A Question of Authenticity

So the other day, I had written a post that was supposed to be about the strange dance away from logic that seems to be common on the fringes of the raw, organic food lifestyle (ROFL). What I ended up with however, was an extended detour into the social fascination with the concept of ‘authenticity’. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here, the sort of ‘authenticity’ that leads people to buy clothing made by hand in the Peruvian mountains by semi-nomadic alpaca herders, because by doing so they were being more ‘authentic’ and less ‘fake’ or ‘consumerist’.

I have no problem with Peru, or mountains, or nomads or alpacas, and I have nothing but good things to say about herders of all kinds. My fascination was with the people who buy their products – or perhaps more specifically, those particular beliefs that spur people on to seek out ever-more ‘alternative’ lifestyles. There’s a scene in the Ben Stiller movie “Zoolander” where Hansel, a model played by Owen Wilson, is describing a particularly vivid memory he has of his wild and adventurous life. He describes  mountain climbing in some far away nation, and recounts the extreme danger that he was in, before revealing that he was in fact remembering a particularly vivid hallucination brought on by the heavy use of peyote. He was confused because, we are told, Hansel’s life is so wild and adventurous – so real, that the fictional mountain climbing adventure could have been something he had actually done. Hansel has put his money and status to good use, by embarking on a campaign of living life authentically. Oh, and while he was remembering this experience, he was baking artisan bread in a wood-fire stone oven located in his industrial-loft apartment. Owen’s character was the embodiment of nearly every trope and cliché associated with the idea of living ‘authentically’.

In his book “The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves”, author and philosopher Andrew Potter alleges that the urge to seek out increasingly alternative ways of living – of being – is the result of a deep-seated discomfort with being a part of society – with conforming. For Potter, the increasingly bizarre social movements, fads, and ‘counter-cultural’ expressions of identity reflect a sort of dissatisfaction with contemporary society, and are the manifestation of a desire to ‘opt out’. This is hardly revelatory; where it gets interesting is when we look at consequences. The problem with their solution is that because people have been so thoroughly socialized by their culture – because they have internalized and normalized conventional patterns of consumption – they wind up reproducing those social conventions which they originally sought to reject. In order to protest and ‘opt out’ of a culture of consumption, some people end up instead consuming alternative lifestyles. They consume ‘traditional, authentic’ yoga classes instead of the more mainstream yoga classes (and pants) that are offered everywhere; they purchase Tibetan singing-bowls and alkaline water treatment devices or take courses in Ayurvedic medicine and Pranic healing. They buy packed and sealed dirt floors for their multi-million dollar beach-front homes, and endlessly consume seminars, retreat packages, and shamanic rituals (and the associated cultural expropriation) in order to feel connected to more ‘authentic’ expressions of individuality. But why are these things more ‘authentic’ than, say, taking a karate class in the basement of the local community centre? Why is a packed dirt floor so much more ‘authentic’ than laminate or hardwood? Why are ‘vision quests’ at energy vortices in Nevada more ‘authentic’ than getting high on acid in a hot tub on your patio?

Alternative lifestyles are often expensive; the retreats, treatments, cleanses, courses and seminars are part of a multi-billion dollar industry – a consumer society that is often indistinguishable from more traditional patterns of consumption. It takes a certain amount of free time and disposable income in order to fully immerse ourselves in our alternative lifestyle of choice, and that time and capital can be an insurmountable barrier to many people who might want to be included. There are relatively few poor or socially disadvantaged people making annual trips to Sedona. The attendees at the (in)famous Ramtha School appear for the most part to be white, middle or upper-middle class people, for example. Having the time and resources to attend such events and locales is beyond the reach of many, and it’s probably just as well – who wants the plebs coming in and bringing us all down with their poorness?

