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July 24, 2010

The Authenticity Hoax

Book recommendation: I'm reading a book right now which dissects the things we do to raise our status and why. Here's a paragraph from it:

We can safely say that it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars, the now centuries-long dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you've allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You've sold you, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a nonconformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the mainstream. An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.

Rousseau laid the groundwork for our understanding of the authentic self and its relationship to the modern world, and most of what is to come in this book will involve exploring the consequences of these developments and showing how the basic terms of engagement that he laid down are still the ones that dominate our approach to the questions of personal identity and the meaningful life. (Page 75)

Ultimately, none of this has anything to do with trying to be true to one's self, or trying to avoid being duped or pushed around by society or popular culture or being "authentic". Instead, it's all about status - trying to elicit a reaction from our peers. If the concert shirt we're wearing has the dates and locations of the venues of the tour, well, then, that shows our peers that we were there and so, well, aren't we cool? And if we bought that shirt 20 years ago at an actual concert in support of Piece of Mind, then our shirt means something, while identical shirts printed today and sold at Hot Topic, with the same pictures on the front and dates & locations on the back - identical reproductions - they're forgeries, hoaxes, copies...inauthentic...they're lies and steal status. If someone then washes the "reproduction" shirt repeatedly in order to make it look old, that's unforgivable. If he's caught, he's identified as a charlatan - and loses status.

The organic foods movement was about status. Rich yuppies paying 50% extra for food, claiming to be "saving the planet", were just so much better than the rest of us, weren't they? Buying organic food ("authentic" food - made by nature!) was just so cool, wasn't it? But then Whole Foods became a giant corporation, mainstreaming the whole foods movement, and worse - Wal*mart got into the act by selling organic foods at 10% above non-organic prices. If a person really thought that going organic was about saving the planet, having organic go mainstream would be a wonderful accomplishment, but the followers of organic foods reacted almost uniformly with anger - and quickly changed the subject: the issue is no longer about being organic, it's about buying local. Now, once again, only a few people can participate. They get to say, "Aren't I special?" once again, and have the foolish masses seeking to become them.

Punk rock had status...until it became mainstream.

When Levis makes 501s in the old style, then washes them with stones to distress them, and calls them "authentic", when Italian restaurants advertise themselves as "authentic Italian", we recognize the game: it's fake authenticity (like a Hot Topic reproduction t-shirt). They know it's fake, we know it's fake, and they know that we know it's fake. These people aren't the ones to worry about. The people to worry about "are the people who go to special invitation only set-menu dinners hosted by professional Italian chefs" (Page 135), who hold their experience up for the rest of us as "real authentic Italian" and set the bar for the rest of us. They're the "in crowd" - they have the "real 'authentic' Italian meal" and the "real 'authentic' Iron Maiden tour shirt" and the "real 'authentic' pair of 501s (purchased from an estate sale of someone who actually bought the jeans in the 1940s)"...and, my...aren't they special? I want to be just like them!

Show me a rebel - a "non-conformist", and I'll show you someone who is completely full of shit, a status hound - and doesn't know it.

The Authenticity Hoax
(Image is clickable.)

About the author, from the back of the book:

Andrew Potter is the coauthor of the international bestseller Nation of Rebels. A journalist and writer, he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, and he is a former assistant professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and The University of Quebec at Montreal, and was recently a visiting scholar with The Educational Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. he is currently a politics editor with the Ottawa Citizen and a public affairs columnist with Maclean's Magazine, Canada's national newsweekly. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.

How's that for status? (I sure hope his degrees are authentic - I wouldn't want to accept an argument from a person with no "real" status!)

Posted by Jeff at July 24, 2010 04:22 AM

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