Branding and Prescriptive Politics

In the following remarks, I will attempt to put forth a case which connects the structure of market branding with the structure of prescriptive political declarations. Both depend on a relation of simplification, in which what is essential about that to which the concept is applied is much less complex than what would be revealed by any serious attempt to study it. The details of both cases, however, arise in the complexities of application and the complexities of generation. Those claims may appear obscure, but they will be clarified below.

First, what is the structure of a brand?

Product – Brand – Product

or, to give a specific example,

Vegas  –  Slogan (“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”)  –  Vegas

The product is real, the brand is a word, and the repetition of the product after the injunction of the brand is real. It looks like this:

organic reality -> brand -> organic dissemination

If the slogan doesn’t actually capture and re-produce something about the real experience, it will come off as dishonest, and won’t spread organically through the population. The slogan, of course, has to be much simpler than the real experience – just must capture some rhythm of it, some sense of it, that is distinctive, and which is shared between multiple participants.

Now let’s do the analysis of a prescription:

Social -> Prescription -> Injunction

The prescription arises out of the social and makes an injunction into it, differentiating it in a new manner, having certain effects. The conditions for the success of a prescription are of the same type as for a brand – the prescription must grip the organic reality it tries to cut up in a new way; if it does not, it will simply be ignored and die. A successful prescription (i.e. “Freedom”) depends on patterns and especially needs and desires already existent in the social prior to its invocation.

We can still distinguish the social from the political by calling “the political” the process of a prescription re-ordering the social by injunction.

But which portions of the social can be re-ordered by prescriptions? Cultural practices? First and foremost that which the political re orders is institutions. Institutions have the following structure:

Repetition: (institution)/iteration

Institution is both a noun and a verb, a static and transformative process depending on the perspective from which you observe it. Institutions strive to endure, to maintain themselves, so they are static – but institutions are in a constant process of transforming the world around them, and transforming internally to ensure their own perpetuation, so they are at the same time morphic, becoming. The process by which an institution remains the same and transforms is repetition/iteration, which is to say neither the constant re appearance and happening of the same, nor the constant arrival of the new. Instituting happens between repetition and iteration, between the repeat and the indeterminate shift.

Politically-Revolutionary values are those which transform the institution in an ordered way. The relation between the social and the institution, and the person and the institution, is changed by the prescribing of a revolutionary value, and its adoption by institutions or the successful replacement of existing institutions with new ones based on the new values (reform vs revolution).

Just as the relation between the organic reality and the slogan is on both sides of the brand (relation reality-slogan and relation slogan-reality), the relationship between prescription and social is similarly bivalent. This is just to say that the political can neither be reduced to the relation between the social and the prescription which arises to transform it, nor the relation between the prescription and the transformation of the social. Politics is both sides of the prescription, both sides of the flexing line which enters the chiasm of institutions and social life in a more or less intentional endeavour to transform both of them. Put more simply, such as in the case of a man yelling “Freedom” from the top of a barricade, politics is both the relation of the yeller to the situation out of which “Freedom” appears the appropriate thing to cry out, and also the relation of the yelling to the hearers. We can say the same for the raising of a flag, the playing of a song, or the firing of an arm.

However, a revealing difference between branding and prescribing is that, in a Political situation, the idea performed as prescription doesn’t require, and perhaps cannot have, a pre-existing relationship to its fulfillment. A brand requires the relationship between a slogan and the fulfilling of the slogan to be straightforward, people need to have a pre-grasp of what it would be like to experience “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” so that they will pay for it, and they need more or less be right about it, or they won’t spread the slogan to their friends. On the other hand, a prescription like “freedom” or “equality” doesn’t need to be confirmed by its instantiation in order to function recursively. The recursion in the political occurs not after, not as a result of the fulfillment of the prescription, but rather in relation to the continual demand for it to be fulfilled. In the case of Nelson Mandela, for instance, the recursive value in the repetition of his demands for freedom and equality, and the principle of armed insurrection against the apartheid regime, occurred as a result of the continual demanding for these things, and the continual refusal against them. The steadfastness of an uncompromising, militant position functions politically not by its demands coming to fruition, but by bringing something else into being – namely a struggle, or perhaps several struggles (some non-violent, some armed, some local, some international). The demands never themselves manifest in their fruition – that comes only as a result of other things which the demands brought into being.

But how can you know, when taking a principled stance, making a prescriptive demand, that you hold it in prudent confidence, or simply brute faith? In other words, how do you know if you should compromise, be “reasonable”, give in to the aggressor, limit your demands to what is “practically achievable”, etc? I think the answer is that there is no right answer on the continuum between the idealized rational, calm and steadfast subject and the pathologically traumatized oppressed who hurts themselves by their continual demand for the world to bend to their justice. There is never a right answer to how you should make your orientation towards a political idea, it will all depend on the difficulty of your situation, which includes the epistemic difficulty of not being able to know what is the right thing to do, but which never (or at most rarely) includes room to not make a decision, to be allowed to not know what to do, what to demand, how to respond, to an unacceptable political situation. In the west, where writers are well fed and have roves over their head that are never threatened with bombings, we have taken the idealization of the rational subject to a pathological extreme – we snuff at anything which does not display radical prudence. And, since the principled stance only ever looks prudent in retrospect, we demand short term compromise which paradoxically results in the paralysis of a situation gripped by injustice on both sides. Compromise is no solution when the first thing to be compromised are the basic principles by which freedom can advance – equality, justice, freedom.

The short term demand for compromise over principled opposition is only one of the idiot’s ways out of political conflicts, however, another is over obsession with the complexity of the situation. Hallward often refers to this seeming paradox – that while every analysis of liberation requires an analysis of the oppression that opposes it, this analysis can always serve the unintended purpose of increasing the apparent power of the oppression. By exploring oppression in all its details, we can forget the power of spontaneity, we can forget the ability of institutions to transform, or to be replaced by other ones, because we concentrate so heavily on the forces of the status quo. Therefore, it is always essential to combine an analysis of oppression with a valuation of spontaneity. Spontaneity is the idea that by doing something unexpected, one can not only destabilize power, but overthrow it! Oppression is of course very sophisticated, but because structures can only anticipate structured opposition, the complexity of spontaneity can always overwhelm the instituting power of power, and force it to transform in relation to opposition, opening new cracks which can be exploited.

The implications of the preceding remarks are, I think, threefold. The first is that there is no contradiction between saying “the social is political” and “the social is not political” – because politics simplifies and transforms the social, but the social sets the conditions by which political injunctions can flourish or stutter and die. Secondly, there is no contradiction between saying politics is complex and politics is simple – it is simple in the sense that it is a simplification with effects that exceed its own grip on the situation, but complex in the sense that it is engaged in organic relations with the social which can in principle (and to varying degrees, in effect) be analyzed to ever increasing degrees of complexity. Sometimes sociology might be required for a successful political prescription to be measured, implemented, succeeded – but sometimes not. The third, and I think this is the least theoretically interesting, but the most important – is simply that the power in a principle cannot be judged in its immediate effects, but in its mediate effects – in the strength the principle juts forth to create or strengthen a struggle. Principles therefore need not be “realistic”; they need to be revolutionary, which means they must seem unrealistic, for if they “seemed realistic” this would simply mean that their implementation would not radically restructure institutions, and therefore they would not be political principles at all.


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