Monthly Archives: December 2014

subcultural capital and authenticity

Sarah Thornton’s Club Cultures posits the concept of “subcultural capital” to address the way distinction is amassed, redistributed, and passed along in youth cultures. This capital hinges on the perception of its authenticity: “coolness” has to read to onlookers as an inborn habitus to have economic value; it can’t seem like you are trying to be cool.

Thornton argues that, because it promises an end to alienation and the perceived phoniness of mediated existence,  "authenticity is to music what happy endings are to Hollywood cinema — the reassuring reward for suspending disbelief.“ That seems right to me; authenticity has only a negative theology, and it’s always in flux: It is defined as what can appear noncommercial or uncalculated at a given moment. It certainly makes no reference to any unchanging essence about any performer or era.

Authenticity is always a matter of genre fidelity that makes it resonate as genuine; the authenticity of a thing cannot be measured against itself. Authenticity is dependent on media; it is a construct of media. It exists only within media, and the nature of media dictates what forms authenticity can take. Authentication occurs within media. It doesn’t exist until "everyday life” is confronted with a challenge from representations of other ways of life in media.

Thornton puts it this way: “Media are so involved in the circuits of contemporary culture that they could be conceived of as being part of the material conditions of social groups, in a way not unlike access to education. In the case of youth, the difference between the hip and the banal, honorable and trash culture tends to correlate with amounts and kinds of media exposure — some media legitimate while others popularize, some preserve the esoteric while others are seen to ‘sell out.’”  

Unlike class habitus, subcultural capital is not fully a matter of being to the manner born, but an organic familiarity with self-confidence and privilege probably helps. Thornton argues that subcultural capital often appears to cut against and “obfuscate” class privilege; it is amassed by those who can promulgate a crypto-meritocratic ethos that seems to demonstrate how the individual can be autonomously cool through sheer instinct and ingenuity, regardless of their background. “The assertion of subcultural distinction relies, in part, on a fantasy of classlessness,” Thornton writes.

Subcultural capital, in Thornton’s view, depends on and is defined by media attention and its hype cycles. What registers as authentic, and thus economically viable and valuable, is always in flux. Attention can deplete something’s value (or authenticity) once it has constituted it. 

Club culture, Thornton argues, grounds its authenticity in fantasies of democratization, which would seem to threaten its value as subcultural distinction. To navigate this contradiction — that it must be exclusive and inclusive simultaneously — club culture draws on a straw-man notion of the bigoted and close-minded “mainstream” that clubgoers can define themselves against.

If subcultural capital is made of mediated representations of the self, social media would then obviously have a deep impact on the creation of subcultural capital. That impact is reflected in what sometimes gets called “immaterial labor” — the investment of consumer goods with signifying value by people’s deploying them socially. The networks for this deployment have been vastly expanded by social media, which not only connected more people more thoroughly but also created an archive that could be endlessly cited.

Social media are a staging ground for claims of subcultutral capital, one that subsumes the former places (the street, the club, public space, traditional media, etc.) where it could be tested. Social media, like the utopian rave scene, are seen as a quasi-democratic space that seems inclusive while actually serving as a field where stratification can be more definitive and inescapable. But what is the “mainstream” that social media can play themselves against so that they can seem inclusive and exclusive at the same time? Every gesture of inclusion is always at the same time a threat of exclusion. Social media exponentially expand the number of gestures occurring daily. What makes this tolerable for avid users?

Thornton points out that clubs (and subcultural capital accumulation) attract some older people despite their youth-centricity because clubs seem like a field in which identity is not fixed, unlike the “adult” world  (and its more fixed distribution of traditional cultural capital.) Social media may pivot on a similar promise, that it affords a field in which one’s identity can remain fluid, not subject to the constraints that actually condition and limit it within society. One’s potential to “grow” and amass more cultural capital seems much larger when one is playing the social media game of posting and tracking one’s metrics, but this is just a side show that distracts users from the ways in which their social position is just as fixed and predetermined as it ever was by factors they don’t entirely control.  

On social media one can seem to be working at a credible form of authenticity that isn’t as circumscribed as the forms available beyond social media. But this hinges on accepting that authenticity is not given but achieved. Social media make a realm in which the work of trying to be authentic is itself “authentic behavior” and not its antithesis. Trying too hard is the only authenticity available in online platforms that insist on participation. There is no way to use social media in a way that doesn’t connote “trying.”

