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I Am Not A Brand
And I'm Pretty Sure You're Not, Either
As a writer, I have endured much woe because I refuse to have a brand, because I refuse, you could say, to be a brand. I have written about how crab tastes like genitals and about sneaking into a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee, disguised as a Southern belle. I have written poems about feeling attracted to some pretty creepy women, and exposes about prison inmates beaten to death by corrections officers. I have emceed a Democratic mayoral debate in New York City, and written a book based on the conceit that I was a golem created through Jewish magic by my mother. As a book reviewer at the Village Voice, I gave a rave review to Bad Attitude, an erotic lesbian S/M zine, and wrote an editorial (in the name of the Voice) about how no one should vote for Ross Perot, a rightwing-disguised-as-moderate billionaire running as a third-party candidate for president in 1992.
All of it was me, is me. Which I suppose you could think of as a brand, something like Donna Minkowitz™. But, though I am indeed myself all the way through, the idea that I should maintain a consistent genre, subject, position, or voice, much as a brand of paper towels (say, Brawny) maintains a consistent genre (paper cleaning supplies), subject (manly paper cleaning supplies), position ("let's be cheap, but tough!"), and voice (masculine but understated), is surely foolish.
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I'm not a brand of paper towels, and neither are you. But the pressure to sell ourselves as unironic products is stronger than it's ever been, and sometimes painfully hard to resist in an age of social media. Almost all of us now feel the need to build an individual "following" — either to make a living, have a social impact, or even just believe we lead a meaningful life at a time these things are considered measurable by the numbers.
Career experts these days are always suggesting that we brand ourselves. But if someone says this to you, remember that that means they're inviting you to be a product. It's no accident that we're all feeling an inordinate pressure to be saleable products in an era when anything that can be sold, will be sold. We are living at a bonkers time economically, when it's as if the world itself were having a fire sale, and no conceivable resource could go unmonetized. Remember that Uber and Lyft and Airbnb exist because our economy has been wildly restructured to benefit not merely the rich — that was who it was benefiting before — but the ultra-ultra-rich, the 1% of the 1%, which means that those of us closer to the bottom literally have to rent out everything we can — our homes, our cars, our clothes — just to make ends meet.
You are likely familiar with this process from how it works in the housing market ("gentrification"). As the entire economy becomes focused on the needs of the superrich, it becomes harder and harder for anyone else to get their needs met (for example, to find a rental apartment that isn't crazy expensive). But in this case, the entire economy has become too expensive for most of us, which is why people are loading up on side gigs and second and third jobs as Instacart shoppers and Amazon deliveryfolks in order to buy the things they need.
Is it any wonder that we ourselves are now supposed to be shiny products, too? Not just in the normal sense under previous, ordinary capitalism, where we had to sell our labor — no, in today's economy, what we're supposed to be selling is not simply our work, but passionately, furiously, and around the clock, our selves.
Those of us alive right now have the misfortune of living under not just capitalism but hypercapitalism, where previous decades' demand that enterprises merely be profitable has come to seem quaint and soft, forbearing, moderate. The current demand is that publishers, music companies, art dealers, journalistic outfits produce not just profits but megaprofits, profit metastasized to a monstrous level. That's why newspapers are closing, why it's harder than ever to get a book contract, and why most American musicians are getting far less income from their own recorded music than they did in the 70s. All benefits accrue to the highest earners. If you're not a bestseller, don't come calling. Even hospitals are being tapped by their private-equity firm owners to squeeze ever-greater profits from their patients. Is it any wonder artists, writers, and musicians are being stiffed out of their last nickel by companies, when they're trying to squeeze extra money out of freaking patients in intensive care?
It's worth noting that on almost every social media platform, we are the product in more ways than one. That is to say, social media makes most of its money by selling our personal information to data brokers. We are now sold, and made money on, every hour of the 24. We help them get rich by joining their platforms and producing content for them for free — that is to say, by posting.
I am not leaving social media yet, because I am as constrained by this economy and my career ambitions as you are by yours 😄. Also, I'll admit it — it's fun, and I appreciate the social connections that I make there. But it's time to loudly and ferociously state the obvious: we aren't products. Even those of us who make things (artists, plumbers, writers, coders, construction workers) are not reducible to the products we make.
We are not our writing, our carpentry, our software, our chocolate cake, the homes we build, our tweets. I refuse to make my writing into something that could be turned out by a factory, where everything Donna Minkowitz™ does looks like everything else Donna Minkowitz™ does, and all of it is is in a streamlined and highly salable genre: plasticine, shrink-wrapped, and harmless. But I've never written that way, and I don't intend to.
We have to find another way. I refuse to treat myself like a brand, not because I don't want money — I do —, but because the focus on "monetizing," "scaling," and branding means that we accept the world on their terms, that we accept that money and those with access to it get to determine what is meaningful and what isn't. They don't. They never will. We get to determine what is meaningful, and most of the time, it's not on the bestseller list.
To be fair, the linked piece is a report about the 2017 white supremacist conference itself, not about sneaking in. But I have told the story about sneaking in elsewhere.
This appeared in the Village Voice around 1989.
The debate was in 1993 at the New York LGBTQ Center, and David Dinkins was one of the candidates.