The ultimate aim of the search for authenticity seems to me to be the explicit rejection of mainstream consumer culture; if we can distance ourselves enough from what everyone else is doing, we can claim the right to be called an individual; we can cast off the title of ‘consumer’, and embrace a way of living that is more authentic, hence more ‘real’, and therefore more True. And this is where the real source of tension exists, because by rushing to embrace these alternative lifestyles, we also tend to rush out and buy the associated trappings. We tear out our hardwood floors and replace it with Amazonian river mud, or we embrace our new shamanic existence by dropping a few thousand dollars on a spiritual retreat. In short, we declare our rejection of consumer culture by choosing to employ a new pattern of consumption. We consume the trappings and accoutrements of our new alternative lifestyle, and while doing so consume the fantasy that we’ve left consumerism behind. It is a paradox, but it is one that was predicted more than a century ago.

In what is arguably his most famous work, “The Communist Manifesto”, Karl Marx stated that the bourgeoisie – the capitalist class – is the most revolutionary class in society, because in order to maintain its dominance over the proletariat – the working class – it must continually reinvent itself in new and novel ways. In the context of contemporary consumer culture, the capitalist class and their corporate entities re-imagine themselves on a nearly constant basis in order to maintain the dynamo of consumerism which drives the economies of the Global North. As new and novel countercultural movements emerge, they are invaded by and subsequently inculcated in the ever-changing consumer culture. The organic food movement for example, arose partly in response to the domination by industrial agri-business of the agricultural sector; now many of the largest organic food companies are virtually indistinguishable from the industrial farming corporations the movement sought to oppose. In music, the punk-rock counterculture of the 1970s and 1980s was harnessed, tamed, polished, and re-released by major record labels so that where once we had the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and Sid Vicious, now we have Green Day and Sum41. In what could be considered the cruelest of ironies, the desire to oppose consumer culture may result in these newfound and ‘authentic’ lifestyles being co-opted and rendered mainstream.

[UPDATE: 15:03 PST] Spelling


  1. says

    Why are ‘vision quests’ at energy vortices in Nevada more ‘authentic’ than getting high on acid in a hot tub on your patio?

    Better question: when can we hang out?

  2. embraceyourinnercrone says

    I always wonder if these people in search of authenticity, whatever that means, know or care about how much it cost in fuel to fly, train, or truck those Peruvian alpaca sweaters and Amazonian mud floors. And the factory farmed “organics” from the big corporate farms. There are lots of hand made garments and locally grown food in many places, heck there are farmers markets in Manhattan NY, Victoria and Vancouver BC to name just a few. I guess those aren’t as “sexy” …or something.

  3. says

    To be honest, I’m not sure if they care. It seems to me that the value of embracing these alternative lifestyles isn’t found in how ethical they are, or how environmentally sustainable they can be; the value seems to lie in the act of consuming them. A person of my acquaintance makes frequent trips to the Nevada desert to ‘cleanse’ zirself at ‘energy matrices’ found on ‘nodal points’ that apparently dot the landscape. They aren’t going there because they want to be more environmentally conscious or whatever; they’re going there because once they return, they can use the trip to add a more ‘authentic’ layer to their personality and thereby assume a social identity that is distinct from the decidedly more prosaic lives of zir friends and family. Could this person find some sheltered ‘ley line’ somewhere on Vancouver Island or the British Columbian mainland? Probably. But travelling a few hours from home in one’s home country isn’t as ‘exotic’ as travelling to some romanticised locale in another country.

  4. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    The problem with their solution is that because people have been so thoroughly socialized by their culture – because they have internalized and normalized conventional patterns of consumption – they wind up reproducing those social conventions which they originally sought to reject. In order to protest and ‘opt out’ of a culture of consumption, some people end up instead consuming alternative lifestyles.

    Not to mention policing the norms and prescriptions of their subcultures at least as energetically, and often far more so, than mainstream pop culture does its own – IE, all the “you’re not REALLY goth/punk/whatever” crap.

    It kinda scares me that I had the number on this by the time I was about 14 and yet millions of adults still haven’t figured it out. You’d think I’d be used to that, I suppose..

  5. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    (Okay, my examples are a bit tangential but I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with “alternative lifestyles” of all flavors.)

  6. Enkidum says

    A great book on this topic is The Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. A few places their analysis goes off the rails (I think they fundamentally misunderstand the song Revolution by the Beatles, and they don’t get Fight Club either), but by and large it’s a fascinating indictment of these trends.

