Monday
Jul052010

Jeremiah Moss's diner of broken dreams

You've seen this picture a zillion times. It's Edward Hopper's famous painting, "Nighthawks," and for decades it has been held up as the perfect depiction of the empty alienation of the city. It's been endlessly rippied off and parodied, but the original 1942 painting -- ostensibly of a Greenwich Village diner -- retains its emotional original power.

So does it matter, then, that it turns out the diner never existed? In an op-ed in today's New York Times,  blogger Jeremiah Moss traces his obsession with figuring out just where the diner that Hopper painted was located. After he followed various leads into one dead end after another, he eventually learns that Hopper himself admitted the diner was a composite of sorts, of a small coffee shop he knew that he made "more so" and "simplified", in order to distill the essential portrait of "the loneliness of a large city".

This discovery comes close to breaking Moss's heart. As he puts it in terms evoking the tragedies of gentrification, it "feels like yet another terrible demolition, though no bricks have fallen."

This is in many ways the painterly equivalent to the story that opens chapter three of The Authenticity Hoax, about the discovery in Toronto of the home of Joseph Wagenbach, a reclusive German artist who died and left behind a house that was full of wistful and nostalgic objects d'art. Except he didn't, since the whole thing was an elaborate ruse by the artist Iris Haussler, a ruse designed to pump our intuitions about why we care so much about the provenance of a work of art. Why does the artist's background matter so much to us? Or in Hopper's case, why do we care so much about whether the diner actually existed or not?

The answer, I think, is that we misunderstand the nature of nostalgia. When we indulge in nostalgia, we think that we are hearkening back to a time that was simpler, more innocent, less corrupted and compromised by the daily grind. Moss is concerned mostly with gentrification and what he himself describes as "a bitterly nostalgic look" at a city that is going extinct. When it comes to "Nighthawks", the fact that the diner never existed seems to create in Moss something close to a syllogistic crisis: The painting was supposed to capture an authentic sense of the Gotham's loneliness, but also its bleak existential purity. But if the painting was of a scene that is essentially a fiction, then aren't those emotions also fictitious, QED?

This is, once again, the pernicious effects of the authenticity hoax at work. Why should the value of the emotions be dependent on the reality of the diner? Does its newly discovered status as a composite character undermine the nostalgia that Moss feels?

Perhaps it should. After all, the New York for which he is bitterly nostalgic never really existed, as a healthy read of a book like Luc Sante's Low Life will attest. New York has always been a millstone of the past -- the lack of sentimentality is the essence of the city. Moss's nostalgia, as always, is nostalgia not for the past but for the present: It is the manifestation of present disquiet or unhappiness, with the solution projected back in time into a past that never existed. If anything, that's the message of Edward Hopper's painting, which is why the discovery of its mashed-up provenance is a revelation, not a tragedy.

 

Monday
Jul052010

Selling authenticity: The Bethenny Frankel brand

One of the aspects of the authenticity hoax is that one of the underlying assumptions of the modern search for the self is that, once we strip away all of the accretions of culture – the status seeking, the masks and the false consciousness of consumer society – we'll discover a true self that is almost godlike in its innocence and creative power. But I argue that's an assumption we're not entitled to make. What we find is that while some of us do have hearts of gold, many of have hearts of darkness. In countless ways we're scared, weak, flawed and frail. Or, in the case of Bethenny Frankel, you're just a bitch.

You know Bethenny: reality tv star, author, pregnant bridezilla, and personal brand manager extraordinaire. Regarding her new show, Bethenney Getting Married, she says, "I'm never going to edit myself because then the show wouldn't be authentic."You want authenticity? Frankel will give it to you in spades. In this profile in Salon, Heather Havrilesky gets it exactly right:

Her total lack of shame and regret, in fact, make Bethenny the ultimate personal brand for the 21st century. Hiding from the public eye, trying to keep parts of your life private, not having light-hearted rejoinders and flip explanations for everything you do – these are tantamount to embracing failure these days. The media-saturated universe wants a steady flow of soundbytes, bloopers, behind-the-scenes footage, inside scoops – the more humiliating, the better. Cooperate to feed the machine exactly the sorts of calories it wants, and watch your star rise.

But authenticity is one thing, likeability is something else entirely. But who cares? In this, the age of authenticity, what we want more than anything else is disclosure. Kill off the wizard of oz, let us see behind the curtains of your life. What do you have to hide? It turns out if there's money to be made, virtues such as shame, discretion, and privacy are for chumps.

Related: Oprah Winfrey: the greatest story ever told.

(Thanks to Chris for the pointer.)

Wednesday
Jun302010

Hefner drinks stoli, creeps out entire planet

Stolichnaya, the vodka for douchebags, has hired ur-douchebag Hugh Hefner as the first celebrity pitchman in its "Would you have a drink with you?" print and tv campaign. It is hard to understand just what Ogilvy & Mather thinks the audience for this could be. Hefner? Playboy? I mean, if you're really trying to creep out your consumer base, why not get someone like Dov Charney?

