Entries in authenticity (32)


The "rape" of yoga and the problem of invented traditions

While the Tea Party continues to press its advantage in yet another round of the interminable American culture wars, a far more interesting cultural battleground is brewing in the Indian community over the question: who owns yoga?

Over the past year or so, a number of Hindu groups in America, in particular the Hindu American Foundation, have been working to remind westerners that that yoga isn't just about stretching and stretch pants, that it is instead part of an unbroken Hindu religious tradition that stretches back 5000 years. The fight has been brewing for a while, but it came to more general attention last November when the New York Times published a piece about the fight entitled "take back yoga". What is striking about that piece is that the Hindu groups seem conflicted, and unable to decide whether what they find objectionable is that their ancient tradition has been commercialized, or that they're not getting a big enough slice of the pie.

This is, of course, a classic dilemma of authenticity. But it isn’t necessarily a contradiction – there’s nothing inherently wrong with insisting that if a culture is going to be sold at a profit, the people who invented that culture should share in the wealth. But it gets a bit more complicated when what is being laid claim to is an invented tradition. In the classic definition from Eric Hobsbawm, an invented tradition is "a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past."

The point of an invented tradition is that it is not about the past, it is about the present. For Hobsbawm, many traditions are invented by national elites to justify the existence and importance of their respective nation states – such as the whole-cloth invention of the Turkish nation by Ataturk. A recent example was the use of the Loya Jirga to cement Hamid Karzai as the legitimate president of Afghanistan, by (falsely) implying that this is how Afghan rulers had been chosen for centuries.

But sometimes the point of an invented tradition is about laying a claim of cultural identity, intellectual primacy, economic ownership, and even of the moral high ground. The fight over who owns yoga involves all of these. And if a recent article by Meera Nanda for Open Magazine is correct, yoga – as understood by all the players in this fight – is an invented tradition.

I won’t try to summarize the entire article – you should really just pause here and go read it for yourself before I continue – but here is the money claim: The HAF argument - that all yoga, especially its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis – is false. Instead,

what HAF calls the “rape of yoga”, referring to the separation of asanas from their spiritual underpinning, did not start in the supposedly decadent West; it began, in fact, in the akharas and gymnasiums of 19th and 20th century India run by Indian nationalists seeking to counter Western images of effete Indians. It is in this nationalistic phase that hatha yoga took on many elements of Western gymnastics and body-building, which show up in the world-renowned Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa schools of yoga. Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity.   

The argument then is that 21st century yoga not an integral part of an ancient and pristine cultural and spiritual tradition. Instead, it is a mongrel, a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan practice upon which Hinduism “has no special claims.” If this is true, then it causes a few problems for the “take back yoga” movement. Most obviously, it undercuts any claims that there is a “yoga” that was stolen or appropriated from Hindus and which is there to be reclaimed. It also undercuts any possible financial claims that might be made, and puts a crimp in the mat of any lawsuits over yoga postures and intellectual property rights.

But it also causes problems for westerners. After all, a great deal of the appeal of yoga to North Americans, apart from how great they look in Lululemon clothes, has been precisely that it is an integral part of an ancient, pristine, and highly exotic cultural tradition. After all, there are plenty of more explicitly “western” practices that offer pretty much the same physical benefits as yoga – Pilates being the prime example – but which have not had nearly the cultural and economic impact. As Meera Nanda puts it,

Thus, doing namastes, intoning ‘om’ and chanting Sanskrit mantras have become a part of the experience of doing yoga in America. Many yoga studios use Indian classical or kirtan music, incense, signs of ‘om’ and other paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably spiritual ambience.

More than any other factor, yoga owes its success in North America to the fact that it serves the needs of hip, young, urban, white, people whose lives lack nothing except a sense of authenticity. Unable to find it in their own seemingly deprived traditions, these authenticity seekers do what they’ve always done – look for it in the exotic, the ancient, the un-marketed.

There is an excellent film called "Yoga, Inc.", which addresses the question of whether "yoga can survive big business with its karma intact". I suspect the answer to that is “yes”. The bigger question is whether yoga can surive the revelation that its karma owes more to turn-of-the-20th-century Danish gymnasts than to ancient forest-dwelling Brahmin sages.


