Over the past months, we’ve been trying to encourage our authors and contributors to turn their attention and expertise to politics, a top-of-mind topic for so many readers. A few days ago, Cyborgology author PJ Rey did just that, with a provocative post in our Community Pages on the marketing and public personae of Barack Obama: “The President as Brand.”
There’s a lot to like about and learn from this piece: the basic distinction between Obama the person versus Obama the brand; the way in which prominent individual politicians come to stand in for their parties, policy agendas, and political positions as a whole; and that none of this marketing, branding, and imaging is really new to politics. But there are two things that struck me as particularly useful and uniquely sociological.
First, I was struck with mediation, the party apparatus, and the representation of the collective. As PJ puts it:
Mediation—through the party, which acts both as organizational technology and medium of communication—transforms the president from an individual office-seeker into a brand. The purpose of branding is to turn the president’s performance of self into something that can be mass-marketed. But, as the layers of mediation increase, the individual official is subsumed into the brand. That is to say that the president cedes control over his individual identity to the collective.
He goes on to say that this is “an example of what Guy Debord called ‘spectacle,’ where what ‘was once directly lived has moved into a representation.’”
The other point that struck me was the underlying question/issue about identity: who is an individual? To be more precise, identity is a product of both action and representation, as well as of the interplay of self-construction and the labeling of others. Not sure I can or should go way into this here, I can’t help but think that our symbolic interactionist legacy serves us sociologists well in realizing these tensions and seeing them play out on a big stage in our political process. Thanks, PJ, for getting me thinking.