Here is an old Polish anti-communist joke: “Socialism is the synthesis of the highest achievements of all previous historical epochs. From tribal society, it took barbarism. From antiquity, it took slavery. From feudalism, it took relations of domination. From capitalism, it took exploitation. And from socialism, it took the name.”
Is it not similar with brand names? Imagine a totally outsourced company—a company like, say, Nike that outsources its material production to Asian or Central American contractors, the distribution of its products to retailers, its financial dealings to a consultant, its marketing strategy and publicity to an ad agency, the design of its products to a designer. And on top of that, it borrows money from a bank to finance its activity. Nike would be nothing “in itself”—nothing other than the pure brand mark “Nike,” an empty sign that connotes experiences pertaining to a certain lifestyle, something like “the Nike touch.” What unites a multitude of properties into a single object is ultimately its brand name—the brand name indicates the mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes Nike sneakers (or Starbucks coffee) into something special.
A couple of decades ago two new labels established themselves in the fruit juice (and also ice cream) market: “forest fruit” and “multivitamin.” Both are associated with clearly identified flavors, but the connection between the label and what it designates is contingent. Any other combination of forest fruits would produce a different flavor, and it would be possible to generate the same flavor artificially (with the same, of course, being true for multivitamin juice). One can imagine a child who, after getting authentic homemade “forest fruit” juice, complains to his mother, “That’s not what I want! I want true forest fruit juice!” Such examples distinguish the gap between what a word really means (in our case, the flavor recognized as multivitamin) and what would have been its meaning if it were to function literally (any juice that has a lot of vitamins). The autonomous “symbolic efficiency” is so strong it can occasionally generate effects that are almost uncannily mysterious.
Can we get rid of this excessive dimension and use only names that directly designate objects and processes? In 1986, Austrian writer Peter Handke wrote Repetition, a novel describing Slovenia in the drab 1960s. Handke compares an Austrian supermarket, with many brands of milk and yogurt, with a modest Slovene grocery store that has only one kind of milk, with no brand name and just the simple inscription MILK. But the moment Handke mentions this brand-less packaging, its innocence is lost. Today such packaging doesn’t just designate milk; it brings along a complex nostalgia for the old times when life was poor but (allegedly) more authentic, less alienated. The absence of a logo thus functions as a brand name for a lost way of life. In a living language, words never directly designate reality; they signal how we relate to that reality.
Another effort to get rid of brand names is grounded not in poverty but in extreme consumerist awareness. In August 2012 the media reported that tobacco companies in Australia would no longer be allowed to display distinctive colors, brand designs or logos on cigarette packs. In order to make smoking as unglamorous as possible, the packs would have to come in a uniformly drab shade of olive and feature graphic health warnings and images of cancer-riddled mouths, blinded eyeballs and sickly children. (A similar measure is under consideration in the European Union parliament.) This is a kind of self-cancellation of the commodity form. With no logo, no “commodity aesthetics,” we are not seduced into buying the product. The package openly and graphically draws attention to the product’s dangerous and harmful qualities. It provides reasons against buying it.
The anti-commodity presentation of a commodity is not a novelty. We find cultural products such as paintings and music worth buying only when we can maintain that they aren’t commodities. Here the commodity-noncommodity antagonism functions in a way opposite to how it functions with logo-less cigarettes. The superego injunction is “You should be ready to pay an exorbitant price for this commodity precisely because it is much more than a mere commodity.” In the case of logo-less cigarettes, we get the raw-use value deprived of its logo form. (In a similar way, we can buy logo-less sugar, coffee, etc. in discount stores.) In the case of a painting, the logo itself sublates use value.
But do such logo-less products really remove us from commodity fetishism? Perhaps they simply provide another example of the fetishist split signaled by the well-known phrase “Je sais tres bien, mais quand meme….” (“I know very well, but nevertheless….”) A decade or so ago there was a German ad for Marlboros. The standard cowboy figure points with his finger toward the obligatory note that reads, “Smoking is dangerous for your health.” But three words were added: Jetzt erst recht, which can be vaguely translated as “Now things are getting serious.” The implication is clear: Now that you know how dangerous it is to smoke, you have a chance to prove you have the courage to continue smoking. In other words, the attitude solicited in the subject is “I know very well the dangers of smoking, but I am not a coward. I am a true man, and as such, I’m ready to take the risk and remain faithful to my smoking commitment.” It is only in this way that smoking effectively becomes a form of consumerism: I am ready to consume cigarettes “beyond the pleasure principle,” beyond petty utilitarian considerations about health.
This dimension of lethal excessive enjoyment is at work in all publicity and commodity appeals. All utilitarian considerations (this food is healthy, it was organically grown, it was produced and paid for under fair-trade conditions, etc.) are just a deceptive surface under which lies a deeper superego injunction: “Enjoy! Enjoy to the end, irrespective of consequences.” Will a smoker, when he buys the -“negatively” packaged Australian cigarettes, hear beneath the negative message the more present voice of the superego? This voice will answer his question: “If all these dangers of smoking are true—and I accept they are—why am I then still buying the package?”
To get an answer to this question, let us turn to Coke as the ultimate capitalist merchandise. It is no surprise that Coke was originally introduced as a medicine. Its taste doesn’t seem to provide any particular satisfaction; it is not directly pleasing or endearing. But in transcending its immediate use value (unlike water and wine, which do quench our thirst or produce other desired effects), Coke embodies the surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions. It represents the mysterious factor all of us are after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.
Since Coke doesn’t satisfy any concrete need, do we drink it as a supplement after another drink has satisfied our substantial need? Or does Coke’s superfluous character make our thirst for it more insatiable? Coke is paradoxical: The more you drink it, the thirstier you get, which in turn leads to a greater need to drink more of it. With Coke’s strange bittersweet taste, our thirst is never effectively quenched. In the old publicity motto “Coke is it” we should discern the entire ambiguity: Coke is never effectively it. Every satisfaction opens up a desire for more. Coke is a commodity whose use value embodies an ineffable spiritual surplus. It’s a commodity with material properties that are already those of a commodity.
This example makes palpable the inherent link between the Marxist concept of surplus value, the Lacanian concept of surplus enjoyment (which Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxian surplus value) and the paradox of the superego perceived by Freud: The more you drink Coke, the thirstier you are. The more profit you have, the more you want. The more you obey the superego, the guiltier you become. These paradoxes are the opposite of the paradox of love, which is, in Juliet’s immortal words to Romeo, “The more I give, the more I have.”