Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Signifiers


Jay Tolson

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

Branding has not merely endured, to paraphrase Faulkner, it has prevailed.

Back at the dawn of this century, I wrote a fairly cheeky piece about the growing craze for brands and branding. My irreverence rested on the reasonable but ultimately mistaken confidence that this marketing fad would one day pass, following in the footsteps of that old PR staple, image. In concluding, I mentioned a new book by marketing gurus David Andrusia and Rick Haskins, thinking that the title alone—Brand Yourself: How to Create an Identity for a Brilliant Career—would show just how risibly overblown all this branding chatter was.

No need to say who had the last laugh, and not just because that book’s success inspired a lengthening string of knockoffs with such unabashedly derivative titles as Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself, Branding Yourself Online, Personal Branding and Marketing Yourself, and How to Brand Yourself. Today, not surprisingly, there’s a thriving sub-industry of companies dedicated to helping you fashion a brand-optimal identity.

Branding has not merely endured, to paraphrase Faulkner, it has prevailed—thanks in large part to its suitability to our increasingly online lives. The number of things, animate or inanimate, that have been subjected to branding strategies and brand makeovers is now seemingly endless. Moving well beyond companies and product lines, branding gurus have given sizzle, shine, and savvy to political parties and entire nations, celebrities and schmoes, vacation destinations and breeds of dogs, the Boy Scouts and even a regional branch of the Ku Klux Klan. (Imagine: “A more inclusive white supremacist hate-group for these more inclusive times!”)

Virtually no one laughs about branding anymore. Like the horn-sprouting conformists of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, we eventually succumbed, learned to talk the talk, tweet the Tweet, amass the Friends and Followers. Not to do so was tantamount to career suicide, even in those professions and pursuits once considered redoubts of intellectual probity and authenticity, where self-promotion was seen not simply as crass but as a violation of the intellectual or artistic ethos.

A few years back, my colleagues at the University of Virginia tell me, the human resources office began offering professors help in branding themselves. It wasn’t enough to teach, say, Russian politics. You needed to make yourself the go-to scholar on the role of hip-hop in the post-Soviet space. You needed to get your brand out there, especially in the digital arena, and especially through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Sure, someone like the novelist Jonathan Franzen might get away with castigating this particular expense of spirit, but he already had his platform: Anti-buzz, anti-self-promotion was practically the brand of the man who once dissed Oprah Winfrey’s book club—though he quickly recanted. Today, your average midlist author is more likely to be rejected by a publisher for having an insufficiently developed brand platform than for turning in a lousy book proposal. Steak, thy name is sizzle! The meat hardly matters.

So why kick against the pricks? Why hope, at this late hour, for the branding mania to implode in one long, expiring sigh? I do, I confess, because my former animus against the phenomenon has been revived—even redoubled—by the follies of this election season, particularly by the man whose name may become the very brand of this odious style of politics. There is not much more that can or need be said about the man himself. Donald J. Trump is the Brand, in all its brash imperviousness. Brand Trump, and its devout following, is where the ethos of branding has taken us: into a dizzying phony-info empyrean where fact and truth are not just irrelevancies but irritating intrusions on the collective wish-fulfillment fantasy. It is a realm describable not as unreal or even surreal (each characterization being a form of homage to reality), but rather as irreal—empathically, even militantly, not real. Facts that challenge irreality must be tossed out of the hall, like so many obstreperous protestors.

Of course, branding is not the real culprit here. We’re talking about something with far more power than a marketing tool. The power of branding is only a product and symptom of the profoundly destabilizing metaphysics that informs our postmodern culture. Brand Trump brings to the American arena the full-blown postmodern political style that for a time prevailed in Berlusconi’s Italy and continues to do so, with no end in sight, in Putin’s Russia.

At the heart of the postmodernist doctrine, Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris reminds us in his Manifesto of New Realism, is Nietzsche’s dictum that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Ferraris published his book in 2012—in the wake of the last of Silvio Berlusconi’s three reigns as prime minister—to expose what he saw as the great unintended consequence of the postmodernist project. The intellectual champions of postmodernism had intended their assault on Truth to be a liberating force, one that would free the oppressed and marginalized from the established interpretations of the powerful few. But ultimately, in Ferraris’s view, the postmodernists’ destabilizing efforts led to a new form of domination:

The real world has certainly become a tale or, rather—as we shall see—it became a reality show; but the outcome was media populism, namely, a system in which (if one has such power) one can claim to make people believe anything. In news broadcasts and talk shows we did witness the realm of the “no facts, only interpretations” that—in what unfortunately is a fact and not an interpretation—then showed its true meaning: “the argument of the strongest is always the best.”

As truth, facts, and reality—and regard for such things—lost out to interpretations, and as this rarefied philosophical position acquired cultural authority through its instantiation in the practices, institutions, and techniques of modern societies, the most powerful counterweights to brute power were jeopardized. An effort to restore the real is now underway in philosophy and other intellectual disciplines, evident, for example, in Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s important recent book Retrieving Realism. Such work is salutary and overdue. But changes in the realm of ideas, even major changes, never have immediate or even predictable consequences in the larger world. For now, at least, you are your brand. Or your brand is you. Reality is a television show, and it’s always showtime.