Monthly Archives: September 2016

This is a passage from the introduction of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic™ (2012). I agree that we should “discard as false the simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic” and not only because the definitions of these terms entirely depend on each other. 

What I think that paragraph underplays is that “authenticity” as it’s understood within consumer culture is internal to that culture and not the trace of a way of life that preceded it, something off which consumer culture and brands are parasitically leeching. Authenticity as we understand it is a product of consumer culture, even though it is deployed to try to evoke the life untouched by commercialization. 

If “authenticity” evokes “spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions,” it is because the term works to fashion such spaces as commercial properties. “Authenticity” is that structuring process; it’s not a measure of the degree to which something eludes commercialization. “Authentic” things are not those that evade branding; in fact, only brands can be “authentic.” Authenticity-inauthenticity is fundamentally a continuum that can only be applied to brands. When we examine our own “authenticity,” we are thinking of ourselves in terms of our personal brand. If you are concerned about being authentic, you are concerned about your brand — not about how to escape the impact of branding on your self-concept.   

“Authenticity” is commercialized nostalgia for that way of life that was articulated by a different set of economic relations: precapitalistic, or pre-massified, or pre-globalized — whatever word you want to use to describe how it seemed when you were nine years old, when things were “real” (because you were too immature to understand how they became that way, and how the world as given was both mutable and the product of human decisions).  

In other words, authenticity doesn’t describe what we’ve lost through the relentless and implacable advances consumer culture; it is how that consumer culture structures how the past is to be consumed in the present moment. “Authenticity” articulates contemporary consumerist values as if they were really external to consumerism, and could ground it, give it transcendental meaning: you really can consume your way into being real! 

But authenticity and inauthenticity are both internal to the system of branding and commercialized communication. When something is “authentic” it is certainly not “outside of mere consumer culture”; it is instead the apotheosis of that culture. 

Trying to be “authentic” is to pursue an apolitical, individualistic solution to an intrinsically political question. To short-circuit this logic, one might begin by acknowledging that the affect and emotion generated by brands is as “genuine” as any other feeling. The extent to which “we need to believe” otherwise is the extent to which that “belief” precludes itself from becoming real. Letting consumer culture sell you a commodified sense of your immunity to consumer culture does not dismantle that culture. 

Built into that paragraph from Banet-Weiser above is the assumption that most people think “real feelings” are inherently anti-commercial or anticapitalist, but it may be that commercialization and measurable profit, in the kind of society to which we have been habituated, makes feelings feel more substantial, more shared, more real. Brands are “authentic” because they are valuable, profitable, popular, viral, etc. Many of us feel validated by the same sorts of things: we are more “real” when we get more likes. It is insufficient to think this is simply mass inauthenticity. 

It is not a political solution to insist on the pursuit of “real feelings.” That tends to lead to authenticity being used to disenfranchise those deemed “inauthentic” — that is, those who lack the means to insist on the standards that favor themselves.  


Young Writer by Pierre Jacquet-Droz (c. 1770)