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Entertaining, engaging, well-articulated, dangerous sophistry

The Authenticity Hoax: Why the "Real" Things We Seek Don't Make Us Happy - Andrew Potter

Andrew Potter is obviously an intelligent and funny guy. He peppers his writing with cogent examples of whatever it is he's trying to convince you of, and leads you down fascinating tangents that really make you think about the world around you (e.g. how the internet makes it harder to be "cool").  If I could hang out and share a beer with Andrew Potter, I definitely would (his consent is assumed here).


...But at the end of the day, I'm not buying what he's selling. This book essentially makes the case that current popular culture is too obsessed with authenticity. We can't enjoy ourselves, or indulge in harmless fun because we're too concerned about whether what we consume is honest, spontaneous, and uncalculated. Who cares that Avril Levigne built up her early career in the persona of a from-the-streets cool skateboarder, when it turns out that she doesn't even know how to skateboard? Why should that detract one iota from enjoyment of her songs? (Erm... "her" songs... they were all ghost-written by a professional team of songwriters in the hire of the record company. Really any person off the street with the right "look" could have been the next popstar skateboarder.)  Well, I kind of care about stuff like that. Not that particular example, but I have a problem with the principle of it. But Andrew Potter doesn't!  Authenticity is a hoax!!


And by that, one gradually gets the idea the "hoax" means "sometimes difficult to define or articulate".  Or maybe it means that the pursuit of authenticity can be overdone. I can agree with this to an extent. Potter devotes considerable space to showing how there are different degrees of "organic" food, and that the extent to which something can be called "organic" comes down to what the weakest link in its "organic-ness" chain is... and you can probably spend your every waking moment trying to determine the provenience and organic-ness of your food, and still not be entirely sure how "organic" it is. (Especially since some food manufacturers are actively trying to obscure those facts.)


So okay... there are aspects of authenticity which require you to kind of eventually give up and go with the best you can do, knowing it isn't perfect. But that is FAR from equivalent to saying that authenticity is a "hoax", or that it isn't worth pursing at all.

Isn't giving up on authenticity essentially to resign oneself  to artificial, constructed goods and experiences? And in our consumer culture, isn't pretty much everything artificial constructed with some sort of ulterior motive?  I know I'd rather go to the REAL Caribbean than to ride through the sanitized, family-safe, animatronic "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland. That's an extreme example, but not too extreme- the book describes a disturbing trend in which a lot of historical sites in the US have intentionally presented to the public in a manner divergent from its actual known history, in the name of making them less controversial, more attractive to tourist dollars, and most easily integrated into an interlocking package of experiences which the hospitality industry has determined maximizes profits. (Package bus tours in every city in the developed world depend on an assortment of 5 to 8 bite-sized "sights" which must be completely viewable by a busload of 60 tourists in no more than 45 minutes each. A monument, a battle site, an historic building, a natural formation... these must be completely consumed appreciated in the allotted time, so nuanced, complicated, or controversial topics are avoided, at the expense of a fuller, more honest, more authentic approximation of what the historical truth may be.)


By Chapter 7, I had already decided that I was going to "agree to disagree" with Andrew Potter and his curious aversion to authenticity. If only he had ended it there. Chapter 8 pushed into the downright offensive. This is where Potter tries to link a desire for authenticity with religious fundamentalism, social and political extremism, and terrorism. You can probably figure out some of how it goes down... religious extremists are seeking the most "authentic" version of their faith, etc, etc,... but this is all an absurd extrapolation. The less said about this the better; I don't find anything Jesus said in the Bible to justify the Inquisition, so claiming such extremism is a manifestation of seeking authenticity strikes me as ridiculous, and probably disingenuous- if not malevolent. I have no idea whether Potter is pushing some sort of agenda here, or if he's just gotten wrapped up in a web of his own spinning, but Chapter 8 represents a complete collapse of the author's credibility.


I think the book's cover art- with a real duck and a rubber duck- is pretty good representation of most people's take on authenticity. I can only speak for myself in saying that the world feels to me like it has a bit too much artificiality in it. The marketplace offers consumers a flood of simulated experiences, virtual reality, re-enactments, facsimiles, re-prints, "genuine copies", certified likenesses, and so on. It is becoming more and more difficult to feel like one owns a genuine article, with a genuine history, which is deserving of sentimental value or other attachments. More and more things are disposable- partly because they deserve to be disposed of, because they were designed, marketed, and sold, to be disposed of. It is more and more difficult to feel that one is doing something *real* in the sense that it is in some way original, spontaneous, meaningful, and honestly expressive of oneself. Circa 100 years ago, living and working on a ranch in Western Montana represented a lifetime of hard work, a struggle to hone survival skills, a battle with the elements, and a bold determination to carve a place for oneself and one's family in an inhospitable wilderness. Today, bored rich snobs from Los Angeles pay top dollar for a week-long dude ranch "experience" which bears only the most superficial passing resemblance to any of these things. A 30 minute lecture about shoeing horses, followed by the customer taking a few swings with the hammer before moving on to the next entertainment...   I think this is how most people see the challenges of inauthenticity, and I think Andrew Potter knows this, but is willfully ignorant of it, because he wanted to write a book chiding buzzkill authenticity-seekers for throwing a wet blanket on consumerism.