Commodity Identities

Material goods have always existed as status symbols and class markers, for as long as class distinctions have existed. An extreme historical example being the downstream imitation of recovery from anal fistula surgery by the court and minor nobility of Versailles under the sun king. The relationship between status markers and material goods changed fundamentally with the advent of mass manufacturing.

Mass manufacturing of material goods put within reach of great numbers of people at universally high quality that which had only existed in limited quantities before; furniture and cabinetry, cutlery, garments and household devices, all within reach of an ever expanding middle class. Since the industrial revolution, this process has only accelerated; you use the same iPhone®, drink the same Coca Cola®, and watched the same Oppenheimer and / or Barbie as Jeffrey Preston Bezos.

The result is a flattening effect of the status connotations of most everyday material goods, which no longer delineate class to the same extent. Instead, many mass produced goods have instead become markers of belonging to group identities. Are you an iPhone® person or an Android® person? They are almost identical in form and function, and like the Balkans, produce relative strengths of feeling in people entirely out of proportion to their material differences - yet you must choose.

This kind of identity association with material goods produces certain dynamics, both in the supply and demand sides of their production. Producers seek to differentiate their products, and it is much cheaper (when possible) to differentiate by group identity rather than material or functional difference.

Consumers are subject to their adopted and often overlapping group identities, and make purchasing decisions so as not to stand too far out. To be a trendsetter is a mark of status; material goods are made cool through association with high status group members. In fact this is the core premise of marketing campaigns across a variety of industries, including consumer packaged goods. Woe unto those in the group who have this association backward and buy something outside the main line of the group’s identity in hopes it will make them stand out; it will, but it will serve only to further ostracize them.

The relationships between producer, consumer, and group identity, in the context of accelerating productive capacity, give rise to group identity as product. The cycle proceeds with a fluctuation in group identity, which creates a new market segment. The features of the product with which the new segment associates are then made legible, extracted and reproduced in advertising, to reach more (activate ?) latent members of the new group identity. Follow-up products can now target this new segment. In this way a group identity is identified, extracted, commoditized, and sold.

The counterpoint to this process is that advertising now becomes a vector of group identity, and thus group identities which can be made legible to advertisers spread more rapidly, outcompeting nuance; where some variant or nuance is advantageous, it too is extracted and made legible by this process. The result of this process is it’s possible to ‘buy into’ a group identity wholesale, which further causes the identity to diffuse until a new wave of commodity identity production appears.

There is also a reaction to this process; as identities become readily commodified, some people seek group identities which cannot be bought into. These identities are necessarily more extreme, since a commodity identity must be able to reach a sufficiently large market for producers to target it. This produces a ratcheting effect, group identities become more extreme, more people join them in order to achieve authenticity, and the group identity then becomes large enough to become a segment. The reaction and the cycle then repeats.

The overton window is not what can be said in public, it’s what can be sold at Walmart®.