In praise of hydrobeef

It’s getting increasingly hard to find anything good to say about meat. It is expensive, sucking up lots of land, grain, and other resources. It has a large carbon footprint. Finally, industrial meat production is hard on the animals, even before they’re slaughtered.

But what if there was a technology that eliminated all three of these drawbacks, while giving us a large supply of low cost, custom-designed meat products. That is, what if we could grow meat in a vat? At this point, would there be any reasonable objection to eating meat?

It’s still a hypothetical question, but it won’t be for long. As Reuters reports today, a handful of researchers are working away at  “cultured” meat grown in-vitro out of stem cells. One of these scientists is Medical University of South Carolina, researcher Vladimir Mironov, who envisions “football field-sized buildings filled with large bioreactors, or bioreactors the size of a coffee machine in grocery stores” to produce this meat.

Even better:

"It will be functional, natural, designed food," Mironov said. "How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.

It is telling that while the US government won’t fund his research, PETA will. Because PETA understands that the goal is not to micro-manage consumer preferences, it is to prevent harm to animals. And if that is taken out of the equation, there’s not a lot to object to. There is of course the “Ick” factor, but I suspect that would disappear quite quickly once the product hit the market.

A few more thoughts:

1. Any “ick” objections (or “ick” objections disguises as moral objections) could be handled by a serious and mandatory labeling regime.

2. The idea of custom-designed meat products opens up a whole new realm for interesting (and relatively harmless) competition. You can imagine celebrity chefs designing their own special lines of meat textures and tastes; a well-designed “blend” could be sold for meatballs, or stews, or meatpies, etc. Imagine a steak that was a mixture of lamb and venison?

3. At the same time, in-vitro meat will suffer from all the drawbacks of everything else that is produced cheaply and for mass consumption – it will be “inauthentic”. And so it will also open up a more pernicious form of authenticity-mongering amongst people who only eat meat grown “on the hoof”. At the extreme, you can imagine private or inviation-only restaurants and supper-clubs opening up where certified on-the-hoof meat is provided to the privileged elite.

4. But even that might not be such a bad thing; at the very least, it is hard to see how it would be net loss to the planet, to the animals, or consumers.

5. The upshot is that it is hard to see the downside to in-vitro meat. Am I missing something?


Comic Sans; or Why I Love the French

This is how it starts:

Trouble is brewing at OuBaPo, France's experimental-comic-book movement. After years of infighting over artistic direction, at least four of the nine founding members have quit, and the two highest-profile artists aren't speaking to each other.

And this is how it ends:

The 46-year-old Mr. Trondheim is also preparing a tell-all comic detailing various fallings out with Mr. Menu.


RIP Denis Dutton, philosopher, aesthete, aggregator

Denis Dutton has died. An American philosopher working in New Zealand, Dutton is probably best known as the found of the Arts and Letters Daily, one of the best of the early Web 1.0 aggregators. The ALDaily has always been a great read, but my feelings about Dutton himself are somewhat ambivalent.

When I was teaching philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, we invited Dutton to give the annual Ryle Lectures, a series that brings a distinguished philosopher to the university for lectures and informal meetings with students, staff and the public. Dutton's lectures were not very good. They consisted mostly of slide shows and amounted to little more than a version of "what I did on my summer vacation" wrapped in a weakly-argued anti-Gombrichian thesis about evolution and objective aesthetic value. Nor did Dutton do much to ingratiate himself to his hosts: his preference for lunchtime conversation appeared to be based in either red-baiting or feminist-baiting. All told, his visit was a disappointment.

But he did do some valuable work in philosophy and art. His essay "Authenticity in Art", written for the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, is excellent. This piece was a big influence on the arguments in chapters 3 and 7 of AH, especially his riff on the importance of a critical audience in maintaining a living artistic tradition. Indeed, every fan of contemporary jazz should pay attention to his argument about the death of opera. I also helped myself to a great anecdote from this essay:

A Pacific Island dancer was once asked about his native culture. “Culture?” he responded. “That’s what we do for the tourists.”

He will be missed.



