The schizophrenia machine: How brands remake our identities

Below is number 5 in my cultural context series, following the previous ones on the post-cultural mythhorizontal loyaltysupernormal stimuli, and concentration.

I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting.


Philosophy is one of those things that lots of people like in theory, but few like in practice.  The reason for this, it seems to me, is pretty simple:

The ideas are interesting but the writing sucks.

I mean have you ever actually read any “serious” philosophy?  It could be laying out the secret to eternal life for all I know, but alas it’ll remain a secret because the style is so dreadful.  Indeed I’m pretty sure that the main reason Marcus Aurelius is so popular these days is not because of his ideas, but rather the fact that he’s the one philosopher who is reasonably coherent.  There is a lesson for all of us here of course: what you say is less important than how you say it.

Anyway, despite this, philosophy’s general incoherence doesn’t prevent the odd nugget escaping from obscurity into usefulness – and it’s just such a nugget I wanted to introduce to you today.

It comes from this pretty tasty YouTube summary of the work of philosophers Deleuze, Guattari, Jameson, and Lacan (nope, me neither).  Together, they indirectly lay out a compelling theory as to how brands (and capitalism as a whole) operate – which is useful both strategically, and as a way of making sense of what’s going on around us.

Here I’m going to simplify it still further, and speculate on what it might mean for us as founders, thinkers, and everyday people.

Let’s get to it.

The first level of the theory is similar to the one I laid out in my piece on “cultural imprinting”: namely that we buy brands in order to build our identities.  Say, for example, we see a character that we admire in a TV show, and they’re wearing a particular type of jacket, or drinking a certain brand of whiskey.  We might identify with that character, want to be like them, and thus buy a similar jacket or the same drink for ourselves.  In a sense then, we are “purchasing our identity”, or at least pieces of it, in order to fill out who we are.

So far, pretty standard stuff.  Where it becomes interesting however is when we introduce the idea of schizophrenia into the mix.

Schizophrenia can be defined (at least by Lacan and for our purposes here) as when one has a “fragmented” identity.  Rather than knowing who you are, and having a strong sense of self, you instead are a jumble of loose, transient characteristics, which come and go and never add up to a coherent whole.

We aren’t talking here of the medical condition necessarily, but rather schizophrenia in an everyday colloquial sense.  If, for example, you knew someone who kept on experimenting with different identities – say being a goth one day, then a city boy, then a yogi – we might call that behaviour “schizophrenic”, since it is highly changeable and unfixed.  It doesn’t make them “medically ill”; just an individual messing about with their identity.  The extent to which someone has a weak or changeable sense of identity is the extent to they are schizophrenic; and thus it’s a label that can be applied to most of us.

As you can see then, based on this definition, a “schizophrenic” personality is extremely good for brands, since such a personality is constantly “shopping”, quite literally, for new identities.  They represent something a vacuum which constantly needs to be filled with new signifiers, before those slip away only to be replaced by some more.

And these signifiers, of course, cost money.

Clothes, food, drink, holidays, cars, gadgets, tools, decorations, etc. – all of these are things which can be pieced together to create a semi-coherent identity.

By contrast an “anti-schizophrenic” personality – i.e. someone with a highly fixed and extremely strong identity – is a terrible consumer.  Beyond the basic necessities of life, they don’t feel the urge to buy much, because they aren’t try to construct a self.  They already have one!  If you can imagine a person with a strong, fixed, long term identity, and with certainty over who they are and their place in the world (let’s say a monk for sake of argument), then you’ll probably find you can’t really imagine them doing much shopping.

The bottom line here then is simple:

Capitalism (i.e. brands) thrive in when consumers have weak, changeable identities.

Now here’s where it gets a bit dark.

You see it’s one thing to say that capitalism profits from this situation – that much is clear.  But it’s quite another thing to say that capitalism creates this situation – however that’s just what Jameson and pals suggested.

Their contention was that the consumer machine we are all living within actively erodes our identities, in order to then sell us new ones.

