The Paradox of Authenticity

Over at the website Opensource.com, Chris Grams has an interview with Jim Gilmore, co-author of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. I get name checked in the discussion, which is pretty cool, since it was the Gilmore/Pine book that convinced me that I was on to something, anyway, with the Authenticity Hoax.

The conversation is interesting throughout, though I especially liked this part, about the "paradox of authenticity":

  • If you are authentic, you don’t have to say you’re authentic.
  • If you say you’re authentic, then you’d better be authentic.
  • It’s easier to be authentic, if you don’t say you’re authentic.

A few things. First, this is remarkably similar to Gladwell's three laws of cool, first articulated in his famous essay, the cool hunt. Second, it is close to the point I make in chapter four of AH, when I point out that authenticity is like charisma: if you have to say you have it, then you don't. That is why marketing authenticity is so difficult -- the minute you make it an explicit selling point, the audience is on to you, and they'll likely flee.


The doomsday hoax

The Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner has a nice column today taking apart the central arguments of yet another book predicting environmental degredation, economic decline, resource exhaustion, all followed by pestliance, war, famine etc. Rinse, repeat, points out Gardner, we've all heart it a million times before.

The book in question this time is Bill McKibben's Eaarth, but it could have been any one of dozens of identical books published over the past while. Or, one should add, identical bestselling books, since the public appetite for this stuff seems insatiable. On the other hand, as John Tierney wrote in this week's NYTimes, reviewing the new Matt Ridley book: "Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list."

Do the planet a favour. Read Ridley.


Authenticity, cash, and hip hop

The WSJ today has a mildly depressing piece about the stalled efforts to raise money for a national museum of hip hop. It has come under fire from some hip hop pioneers who have declared the museum "illegitimate", because it aims to profit off their efforts without giving them due recognition, or even a cut of the proceeds. One gala, designed to raise money for the museum, degenerated into acrimony and anger: 

In attendance was Melle Mel, a rapper with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who accused institutions like the Smithsonian of profiting from the pioneers' accomplishments. He shouted, "I'm in the Furious 5—not the Happy 5!"

Now they have gone on to form the Universal Federation for Preservation of Hip Hop Culture, a union aimed at extracting revenue for hop-hop pioneers from any future projects. The spokesman for the group appears to be KRS-One, who said "They deserve to get paid. This wouldn't be a gift. More like an honorarium for scholars."

This all might sound ridiculous, gangsta posturing by one-hit wonders from the seventies. But there are some genuine and legitimate concerns here. The first is that, like is often the case with new art forms, it's the ones who came later who benefited most, adapting the work of the avant garde for more mainstream consumption. And probably more than most art forms, hip hop pioneers came from poverty and in many cases remain so. Given that most of them are simply not that old right now, it must really grate to see the incredible fortunes being won by rappers who are less original, and perhaps less talented, than the pioneers.

To that extent, the KRS-One is probably on to something. Why not a union of sorts, that could create a trust fund or sort of pension for guys like Melle Mel?





Three books about what it's all about

At their invitation, I wrote up this little spiel for NPR's "Three Books" feature on their website. They declined to post it on the grounds that it is "pretentious". So here you go -- a little pretentiousness to get you through the night. I highly recommend all three of these books.


Three books about what it’s all about
By Andrew Potter

We live in a world dominated by the fraudulent, the prepackaged and the artificial. From fast food to “reality” TV, Lady Gaga to James Frey, lying politicians to the bad faith of our Facebook “friends”, we are awash in fakery and illusion. Emerging out of this bleak cultural landscape is a movement centered on the notion of “authenticity”: the honest, the natural, the real. This is the growing search for the essential core of life, and finding the authentic has become the foremost spiritual quest of our time.

Except more often than not, the search for the authentic causes the very problems it was designed to solve. From organic produce to eco-tourism, from the cult of Oprah to the obsession with Obama, what seemed authentic ends up looking like just another marketing strategy, or another public mask that hides the truth beneath.