"This is not some hippy heaven down here. This is Hamilton"

One of the most insidious yet under-acknowledged aspects of the authenticity craze is that, even though it presents itself under the guise of “progressive” (i.e. left-wing) values, it is actually highly reactionary, even xenophobic. Chapter seven of the Authenticity Hoax attempts to make this connection clear, by arguing for a robust cosmopolitanism as against people who would make a museum out of homogenous cultures. (I clearly didn’t succeed. At least, not enough to avoid being called a racist by the Literary Review of Canada.)

Anyway, down in Hamilton Ontario, some local activists are doing my work for me. The city is in the middle of renovating its popular farmers’ market, which for most of its existence has been a thoroughly worldbeat affair, including stalls and vendors featuring products from all over the world. But vendors now have to reapply for a spot in the renovated market.

What’s the catch? Applications are being scored on a points system, with priority given to vendors whose products are “local” and “organic”, while vendors selling stuff like eggplants and coffee and asian foodstuffs are being railroaded out. In a place like Ottawa or Toronto, that would probably just be shrugged off as the price of authenticity. But in Hamilton? Nuh uh. Because in Hamilton, people haven’t fallen for the authenticity hoax, and residents who actually value the cosmopolitan nature of the old market are fighting back.

A spectacular example is a letter to the city by Jennifer Hompoth, on behalf of a group calling itself the "Friends of Hamilton Farmers' Market". I’ll let Ms. Hompoth make the case:

On xenophobia:

I need to express my deep discomfort that a discourse of localism, hinging on cultural exclusion and tinged with racial overtones, has been whispered amongst all of the conversations justifying the application process. I do not locate the city alone as the locus of these whispers, although its documents have, at times, amplified the language: "international" used synonymously with "disqualified," (correspondence with the office of Councillor Bratina, Nov. 17th, 2010), "local" meaning "not those others."

On reactionary nostalgia:

The worst of these whispers has moved from a discussion of international produce itself, to generate a "type" of unwanted person or vendor: "those Asians" who resell food from the food terminal. At best, this is a misguided nostalgia for a time and "purity" of culture which some feel to be lost at the expense of global change.

On cosmopolitanism:

A walk through the market reveals that products like samosas, garlic, panini, mozzarella, chestnuts, ginger, and bok choi (not to mention coffee and tea - the stuff of wars and conquests) have become venerable parts of a gastronomy enjoyed by all. The reality of our global economic and social framework is this: in an urban centre such as Hamilton, these historic interchanges, settlements, and contributions actually form the local.

 On sanity:

Furthermore, the seduction of the local as inherently better than larger-scale spatial approaches is hollow; cities need to consider a holistic analysis of food systems planning, in the context of national and global food production, sustainability, urban/rural economics, and consumer food needs.

As a followup, they have made a short video documentary looking at the vendors whose livelihoods are in danger, and the customers who find the whole thing annoying. The best statement of all begins at the 3:00 minute mark:

Go Hamilton!



Art so extreme it can never be seen

Even as Banksy is busy working for The Simpsons, the authentic street-art scene has gone, literally, underground. Today's NYT has a piece by Jasper Rees about a new exhibition of street art that is so hip that the gallery's existence is a secret, almost no one has seen the art, and the whole show actually closed the very night it opened.

It sounds like a parody -- something that Mr. Brainwash might get up to -- but it seems to be the genuine article. The gist of it is that some street artists found their way into one of Manhattan's handful of abandoned subway platforms, and decided to decorate the place with street art executed by some of the hottest upandcomers in the business.

Called "The Underbelly Project", the exhibition hits all the usual authenticity-hoax plot points: Popularity is for sell-outs, capitalism is bad, art that no one sees is sacred, and the extreme authenticity of the exercise is underwritten by the fact that it is illegal:

Known to its creators and participating artists as the Underbelly Project, the space, where all the show’s artworks remain, defies every norm of the gallery scene. Collectors can’t buy the art. The public can’t see it. And the only people with a chance of stumbling across it are the urban explorers who prowl the city’s hidden infrastructure or employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s because the exhibition has been mounted, illegally, in a long-abandoned subway station.

