In this article, we bring together two distinct ethnographic cases of capitalist production—food producers in northern Italy and Asian American advertising executives in New York City—to illustrate how these producers use language and materiality to produce value in global capitalism. Taken together, the cases illustrate how contemporary capitalist producers utilize particular notions of ethnolinguistic heritage in ways that reflect group-specific values and enable economic profitability in globalizing economies. We consider the work that producers do to construct authenticity by identifying the links they create among and across linguistic and material elements. Whether the product in question is a locally crafted salami or a car commercial aimed at Chinese Americans, constructing authenticity is a complex process that is not assured of success but that is driven by various possibilities of reward. Noting the ways in which authenticity construction seldom goes unchallenged, we consider producers’ linguistic and material work to create authentic goods against those who question and contest their efforts. In so doing, we examine broader implications of this capitalist production and contribute to literature on global capitalism, commodity creation, brand, and relationships between language and materiality.
En este artículo reuno dos casos etnográficos de producción capitalista—productores de alimentos en el norte de Italia y ejecutivos asiático-estadounidenses de la publicidad en Nueva York— para ilustrar como estos productores usan lenguaje y materialidad para producir valor para sus productos en el capitalismo global. Tomados en conjunto, los casos ilustran cómo los productores capitalistas contemporáneos utilizan nociones particulares de herencia etnolingüística en formas que reflejan los valores específicos y hacen posible la generación de ganancias económicas en economías globalizantes. Consideramos el trabajo que los productores realizan para producir autenticidad a través de identificar los vínculos que crean por medio de elementos lingüísticos y materiales en sus procesos de producción. Tanto si el producto en cuestión es salami localmente producido o un carro comercial dirigido a los chino-estadounidenses, construyendo autenticidad es un proceso complejo cuyo éxito no esta garantizado, pero es impulsado por varias posibilidades de recompensa. Notando las maneras en que la creación de autenticidad pocas veces sucede sin oposición, consideramos los esfuerzos lingüísticos y materiales de los productores para crear productos auténticos en contra de quienes cuestionan sus esfuerzos. Al hacer esto, examinamos implicaciones más amplias de la producción capitalista y contribuimos a la literatura sobre producción en el capitalismo global, creación de mercancías, creación de marcas, y relaciones entre lenguaje y materialidad.
Consider the following two cases: A pig farmer in northern Italy carefully slaughters and butchers just two pigs at a time to produce what he aims to sell as authentic local salamis. He just as carefully crafts the labels that accompany each salami, including the product name, a detailed description of ingredients, and a brief family history of his farm. Nonetheless, there is no guarantee consumers will pay the higher prices he asks, as they select among numerous products making similar claims to authenticity. Elsewhere, in a Taipei recording studio, a Taiwanese pop star strains to pronounce stylized English words alongside new Mandarin lyrics while replicating the pitch, tonality, and verisimilitude of a 1970s “American” rock ballad for a car commercial selling a Japanese import to Chinese living in the United States. New York City advertising executives terminate their Skype session with the artist once they are pleased with the recording, but their U.S.-based client later offers feedback that implies that the rendition is inauthentic. Why consider pig slaughter for salami production alongside the recording of rock ballads for advertisements? We do so because both can illustrate how capitalist producers use regional identities and aspects of heritage to construct and market cultural productions they hope will be construed as “authentic” in regional and global markets. Together they offer a broad view of the precarious nature of producing authenticity for capitalist circulation and consumption as well as of the conflicts that may arise among the actors involved. Illustrating different moments of the commodity chain process, one case begins with the production of a commodity while the other picks up with how a commodity's brand identity is authentically constructed through advertising. Considered alongside one another, these examples offer a vital complement to discussions of authenticity emergent in later stages of the commodity chain process, particularly consumption.1
These producers of salami and niche advertising are operating in very different geographic locations and modalities of labor, but their aims are remarkably similar: to use group-specific notions of heritage to profit in capitalist arenas. Similar strategies are evident in their work as well, as notions of authenticity are produced through both material and linguistic means, such that materiality and language work together to generate cultural and economic value. We define materiality here as those aspects of the world that are invested with physical form and can be encountered through the senses but that are also situated within political economies that shape how they may be encountered. By language, we refer to various types of linguistic practice, including spoken and written processes. By situating our discussion in what we see as the emerging field of language materiality (Shankar and Cavanaugh 2012), we offer a model to advance theoretical and ethnographic understandings of the “dynamical coexistence,” to borrow Charles Peirce's phrase (1955), of words and things within emerging global economies—what we here term linguistic materiality. Instances of linguistic materiality in our cases include, but are not limited to, language and linguistic forms that acquire market value for their ability to serve as culturally shaped markers of ethnic and regional heritage—to sound correct to discerning ears—as well as the talk that occurs as part of production processes in the attempt to link what something means with what it is worth. Looking at the material and the linguistic together is both a methodological and a theoretical choice, as it shapes our research strategies (which include, for instance, audio-recording and transcribing speech alongside ethnographic participant-observation) as well as our efforts to illustrate that constructing authenticity is a project shared across very different ethnographic contexts requiring the alignment of material and linguistic labor.
Taken together, the Italian pig farm and the New York City advertising agency illustrate the heightened value of authenticity within global capitalism, especially how producers link cultural production to particular times and places as a way to evidence authenticity. We consider how these social actors generate “chronotopes,” a concept offered by Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) to characterize the links created across events that occur in different places at different times. Through mainly linguistic means, such as repetition of key phrases or the labeling of genres of talk, speakers construct connections across contexts that help to make them the same in some ways (such connections are often described as “intertextual” or “interdiscursive”; for clarity, we use just the latter in this article); for chronotopes, these connections are grounded in particular concepts of place and time. Although the specific chronotopes in each case are very different—Italian food producers attempt to create an image of cultural heritage anchored in a particular town and province in Italy as emerging out of unbroken links to the past, while Asian American advertising executives in New York City are creating a contemporary diasporic image of ethnic identity—the creation of both chronotopes centers on authenticity: if these depictions of time and place are not just right in terms of how they depict heritage and ethnic identity, they will neither make sense nor make money. Emphasizing tensions concerning authenticity by looking first at moments of cooperation in each field site and then turning to moments of conflict, the cases together speak to different phases in the commodity chain while they also illustrate how notions of heritage are used to both align with group-specific values and enable participation in globalizing economies.
MATERIALITY, LANGUAGE, AND AUTHENTICITY
Recent investigations into the nature of commodities, brands, and the character of circulation in global capitalism have highlighted various modes of objectification, alienation, and evaluation to which commodities and brand identities are subject (Lee and LiPuma 2002; Manning 2010). Whether we are in an era in which regional and national capitalisms are dissolving in favor of “a unified cosmopolitan culture of unimpeded circulation” (Lee and LiPuma 2002:210) or are experiencing a reinvigorated role of the state after the recent financial crisis (see e.g., Robatham 2011), we see contemporary global capitalism as creating the ideal conditions for producer-based claims to authenticity and legitimacy, rooted in those notions of the regional and national that initially gave rise to them. Scholarship on global capitalism has illustrated the heightened significance of materiality and the increasing commodification of culture (Colloredo-Mansfeld 2011; Comaroff and Comaroff 2009; Harvey 2005; Manning and Meneley 2008), but the role of language in these processes has only begun to be explicitly considered (Cameron 2000; Coupland 2010; Duchêne and Heller 2012; Heller 2003; Jacquemet 2005; Shankar and Cavanaugh 2012). Indeed, such processes of commodification rely on various emerging intersections between language and materiality. Political-economic approaches to language rightly underscore the linkages between talk and local economies but have been less concerned with the material qualities of language in capitalist contexts. For instance, the speech in commercial encounters has been characterized as “modern immaterial commodities” (Kockelman 2006), but what if we consider the materiality of such talk? Using the analytic of linguistic materiality allows us to look at how linguistic practices that work in concert with, or in opposition to, the material aspects of commodity production can show how materiality and language are connected to one another and together play a part in economic systems. In our cases, linguistic activity shapes the material aspects of the objects in question, and at times certain linguistic elements, such as pronunciation patterns, are focused upon for their precise acoustic shapes—that is, according to their material features.
Materiality has been recently foregrounded in linguistic examinations of advertising and brand identity (Moore 2003; Shankar 2012), as when Paul Manning (2010) contrasts the immateriality of brand identity writ large to the “messy materiality” of individual consumers and commodities (see also Shankar 2008). Semiotic explorations of brand consumption posit a similar split, in which “brand conjoins a set of immaterial qualities to some set of commodity brand tokens, the latter offering a gateway to the former” (Nakassis 2012:629; cf. Agha 2011). Our interest in brand is not to link advertising and consumption, as many other studies have already usefully shown (Arvidsson 2006; Lury 2006); rather, it is to consider how authenticity is linguistically and materially vetted in the production of commodities and advertisements and how materiality during other phases of the commodity-chain process may contribute to the eventual materiality of consumption. If, according to the consummate advertising executive's claim, branding refers to the process of transformation through which quotidian material goods take on magical properties through marketing (Ogilvy 1985), what happens to their materiality before and during the branding process? Through an ethnographic examination of production that foregrounds how value is rooted in regionally relevant notions of authenticity, we expand the conversation about brand production to consider the role that small-scale producers—those of goods and those of particular types of messaging—play in the process of creating value. We ask: How do producer understandings of circulation shape linguistic and material aspects of their activities? The production work we investigate—whether the creation of regionally distinct foods for expanding markets or of regionally salient representations of ethnicity for niche advertising—aims to construct authenticity with consumers in mind; both also strive to defend the authenticity of their productions to various intermediaries in the commodity chain who vet the legitimacy of their creations vis-à-vis their perceived value.
Claims to authenticity may blur the line between object and commodity, illustrating how the production of authenticity is a complex process driven by various possibilities of reward but whose success is never guaranteed (Chibnik 2008; Myers 2002; Price 2007). The variable and malleable nature of authenticity and its construction (Field 2008; Lau 2010; Lindholm 2008; Trilling 1972) is evident in how producers are required to showcase particular characteristics to suit market demands (Paxson 2010; 2013) as much as in how consumers evaluate the authenticity of particular commodities according to values distinctive to regional economies (Vann 2006). The ongoing, open-ended, and contested nature of constructing authenticity is demonstrated in work that reveals how linguistic resources, such as the choice of one language over another within a particular conversation, are used as “a means of achieving authenticity” in the construction of identities or community membership (Coupland 2003:417; see also Bucholtz 2003; Cutler 2003). Studies of endangered languages have emphasized that authenticity may become a vexed issue as speakers of these languages become integrated into capitalist environments and must choose when to use and not use their language (Cavanaugh 2009; McEwan-Fujita 2005). The standards by which authenticity is conferred—be it intellectual property rights, local ideologies, or language-preservation efforts—underscore that embeddedness within multiple, overlapping semiotic and market complexities shapes what counterfeit or authentic objects are and mean (Pang 2008; cf. Nakassis 2012). In both of our cases, authenticity is constructed through language used during certain production projects, but it is also embodied in the materiality of particular linguistic forms, such as labels in a local vernacular or the correct pronunciation of consonants in a ballad. To construct authenticity linguistically, then, is not simply to label or describe something as authentic; instead, as we will show in our cases, it involves precisely defining the features that make something authentic, contesting others’ definitions in favor of one's own, and arguing over such definitions, all in order to produce economic value for particular objects.
Our objective is to understand how value in the linguistic sense (that is, how linguistic features such as accents or pronunciation patterns can have particular meanings within social interaction [Silverstein 2004]) intersects with value in the economic sense (such as how products are assessed and acquire quantifiable value via processes of commodification [Appadurai 1986; Callon et al. 2002; Miller 1998; Myers 2001]). Creating products that will be definitively considered authentic is a virtual impossibility, especially if one considers consumers to be the ultimate arbiters of value. Nonetheless, much can be learned from the interaction of material and linguistic meanings intended to index authenticity when we look at the heated battles and contests that occur in production contexts, as in the two cases to which we now turn.
