Archive for the ‘branding’ Category

Activate Your Vagus Nerve!

February 28, 2010

CBC radio on Sundays can be so satisfying. Norah Young on Spark had an interesting piece on personal branding. I like to think of kulturbot as an exercise in impersonal un-branding, but Anand Giridharadas’ thoughts on the the fervent need to style and profile online were very interesting.  While it is interesting that Giridharadas links the personal branding trend to the shift in the global economy to a more precariously situated workforce, I disagree that “For those who bemoan the scriptedness of public officials or the brainwashing of corporate advertising, personal brands can be deliverance”.  Is personal branding not a way to apply the form-over-content approach of corporate identity construction to the level of individuals? In this sense, the trend signals an incursion of corporate culture into ever more personal dimensions of social life. What interests me is the possibility to co-opt branding strategies and use then against themselves.

Mary Hynes also had an interesting conversation on Tapestry with Dacher Keltner, a Princeton researcher who studies human kindness. Given the hegemonic uses to which cynical discourses on the “innate” selfishness and violence of human nature are put, investigations such as Keltner’s offer a refreshing counterpoint.

Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.” Dacher Keltner in Scientific America.

The idea that there is an inherently altruistic side to human nature runs contrary to a great deal of popular entertainment that tends to support a darker view of human nature. I was simultaneously impressed and disturbed, for instance, with the ideological use to which Martin Scorsese employs reflections on human violence in his new film Shutter Island. The scene in which De Caprio’s character is talking to the guard in a jeep makes an argument for the innately violent tendencies of human nature in a particularly unsettling and effective way, with the guard suggesting that DeCaprio would bite his eye out given the proper circumstances, then patting him on the back like a baseball coach before DeCaprio makes his final assault on the lighthouse.

"I'll teach that shrink to mess with my vagus nerve!"

The inversion at the end of the film (spoiler warning) where we find out that DeCaprio actually is violent and deluded reinforces the idea that humans, like inmates in a facility for the criminally insane, are in need of systematic guidance and control. This Hobbesian discourse needs to be interrogated for the manner in which fear of ourselves and each other is employed to justify systematic exploitation. Keltner’s investigations are a noteworthy movement in this direction.