NATION AS (IS) A BRAND. PART 2

movable type as created by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439 in Mainz, Germany

 

The previous blog post raised some of the questions that often emerge when we speak about the nation. More than a geo-political project the nation is an immanent process that needs to be collectively sanctioned in order to come into being. But to make this complex structure of feelings move as a single body on a pre-determined direction it is necessary to have an entire discursive apparatus in place, some of which are the natural manifestations of the folk, some a pure symbolic construct on a political level.

TOWARD A TAXONOMY OF THE NATION

Nation can often be seen as a self-evident idea. One bound to become an ‘easy-access category’ (Roosval, Salovaara-Moring, Inka 2010), rather deterministic in nature. But it can also be understood as an open-ended object, constantly redefined in its constitutive elements and purposes. As such, the nation still needs to be explicated (Ibid: 2010, with my emphasis).

In this interrogation of the discursive strategies that form the nation and nationhood I am going to review some key theories for a better understanding of the processes and contexts in which the grand narratives of nations come into being. We start by establishing what actors are at play in these processes and the power relations thereby produced in what Appadurai describes as ‘the will to nation’, or the ‘identity politics on the level of Nation-State’.

NATION AS A LINGUISTIC CONSTRUCT

One recurring idea about forms of national organization on political and social levels is that of the ‘imagined community’, proposed by Benedict Anderson (1991). This imagined community is one in which its constitutive elements are often too dispersed and fragmented to form an organically cohesive group. The earlier forms of political and social organization in the European continent, for example, were articulated on a community-level, gemeinschaftlich (Lash, 2002). They were multiple and heterogeneous, usually functioning within region or even village borders. Anderson proposes that these forms of socio-political organization were fundamentally transformed by technological and economic factors.

“… the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.”

The technological revolution triggered by Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type meant that the mechanical reproduction of books made large-scale distribution and circulation possible. For example, by 1600 as many as 200,000,000 volumes had been manufactured and distributed (Febvre and Martin: 37, in Anderson 1991).

Interestingly, Anderson maintains that the decision to publish in vernacular languages had an ideological motivation – Martin Luther explored the potential of using a common languages (German) other than Latin to reach as wide an audience as possible for the benefit of the politico-religious project of Reformation – In the period of 1518 and 1525 Luther’s works accounted for one-third of all German language books sold (Ibid.: 1991) – but it was also driven by a capitalist imperative: once the market of literate readers, who could speak and read in Latin, had saturated new ones had to be found, thus publishers had to find another niche amongst less cultivated readers who, by contrast, were often monoglot.

Therefore, the elementary constituents of what was soon to delineate the model of modern nation-states in Europe were, according to Anderson’s studies, defined by the rise of a national consciousness through [vernacular] print-languages. It enabled cross-cultural dialogues and discernment between different groups based on their particular languages (e.g. Anglophones, Francophones, Lusophones and etc.). Also, the fixity attributed to language through print-capitalism enabled it to develop a historical dimension over time and created ‘languages-of-power’ that in their own right conferred social status and authority to certain individuals and social groups and their associated linguistic forms– dialects which failed to establish themselves in any valued print form were invariably rejected in the high political-cultural circles, meaning that language not only provided the mechanism to create distinctive national identity narratives but it also contributed to creating intra-national class divisions.

Next, we will see the roles of commodities in the production of narratives of the nation.

Cheers.

NATION AS (IS) A BRAND. PART 1

In the next few weeks I will be posting excerpts from my study of the Nation Branding praxis and its role in driving competitive advantage in countries engaging in the global economy. Keep connected 😉

‘Liberty Leading the People, 1830 by Eugene Delacroix

INTRO

Throughout history nation has been discursively constructed and reproduced in many different ways. There is often a primordialist view in which, territory, language, political institutions, ethnie and a shared past are its most elemental components, yet, nation is a much more complex construct stretching beyond those boundaries. In the present period where nations come to interact at so many different levels – culturally, socially, politically and above all economically – a new politics of representation capable of equalizing the homogenizing forces of globalization and, at the same time, reinforce the individual character of countries is all the more important. Nation as a brand is one such form of reframing the constitutive elements of its identity, history and culture to compete for investments, markets, individuals, etc. Brazil has recently re-emerged as a country, fully engaging in the new global economy. As such it has come to compete vis–à-vis other nations and secure a prosperous future for itself. However, the ways in which countries compete with each other and how they present themselves in not without tensions, contradictions and conflict. That is why the country image, and nation branding by extent, need to be understood, problematized and their effects studied so that it is rendered a less elusive, ambiguous phenomenon.

“Nation… has always been invented, imagined and reproduced in everyday mediated discourses”

Roosval, Salovaara-Moring, Inka 2010: 10

Nation may be seen as a self-evident category and yet it can still be a complex and elusive object with ill-defined boundaries that not uncommonly we fail to grasp in its entirety. The concept of Nation is often bound to ideas related to a common territory, a central government, language, ethnicity, and so on. Seen as an intangible body, the Nation owes its form, its substance and, above all, its identity to the development of intricate symbolic structures created to work as components of the grand narratives that constitute its ontology. These narratives can occur in different temporalities and spatialities at once but when they cross lines they come to reaffirm the very preconditions of our existence, that is, of our collective predicament as allegedly cohesive societies. Furthermore, the identity of oneself is not only defined for what is automatically inherited after birth but it is gradually constructed by exogenous forces found, for example, in the figure of the ‘Other’ (country, people, culture, language, laws, etc.) and their particular narratives and origin.

The acknowledgement of the existence of different realities, temporalities and spatialities has caused both individual and collective subjects to engage in dialogs – and experience encounters of dialogic nature – being commerce and warfare, perhaps, two of the most evident throughout history (Appadurai, 1990). I believe that these two activities in all their multiplicity of forms have been continuously enhancing a sense of identity, commonality and solidarity, but on the flipside highlighting difference, increasing competition and dominance through power struggles.

That is still reflected in many aspects of contemporary life. For example, the organizing principle guiding the economies of an increasing number of countries around the world have been gradually leaning toward a neoliberal form of governance. As a result market forces have expanded their sphere of influence far beyond the economic arena to incorporate also the political and cultural fields and so it seems that to a great extent the nation becomes subjected to the rule of the market in one way or another. As such the nation undergoes a process of transformation where it is reframed to be more than just a social, political and cultural construct. It becomes a brand.

Although the notion of nation as a brand may seem to bastardize its very essence, to contaminate its institutions and their functions, it appears that in the context of a globalized world with integrated markets the opposite is true. It becomes a matter of legitimizing the mandate of the state and its survival in the face of social contracts increasingly bound to the idea of prosperity – often synonymous with wealth accumulation. Therefore, this text is dedicated to investigate some of the processes through which nations have their image rearticulated – and also reinforced, and reproduced (Roosval, Salovaara-Moring, Inka, 2010) – in order to maintain and/or develop a ‘competitive advantage’ (Porter, 1998) vis-à-vis other nations participating in the global economy. I will pay particular attention to Brazil – South America’s most influential country, politically and economically speaking.

Painting by Pedro América illustrating the Declaration of Independence of Brazil in 1822

Considering that, at least in theory, its national image generates a rather positive resonance in the media and international public opinion, Brazil seems to be relatively unsuccessful in converting these valuable intangible assets productively. In general, the country is still largely known for its wealth of natural resources, economic might resulting from commodity exports, cultural diversity, music, football and a celebrated lifestyle but at the same time it suffers from a series of diseconomies caused by corruption, crime and bureaucracy. Despite these and other problems it seems that its brand equity is resilient, still generating a lot of interest in the international community and attracting foreign investment but perhaps not as effectively as it could be. For that reason the nation needs to be explicated, according to Roosval et al., and its current role as a brand in the new global economy requires a detailed investigation.

To be continued…

TEDxLondon 2011: Education Revolution

TEDxLondon: Education Revolution

Here we are again, one year later at another TEDx London event. This time the topic moved from the Millenium Goals to another no less ambitious: Education. To begin with the choice of venue couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the frequency with which the theme had been discussed in relation to creativity, engagement, experience and so on. The organizers competently transformed the Roundhouse in a (surprisingly comfy) auditorium hosting an audience of nearly a thousand people who came to witness what the speakers had to say about a supposed educational revolution, and specially in relation to Sir Ken Robinson’s views – him, a creative expert who led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creativity and cultural education who, back then, coordinated a comprehensive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy.

In his introduction note Sir Robinson called for a thorough rethink of the educational system in the UK and beyond. He highlighted the necessity to transform the processes through which kids are taught in schools based not on a mechanic approach but one that is, according to him, personalized, creative, inspiring and which, above all, meets the community needs in the context of 21st century ‘modern economies’. So, the panel comprised of 17 speakers was, to a considerable measure, assembled to support this particular view. One that is useful as it helps to establish a clear line of sight separating the old paradigms from new alternative routes. To which extent these talks and the ideas they bring about offer effective alternatives or, at least, point to new possibilities is something that needs to be further examined.

