Brands and Their Surfeits

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. [Keywords: brands, counterfeits, trademark, neoliberalism, globalization]

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on counterfeits, including Nils Bubandt's "From the Enemy's Point of View: Violence, Empathy, and the Ethnography of Fakes" (2009), Karen Strassler's "The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia" (2009), and Alaina Lemon's ""Your Eyes Are Green like Dollars": Counterfeit Cash, National Substance, and Currency Apartheid in 1990s Russia" (1998).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on shifts in the global economy. See for example, Smoki Musaraj's "Tales from Albarado: The Materiality of Pyramid Schemes in Postsocialist Albania" (2011), Robert Foster's "The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation" (2007), and Karen Ho's "Situating Global Capitalisms: A View from Wall Street Investment Banks" (2005).

About the Author

Constantine Nakassis is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a linguistic and cultural anthropologist with specializations in media (theories of film realism, reception studies), brands and counterfeiting, youth culture, gender, codeswitching; South Asia, Tamil Nadu, India.

You can download pdfs of articles authored by Constantine Nakassis from his faculty webpage.

Nakassis also maintains an extensive digital resource on brand counterfeits, including people working on this area and publications.

Publications

Nakassis, C. 2012. “Brand, Citationality, Performativity.” American Anthropologist 114(4):624-638.

Nakassis, C. 2012. “Counterfeiting What? Aesthetics of Brandedness and BRAND in Tamil Nadu, India.” Anthropological Quarterly 85(3):701-722,Special Collections – Pirates and Piracy, Broadly Conceived.

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