We need a new approach. Here are three books, all by philosophers of a sort, that begin with discussions of mundane or technical topics in disparate fields, only to get us to a place that shows us how the trick is not to solve our deepest spiritual anxieties, but rather to help our minds get to a space where the problems simply dissolve.

The Tao is Silent, by Raymond M. Smullyan, paperback, 240 pages, HarperOne, list price $14.00

What’s the difference between China and the West? In the West, we take naps, while Chinese people simply sleep when they are tired. That’s one of the first and best insights of this delightful little book. Smullyan is a logician by profession, who also happens to be a magician, a concert pianist, and Taoist philosopher. He integrates all of these in a way that plays off the tensions and affinities between Western and Eastern ways of thinking about the world. The highlight of the book is an extended dialogue between God and a Mortal, which dances over questions of free will, the non-religious origins of morality, and why children are such great philosophers.

Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas R. Hofstadter, paperback, 832 pages,  Basic Books, list price $29.95

Hofstadter is best known as the wunderkind author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 34. But I prefer this long and extraordinary book that is nominally about the nature of translation, but which takes the reader on a delirious look at the underlying “patterns” that are the essence of music, poetry, humour, typography, and artificial intelligence. Always lurking over the reader’s shoulder is the knowledge that the book is dedicated to the memory of Hofsatder’s wife, Carol, who died suddenly in 1993 from a brain tumor. The bittersweet result is that we are brought, inadvertently, to a theory of immortality: All life is a pattern, and Carol lives on in the multiple ways her life pattern is intertwined with those whom she knew and loved.

Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life, by Mark Kingwell, 256 pages, paperback, Penguin, list price $15.00

Mark Kingwell is a Canadian philosopher who has written books on political philosophy, aesthetics, architecture, and booze. But probably his best book is this memoir of sorts, built around a fishing trip to Kelowna, British Columbia that Kingwell took a few years ago with his father and two brothers. The trip begins with Mark the Skeptic declaring, “I will not fish,” and it ends a few days later with the philosopher soundly converted to the Brotherhood of the Angle. Along the way, Kingwell uses the intersection of writing, fishing and philosophy to work out familiar philosophical problems about the relationship between thought and action, skill and consciousness, and the deep existential problem of procrastination. Ultimately, we are left with a sort of Zen koan as written by Izaak Walton:

Q. What is the meaning of life?

A. Let’s go fishing!


The Singularity of Mark Zuckerberg

In chapter 5 of the Authenticity Hoax, I explore the relationship between a) the idea of personal authenticity as a situation of complete transparency to the world, where our inner and outer selves are in complete accord, and b) our Oprahfied culture of promiscuous sentimentality, and the trend toward complete disclosure and neglect of privacy online, especially through Facebook.

Facebook and privacy is something that is very much in the news right now, especially given that Mark Zuckerberg himself seems to be waging a one-man jihad against privacy. There has been very little written though that puts it in a proper theoretical framework, though this blog entry does a nice job of setting the table. The very short gist of it is that it is easy for privileged white males like Zuckerberg to advance the idea of the transparent, unitary self, it neglects the way duality, irony, and ambuguity are useful strategies for marginalized and oppressed people.

Very interesting throughout.



How not to defend the liberal arts

Spend long enough studying philosophy, and eventually someone — most likely a member of your family — is going to ask, “what are you going to do with that?” It’s a tough question to answer, since philosophy isn’t really something you do something with, like a screwdriver. It’s more like something you just do — like fly fishing. But academic philosophy, like every other department in the university, is in the selling game, trying to attract customers and the money they bring, money that enables you and your colleagues to keep doing philosophy.

And so during my time in academia, I spent a number of days at university fairs, these events in big convention-style halls where you set up a little booth, pile a few texbooks in front of you, and wait for prospective students to wander by. And when they do — parents hovering skeptically in the background — they want to know why they should study philosophy. One year, I remember manning the booth with a fellow grad student, and we had come up with what we thought was a pretty clever sales pitch. “It’s great preparation for law school,” we told our customers. “Think of it as like cross-training for your brain.” etc.