Watch this, then take a long shower:

 

Tuesday
Jun292010

Authentically Barefoot

Loyal reader Paul Olfert sends along the following:

 I was watching TV today and saw an infomercial advertising a new kind of insole for your shoes that replicates the feeling of being barefoot (and thereby solves a host of back and neck problems), the way "nature intended". I suppose "nature" also intended us to be riddled with ringworm and schistosomiasis and all the other diseases avoided by adequate footwear.

Tuesday
Jun292010

The Atlantic discovers the stupid terrorists club

The Atlantic is a great magazine, and the new issue has a ton of interesting stuff in it. But one of the articles that is given a prominent sell on the cover, with the tag "Why we should mock terrorists," is hardly news. The story, written by Daniel Byman and Christine Fair, argues that we have been sold a myth of the scary, competent, well-trained Islamic terrorist. They argue that once we recognize that most of them are incompetent porn-addicted nitwits, we can make some useful adjustments to how we prosecute the war on terror:

Current U.S. public diplomacy centers on selling America to the Muslim world, but we should also work to undermine some of the myths built up around our enemies by highlighting their incompetence, their moral failings, and their embarrassing antics. Beyond changing how the Muslim world perceives terrorists, we can help ourselves make smarter counterterrorism choices by being more realistic about the profile and aptitude of would-be attackers. 

I couldn't agree more. Except, the authors act like they discovered the fact that jihadis are mostly useless. In fact, I made this exact same point six months ago in an article for Maclean's magazine. And in that piece, I conceded that I was more or less just rehashing a point that Daniel Pipes has been making since 2005, when he inaugurated his Stupid Terrorists Club. Byman and Fair suggest we call them "nitwits", but that's hardly a conceptual advance.

Pipes was widely mocked at the time by the left-wing media for his naive and confrontational views. Turns out he was just paying attention. 

 (If I sound irritated, it is because a while ago, the Atlantic published this over a year after I wrote  this.)

 

 

Tuesday
Jun292010

Some recent reviews of the Authenticity Hoax

1. From UofT magazine, The Lost Left.

2. From the Edmonton Journal: Being true to our tastes, if not to ourselves

3. From the Vancouver Sun, The drive to be authentic in the modern age

4. An interview with the lovely Megan Hustad, which was supposed to run in a Daily publication that didn't end up running it, the Beasts. 

 

Monday
Jun282010

Keen on Keen on the Brain

Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur is a useful corrective to a lot of the more breathlessly populist accounts of culture in the internet age. It's also hilarious. So the smart people over at TechCrunch gave given Keen a tv show. In the first episode, he has Nicholas Carr talking about his obscenely successful book The Internet Rots Your Mind along with Technorati big shot Kevin Marks. Smartness and english accents abound. 

More on Carr's book from me, once I read it. Read Keen's book if you haven't. 

 

Monday
Jun282010

Toronto violence: Fighting for their right to party

My city got trashed this weekend, almost entirely thanks to people who had no actual interest in seeing the G8 and G20 meetings succeeed. You can find any number of columnists and other pundit sorts blaming the protesters for what happened, but why listen to The Man when you can get it straight from the criminals themselves? As this communique on a "guerilla action" website explains the agenda: "cause some shit" and then have a party:

Get off the Fence! -- On Saturday, June 26th, we will form an anti-colonial, anti-capitalist presence to walk in solidarity with the big People First march, before continuing on towards the fence to confront the police state and Toronto's corporate culture. This action will be militant and confrontational, seeking to humiliate the security apparatus and make Toronto's elites regret letting the dang G20 in here. Meet by 1pm at the Northeast corner of College and university.

Saturday Night Fever Later, from late on the 26th ‘till dawn on the 27th, come join us for a roaming street party! We will dance through the streets of Toronto to the music of guerilla DJ's and renegade bands, taking back space from the corporate spectacle that this city has become.

This isn't to let the cops off the hook. There is plenty of blame to go around for what happened in Toronto this weekend, and lots of evidence that the police frequently acted in a way that escalated the tension instead of reducing it. Furthermore, I am extremely unhappy about the "special arrest" powers that were  given to the police in secret. But only one group came to Toronto with the express aim of causing mayhem. Naomi Klein, of course, blames the governments.

 

Friday
Jun252010

On "acting white"

John McWhorter has an interesting review of what looks to be an important new book on the pernicious conception of black authenticity, and how it feeds into the rejection of scholarly achievment as "acting white":

It was the demise of segregation, of all things, that helped pave the way for the “acting white” charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white students in larger numbers than ever before. White students were often openly hostile, and white teachers only somewhat less so. Black teachers and administrators from the old black schools often lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, black students started modeling themselves against white ones as a form of self-protection.

