The academic world is changing. It is being commoditized. While scholars as disparate as David Noble and Francois Lyotard tie this commoditization to information technology, there is a broader symbolic regime at work, that of consumer culture with its tools of territorialization and identification such as the logo (Noble) (Lyotard). The educational mission embodied in the academic world is being packaged within its commodity form. This commoditization entails over time a complete reformulation of the educational andresearch mission that undergirds the academic establishment; transforming them to fit the economic and social conditions of consumer culture. One representation of this transformation is the university logo.
Logos are not new. “There is a long history to the use of publicity images and logos in branding or creating a distinctive identity for products,“ (Lury). Beyond Lury’s position, I posit that logos are inherently similar to the ancient identification markers that outline territory and affiliation. They are tribal, associative, and symbolic references. These systems of identification provide ways of identifying relationships amongst diverse groups of people. No longer is the identification natural by birth, but it is a social and economic cultural construct. You can see the cultural identification occurring in the‘team spirit’around collegiate athletics and in other heavily branded college and university activities. It has become pervasive in those environments, and is invading the rest of the academic establishment as the branding and advertising of individual degree programs illustrates.
Logos exist in the symbolic economy of consumer culture. They are part of the system of commodification, or the replacement of any number of possible relationships with a commercial relationship of signs, monetary and otherwise. Logos identify a brand, and more and more those brands centralize identity creation within them. No longer is the person a user of the brand, but the brand creates the person. By possessing the brand, people brand themselves with the symbolic value of that brand. It is the metonymic replacement of the people with the logo through their own actions (Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime; Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil : Essays on Extreme Phenomena). This is no clearer than the relation of individuals to their institutions of education, where the processes of enculturation are brought to bear to help form students into members of their community, such as Harvard man, etc. This branding of the human commoditizes the human, providing a set of clear valuations for people to judge.
But this system of valuation in society is all too familiar. Parallel to the uniforms, insignia, unit crests, and ranks, which clearly mark military personnel, logos symbolize the belonging of the wearer and their status, amongst other things. This is the way they operate for social institutions also. When we look at the bank logo, when we look at the IBM worker, they are surrounded by the symbolic value that their logo and brand portends. As part of consumer culture, logos provide for a systemic identification of people, but what about those people do they identify? Do they merely identify people as a consumer of a product or member of an institution? That is not necessarily the identification of the rich and varied roles the person plays in every day life.
Universities and colleges have logos, alongside other symbolic apparatus such as mascots, and particular colors. These logos serve the purpose of identifying both the university and those that choose to be identified with that university. However, what these logos rarely embody in their symbolic repertoire is the mission of colleges and universities, that of higher education and research. Contrarily, what educational logos seem to parallel most closely is the logo of the corporation, with big blocked letters alone or occasionally in some proximity to its mascot or other symbolic referent of power or money. They capture the idea of the university as a corporate whole, a body separate from, but containing its participants. This otherness is the embodiment of the academic world in the university, a separate body, but contained. This excisement of the university mission; this insulation of the academic world from its corporate identity is part of theremoval of those parts of the university that do not serve to enhance its identity as commodity provider. This brings into question the propriety of those parts of higher education that cannot be commoditized, such as the relationships between teacher and student. In short, it seems that university and college logos bypass any identification with the role of the university in society when we consider them in the context of other logos.
The academic establishment should avoid the appropriation of logos and their implicit processes and associations. But if they are unavoidable, as part of the hegemonic processes of consumer society, they could be subverted by including more referents to their own mission such as diplomas, graduation, beakers, or whatever is appropriate to the mission of the college or university. When confronted with a logo of a university or college that has been abstracted like a military or corporate logo, we should question its meaning, find its similarities in other logos and soundly critique it, showing to the administration that the identity that they think they are creating is likely not conducive to promoting the continuance of the academic world as many imagine it.