Maybe that will change as social media become more entrenched and enculturated.Technology, Thornton points out, needs to be assimilated by a culture; how it will be used is not automatically dictated by the nature of its design. What a new media technology “means” as a medium independent of its content evolves as people start to use it and become familiar with it. "Technological developments make new concepts of authenticity possible,“ she claims; they don’t merely destroy some ur-authenticity that was available only to traditional "folk.” Facebook is conditioning what is considered credible; it doesn’t merely adopt other media forms’ methods of authentication. Facebook will allow for other modes of authentication.

So as social media comes to be taken for granted, the idea that what it manifests and conveys is “phony” self-performance will abate, with the new forms of “realness” it makes possible coming to the fore. 

I think virality is one of these emerging forms of realness; circulating tokens of yourself far and wide is a more palpable way to establish your “realness” than being true to some idealized version of yourself over time.

Algorithmic identity — the person you are according to Big Data and its predictive analytics and micro-demographic assessments — is another new form of “realness.” You can become a more authentic you in relation to this algorithmic prediction of yourself — the genre of you that you are expected to live up to by data you’ve put in the world, which some might regard as a fair proxy for the social self you have been. Again, one can’t be authentic as a matter of mere identity (authenticity does not equal simply being). It is always a matter of confirming or confounding expectations. Social media (and our compiled and processed data) make us into a genre we can aspire to as well as a product we can consume. We can enjoy  an alienated version of ourselves while using it as a measuring stick. This also frees us to contemplate our authenticity without having to use other people as our mirrors. We don’t need them to confirm it; we can self-assess and make all our adjustments on social media platforms rather than in direct social contacts. The distinction between social media encounters and “direct” ones may in fact cease to be meaningful as social media’s enculturation proceeds.

Thornton concludes with a critique of “difference” as resistance. Subculture studies like Dick Hebdige’s posited difference as inherently radical, given his assumption that power functions through hegemony. Thornton counters that difference also articulates hierarchies within a broader hegemony of status consciousness, and propels the dynamic system of fashion so that it may continue to assimilate cultural developments. “In many circumstances, the politics of difference is more appropriately cast as discrimination and distinction."That is the danger of a politics of authenticity as well, as authenticity is a mode of validating differences and assigning them value. 


Notes on Sarah Sharma’s In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (2014)

Sharma’s argument builds from the observation that the way people experience time is inflected by power relations. So it is obfuscating to assume that capitalism is accelerating the experience of time for everyone, unilaterally; instead acceleration is unevenly distributed. It is, Sharma argues, an ideological illusion for the privileged that’s sustained by a panoply of workers (cabdrivers, hospitality workers, etc.) who help the privileged traveler experience their time as valuable, and more important, more valuable than others’.

“Business travelers need to believe in speed as a defining characteristic of the contemporary moment because it justifies their existence and extremely tiring days,” Sharma notes. Because these “high value” employees have such supposedly specialized knowledge and because they have mutually deemed one another “irreplaceable” and essential for business to transpire, their work can’t be supplanted by hiring more workers. Instead, their working hours must be extended by an infrastructure of support labor that accelerates their days, extracts more work time from them. The infrastructure mirrors their sense of self-importance back to them, while the corporations that elites work for translate that self-importance into endless work days. Sharma explains this with Foucauldian language: “as subjects of value within global capital, the time of the frequent business traveler is an important object of biopolitical regulation.” Their coddling, which emphasizes the significance of their time (as opposed to the interchangeable workers who support their on-the-go lifestyle), is everywhere performed publicly, but especially in airports.

The generalized idea that “life is speeding up” reinforces the impression across society that certain people bear more human capital than others. The supposed inevitability of the speed-up corresponds with the supposed inevitability of inequality (derived from supposed differences in individual capability and effort). The elites’ experience of time is validated as “real”; everyone else must expend effort and devalue their own experience in order to put themselves in sync with “real time.”  

“Slowness” as a reaction against capitalist acceleration, as a form of resistance, doesn’t address these power relations. It adopts the neoliberal tenet of individual responsibility and ethical autonomy, imagining one can see one’s own actions as disentangled form the social contexts that make them possible. Advocates of the slow life tend to be myopic about the privilege the choice requires, much in the same way those who advocate “disconnection” as a solution to the exploitation of social media users. “The cultural turn to slowness,” Sharma claims, “is a depoliticization of time, one that demands the containment and pacification of time.” Likewise, “individualistic orientations toward time and its management have normalized the exploitation of others’ time.”