The whole thing strikes me as a more extreme version of the ephemeral Sufjan Stevens song, that you can only hear by trecking to the owner's apartment in Brooklyn. What becomes of art in the age of digital reproduction? It becomes a commodity—cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected. One surefire way of restoring the lost, sacred halo of meaning around the unique work is to make it inaccessible and transitory -- accessible only to the lucky few, for a limited time.

That's precisely the agenda of the Underbelly project.  The Times has a slideshow of the artworks online, many of of which match the dark, underground, and illegal nature of the show. There are some giant rats, some images of women in veils, some strange cartoonish totem poles, and a weirdly zigzaggy interpretation of the American flag. In short, the show sounds totally, undeniably, awesome. The fact that I'll never see it makes me jealous of those who have -- which, unfortunately, is kinda the point.



Holy Hipsters, Brooklyn: Doubling down on the authenticity hoax

The NY Post has a remarkably un-snarky piece about the growth in attendance at a Hispanic Lutheran church in Williamsburg. The upsurge is the result of Jesus-loving hipsters as "Worshippers with full-sleeve tattoos, skinny jeans, stocking caps and square glasses pack the pews of Resurrection Presbyterian Church on South Fifth Street."

This doesn't really surprise me. In fact, it strikes me as the next logical step in the evolution of hipsterdom. After all, for all the talk about hipster "irony", what has always characterized the movement is the search for the authentic, and as the competitiveness in authenticity-seeking has steadily ratcheted up, it was inevitable that hipsters would eventually see it for what it has always been: a form of thinly-disguised status-seeking. 

And once you've come to that realization, there are really only two ways you can go: Either you accept that the search for the authentic is and always has been a hoax, or you double down on the only form of authenticity-seeking that avoids the hamster-wheel of conspicuous authenticity. That's why -- as I argued earlier -- the current craze for "cool Christianity" completely misses the point. Churches shouldn't be selling cool, they should be selling they one product  that isn't cool. Brett McCracken put it best when he wrote:

"As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don't want cool as much as we want real."


Notes on Mad Men: Don, Peggy, and the Age of Authenticity (Includes thematic spoilers)

“L'homme n'est que ce qu'il devient, vérité profonde; l'homme ne devient que ce qu'il est, vérité plus profonde encore?”  — Amiel


Like the culture it is portraying, the tv series Mad Men made a fundamental switch in its moral focus with last night’s episode. The definitive moment came early on, when Don Draper has emerged from a swim at the New York Athletic Club. He’s standing on the street in the morning sunshine, young women are strolling by in summer dresses, and the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction is playing over the whole scene.

Satisfaction, of course, is the definitive Boomer anthem. Its throbbing message of individualism, narcissism, sexuality and hedonism, set off against a gnawing suspicion of the failed consumerist promise of the fifties, marks a crucial change in our culture. This is the moment when counterculture became The Culture, which it has dominated for close to half a century now. Don’s wearing his shades in the scene, perhaps because his future’s so bright, but perhaps because he doesn’t really want to see what’s going on.

The theme of generational change was a recurring theme in the episode. Don is dating a young woman, but while he’s dated young women before (especially the proto-hippie Midge from season One), this one is different. She’s forward, she has needs, and she’s willing to go down on him in a taxicab. Meanwhile, Joan is finding that her 50s bombshell looks don’t get her anywhere with the hipster doofuses in the office; to them, she’s just another bitchy old schoolmarm. More than anyone else in the episode, Joan looks dated. (Bert and Roger, of course, are nowhere to be seen. The show has passed them by).

The culture has changed, and so has Mad Men. The running tension in the show has always come from the basic existential question, “who is Don Draper?” But the first few seasons treated Don’s dark and mysterious background as in some sense the wellspring of his creativity: it was a show essentially about America, advertising and the fifties. While the characters have always been excellent, what drove the excitement of the first few seasons was that it all took place in a past that was, for all intents, a different country. The show delighted in playing off the alien nature of America in the fifties, not just the smoking and the drinking and the casual office sexism, but wonderful shots like the Draper family picnic that ends with them driving off, leaving their garbage strewn about on the grass.

