Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hipper Than Thou--The Ever-So-Elusive Search For "The Authentic" In A Cleverly-Consuming World

My first post for The Ministers Of Design Blog:
The search for "the authentic" has become one of the most dominant spiritual, moral, and consumerist quests of our time, states Andrew Potter, the author of The Authenticity Hoax and The Rebel Sell. Too bad that it is about as elusive as the Abominable Snowman—the author argues that there is no such thing as authenticity. Before you go hi-fiving your college cultural studies professor for teaching you that in the first place and leafing through your Cultural Studies Reader, let's hash out the argument.
The obsession with "keeping it real" and "keeping it underground" has been a veritable mother lode of satire-worthy material, creating a whole new genre, the consumption critique, and launching Portlandia and Stuff White People Like into the popularity stratosphere.
But isn't Look At This Hipster hilarious precisely because it is the ultimate [and very meta] hipster thing to laugh at other "poser hipsters"? With all this meaning upon meaning, and layers of meta upon meta, how is one to parse out what is happening?
Let's start with the concept of selling out. How does one express one's individuality without "selling out" to the man or the machine or some permutation thereof? Potter defines this "eternal trope of American life" as the idea that “once you had principles that were dear to you and you have given them up in exchange for comfort, material wealth, a job, etc." It seems that the ultimate litmus test of a band "selling out," for example, is when their music is used to shill some product for a corporation. So if consumerism is anathema, then why has the response to the "corporate" smacked of consumerism with no less intensity? Are these values we are giving up genuine values or were they a front for status seeking in the first place? This is the question posited by The Authenticity Hoax.
Take the organic/local food movement--clever consumption has become the new keeping up with the Joneses, argues Potter. As he explains, the in thing du jour has shifted from eating organic, to eating local, and then even further, eating artisanal, ramping up the exclusivity factor.
Ultimately, this quest for the real, the authentic has become no less corporatized than anything "commercial." Begs the question--is there nothing real under the sun anymore?
One of the most seminal counter-cultural parables Fight Club and others of its ilk (Matrix, even) posit this idea that society is a land of falseness and illusion and that all one needs to do is wake up to this fact to escape its evil spell.
But how does one go about escaping this? Our culture is undeniably a countercultural culture and corporations have become incredibly good at selling rebellion to us. Potter argues that a common and very prevalent misconception is that capitalism requires conformity. As he explains, “capitalism relies on the concept of the constant churning of desires among consumers. It simply does not require conformity at all—quite the opposite.”
Consumerism (and more specifically clever consumerism) has become the hallmark and the vehicle for social status expression. In the decades of yore, one would argue there were more opportunities for standing out and finding one's place in the social hierarchy. With the dwindling opportunities, social status is currently negotiated by consuming and displaying what you have found to be “authentic.” This "clever consumption" is the yard stick at present—why? Because consuming something different, something obscure grants one an especially coveted social status cache.
So now that the proverbial curtain has been pulled from your eyes, what is your take on this? Is it a case of “I faked it so real, I am beyond fake?” Do you agree that clever consumption is the new social ladder climbing? Comment and let us know your thoughts.

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