Realer than you

Andrew Potter: How did authenticity become the hot new status symbol?

How did authenticity become the new status symbol
Photograph by John Elk III/Loney Planet Images

In the summer of 2008, a 28-year-old French engineer named Florent Lemaçon, his wife, Chloé, and their three-year-old son, Colin, embarked on what looked to be the trip of a lifetime. After quitting their jobs, the Lemaçons set sail from France in a boat into which they had poured their life savings, a restored yacht named the Tanit. Their destination was Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, and to help them sail around the clock, the Lemaçons had picked up another couple. As the Tanit left Egypt and headed down into the Indian Ocean, they spoke to a French frigate that strongly advised them to turn back from a journey that would take them into some of the most lawless, pirate-infested waters in the world.

The undaunted adventurers continued on their way, and over the weekend of April 4, 2009, they were seized by Somali pirates intent on taking their five hostages back to the mainland, where they would be harder to find and, hence, easier to ransom. After negotiations with the pirates broke down, French commandos launched a rescue operation during which four of the Tanit crew were rescued. Mr. Lemaçon was killed during the ensuing gunfight, perhaps by friendly fire as he tried to duck down into the yacht’s cabin.

On a blog the couple kept of their trip, the Lemaçons wrote: “The danger is there and has indeed become greater over the past months, but the ocean is vast?.?.?.?the pirates must not be allowed to destroy our dream.” And their dream, as they told everyone who would listen, was to protect their son, Colin, from the depraved elements of the modern world, especially the sterile government and its officious bureaucracy, the shallowness of the mass media, and the meaninglessness of consumer society and its destructive environmental impact. “We don’t want our child to receive the sort of education that the government is concocting for us,” Florent told a French newspaper. “We have got rid of the television and everything that seemed superfluous to concentrate on what is essential.”

The story of a disillusioned young man looking for meaning outside the iron cage of modern life was a cliché even by the time Henry David Thoreau went off to Walden Pond, and Florent Lemaçon is not the first person to get himself killed while searching for a leaner and less complicated mode of existence. Indeed, for all their recklessness, there is nothing remotely eccentric about what the Lemaçons were searching for. The object of their desire, the “essential” core of life, is something called authenticity, and finding the authentic has become the foremost spiritual quest of our time. It is a quest that takes place at the intersection of some of our culture’s most controversial issues: environmentalism and the market economy, personal identity and consumer culture, and artistic expression and the meaning of life.

Here is a short but somewhat representative list of brands, people, products or services that have been promoted in recent years on the grounds that they are authentic: Italian cuisine, Chinese cuisine, American cuisine, Canadian cuisine, Coca-Cola, distressed jeans, distressed guitars, skateboards, independent bookstores, typewriters, chainsaws, Twitter, blogs, comments on blogs, ecotourism, Communist tourism, slum tourism, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, Susan Boyle, the Mini Cooper, the Volkswagen Beetle, Cuba, Bhutan, organic coffee, organic produce, local produce, the 100-mile diet, the 100-mile suit, urban lofts, urban lofts with no-flush toilets, and mud floors in suburban homes.

In various guises, the authentic is seen as an answer to the individual need for spiritual meaning and self-fulfillment, for an engaged and egalitarian politics, for living arrangements based on community and trust, and for a progressive economy that is local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. Yet it has also become, ironically, the principal form of status competition in contemporary life—what economists call a “positional good,” one that gets its value from serving as a measure of social rank or one-upmanship.

Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth. The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.

That model of status is pretty much obsolete. Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.” The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.

But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.

Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques or objets d’art that can’t be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialized parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin or farmhouse somewhere, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.

What makes conspicuous authenticity so seductive and appealing is the twist it puts on Thorstein Veblen’s insight that in order to be successful, the signs of conspicuous display need to portray themselves as at least superficially useful or socially beneficial. That is, the display needs to masquerade as something other than what it really is, which is status-seeking. And so recall how the old 19th-century aristocrats spent their “leisure” time hunting, or learning obscure languages, while late 20th-century counterculturalists masked their cool-hunting under the guise of a principled rejection of fascistic conformity.

Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by making the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide you with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet. This essential fusion of the two ideals of the privately beneficial and the morally praiseworthy is the bait-and-switch at the heart of the authenticity hoax. This desire for the personal and the public to align explains why so much of what passes for authentic living has a do-gooder spin to it.

Recognizing that authenticity is a positional good with a built-in self-radicalizing dynamic helps us make sense of some seemingly bizarre behaviour. The fetish for the public display of emotion, which exploded into our popular culture with the death of Princess Diana and whose embers are tended by Oprah Winfrey’s cult of self-obsessed sentimentality, can be understood as a form of radically conspicuous authenticity. The pathological concern over the origin and content of our food, accompanied by an almost religious belief in the evils of industrial production and the virtues of organic farming, has a similar etiology. The hysteria over global warming that has led to calls for North Americans to give up flying, give up driving, give up meat, give up toilet paper, give up light bulbs—everything, that is, short of giving up living—is almost entirely driven by a ratchet of authenticity one-upmanship that progressively rejects more and more of the comforts and privileges of modern life. Next thing you know, the hyper-rich are sleeping on mud floors, like poverty-stricken Aboriginals in the outback.

We can safely ignore people who go to a restaurant that advertises “authentic Italian cuisine,” and we can laugh at friends who rent an “authentic log cabin” on a crowded lake in cottage country. What we need to worry about are the people who go to invitation-only set-menu dinners hosted by professional Italian chefs, or who own cabins on remote, closed-development lakes in northern Ontario or the Gulf Islands. These are the people who are setting the bar for everyone else, whose privilege does not manifest itself as mere privilege, but as the successful discovery of the rare fruit of authenticity. It is precisely because only a few can partake of this sort of implicit, genuine authenticity that there is a market for the more explicit, fake kind. Just as the phenomenon of keeping up with the Joneses must be blamed on the Joneses for starting the competition in the first place, the one-way ratchet of the search for authenticity is the fault of those who set the bar, not those who try to meet it.


Adapted from The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, by Andrew Potter, published by McClelland & Stewart this week.