 

Friday
Jun252010

Soccer styles and national identity

As side-reading for the World Cup, I’ve been reading Inverting the Pyramid, by the UK journalist Jonathan Wilson. It is simply the best book on the evolution of strategy in sport that I’ve ever read. It is a tremendous corrective to one of the biggest failings of sports journalism, which is that lack of strategic insight into what is happening on the field. (Hockey journalism in Canada is the absolute worst at this – see my friend Wayne’s post at his sports blog for the grim details of what is wrong).

What Wilson does is tell the history of soccer through the changes in the strategic deployment of players, or what he calls “shape”. It’s the tale of the transition from the 2-3-5 system we were all taught as children, to the fully inverted 4-4-2 (and its many variations).

What I’ve found fascinating is the way both shape and the “style” a team adopts within a given shape was from the start caught up in political questions and anxieties of national identity. More interesting still is that the early styles adopted at the international level by different countries are the same stereotypical traits that we attribute to their teams today. The British are suspicious of technique, preferring a more direct boot-and-run game. The Germans are clinical, the Italians defensive, the Brazilians obsessed with individual flair. That’s how they are, and how they’ve always been.

It is easy to see why distinct national styles would have emerged a hundred years ago, when countries were isolated and the games evolved according to local conditions. But today’s game is thoroughly global, the players cross-pollinating the top national leagues throughout Europe. Why, when they go back to play for their national side, do they fall into decades-old manners of play? I can think of a few explanations:

1. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe the idea of national styles or characteristics is something that is subject to huge confirmation bias. We project onto the Brazilians more flair than they are actually showing, or when we watch the Germans we automatically start looking for evidence of cold-hearted, clinical play.

I think there is something to this. The variations of play have certainly converged over the decades, there is far less variation between countries than there was even a few decades ago. If you think of the comparison with political ideologies: Once upon a time there was a great deal of variation and “live” options. But just as the West reached something like the end of history ideologically, we’ve reached something similar with soccer. The differences between countries are on the margins, reflected less in overall strategy than in slight differences in style and – perhaps most noticeably – in attitudes toward sportsmanship.

2. National playing styles endure because of some version of what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls the “looping effect”: agents often find themselves internalizing and acting out the traits and characteristics of the social “kind” or category in which they find themselves slotted. Hacking has explored how this works in various psychological pathologies, but you can see how it would work in soccer: the fans, the media, even the coaches have a sense of what it means to be, say, an “Italian” soccer player, and the players themselves take pride in that, and start to play according to that stereotype. This loops back on itself and becomes remarkably self-preserving.

3. In a moment of crazy serendipity, as I was thinking about this yesterday, via the excellent The Browser I came across a blog post from the economist Rajiv Sethi, in which he asks virtually the same question, but he comes at it from the angle of asking why diving remains so prevalent in soccer. Borrowing some ideas from a paper on organizational behaviour by Jean Tirole, he argues that once an organization has an established “collective” identity, it becomes rational for new entrants to adopt and sustain that identity. With respect to diving, he writes:

Groups consist of overlapping cohorts, with older members mixed in with newer ones. Those older members who have behaved "badly" in the past and thus ruined their reputations have no incentive to behave "well" currently. But suspicion also falls on the newer members, who cannot be perfectly distinguished from the older ones. This suspicion alters incentives in such a manner as to make it self-fulfilling. Even if the entire group would benefit from a change in reputation, this may be impossible to accomplish.

 


Thursday
Jun242010

nationalism as brand loyalty

One subject that I really wanted to write more about in The Authenticity Hoax was nationalism. The idea was to come at it from the angle of nationalism as a form of brand loyalty: Benedict Anderson famously described nations as “imagined communities”, which strikes me as in many ways analogous to the way Harley Davidson riders or Doc Martens wearers or Apple computer users form a virtual tribe based on their consumption of certain brand identities.

Then a few years ago the “nation branding” meme took off, and I thought I was on to something, and I wanted to drill down and expose many of the post-Herderian myths about nationalism as part of the authenticity hoax. I wrote a bunch of stuff on it that didn’t end up making it into the book (some of the remainders are in chapter 7), but it’s a subject I’m still really interested in. Maybe it’s because I’m a Canadian, and the question of our national identity (or brand, it amounts to the same thing) is something we’re still trying to figure out.

And so, a the soccer-mad world cocks half an eye at the goings-on in Hunstville and Toronto, Toronto’s online magazine The Mark presents a timely look at just what sort of image, or brand, Canada should be presenting on the global stage. It’s a fun series of short essays, with a mostly impressive list of contributors: Two former prime ministers, a bunch of academics and policy wonks, and, well, me.

