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21 April 2010

Antimodernity, M.I.A.’s viral marketing effort, a Wall Street Journal book review & a Spider-Man t-shirt on a kid from Southeast Asia: a short attention span essay on Authenticity aka “I have the pussy, so I make the rules”

We live in an era of blogs, tweets, aggregators, and Fox News. It’s quite easy to exist in an ideological/cultural/sociological/psychographic bubble of your own making–one that entirely reinforces your existing systems of belief. That’s why I start every morning with the Wall Street Journal. If you are on the liberal side of the spectrum like myself; if you cast a skeptical eye at capitalism; well, then Karl Rove’s columns will do a better job of waking you up in the morning than a cup of strong coffee and a smack in the face.

I was quite pleased, then, when I tripped across this most excellent review of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax by one Paul Beston who, if the internet is to be trusted, has affiliations with the conservative American Spectator and the foggier “individual responsibility” mandate of the Manhattan Institute. (In other words, he’s the kind of dude I wouldn’t seek out to add to my reading list.)

Here’s an extended excerpt–about half the review. It crystallizes a lot of the devil’s advocate notions I’ve developed while living here in Brooklyn (aka authenticity ground zero) the past several years, then advances them several yards down the ideological football field:

    …Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status seeking game.

    Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before. The local-food trend illustrates what Mr. Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity,” by which the well-heeled embark on a “perpetual coolhunt,” whether it is for authentic jeans, pristine vacation spots or mud flooring, part of the “natural building” movement. The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

    But the authenticity fixation, according to Mr. Potter, goes deeper than consumer choices. It is the culprit, for instance, behind “a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination.” Political candidates are always selling their own sincerity, so that any crack in the facade (never too hard to find) launches a hundred attack ads. Taken to its darkest extremes, obsessive authenticity can become deadly, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism or the hyper-nationalist authenticity of fascism. Less toxic, but more common, is the craving for authenticity among those in the West who see a market economy and consumer culture as sterile and false — inauthentic, in other words — and who defend the world’s most repressive cultures, looking past their brutality to admire their resistance to modernity.

    It is the disillusionment with modernity, Mr. Potter maintains that underlines the authenticity quest. When man was preoccupied with finding food and appeasing capricious gods, he didn’t have the time or inclination to ask whether he had “sold out” for an easy paycheck or failed to align himself with some abstract ideal of the “authentic” life. But then science made the formerly mystical cosmos explainable, and a spread of democratic ideas, in politics and markets alike, made food and freedom more broadly shared. The result was “a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person,” Mr. Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning and not liking what he found there. The individual’s own self-definition filled the gap left by faith and authority.

    Mr. Potter anoints Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher, as the godfather of the authenticity quest. His famous “state of nature” was a fantasy of authenticity, an idea of man’s existence before society. Mr. Potter argues that Rousseau used the state-of-nature concept as a “regulative ideal” by which to measure how far we had strayed from a lost harmony.

    Rousseau’s “antimodern tunnel vision,” Mr. Potter says, can be found in various modern forms: in the views of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and the counterculture heroes of the 1960s, for instance; or in such gloomy social critics as Al Gore and Prince Charles and alarmists like James Howard Kunstler. [Don’t be intimidated, I had to look this one up too.-ed] These antimodern voices, and others, represent what Mr. Potter calls “the authenticity hoax in full throat: a dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and a stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive.”

In other words, ouch, say the locavores.

I agree, though, the guy has a point. What’s authentic is a Cambodian child wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt because those are the cast offs sent from the west and available to be worn. Image via Osmosus.

And what’s authentic & instructive is the picture below taken in Haiti before the earthquake. Image via Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak’s Flickr photostream (as is the one at the top of this post).

Perhaps the word authentic is the wrong word to be using. Perhaps the correct one is the more hip-hop friendly term REAL. Nevertheless, to all of you living in the Brooklyn bubble, the Berkley bubble or similarly popular post-collegiate locales for liberal arts graduates who think too much, you should take the time to frequently question your perceptions of things. (Many things are more important than uncured bacon.) And you should admire artists such as M.I.A. who pick up on this meme–that cast-offs and accidents are a truer and more authentic aesthetic reality than, say, McSweeney’s often admirable but also ultra-twee vibe, or N+1‘s supremely po-faced version of life. So, that said, I’ll leave you with this VIRAL MEME promoting her new album just because I like it:

End rant. And for those of you who refuse to listen here is your ALTERNATIVE VERSION/VISION of this post.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. On 2010-4-21 k-sky said:

    Damn you urban hipsters, reading n+1 when you should be listening to M.I.A.

