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Realer than you

Andrew Potter: How did authenticity become the hot new status symbol?


 

How did authenticity become the new status symbol

Photograph by John Elk III/Loney Planet Images

In the summer of 2008, a 28-year-old French engineer named Florent Lemaçon, his wife, Chloé, and their three-year-old son, Colin, embarked on what looked to be the trip of a lifetime. After quitting their jobs, the Lemaçons set sail from France in a boat into which they had poured their life savings, a restored yacht named the Tanit. Their destination was Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, and to help them sail around the clock, the Lemaçons had picked up another couple. As the Tanit left Egypt and headed down into the Indian Ocean, they spoke to a French frigate that strongly advised them to turn back from a journey that would take them into some of the most lawless, pirate-infested waters in the world.

The undaunted adventurers continued on their way, and over the weekend of April 4, 2009, they were seized by Somali pirates intent on taking their five hostages back to the mainland, where they would be harder to find and, hence, easier to ransom. After negotiations with the pirates broke down, French commandos launched a rescue operation during which four of the Tanit crew were rescued. Mr. Lemaçon was killed during the ensuing gunfight, perhaps by friendly fire as he tried to duck down into the yacht’s cabin.

On a blog the couple kept of their trip, the Lemaçons wrote: “The danger is there and has indeed become greater over the past months, but the ocean is vast?.?.?.?the pirates must not be allowed to destroy our dream.” And their dream, as they told everyone who would listen, was to protect their son, Colin, from the depraved elements of the modern world, especially the sterile government and its officious bureaucracy, the shallowness of the mass media, and the meaninglessness of consumer society and its destructive environmental impact. “We don’t want our child to receive the sort of education that the government is concocting for us,” Florent told a French newspaper. “We have got rid of the television and everything that seemed superfluous to concentrate on what is essential.”

The story of a disillusioned young man looking for meaning outside the iron cage of modern life was a cliché even by the time Henry David Thoreau went off to Walden Pond, and Florent Lemaçon is not the first person to get himself killed while searching for a leaner and less complicated mode of existence. Indeed, for all their recklessness, there is nothing remotely eccentric about what the Lemaçons were searching for. The object of their desire, the “essential” core of life, is something called authenticity, and finding the authentic has become the foremost spiritual quest of our time. It is a quest that takes place at the intersection of some of our culture’s most controversial issues: environmentalism and the market economy, personal identity and consumer culture, and artistic expression and the meaning of life.

Here is a short but somewhat representative list of brands, people, products or services that have been promoted in recent years on the grounds that they are authentic: Italian cuisine, Chinese cuisine, American cuisine, Canadian cuisine, Coca-Cola, distressed jeans, distressed guitars, skateboards, independent bookstores, typewriters, chainsaws, Twitter, blogs, comments on blogs, ecotourism, Communist tourism, slum tourism, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, Susan Boyle, the Mini Cooper, the Volkswagen Beetle, Cuba, Bhutan, organic coffee, organic produce, local produce, the 100-mile diet, the 100-mile suit, urban lofts, urban lofts with no-flush toilets, and mud floors in suburban homes.

In various guises, the authentic is seen as an answer to the individual need for spiritual meaning and self-fulfillment, for an engaged and egalitarian politics, for living arrangements based on community and trust, and for a progressive economy that is local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. Yet it has also become, ironically, the principal form of status competition in contemporary life—what economists call a “positional good,” one that gets its value from serving as a measure of social rank or one-upmanship.

Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth. The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.

That model of status is pretty much obsolete. Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.” The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.

But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.

Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques or objets d’art that can’t be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialized parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin or farmhouse somewhere, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.

What makes conspicuous authenticity so seductive and appealing is the twist it puts on Thorstein Veblen’s insight that in order to be successful, the signs of conspicuous display need to portray themselves as at least superficially useful or socially beneficial. That is, the display needs to masquerade as something other than what it really is, which is status-seeking. And so recall how the old 19th-century aristocrats spent their “leisure” time hunting, or learning obscure languages, while late 20th-century counterculturalists masked their cool-hunting under the guise of a principled rejection of fascistic conformity.

Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by making the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide you with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet. This essential fusion of the two ideals of the privately beneficial and the morally praiseworthy is the bait-and-switch at the heart of the authenticity hoax. This desire for the personal and the public to align explains why so much of what passes for authentic living has a do-gooder spin to it.

Recognizing that authenticity is a positional good with a built-in self-radicalizing dynamic helps us make sense of some seemingly bizarre behaviour. The fetish for the public display of emotion, which exploded into our popular culture with the death of Princess Diana and whose embers are tended by Oprah Winfrey’s cult of self-obsessed sentimentality, can be understood as a form of radically conspicuous authenticity. The pathological concern over the origin and content of our food, accompanied by an almost religious belief in the evils of industrial production and the virtues of organic farming, has a similar etiology. The hysteria over global warming that has led to calls for North Americans to give up flying, give up driving, give up meat, give up toilet paper, give up light bulbs—everything, that is, short of giving up living—is almost entirely driven by a ratchet of authenticity one-upmanship that progressively rejects more and more of the comforts and privileges of modern life. Next thing you know, the hyper-rich are sleeping on mud floors, like poverty-stricken Aboriginals in the outback.

We can safely ignore people who go to a restaurant that advertises “authentic Italian cuisine,” and we can laugh at friends who rent an “authentic log cabin” on a crowded lake in cottage country. What we need to worry about are the people who go to invitation-only set-menu dinners hosted by professional Italian chefs, or who own cabins on remote, closed-development lakes in northern Ontario or the Gulf Islands. These are the people who are setting the bar for everyone else, whose privilege does not manifest itself as mere privilege, but as the successful discovery of the rare fruit of authenticity. It is precisely because only a few can partake of this sort of implicit, genuine authenticity that there is a market for the more explicit, fake kind. Just as the phenomenon of keeping up with the Joneses must be blamed on the Joneses for starting the competition in the first place, the one-way ratchet of the search for authenticity is the fault of those who set the bar, not those who try to meet it.

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Adapted from The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, by Andrew Potter, published by McClelland & Stewart this week.


 

Realer than you

  1. I don't know.. is it really bad to prefer a little apartment in Barcelona to hanging out with 1 million brits in Ibiza?

  2. "What we need to worry about are the people who go to invitation-only set-menu dinners hosted by professional Italian chefs, or who own cabins on remote, closed-development lakes in northern Ontario or the Gulf Islands."

    No, no we don't. Seriously.

  3. A one trick pony.

  4. "Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth."

    Really? And this is based on what? Or maybe it is just an empty opinion, based on your limited knowledge of the world and without anything to sustain it.

    "These are the people who are setting the bar for everyone else".

    Are they? No-one I know is consumed with this sort of posing.

    How do you get paid for this kind of tripe.

    • While I'll freely admit to hating on Andrew Potter, I'd argue that it is completely justified. He writes in an unnecessarily opaque manner and has a tendency to jump to conclusions not supported by what he writes.

      I mean, it could just be that as he say, I'm "stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy" and don't recognize that I'm somehow chasing status like this, but I can't see why I should care about people who want to hire chefs or live in isolated cabins.

      • I can't see why I should care about people who want to hire chefs or live in isolated cabins.

        That's your option. But what's the point of posting about how much you hate the guy's writing? If you hate it enough, just ignore him and, if enough people agree with you, eventually he'll go away.

        I found the article interesting. Not in an, 'Ah ha! Potter revealed the light," kind of way. But more just an interesting perspective on how a particular consumer subculture is changing. I've seen it plenty in people around me (both in the twenty-somethings I hang out with, and in the baby boomers I talk to as well).

        Its like people watching. Its interesting because people are weird.

