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.  

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Consistency through adulteration

An article in a recent issue of the Economist details the tobacco industry’s troubles around the world with maintaining the value of its “intellectual property”: brand names, logos, package designs, and advertising aura. Governments have apparently recognized that tobacco companies have “the best pricing power of any industry,” as a consultant cited in the article somewhat euphemistically put it — that is, their customers are literally addicted to their product and will probably buy it if it came packaged in dog vomit. Given that tobacco companies have that sort of leverage, states are acting to take away the their brand power, mandating plain packaging and banning various forms of advertising.

“The design of the box is where they must convey not only the name of the brand but abstract qualities, such as masculinity or the idea that a product is ‘premium,’ and worth an extra outlay,” the article explains. “If such traits are stripped from packs, consumers may choose cheaper brands.” The article also points out that the industry has described anti-advertising initiatives as “expropriation of intellectual property” — theft of the immaterial value added to tobacco products through advertising and design that is not intrinsic to the product itself. Tobacco, seen from this vantage point, is just a (toxic, unfortunately) medium for conveying ideas and social values in a compelling, visceral way. It is just another form of media that we get addicted to.

A cigarette is a cigarette is a cigarette, and when a smoker chooses one brand over another, they are in the realm of pure ideology. They have bought into the idea of the cigarette as a medium, which maybe isn’t physiologically addictive but can be a hard habit to break nonetheless. Ideology is addictive. It feels good to consume an idea like, say, “masculinity” as so much smoke you blow out of your mouth. It functions like a tautological argument: I can’t explain in logical terms why the Marlboro makes me feel more manly, but I can feel something indisputable happening in my lungs. It is reassuring to feel why you believe something on the bodily level, even if that feeling is ultimately associated arbitrarily with what it represents for you.

Governments, then, are trying to turn tobacco from a medium back into a generic substance again. They want to strip tobacco down to its core compulsive essence so that smokers must face that they smoke because they are nicotine addicts, not because they are brand loyalists, or because they like the message the cigarette medium can convey: that they are young or rebellious or sexy or sophisticated or cool or whatever other abstract idea companies have managed to associate with smoking. Rather than regulate the messages cigarettes communicate, the government is trying to make cigarettes noncommunicative by censoring the messages packaged around them, as if people won’t think to feel anything about smoking if the discourse around it is somehow stripped of all allusiveness. As if then they will just be addicted to smoking qua smoking or, even more abstract, addicted to the state of being addicted.

This seems an unlikely outcome. It seems more plausible that addiction generates its own rationalizations, its own myths, its own ideology. We need to experience a physical grounding for our ideological beliefs, and we need to have ideological excuses for our physical addictions, so they tend to work in tandem, symbiotically. The compulsion to smoke drives a quest for ideological rationalizations (“smoking is cool”), just as the need for belief drives the quest for compulsive, physically affective practices that seem uncontestably “real.” Compulsion authenticates practices and the ideas associated with them; it removes incentives and calculations from the equation. You do and feel and believe because you have to, altogether. At a certain point it seems inconceivable that I decided to smoke; the taste for what smoking represents to me no longer seems optional, a conniving ploy at something, either. It feels reflexive, like a craving.

Brands can seem like a way to add a phony value to an otherwise undifferentiated commodity. But they also mark the entry point for consumers into some vicarious fantasy, some idea tangential to consumption. The potential value of a brand rests in the conflation of compulsion and the desire to believe. It must make you feel as though you are choosing and also have no choice.

When governments mandate that cigarette packaging must be ugly, it may be that smokers’ ideas of beauty will change. There is no reference point for beauty that compulsion can’t shift, no absolute ugliness that can anchor a sense of repulsion where we once felt compelled. A substance makes us compulsive and we put that compulsion to use to make something else, some idea of ourselves, feel desperately necessary, mandatory, inescapable. We’ll create a brand-shaped hole wherever we project our compulsions.