  2. On 2010-4-22 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Hello Mr. Kamensky:

    That is a clever comment but I expect more from you. Why not mount a more spirited defense in support of N+1’s virtues? I want you to bring it on.

    Alec “stirring the shit” Bemis

  3. On 2010-4-26 k-sky said:

    OK, sure. I like n+1. They publish critical, challenging essays about economics, liberation, and art. I don’t think it would escape them that a Cambodian child and a Silver Lake brunchophile would wear similarly incongruous T-shirts for different reasons.

    I don’t understand what’s “authentic” about that phenomenon — I think you’re doing a very good job of demolishing that concept and a poor job of rehabilitating it. I think M.I.A.’s aesthetic of “cast-offs and accidents” are more comprehensible when you apply a certain amount of n+1-style historical materialism to the way that culture moves in a global economy (which I think you’re touching on in the first part of the essay). That might be a more instructive comparison than apples to apples.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “po-faced” but I also don’t really understand n+1’s criteria for cover art.

  4. On 2010-4-27 k-sky said:

    Perhaps the word authentic is the wrong word to be using. Perhaps the correct one is the more hip-hop friendly term REAL.

    This is particular is worth unpacking. The “hipster” was originally the “white Negro” in Norman Mailer’s famous formulation, and it’s still easy to reinforce a pose by sourcing it in African-American culture. So “keeping it real” strikes me as no more protected from the authenticity trap than, say, keeping it conspicuously eco-conscious.

    Here’s my question for you: clearly there’s some positive value in authenticity or the real that you’re still drawn to. What’s a positive statement of that?

  5. On 2010-4-27 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Hello again, Mr. Kamensky:

    I think the core of my “issue” with N+1 (and yes, it deserves quotes) comes down to that word “po-faced.” (The definition I linked to is as follows: “having an overly serious demeanor or attitude; humorless.”) A major part of their mission seems to be seriousness for seriousness sake; my impression is that by being “serious” they feel they are enacting real change; my impression is that, for the magazine’s editors, “seriousness” equates to being “authentic” or “real” (albeit certainly not “real” in the hip-hop sense — like Kanye said of George Bush, I suspect they don’t care so much about black people).

    What I was trying to get across in this original post was that we — by that I mean us in the liberal arts educated, proudly intellectual minority — probably spend too much time trying to get closer to “the real” (while we’re really getting more & more abstracted from it), while more “frivolous” artists like M.I.A. are joyously, profanely & awesomely abstracting the thing itself, and thereby making a bigger impact. (Let me also be clear that I’m sure M.I.A. is plenty educated. She is an alumnus of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.)

    The positive value of M.I.A.’s engagement with the Real, her modifications and commentary on the Real, is that she is more likely to effect the Real than someone merely writing impassioned yet po-faced essays about in an obscure magazine that (statistically speaking) less people read than hear her music. This is not to say they shouldn’t write their essays. I am merely offering a critique of their choice of medium & their tone. I acknowledge there is plenty of humor in those essays as well; it’s just not the dominant tenor of their conversation — and I think their effectiveness may be the lesser for it.


  6. On 2010-4-27 k-sky said:

    First, let’s establish that neither of us wants to go searching through back issues of n+1 to defend our positions (I’m going to be generous and assume that you’re not really accusing the editors of casual white supremacy).

    Do you think that authenticity is something we can approach, but we’re better off doing it through one method (M.I.A.; the global path of cast-off T-shirts) than through another (obscure though obliquely witty magazines; locavorism)?

    My position would be that authenticity is always a trap, and that we’re better off establishing precisely the moral or aesthetic values that we championing.

    I think we in the LAE/PIM often try to justify our tastes with appeals to authenticity that betray our simultaneous discomfort with and attachment to our privilege.

    I also like humor. My new year’s resolution is to do stand-up this year.

    Impact aside, what do you love about MIA, and how is that related to Realness?

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