In contrast, there is nothing alien about the sixties. Our culture simply has not changed that much in the last 45 years, and what changes have occurred (including “big” shifts like the acceptance of gay marriage) are simply the working out of ideas and principles that were advanced by the leading edge of the Boomers as they entered university. And so now we see Don Draper behaving in ways that we recognize as utterly contemporary. He’s watching how much he drinks, he’s exercising, he’s even keeping a diary for heaven’s sake. This inward turn, this obsessive plumbing of the depths of the self, is now front and centre thematically, and it will achieve its completion in the Oprahification of our culture in the 2000s.

And so Mad Men has transitioned, from a show that once used a foreign culture to teach us lessons about our own, into a show about the beginnings of our own culture. What it is, now, is a show about the search for authenticity, and much of the tension in the show will emerge from how the various characters are able to survive on that highly contested ground. This is why it is not surprising to see that it is becoming a show about Don and Peggy, because each embodies a different understanding of what we mean when we talk about authenticity.

Authenticity is nothing more than the alignment of appearance and reality, of the outer world of seems according with the inner world of is. But this alignment can come about in different ways: Our outer self can come to reflect an unchanging inner core, or, alternatively, the fungible inner self can change to reflect the front we wish to portray to the world. The distinction is captured in the quotation at the top of this post from the Swiss philosophe Amiel:  A man is nothing more than who he becomes. Or, alternatively, he becomes who he essentially is. Is destiny character, or is character destiny?

Don has made his choice: After years of existential infighting between Dick Whitman and Don Draper, he is becoming the Don Draper he’s always wanted to be. As he wrote in his diary last night: "People tell us who they are, but we ignore it ... Because we want them to be who we want them to be."

On the other side of the equation is Peggy. More than any other character on the show, he knows who she is, what she wants, and what it will take to get there. Her struggle has always been to prevent culture and circumstances from dictating who she is entitled to be.

Which of these is more “authentic”? There’s no right answer to that question. What does seem certain, though, is that in the age of authenticity into which Don and Peggy are stepping, Peggy’s future is much, much brighter than Don’s.




Mad Men has now officially replaced The Wire as the most footnoted and overanalyzed television show going. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
As usual, The Awl’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper leads the charge with her Footnotes of Mad Men. I don’t think this is her best effort though — the Cheever references were bouncing around the Twitterverse last night, and her report doesn’t add much to that, while neglecting some of the more important themes in the show. Gawker’s solid replay of the previous night’s episode is here, and Slate’s trio of Julia Turner, Michael Agger and John Swansburg have  weighed in starting here. I think Agger’s the best of the three. Finally, over at Maclean's, Jamie Weinman argues that the show has become a show about television writing. 





"Nature is a crazy bitch": Žižek on the apocalypse

Unlike Baudrillard, who always took himself way too seriously, I've always liked Slavoj Žižek, ever since Mark Kingwell encouraged me to read Looking Awry back when I was his grad student. I liked him even more when I read an interview with him, where he said that he was all ready to move to America until it became clear that American schools expected him to actually teach and do research. 

Žižek is basically the court jester of continental philosophy, preferring to make his points through jokes and outrageous remarks, rather than through dry, opaque, or even just lengthy, arguments. The New Scientist has an interview with him, about his new book Living in End Times. But if you're expecting yet another diatribe against capitalism, technology, and mankind's war against nature, think again. Žižek says he has a "naive Enlightenment fascination" with science, thinks we should stop paying rent to Bill Gates, and wonders whether reality has been fully rendered. And this part is a total delight:

...certain environmentalists delight in proving that every catastrophe - even natural ones - is man-made, that we are all guilty, we exploited too much, we weren't feminine enough. All this bullshit. Why? Because it makes the situation "safer". If it is us who are the bad guys, all we have to do is change our behaviour. But in fact Mother Nature is not good - it's a crazy bitch.

So what should we do instead?

The fear is that this bad ecology will become a new opiate of the people. And I'm against the ecologists' anti-technology stance, the one that says, "we are alienated by manipulating nature, we should rediscover ourselves as natural beings". I think we should alienate ourselves more from nature so we become aware of the utter contingency, the fragility of our natural being.


