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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.

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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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6 January 2010

Aaron Cometbus and the Community Function

Aaron Cometbus is not my Hero (singular) because I don’t have those anymore. But he is one of my heroes (plural). Here’s a photo of him, via Text.Werkstatt.


Aaron Cometbus doesn’t seem care much for publicity, celebrity, notoriety, society, the many bitty little itties that seem to our age what quasi-philosophical -isms were to the 20th century (communism, capitalism, existentialism, anarcho-syndicalism, et ceterism).

Here is what I know about him: Real name Aaron Elliott…founder of the long running zine Cometbus (53 issues! 28 years! sells for $3 or less! no fucking web presence!)…epitome of East Bay punk culture…former Green Day roadie…former drummer for bands like Crimpshrine & Pinhead Gunpowder whom no one much cares about but are legendary in their subcultures and have great names…a modern day Jack Kerouac…

I’m cribbing most of this from Wikipedia but, still, it gets his essence across — albeit not quite as well as this recent Amoeba Records blog post. Point being, he lives an authentic, coherent, no bullshit, beautiful kind of existence. His means are equal to his ends. His modes of execution match his intentions. His work is rooted in real communities, and is addressed to real communities, not imagined psychographic profiles.

I’d never seen a picture of the dude before doing a Google image search while writing this post. It’s unlikely you have either. Cometbus is about as internet-unfriendly as any person can get these days. More likely is the possibility that you’ve seen a copy of his equally internet-unfriendly zine tucked away in the magazine stand of your favorite independent bookshop, record store, or anarcho-vegan-co-op-type situation. Here’s what it looks like when it’s not tucked away.


I recently purchased issue #53 and came across a quote from that speaks to the role of the Community Function in creativity which I would like to share with you all.

    I call it the ninety-nine percent success story. The noble failure. Hundreds of novels lie around completed but not published, albums recorded but not pressed, tours booked then hastily cancelled, articles written but never sent. Vast and impressive castles are built, but they’re not inhabitable. Just one small nail in the right place and we could move in, but I show up with a hammer and the block my way. “No,” they say. “Not yet.”Why is everyone so scared to put in that last one percent? Having gone through the pains of labor, can they not bear to see their child leave the nest? Having own the seed and plowed the field, how can they stand by and let the fruit rot on the tree?

    As a community, it’s our duty to try to bring everyone’s creativity and ambitious plans to the fore, and to fruition, instead of passively watching and encouraging that potential to be wasted. To keep laughing, but keep the hard work and the hope that comes with it from becoming a joke. As a friend, it’s my duty to try to be that one percent.

More excerpts of the zine’s insides after the jump…
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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