Bonfire of Personal Responsibility

There’s a clever guy named Neil Boorman. He’s got a blog wherein he is chronicling his evolution into what he clearly hopes will be the amelioration of a good many wrongs in his life through brandlessness. Merely forswearing branded goods is not enough, however, for Mr. Boorman intends to burn any branded items currently in his possession.

Neil seems quite earnest and genuine in his endeavor. He’s even admitted to the glaring internal inconsistency that lies at the heart of a project to create a brand around eschewing brands. When I suggested in the comments on his blog that perhaps the entire endeavor should be considered folly in light of such inconsistencies, he seemed rather non-plussed. My status as a member of a marketing firm seemed to further aggravate the discourse. He does seem to wish to provoke marketers, so maybe I’m just the kind of cat upon which he wishes to heap polemic.

Anyway, I’ve suggested to him that he need not be offended as I am trying to address what I believe to be one of his core assumptions and not his character, motives or aspirations. Hopefully he’ll take me at face value, although I’m a marketer and all, so I’m probably planning some terrifically cynical subliminal psy-op as we speak. I thought I’d spare him the horror of a pretentiously long comment on his blog and just take my end of the debate over here. This gets pretty theory-heavy, but I want to address what I believe to be a (unwitting?) core assumption of his experiment.

I believe that core assumption is semiotic and epistemic in nature. It is de rigeur in academia that authorial intent is almost (and often even completely) inconsequential to the adduction of the meaning of a speech act. What seems to me the most profound implication of this is that groups which convene around shared grievances have become the de facto custodians of the meaning of any speech acts which they deem germane to their victimhood. I further contend that the basis for this postmodern experiment lies in what I believe to be faulty epistemic claims about the necessary contingency of truth; basically, that “truth” is linguistic/cultural/social.

It seems Orwell was speaking to precisely this kind of gratuitous equivocation in his “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” with this passage:

“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world …. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”

Marketing comprises speech acts. Were the academy to promote the primacy of authorial intent, our culture would be suffused with the necessary intellectual posture to evaluate claims on their merit, even claims made by marketers. Whereas now, we’re all assumed to be hapless victims of claims, the interpretation of which has been conscripted by the demagogues of each aggrieved group.

If truth is contingent, the dogma seems to go, then individual agency cannot suffice to adduce the truth value of a claim. IOW, you can’t help it! Your individual agency is a product of your imagination! Given this metaphysical prescription, you can now manumit all complicity in any putative compulsion, say, to buy those Pumas. You’re merely a product of your culture, because any ostensibly transcendental truth cannot provide you the solace that you, as an individual, really know anything. All your supposed knowledge is merely a holographic projection of social forces beyond your control.

Heady epistemological argumentation aside, doesn’t such a metaphysics seem intuitively untenable? You know that if you kick your pricey espresso machine hard enough, you may break toes and it will hurt. Give it a try and then tell me that espresso machine merely a projection of social programming. Likewise, is it more intuitive to suggest that marketing is merely speech acts that you can effectively parse and interpret with alacrity, requiring only the assumption that the marketer (author) has an intent that you can evaluate, or rather that people can be victimized by culturally-constructed marketing significations without any reference whatsoever to the marketer’s intent, whether bad or good?

It is this latter assumption that underlies things like the prohibition on holocaust revisionism (with which I make no truck whatsoever—merely mentioning holocaust revisionism should not be construed as tacit support for such sophistry) in Austria and Germany (and other states as well?) We here in the US have our First Amendment which states, fairly unequivocally, that no laws shall be made abridging the freedom of speech. It is this Enlightenment principle that, I think, makes most Americans look askance at the notion that someone can be victimized by anything but the most egregious excesses of speech; including marketing speech.

So, In my view, Mr. Boorman’s normative proposition on this issue is precisely inverted. He’s railing against brands when what he should be doing is railing against the philosophical claim that people can only be unwitting targets of marketing-as-social-phenomena. For I would council, were I asked, that such a philosophical claim lies not only at the heart of his experiment, but also at the heart of the malaise he feels about his ostensible helplessness to resist brands in the first place.

Ironically, perhaps, I think a great many marketers fall prey to the same fundamental cynicism. The co-opting of “cool” and the tendentious focus on the youth market borne of this cynicism about truth, I believe, serves to embolden those who would claim, as Mr. Boorman seems to me to be doing, that marketing confers no value and is somehow profoundly misanthropic.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a roomful of primary school children waiting for me to brainwash them into candy/toy/alcohol consuming automata.