Brands and Irony

I’ve been working on a chapter of my dissertation that will become the basis for my MLA talk in December. I emailed Alex Shakar, one of the authors I’m discussing in this chapter, to ask him about some of the sources he was reading at the time that he wrote The Savage Girl. He very graciously (and quickly) emailed a reply to me. The list he sent back was kind of long, so I don’t know that I’ll have time to take a look at all the books he mentioned before I wrap up work on the chapter, but it’s still pretty useful information.

My chapter, originally focused on the question of cooptation, has refocused its attention on the relationship between branding and irony. I think I want to make the argument that over the course of the last thirty years, and especially during the last decade, brands have become for many something like what Fredric Jameson calls “cognitive maps”: somewhat impoverished but still vitally useful ways in which individuals can visualize and conceptualize their complex interconnection in the web of production and consumption characteristic of transnational capitalist economies. I came to this conclusion when I read, in Naomi Klein’s No Logo, that anti-sweatshop activism seems to be very specifically tied to the prominence and reach of the brands that use sweatshops.

In other words, the use of sweatshops has been quite widespread for decades, yet it took the association of sweatshops with particular widely-known brand names to spur anti-sweatshop activism. My chapter is, in some ways, an attempt to answer the question why this might be the case. I hypothesize that brand-conscious corporations, as their proponents claim, work and largely succeed at establishing relationships with consumers based largely on meaning, belonging, and identification; the perception that the multinational corporations who are the stewards of these brands use unfair labor practices sparks anger precisely because many of these corporations have succeeded in establishing affective relationships between their brand holdings and consumers. We get mad that Nike exploits workers in part because we love, or identify with, Nike.

Consumers, apart from some of the ironists I’m writing about, care about their brand affiliation. And increasingly, even ironists care about their brand affiliations: many have entered into postironic forms of consumer relationship. They have ambivalent ironic feelings toward a campy band or silly song, but love it nonetheless. They consume ironically and sincerely all at once. My way in to all this is through an examination of literary texts, so it’s all somewhat oblique at the moment. Thoughts? Comments?