Thinking Critically About Brand Cultures: An Interview with Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part One)

Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change is coming up on Friday of this week, and in anticipation of that event, which is scheduled to have some substantive discussion about the intersection between brand cultures and political activism, I wanted to share this interview with my USC Annenberg School colleague Sarah Banet-Weiser. Banet-Weiser will be speaking at the event, drawing on her two recent books, the single-authored Authentic(TM): The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture and her anthology, co-edited with Roopali Mukherjee, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neo-Liberal Times. I anticipate Banet-Weiser bringing a very needed critical perspective to our discussions, one which is skeptical of the claims of some of our corporate participants, but one which is also open-minded and curious about their visions of political change.

I have come to develop enormous respect for Banet-Weiser during my time at USC. She is beloved here as a teacher and mentor who is incredibly dedicated to her students. We often find ourselves closely aligned on departmental policy concerns and she has in some ways been a mentor for me as I have adjusted to a new institutional setting. Our work seems to have paralleled each other — starting with her early work on children’s culture and media, which emerged at about the same time I was publishing The Children’s Culture Reader. More recently, her Authentic (TM) book was released just a few months before Spreadable Media. Both represent attempts to come to grips with the contradictions and challenges of our current moment of media change. And I have found her collection on Commodity Activism very important as we are thinking through my current research on youth, new media, and participatory politics.

I think it is safe to say that most of the world, reading our work in isolation from our institutional context, would see us as representing very different theoretical and ideological perspectives on some of these same issues. It is difficult in the current climate to describe these differences in language that is not already over-determined by culture wars and conflicts, rifts in our field that go back at least to the 1980s, if not earlier. Banet-Weiser’s work is grounded in a very strong critique of neoliberalism and a strong emphasis on structural constraints on our capacities for individual and collective action; my work has been strongly grounded in an advocacy for participatory culture as a central tool for bringing about greater diversity and democracy and has tended to place a strong importance on the concept of collective agency within a networked culture. Often, our respective intellectual allies do not play nicely with each other, and we’ve both been concerned by the sharp language through which these issues have often been contested in recent years.

Yet, I have enormous respect and affection for Banet-Weiser and have always learned a tremendous deal from her work, and as friends and colleagues, we have become important thinking partners for each other. We read and responded extensively to each other’s book manuscripts. Such exchanges were especially valuable at moments where we were in the sharpest disagreement, where our world views clashed in ways that prove generative for both of us. Some of these core disagreements surface in the following interview. My hope is that these disagreements prove generative for my readers also.

As I have written often of late, there’s an urgent need for these perspectives to be speaking with each other. I see more and more scholars talking about the need for a frank critique of what’s happened with digital culture and especially with Web 2.0. Many are calling for us to move beyond utopian or dystopian perspectives and deal realistically with what has and has not been achieved in terms of a vision for meaningful social and political change. One side has perhaps articulated most fully the promises and potentials of that change,the other has developed the strongest critique of the structural constraints on reforming or transforming the current system and the mechanisms by which participation has been manipulated and exploited by corporate interests towards its own ends. One side has pushed an agenda of media reform focused around corporate concentration, while the other has stressed the importance of insuring the broadest possible access to the skills and tools required for meaningful participation. These two sides too often speak past each other, distrust each other. We lose sight of our shared goals. I am determined to seek common ground between these perspectives, and I hope that this exchange will represent one step forward in that process.

Banet-Weiser writes with enormous clarity in her new book about a theoretical and political stance grounded in “ambivalence,” a term I also think might describe what I am seeking right now in my own work. Too often, we’ve ended up with a divide between those of us who see the world as a glass half full and those who see the world as a glass half empty, without noticing that both of us agree that it’s only half a glass. Our points of disagreement may make us stronger if they force us to examine our core assumptions and sharpen our analysis, but they should not come at the expense of our recognition of our shared commitments and our collective stakes in insuring a more just society.

You write, “Terranova’s idea of compromise, between creativity and capitalism, between affect and profit, requires that we understand what exactly is being compromised, and what consumers gain as well as lose through such transactions.” On this point, we totally agree though there’s much more work to be done before we can fully address this question. My own sense is that critical theory has been better, by far, at describing what consumers “lose” and less effective at describing what consumers “gain.” So, from your point of view, what do consumers “gain” under the neo-liberal terms you are describing in your book? And what do they “lose”?

Well, as you say, it is somewhat easier to describe what consumers “lose” within brand culture, so I’ll address that first. I describe in the book how, in the current moment, brands, and branding strategies, have expanded beyond selling actual products or companies, and are an integral part of culture. We are witnessing the expansion of brand language and logic to our personal selves, where individuals often feel obliged to not only construct, but to understand themselves as brands. This is a problem, I think, because branding is, at the end of the day, about selling and marketing things. So, for instance, when we create a self-brand, we embark on a process that packages, designs, and markets us—human beings—just like other products and commodities. To think of ourselves as things or commodities devalues the self.

