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The Epoch of Magna: Capitalist Brands and Postsocialist Revolutions in Georgia

  • Paul Manning (a1)

In this article, Paul Manning explores the metaphoric and metonymic valuations of western brands as symbols of revolutionary change during the recent Rose Revolution and especially during the transition of the early 1990s in Georgia. Using an ethnographic reading of a Georgian novel about the early 1990s, The Dogs of Paliashvili Street by Aka Morchiladze, Manning examines in detail how a single ubiquitous western brand of cigarettes, Magna—often deployed in opposition to local socialist brands like Kolkheti (“brand totemism“)—came to stand metaphorically as a “meta-symbol” for the period of the transition in Georgia as a whole, “the Epoch of Magna.” At the same time, the new capitalist conditions of consumption and the proliferation of western brands of cigarettes made differences between brands into metonymic resources for indexing emergent forms of social differentiation and transformed certain brands, like Marlboro, into indexes of the general collapse of public urban order after socialism (“brand fetishism”).

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I would like to thank Emzar Jgerenaia for giving me a venue to present an earlier version of this article at the Georgian National Parliamentary Library in Tbilisi in 2007. An even earlier draft was presented at the Society for Cultural Anthropology meetings in Milwaukee in 2006, and I would like to thank my fellow panelists, Rupert Stasch, Anne Lorimer, and especially Anne Meneley, who generously helped me formulate the basic ideas here and also made useful comments on several subsequent drafts. The current version has also benefited in various ways from the advice, encouragement, and ideas of Kriszti Féherváry, Bruce Grant, Alaina Lemon, Zaza Shatirishvili Nino Tsitsishvili, and Ann Uplisashvili as well as the editor and anonymous reviewers of Slavic Review.

1. Manning, Paul, “Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia,” Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 2 (May 2007): 171213 ; Paul Manning, “The City of Balconies: Elite Politics and the Changing Semiotics of the Postsocialist Cityscape” and “The Hotel/Refugee Camp Iveria: Symptom, Monster, Fetish, Home,” both in Kristoff Van Assche, Joseph Salukvadze, and Nick Shavishvili, eds., City Culture and City Planning in Tbilisi: Where Europe and Asia Meet (Lewiston, Me., 2009).

2. Manning, “Rose-Colored Glasses?” 187-91.

3. The anthropologist Daniel Miller sees a brand become a “meta-symbol” when a specific brand (his example is Coca-Cola) comes to stand, not for itself as a circulatory object, but for the whole space-time in which it circulates: “Coca-Cola comes to stand, not just for a particular soft-drink, but also for the problematic nature of commodities in general…. It may stand for commodities or capitalism, but equally Imperialism or Americanization…. So Coca-Cola is not merely material culture, it is a symbol that stands for a debate about material culture.” Miller, Daniel, “Coca-Cola: A Black Sweet Drink from Trinidad,” in Miller, Daniel, ed., Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter (Chicago, 1998), 170. For Coca-Cola more generally, see Foster, Robert J., “Commodity Futures: Love, Labour, and Value,” Anthropology Today 21, no. 4 (August 2005): 812 ; Foster, Robert, Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guineau (New York, 2008). For circulatory “spacetime,” see Munn, Nancy D., The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua, New Guinea) Society (Cambridge, Eng., 1986), 911. I am focusing here on the metaphoric function of brands, but as Munn argues, insofar as circulatory objects, including branded ones, indexically presuppose and create a specific space-time, as well as by their qualities serve as a microcosmic condensation of that space-time, circulatory objects are actually Peircean indexical icons, signs that stand to their object both by an existential relation of contiguity (index, metonym) and a relationship of resemblance (icon, metaphor). Since brand iconography is often created by deploying signifiers drawn from imaginative geographies of alterity, not only are brands recruited to stand for space-times, but space-times (as imaginative geographies) are frequently quarried to provide materials for creating brands. Coombe, Rosemary J., “Embodied Trademarks: Mimesis and Alterity on American Commercial Frontiers,” Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 2 (May 1996); Meneley, Anne, “Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Slow Food,” Anthropologica 46, no. 2 (2004): 165-76; Meneley, Anne, “Like an Extra Virgin,” American Anthropologist 109, no. 4 (December 2007): 678-87; Manning, Paul and Uplisashvili, Ann, ‘“Our Beer': Ethnographic Brands in Postsocialist Georgia,” American Anthropologist 109, no. 4 (December 2007): 626-41.

4. A metaphor is a linkage based on resemblance, a metonym is a linkage based on actual connection, contiguity, or association. In this sense metaphoric linkages belong to the Peircean order of icons; metonymic ones to the Peircean order of indexes.

5. Yurchak, Alexei, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, 2006), 197. See also Fehérváry, Krisztina, “Goods and States: The Political Logic of State Socialist Material Culture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51, no. 2 (April 2009): 429, 453-55.

6. My use of fetishism with respect to brand here is not to be confused with commodity fetishism, which is a way of perceiving the relations between commodities in exchange as “animated” by an alienated property of humans, quantitative value. The Marxian concept of commodity fetishism applies to commodities in their alienated state; the form of fetishism described here occurs when commodities are individually appropriated and singularized as inalienable possessions and involves the transference of other subjective qualitative properties of consumers to brands and vice versa. For an overview of the alienation/ appropriation framework and a critique of its application to socialist commodities, see Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 436-37. On the polysemy of the semiotic figure of the fetish that makes such incommensurable uses possible, see Manning, Paul and Meneley, Anne, “Material Objects in Cosmological Worlds: An Introduction,” Ethnos 73, no. 3 (2008): 289-96, and references there. My deployment of “fetishism” as the opposite of “totemism” follows what I believe to be the traditional understanding of the two categories since the nineteenth century, but recently revived in an insightful discussion by W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want ? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago, 2004), 76 -111. Certainly the historical opposition between these two concepts, totemism and fetishism, seems to treat this as being the core distinction between them: the earliest definitions of totemism are simply sociocentric communal versions of fetishism, where the fetish is associated, not with the individual, butwith the tribe. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?99. Such sociocentricism of the referent of the totemic object relation, along with the naturalism of the signifier, is retained as the essential core of totemism by Levi-Strauss. See Claude Levi-Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (Boston, 1963). Here I follow Marshall Sahlins's influential adaptation of Levi-Strauss in treating the “totemic principle” as: “a series of concrete differences among objects of the same class to which correspond distinctions among some dimension of social order—as the difference between blue collar and white is one between manual labor and bureaucratic.” In this “modern totemism,” the classic Levi-Straussian “totemic principle“—“articulating difference in the cultural series to differences in the natural series, is no longer the main architecture of the cultural system. But one must wonder whether it has not been replaced by species and varieties of manufactured objects.” Sahlins, Marshall, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago, 1976), 180, 176.

7. Verdery, Katherine, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (Princeton, 1996); Lemon, Alaina, ‘“Your Eyes Are Green like Dollars': Counterfeit Cash, National Substance and Currency Apartheid in 1990s Russia,” Cultural Anthropology 13, no. 1 (February 1998); Humphrey, Caroline, The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism (Ithaca, 2002).

8. On these points in Russian, see the excellent discussions by Lemon, ‘“Your Eyes Are Green Like Dollars,'” and Humphrey, Unmaking of Soviet Life; for Georgia, see Pelkmans, Mathijs, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, 2006), 171213.

9. Lemon, Alaina, “Talking Transit and Spectating Transition: The Moscow Metro,” in Berdahl, Daphne, Bunzl, Matti, and Lampland, Martha, eds., Altering States: Ethnographies of Transition in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (Ann Arbor, 2000), 14.

10. Lemon, “Talking Transit,” 15.

11. Jenks, Andrew, “A Metro on the Mount: The Underground as a Church of Soviet Civilization,” Technology and Culture, 41 no. 4 (October 2000): 697724. On “culturedness,” see, for example, Kelly, Catriona and Volkov, Vadim, “Directed Desires: Kult'urnost’ and Consumption,” in Kelly, Catriona and Shepherd, David, eds., Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881-1940 (Oxford, 1998). For Georgian ideologies of culturedness, see Manning, “Rose-Colored Glasses?” 190-91; Manning, “City of Balconies,” 82-87. Unless indicated otherwise, all foreign language words are Georgian and transliterated as in Georgian. In the transliteration of Georgian words, an apostrophe indicates a globalized consonant, while in Russian transcription, the prime indicates a soft sign. Georgian orthography does not currently make use of capitalization, so I have adapted Georgian transcriptions to use capitalization.