The truth is, neither of us really had two clues why anyone should study philosophy, or what you would do with it. It didn’t really bother us though, since philosophy was interesting, we were young and curious, and the harder, more pressing questions seemed a long way off. But the fact that the best we could do by way of justification for philosophy was its instrumental or technocratic benefits says a lot about our own disciplinary insecurity and the ideological tenor of the times (which, it has to be said, has only intensified over the last decade).

So that’s one bad way of defending philosophy (feel free to substitute your own favoured discipline for “philosophy”). The value of studying philosophy can’t be that it’s a form of preparation for law school, or that it provides a sophisticated critical/analytic training for your brain.

But at the same time, the liberal arts has to be useful in some sense, doesn’t it? I say this because there is a defense of the “squishy subjects” that makes the opposite error, by making their value far too, well, squishy. A case in point is a recent piece by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution, which was printed in the Wall Street Journal. According to Berkowitz, the true aim of liberal education is to prepare citizens for the proper exercise of freedom. “Education for freedom” or “Education for citizenship” is an old idea; here’s Berkowitz’s version of it:

How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life? How can one pass reasoned judgment on public policy if one is ignorant of the principles of constitutional government, the operation of the market, the impact of society on perception and belief and, not least, the competing opinions about justice to which democracy in America is heir?

This makes me more or less uncomfortable, depending on how we are interpret the thesis. On a “strong” interpretation, Berkowitz comes close to saying that only people who have studied the liberal arts are truly indepedent thinkers and are positioned to judge public policy. At the extreme, only these people are truly citizens. I’ve never really been persuaded by these sorts of arguments, and it strikes me as a dangerous route for the defenders to take by moralizing the study of the liberal arts. It is a commonly held position in academic circles though — more than a few humanities profs console themselves with the thought that even if they aren’t as important or as well paid as the hotshots in the sciences or engineering faculties, at least they are better people.

A weaker version of the thesis says something like the following: A healthy society provides a cadre of intellectuals with the time, space, money, and resources to think deeply and broadly about all sorts of questions. The goal of these inquiries is not “freedom” or “citizenship”, and it certainly isn’t more questions. The answers matter because the questions matter, though their  practicality or application may not be always relevant or obvious. But it is worth having people think and argue about all sorts of things: immigration, equality, justice, voting behaviour, constitutionalism, race, culture, language, class and on and on, because we don’t really know what sort of problems we’ll face as a society.

On this view of things, the liberal arts work sort of the same way as your immune system. Your immune system doesn’t know what specific invasions it will face, so it just generates billions of shapes of antibodies, hoping that one of them will match the relevant antigen. I could go on, except I seem to have arrived at pretty much the same answer given by my colleague at Maclean's magazine, Paul Wells, in his excellent essay on the subject, which you must read if you haven’t yet.

The upshot: Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems. Study history if you are interested in problems in history. Etc. If you are lucky, you will have an interesting career. If you are very good and also very lucky, your work will be relevant and useful.


Meli Melo

1. Here's an interview I did on authentiticy and tourism with an editor at World Hum. One of the most re-tweeted things I've ever been part of, I have to say it is astonishing to see how inarticulate I am in print. It's all "sort of" this and "kind of" that. Ugh.

2. The first press I did for the book was an interview with Fateema Sayani at Ottawa Magazine. I'm pleased with all of it except for the godawful picture.

3. I did an interview this week with Hollie Shaw of the National Post, commenting on Pepsi's new excursion into social entrepreneurship. A twenty minute discussion gets boiled down to one short quote, sort of like maple syrup.

4. Finally, the Australian media continue to surprise me with their intriguing choices of excerpts from the book. The website Matilda recently excerpted one of my favourite passages in the book, one from the third chapter on art. It is available here.


Truth and Truthiness

One of the themes in The Authenticity Hoax is the significant conceptual overlap between the terms "authentic", "bullshit," and "thruthiness". Still, I wish I had been able to devote more space to making the underlying strucure a bit clearer, because the fact that "authenticity" (as it is used in the Oprah sense of the word") is very much "bullshit" (in the Frankfurtian sense). And that is something that bears deeper analysis. 

