Cultural Anthropology

BRANDS AND THEIR SURFEITS

Authors


ABSTRACT

This article approaches the brand from its surfeits, those material forms and immaterial social meanings that exceed its authority and intelligibility. By thinking through “counterfeits” and other unauthorized brand forms, on the one hand, and the novel and often unpredictable social meanings that emerge through moments of brand consumption, on the other hand, I argue that at the heart of the brand is an instability, a tendency toward an excess of meaning and materiality. Showing how brand and surfeit emerge out of the commodity form in late-19th-century consumer markets, the article then demonstrates how in recent decades the brand has mediated, and been mediated by, shifts in the global economy; in particular, I examine the respatialization of labor, the financialization of capital, and the neoliberal economic and legal reforms that have made such shifts possible. I argue that the capacity of the brand to function as a financial instrument of global capital has turned on its ability to both produce and police those surfeits that threaten to decenter it. This tension between brand and surfeit requires us to rethink the study of brands. In particular, any approach to the brand requires ethnographic sensitivity to those moments when the brand displaces itself in ways that enable novel social imaginaries, performative possibilities, and material forms that cannot be easily recouped by it. [brands, counterfeits, trademark, neoliberalism, globalization]

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