What is Canada’s most exportable trait? Kim Campbell suggests it is our approach to federalism, while Eddie Greenspon proposes “Open foreign policy”. My own view is that an effective nation brand can’t be too narrow (which is why I think Paul Martin’s “banking genius” won’t work), and it shouldn’t be tied to a moral trait, which is why I’m not keen on Judith Shamian’s “Clever compassion”.

I suggest “responsible government” as our nation brand, although I intend it in a much broader sense than it is taught in civics 101. Of the other suggestions, I think Tom Axworthy’s “Charter government” is probably the one with the best chance of success.

More on nation branding: An interview I did with nation branding guru Nicolas Papadopoulos, and  what I think is the second ever column I wrote for Maclean’s, on the prospects and perils of nation brands. And not unrelated: My latest column on soccer and partisanship.

 

Wednesday
Jun232010

Some authenticity links

1. An Algerian soccer players slaps a female reporter -- she smacks him back.

2. We're all gonna die.

3. The Evolution of the Hipster.

4. Diesel's Be Stupid campaign wins a prize at Cannes.

4.5 Art exhibit on the branding of heroin.

5. The Bixi anthem:

Wednesday
Jun232010

The Organic Shuffle

Why is organic so important? Ask its adherents, and you'll get anyone of half a dozen or so answers: Organic farming is more sustainable. It is smaller scale. The produce is more nutritious. It has a smaller carbon footprint. It tastes better.

Having a scattershot of moral justifications for what amounts to yuppie salad is helpful, because it means that when one argument fails, you can always point to one of the other ones as the one you really care about. And so when it came out last year that organic produce had no significant nutritional benefits over conventional, the response was, "well, it's more sustainable, that's what matters."

But is it? The evidence for the superior sustainablity of organic farming has never been strong, and it got even weaker today with the release of a study from researchers at Guelph University who found that organic pesticides are frequently worse than their convention equivalents because they require higher doses, and aren't as effective because they are less selective in their targetting of pests.

Guelph prof Rebecca Hallet nails it with this remark: “There is a general assumption among the public that if a compound is natural it’s going to be safer than something that’s synthetic,” Prof. Hallett said. “This research shows that’s not necessarily the case.”

Of course, the organic fetishists aren't fazed. After all, organic farming was never about carbon emissions, or farming techniques, or nutrition. Nope, it's about culture:

The culture and approach of organic farming is what distinguishes it from conventional farming, organic farmer David Cohlmeyer said. He runs Cookstown Greens, which supplies organic produce to restaurants and hotels in Ontario. Organic pesticides are “irrelevant” to his business, he said.

“When you’re doing it right, you don’t have pest problems,” Mr. Cohlmeyer said. “We don’t use any pesticides because we don’t need to.”

Related: Rob Horning's post on Freegan Identity

 

Monday
Jun212010

Bodega chic: the case of Urban Outfitters (UPDATED)

UPDATE: Anton Troianovski at the WSJ has pictures of the proposed storefront. Yeah, it looks goofy, but I still don't see what the fuss is about. The first comment on Anton's blog seems right to me. 

****

Urban Outfitters is opening a store at Broadway and 100th that won't be like the usual UO store. Instead, it will be an exercise in "bodega chic", where the storefront will be split into four distinct false fronts: a hat store, a hardware store, a neighborhood bar and a bodega. According to the store's designer, "The whole idea was to do this kind of ironic statement of lining the building with storefronts that would be reminiscent of independent businesses."

Avi over at the Westside Independent is ticked. He sees it as the real-life version of "derelicte", the homeless-chic clothing line parodied in Zoolander. "Welcome to our fake community," he writes.

Except it's hard to see how this is anything more than the application of the urban outfitters product line to the store itself. After all, UO's entire success was built on selling fake or kistschy versions of retro, bohemian, and vintage styles. And sure, the "ironic" aspect of it all is a bit annoying, but as I argue in my book, there's actually something refreshingly honest about the "fake authentic". What we really need to be on our guard against are the subtler ways of exploiting the authentic, something that New Yorkers are more familiar with than just about anyone on Earth. What's more pernicious - Urban Outfitters' for-the-masses fake authentic, or the all-too earnest authenticity mongering where ecxlusivity is obtained through price discrimination, or -- worse -- social connections?

(via @davidreevely)

Monday
Jun212010

How suburban values saved New York

That's pretty much the gist of my article in yesterday's New York Post. I like the lede graph:

Aside from the perennial concerns over real estate prices and where to find the latest novelty food, nothing causes New Yorkers more anxiety than the safety of their city. But while for ages the worry was that New York was too violent, the growing sense is that it is now far too safe. For more than a decade now, people have worried that Manhattan has turned into “Manhattanland,” an urban theme park suitable only for tourists. Worse, the relentless steamroller of gentrification seems to be steadily transforming all of the five boroughs into one giant homogeneous suburb.