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Sunday, 14 February 2016

Commodification and Consciousness

**Please notice this is a slightly adapted version of my piece originally published at www.consciousness.co.za under the same title.


Having arrived in South Africa from Canada this past August in order to become involved with the Rural Women’s Movement, many questions have arisen. More specifically questions around political consciousness; what does it mean to be a conscious person and how does that look in contemporary South Africa and the world in general?
One observation that continues to make me uneasy is the blatant commodification and appropriation of an image representing the ostensible Aboriginal authentic, specifically the logos used by fast-food chains Spur and Mochachos. Presenting static images such as these can be insensitive or insulting at best, while damaging to consciousness vis-à-vis indigenous or traditional peoples in general as it makes these groups appear outside of modernity or as a vestige of presumably simpler times.
The ubiquitous presence of these images may correlate to the existence of both negative and stagnant perceptions of South Africa’s rural, indigenous communities. This situation is as one commenter on a previous piece of mine correctly alluded to, paradoxical as most of the country has roots in rural communities.
Perhaps the normalization of these images (even in some activist circles) reflects a shift away from transnational activism and internationalism in general, truly absurd in an increasingly globalized world. The hyper-localization of consciousness appears antithetical towards solving our era’s most pressing issues such as climate change. This is also dangerous in the neoliberal age as the relevance of borders has decreased except perhaps in terms of the militarization and exclusion encouraged in reactionary, populist circles. Unfortunately, simplistic conceptions of the world’s indigenous populations deludes and prevents us from linking the battles for cultural, environmental and spatial preservation and empowerment of indigenous peoples in places as widespread as New Mexico and KwaZulu-Natal; battling resource-based abuses or conflict driven by contemporary capitalism should also be framed as a reaction to modern environmental racism.
As a newcomer it is also disturbing to see the commodification of South African symbols of resistance, including the use of Steve Biko’s image in bars and nightclubs, particularly unsettling given his ideological emphasis on aesthetics.  Moreover, in many of these circumstances the environment conforms to dominant (or white/western) norms. 

Cultural or symbolic misappropriation is not limited to South Africa, in North America; the sight of traditional indigenous garb at raves or parties is all too common. Again, here symbols of resistance (the refusal to conform to western norms of fashion and the brilliance that is/was Biko) or of identity, are co-opted as symbols of de-personalization; the identity or idea represented is broken down into one base level component while furthering personal and/or commercial excess. If we are to build cohesive social movements we must retrieve our existing images of resistance in order to create the foundation needed for new ones to flourish.