Sir Ken Robinson calls for an overhaul of the education system in the UK

Let’s see for example the coalition government’s new policy in relation to educational reform in the UK. This month 24 new free schools set up by teachers, charities, education experts and parents will start operating in the country under a state-funded plan. The education secretary Michael Gove maintains that by handing power to the community to manage their children’s schools they are offering an opportunity to improve the level of education in areas where the current system is failing. The curricula is collectively agreed and built by all stakeholders and decisions concerning the budget are made independently from local governments. He also claims that prior to the set up of free schools, a very rigorous assessment process is put in place to ensure that the community have the necessary capabilities and resources to run them efficiently and with tangible gains over the current system. Despite Sir Robinson’s calls on educational reform bearing some semantic similarities to the Tory’s policy they pose several problems in my opinion: the first one is the availability of expertise to run the schools – remember the socio-economic divide between the north and south of England, for example. One cannot assume that adequate human resources are evenly distributed across the country, which would only exacerbate the problem and ultimately see schools closing down and as a result students would be left with fewer or no options available.

Head Teacher Mike Foley on an interview for BBC Radio4 demonstrated his preoccupation with the tendency of free schools to increase skewed intakes of students. According to him some catchments could attract a high number of privileged pupils whereas others would become pockets of underperforming students. “Motivation drops, and aspiration drops as well. In the end that will have an effect on results and it’s a downward spiral,” Mr Mike claims. Furthermore, the rhetoric employed by the government where words  such as ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ are extensively used is a clear indication that they are unashamedly pushing their neoliberal agenda in a dangerously haphazardly way. The fear is also that the privatisation of education would become only one step away since more deregulation and state withdrawal would be very likely to follow in the future should the government continue to pursue its current programme.

The other problem is the basis on which these special curricula will be designed. If on the one hand parents and students have more freedom to decide what they want to learn on the other governments loose the capacity to coordinate policies that, in theory, should aim at reducing inequality and offer stimuli in areas that are critical to socio-economic development. This assumption is based on the incapacity (or unwillingness) of free markets to self-regulate, contrary to what Friedmanite doctrine advocates. Another motive for worry is the religious affiliation of some communities and how that would filter through children’s education creating further polarization between social groups and communities as it currently happens in many parts of the United States.

The panel of speakers: students, practitioners and thinkers

Considerations such as the above were not discussed during the TEDx event for the simple reason the organization tries to be as neutral and non-partisan as possible, even when discussing a topic that is so intrinsically political such as education. Instead, the speakers presented cases and initiatives connecting creativity and technology with new possibilities for modes of learning and, to a certain degree, a concern with an epistemological question of what the new generations can/should learn. The points presented during the event were certainly valid: children, specially in deprived areas (and not only in the UK) have been increasingly disengaged despite the efforts made by policymakers and teachers either because the methods used in the classroom are failing to capture students’ imagination or because they feel the subjects taught are unrelated to their everyday lives – one example being the importance of ICT in young people’s attitudes toward information and socialization.

Goldie's anthem Inner City Life: from drum'n bass to education

DJ, producer and Jungle/Drum’n Bass godfather Goldie explained how he had had “an education out of school”. It was only when he dropped formal education and had the time to pursue his vision, in this case artistic expression, that he fulfilled his potential as an individual. He went on saying that his ideal of a schooling model would be so outrageous but every kid would nonetheless want to study there. His point, i.e. the combination of creativity and exploration as fundamental components of learning, was recurrent in most of the speeches during the day. The experiential element in these processes was gracefully demonstrated by scientist and filmmaker Max Whitby in a fun experiment involving a tin foil box and a tank filled with invisible gas, which ended with him inhaling it and delivering his last lines in a rather cartoon-esque voice. Tim Exile, also a musician, delivers an on-flight performance followed by a quick talk on his artistic practice where he highlights the importance of spontaneity in the process of learning/creating. Finally, Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, advocates the urgency in putting creativity into the heart of the learning experience and as a means of community-building through the involvement of its members in art-oriented activities.

Other discussions gravitated around issues like the decentralization of learning mechanisms and the transcendence of physical spaces (read schools) in favour of mobile, technology-supported platforms where knowledge can be simultaneously assessed and built. However, the talk that grabbed my attention the most was delivered by Ewan Mcintosh. He elegantly raised the question of a paradigmatic change based on not simply equipping students to be able to deliver solutions but, instead, to encourage them to interrogate what the problems that need solving are in the first place. In that he understatedly makes a call for establishing a new angle based on activities where individuals are, therefore, not problem solvers but  “problem finders” rather. I think he grasped the true nature of the challenge that awaits the future generations. That’s why, in my view, the ‘problem finders’ concept pretty much sums up the most relevant issues traversing education which, in turn, should lead to other critical, and even more urgent, debates which converge to ontological questions and the grand-narratives of the future, i.e. the long-term vision for genuinely sustainable economies at both national and global levels, and a viable, more equitable social contract that can promote truly functioning societies.

