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

Your chapter on YouTube has been the focus of some very productive debates between the two of us, often having to do with the relationship between collective engagement and “self-branding.” In the published chapter, you acknowledge that various forms of collective action are possible through social media (citing, for example, the Arab Spring movement), but for you, “narcissism is part of the very structure of online technologies,” (p.88). I could argue the opposite is also true -- that networked communication is by its very definition networked, which involves some kind of set of social relations between individual participants. So, how do we as theorists reconcile the individualistic and collectivistic dimensions of digital culture?

It’s a very good question, and at the risk of being repetitive, I think our responsibility as theorists is to engage how these dimensions of digital culture—the individualistic and the collectivist—operate simultaneously and often in contradiction with each other. In terms of narcissism, I am responding to Jean Twenge, who has argued in her book on youth and media that narcissism is a problem for the younger generation. My critique of this argument is that rather than understand youth and media as discrete, separate realms, we need to think about the deep interrelations between and within youth culture and media spaces. That is, I said here that online technologies enable a kind of narcissism, and this (at least to me) is surely true, in the context of self-branding, personal profiles, the genre of “selfies” for young people, the isolation that can happen in digital spaces. The fact that this context exists doesn’t mean that networked communication is not enabled by digital culture, but it does mean that we have to think about what the categories of “individual” and “networked” are in relation to each other, rather than as each other’s opposite. To say that digital spaces are often individualistic, and that we should be more critical of this as these spaces are often touted as democratic, doesn’t mean that no other politics exist online.

I also think that we need to think of this digital dichotomy as something that also finds purchase in off-line spaces. So, there is some similarity between the notion that, say young women in digital spaces often self-present according to familiar gendered scripts, and the fact that these same scripts are reinforced in celebrity culture, everyday practices, policy and legislation. And, networked communication online might energize and organize a kind of democratic participation that then takes place off-line. What I hope to do in my work is not give the impression that I don’t think democratic participation is possible, but rather that in order for us to understand what something like democracy looks like in the current moment means that we need to engage cultural spaces in their relation to each other, rather than as discrete realms.

You end the book with a really provocative section which at once critiques the possibilities of a politics grounded in critical utopianism (you talk about “utopic normativity”) and yet also holds open what you describe as “the generative potential of ambivalence.” What would you see as some real world examples where groups or individuals have built in meaningful ways on the “generative potential of ambivalence” and how might we distinguish them from the kind of utopian thinking which simply reinscribes existing norms and values?

Well, I think perhaps the most obvious recent example is the various Occupy movements around the globe. Surely, brand culture is part of the context for Occupy—even as it is also part of the movement’s critique. So while Occupy might be called a “branded” movement—through design, logos, the use of social media, the Guy Fawkes mask you mentioned, etc—it is also about challenging existing norms and values.

Another example of how ambivalence is generative can be found in the branding of Wikileaks. A marketing company was hired to brand Wikileaks, as a way to raise funds for Assange’s legal fees. Did branding Wikileaks mean that the politics behind it are rendered obsolete, or does it make Assange a “sell-out”? The WikiLeaks website challenges the history of “official” information and the public’s right to access this information; the leaked documents have already disrupted routines of national security around the globe. Regardless of its ultimate impact, WikiLeaks is subversive. Because WikiLeaks is an affective sentiment in the sense that it inspires affect and emotion from individuals, the branding of it invokes ambivalence. The traversing of boundaries involved in branding WikiLeaks is not about whether Assange is “selling out,” but is an articulation of a politics of ambivalence.

The branding of feminism (as opposed to the branding of post-feminism) might be yet another example. For instance, last year’s “Binders of Women” could be understood as embodying part of brand culture in the way it was circulated, distributed, and engaged by consumers. Yet it also brought critical attention to the patriarchal discourse of politics, and worked to remind women of the importance of voting, etc.

Importantly, to traverse boundaries of different economies, market and non-market, profit-oriented or reciprocal, means not to jump from one “side” of a neoliberal divide to the other, one a space of authenticity, the other one of complicity as the discourse of “selling out” implies. And this is the ambivalence that I think is generative, that challenges a utopic normativity.

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.