    The trouble with these kind of “authenticity” movements is exemplified by the alternative medicine “culture” – they actually end up having real consequences that can affect the rest of us. Things like the organic movement in food production might come from a very reasonable starting place: we vastlly overuse fertilizers and pesticides, for instance, which has all sorts of horrible effects on us and the rest of the biosphere. But it’s a mistake to move from “we use too much, in careless ways” to “we should never use any, for any reason, even if it increases the energy consumption needed to produce the food tenfold”.

    I’m someone who used to be very much one of these authenticity-seekers, and I generally had a wonderful time being authentic and so much better than everyone else around me. But I slowly realized that I kind of like many the trappings of my horrible soul-dead culture, so… fuck it.

  7. asonge says

    This reminds me of a conversation I was having with someone today about the economics of “fair trade” certified coffee and such. There are many economics reasons to be extremely skeptical, particularly when you share values of being concerned about ethically sourcing your food products (as I do). Basically, the fair trade stuff is almost all done on the wholesale level where an extra fee is taxed by the wholesaler to support a certification organization which splits the fee with the farmer. This fee is like 1.9%(most common rate) to 10% or so (usually) of wholesale. In order to get in these fair trade groups, farmers will often pay bribes to the fair trade certifiers (or to avoid getting kicked off) which eats heavily into the subsidy they do get from the wholesale increase.

    When retailers buy the fair trade coffee, they consider the fee a value-add which they can mark up. Now, fair trade coffee is a lot more than 10% of wholesale at the retail level…more like a 30% of retail price markup which is a much bigger value (retail already having a markup). So most of the extra expense for fair trade goes right to the retailer and is never seen by anyone. Retailers don’t seem to care about the ethics of the fair trade stuff because people are willing to pay a premium for (at best) being able to think they’re ethically source stuff, but you’re probably right in saying that buying fair trade stuff is really about identifying as authentically caring. When I argue about this with people, I have to be careful because sometimes I’m arguing against their identity as being genuinely concerned with labor practices in third world countries, even when I share that value myself (seeing myself as somewhat left).

    The funny bit is, despite this anecdote, I know there are a number of topics that get a rise out of me because they attack my identity. It takes an insane amount of self-discipline to sit down and have skepticism potentially corrode some of your values, and I don’t know anyone who’s completely consistent here.

  8. chrisdevries says

    Honestly, I don’t really fully “get” the mindset of people who are driven to support these little “authentic” cottage industries. Why do they really care if other people see them as mindless consumer robots or genuine individuals (whatever that means). Don’t they see that by being a human in the global village, there is no realistic way to “do your own thing” that is outside the realm of consumerism? EVERYTHING in our society revolves around it! Buy, buy, buy…we are so completely immersed in capitalism that the only way to do something truly unique is to go off and build a hut in the middle of nowhere, grow your own food, raise your own animals and be self-sustaining. But even there, you have to buy the land, building materials, and all of the things you need to set up as a subsistence farmer. And you might have to sell some things to pay property tax (and if you do receive services that require the payment of tax, you are still tethered to a consumerist society).

    Daniel Quinn has a lot to say on this issue in the novel Ishmael; I highly recommend it. And there have certainly been experiments in alternative ways of living that have drastically reduced the dependency of a group of people on the rest of a consumerist society. But anyone who wants to enjoy the benefits that the capitalistic West has created needs to understand that consumerism is inevitable. Seeking ways to consume “authentically” may change the way other people look at you but it won’t actually change your relationship with society at large in any meaningful way.

  9. Ysanne says

    Yes, yes and yes. I have some people of exactly this kind in my family. It’s infuriating.
    Water alkalinizer? Tick. Authentic yoga including uncritical acceptance of all kinds of related superstition? Tick. Conspiracy theories about how science is evil and out to poison and enslave humanity? Tick. Totally bogus claims of miracle cures for cancer? Tick. Made-up diseases that are healed by random BS machines/herbs/enchanted food (while simultaneously not even noticing obvious acute health issues of their kids, such as lice and school sores)? Tick. Spiritual workshops with a mix-n-match blend of rituals from various cultures (with the “teachers” and “healers” usually on the fraudster warning lists of the respective tradition)? Tick. A totally messed-up philosophy of being “spiritual” and “attaining a higher consciousness” that boils down to justification of total selfishness and “everything bad only happens because you attract it with your own negative thoughts” victim blaming on closer examination? Tick.
    What I love most is the total objectification of others that one of them recently showed in the discussion of intimate acts during a workshop to bring out the “sacred feminine and masculine essence” (shorthand for enforcing stupid gender sterotypes) in the participants: “I just connect with the divine masculine in them, I don’t care for them as a person…”
    So yeah, there’s even an alternative way of doing the classic sex-related objectification thing.

