NATION AS (IS) A BRAND. PART 3

Huntley & Palmers Biscuits and Pears’ Soap. Crispy military might and the bleaching purity of civilization

 

COMMODITIES AND NATIONAL NARRATIVES

The global cultural economy marks in many aspects the intensification of flows and exchanges. In fact, its trajectory started centuries ago with warfare and the dissemination of religions of conversion (Appadurai 1991) followed by commercial maritime expeditions that made the circulation of capital, commodities, individuals, and information transcend territorial frontiers.

The new technologies of transport and communication, according to David Harvey (1996), have been increasingly compressing the spatio-temporal dimensions with a direct impact on the life-experience of the social body. They facilitated the flows at transnational level to the extent that the original identities (of capital, commodities, individuals, information, etc) have become more complex and multilayered, thus asking for a new politics of representation in order to secure the continuity of the nation as a symbolic platform for the politico-capitalist project of modern states.

A useful example is provided in the book ‘Imperial Leather’ by Anne McClintock (1995). From her studies of commodity circulation during the Victorian period emerges an intricate politics of representation of nation – in this case Great Britain – utilizing manufactured commodities as a medium platform whereby narratives of the then British Empire were displayed and its ideology disseminated in a kind of propaganda exercise.
“More than a mere symbol of imperial progress, the domestic commodity becomes the agent of history itself.” (McClintock, 1995: 220)

The collective national identity of Britain supposed a technological (and moral) superiority implicit in the Empire’s relation to the colonized world – with a strong element of binary opposition in the construction of meaning and identity predicated on difference (Hall, 1997). That collective sentiment was tacitly embedded in the manufactured objects at the time: civilized/primitive, rational/instinctive, modern/backward, white/black and so on. I would suggest that the power of such discourses reproduced in manufactured goods contributed to the assimilation and reproduction of a shared collective identity – or ‘imagined community’ as we have seen – and as a result it reinforced a system of Eurocentric, protestant-capitalist moral values both at homeland and in the extended national territories of the colonies. Furthermore, the transport technologies and logistics involved in the commodity flows increased the scope and frequency with which this plethora of goods and messages were being delivered to their consumers. Finally, the fetishization of commodities, as Marx put it, transformed commodities from mere use-values into a powerful mechanism of ideological dissemination, primarily driven by capital but quietly functioning in the interest of political powers too as the impetus for consumption started to see an upward trajectory among both the working classes and the bourgeoisie.

Next week I am going to talk about the different dimensions of the nation beyond the territorial landscape. Thank you and stay tuned!

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SHE PREDICTED A RIOT

Protesters try to get their point across with riot police

At the end of day on the 1st of April 2009 my routine was broken by a complete disruption of bus services departing from London Bridge station. Caused by the G20 demonstrations that took place that day across Bishops Gate, Threadneedle Street  and the surrounding area around the Bank of England. It left me with no option but to go back home walking. I knew that at least it would give me the chance to check the demonstrations a bit closer.

Arriving at the East end of Cornhill I decided to walk down the street to watch a bunch of protesters facing a line of riot police officers, moments before they clashed. It was all a bit too fast and confusing. As I approached I saw a number of objects being thrown at the police, who in turn started advancing against the aggressors aided by tear gas. In a split second, the whole hell broke loose. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a good two hundred people screaming and running in my direction, so I thought it would be sensible to turn around and run too. It was in that moment that, on my left, I spotted another group of Metropolitan Police officers around a man lying on the floor but I didn’t have much time to think, just run and get myself out of that mess.

Met Pol officers finally persuade demonstrators to retreat

Back in Bishops Gate things were a bit less tense, although there was an incredible number of Met Pol officers, Riot Police and all kinds of security personnel getting in position. It looked like as if they were really preparing for a battle. Only then I started to actually notice the people taking part in the demonstration and realised that they too were a pretty heterogeneous crowd: punks, homeless, students, environmentalists, agitators and a whole lot of ordinary people who, like me, were extremely pissed off with banks and the government for the economic cataclysm they had created. Many broken windows and beatings later I finally arrived at the sacrosanct refuge of my home, and started pondering about what I had just witnessed. Sadly, the next day I found out that the man I saw lying on the pavement had actually died as a result of head injuries when he was violently pushed to the floor by the police.

Summits attended by heads of state are always likely to attract demonstrations. These groups of people take that as an opportunity to have their voices heard amidst the intensive media coverage that usually characterize such events. The tactics vary though. Some might try to cause as much disruption as possible in an attempt to ‘amplify the signal’, whereas others just do it for the sole purpose of defying authority and the establishment. Either way, it is thanks to independent intermediaries that some truth may emerge out of the extremely diffuse picture generated by that kind of event. The talented London-based, Scottish photographer Jane Stockdale has just done that. She put herself in the cross-fire between police and demonstrators and managed to capture arresting (in the figurative sense, almost) images showing the animosity with which authorities tackled the situation, but also the defiance of some individuals who artfully dressed themselves to look like jihadists or Sinn Féin hardliners.

Intimidating look with a bit of sense of humour

Pause for a fag between clashes with the police

However, it is not uncommon to come across situations where both text and image are edited/manipulated, making for an official version that works in favour of vested interests, be it governmental, corporative or both. For example, Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernnays, the pioneer of strategies of social control through Public Relations had among his clients industrial conglomerates such as GM as well as the US government. President Roosevelt himself requested Edwards’ services following widespread social unrest caused by the big crash in 1929 (anyone spotting similarities here?). Through manipulative strategies entrenched in Freudian psychoanalytical principles he even convinced the American people to back a military coup in Guatemala just so his client, United Fruit, could continue operating its exploitative banana business with the aid of ‘friendly’, pro-US  government.

Jane Stockdale (in the middle) disrupting the DJ set during the book launch at KK Outlet

Examples of mass manipulation and induced behavioural change are aplenty but it is remarkable that these strategies would probably not succeed without the extensive help of mainstream media. Therefore, resistance only makes sense if it too attracts media attention, or at least, the attention of independent mediatic actors like film makers and photographers. That’s why the collection of images such as the ones Jane Stockdale has shot during the demonstrations preceding the G20 summit can make a valuable contribution to create a more complete and veritable picture of similar events. To all of you who were not there being hammered or ‘kettled’ by the police, her new book ‘I Predict a Riot’ is a good (and safe) option to check what happened during that day in the comfort of your sofa or local coffee shop.

Available now at KK Outlet. Move, move, move!!!