Plagiarism, laziness, and the wisdom of keith richards


As long as you turn the set on and put your finger in the air, if there's any songs out there, they'll come through you. It's very easy to get hung up on just the simple mechanics and craft of songwriting rather than the more important thing that real master musicians like the wherling dervishes can tell us about: just letting it go through you and come out the other side. -- Keith Richards, 1983

Sometimes you have to wonder what year the New York Times thinks it is. About seven years after it became a widespread (and widely-reported) probem,  Trip Gabriel had a piece this weekend reporting that the digital age is blurring the lines of what constitutes plagiarism for university students. Aside from having nothing remotely new, the piece is an absolute mess, quoting academics tossing out one half-baked theory after another, without even attempting to do some basic analysis of whether any of it makes the slightest sense.

Stop if you've heard this before: the cut 'n paste features of the internet haven't just made it easier for lazy students to cheat. No, the rip/mix/burn online culture has actually changed our definition of the self.

 Lord, are we still talking this way? Apparently so:

A University of Notre Dame anthropologist, Susan D. Blum, disturbed by the high rates of reported plagiarism, set out to understand how students view authorship and the written word, or “texts” in Ms. Blum’s academic language....

 In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

Look, we may be on the road to some po-mo world where nobody ever says anything new, but the very fact that we find these cases worisome proves that we haven't quite left modernity behind.

We should start by reminding ourselves that plagiarism is foremost a moral question. Sometimes it is illegal (such as when someone makes use of copyrighted material), but the essence of plagiarism is that it is one of a clutch of ethical offences that include fabricating memoirs or news reports, fraud, lying, hypocrisy, and forgery. What unites these is that they all involve some form of misrepresentation.

In many ways, plagiarism is just the flip side of forgery: The forger passes off his own work as that of someone else, while plagiarists pass off the work of others as their own. Plagiarism is an offence that involves the misrepresentation of the self. The reason why we get hung up about these things is because we hold fast to a number of moral ideals about the self. We give these ideals names like uniqueness, integrity and originality, but the motivating principle is what we can call the ethic of authenticity.

As an ethic, it is an injunction to be true to oneself, to place the cultivation of your real self at the forefront of your concern. Our culture remains strongly committed to the ethic of authenticity. Indeed, the reason plagiarism is on the rise is not because we care less about the morality of misrepresentation but -- paradoxically -- because we care about it too deeply.

Because of our commitment to authenticity, we tend to look down on ideas that are borrowed or derivative. We fight over credit for things, partly because there are potential financial or status rewards, but also because we believe there is something profoundly unjust about people receiving credit for books they didn't write or inventions they didn't invent.

But this actually gives us a strong incentive to lie about where we got our ideas. When her plagiarism scandal first hit, Harvard girl wonder Kaavya Viswanathan claimed that she had simply internalized themes and passages from her favourite books. This is the plagiarist's usual gambit, and it is parodied in the  film The Squid and the Whale. At the school talent show, Walt announces that he is a about to sing a song he wrote, and proceeds to play a song from Pink Floyd's The Wall. When he's caught, Walt denies that he has done anything wrong. He claims that because he believed that it was the sort of song he could have written, the fact that he didn't was immaterial.

Hilarious, yes, but not far from the truth. Every writer runs into situations where he reads something that seems so obvious, that is so perfectly phrased, that he feels that he would have put it exactly that way, if only he'd thought of it. On these occasions, plagiarism doesn't feel like stealing so much as the appropriation of part of one's true self.

But even this is probably overthinking the problem a bit too much. It's only at the end of Gabriel's piece does a sane voice enter the scene, in the form of Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office at UC Davis. Most of the cases of plagiarism, he says, did not come from students who were in the thrall of some metaphysical theory of postmodern identity. Instead, they were simply  “unwilling to engage the writing process,” i.e. they were lazy.

Or as Keef might say, it's easier just to let the ideas flow through you and out the other side. 

Occam's razor remains a very useful tool, even for reporters.

More from Rob Horning.


Gaga, Madmen, and other authenticities

1. Over at the Awl, Natasha Vargas-Cooper does a great job footnoting last night's Mad Men episode. She ends with a look at Don's risque pitch for Jantzen "two piece" bathing suits, and concludes: "The difference between the image and the authentic are going to remain mixed up for a very long time. Though we all know now that the real difference between a bikini and underwear is just what we call it."

