Self-Branding Abstracts The Self Into A Set Of Values

In a recent New York Times article entitled “What Happens When People and Companies Are Both Just Brands?” Amanda Hess points out that “brand, in fact, is such a ubiquitous organizing principle for so many things — companies, products, people — that is has been forced to spawn an expansive glossary of subcategories and varieties.” The fait accompli liberty Hess’s early statement takes is that it assumes (recognizes) there is no un-branded territory left. We are now defined and determined by our brand. No matter the resistance, society interprets the self in a capitalist constellation, a set of abstracted characteristics that no longer make up a genuine self but a brand. We have been monetized, if not always concretely, then psychologically, into a product-value advertisement.

Brand consumerism began as a utilitarian endeavor. Consumerist culture in the 1920s, Hess says, “produced a glut of products that couldn’t be differentiated from one another on sight,” so companies branded themselves to ensure quality. What proceeded was companies morphing simple quality assurance into a robust, idea-based brand. Companies and their products anthropomorphized themselves into complex beings, moving away from basic product management into ideological selling-points. As Naomi Klein says in her 1999 book No Logo, “Nike isn’t a running-shoe company, it is about the idea of transcendence through sports.” Nike went from shoes to sport to religious experience, selling a Pandora’s box of qualities and experiences to be unleashed upon purchase.

The practical issue that stems from corporate humanization is that “our focus shifts away from things like labor practices and supply chains and onto issues of narrative and identity.” Conversely, we begin to conceptualize ourselves as companies, organizing our character in an IPO-ish way. We market the self as product, idiosyncratic and atomized, yet promising a holistic brand. The Whitmanian notion of a divine self perversely realizes itself, through capitalist abstraction, in the complexity of human branding. Paradoxically, we eschew powerfully disparate multitudes that collect into a cogent articulation of the self. There is no internal uncertainty, no irreconcilable ideas, only our unique brand, our voice of all collected voices. Even shortcomings are subsumed as a sort of anti-heroic piece, contributing to the brand’s thematic conceit. To wit, Hess says “A ‘lifestyle brand,’ after all, is just a regular brand that appeals to people’s ‘personal brands’ — which, in turn, are increasingly organized around courting relationships with lifestyle brands.”

Hess’s article goes on to say that, even in the age of personal brands, corporations still rule, that in our individual mimicry we still serve the overarching brand. We are the factota composing a larger mission statement, proselytizing aspects of corporate brands through our persuasive personal prism. By forfeiting our natural share of entropy, allowing it to be externally shaped by corporate harmony, we may find vague aesthetic peace. But by definition, assimilated aspects of distinction distill suffering into calibration.

Deflection is a human pastime — pseudo-mystical cranks gaslight us into their manipulative schemes, and unctuous profiteers sermonize cheap transcendence all the time. If tent-revivalism still persuades people, it at least no longer holds the lion’s share. We have evolved into a subtler, proto-dystopian conception of the self. We no longer think through proffered identities, or even wear them; we exist in them.

The brand as an approximate identity capitalizes on our insecurity and ambiguity, distilling our subjectivity into its template of complexity. It appears as psychological deliverance, but is merely our psychological governor. Socratic and Machiavellian conceptions of the self epitomizes the modern schism between branded self and worked-through identity. Socrates says, “be as you wish to appear,” but Machiavelli, precursor to the brand says, “appear as you wish to be.” There is nothing wrong with self-refinement driven by aspiration; it is when we relax in our entanglement that the snake oil becomes a balm and artifice takes the place of authenticity.

  • Hank Wordsworth

    Best column I’ve read in the OG&B this year! Just what the Southern Agrarians warned us
    about.