When you think about it, this process is actually pretty obvious.  All of the “pieces” which have traditionally come together to form strong identities (community, nationality, place continuity, religion, local particularity, etc.) have been under assault for some time, and have never been weaker.  We covered this in detail in the last essay of this series on the “post-cultural myth”; the idea that we in the developed world are now living in a state of “cultural neutrality”, rather than the parochial “cultural specificity” of the past.  This belief is actively encouraged by brands, media, government, etc., and is stylistically manifested in the state of “permanent revolution” we see all around us.

Needless to say “cultural neutrality” is another way of describing a vacuum – or, to use our terminology here, a state of “schizophrenic instability” – the perfect consumption environment.

Little wonder perhaps that it is so actively encouraged.

We might even go so far as to say this theory presents an underlying consistency to the ethics of our time.  Those things which are seen as “good” tend to be those things that are in some way destabilising; which in some way erode identity, and which create a void that needs to be filled.  They may appear to be unconnected on the surface, but deep down they have this in common.  Their destabilising properties aren’t the reason they are seen as good of course – that’s particular to the issue at hand.  But it is perhaps the reason they are sponsored and celebrated by capital in its various forms.

To give an example: having a borderless, internationalist, “citizen of the world” mindset is, I would say, roundly considered to be noble and desirable in our current culture – especially in comparison to the narrow-minded “nationalist” alternative.  The reasons for this are of course because it’s understood to be tolerant, sophisticated, welcoming, peaceful etc.  However these, Deleuze and co might suggest, are not why capital has sponsored and pushed this idea – it is instead because it’s inherently destabilising and creates an identity vacuum which is good for the machine at large.

(Please note I only use this as an example, and that to say something is destabilising is not necessarily to say it’s “wrong” – that’s not the point.  The point is simply that capital flows to the ideas which create the conditions to produce more capital, hardly surprisingly.)

Speaking of nations, this schizophrenic tendency is not only a personal phenomenon, but a national one too.  As societies become less coherent in their identity, their economies boom.  Pre-Covid it was hard to miss the fact that whilst America was apparently coming apart at the seams culturally, the stock market was enjoying rampant growth.  Very curious.  However when seen through the lens of the schizophrenia analysis, it makes a lot of sense.  The nation was in a free-for-all of self invention and reinvention – a time when anything goes, so long as that anything came with a price tag attached.

In short then it is the instability of both our personal and collective identities which drive “healthy” consumption, and economic growth.

To hammer this home, I’ve summarised the idea in one of my trademark super-scientific graphs:

So what are we to do with this?

I don’t want this to sound simply like some sort of anti-capitalist diatribe (especially since we’re all here to talk about business…), so let’s consider a couple of takeaways.

First, as with all the essays in this cultural context series, we can use this analysis simply as a heuristic through which to view the world around us.  For me, I find it illuminates a hidden thread linking business trends, current affairs, and consumer behaviour.  Always keep in mind our central role as strategists: to understand the world so that we can successfully integrate ideas within it.  It is for this reason that I write such “off topic” essays as this.

Second, and more prosaically, we might ask from a brand perspective: how are we answering this craving for identity?  What identity are people buying when they buy us?

In the slightly dark context of what I’ve written above this may sound somewhat cynical – and I suppose it is.  But ironically the YouTube video that inspired this essay was itself inspired by a thesis on the topic written by the CEO of Buzzfeed, Jonah Peretti, when he was a young aspiring theorist.  His deep understanding of identity and the role it plays in strategy led directly to the innovative native advertising model that Buzzfeed pioneered, and which made it such a titanic success.  Buzzfeed realises that people crave fodder with which to fill their identity – which manifests in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such as “what kind of Barbie are you” quizzes and the like.

We are not about to dismantle the schizophrenia machine – and many postmodern theorists would actually argue that we shouldn’t even if we could – so therefore we may as well at least understand it and adapt our strategies accordingly.

Every brand acts as a signifier of an identity.  A signifier of a type.  Of a vision of a person as they aren’t now, but which they might like to be.  A mask that they can try on, before perhaps discarding it and moving on to something else.

Powerful ones know this, so you should too.

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