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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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