  10. jose says

    I’m not sure I understand the post. The people you talk about seem to look for authenticity only to end up living in the same way, except buying fancy stuff instead of regular stuff. Can this impulse be accomplished in a respectable way?

  11. hoary puccoon says

    Maybe this is an example of *me* being more-authentic-than-thou.

    But I think the people who wear the alpaca sweaters are the same ones who have been everywhere and done everything. And it was *always* at an all-inclusive resort; on a cruise; or with a guided group tour.

    Then they come back and pontificate about the “real” culture or the “real” sights or the “real” thrills– of a country where I’ve spent months or years. When I protest it wasn’t quite that way when I lived there, more than one person has pointed out– with a sneer– that if I’d have had the sense to take a guided tour, I wouldn’t have needed to waste all those months. I could have “done” the whole country in two weeks!

  12. scorinth says

    If you mean the search for “authenticity” as a response to overbearing consumerism and the rejection of ‘shared’ values in favor of individual values, the first step is to realize that these symbols of authenticity are not authentic themselves, but rather status symbols that people use to reassure themselves and others that they’re special. Having read this article, I assume you’ve passed the first step.
    The second step is a frank evaluation of your life, your desires, and your priorities. The consumption of these symbols of authenticity stems from a desire to be different, combined with the desire for acceptance and the fear of actually leaving the comforts of modern mainstream society. Here there is a choice: You can accept that you are really a phony and continue consuming these symbols, you can stop worrying about being different from others and ‘just be’, or you can in fact actually break away from society and, for example, become a park ranger at the Grand Canyon.

  13. scorinth says

    I forgot to mention that none of these are “wrong” choices. The happiest people I know have gone confronted and resolved the issue, with wildly differing final outcomes, but they are all happy, wise people who I am proud to consider friends.

  14. smrnda says

    In some areas I can see a value to authenticity – sometimes the hand-made alpaca wool sweater will actually outlast the sweater you could buy at walmart, so it could even be seen as a cost-effective measure for someone who has the money for the initial investment.

    But this is what I can’t get – if you’re so concerned about labor practices that you’ll reject an off the rack sweater in favor of the fair trade one from Peru, there are plenty of American workers being screwed in your own neighborhood.

    With stuff like organic foods, I’m less persuaded also since I don’t think ‘organic’ agriculture will actually be able to sustain the population we have or are even superior in any way.

    For me, it’s more about whether or not the ‘alternative’ option is really any better. Automatically accepting the popular option can be a bad idea, but it’s equally mindless to just automatically reject the more common options in favor of whatever seems the most alternative or authentic.

  15. says

    One thing:
    Alpaca wool rocks. Serious, the wool of all new-world camels is a gorgeous material.
    /seamstress pedantry

    Now, this “authenticity” seems in most cases just to be a “richer than thou”. One group persues it by going for Prada handbags, another one by going for Peruvian Guinea pig woll handbags.
    It’s never about actually simple things. A laminated floor? Hey that’s what the lower middle class gets because it’s good value, durable and easy to clean.

    Re: organic food
    Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t. And you have to be skeptical and look at the things in detail or simply accept that you’re engaging in some less than optimal stuff. We all do, all the time.

  16. smrnda says

    Will agree that alpaca wool rocks, though it ‘rocks’ in much the same way that I could say Porsche cars rock though I wonder if it’s really cost/rarity or just that nobody has thought about mass-producing alpaca wool goods and improving the systems of distribution?

    I find ‘richer than thou’ carries over into the arts as well, where clueless rich people have to go to ‘hip’ plays and such to appear adequately cultured. Perhaps another issue is whether a person’s interest in something is authentic or superficial?