So it seems doubtful to me that a government can take a thing that has functioned as a medium, as a vehicle for wishes and fears and fantasies, and nullify it simply by making it plain. The smallest differences can be made to signify. Our desire to enjoy brands is probably stronger even than the desire to smoke. We can’t suppress the yearning to have a specific name for the things we love.

That, from The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, effectively captures the bottomless darkness that resides where the core of the “true self” discourse is supposed to be. The truth of the self, apparently, is that you are sad, helpless, and alone. Anything short of that is “inauthentic.” 

hipster hate

What would a counter-conduct of neoliberalism be? Of course one could refuse to maximize one’s human capital, drop out, etc., but barring a trust fund one needs to work to survive. Neoliberalism is perhaps defined by its ability to encapsulate its outside. All DIY projects, escapes into local communities, are rebranded as micro-entrepreneurs. Irony becomes just another branding ethos. Enter the hipster. The hippy and the punk were counter-conducts, the hipster is what is left of counter-conducts when they are no longer counter, but become part of self-marketing.

I think that assessment (from this post by Jason Read) is right. I also wonder, and this is directed mainly at myself, whether persisting in talking about the “hipster” extends neoliberalism’s recuperative power precisely by seeming to exaggerate the significance of hipsterdom. “Hipsters” — the individuals struggling to make meaning out of their life — must be differentiated from “hipsterdom,” the collective sense of what their struggles constitute, how they are perceived abstractly. Hipsterdom is what I think of “hipsters” (rather than the specific things me and the people I know) are doing.

Hipsterdom (understood as the expression of neoliberalism’s power to assimilate critique and turn it to its own account) seems to work by galvanizing contempt for itself, by seeming perniciously viral, omnipresent, irresistible. The critique of hipsterdom assures the most cynical interpretation of “hipsters” (always inevitably) inadequate attempts at resistance; the critique may do as much to recast resistance as entrepreneurship as the practices themselves. People don’t perceive themselves to be playing the “hipster” game, but it is imputed to them after the fact, not as individuals so much as entire neighborhoods or demographics are impugned. The individuals are interpolated as pawns in this game, and no move they make can’t be assimilated to it. That is the same assimilative gesture as neoliberalism makes — the critique is a neoliberalist practice even under the auspices of being a critique of neoliberalism.

neoliberalism and hating “hipsters”

What would a counter-conduct of neoliberalism be? Of course one could refuse to maximize one’s human capital, drop out, etc., but barring a trust fund one needs to work to survive. Neoliberalism is perhaps defined by its ability to encapsulate its outside. All DIY projects, escapes into local communities, are rebranded as micro-entrepreneurs. Irony becomes just another branding ethos. Enter the hipster. The hippy and the punk were counter-conducts, the hipster is what is left of counter-conducts when they are no longer counter, but become part of self-marketing. 

I think that assessment (from this post by Jason Read) is right. I also wonder, and this is directed mainly at myself, whether persisting in talking about the “hipster” extends neoliberalism’s recuperative power precisely by seeming to exaggerate the significance of hipsterdom. “Hipsters” — the individuals struggling to make meaning out of their life — must be differentiated from “hipsterdom,” the collective sense of what their struggles constitute, how they are perceived abstractly. Hipsterdom is what I think of what “hipsters” (rather than the specific things me and the people I know) are doing.  

Hipsterdom (understood as the expression of neoliberalism’s power to assimilate critique and turn it to its own account) seems to work by galvanizing contempt for itself, by seeming perniciously viral, omnipresent, irresistible. The critique of hipsterdom assures the most cynical interpretation of “hipsters”’ (always inevitably) inadequate attempts at resistance; the critique may do as much to recast resistance as entrepreneurship as the practices themselves. People don’t perceive themselves to be playing the “hipster” game, but it is imputed to them after the fact; they are impugned not as individuals so much as as faceless aspects of entire neighborhoods or demographics. The individuals are interpolated as pawns in this game, and no move they make can’t be assimilated to it. That is the same assimilative gesture as neoliberalism makes — the critique is a neoliberalist practice even under the auspices of being a critique of neoliberalism.