Another thing I think consumers “lose” when we are not critical of, or do not challenge the normalization of self-branding, and brand culture more generally, relates to the economies of visibility that support and validate branding. Branding, and self-branding in particular, is about making the self visible (through a variety of media platforms), and I think we need to be critical of not only cultural imperatives to be visible, but also the structural inequalities that organize visibility in the first place: who can be visible? Who is seen as “worthy” of visibility? How does visibility work in different ways depending on gender, race, class? Within this context, brand culture, as both an economic and cultural formation and dynamic of power authorizes some things as “brandable,” while others are unbrandable, or are in excess of the brand, or remain in search of “brandability” if they want to be visible.

Now, what do consumers potentially “gain” within the neoliberal context? While I’m critical of many brand cultures in the book, the cultures and practices I examine are only a small element of broader brand culture. There are historical ways in which, for example, making the self visible through consumer and brand culture has been linked to a politics of freedom and emanicipation, and I think we need to pay attention to those histories. This is a contradictory formation: brand culture provides the context for struggles over visibility and recognition. Yet it simultaneously provides the context for the commodification of people as visual objects. The contradictory spaces of brand culture provide opportunities for acting on these contradictions, and thus potentially locating political possibility and critique within brand culture.

But brand culture, or any kind of culture for that matter, is not an either/or context, where it is either liberatory or oppressive, because the production of meaning is always collective and contingent. Certainly the kinds of access and disruptions of power we witness in, say, social media contexts, can lead to a more democratic idea of resistance and identity, and dynamics of power can be re-contextualized in ways that offer space for shifting norms.

What I trace in the book, and this is particularly true when we are talking about gender norms and practices, is that these media platforms may be disrupting conventions of power in some ways while also relying on familiar scripts and narratives that have proven successful in capitalism.

These questions are intended to get to the heart of what your book is describing as “ambivalence.” It is a word which does a great deal of work in your argument. In what sense do you think our relations to contemporary consumer culture are “ambivalent”? What is the role of the critic in dealing with this kind of ambivalence?

I think that a great deal of scholarship approaches consumer and popular culture within the framework of a familiar binary: it is either authentic or commercial, it is about real politics or corporate appropriation. For me, brand culture is neither a historical inevitability, nor is it uncontested. Rather, brand cultures emerge from the deeply interrelated discourses and practices of capitalism, history, culture, technology, and individual identity formation. Because brands form culture, they are—like culture itself—often unstable and precarious. The argument I’m making in the book is that consumer capitalism is a nuanced, multi-layered context for identity formation—as such, it is an explicitly cultural space. And, because I’m writing about culture, I think we need to carefully attend to the ways in which the production and consumption of culture within the logic of branding involves not only those practices that are easily branded, but also those who are left out of brand culture because they are not easily branded. So, we need to think about why certain politics or lifestyles are incorporated into brand culture, as well as why others not immediately amenable to branding are left out.

This is where ambivalence comes in, in those spaces of culture that are not easily determined by either commercial culture or individual resistance. But, connecting ambivalence to actual praxis is a difficult thing, and has no guarantees. For one thing, most elements of culture are not seen as ambivalent. Ambivalence, its lack of certainty, its inconsistency, the way it both harbors and is defined by doubt, is generally understood as a problem, something to avoid. Yet, I’m arguing that it is important to take seriously the cultural value of emotion and affect and the potential of ambivalence, its generative power, for it is within these spaces that hope and anxiety, pleasure and desire, fear and insecurity are nurtured and maintained. Brand marketers realize the potential of ambivalence, and capitalize on it. But their strategies do not in turn mean that affect, or ambivalence, are simply, or only, spaces of corporate manipulation. Rather, affect and ambivalence can be utilized in different ways.

The ambivalence of brand cultures, then, is about incongruity—all brand cultures do not mean the same thing, either culturally or individually. If consumer capitalism demands that we live our lives within brand spaces and subjectivities, we need to think carefully about what this kind of life looks like, and conversely, what potential spaces and actions threaten to disrupt the expected flow of consumption.

To theorize ambivalence as a structuring element of brand cultures means that not all cultural practices are spaces of possibility, but rather that some carry more potential than others, that some cultural practices are easier to brand than others. Those practices that can be integrated within brand relationships, such as girls’ self-esteem, or environmental politics, or street art, are not empty of political possibility, but that possibility itself takes shape within a branded space and under branding rubrics. When a brand, a genre, or a product circulates in culture, its meaning is ambivalent. In other words, the fact that a brand circulates in culture is not a guarantee of its meaning; rather, the circulating brand is constantly under the threat of breakdown and destabilization. Within brand culture, this threat forms a crucial contradiction: brands are designed for stability, and their logic is based on regularity and singularity. Yet they are ultimately precarious, and are subject to cultural misunderstanding. For me, to theorize brand cultures as subject to misunderstanding and misrecognition is to deliberately hold on to the generative potential of brand cultures.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is a Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She had two books published in 2012, most recently Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York University Press), which examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. Also published in 2012 was Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York University Press), co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007).
She co-edits, with Kent Ono, a book series with New York University Press, “Critical Cultural Communication,” and is the editor of American Quarterly.