Boorman’s bonfire of the vanities

Magazine editor Neil Boorman’s public burning of all his branded goods was not as radical as he thinks.

Andrew Calcutt

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Neil Boorman, erstwhile lifestyle magazine editor, burnt all his branded goods at the weekend. In a gesture reminiscent of KLF (burning a million quid, maybe) and Kirkpatrick Sale (taking sledgehammers to computers), he torched the unholy stuff on Sunday (see his website at www.BonfireOfTheBrands.com).

In the Guardian, Boorman wrote that he feels cheapened by his previous devotion to expensive brands, and described the bonfire in terms akin to religious purification. He also suggested that ‘our devotion…is nothing short of irrational’.

On the contrary, there is a rational basis for the sacred status of brands, albeit the rationale of an absurd society. Or, to put this another way, there is a series of real but absurd preconditions which combine to produce the preoccupation with branding and, ironically, with anti-branding also. This means that anti-branding tends to be as idolatrous as branding itself; and equally vain.

First, commodities have a life which most of us – the majority who don’t live the life of Wallpaper – can only dream of. Commodities criss-cross the world and interact with each other – are exchanged one for another – by means of the universal travel agent, money; meanwhile, the people who made these commodities are stuck in the far corners of the world, prevented from interacting with each other, and, at best, only allowed out for a couple of weeks’ holiday a year. This is the absurd condition which Marx dubbed ‘the fetishism of commodities’ – not an illusion or a psychological malfunction, but how things really are. Brands are the iconic representation of commodities; and, as such, they are also representations of how the fetishism of commodities really is.

The absurdity of the modern condition has been made liveable through politics, which can be characterised as the strenuous and conflicting efforts of organised groups of people in the attempt to address, and simultaneously normalise, the effects of the absurdity whereby privately owned products, and especially their iconic re-presentation, take precedence over the people who collectively made them. But as and when politics fails, products themselves become even more privileged: the first phase of this trend is as old as ‘consumerism’; its more recent, accelerated form is the preoccupation with branding.

The turn to branding – that is, towards representation of commodities – itself represents a further turn away from the realities of human, social production. In response to the failure of politics, it affirms that the most we can expect is to re-describe the world, and therefore tends to negate the possibility of re-making it. And, in an absurd society where most people are marginalised, the world is re-described not in our image but in the image of fetishised commodities – those products of our labour which really do reign over us. These cumulatively absurd conditions come together and are expressed in the cult of branding. Here, in the absence of collectivity, brands become tools for conviviality – the inclusive expression of shared ethics and aesthetics by the fantastic mechanism of branded go(o)ds.

Far from being a simple means of identification as once they were, brands are products propelled into the heavenly realm of representation at a time when representation takes priority over production, and this on the basis of already absurd social relations whereby products take precedence over people. A double whammy of absurdity; an expanded version of the fetishism of commodities.

Currently, we can’t live without this absurdity; but we can’t live with it, either. In that we ourselves are products of a world with the capacity to be human-centred, we cannot but criticise a society which is commodity-oriented. Typically, however, our criticisms bear the imprint of that which we are criticising. Thus Boorman’s ‘Bonfire of the Brands’, and the culture jamming subculture underpinning it, are locked into the absurdity which privileges representation and marginalises production. In this respect, anti-branding reflects branding; their relations are reciprocal. No wonder, since the rise of branding in the corporate hierarchy a decade or so ago, was prompted by the entry of the politics of representation – itself an exhausted form of politics – into public and private sector institutions. What became the opposition to branding contributed to its invention, in that the politics of representation was a key factor in the re-invention of corporations not as commodity-producing, profit-making expropriators but as the bearers of shared (branded) values.

Branding and anti-branding share the fetish for representation which is underscored by the fetishism of commodities. Not surprising, then, that Boorman’s ‘Bonfire of the Brands’ website trails the publication of the eponymous book in 2007. The glare of Sunday’s bonfire provided valuable pre-launch publicity. While this kind of contradiction is inevitable in such an absurd society, the text of Boorman’s ritual profanity – taking devilishly holy goods and turning them to purified ashes – is altogether too holy.

Andrew Calcutt is editor of Rising East.

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