The educational revolution as discussed at TEDxLondon is relevant, but only insofar as it takes the opportunity provided by the severe shake-up of the  current economic foundations to ask fundamental questions about what kind of education we want and for what purposes? In other words, thinking of a future narrative that is progressive in a revolutionary way. The talks therefore provided a glimpse into a new scenario marked by technology, creativity and space for free-thinking. However, in the light of a chronic economic crisis battering developed countries new forms of education predicated on developing economies under more or less the same paradigms (e.g. factor-driven, efficiency enhancers and innovation-driven) will not suffice. There is an urgent need for truly radical-thinking at a cross-sectional level of societies involving educators, policymakers, economists, scientists and everyone else in between, to start an articulation (rather belatedly) of viable alternatives for a sustainable future.

Dan Roberts: "geeks will rule the world"

In that sense the proposed discussion about education revolution on TEDxLondon was perhaps overrated, considering the complexity of the issue and the sensitivities of stakeholders involved in this area. Nevertheless, we should probably bear in mind that the TED format is first and foremost an attempt to share knowledge and lead by example which is made possible by a group of dedicated volunteers. Even if it fell short of providing answers that some in the audience might have expected it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Evan Grant and his team of collaborators

[Education] Revolution = Radical Thinking

See you at TEDxLondon 2012

J’AIME TA COULEUR CAFÉ

The typical latte cup from Climpson&Sons, crafted to perfection

Every time I wake up in the morning I feel an almost automatic urge to sponge up caffeine into my body. Without that my day simply doesn’t start. This acquired habit –or plain addiction, one would say – is particularly overwhelming on weekends when I could pretty much do with buckets of it. But my helpless dependence is not just about coffee itself; it has to do with the coffee shop too. Seeing familiar faces, checking the theatrical moves of the baristas, sitting down and watching the world go by for a while are all part of a ritual that has become more and more common in certain neighbourhoods. So, what to make of these places? What’s so special about them and why do people value their local, independent coffee shops so much?

Coffee shops are not just sites where one simply eats/drinks. These places should be understood in terms of agency and social production as well. Besides being devoted to a particular drinking habit, independent coffee shops are places where customers constantly produce interpersonal relationships, either face-to-face, or through other mediated forms. These people living in the ‘live-wild’ zones of global cities like London are primarily interested in [inter]play, exploration and invest a lot in cultural capital, thus, the ubiquity of books, newspapers, laptops and etc in these places. It could therefore be argued that, in some way, the independent coffee shop phenomenon in East London owns its success to an environment that is remarkably dynamic and pluralistic in social terms. Furthermore, coffee shops are able to offer a distinct service in a welcoming ambient that is affordable and highly self-gratifying.

What’s also quite interesting to observe is the importance of these spaces in creating a sense o locality, community and neighbourly sentiment. It is precisely this emotional bonding that, to a greater or lesser degree, works toward creating 3rd spaces, which are increasingly important in the contemporary urban landscape for they provide some sort of anchorage in environments often characterized by displacement, detachment and constant mobility of its agents/subjects.

Another way of complicating this idea is the recurrent privatisation of public space and the omnipresence of global brands. Richard Florida, Richard Lloyd, and Sharon Zukin, have similar arguments where the figure of ‘the creative’, ‘the artist’ and the ‘neo-bohemian’ have a significant role in the process of urban regeneration – in what could be described as an early stage of certain processes of gentrification – marked by partial, but sometimes total, substitution of small local business by chains. That’s why, in my opinion, the coffee shops are so special. They provide the space where certain kinds of socialities and practices are re-enacted and developed further as part of a strategy of actualization and self-entrepreneurship that is not possible in any standardized, mass-fabricated environment. They function beyond mere sites of commodity consumption (i.e. finality in Marxist terms) like the big chains. They capture the essence of a locale and add value to it – emotional and social value, as it were.

Clockwise from top left: 'Tina We Salute You', 'Climpson&Sons', 'Hurwundeki', 'Cofee@153': reading, chatting, browsing, looking...

Walter Benjamin’s anecdotal memories registered in Berlin Childhood: 1900 offer another interesting insight on the relation between ‘space-making’ and affect. In his explorations of Berlin he describes in detail his strategies to transform seemingly banality into extraordinary experiences in what could be translated into time-space appropriations:

“I had been looking for something that would have made the island entirely mine, that would opened it up exclusively to me. With a single feather I would have taken possession of it – not only the island but also the afternoon”.

Similarly, the denizens living in East London refer to their local amenities like bistros, pubs, second-hand stores, coffee shops and etc, as ‘my local one’. It is as if in such claims over geographically positioned assets lies a sense of comfort and belonging, intrinsically implied every time one stops by his/her ‘local coffee shop’ to have a sip on the thick, dark drink and perhaps a bite too. I realized that, quite often, these people are subjects in transition, away from home, postmodern diasporas coming from everywhere and with as diverse occupations as one could name: Finish textile designer; Brazilian interactive designer; Korean media student; Greek journalist; German filmmaker; Japanese working in 3D animation; British photographer; and so on and so forth. These types come to coffee shops not only because they have developed a peculiar taste for Arabica, but, because establishing a [bodily] presence in those places has become one important component of identity-making and style of life in the contemporary urban environment.

In its former incarnations, as in Cairo or Istanbul, coffee shops provided a background against which men would socialize, play, watch, listen to Arabic music, etc. Nowadays, it is more likely that people will make associations with the somehow clichéd and highly romanticized notion of the Parisian café evoked in the representations of late nineteen century ‘bohème’ found in modern literature and painting, where artists, writers and the like would idly congregate and be seen indulging in a hedonistic life style. This affect, bringing together nostalgia, romance, flânerie, consumption and sociality offers, in my view, a kind of continuity of narratives involving persons with either a developed aesthetic disposition, as stated by Bourdieu, or seeking to legitimize their position in the social structure. As a result, this milieu is marked by a kind of transubstantiation of stereotypical identities: the aspiring writer, seeking inspiration for a poem is substituted by the TV producer, laptop in hand, catching up with work emails; the struggling painter gives way to the PR consultant making phone calls while waiting for eggs Florentine; the accessories designer drinking skinny-latte with a friend takes the place of the bygone flapper. This picture develops a particular complexity when all banality and prosaicness of everyday events unfolding in coffee shops are re-framed by the panoptical view of the observer (whoever he/she might be) whose gaze – or flânerie, for that matter – guides him/her to increasingly loose categories. To put it another way, the variety of types one may encounter in these coffee shops seem to represent the epitome of postmodern urban diversity but, conversely, cannot even be categorized as such anymore as they bear overlapping identities (or a range of seemingly irreconcilable components forming their identities): the yummy mummy who used to play in a post-punk band during her teens and now runs a dotcom business from home; the antipode barista who has a degree in political sciences but also works in music festivals; the ever present figure of the hipster who is now pursuing a career in marketing; the marketing professional who is pursuing a career in video-art. The cornucopia of interests, hobbies, professions and activities is endless.

L'eau a La Bouche, the best spot for coffee and flânerie (not necessarily in this order)

Keith Tester offers an argument that interconnects two of the concepts already reviewed in this paper: one by Benjamin and the other by Baudelaire. He calls it the dialectical nature of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ and their relation with finding one’s personal truth. Tester maintains that whereas in Baudelaire’s work there’s an interplay and possibility of interchanges and construction of meaning, in Benjamin’s, on the other hand, the logic of capital eliminated these possibilities for mystery and discovery were substituted by the stark factuality of the commodity and the market. Therefore, what I observe in coffee shops is more of a residue of what that interplay between more or less well defined characters and categories used to be in the past. The negotiations in which the postmodern counterparts enter are far more complex, more problematic nowadays, I believe, considering how fragmented and volatile our cultural landscape has become in the aftermath of the post-industrial period.

A barista at Tina: I could swear I saw him playing a gig the week before

Places like ‘The Bridge’, on Kingsland Road; ‘Climpson&Sons’, on Broadway Market; ‘Tina We Salute You’, in Dalston; ‘Coffee@157’; ‘Hurwundeki’, on Cambridge Heath Road; ‘Taste of Bitter Love‘,  and many more, display clear signs of high reflexivity for they help produce and are at the same time produced by actors and agency. This combination of attitudes, tastes, and backgrounds create (generically speaking) a contrasting ambient imbued with an unique aura that is capable of retaining, at least to some extent, the bare essence of some long gone traditions where decompressed time-space, theatre, flânerie and authenticity were all but elemental components of the coffee-drinking experience in pre-commodified, low-mediated urban environments. Therefore, it is contrasting because independent coffee shop as spaces do suggest the possibility to accommodate both low-pace (although only momentarily) and nostalgia with connectivity, interplay, and intensive exchange, all at the customer’s sole discretion.

The remaining question now is no longer single or double, but skinny, soya or decaf?

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