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



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!