        • Potter can't expect to throw out a lot of vague generalizations based on a few half-baked thoughts and not expect to get some flak. He has written much better stuff than this, and Maclean's has published a lot better stuff.

          I expect he will survive my flea-bite criticisms but if these comment pages are not an opportunity to give some critical feedback, then I don't know what they are for.

          • How do you get paid for this kind of tripe.

            Classy.

          • Hey – I got cut off this morning driving to work…gotta vent somewhere.

        • I am in an bit of an odd position with regards to most of the articles Andrew Potter writes: I find the topics he chooses to write about interesting, but I really dislike how he writes. I complain in the hope that maybe Mr. Potter might change how he chooses to write, to make his writing more easily accessible and perhaps even more useful by either better explaining some of statements he makes or avoiding statements that require huge jumps in logic.

          I don't want him to stop writing and go away by any stretch.

  5. I can't see why I should care about people who want to hire chefs or live in isolated cabins.

    That's your option. But what's the point of posting about how much you hate the guy's writing? If you hate it enough, just ignore him and, if enough people agree with you, eventually he'll go away.

    I found the article interesting. Not in an, 'Ah ha! Potter revealed the light," kind of way. But more just an interesting perspective on how a particular consumer subculture is changing. I've seen it plenty in people around me (both in the twenty-somethings I hang out with, and in the baby boomers I talk to as well).

    Its like people watching. Its interesting because people are weird.

  6. Total garbage armchair anthropology. I can't believe a publisher paid for this.

  7. My problem with the premise, not having read the book, is that you can make anything into authenticity as status. So, if I want to ride my bike to work and my neighbour doesn't, am I opening myself up to the claim that I am seeking status? If I say that I want to live without trash pop music, is that real or fake-authentic? I don't understand. If I buy a fixie and ride it around with a messenger bag, I am being a hipster doofus, sure, but am I engaged in a quest for authenticity, or have I just found a peer group and I want to be like them (which to the best of my knowledge has been prevalent since the dawn of time).

    What I am getting at is that there seems to be no value judgement here. If it is in fact better for the world/me to ride my bike, then I am making an informed decision. If it has no effect on anyone else (such as the fixie) then who cares. If it results in someone getting killed as a result of Somali prates then it is just bad.

  8. I fail to see why the pursuit of authenticity or it's cheaper substitutes is a problem. Sure, it's fun to quietly mock those who cover their insecurity with shows of snobbery and trendiness but, really, the materialism part does no harm. It is the conspicuous morality and demands for everyone to join in their delusions that is the real problem. By all means, Live Green and Prosper but don't force your religion on everyone else.

  9. I agree with much of the comment here. "Lych" put it perfectly: 'He writes in a unnecessarily opaque manner and has a tendency to jump to conclusions not supported by what he writes.'. I'll say. Or Chris B: 'you can make anything into authenticity as status.'. That's pretty much it. I'm concerned about getting the money together this month to both pay my taxes and rent while not getting sufficient shifts at work – so in this regard it helps that I don't own a car and take the subway, because otherwise it would be too expensive and I wouldn't be able to afford it. So yeah, I'm totally keeping it real. But wait, Potter has now exposed me to really being a fraud riddled with a false consciousness. I'm just a phony, only doing it because it makes me look cool. Yesterday the subway shut down because of a power outage and I had to get out schlep it down Bloor street with a mass of all my other status seekers – that was even cooler. You should have seen us laughing at all the fakes in their cars.

    Very, very weak sauce that becomes even more weak that closer you look at it.

    Kind of weird really.

    I would suggest that Potter is really just friends with all the right people and that probably more than anything is why he gets to publish this pointless nothingness, but that would expose me as the person I really am – riddled with envy.

  10. This guy at work told me the other day that he totally banged this chick, must have been 'like thirty times' last weekend and in that moment I will admit I did feel slightly insecure and wonder why that couldn't have been me. Why was he having more fun than me? I will cop to that, as I saw her later at the bar and she was totally hot. And he never even mentioned anything about 'a closed-development lake' or even an 'invitation only set dinner menu hosted by an professional Italian chef'.

    On the way home I stopped at McDonald's and ordered the southwest chicken sandwich and medium fries. It was the only place open.

    I'm the man. Eat it Potter.

  11. I'm too focussed on keeping body and soul together and a roof over my head to be 'authentic"and go for mud floors – darn it!

  12. I think the mistake is equating young, white, urban, university-educated people with 'everyone.' What you say rings true for a lot of my more hipstery/yupstery friends, but I know as many people who are just as happy to have a nice suburban house, a family, car, and the occasional resort vacation. Whether we think this authenticity-seeking is good or bad we shouldn't act like 'everyone' is doing it.

  13. Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques or objets d'art that can't be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialized parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin or farmhouse somewhere, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.

    No, no, no & no. But, then, I was into anti-authenticity before anti-authenticity became cool.

    Continued…

  14. …continued.

    Andrew, I have no doubt that your book will be an interesting read, but I might suggest a bit more of a catchy tease than, well, than this. So our vanity fashion has stumbled upon this for now. So what? At a certain point in my life, it was designer jeans, or disco, or anything-but-disco, or drugs, or cigarettes, or sex, or sex-with-anything-that-moves, or no sex at all just to prove we could manage without, or having the coolest car, or having a mini-van, or having no car at all. Now we're into solar-panels, or geo-thermal holes in the ground, or a compost bin in the backyard. In a few years it'll be something else. Help me out here; why should I buy this book and read it? And wouldn't it be more, um, authentic, to put my name on the wait-list at the community library instead?

  15. I read this story about a Montreal woman named "Jade" who got lost at sea off the coast of Chile. Everything I read about her incensed me, from her husband grieving on a beach in Thailand to the fact that she gave up a career in "banking" (read: teller) to become a holistic healer.

    Jade was, of course, complaining that her ship's captain was overly strict, that he expected his orders to be followed without question. No kidding? I'm not sure what Jade was expecting.

    Anyway, Potter's commentary certainly helps me better understand why people like Jade drive me crazy. I will certainly pick up a copy of The Authenticity Hoax.

  16. "the one-way ratchet of the search for authenticity is the fault of those who set the bar, not those who try to meet it." Doctor Potter please heal thyself for you are the very one (contributing to) setting the bar!
    There is little wrong with getting real – sadly too many people look to others or to purchase it instead of just being themselves – the ultimate in authenticity n'est pas?

  17. this reminds me of the Steve Martin standup routine where he asked every non-conformist to take the non-conformist pledge of allegiance.

  18. Andrew:
    Just finished The Authenticity Hoax. A very thoughtful and entertaining book, the first work of pure philosophy I've read outside of research in years. I'm so happy to have met you and had the opportunity to share the stage in Montreal at whatever that brunchish event was. I hope the book does well for you. I'll certainly sing its praises in my little circles. Here's to keeping it realer.

  19. Conspicuous authenticity is nothing new. People have tried to be conspicuous about something or other (power, sexiness…) ever since chimp times. And ever since Biblical times (or earlier?) when a trader has got a rep for selling a fast cheap deal to shallow conspicuousness-seekers, somebody else has probably come along and countered by selling "authenticity."

  20. In the summer of 2008, a 28-year-old French engineer named Florent Lemaçon wanted to escape his semi-enslavement by a corrupt world. To have some freedom, independence, and privacy. For this, he was killed.

    In April 14, 2010, Andrew Potter twisted this tragic event into one in which Mr. Lemaçon was being cliche, trying to flaunt, showboat, and get attention.

    So I call rubbish. Sorry. IMO Mr. Potter should not so freely poop on dead people not alive to defend themselves. Respect them, and their dreams, especially the hard ones, like Mr. Lemaçon.