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Brands as masks: public secrecy and the counterfeit in Côte d'Ivoire


Department of Sociology and Anthropology, North Carolina State University, 334 1911 Building, Campus Box 8107, Raleigh, NC 27695-8107, USA.


Rethinking Simmel's comparison of secrecy and adornment, I consider the ways in which brands function much like masking practices, concealing even as they reveal, using the visible to hide/signify the invisible. The classic masking scenario is one in which men wear masks and claim to be powerful ancestral spirits, keeping the fact of their performance a secret from women and uninitiated boys. However, the secrecy is ambiguous, for women give signs of knowing and men seem to believe in the spirits they pretend to be only pretending to be. In Côte d'Ivoire, where masks are a symbol of national identity, consumption focuses around displaying supposedly authentic name brand labels. Urban Ivoirians call this display of wealth and consumption ‘bluffing’, exposing the artifice of their supposed affluence. Still, the success of their performance depends on the authenticity of expensive European and American brands, in a market where most of what is available is counterfeit. Underneath the public secret of their performative display lies the deeper secret that they remain uncertain of the legitimacy of their purchases. Masks and brands both metaphorically delineate a metonymic though invisible connection to authentic power, but the secrecy of what lies beneath the masked performance provides an unstable ambiguity in which it is always possible that the surface is that which it represents. Brands always contain this instability between appearance and the genuine, for all are ultimately copies whose uncertain authenticity we cover up with public secrecy.