Machin and Van Leeuwen trick me with “Branding the Self”

Machin, David, and Van Leeuwen, Theo. “Branding the Self.” Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. Ed. Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

To tell the truth, I made some assumptions about what this chapter was going to be about, and when they were wrong I was kind of disappointed. It’s called “Branding the Self,” though—surely I was not wrong to expect it would either a.) talk about how people develop their personal web presence into a consistent brand across platforms, or b.) talk about how people incorporate labels and brands into their own conception of identity.

But no: Machin and Van Leeuwen are following up here on a study they did earlier on the kind of female identity espoused by Cosmopolitan magazine, which sounds so relevant I can’t believe it’s not on my list already. But anyway, their main point is to examine two dominant “models of identity” and the tensions between them: the government-sponsored citizen, and the corporate- and media-driven consumer. Branding is a part of it, but it’s honestly pretty tangential. Way to bait and switch, guys.

They start by pointing out that we use language to answer the question “who are you” in several ways.

  • Functionalization: Turning verbs into nouns (immigrant, runner) or nouns into other nouns (pianist, mountaineer) Identification: defining what people ARE rather than what they DO
  • Classification: separation in terms of the categories society uses to group people. Some of these used to be functional (e.g. being gay).
  • Relational identification: pretty obvious but can change between cultures
  • Physical identification: skin color, body type, etc.

Machin and Van Leeuwen look specifically at a check-the-box racial identification question on a British payroll form. There are some truly bizarre binaries set up here, where race is set up in juxtaposition to nationality and anyone not from a former colony is considerably othered. Notably absent (here and in every other racial survey, of course) is the functional type of categorization, in which people are grouped by what they do rather than what they “are.”

They also look at a functionalized categorization system published by a marketing expert, in which what you do becomes who you are—certain people who do certain things shop certain places. This ties into the idea of the “lifestyle” identity, which is somewhat less codified and more flexible than “traditional” identities and can, according to some sociologists, be more “freely chosen.”

Machin and Ven Leeuwen point out, however, that as much as people use lifestyles, lifestyles use people, and these “lifestyles” are often the product of corporate and institutional interests. When people buy into a lifestyle as a package, they sidestep many other complicating questions. Interestingly, the authors point out that the trends in identity theory have very much aligned with the trends in the ways that corporate interests present individual identity.

I find that, for me at least, the chapter’s discussion of the citizen and of the consumer never quite come together in the end, remaining two discrete areas when I had thought, going in, that the point of the chapter was to show their intersection and intertextuality. It does provide a good starting point for some of the questions I am interested in, though. Since I argue that membership in an online public is much like citizenship, but those publics take place in corporate space, the idea of consumer citizenship will certainly form the backbone of my inquiry moving forward.

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