One evening last fall I watched a valiant Russian journalist named Anton Kazarin receive an award from the International Center for Journalists. He is the editor of the business weekly Delovoy Kvartal, which apparently has been making a lot of trouble for the capitalist savages of Russia's age of advanced monopoly cronyism. His award was named for Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes who was murdered in Moscow in 2004. And this was the tribute that Kazarin paid to the dead hero: in Russia, he assured the audience, "Paul Klebnikov is a brand." A brand! I looked around the room, and nobody else was startled. Is this really the highest praise we have now? Is it really acceptable to refer to the identity of individuals as brands? It is very smart, I know: "brand" is one of those words that certify the contemporaneity of your thinking, like "viral" and "monetize" and "granular." An era may be known by the vocabulary that it regards as its most brilliant. And it is perhaps the greatest triumph of the market to have polluted our most cherished speech about ourselves with the vocabulary of marketing. And more, in the contradictions between honorifics may be found the contradictions of an age. We seem to inhabit a world that is ominously divided between theories of glory, between those who wish to venerate their heroes as "brands" and those who wish to venerate their heroes as "martyrs." Between a brand and a martyr I cannot choose. The problem is that martyrdom cannot be fought with branding, and it cannot be fought with more martyrdom. We will have to find our way back to a discarded humanistic discourse, whose ideal of personhood aspires to less than a martyr but more than a brand.
"Let's face it, a brand is no longer signage and packaging. Brands are living, walking, talking personalities and entities." These anthropologically acute words were uttered by some Manhattan entity, a leggy party planner, in The New York Observer recently. The "babe of branding" added, aiming high, that "I always believe that the human spirit can accomplish anything," although currently she seeks to accomplish the creation of "a fashion social networking site with a wardrobe management system attached to it." Climb every mountain! So let us review the reasons why branding is actually inimical to the human spirit, an estrangement from it. The articulation of the person as a brand is always a misrepresentation. A brand refers to the externals, the surfaces, the appearances, so that it may be recognized and consumed in a glance. A brand is shiny and new, or it is suddenly obsolete, or (when it succeeds) it must never change. A brand is zealously outer-directed and other-directed, essentially anxious and comparative, since its destination is the market. (These tendencies are abetted by the revolution in self-advertisement that is taking place on the Internet, which is the supreme technology of extroversion.) I don't mean to get heavy, but a person is not a commodity; and not even the shallowest individual is ever as shallow as his or her version as a brand. Whatever one's view of the transition from "soul" to "self" as the preferred name for human significance, the transition from "self" to "brand" is catastrophic.
The wonder of it is that so many people are eager to be regarded, and to regard themselves, as a commodity. Not long ago The New York Times ran an advertisement called "The New Faces of Classical Music," in which a number of fine women musicians (including a singer whose recent recording of the Liederkreis I admire) did their ridiculous best to look like Shania Twain. In their desperation the record companies no doubt believe that this flesh- peddling moves units. But who ever bought a recording of "O zittre nicht" because he wanted to make it with the nightingale? I remember an evening at the Metropolitan Opera many years ago when I had to turn away, for aesthetic reasons, when Gary Lakes as Siegmund and Jessye Norman as Sieglinde corpulently pledged undying love; but the yielding of serious singers and musicians to the beautifying stratagems of the marketers is similarly an aesthetic offense. Auto- commodification is the worst sort of commodification. But as I say, the language of business is now the smart language. This society is surrendering not to economics but to economicism, which is what happens when economics settles where it does not belong. The popularity of Freakonomics and of that idiot Gladwell is evidence of this epidemic error. These days there is almost nothing more heterodox to be said about American life than that there are vast realms of it in which economic reasoning should have no place.
I was reminded of the impossibility of grasping a person in a glance the other day, when the Centers for Disease Control reported a 20 percent increase in the last five years in suicides among people between the ages of 45 and 54. The suicide rates for the young and the old, by contrast, are going down. Researchers are "puzzled," the newspaper said. Many of the dead seem to have been solid middle-class people with all the protections of middle-class life. Some are attributing the saddening development to the proliferation of prescription drugs in American society, and to their subsequent abuse. But that does not explain what drove the doomed to the drugs, or off them. With the protections come the pressures. How many cares can an individual be expected to bear? Middle age is the age with the most caring, and the middle class is the class with the most cares. Is there not a quantity of care that may overtake the quantity of joy that one gains from those for whom one is caring? There is a dark side to a life of duty. There is the loneliness of responsibility. Meanwhile they are assaulted by their happy-talking culture, by its images of the most outlandish success and the most extravagant frivolity, while they rise and dress and loyally return to their mercilessly logisticized existences with satisfactions but without ecstasies. And amid the mortgages and the tuitions there appears a cruel spiritual challenge: to the young, life feels long; to the old, life feels short; but in the middle of one's life it feels long and short, which can be wearying and confusing. I don't know. Maybe the meds did it. But I do know that the human spirit cannot accomplish anything, at least not commonly. That is the dirty secret of American life. And here despair is a disgrace, a bad brand.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier