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CREES Brown Bag Lecture. “Socialist Generic: Branding and State Legitimacy in Socialist Hungary.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
12:00 AM
1636 II/SSWB, 1080 S. University

Krisztina Fehérváry, assistant professor of anthropology, U-M. Sponsors: CREES, CES-EUC.

During the state-socialist period in Hungary (1948-1989), the authoritarian state was a determining presence in economic life as primary producer, distributor, and marketer of consumer goods. It is well-known that state legitimacy came to be based, in part, on whether the socialist system could produce a “good life,” one the equal of or indeed surpassing that of the West. Thus, in most analyses, western goods are assumed to be the standard against which socialist goods were (unfavorably) compared. This paper argues that branding practices creating differentiation within socialist production—in an attempt to create distinctive socialist goods—were just as damaging to perceptions of state production and thus state legitimacy. The state’s attempts to brand some goods such as shoes and furnishings with the marks of particular factories in specific locations (many of which had been nationalized after the Communist takeovers) reinforced the perceived “genericism” of other products of socialist manufacture and their invisible, abstracted origins. Thus the enhanced value of particular goods tied to particular production origins came at the cost of devaluing what might be seen as the “brand” of socialism and its related ideologies. Ina Merkel has argued that state socialism becomes branded after its demise, in both a fetishism of symbols of power of the bygone state and the more quotidian household goods and pop culture reappropriated in Communist ‘nostalgia.’ In contrast, here I show that such post-socialist branding is predicated on the existence of an identifiably socialist brand aesthetic during socialism itself, one saturated with ideological values, and generative of an anti-socialist aesthetic with lasting effects.