Jillian Cavanaugh's ethnographic work since 1999 has focused on the northern Italian province and town of Bergamo, historically one of Italy's poorest provinces, transformed since World War II into one of its most prosperous due to extensive industrialization and universalized education. Although many Bergamasco cultural and economic practices have been largely discarded in favor of more nationally oriented Italian ones (Cavanaugh 2009), currently various Bergamasco food producers are striving to transform once-quotidian local peasant foods such as polenta, cheese, and salami into economically viable heritage items (Cavanaugh 2005, 2007; Grasseni 2007). Linguistic practices and material processes intersect in the production of these local foods as contemporary authentic embodiments of heritage, processes that involve intense debate and contention among producers. Shalini Shankar's case is drawn from her research on advertising development and production in “niche” agencies that target Asian American consumers and in “general market” agencies that reach mainstream audiences. In one of numerous accounts Shankar observed during 14 months of research (2008–12) conducted primarily in agencies that create specialized communications for Americans of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, South Asian, and Vietnamese descent, she considers how authenticity is creatively conceived of and executed in an automobile commercial. As in other cases of populating the ethnic category “Chinese American” with meaningful signs that contribute to the visual and verbal construction of the broader census category “Asian American,” this one posed the challenge of how to create brand identification that indexes authenticity to both Chinese American audiences and the corporate clients who commission the advertising (Shankar 2012).
In both cases, producers strove for an authenticity anchored as much in the present and future as in a particular emplaced past. As noted above, to capture this construction of connections to times and places, we utilize the Bakhtinian concept of “chronotope” (1981), in which events occurring in disparate places at different times are united as belonging to the same conception of time and place. Chronotope has been used to show how interdiscursive links—culturally specific connections forged between instances of language in use—across social contexts may create continuities among linguistic events, based on culturally relevant and contextually specific images of what a group shares across time and space (Silverstein 2005:6; see also Dick 2010; Stasch 2011). In our cases, we show multiple instances of interdiscursive links that spatially and temporally connect text or discourse from one speech context to another and consider how meanings are preserved as well as transformed in the process (Agha and Wortham 2005; Briggs and Baumann 1992; Silverstein and Urban 1996). The chronotopes we identify are constructed through linguistic resources as varied as Bergamasco vernacular or Mandarin poetic rhyming schemes. Such aspects of language in turn act as iconic indexes—linguistic features whose very form seems to resemble the groups they represent—of speakers and play a critical role in constructing notions of authenticity through regional markers. In both our cases, producers work to bind these types of linguistic practices and representations to material objects, creating what we call linguistic materiality. The material and linguistic properties of signs that point to ethnicity, time, and place that in turn index regional heritage in Bergamo or mass-mediated representations of race and ethnicity in the United States contribute to the construction of authenticity for commodification and, ultimately, consumption.
Narrating Modern Food Production
Since the 1950s, food production across Italy has become increasingly industrialized (Capatti and Montinari 1999; Scarpellini 2011). Only in the late 1980s and 1990s was nonindustrial food production valorized, as national and European bodies were established to recognize and protect certain foods as regionally distinct and traditionally valuable, paralleled by the growth of nongovernmental international organizations like Slow Food, which champions local foods and their production processes (Leitch 2003; Parkins and Craig 2006). Most small- and medium-scale Bergamasco food producers—all of whom adhere to European Union hygiene standards and contemporary production methods—work with various local governmental offices and officials to position themselves advantageously within this broader prolocal food context. It is increasingly common in Bergamo—where the most culturally important foods include certain cheeses and pork products, like salamis and sausages—for certain food producers to claim that food made with modern industrial machinery on sparkling clean factory floors is somehow the same as what their predecessors made by hand once a year in the farmyard after slaughtering the family pig through describing their products as “autentico” (authentic), “nostrano” (ours), and, most often and simply, “Bergamasco.” For the producers discussed here, such claims are attempts to add economic value to goods destined for a marketplace crowded with materially similar foods; creating authenticity for these commodities is a bid to set their goods apart. And while these producers and their allies in governmental and nongovernmental organizations are not engaged in marketing per se, what they share with advertising executives is the labor of constructing brand identities for products as they imagine both what consumers will buy as well as attempt to construct images of objects that ring true to regionally distinct group values.
Demonstrating the authenticity of their products is largely done by creating linguistic and material connections between what was made in the past and what they make now. Such links are often interdiscursive, taking the form of recurring words and themes centered on place, history, and continuity across time. Terra, territorio, and origini—Italian terms for land, territory, and origins, respectively—are common and frequently paired with the names of specific Bergamasco places, such as terra orobica (Orobic land) or territorio bergamasco (Bergamasco territory).2 References to storia (history), tradizione/i (tradition[s]), and il passato (the past) recur frequently in talk and text about Bergamasco foods, as do characterizations such as autentico (authentic), genuino (genuine), and tipico (typical). For instance, at a cheese-tasting event in Bergamo in 2005, the organizer told the audience that one of the cheeses was “typical of, of the area” and gave a detailed description of how each cheese was made, precisely identified the geographical location, named the producer, and enumerated how many generations of the family had produced this cheese in order to underline its deep historical roots.3 In doing so, he forged connections between the cheese at hand and cheeses produced in the distant past, anchoring both in a specific place and as emerging from the same family using the same production techniques. Key here is the recurrence of linguistic forms, which forge interdiscursive links across contexts, not only creating chronotopes of continuity across a Bergamasco past and present but also constructing linguistic materiality in the form of bonds between contemporary material goods and places, and the histories of those goods and places via linguistic means.
The linguistic construction of continuity over time in this place is an essential element in the process of transforming heritage as a sign of authenticity into economic value. Similar to the talk at the cheese tasting above, a brochure disseminated by the Bergamo Chamber of Commerce states that “formagella [a type of cheese] has always been produced in the Scalve Valley [in the north of the province],” while at a conference focused on Bergamasco salami, one participant described it as having “its own great history.” Bergamasco food producers themselves embody linkages between the past and present through their commitments to their place and its traditions as evidenced in their production techniques. For instance, another brochure entitled “Bergamasco Flavors,” published by the province of Bergamo, describes these flavors as “foods realized with genuine raw materials, fruit of the great love for work and of the enormous attachment that Bergamasco producers have for their land, their culture, and their traditions” (Agripromo Bergamo n.d.). Beyond framing foods as products of producers’ commitments to tradition and place, this excerpt also utilizes the common stereotype of Bergamascos as passionately hard workers whose labor is depicted as the same as that which their predecessors did in the past. Material and affective practices such as embracing hard work, having a deep love of place, and enacting a strong allegiance with the past and tradition contribute to the production of authentically Bergamasco food items.
The production of authenticity also emerges from a recurrent pattern of distribution of Italian and Bergamasco, the local vernacular. Italian is the dominant language in much talk and text about these foods; Bergamasco appears in certain key token uses. Many product names are in Bergamasco, such as in labels bearing the name “ol salàm bergamàsc” (Bergamasco salami); ingredients and other nutritional information are in Italian. Another promotional brochure from the Chamber of Commerce includes food names in Bergamasco, such as lard (lard) and scalèt (a cheese), while the text is in Italian; similar patterns occur in tasting events, as participants name and describe foods. Bergamasco also appears when a stereotypical Bergamasco practice or value is being described, as in another brochure that states that Bergamasco salami should be eaten with a “calès de chel de bu” (a glass of the good stuff, i.e., local red wine). In these examples, Bergamasco indexes the place and community of speakers, as well as some of their most valued social practices, connecting the everyday sociality of offering friends “pan'e salàm” (bread and salami) and a “calès de nero” (glass of red wine) to the value of these goods. The use of the vernacular reinforces how traditional and culturally distinct these goods are, as well as how valuable they may be as commodities, the consumption of which enables participation in these social practices and values. These foods, then, are depicted as supporting continuity across past and present contexts of consumption as well as production, thereby reinforcing their authenticity: Bergamascos have seemingly always made these foods and eaten them together in particular ways. This interdiscursive construction of a chronotope of Bergamasco continuity, in addition to the linguistic materiality forged between these linguistic tokens and material properties of the goods they iconically index, allow producers to claim authenticity for their products in ways that elide the modern production processes from which these goods emerge.
Mandarin Soundtracks and Brand Identity
Race and ethnicity are arguably among the most naturalized categories in U.S. society, and advertising has done a great deal of work toward manufacturing and circulating representations that align with geopolitical events and economic trends. Niche advertising, as Arlene Dávila (2001, 2008) has examined with regard to Latinos, consists of small, often independently owned agencies that present themselves to corporate clients (like the automobile company featured in this discussion) as best able to reach specific minority audiences. Similar to regional advertising agencies that have culturally and linguistically transformed major brand identities as they enter new nation-states and territories (Kemper 2001; Mazzarella 2003; Miller 1997; Moeran 1996), niche advertising remakes general market brand identities for specialized media outlets (TV, print, radio, Internet) aimed at African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. Niche advertising's task, then, is to complement general market brand identities with which their media-savvy consumers will likely be familiar, through its targeted cultural and linguistic work. Asian American advertising executives use what they call “in-language” and “in-culture” approaches to appeal to Asian American consumers. Their aim is to transform marketing and census data about the purchasing power and consumer habits of Asian ethnic groups in the United States into ads featuring words, voices, faces, affect, and, most importantly, brand identity. As makers of racialized representations, niche advertising executives hold considerable power in shaping the aim and reach of their communications, and they stand by their claim that reaching Asian ethnic groups is not best done by general market advertising executives who make commercials for Super Bowl audiences. Rather, they base their livelihood on the premise that Chinese Americans, like other ethnic and racial groups, are best reached through ads made in Mandarin, in ways that convey some aspect of Chinese American culture. This case, drawn from a continuous four-month period of fieldwork in one agency that included audio-recordings of the meetings and conversations presented here, is one in which the client “Hotosan”4 commissioned Creasian to produce a new soundtrack of their general market television commercial aimed at Chinese American audiences. In the spirit of financial austerity, each of Hotosan's multicultural agencies (their African American, Latino, and Asian American agencies) was asked to use the general market visuals featuring a racially diverse cast of individuals and create an original soundtrack for them. Creasian, a ten-person agency that operated in collaboration with their parent agency Asian Ads (75 people), was up for the challenge.
Creating an in-language soundtrack for Chinese American audiences was not a simple case of language translation but, rather, a project of “transcreation” for which the team sought to culturally and linguistically adapt the general market ad for Mandarin language television stations in the United States. “Transcreation. I believe you've heard it, like, a thousand times,” advertising executive Joyce said to Shankar in a conversation about the ad.5 She continued, “When we say that we're doing transcreation, we're not only translating but will also integrate our own cultural touch into it. We follow the Hotosan concept but have our own way of interpreting it.” Transcreation, as Joyce and her colleagues used the term, appears to be quite similar to interdiscursivity. The general market ad campaign served as the original from which to de-entextualize and re-entextualize semiotic elements that conveyed brand identity and, in this case, that also provided the visual text on which to anchor new aural elements. The balance of material (here, visual) as well as linguistic continuities and ruptures would, as in interdiscursivity elsewhere, ultimately determine its success in communicating message. Broadly speaking, a well-executed transcreation could fill an interdiscursive gap between the genres of general market ads and advertising in various Asian nations (Shankar 2012) and thereby culturally and linguistically tailor brand identity while maintaining its consistency with the general market campaign for the same.
In this creative work, linkages of time and place seemed especially important to iconically index Chinese American ethnicity in ways that would resonate with an intended audience. Several aspects of this process emerged as important—including writing original lyrics for the song, casting an appropriate singer, and maintaining the brand identity of the general market campaign in an execution that featured the same visuals but was aimed at Chinese Americans. After a lengthy creative brainstorm, Creasian proposed to script Mandarin lyrics for the original commercial's soundtrack, “Love Hurts” (the 1970s rock ballad as performed by Nazareth), retain the English chorus, and cast a rising Taiwanese pop star to record the new song. The most challenging aspect of this creative work was to reproduce the song's idiomatic lyrics in Mandarin while preserving the tonality of Mandarin within the prosody and pitch of the original tune. The advertising executives concurred that this was quite a task. As Joyce explained, “Every line rhymes because in Chinese songs, that's how we do it when we write the lyrics, it's more beautiful. Also, there are four tonations in Chinese, so we wanted to make sure that when he sings, that he actually reaches the original pitch.” The team thus chose specific sound elements as representing authenticity: the “roaring” quality of the original song as well as certain aspects of pitch and tonality. In the process, the material properties of these sounds—their linguistic materiality—came to have political-economic implications, similar to how Steven Feld and co-authors (2006) show that the “twang” in country music is part of what makes a song distinctive and gives it value.
