The moral imperative driving this is what we can call the quest for authenticity. This is the search for meaning in a world that is alienating, spiritually disenchanted, socially flattened, technologically obsessed, and thoroughly commercialized. To that end, “authenticity” has become the go-to buzzword in our moral slang, underwriting everything from our condo purchases and vacation stops to our friendships and political allegiances.
There are two major problems with this.
The first is that authenticity turns out to be just another form of hyper-competitive status seeking, exacerbating many of the very problems it was designed to solve. Second, and even more worrisome, is that the legitimate fear of the negative effects of technological evolution has given way to a paranoid rejection of science and even reason itself.
Modernity, as a civilization, sits at the confluence of secularism, liberalism, and capitalism, and it is not everyone’s cup of coffee. The promise of the authentic is that it will help us carve out a space where true community can flourish outside of the cash nexus and in a way that treads lightly upon the Earth. More often than not, this manifests itself through nostalgia, for a misremembered time when the air was cleaner, the water purer, and communities more nurturing.
It was never going to work out that way. From its very origins, the quest for the authentic was motivated by that most ancient and base of human urges, the desire for status. The authenticity craze of the past decade is simply the latest version of what the economist Thorstein Veblen, in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, called “conspicuous display.” Veblen was mostly concerned with the pretensions of the failing aristocracy and their obsession with obsolete endeavours such as hunting, swordfighting, and learning useless languages. Yet his basic insight – that consumption is first and foremost about social distinction – remains the key to decoding our consumer driven cultural shivers.
As recently as a decade and a half ago, organic food was the almost exclusive bastion of earnest former hippies and young nature lovers — the sort of people who like to make their own granola, don’t like to shave, and use rock crystals as a natural deodorant. But by the turn of the millennium, organic was making inroads into more mainstream precincts, driven by an increasing concern over globalization, the health effects of pesticide use, and the environmental impact of industrial farming. The shift to organic seemed the perfect alignment of private and public benefit.
In the past few juice cleansing has become a 5 billion dollar industry in the U.S., appealing to those who want to lose weight and “detox” their bodies.
It also became an essential element of any “authentic” lifestyle. Yet as it became more popular, the rumblings of discontent within the organic movement became harder to ignore. What was once a niche market had become mainstream, and with massification came the need for large-scale forms of production that, in many ways, are indistinguishable from the industrial farming techniques that organic was supposed to replace. Once Walmart started selling organic food, the terms of what counts as authentic shifted from a choice between organic and conventional food to a dispute between supporters of the organic movement and those who advocate a far more restrictive standard for authenticity, namely, locally grown food.
But when it comes to shopping locally, how local is local enough? If we want to live a low-impact, environmentally conscious lifestyle, how far do we need to go?
The short answer is, you need to go as far as necessary to maintain your position in the status hierarchy.
The problem is you can only be authentic as long as most of the people around you are not, which has its own built-in radicalizing dynamic. You start out getting an organic-vegetable delivery service once a month, then you try growing chickens in your urban backyard. Then the next thing you know, your friends have gone all-in on paleo, eschewing grains, starches, and processed sugar and learning how to bow-hunt wild boar on weekends.
The Whole Food chain plans to start rolling out a system that ranks fruits and vegetables as “good,” ”better” or “best” based on the supplier’s farming practices.
There’s a deeper issue here though, which is that the problem with radicalization is that it breeds extremism. It is one thing to play at being anti-modern by eating only wild game, becoming an expert in axe-throwing, or building a whisky still in your backyard. It is something else entirely to push that ethos into a thoroughgoing rejection of science, technology, and reason itself.
Yet this is where we have ended up. The neoprimitivist logic of authenticity has pushed its way into every corner of how we think, act and consume.
Monday, February 23, 2015
I don't consider the Society for Creative Anachronism to be neo-primitivism, exactly, but what Mr. Potter says about authenticity hits close to home. I've been thinking of authenticity as a near-religious term for quite a while now: