Embodied Trademarks: Mimesis and Alterity on American Commercial Frontiers

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

The Golly® is a trademark-a signifier that distinguishes the goods of one manufacturer from those of another. Trademarks may be logos, brandnames, characteristic advertising images, or other (usually visual) forms that condense and convey meaning in commerce. The ubiquity of trademarks in national social arenas and their currency both as culture and as private property creates generative conditions for struggles over significance; they are simultaneously shared in a commons of signification and jealously guarded in exclusive estates. The visual cultures of national mass markets are often saturated by signs of social difference (Nederveen 1992;Stedman 1982). When these signs assume the form of marks used in trade, these indicia of cultural difference may be legally recognized as the private properties of those who claim them as marks of their own commercial distinction. I will draw upon both historical and contemporary U.S. examples to show that when-as in the Golly® anecdote-trademarks represent an embodied otherness with imperialist precedents, social struggles over their circulation and connotation add more nuanced dimensions to our understandings of contemporary relationships between mimesis and alterity (Taussig 1993). (Coombe, 

About the Author

Rosemary J. Coombe is a Tier One Canada Research Chairin Law, Communication and Cultural Studies at York University in Toronto, where she teaches in theCommunications and Culture Joint PhD/MA Programme, and is cross-appointed to the Osgoode Hall Faculty of LawGraduate Programme, and the Graduate Programme inSocial and Political Thought. Prior to being awarded one of the country's first Canada Research Chairs she was Full Professor of Law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She holds a J.S.D. from Stanford University with a Minor in Anthropology and publishes widely in anthropology and political and legal theory.

Her work addresses the cultural, political, and social implications of intellectual property laws. Her book, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties is a legal ethnography of the ways in which intellectual property law shapes cultural politics in consumer societies.

Recently, she has been working on two projects. With Andrew Herman she is engaged in a study of the ethics of property and propriety involved in the management of trademarks on the world-wide web and the ways in which digital environments enable consumers to interrupt and to contest the corporate assumption of goodwill. These issues were covered in a recent address at MIT - webcast available here.

A larger project concerns the protection of biological diversity, its relation to cultural diversity and the international movement to protect traditional knowledge in the international human rights framework. How and why have cultural claims been revitalized in the information economy, and to what extent can appeals for the protection of cultural traditions serve progressive ends?

In recent remarks, she suggests that political movements to protect the public domain need to become more cross cultural and more dialogic in nature and that authorship remains an aspirational status that will continue to attract the political energies of the world's marginalized in a globalizing economy.

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