in crisis” in the mid-1990s, but that seems to have been a misreading of the significance of advertising’s reflexivity and self-deprecation. As Thomas Frank pointed out in Conquest of Cool, this has long been a cyclical strategy for replenishing potency of ad’s messages. If anything, the language of ads and branding have become more accepted, almost embraced as a model for one’s self-concept—talk of the personal brand is not at all ironic in contemporary culture, and conceiving of personal goals along the lines of building brand equity are also becoming common as social media turns individuals into mini-media companies with logos/avatars of their own. This amateur population working to detach and recirculate signifiers has forestalled the “sign wars” they anticipated in the 1990s. Instead of advertising eating itself, co-creation and Web 2.0 and productive consumption and the like emerged. We have become the meaning makers and appropriators—separating things from their ordinary context and allowing them to float free in social media and elsewhere through sharing.

Personal branding and actual product brand managers now complement one another—we work alongside of advertisers to appropriate and reconfigure and remix signifiers, to generate new meaning possibilities that have value. The intermediate step from being subjected to ads to becoming little ad agencies ourselves lies in the promulgation of design ideology, as epitomized by Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style, to take one of many possible examples. The insidious creep of design ideology—that we should choose fonts the express our inner truth, for instance—works in conjunction with the ideology of advertisements, that magic self-transformation is possible through purchases, no logic required. Both assume that the inner truth can be expressed through manipulation and display of decontextualized signs (in one’s appearance, or in one’s online presence) rather than through sustained practices. Or rather in replaces all other possible practices with one, the practice of clever sign manipulation. Design ideology rationalizes the overflow of signs pouring in and over us, gives us a protocol for handling the plenitude, for how to slim down and screen some out. It makes the commodity self—“based on the packaging of self as a collection or ensemble of commodity signs”—tolerable. Designy-ness is a subjective response to ad culture that accelerates our transformation into a personal brand. It allows us to interpret the ads which saturate our lives as opportunities, as a positive condition, rather than an inescapable blight. Then, armed with design consciousness, we start conceiving of identity explicitly in branding terms.

In a sense, social media is a form of democratized bohemia, extending the design consciousness mentality and the opportunity for commodity-self-nourishing display to everyone, not just hipsters in the right neighborhoods, or not just urban people generally. So social media not only allow for more peacocking personal display (more “sharing”) but they also make it more pressing to have more signifiers at the ready, making it expedient to collaborate with advertisers and tolerate them, let them and their detached signifiers into one’s intimate life.

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