In the conclusion, Sharma dwells on what I found most useful, her reclassification of “speedup” as a matter of “recalibration.” We don’t experience stress because we are sped up in relation to some abstract notion of how fast or slow time should pass. We experience stress because we are being forced to adjust ourselves to accommodate someone else’s experience of time; the gap between their speed and ours generates the stress, and power relations govern who must work to make up the difference, to close that gap, and for what compensation.

In other words, technology doesn’t make speedup inevitable. “It is not technological speed that determines one’s temporality; instead it results from where one fits within the biopolitical economy of time.” Technology may serve as an alibi that masks how power inflects the experience of time. The logic of technology doesn’t require everyone to live faster; it is just used to reinforce existing power asymmetries and allow for their reproduction. Technology helps the powerful maintain their temporal dominance, and demand that others sync to their pace when necessary. Technology helps ensure that people’s time is managed; sometimes it even lets people believe that they themselves manage it. 

Authenticity as purgative

More from Foucault:

I would like to underline that the Christian discovery of the self does not reveal the self as an illusion. It gives place to a task which can’t be anything else but undefined. This task has two objectives. First, there is the task of clearing up all the illusions, temptations and seductions which can occur in the mind, and discovering the reality of what is going on within ourselves. Secondly, one has to get free from any attachment to this self, not because the self is an illusion, but because the self is much too real. The more we discover the truth about ourselves, the more we have to renounce ourselves; and the more we want to renounce ourselves, the more we need to bring to light the reality of ourselves. That is what we could call the spiral of truth formulation and reality renouncement which is at the heart of Christian techniques of the self.

I think this tracks with the quasi-confessional use of social media, and with the use of social media to purge the self in the process of “expressing” it. That is, the self is expressed like juice from an orange in a masticating juicer.

What I find interesting is that we need the presence of authenticity to sanctify this project of self-purification. Only what is recognized as “true” or “authentic” can be purged, and provide the relief that comes with expurgation.

Whatever remains ambiguous about the self and its intentions, whatever remains under suspicion of being strategic, remains in play and can’t be expelled. We continue to remain responsible for everything that we can’t have socially verified as authentic. We own only what seems fake about ourselves. What is seen as authentic becomes something that is no longer our fault. It has been successfully confessed, renounced, surrendered.   

Discovering the truth about oneself, then, is not about clarifying the permanent picture of one’s sense of self (as if it were an eternal, underlying thing waiting to be unearthed and communicated). Instead, it is about clearing a space for a more fluid subjectivity in the present moment. It is about finding relief from the burden of selfhood, particularly when the self is regarded as “human capital” within a neoliberalized society.

The “truth” about oneself is final only in so far as it is no longer useful, no longer dynamically productive in the circuits of value creation. What is authenticated is that which has ceased to be productive and can be forgotten. The most authentic self is the slate wiped clean.

The use of authenticity as a marketing ploy is not about “the truth of the self” or any actual desire or ability to claim authenticity. It’s about positing authenticity as a limit. In this sense, authenticity is always aspirational. The least authentic thing one can do is buy something that promises to make you feel authentic. It cancels itself out: You know you’re not being “real” in pursuing such a strategy. But in these purchases of “organic” and “artisanal” goods and experiences, authenticity is just the alibi for a different desire, the desire to be infinitely malleable, which is what consumers (and capitalism) truly want. We want to indulge the fantasy that what we buy can truly change our essential nature, but we are obliged to pretend that it somehow expresses it instead.


I don’t know why Foucault makes this assumption, that the practice of working on the self would involve a search for the truth rather than more effective ways of lying, perhaps lying so persuasively that one believes one’s own lies. 

This makes me think of Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections project, which draws explicitly on Foucault’s “technologies of the self” idea but uses social media to construct a false story about the self taken to be real, and thus becoming “real” as it is socially adopted and recirculated. The project takes as its starting point an intention to deceive people online, to attract attention by enacting a familiar, stereotypical narrative. It plays on consumers of social media preferring the story told by images and their eagerness to vindicate them as “real” and “true” — rendering what is not captured in the manipulated images as “not true." 

Foucault’s point may be that these technologies of the self need the alibi of authenticity to be effective. I wonder if the "technologies of domination” are really any different from the “technologies of the self,” or whether technologies of the self are merely technologies of domination self-applied.

LRB · Michel Foucault and Richard Sennett · Sexuality and Solitude