It struck me as ironic that I would have such a reaction. A bourgeois suburban meat-puppet with an MBA and a career of pimping brands really ought to hate the guy who has demonstrated contempt for the very thing that I spend the majority of my waking hours working to perpetuate. But I felt, and still feel, this odd sense of respect even to the level of admiration of someone who appreciated the functional qualities of a luxury brand and yet felt no need to feed off of the brand for self-esteem. There's a certain quiet strength in shunning the fake respect that comes from having expensive things. That speaks to my soul.
Or more aptly, it speaks to the soul I once possessed - not the middle-aged corporate drone I am today, but the young man I was in 1980s America during the early punk movement, back when music, fashion, art, and other trappings were external tokens expressing of a body of philosophy and not just mindless conformity (it seems the cranky-old-man soul that I am growing into has put in an appearance as well). Specifically, the core philosophy of punk, underlying the superficial trappings of music and fashion, was anti-image, anti-obsequiousness, anti-brand.
The height of punk fashion involved doing the same thing to expensive clothing that this fellow had done to an expensive automobile: ripping off the tags and emblems to demonstrate contempt for a manufactured culture that promulgated admiration for the ability to consume, rather than the ability to produce. Of course, it could be argued that leaving the holes where the tags once were became a kind of tag unto itself - the label was gone, but the hole where the label used to be was, itself, a label representing a "brand" of a different kind. It had meaning and it was there to be seen, conspicuously absent what would otherwise have been conspicuously present. It's not so different after all, or at best an identical tactic for an opposing message.
It's also the very thing that signaled the end of the punk movement in America. When the mass market of poseurs with silly-putty for brains adopted the superficial tokens, bought expensive shoes that resembled cheap ones, and pre-ripped clothing that was available for sale at considerable markup in the suburban shopping malls, those who believed in something that was more than skin-deep (or cloth-deep) found ourselves lost in a sea of mimics, who were merely conforming to a nonconformist stereotype without any clue of the ideas in the minds beneath the bad haircuts, and shortly afterward the philosophical movement beneath it all died of embarrassment.
All of this is far more autobiographical and self-obsessed than I'd care to be, in this blog-that-isn't-blog. Or maybe I'm still trying to be conspicuously inconspicuous in my behavior. Whatever the case, I've wandered a bit off the path and need to make an abrupt turn. And so ...
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre discusses a couple of concepts that are germane to this rant about brands and consumerism.
- First, he has the notion of "the look of the other," in which we recognize that other people are perceiving and making judgments about us, shocking us out of our un-self-consciousness that is the normal state in which we bumble mindlessly through life and bringing us to the realization that hell is other people (which sounds flippant, but he was dead serious).
- Second, he transitions this to the notion of "bad faith," in which our recognition of the fact that we are being perceived causes us to alter our behavior in response to improve or at least change the perception of ourselves. The waiter who straightens his tie and acts more "waiterly" because customers are watching.
At yet, the point remains that bad faith is likely an inevitable facet of the human condition. Which brings me back to branding and conspicuous consumerism: while inevitable, bad faith can at least be put to good use by consciously and willfully adapting to the look of the other. It doesn't change the disreputable nature of living in bad faith, but reclaims some sense of integrity by making it a proactive and purposeful choice rather than reacting accidentally.
And that brings me back to where I began: it's likely not the consequences, or even the motivation, of de-badging that arouses within me this sense of profound admiration - that is to say that branding and de-branding represent different goals to which the same means are applied, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
I may be repeating myself, or perhaps deconstructing myself, so I'll knock it off and go upstairs to cut all the labels out of my suits to demonstrate my contempt for demonstrating things.