12. Jenks, “A Metro on the Mount,” 713-16.

13. Pelkmans, Defending the Border, 173ral; Manning, “Rose-Colored Glasses?” 192-99.

14. Part of the campaign for rebuilding Georgia in the image of Europe involved a complete makeover of die town of Sighnaghi as a tourism destination. My colleague Zaza Shatirishvili describes the reaction of one of his colleagues to the new Sighnaghi thus: “In die spring of 2008 one of my oldest and best friends called me from the city of Sighnaghi and told me ‘It is wonderful, wonderful! This is already no longer Georgia, it resembles some middle German town.’ … This phone call set in motion a whole series of thoughts in my mind. Instandy I understood why they are fighting street commerce and street merchants, why they removed the ‘Marshrut'k'a’ [small bus] lines from their field of vision, why they painted everything so colorfully and tastelessly…. The thing is that, taken all together, they are fighting ‘the Orient'—street merchants, bazaars, these are all ‘the Orient,’ they are all signs of ‘orientalness.’ And we are Europeans, aren't we? Among us ‘the Orient’ (if we are not talking about the extinct Babylonians) is always an expression of'backwardness’ and ‘lack of taste,’ isn't it?” Zaza Shatirishvili, “Kalak Sighnaghisa da Vak'uri Snobizmis, Sant'a-Esp'eransasada. ‘Chinuri Sindromis’ Shesakheb,” Lib.Je (2008), at (last accessed 30 August 2009).

15. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, 196-97. In the late socialist period especially it would have been standard to use the Russian word firmennye in Georgia. I thank Nino Tsitsishvili for this observation.

16. Manning, “Rose-Colored Glasses?” 171-73, 204-6, 207nll, more generally for the political recruitment of emblematic socialist and capitalist goods, see Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 429.

17. Giorgi Kandelaki, “Georgia's Rose Revolution: A Participant's Perspective,” United States Institute of Peace Special Report 167 (July 2006): 5, 7, at (last accessed 30 August 2009).

18. On metaphors of the grayness of socialism contrasted with the colorfulness imputed to capitalism, see Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 427-29.

19. Lemon, ‘“Your Eyes Are Green Like Dollars,'” 39; the classic anthropological account of spheres of exchange is Paul Bohannan, “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv,” American Anthropologist 57, no. 1 (January 1955): 60-70.

20. Gal, Susan, “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction,” Differences 13, no. 1 (2002): 80.

21. In some schools of neoliberal commentary, this genre of absolute opposition between the west and the Soviet sphere analyzes the Soviet economy in the terms of the Orwellian chiasmus of a Yakov Smirnoff joke: “In Soviet Russia, car drives you!” An example of this Yakov Smirnoff shtick applied to the analysis of the postsocialist economy would be, for example, Anders Aslund's attack on what he calls the “myth of output collapse after communism.” In brief, the postsocialist collapse of economic output is a myth, according to this shaggy dog version of the joke, because socialist economies did not “produce” at all, therefore, there was no output collapse after communism, because there was no production to begin with. Using a few anecdotal examples, Aslund shows that, like some looking glass version of a commodity chain, rather than value being added at each step from raw materials to finished commodity, value is detracted or destroyed. Anders Aslund, “The Myth of Output Collapse after Communism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Publications (2000), at'id=61l'prog=zru (last accessed 30 August 2009); Aslund, Anders, “Ten Myths about the Russian Economy,” in Kuchins, Andrew C. , ed., Russia after the Fall (Washington D.C., 2002).

22. Kiaer, Christina, “Boris Arvatov's Socialist Objects,” October 81 (Summer 1997): 111. I thank Bruce Grant for drawing this article to my attention.

23. For a brilliant discussion and critique of this received view, see Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 429, 432-53.

24. Borrowing AkaMorchiladze's characterization, see below; also Lemon, ‘“Your Eyes Are Green Like Dollars'“; Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 438-43; Ledeneva, Alena, Russia's Economy of Favours: Blat, Nehuorking and Informal Exchange (Cambridge, Eng., 1998).

25. Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 428-29.

26. Gronow, Jukka, Caviar with Champagne: Common Luxury and the Ideals of the Good Life in Stalin's Russia (Oxford, 2003), 6786 ; Manning and Uplisashvili, ‘“Our Beer,'” 627-29.

27. Ironically, as Fehérváry notes, the presence of plural named socialist state brands alongside a more general singular state brand (evidenced in aspects of product quality, packaging, and consistent design features) often led to a situation where the socialist state brand was unable to capitalize on the “goodwill” produced by its own named brands. Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 442.

28. Gronow, Caviar with Champagne, 43-66; Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 440.

29. Kelly and Volkov, “Directed Desires“; Gronow, Caviar with Champagne, 14, 73; see also Hessler, Julie, “Cultured Trade: The Stalinist Turn towards Consumerism,” in Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ed., Stalinism: New Directions (London, 2000), 182209.

30. Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 426-29.

31. Miller, “Coca-Cola,” 170.

32. Zaza Shatirishvili, “Axali kalmasoba: Zurab Karumidzis Ghvinomuki Zghva da Aka Morchiladzis Tp(tb)ilisuri dialogia,” AriliA (March 2001): 4-6.

33. “Interviu Zaza Sofromadzestan,” Alia 66 (1743) (4-6 June 2005), at (last accessed 30 August 2009).

34. Sonja Zekri, “Once Upon a Time in Georgia,” (13 December 2006), at (last accessed 30 August 2009).

35. Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), 2–3.

36. Shatirishvili, “Kalak Sighnaghisa.”

37. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, 1983), 35-53.

38. Aka Morchiladze, Paliashvilis Kuchis Dzaghlebi (Tbilisi, 1995), 4.

39. Ibid., 8.

40. Ibid., 12-13.

41. Ibid., 5.

42. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, chap. 5.

43. On the mythology of socialism as a frustrated desire for consumption, see Fehérváry, “Goods and States,” 427, 432-35.

44. Marina Vashakmadze, “A Flight over the Cuckoo's Nest and Back” (interview with Aka Morchiladze), Mudmivi/Magti Magazaine (2000), at (accessed 22 April 2009; no longer available).

45. Morchiladze, Paliashvilis Kuchis Dzaghlebi, 10.

46. Ibid., 61.

47. Ibid., 45.

48. The term is Erving Goffman's: “I use the term ‘free good’ to refer to those things perceived as ones a possessor can give away at relatively little cost or inconvenience even though they may be urgentiy needed by the recipient… . Free goods, as here defined, provide an interesting source of social solidarity. Their range varies greatly according to ecology.” Goffman, Erving, “Felicity's Condition,” American Journal of Sociology 89, no. 1 (July 1983): 37ra29.

49. Nevertheless, for some married women I know who are secret smokers, the cheapness of Astra can make it the ideal cigarette, since, due to the secrecy involved, its other associations are irrelevant.

50. Morchiladze, Paliashvilis Kuchis Dzaghlebi, 14-15,17.

51. Manning, “City of Balconies,” 76-78.

52. In my experience, Georgians only hesitantly use the term New Georgian. For imaginings of “New Georgians” through their semiotic displays, particularly architecture, see Manning, “City of Balconies,” 82-98. For comparison with the Russian mythology of the “New Russians,” see, for example, Lipovetsky, Mark, “The New Russians as a Cultural Myth,” Russian Review 62, no. 1 (January 2003): 5471.

53. Morchiladze, Paliashvilis Kuchis Dzaghlebi, 48.

54. Manning, “City of Balconies,” 82-87.

55. Morchiladze, Paliashvilis Kuchis Dzaghlebi, 49.

56. Ibid.

57. I owe this general observation about the negative Georgian valorization of public exterior spaces to Kevin Tuite. Kevin Tuite, “The Autocrat of the Banquet Table: The Political and Social Significance of the Georgian supra” (2005), 16-17, at (last accessed 30 August 2009).

58. Morchiladze, Paliashvilis Kuchis Dzaghlebi, 66-72.

59. Ibid., 72.

60. I thank Ann Uplisashvili for this information.

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