2. Speaking of image, the NYT on Sunday had a very good piece on the meaning of Lady Gaga:

“I HATE the truth!” Lady Gaga yelled somewhere in the middle of the second of her three sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden this month. Conveniently, it hates her back. No one in recent pop memory has been a greater enemy to the authentic than Lady Gaga.

3. Over at Businessweek, Steve McKee takes another stab at the idea that a proper brand strategy needs to be focused on "authenticity". The danger is, that at a time when there's more transparency than ever, the public can call BS on a company that doesn't practice what its brand delivers:

In such an environment, it behooves everyone in business to consider the extent of their brand's authenticity. Nobody wants to be exposed as a fraud.

 4. Hezbollah has opened a theme park:

ABC basically found that the former Israeli military bunker is now home to war porn and propaganda. Museum attendees and volunteers apparently aren’t so concerned. “I believe it’s our right to have our own propaganda,” a tour guide tells ABC’s Lara Setrakian. It’s like Disneyland starring Farfour.



Shall we play a game? What BP learned from Hollywood

Last weekend I was talking to a friend who had recently been to the Pentagon to talk to some honchos, and he said he'd even made it to the depths of the building where the real dark arts are practiced. He made the observation that it was pretty clear that a lot of the design of the place was most likely influenced by Hollywood -- that is, by their cinematically-constructed beliefs about what the Pentagon ought to look like. 

This is a widespread phenomenon, one that is most obviously at work in the tourist-trap area of most historical cities. We don't want to know what Rome is really like; we want to see a Rome that fits our sense of what it ought to be like, which is why there is a market for the faux-authentic in the first place. 

This is harmless enough in the case of mass tourism, but what about when a major corporation preys on our assumptions of authenticity to buff its much-tarnished image? That's the heart of the controversy over the faked images of BP's command centre. As Chris MacDonald points out, the images aren't misleading in any material way; rather, they seem designed to enhance the "authenticity" of the command centre, by making it look more like the one we all remember from movie's like War Games. 

Does it really matter? I agree with Chris, that this doesn't really affect the cleanup at all, nor does it really do much further damage to the company's reputation. But I'm tempted to go even further and (setting aside their despicable attempt at blaming the photographer) offer a half-hearted defence of the company, since you can sort of see their reasoning on this: As the spill has dragged on, it has become increasingly imperative for the company to be seen to be In Charge, to be Doing Something. And in the eyes of a public trained by years of Hollywood action films, the people In Charge and Doing Something are always in a room full of lots of screens showing video, graphs, charts, satellite images, and so on. You can imagine them saying to themselves, cripes, if we show our workers sitting in front of a bunch of blank screens, they'll think we don't have a handle on the spill. 

Yes, this is a weak defence, and it is in no way intended to let the company off the hook for any of its many transgressions against basic morality. But it does serve, I think, as an example of what happens in a culture where authenticity, as distinct from truth, is the cardinal virtue. 

INSTANT UPDATE: Seconds after I posted this, I came across this website, Hollywood Screens, devoted to cataloging all of the cool command screens in Hollywood movies. And lo, what is there at the very top? They've posted the pic of the BP command centre. 



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.)


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.


Obama's authenticity trap

One of the more pointless aspects of the whole BP spill fiasco is the ongoing debate about whether Obama’s reaction to the whole thing has been appropriate. Has he shown enough anger? Too much anger? Has he been too cerebral? Too dispassionate?Too uncaring?

Please.  The assumption that what is required, more than anything else, is authenticity is one of the most pernicious aspects of our political discourse. Of course Obama had it coming, to some extent, since his whole brand is “authenticity”. But now he, and the public, are facing the double-edged nature of authenticity as the litmus of leadership: we think we want authenticity only until we see it:

An article by Julia Kirby in the HBR does a good job of highlighting just what is wrong with this whole approach to leadership. Here’s the problem:

In the current criticism of Obama, we’re seeing another form of double bind, at least as difficult to navigate. Today Show’s Matt Lauer found him frustratingly cerebral, but how would the general public have felt if he’d been visibly enraged? As one writer, William Jelani Cobb, told CNN: “It would have fed deeply into a pre-existing set of narratives about the angry black man.”

Of course, to see the trap in action, you don’t even have to play the race card: