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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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…