Accepted paper:

The Appropriation of the Improper


Pedro Germano Leal (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte)

Paper short abstract:

This paper traces the original concept of “emblem” and examines the processes and social implications of its commercial appropriation in contemporary Brazil.

Paper long abstract:

Etymologically speaking, the modern use of the term "emblem" derives from the renaissance and baroque "emblema" a literary genre composed of a motto, a picture (usually an engraving), and a poetical epigram. The meaning was associated with "common-place" or "main symbol of a phenomenon, person or thing". There is a close likeness between contemporary applications of company logotypes and trademarks in Brazil, and early modern "devises" and "impresas". Yet, instead of the philosophical, mystical, or very personal content of the humanist maxims that accompanied the renaissance image - by which the bearer wished to be remembered or recognized - the contemporary symbols discard the axiom and instead emphasize the slogan concept, together with its abstract value of "better", "prettier", or "exclusive", "VIP", and "original". The bearer scope moves from the ancient moral/individual attributes of the symbol to the commercial/classist appeal that buttresses our consumer society. These arbitrary symbols become tools of domination, where those lacking the buying-power associated with status and acceptability tend to make every effort to appropriate these symbols as their own. A case in point is young people in poor neighbourhoods in Brazil, who dress up in "gangsta" style to affirm an identity associated with the ideals of power and status. The forbidding price tag attached to expensive logos, however, generates a contradiction which some confront by creating their own prototypes that can sometimes idolize a criminal image and perhaps even glorify unlawful appropriation of the desired object/symbol, perhaps an affront to the symbols of domination.

panel P14
Appropriating the (in)appropriate: rethinking pageants, contests and the anthropology of emblems