The execution proved to be challenging in several ways, including using the imperfect interface of Skype to coach the singer to reach “a bit over his range,” as Joyce commented. Perhaps even more challenging were the advertising executives’ efforts to tactfully correct his English pronunciation, diction, and affect, especially to help with the \rt\ consonant cluster in the English phrase “love hurts.” Straining to hear the phonetic difference between his performance and the cues from the New York office, he repeatedly belted out “love huuzzs” while his chain-smoking entourage behind the glass partition snickered with amusement. The Creasian team wrapped the session once they judged his pronunciation was satisfactory to their ear. For them, the transcreation was rendered authentic through their use of this Taiwanese pop singer to create “craftsmanship and art,” to borrow Joyce's phrase, who was eventually able to execute the desired pitch and tune of the original while also compellingly delivering the Mandarin and English lyrics. In this form of linguistic materiality, these aural details combined with the embodied materiality of a multiracial cast chronotopically linked Asia and the United States, traditional sensibilities and contemporary consumers.
Producing Authenticity: Discussion
Authenticity is both product and process, as actors use linguistic and material elements to construct chronotopes that connect their products to places, times, bodies of knowledge, and practices—as well as to each other. For Bergamascos, the language surrounding heritage foods constructs a chronotope that links material goods and the linguistic practices that surround them and depicts them as emerging out of an unbroken tradition of production and consumption. As such, the linguistic materiality involved in the creation of authentic foods in Bergamo depends on continual shared alignment and coparticipation among producers, their governmental supporters, and desired consumers. “We Bergamascos,” as producers and their allies assert in a variety of ways, have always lived, eaten, worked, and socialized like this. Brad Weiss (2011, 2012), discussing the production of local foods in North Carolina, has stressed the extensive linguistic labor that local food producers must undertake but also highlights how interactive these processes are, both among producers as well as between them and consumers. For Bergamascos, their construction of this “we” links what was produced and consumed in the past to what is produced and consumed today, eliding the industrialized conditions of contemporary production. Advertising executives construct a message that foregrounds the conditions of contemporary Chinese American diasporic life, which includes but is not centered on tradition. Linkages between time and place, as illustrated by the new soundtrack's ability to link this 1970s rock ballad and its 2009 use in a general market ad with contemporary Asia, and between the Taiwanese pop star and his U.S.-based Asian American audiences, contributed to the production of authenticity. This chronotope depicts a present and future in which Chinese and American practices and values can be just as seamlessly meshed, precisely because the intense effort to achieve this melding is hidden from view.
Authenticity is produced from cultural values and commercial practices that create economic value. Certain foods are the “real thing” through their links to history and territory created via linguistic forms and practices, while soundtracks that fill the gap between established song genres create brand recognition among new audiences because the advertising executives get every aural detail right. Interdiscursivity, building a sharedness or likeness across signifying events, seamlessly connects a past and present grounded in Bergamo or produces a contemporary Chinese American identity that spans China and the United States today. Producers interdiscursively connect the diverse genres of Mandarin poetry to “American” rock ballads through hours of mediated interaction between advertising executives and the Taiwanese singer. Extensive attention to the pronunciation of the English phrase “love hurts” such that the so-called “interference” of Mandarin phonological features could be erased in the singer's performance was essential in producing what the advertising executives intended: a version of the song that was authentic as a rock ballad but also authentic according to Chinese song genre requirements. As such, the song bridged the interdiscursive gap between a general market ad, with no iconic indexes of Asian-ness, and an ad directed at Chinese audiences, which might have lacked the requisite American-ness the advertising executives aimed to capture. The precise aural details, or material form, of the Taiwanese singer's performance are so critical because this performance must seem as “Chinese” as it does “American,” such that the soundtrack extends both of the original sources to create a new commercial form.
Linguistic materiality, or the intersections of the linguistic and the material within these processes—salamis and talk about their histories of production; visuals of a racially diverse United States paired with perfectly pronounced and pitched song lyrics—is equally important in constructing authenticity. Similar to how linguistic dimensions like volume and prosody are essential in giving griot speech its value within Wolof settings (Irvine 1989), particular aspects of linguistic performance are essential to getting it right and giving it value. Advertising executives produce authenticity through fine-grained reflexivity about preserving Chinese verse and tonality within the artistic parameters of the rock ballad, seeking to transcend a simple Chinese or U.S. aesthetic, such that the tastes and norms of an ethnic group still relatively undefined in contemporary U.S. advertising are here imagined to have precise musical, visual, linguistic, and cultural sensibilities. In contrast, already well-defined and resilient Bergamasco cultural stereotypes are given linguistic material form—for example, through brochures that depict how Bergamascos socialize around food as well as through the production of those foods most fittingly eaten together.
Like other situations in which authenticity is at stake, producers rarely have the final say in what is authentic. We next delve into how authenticity and its value are vetted further down the commodity chain after these baptismal moments of production (Agha 2007). Continued attention to the linguistic and the material dimensions of these processes reveals the ongoing nature of the production of authenticity as well as how tenuous brand identity is, long before consumers become part of the picture.
Authenticity is increasingly valued in global markets for its links to specific people, places, and times (Weiss 2012). Likewise, conditions of global capitalism constrain and shape the linguistic and material labor practices in our ethnographic cases. Variously positioned actors may have conflicting ideas about what constitutes authenticity, and processes of authentication remain ongoing and open ended. Michel Callon and colleagues (2002), among others, have illuminated the tensions that may arise among different participants in the commodity chain process as they offer diverse, even conflicting, qualifications or evaluations of products at different moments. Such dissonance can, in turn, shape an object's value (Foster 2007; Graeber 2001; Miller 2005). The valence and shape of authenticity changes as different actors engage with and interact with one another during production processes (Eiss and Pederson 2002; Miller 1998; Myers 2001). We turn now to how diverse actors pick out different material and linguistic qualities as relevant in defining authenticity and at times differ in how they value authenticity itself.
From Heritage Food to Modern Food
Many food producers and government officials in Bergamo have invested heavily in working together, such as in the production cooperatives required for European Union source protection designations like D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, Protected Designation of Origin). Encounters with global capitalist arenas, however, constantly reconfigure coproducers into competitors and threaten the joint efforts entailed in the production of authenticity that connects the Bergamasco past with its present. A number of projects to achieve EU source protection designations, requiring cooperative efforts, have ground to a halt over the last five years, mired in bureaucratic difficulties and disagreements among producers. Some producers are pursuing new paths for giving their goods added economic value. For instance, as Cavanaugh walked through the firm of one midsized producer (approximately 40 employees) in 2009, he told her he had lost faith in the governmental schemes built around shared effort and coordinated production. After many years of frustration and what he sees as wasted time and resources, he now engages with international certification organizations that focus on quality controls and require new types of linguistic labor by both office and factory workers. He showed her the extensive checklists that his workers now fill out at each stage of the production process and introduced her to the specialist he had hired part-time to deal with the extensive document production these certifications require. These new practices erase links to place, the past, and cultural specificity, depicting and evaluating all products on similar attributes such as “quality” and “hygiene,” signifying certain types of traceability in production. Despite high labor and time costs, he sees these certifications as alternate means for creating economic value for his goods, rendering the firm eligible to bid for potentially lucrative government contracts, such as supplying school lunchrooms, and deeming his goods suitable for international markets. It remains to be seen if his investment will pay off, as his products join so many others in an increasingly crowded global food arena.
As a founding member of an annual festival celebrating salami, this producer has a deep personal loyalty to Bergamasco food traditions, and he continues to produce a few products that he labels as “Bergamasco.” For much of what he produces now, however, and in spite of the fact that the products he currently makes are materially no different than those he made formerly, most of the linguistic activity that surrounds his products forges very different interdiscursive links and thus a different form of linguistic materiality than those that rendered his sausages and salamis as “authentic,” “traditional,” and “local.” Indeed, the linguistic elements of the authentication processes discussed above are entirely absent, replaced by technical descriptions of products in Italian, such as “insaccati freschi e stagionati” (fresh and seasoned sausages, lit. “encased [products]”). Bergamasco is notably absent from production processes, except within the casual conversational asides of his factory workers as they move about their tasks, while talk in Italian about these products focuses on production details and evidencing their replicability through certificates and documents. The interdiscursive connections produced through and across certificates, checklists, and talk surrounding and supporting these production techniques link products to each other, to the production processes from which they emerge, to various imagined and desired global circulatory paths, and to specific moments and sites within the production process but not to any particular cultural location or historical time. As producers prepare these goods to enter broader, nonlocal arenas of circulation, a new set of values centered on modernity and globality premised on hygiene and traceability is emerging, in which the value of these foods as heritage is backgrounded and the economic value comes to the fore.
In contrast, let us return to the very small-scale salami maker of our opening anecdote, the man who limits his production to the slaughter, butchering, and preparation of two pigs at a time and so carefully crafts the labels that accompany them. Through these labels, his salamis are very explicitly tied to place, including the name of the cascina, or family farm, where he raises the pigs (the slaughtering and actually salami making must, by law, occur elsewhere) and descriptions of how many generations his family has raised pigs there, producing the chronotope of Bergamasco continuity over time to depict the authenticity of his salamis. This producer, however, explicitly refuses to use Bergamasco in his labels, claiming that such overdetermined markers of Bergamasconess are unnecessary for indicating his products’ value and critiquing bigger producers’ (including the producer discussed above) use of such terms as well as their capacity to produce authentic Bergamasco products. This attitude toward Bergamasco does not shape his quotidian linguistic practices, as he uses both it and Italian fluently and frequently. Instead of anchoring his products to place through use of the vernacular, this producer turns to technology, retaining small tissue samples from each pig he slaughters, so that each individual salami he produces can be traced via its DNA to a particular animal through a unique tracking number on its label. What was once achieved through interpersonal circulation patterns—one knew exactly which pig a salami came from because one knew, or was, the owner of the pig—is here achieved through technological means, including precise documentation practices (see Heath and Meneley 2007, Meneley 2007, and Paxson 2008 on similar intersections of tradition and technology). In an interview in 2009, he told Cavanaugh that he hopes consumers will buy his hard-to-find products because of their high quality and excellent taste, which he describes as the natural outcome of embracing specific artisanal and small-scale production techniques and practices, made traceable through modern technologies and documentation. He said he imagines his customers consuming his products alongside high-quality foods produced in other locales, all with their own specific histories of production and commitment to high quality. Authenticity here not only means being linked to a particular history and place but also is an assurance of predictable high quality and irreplaceable tastes. For this producer, unlike the one discussed above, an authentic good and a modern good can be one and the same. Perhaps the avoidance of vernacular in his labels coupled with his material production practices that include both traditional artisanal butchering practices and high-tech DNA testing allow this producer to construct a chronotope that looks ahead to the future as much as backward toward the past.
Place and history, evidenced via linguistic practices such as labeling and talk at tasting events, are essential ingredients in producing authenticity. How these elements are configured to achieve authenticity, as well as the value of authenticity itself, may differ across producers, however. Some producers highlight links to history and place and background the modern production techniques and contexts in which they work, seeking to make gleaming factories the same as cobble-stoned farm courtyards. Others foreground technology to point to the small-scale nature of their production techniques that more closely resemble how pigs were slaughtered and salamis produced in times past. Still others may cultivate new avenues for producing economic value, shelving their cultural concerns in favor of economic goals. Across these projects, the linguistic and the material are essential elements in how producers seek to make their products valuable within particular markets, as certificates of quality display how certain salamis are produced, while others carry their own identity cards attesting to their unique origins, forging distinct forms of linguistic materiality along the way.
Translation as Cultural Transformation
Authenticity in advertising, as elsewhere, is never in the hands of producers alone; in addition to being deemed authentic by intended audiences, clients who commission the ads must also verify whether the ad authentically captures brand identity. Such a project can increase in complexity when questions of race, ethnicity, and language come to the fore, and the corporate clients that Asian American advertising executives serve generally have little or no expertise in these areas. Because they regard the cultural and linguistic practices of various Asian ethnic groups to be out of their purview but nonetheless important to represent through niche advertising, they struggle to assess what an authentic Chinese American version of a niche market ad should contain. In numerous accounts Shankar observed, clients gravitated toward popular cultural signs of authenticity that they associated with Chinese Americans—dragons, numerology, traditional musical genres, and so on—while Asian American executives opted for nuanced imagery that may be less obvious to clients (Shankar 2012). Corporate clients and Asian American advertising executives, then, tend to approach creative work (referred to in advertising, and hereafter, simply as “creative”) with conflicting notions of how to signify being Asian in the United States.
For exemplification of this dynamic, we need only return to the car commercial soundtrack described earlier. Although the client had approved the idea before production began, they were far more reluctant to accept the product that Creasian produced. During a lengthy conference call in fall 2009, during which they were to present their ad, the Mandarin lyrics, and English “back translation” (the new English translation derived from Mandarin), the Creasian team waited patiently for Hotosan executives to review and approve the Latino agency's recording. Account executive Alan then played the ad and read aloud the English back translation in the general cadence of the song, and nearly sang the concluding bars, “Oooo, oooo, love hurts. Oooo, oooo, love hurts.” The ad, with its poetic Mandarin lyrics in translation, unquestionably constituted an authentically Chinese American ad for the Creasian team; Alan's spirited crooning underscored their estimation that Chinese American audiences would appreciate the creative effort as much as they did. The song performed beautifully as a chronotope that reentextualized melodic and lyrical segments from the general market ad's soundtrack into a soundscape with the tonality and poetics of a classic Mandarin ballad. Tim, the Hotosan executive, seemed to appreciate the performance enough to teasingly ask Alan, “I'm sorry, I missed the “oooo” part, would you do it again?” As laughter erupted on both sides of the speakerphone, Tim posed a few clarification questions and remarked that one Mandarin lyric, “unbearable kiss,” was very similar to the Latino agency's content, in that it was “very dramatic, very sensual.” As the laughter died down, however, it became clear that the linguistic and material aspects of the song failed to iconically index Chinese American ethnicity for the client in the same way that it did for Creasian, as Tim proceeded to convey his “shock” at its perceived similarity to the general market soundtrack. His female coworker emphatically concurred: “It is literally the track. (quiet) It's been voiced over, so part of it is bilingual, hearing it in English and this language.” Her silence and emphasis on the similarity of the track to the original implied that Creasian had failed to produce the authenticity Hotosan had commissioned. Drawing a contrast with the Latino agency that had written and recorded a completely original song, Tim queried, “Rather than doing a more traditional Chinese track, an original like we did in Spanish, it's optimal to just recut? I was expecting to hear more traditional music.” Challenging both Creasian's notion of Chinese American ethnolinguistic authenticity as well as the economic value of their creative work, the client revealed his concern about being misunderstood by the very audience in which they were hoping to create brand identification: “This is not a dedicated Chinese spot, so clearly we are trying to be all things to everybody with this, and then we can't even come up with original music. Is it that we went ‘half-way’ in every sense in this commercial?”
Eager to dissipate the apparent tension and defend his creative and their version of authenticity, Alan illustrated the ways in which this chronotopic piece of creative work bridged the related but distinct entities of Chinese American culture, Chinese culture, and “American” culture: “We adopt a lot of American culture, American pop music, and so we made an in-language version of the same song.” Alan highlighted the interdiscursive resonances that constituted his vision of authenticity: “I understand your concern, but [this] is slightly unexpected and hip, and creative. It gives a totally fresh feel and look. As an agency we thought it was a very interesting adaptation. They can relate, they are all cross-over culture here. Also, they've never been Asian in Asia.” Drawing attention to the materiality of the visuals and their role in anchoring their aural creative, Alan added that this “pan-Asian” representation was “Celebratory. The tone is very Americana and everyone can respect that in a positive way.” Especially because the visuals were not exclusively for Chinese Americans, Alan argued that traditional Chinese music would cause a disconnect, stating, “this actually helps bridge the gap,” thereby drawing attention to the interdiscursive work required to connect these different cultures through the melding of genres they had created. Alan's lively performance of the song combined with his impassioned defense of his creative work eventually resulted in the client approving, saying, “Okay, I think it sounds great!”
In this contest of authenticity, varying conceptions of Chinese American ethnicity led to very different assessments of the same product. Hotosan questioned the authenticity of the Chinese American soundtrack because it was not exclusively in Mandarin and were skeptical about whether their Chinese American audiences would view this positively. Creasian found the balance of Mandarin lyrics and American pop to strike the perfect note. Ultimately, it was Alan's verbal performance during the phone call, which included singing, translation, and constructing a vigorous yet deferential argument to defend this pairing of linguistic and visual elements that swayed the client to accept this iteration of linguistic materiality as authentic. Whether such evaluation would be corroborated by intended audiences remained to be seen, but Creasian was, with considerable difficulty, able to illustrate the authenticity and value of their creative to their client. As this account illustrates, the inherently interactive processes by which certain cultural attributes are given material form and linked to ethnic identities or regional traditions are instrumental to producing authenticity. Products gain value through being linked to labor, as well to their owners, as in the case of Annette Weiner's (1992) influential formulation “keeping-while-giving” and William Mazzarella's (2003) adaptation of this concept to signal the cultural ownership of brand-identity production. In a similar vein, these advertising executives have notions of race and ethnicity at stake, which are subject to different evaluations of authenticity. The tension between general market and niche market brand identity reveals the ongoing nature of mass-mediated racial and ethnic formation in the United States.
Contesting Authenticity: Discussion
Producers of heritage foods and niche market advertisements may struggle to construct diverse interdiscursive links and chronotopes for their products, based on varying conceptualizations of cultural and economic value, in order to adhere to their own standards of heritage and ethnicity while also making their goods profitable in economic spheres of valuation. Bergamasco food producers and Asian American advertising executives carefully align their language use with materiality as they strive to construct authentic products. Heritage food makers orient their food production processes to meet modern standards such as traceability but take great care to maintain their products’ quality as well, whether they call it “authenticity” or not. Some utilize linguistic markers that enable them to posit authenticity, depicting their products as embodying a faraway past but remaining suitable for contemporary economies and tastes, while others choose different strategies for making their goods distinctive. In the process, they may highlight or background connections to time and place that make their products culturally valuable to them as well as to consumers. Documents such as brochures and checklists, “paradigmatic artifacts of modern knowledge practices” (Riles 2006:2; cf. Brenneis 2006), play vital roles alongside verbal practices in constructing particular products as valuable, evidencing in various ways where foods come from and how they are made. Painstaking description and documentation, whether in the form of labels or certificates of production processes, can transform mere comestibles into authentic heritage objects as well as high-quality modern authentic commodities suitable for broad circulation and consumption.
Like regional heritage, Chinese American ethnicity is objectified and put into action in the transformation from creative concepts to a commercial worth its price tag. The authenticity of the ad, imminently evident to Creasian, was altogether obscured for their client until Alan's verbal performance tied together their musical work with the client's visuals. Lack of knowledge of iconic indexes such as tonal harmony in Mandarin contributed to the client's inability to understand the complexities of a chronotope that bridged American and Mandarin ballads, 1970s American rock and new millennium Taiwanese pop, and left this client differently positioned to evaluate the authenticity of this ad. The interdiscursive links produced by Alan's musical and verbal performance through a conference room speaker phone, his crash course on the popularity of Taiwanese pop among Chinese Americans, and the reminder that a traditional Chinese song would only widen the gap between the aural and the visual eventually brought the client into agreement about the economic value of the ad as authentic. Only after passing this rigorous vetting process did advertising executives successfully put into circulation their Chinese American chronotope as authentic and, accordingly, economically valued.
Authenticity, as these cases illustrate, appears to have value in global markets at least in part because the very efforts exerted to produce it are obscured, as products appear to emerge naturally from places or ethnic groups, signified through recognizable links to places and times. When this process is laid bare, the links focused upon, and the language practices and material forms that are part of these efforts are regarded as essential labor practices, the conflicted process of production is exposed—as are the extensive work and effort that go into trying to make something authentic. In this dynamic, ongoing process, actors invest extensive time and resources in their efforts to make certain objects authentic, but such efforts may be challenged on various grounds, including the definition, value, and form of authenticity itself. The production of authenticity does not rest solely in the realm of commodity consumption or heritage preservation, in the material or the linguistic. Instead, its production can be located at the tense intersection of these processes: it is contemporary and traditional, constructed via material as well as linguistic means. Producers’ conceptualizations of authenticity may privilege their own aesthetic and group concerns over economic viability while simultaneously striving toward the goal of profit accumulation. Such concerns may be challenged on various grounds as these objects move along the commodity chain toward circulation. Producing authenticity, then, emerges from the political-economic dynamics of commodity production while also relying heavily on cultural and linguistic values. At times it even blurs the boundary between the linguistic and the material as they combine in forms of what we have called linguistic materiality to produce effects beyond the context of production, and we conclude by exploring some of these areas.
Global capitalism, which offers new economic opportunities to profit from heritage, concurrently promises numerous cultural and linguistic pitfalls. Yet the risks we see here do not take the familiar forms of cultural homogenization or so-called glocalization; rather, such risks are more specific, entailing the transformation of cultural representations and linguistic values into potential economic value. This transformation, in turn, means that conceptualizations of regional heritage and ethnicity take on particular, delimited, and market-driven forms. Although these products carry the potential for increased prestige if they are successful in the market, the Bergamasco case provokes questions about cultural heritage and ownership, specifically in terms of what will count as Bergamasco culture and where and how it will be properly encountered. The precarious balance that these producers seek to strike between cultural and economic value production may ultimately swing decisively into the economic realm, such that Bergamasco culture becomes objectified, commodified, and potentially problematic to those who seek to engage with it in nonmarket arenas. Largely negative repercussions of similar transformations elsewhere with regard to entire languages (Del Percio and Duchêne 2012; Heller 2011; Urla 2012), or particular aspects of heritage and culture (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009), have been charted, suggesting that such commodification aligns with profit-seeking ventures but may be alienating to those who must perform them. Such a possible outcome leads us to ponder the hidden costs of producing authenticity.
At the same time that these products are put forward as authentic representations, their economic value may also give them greater importance as social representations. Evidence of this may be seen in the reshaping of the ethnic category “Chinese American,” a vital component of the racial category “Asian American,” in unforeseen ways. In creating and reproducing particular images of an ethnic group that until now has been little more than a census category in advertising, Asian American advertising executives seek to produce a nuanced image of diasporic experience that captures both Asian and American aspects of experience for people who have, as advertising executive Alan put it, “never been Asian in Asia.” The power of such chronotopes is seen in their ability both to disrupt notions of foreign, outsider status that plague representations of Asian Americans (Tuan 1998) and to replace them with “racially naturalized” representations of Asian Americans that may reinforce a far narrower version of Asian ethnicities and languages (Shankar 2013). What of Chinese Americans who may reject this version of linguistic mixing, aesthetics, and multiculturalism? Will they conform the terms of their diasporic experiences to this chronotope and others like it or be compelled to find alternative narratives? Such producer commitments deserve close attention in a global marketplace in which authenticity is increasingly sought but not easily defined.
Situating our discussion within the emergent field of language materiality, we have offered the concept of linguistic materiality as a model to advance theoretical and ethnographic understandings of how words and things are intertwined via the labor of particular producers within emerging global systems. Language use, both written and verbal, is an essential labor practice that enables the production of value and meaning in conjunction with material production processes. Meanings that underpin notions of authenticity are generated in the contestation that occurs around their creation, as cultural values and linguistic meanings are recruited into capitalist projects for their economic value. Admittedly, we have focused on particular moments within production processes. Equally important would be to consider the meanings and values of the authentic objects as they move into circulation, potentially expanding and further developing conceptualizations of authenticity. For instance, will consumers in Bergamo and elsewhere pay the high price for these products? How will current European and Italian fiscal crises shape the economic choices that food producers make, as well as the linguistic and material practices they undertake? Likewise, how will the authenticity of this Chinese American representation be taken up by viewers in various locations? Will the bilingual version of this Hotosan ad be viewed on the Internet in Taipei or Asian diasporic locations, and how will this shape Asian American racialization and notions of belonging? Whatever these products’ specific futures, the interplay of the linguistic and the material shapes how and if these products will be economically valued and circulate beyond their originating contexts. Perspectives that integrate both language and materiality into their ethnographic and analytical frames are thus important for analysts who seek to investigate global capitalism, concepts such as “authenticity” and its myriad forms, and the impact of all these things on regional cultural practices and identities as well as on broader societal values.