  17. says

    And this is where the real source of tension exists, because by rushing to embrace these alternative lifestyles, we also tend to rush out and buy the associated trappings. We tear out our hardwood floors and replace it with Amazonian river mud, or we embrace our new shamanic existence by dropping a few thousand dollars on a spiritual retreat. In short, we declare our rejection of consumer culture by choosing to employ a new pattern of consumption.

    You are confusing the appropriation of anti-consumerism by advertisers as being the same thing as actual resistance. The point of a lot of advertising is to keep people constantly wanting for something more, to make sure they are never totally satisfied (like needing a new wardrobe every season or to lose 5 more pounds or what have you). If they can pretend to package authenticity (something that is supposed to provide genuine contentment), then they have consumers exactly where they want them. Having a good life is just another thing to buy.

    Taking their word at face value ignores the scores of people who really are making choices to resist consumerism and find those choices meaningful. There isn’t much interest in spreading news about that. People can decide to be less materialistic, more charitable, to focus on their family/other relationships, to build community, etc. Don’t equate that with buying a dirt floor.

  18. slatham says

    I attended a peyote ceremony about a year ago. It was nice to be invited. It was sort of a good cause, in a way, because it was a kind of healing ceremony for a new dad who was trying to break his addictions. (So: good intentions if not effective methodology.) I stuck through it to try to be supportive but I remember several times thinking, as we sat kneeling in front of the fire until morning, “This is so inauthentic.” I was disgusted by how silly it all seemed (I needed to puke, but the real-enough peyote probably played a role in that). But now I’m wondering what made it any less authentic than other things I might have chosen to do that weekend.
    Silly, fake, pretentious, sexist … it was probably equivalent to most available choices. At least it was something to talk about over the water cooler.

  19. im says

    One big thing to do is to remember that authenticity is as authenticity DOES, not as authenticity HAS.

    The most important one is that Upper-Middle Class White/European American is a culture, and is capable of authenticity.

    Instrumentally, you should let your desires define your culture, rather than choose desires to please your culture.

  20. im says

    I don’t think he really did. His point is more that before you get to that level, you have to dig through dozens of layers of fake authenticity that’s just being different from the other one because the other one’s not the same.

    Not sure I agree with all of your style of authenticity EITHER, for example I think materialism is getting a bad rap, but you may actually have it.

    Important point: Authenticity != Uniqueness.

  21. Brad says

    “The problem with their solution is that because people have been so thoroughly socialized by their culture – because they have internalized and normalized conventional patterns of consumption – they wind up reproducing those social conventions which they originally sought to reject. In order to protest and ‘opt out’ of a culture of consumption, some people end up instead consuming alternative lifestyles.”

    I came across a comparable problem among the UK metal scene. I was your stereotypical Metal-head during my teen years, long hair, baggy jeans, studded belt; I owned one hoody and it was a Metallica “Ride the Lightening” hoody. But when I was 16 I took a moth-long trip to Bolivia, and decided to cut all my hair off, partly so things didn’t live in it during the week spent in the Amazon basin and partly so I could get it sponsored and raise money for the trip. This was the beginning of me “growing out” of the metal look. When I got back, I had a normal haircut and started wearing boot-cut jeans and steel-capped boots, instead of the ubiquitous baggies and skate shoes. I stopped wearing the spiked leather bracelets and big chunky wallet-chain. Before I knew it I had people coming up to me at gigs and asking what I was doing there; I didn’t “look like a metal head”. Some were actively hostile.

    And it made me realise that despite all the noise about how metal heads were more accepting, more individual, went against the grain and didn’t conform (all things I fully believed when I was “part of the crowd”), they really aren’t. They aren’t some oppressed minority that makes a safe haven for those wo are disenfranchised by mainstream culture, as we all believed between ages 12 and 16 (I see some of my old aquaintances out and about who still believe this, to varying extents, and this is 6 years later). They still conform to a standard set of values just like every other sub-culture; they’ve just exchanged one set of values for another. Exactly the same as the neo-spiritualists and non-consumerists you mentioned. People are depressingly similar no matter what label they give themselves.


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