Authenticity Watch: useful idiot edition

From a fascinating-throughout piece in the NYT about Tanja Nijmeijer, a 32-year old Dutch woman who became a student radical, and went to Colombia to put her ideals into action by joining FARC. According to her diaries, she appears suitably concerned about whether they were keepin' it real:

Throughout her writings, she touched repeatedly on a theme that seemed to vex the rebels themselves: whether they stood for anything anymore, having evolved from their idealistic origins into a force that comfortably financed itself from the drug trade and survived by kidnappings, extortion and the forced recruitment of children as combatants.

“How will it be when we take power?” Ms. Nijmeijer asked in one entry. “The wives of the commanders in Ferrari Testa Rossas with breast implants eating caviar?” 

Thanks to the handcaper for the link


Hard truths for a plundered planet

The third hour of yesterday’s Sunday Edition on the CBC featured an interview with Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion and, his new book, The Plundered Planet. The main thrust of the interview (conducted by Helen Mann) deals with the alliance between anti-poverty activists and environmentalists, and their too-often antagonism to economics and instruments that might actually work.

As Collier puts it, he’s trying to build “common ground” between environmentalists and economists. But he has a firm view of who is worth trying to woo, and who is a lost cause. He distinguishes between what he calls the ”humane” environmentalists (whom we can do business with) and the “fundamentalist” environmentalists, who are caught up in a romantic deep-ecology ideology that sees environment as something more than serving humanity. Their goal, he argues, is to focused on preserving or “curating” nature as a set of artifacts, instead of harnessing it for enhancing prosperity.

One of the most depressing aspects he highlights is the way the romantic environmentalists have become an “unguided missile” – chasing one authenticity hoax after another, leaving inadvertent destruction in their wake. As Collier explains, the romantics have become the unwitting allies of big agriculture, who leverage the political power of the romantics for their own nefarious purposes. In North America, it has led to the colossal idiocy of biofuels. In Europe, it’s the brainless opposition to genetically modified foods.

His denunciation of the “the romantic retreat into the organic holistic peasantry” is hard-hitting stuff, and not everyone will like it. Unfortunately, the ones who most need to hear it are the ones who aren’t listening.

Listen to it here.
It’s Hour Three, and starts at the 20 minute mark.


l'authenticité, ce mirage

That's the headline on the interview I did with Paul Journet in last weekend's La Presse. If only my French were actually this good.


Death of the Author 2.0

The principal consequence of what I (and many others) have called "Culture 2.0" is that it made the old sharp distinctions between producers and consumers of culture more or less obsolete. The fight over the fundamental question -- who does the culture belong too, anyway? -- is what has motivated what has broadly been called the "copyright wars," but which we would rightly have called "the culture wars", if that excellent term hadn't been used to describe a much stupider conflict.

The fight has taken place on many levels, from the strictly legal to the moral to the outright metaphysical. And while I've been fairly sympathetic over the years to the copyleft/creative commons side of the argument, many of its more strident advocates have gone too far, and committed serious category mistakes.

First, they have gone too far by often arguing that copyright law is itself illegitimate. But as Lawrence Lessig liked to remind people, the whole creative commons idea was underwritten by strong copyright protections for creators (i.e. you can only permit the expansive use of something you already own). Second, the blurring of the old distinctions has been used to justify a great deal of straight cultural theft, on the grounds that "no one ever really creates anything anyway". Call it Death of the Author 2.0.

In an essay on the Barnes and Noble website, Andrew Keen (author of a hilariously written corrective to the prevailing net populism, The Cult of the Amateur) takes on a pair of  plagiarists, one of whom -- in classic Squid and the Whale style -- justifies her theft on the grounds that it's all about authenticity. The culprit this time is Helene Hegemann, who responded by saying: "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,"

This is bullshit on stilts, as philosophers used to say. Keen takes the reasoning apart, noting that the sort of "authenticity" these authors champion has the effect of driving  "us deeper into ourselves, thereby isolating us from one another. Rather than a radical subversion of tradition, the doubt they champion is not a hunger for reality, but a hunger for their own reflection in every window looking out upon the world."




Apocalyptic Urbanism

My old colleague Dan Gardner passes along a great story from Fast Company, reporting on a meeting of New Urbanists in Atlanta. They're all still pining for a return to the 1850s, though a certain amount of realism seems to have set in -- amongst some of them, anyway. The movement's leading guru, Andres Duany, was there and had this to say about the prospects of everyone returning to farming:

Duany conceded growing food is hard work, which is why his agrarian communities would still end up hiring Hispanic laborers to do the dirty work. But "you don't pretend they don't exist," he said in a particular utopian moment.

For some, the apocalypse will clearly be less apocalyptic than for others.



The Paradox of Authenticity

Over at the website, 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)