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Just Doing It. The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real in Nike's Commodity Fetish

Boehm, Steffen and Batta, Aanka (2008) Just Doing It. The Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real in Nike's Commodity Fetish. Working Paper. EBS Working Papers, University of Essex, Colchester.


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Since the mid-1990s Nike has been in the 'bad books' of left-leaning commentators, anti-capitalist movements and other protesters and academics alike because of its production practices in 'third world' sweatshops. The term ?sweatshop? was at some stage so tightly connected to the brand Nike, that it was entirely conceivable that this huge, now 30 billion Dollars worth, company could be brought to its knees. It wasn't to be. Despite a worldwide campaign against Nike (and other sweatshop operating companies), the company responded by introducing 'strict' codes and conducts for outsourcing factories and workers to follow, which, it was hoped, would address and deal with at least the more serious allegations of terrible sweatshop working conditions and child labour in many of the 'third world' factories where Nike products are made. Although at first slow to respond to the massive anti-sweatshop campaign, Nike has learned its lesson fast and it can now proudly say that it takes its 'responsibility' very seriously ? at least the company says so on its sleek website http:?? (note that NikeResponsibility itself seems to have become a brand). But this paper is not proposing to revisit 'old news'. Rather, the starting point for our investigation is our claim that part of the failure of the anti-sweatshop campaign was its inability to conceptualize and understand the concrete workings of the Nike commodity fetish. And to be sure, this failure is ongoing. Recently, War on Want, a UK-based charity that is playing a very active part in exposing the malpractices of multinational companies in the 'third world', has been running a campaign 'Let's clean up Fashion' , to fight against low-price fashion items sold by UK chains such as ASDA, Primark, Tesco, and others. While we very much support this campaign in general, we fear that it doesn't deal with the workings of the commodity fetish head-on. That is, campaigns like this are well intended they appeal to consumers' hearts and minds, to their compassion but what they do not manage to do is to put forward a rigorous analysis of how the commodity fetish works, and how it could be disrupted. In our view, only a rupture of the workings of the commodity fetish ? the act ? would achieve real improvements. That is, campaigns like the anti-sweatshop movement, are well intended, but their compassionate pleas are just that: well intended. Žižek (1997) might go further and say that it is campaigns like these that are actually the kernel of today?s ideological cover up. The anti-sweatshop campaign is not fighting the commodity fetish, but enabling it to continue its destructive work precisely through its work of ?transparency?. We will show in the paper how this double-whammy might work in practice, using the case of Nike. But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Our paper, then, is a discussion of the workings of commodity fetishism. At work with us is not only Lacan, who will primarily provide input into the workings of enjoyment in today?s consumer culture, but also Marx and Freud who were the early champions of conceptualising fetishism. In Capital, Marx (1976) discusses commodity fetishism as the main ideological structure that keeps capital moving. Freud (1977), in contrast, wasn?t interested in capital but the workings of the human mind, and he saw in fetishism a displacement activity that would enable young boys to get to grips with the apparent castration of their mothers (i.e. the lack of a penis) and the possibilities of their own castration. Although Freud wasn?t a reader of Marx, as far as we know, there have been many attempts to read across Marx?s and Freud?s conceptions of fetishism and somehow integrate their different approaches ? we could name Benjamin?s Arcades Project here. Our paper will review such attempts to integrate Marx and Freud, but will then apply these readings to the burning question of: What actually gets people into NikeTown, and what lets us enjoy our visit to the temple of the commodity? In other words, how is it possible that despite the tremendously bad press Nike has had over the past decade, the company is turning out record profit after record profit, as millions flock to the shops to buy its trainers and T-shirts, i.e. they are enjoying the Nike commodity. Here we will make use of Lacan's (1977, 1998) analysis of enjoyment and jouissance in order to understand the workings of the Nike commodity.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Lacan, commodity fetishism, Freud, Marx, marketing, Nike, sweatshops
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor > HD28 Management. Industrial Management
Divisions: Faculty of Social Sciences > Essex Business School
Faculty of Social Sciences > Essex Business School > Centre for Work, Organisation and Society
Depositing User: Admin
Date Deposited: 07 Sep 2011 14:21
Last Modified: 17 Nov 2015 15:52

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