Tuesday, April 13, 2010

a dopey nostalgia for a nonexistent past?

Why It's So Hard To Get Real?
A book review by Paul Beston printed in The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday 13 April 2010, page A17.

The Authenticity Hoax By Andrew Potter

(Harper, 296 pages, $25.99)

Remember when eating organic food made you unusual? That was barely a decade ago, when people in the vanguard celebrated the superior taste of organic food, not mention its health benefits and environmental friendliness. But no sooner had the rest of us caught up than organic advocates began arguing that what really mattered was locally grown food. They pushed for the 100-mile diet, according to which one eats only food grown within that distance from one's home. Local-food evangelists now scorn the distantly grown organic products in places like Whole Foods and—above all—Wal-Mart. Of course, the problem with locally grown food is that it can be difficult to find and afford.

For Andrew Potter, the ever-narrowing search for just the right kind of food has less to do with saving the environment or pursuing a healthy lifestyle than with achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more "authentic" self. Food is only one part of that broader self-definition. In "The Authenticity Hoax," Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game.

Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is "a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it." By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before. The local-food trend illustrates what Mr. Potter calls "conspicuous authenticity," by which the well-heeled embark on a "perpetual coolhunt," whether it is for authentic jeans, pristine vacation spots or mud flooring, part of the "natural building" movement. The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

But the authenticity fixation, according to Mr. Potter, goes deeper than consumer choices. It is the culprit, for instance, behind "a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination." Political candidates are always selling their own sincerity, so that any crack in the fa├žade (never too hard to find) launches a hundred attack ads. Taken to its darkest extremes, obsessive authenticity can become deadly, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism or the hyper-nationalist authenticity of fascism. Less toxic, but more common, is the craving for authenticity among those in the West who see a market economy and consumer culture as sterile and false—inauthentic, in other words—and who defend the world's most repressive cultures, looking past their brutality to admire their resistance to modernity.

It is the disillusionment with modernity, Mr. Potter maintains, that underlies the authenticity quest. When man was preoccupied with finding food and appeasing capricious gods, he didn't have the time or inclination to ask whether he had "sold out" for an easy paycheck or failed to align himself with some abstract ideal of the "authentic" life. But then science made the formerly mystical cosmos explainable, and a spread of democratic ideas, in politics and markets alike, made food and freedom more broadly shared. The result was "a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person," Mr. Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning and not liking what he found there. The individual's own self-definition filled the gap left by faith and authority.

Mr. Potter anoints Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher, as the godfather of the authenticity quest. His famous "state of nature" was a fantasy of authenticity, an idea of man's existence before society. Mr. Potter argues that Rousseau used the state-of-nature concept as "a regulative ideal" by which to measure how far we had strayed from a lost harmony.

Rousseau's "antimodern tunnel vision," Mr. Potter says, can be found in various modern forms: in the views of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and the counterculture heroes of the 1960s, for instance; or in such gloomy social critics as Al Gore and Prince Charles and alarmists like James Howard Kunstler. These antimodern voices, and others, represent what Mr. Potter calls "the authenticity hoax in full throat: a dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive."

Mr. Potter is here to tell us what should be obvious: that there is no paradise back there, that we moderns have never had it so good and that authenticity in the way we've defined it is a sham. Modern life has blessed us with health, wealth and freedom never imagined in the good old days. It is depressing that anyone should have to write a book defending modernity from such crude opponents, but Mr. Potter's broad-ranging survey makes a good case that the authenticist fantasy is deeply embedded in the culture.

Few given to the authenticity mindset will be convinced by Mr. Potter's straightforward prescription: that we simply make our peace with modernity and accept its trade-offs. He urges us to "rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we'll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill." Mr. Potter's admirable faith in progress, even as qualified, may itself be a little utopian or ahistorical, however. Europe's brightest minds expressed similar confidence prior to August 1914. And while much of the authenticity search is absurd, not all of it is so easily separable from the self-criticism that has been foundational to Western success. The extremes of Rousseau's heirs are just one of the tolls we'll have to keep paying for freedom of thought and philosophical self-examination. Whether using our unique powers of reason or ignoring them altogether, humans have probably always been a little phony.

Mr. Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

1 comment:

Kwabena said...

what do you think?