Today a reader sent me this essay by Anne Elizabeth Moore, that goes a long way to filling that gap. She begins by suggesting that the fact that authenticity, "one of our most significant driving cultural forces of the last five years can imply both 'truth' and the deliberately falsities that confirm personal belief systems known as 'truthiness' should probably appall."

Just so. What follows is a long but very thoughtful essay, which is interesting throughout.


What makes a place "real"

One question that often comes up in the debate over authenticity is what makes one place, or experience, or situation more "real" than another. It's a question I don't talk about much in the book, largely because I don't have a proper framework for thinking about it. Happily, there's an article in the new Atlantic by Lane Wallace (who, in addition to being very smart, has an incredible bio) that makes some very useful opening moves. As she points out, the question of what is "real" or not depends on two main factors: status, and identity. And so what counts as real for a journalist is not the same as what counts as real for a tourist, or a local, or a migrant worker. It depends on where you are socially and politically and economically. I especially like this passage:

Why do we argue so heatedly about what the "real" ... fill in the blank ... is?

I don't pretend to have all the answers to that question, although a piece of it is undoubtedly status. Knowledge is power, and a lot of smug comments about knowing the "real" character of a place have the air of an exclusionary secret handshake differentiating the cooler set who "know" from those who don't. But they can also be articulating a sense of pride in having earned that membership; in having weathered storms tourists never experience, and having learned to love a place not despite its imperfections, but because of them.

Thanks to the Handcaper for the link.


The New Dukes of the Statusphere

The very excellent Misty Harris has a piece today about a new trendwatching report that purports to be a look at the changing nature of status markers. Apparently status-seekers are moving away from the standard  forms of conspicuous consumption (car, house, jewelry, clothes, electronics, etc.), into a "statusphere" that "includes everything from a person's eco- credentials to their number of Facebook friends and knowledge of local restaurants. Think of it as the democratization of snobbery."

Well I don't know about that. If there's one idea that can be refuted from your armchair, it's that status can become democratic. But what is true is that there has been a shift, though it isn't entirely new. In fact, it is just the shift chronicled in chapter 4 of the Authenticity Hoax, where people now seek status through various forms of conspicuous authenticity.

The best quote in Misty's piece is from professor June Cotte, who says: "There's some indication that the wealthy feel guilty about having so much, and that in the face of massive unemployment, they shouldn't be showing off the biggest diamonds or newest Mercedes."

That's true. But it hardly means that the the wealthy have stopped exploiting their privilege. At least everyone''s money is the same colour, even if some have a lot more of it than others. But when status becomes less about what you have, more about who you know, that's when it becomes truly pernicious. As marginalized groups have known for centuries, the first thing the elites do to preserve their status is cut off the mechanism for being able to buy your way in. That's what has always motivated race-based bans for private clubs, or racial or religious quotas at universities.

And so the trendwatchers Misty is quoting get it exactly wrong. If anything, the turn away from conspicuous consumption has made status-seeking less democratic, not more.

(Cross-posted to pottergold)



The Absurd and the Authentic: The case of Banksy

Banksy is in town! Or at least, Banksy’s operatives. Or someone pretending to be Banksy. Or someone imitating Banksy. Or just an ad agency. Or… Whatever. It’s all designed to promote his new film, which is all you need to know. The most honest and direct moment in Exit Through the Gift Shop comes about halfway through, shortly after the narrative takes us through the moment when Banksy went from being an infamous and mysterious street artist to a rich celebrity, selling works for hundred of thousands of dollars to celebrities like Brad Pitt. At this point, Banksy looks at the camera and remarks that it was never about the money, that it was always about the fun of street art.

At least, we are told it is Banksy, except the figure is shrouded in a hoodie, his face darkened and his voice distorted. And yes, assume it is Banksy, isn’t that exactly what we would expect him to say? Don’t they always say that, right after selling out? Sure, except Banksy has also made a film devoted to the proposition that whatever else it may be, street art is ultimately about just playing around with images, ideas, and the urban environment.

Here’s the gist of the movie: A Frenchman named Thierry Guetta who lives in LA became obsessed with filming street artists. He meets Space Invader, Borf, even Shepard Fairey, and becomes their mascot/documentarian. Eventually he meets Banksy himself, insinuated himself into the Banksy collective, and becomes his accomplice, and – Banksy apparently hopes – his Boswell. Except Guetta turns out to be someone with “mental problems and a camera,” and is eventually cast loose. But Guetta turns the tables on his mentors, reinvents himself as a street artist in his own right (named MBW – Mr. Brainwash) and mounts an insane exhibition in LA that sells a million bucks worth of Warhol and Banksy ripoffs in a matter of days.

There’s been a tremendous amount of chatter about the film, mostly focused on whether the story is “true”, whether Guetta really exists, whether Mr. Brainwash is a real artist, whether Banksy is actually behind it, etc. It’s a weird debate, since the answer is both obvious and irrelevant.

First of all, it is clear that Banksy (whoever he may be) is behind the whole thing. Guetta is too much of a fool, his utterances too Bruno-esque, for it to be anything more than a put-on. The first 2/3 of the film are played pretty straight, but by the end of it, Banksy is manifestly taking the piss out of Guetta.

But more to the point, he’s taking the piss out of the whole question of the fake and the authentic with respect to what he does. The whole “is it art?” question, applied to street art, never made any sense at all, and Banksy clearly doesn’t care one way or another how that question gets decided. He’s too busy having fun, creating stencils, creating alter-egos, and making a movie that blows up the whole question of authenticity and art. As Shepard Fairey (who almost certainly was involved in this delightful prank from the start) put it in a profile/promo for Banksy in Time: “It sums up the art world perfectly — the authentic intertwined with the absurd.”

(Cross-posted to Pottergold)


Measuring Authenticity

My friend Dan Debow, who runs a company whose business model is basically designed around Gen Y attitudes towards authenticity at work, forwarded me this item, about a consulting company that promises to be able to calculate how "authentic" something or someone is, mathematically:

Using a 360-degree method of capturing data relevant to understanding a person or organization's authenticity level, a score (also known as an Authenticity Index) can be produced that describes that person or organization's level of authenticity.

Being able to assess a person or organization’s level of authenticity goes a long way towards predicting their behavior and thus their outcomes.


Authenticity, and other excuses

One of the more gratifying (and, as often, humbling) aspects of publishing a book in the era of blogs and twitter is getting something close to real time feedback. It has already affected the way I talk about the book in interviews -- I find myself responding to criticism and helping myself to useful extensions or variations on my arguments. Here are a couple of good examples I thought you might like:

1. "Authenticity as an excuse" by Colleen, a management prof at Western. From her blog:

Our authentic selves are a collection of our personal experiences and what others tell us about ourselves.  Sometimes our understanding of ourselves is accurate, sometimes it is not. We all know what we are good at and what we aren’t good at. But sometimes we use this perception of ourselves as an excuse to resist change.

See also her excellent "Hitler was authentic", on the same blog. Wish I'd thought to write that.

2. Meanwhile, from her perch on the Mayan riviera, foodgirl asks:

Sure single-culture or single-place authenticity may be a hoax, but I think I’m staring in the face of a new authenticity. Why can’t tourists drink their faces off, belt out karaoke tunes in an “all-American sports bar” environment at a multinational hotel chain on the Mayan Riveria in celebration of Cinco de Mayo? Why not, indeed.

3. Finally, this isn't directly connected to my book but the themes are resonant: A Foucaultian take on Mad Men, which is very insightful.


Extreme Authenticity: Pork Products edition

My colleague at Maclean's magazine, Philippe Gohier, passes along the following gem:


Cultural Immersion, or Imitation?

The Authenticity Hoax was excerpted in the NZ Herald this weekend. I really like that they chose a passage from Chapter 7. It's actually my favourite chapter in the book, and the one that has gone almost completely ignored by reviewers and interviewers. It was also accompanied by a very thoughtful essay by Jim Eagles.

I'm actually not surprised that it was a NZ outlet that picked up on this chapter, given the heavy (and largely salutory) emotional and political investment in aboriginal culture and symbolism down there.