I’ve just returned from the Association for the Social Anthropology of Oceania meetings in Charlottesville, Virginia (more on which later). One of the sessions I sat in on at that meeting was the one on “interpreting the discourse of intellectual property rights in the Pacific”:http://asao.org/pacific/2007sessions/02intellectualproperty.htm. Most of the participants at the session had a sense — to put it very roughly — that they did not like it when representations of indigenous people and knowledge about them slipped out of the control of indigenous communities. At the same time, many felt disatisfied with the solutions offered by the appurtenances of copyright, trademark, and patent. At the same time, given the power differentials that exist between indigenous people and enormous corporations (and other bad guys) it seems that Pacific islanders have to use something like the law to get the leverage necessary to level the playing field
Many of the papers in the sessions discussed alternatives to IP drawn from Pacific. Although not much of a practical solution (we won’t have IP laws based on Sepik cosmology coming to a Parliament Near You anytime soon) they did offer some ways to think out of the box about how to approach property etc.
But what other options were there? How do we find a language (other than IP) to speak about the ways to control the flow of information about you when it slips out of your graps and starts circulating in wider spheres. The solution, it seemed to me, came from my own (or perhaps just Strong’s) native theory of semiotics: branding.
This came to me in relation to my class on anthropology and contemporary problems, where we just finished Reardon’s Race To The Finish. In one of the chapters of that book, Reardon discusses the way that indigenous groups organized opposition to the Human Genome Diversity Project through networks of email, phone, and web-based communication that they, as ‘untouched and isolated populations’ were not (on the geneticists account) supposed to have.
This is of course classical consciousness raising in the activist mode. We as anthropologists can grok the formation of consensus regarding the identities and attributes of the actors involved from any number of perspectives — the ‘construction of social problems’ literature from sociology, the poetic-pragmatic work coming out of linguistic anthropology, etc.
But couldn’t we understand the spectacular discrediting of the HGDP as a superb exercise in brand management — or rather brand destruction — by groups such as RAFI and others. Indeed, NGOs (environmental or indigenous or what have you) have got these sorts of publicity campaigns down cold and have been using them effectively for decades. There are downsides of course — Amazonian indians gain traction with Suzy Chapstick only when playing the ecologically noble savage, e.g. — but it is perhaps surer a thing than IP claims.
Could this sort of activity be conceptualized in terms of branding? If so, could doing so be more than simply an intellectual exercise in the cooptation of ‘The West’s’ folk semiotics by its academic semiotics? Could actively thinking in terms of brand be useful when designing political strategy to control what people think about kava that is not grown in Vanuatu? Could we perhaps triangulate academic theories of semiosis with indigenous accounts of property and belonging with folk notions of brand? Frankly, I’m not sure we could. But thinking about this possibility seems to me to be Not Boring.