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Marginal Utility
Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Speaking to No One

modern-crowds

 

I’ve taken to reading old media criticism about television, the earlier and more hysterical the better. It helps me in gauging how much hysteria is in my assessment of social media. Any new medium seems to prompt similar fears, similar predictions of widespread dehumanization and authoritarian control, and who is to say they have been wrong? Much of what I mistake to be novel about social media is just an extension of aspects that critics had perceived about TV: the greater sense of intimacy and of participation that blurs and erodes traditional borders between work and leisure, public and private; the sense that “real” things are being rendered indistinguishable from their images or representations; the elitist fear that people are being widely stupified and rendered into witless automatons. No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.

In that spirit, I recently read German critic Günther Anders’s  “The World as Phantom and as Matrix,” which appeared in Dissent in 1956. This passage jumped out at me as characteristic of the tenor of the whole:

No method of depersonalizing man, of depriving him of his human powers, is more effective than one which seems to preserve the freedom of the person and the rights of individuality. And when the conditioning is carried out separately for each individual, in the solitude of his home, in millions of secluded homes, it is incomparably more successful. For this conditioning is disguised as “fun”; the victim is not that he is asked to sacrifice anything; and since the procedure leaves him with the delusion of his privacy or at least of his private home, it remains perfectly discreet. The old saying “a man’s own home is as precious as gold” has again become true, though in an entirely new sense. For today, the home is valuable not only to its owner, but also to the owners of the home-owners — the caterers of radio and television who serve the home-owner his daily fare.

The gist is that TV isolates and depersonalizes people under the guise of freely chosen “fun” in the privacy of one’s own home. This turns the home not only into a site of consumption but of production: Anders, a student of Heidegger and onetime spouse of Hannah Arendt, contends that media consumption is a form of self-production, by which the consumer turns themselves into “a mass man,” who is “proud of being a nobody.” Anders describes families transformed into passive audiences of mass media spectacle, each seeking their own private escape through the screen: “The home tends to become a container, its function to be reduced to containing a video screen for the outside world.”

Of course, I immediately want to update this to describe today’s primary screens. One might then interpret phones, the ultimate private escape screens, as the new household: We live in and through our phones in a permanent condition of escape. (And we phone owners are, in turn, owned by the owners of the phone-owners, the tech and telecom industries.)

Apparently we have wanted to “escape” form reality (or from freedom, if you want to go Erich Fromm’s route) for a long time. But if we are always escaping, in a sense we are never leaving. If we actually consent to live with a TV in our living room, or worse, with a phone in our very hand, are we not in a condition of permanent escape that leaves us even more trapped just where we were? Anders concludes from this that we can, for instance, no longer experience travel — or any of sort of difference at all, for that matter: Our way of viewing life as though it were on a screen, being served to us, neutralizes any obligation to engage with difference on its terms. Media saturation makes us live out a presumed intimacy or familiarity with everything in the world. It is all, Anders says, “thoroughly philistinized in advance” by media representation.

It’s not clear from what vantage point one can see the world for real in its un-philistinized state, in all its unmediated glory and purity, but it is definitely not coming from inside the house. But then as now, there appears to be a pervasive sense that we once had ready access to unmediated reality, or rather that we were perfectly happy with our severely restricted sense of the scope of reality, which was so limited it could be experienced as unmediated. New media threatens us with possibilities and  perspectives we are not ready to assimilate; it is much easier to label them unreal, philistine, false, inauthentic, strategic, fake news, etc.

What is striking about Anders’s point is that he sees the trouble residing not in the unfamiliar being presented to us in all its unfamiliarity. Instead, the problem is that the alien is made to seem familiar and easy to assimilate. This ur-cosmopolitanism of mediation cuts right to the value system by which life had been ordered before the rise of any specific insurgent media form — the way locked-down already existing media allowed certain things to be excluded, made invisible, or held to be impossible. That is why new media are philistine.

But alongside the critique that new media show us too much is a critique of how they are deskilling. Since media persuade us that we are already intimate with everything in advance, the actual processes of being intimate with people become extremely discomfiting by comparison. This creates or contributes to a feeling that intimacy should be contracted spontaneously through mere exposure, which makes the actual work of reciprocal communication appear burdensome and unnatural.

So Anders presumes that we want to escape from communication. But the spatial metaphors here can be misleading. “Escape” from communication doesn’t entail finding a separate space or isolating oneself physically. Instead it is an attitude of transcendence, situating oneself among others as an audience. We embed ourselves in media so that other voices can seem to speak for us, and we can remain audiences at all times.

For them words are no longer something one speaks, but something one merely hears; speaking is no longer something that one does, but something that one receives. No matter in what cultural or political milieu this development toward an existence without speech takes places, its end result must be everywhere the same — a type of man who, because he no longer speaks himself, has nothing more to say; and who, because he only listens, will do no more than listen.

This sort of framing — that people are reduced to passive audiences — leads to the conclusion that restoring people with the ability to “talk back to screens” will also restore their sense of purpose and agency. But this presumes that we didn’t want to escape from those things (proxies for the responsibilities inherent in direct communication) in the first place.

Since social media entails lots of communication, lots of talking back with screens, it seems like it would explode the notion that screens make us into inert audiences. But the practice of broadcasting rather than conversing, whether through screens or in face-to-face interaction, has the same effect of producing an attitude of transcendence. One comments on or shares one’s experience in the moment to avoid being engaged with it or responsible for it, while at the same time refusing to be engaged reciprocally with whomever one broadcasts these comments or images to.

Or to put that differently, one is only willing to engage with reality by mediating it, by setting it at one remove from the self. One then plays this mediated experience back for others, as a way of distanciating oneself from them, in time or space.

This becomes weirder with selfies, when one is willing to engage with oneself only as a media object. We start taking pictures of ourselves to remove ourselves from the experience of ourselves. We mediate ourselves to become external phenomena from which we can detach ourselves. But the principle is the same: Broadcasting allows us to be audience to ourselves, because we are speaking to no one else in particular and it may as well be ourselves too. When Anders talks about “passive consumption,” what he says also applies to self-broadcasting, which amounts to the same thing. Talking to no one in particular is a way of listening (and “doing no more than listening”) to oneself.

So the relevant opposition is not online/offline but communication/broadcasting. You can communicate online or offline, preserving the reciprocity and collectivity sustained by communication. Or you can broadcast at people, turning yourself and the people you broadcast for into isolated transcendent audiences. The screen is an easy metaphor for “audience-ification” — it stands like a barrier between the watcher and what is being watched, and creates a frame that seems to set the viewer outside of it. But we are pulled through and repelled by screens all the time, and the ramifications of what we see spills out beyond the frame. The frame is an illusion we must choose to seize upon and insist upon, if we really do prefer the convenience of our passive isolation, as Anders seems to presume.

For Anders, only mass media were broadcast media, so he thought there was something inherently alienating in the “massness” of it, in the conformity and oversimplification implied in trying to create big audiences. He seems hung up in an elitist way on the philistines who consume trivial garbage instead of experiencing “real” family life or whatever. But what is detrimental about broadcasting is not the way it “vulgarizes” audiences; the effects of broadcasting are not a matter of the content at all.

That is especially clear now that social media allow any of us to broadcast: It turns out the broadcast mentality is not contingent on having a big audience (which was initially necessary for commercial media to prosper). It is instead something that is instantiated by certain means of communication at the level of form. Self-expression to an audience comprised entirely of oneself can be broadcasting. It can be “fun” and free and totally uncensored, and still have the negative consequences Anders delineates.

Broadcasting is a mentality that one adopts toward potential perceived audiences that conveys that their attention is desired but not necessary to the message being projected. Broadcasting makes attention not a condition of communication but its outcome, its product. It alienates attention and makes it a commodity. And most of all, it has this effect on the broadcaster, who becomes self-alienated.

“Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports”

mohamedi

In The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu makes this claim about channel surfing:

When you think of it, channel surfing, or grazing, is a bizarre way to spend your time and attention. It is hard to imagine someone saying to himself, “i think I’ll watch TV for three hours, divided into five-to-ten-minute segments of various shows, never really getting to the end of anything.” It hardly seems the kind of control Zenith could have had in mind when it first introduced the remote, to say nothing of the sovereign choice that cable’s more optimistic backers had dreamed of. However fragmented, attention was still being harvested to be sure, but the captivity was not a pleasant experience.

It seems strange to me that Wu assumes that people automatically experience fragmentation as unpleasant. Dividing up one’s attention into smaller and smaller bits is a mode of mastery; it’s precisely the sort of control that remotes afford. And who always wants to get to the end of anything? The end is ultimately death. But while you are channel surfing you never need to die. The remote becomes a panegyric that lets you feel like you will live forever, as long as you can keep clicking.

Wu seems to assume that there is some already integrated self that precedes an encounter with media, and that the media then has the effect of tragically destroying that whole, breaking us apart, undoing our dominion, our “sovereign choice.” But sovereignty when consuming media (or anything else) is not in making one choice and being done with it, in being satisfied by it. Sovereignty lies in the ability to keep choosing, to experience the proliferation of options and know you will never reach the final decision.

Those choices don’t reflect some pre-existing preferences but permit a self to take shape. Consuming media can consolidate one’s attention into a single focus, but where you focus makes you into someone else, something specific, dictated by the nature of the content being consumed. Fragmented attention represents the multiplicity of what we are, or at least can always potentially be.

Wu assumes everywhere in The Attention Merchants that people are only in control when they are unwaveringly glued to something, when their attention is consolidated and chained to a single object. He depicts advertisers as usurping individuals’ executive functions by tapping into their “lizard brains” and forcing them to attend to presumably primitive, atavistic things. This, in his implicit view, steals their selfhood away and reverts them to an animal-like state of instinctive reactivity. The solution then would be to pass laws that essentially bind us to the mast so we can’t be lured by the sirens — laws that in effect would force us to be who we “really” are, and not the lizard inside us.

But it may be that distractibility isn’t the way we are controlled, and the “lizard brain” is not some subhuman subcognitive function that threatens to control us but a higher functioning, the means by which we escape threats and disrupt otherwise endless behavioral loops.

Something that is great at consolidating executive function, as Natasha Dow Schüll details at length in Addiction by Design, is a video-gambling machine. People are so focused by these machines that they can’t bring themselves to go to the bathroom while playing for 18 hours at a stretch. It is “sovereign choice” at its purest. But that can’t be the sort of self-control Wu is advocating.

Sometimes it feels good to have our attention led, sometimes it feels good to think we are deploying it. But attention never sits idle in our consciousness, waiting to be assigned. It is not a resource that can be hoarded or spent unwisely. It can only be convened.

It may be that attention should not be thought of as “fragmented” or “focused” as if these were opposites; fragmentation can look like focus, focus can be serially distributed on fragments. Fragmented focus and focused fragmentation.

Operating a remote control, or a phone, or a gambling machine is using an interface to delimit overwhelming possibility; we bring it down to size by fragmenting it, subjecting it to a process. The process — clicking buttons, exercising clear choices, or setting up a series of choices for ourselves that center us as the chooser and guarantee we will have somewhere to place our subjectivity, which is always leaking out and slipping away —  makes our attention seem like something projected out from our pre-existing consciousness, rather than a matter of our mind catching up to what is happening to us. These interfaces makes attention seem to precede focus, when attention may be the product of being forced to focus by stimuli. In other words, we don’t have attention to spend, rather we have experiences that produce a sense that an “I” exists that can attend on things.

But it may be that both of these perspectives are illusions that can always be inverted into each other, like Gestalt images of an hourglass that is also two faces.

Why does any of this matter? Because making the claim that advertisers, et al., are hijacking our attention is a way of positing a particular kind of economistic self, one that has and spends attention in a marketplace of ideas. It then follows that the state apparatus should be deployed to make that “market” function more fairly. But this misconstrues ideas and experiences as commodities that attention purchases, which is an extremely narrow frame through which to view life.

In the “Postscript on the Societies of Control” Deleuze argued that institutions (and the way they conditioned subjectivity through discipline, rules, and closed environments) were being supplanted by a new form of control oriented around permission rather than obedient rule-following. Interfaces like remote controls are manifestations of the “society of control” and its “limitless postponements”; choosing from among the options on TV subjects one to more reliable control than forcing people to watch the same thing and trusting the power of whatever propaganda message is encoded there. That is, the illusion of spending attention is a form of control that operates at the level of media form rather than media content. The ability to flip between channels is what indoctrinates us, not the content of any one channel.

Wu seems to think that watching one channel at a time would address that danger, but that is moving backward; that is nostalgia for disciplinary societies, as if they could fix control societies (rather than be a more overt and oppressive form of control). He wants content to be sovereign again, for a particular message to be capable of controlling us, and for us to interpret our ability to focus on that message as an expression of our sovereignty: “It held my attention” becomes “I paid attention” because the content seems important, comprehensible, convincing, coherent, assented to.

But no particular content seems strong enough. It has all become interchangeable, because its function now is to keep us clicking.

 

Mass Authentic

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(This is the text from a talk I gave at the Impakt Festival in Utrecht in October; it synthesizes some earlier posts from this blog and elsewhere.)

 

The authentic dream

Why can’t we get rid of the idea of authenticity? It seems as if it settles like a fog, blanketing everything with an amorphous sense of inadequacy. It can feel like it refers to everything and nothing.

I want to start with this passage from the introduction of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s 2012 book Authentic™. I think it gets at some of why “the quest for authenticity” is so effective as an ideology, even while being a bit of a conceptual contradiction:

“Even if we discard as false a simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic, we still must reckon with the power of authenticity—of the self, of experience, of relationships. It is a symbolic construct that, even in a cynical age, continues to have cultural value in how we understand our moral frameworks and ourselves, and more generally how we make decisions about how to live our lives. We want to believe—indeed, I argue we need to believe—that there are spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions, something outside of mere consumer culture, something above the reductiveness of profit margins, the crassness of capital exchange.”

I agree. We do want to believe, despite the many, many ways authenticity is misused and contorted in marketing discourse, that there is an authentic realm outside “mere consumer culture” and its presumably shallow satisfactions, and outside “capital exchange” and its calculating instrumentalism. We know that there must be a place that facilitates our human flourishing and permits us to lead rich, self-fulfilling lives. Beyond “the simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic” is the fundamental desire to experience “genuine affect and emotions.”

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But this hasn’t gotten us very far: Restating the authenticity ideal as acting on the basis of “genuine feelings” merely raises the question, What makes feelings genuine?

Is it because they are spontaneous? Is it because they are not motivated by gain? Is it because they are not mediated? Is it because they are witnessed?

It feels like Banet-Weiser’s phrasing simply re-enacts the ideology of authenticity in the process of critiquing it: that there is a real, static, correct way of understanding “authenticity” that can be distilled and separated out from the corrupted uses, just as there are “genuine” emotions that are unmixed, or pure spaces where desire is uncorrupted by conflicting or competing aims. It suggests there can be “authentic” and “inauthentic” ways to talk about authenticity.

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“Authenticity” is often conflated with a static sort of “truth,” but invoking it is actually a destabilizing maneuver. It uses an indefinable notion of genuineness to calling into question what we might otherwise have taken for granted. Authenticity calls into question the inherent genuineness of any affect and any emotion in any situation and undermines any talk of real desires for realness, any authentic way of being authentic uncorrupted by the ruses of authenticity. It warrants a skeptical, conspiratorial attitude toward the world, toward other people, and especially toward oneself, construing the “genuine” as hiding, as forever outside the realm of lived experience. It conveys a sense that we have forgotten how to live properly. The rhetoric of authenticity comes to the fore when what could be true seems especially vulnerable, debatable, difficult, riven, up for auction or appropriation, but authenticity doesn’t shore up truth; it exacerbates our doubts about it.

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Authenticity seems to stand for the truth behind the curtain, but it is really just the curtain. The presumption that only some feelings in some situations are real, and other feelings, though felt, are somehow false, is authenticity’s main ruse.

It would seem that if we were all striving for a world apart from consumerism, this would threaten capitalism as we know it. But marketers rely on the idea of “real spaces” outside consumer culture that we are supposed to yearn for. They don’t fear those spaces, they nurture the idea of them. They are the basis of all authenticity-driven advertising: the promise that we must consume our way back to the secure place where our feelings become real and unconflicted again.

 

Authenticity simplifies

The idea of authenticity expresses something that never was — uncomplicated, self-evident feelings, identities, experiences — as something that is understood as always already having been lost, in order to promise that we are on the cusp of reclaiming it. Seeking authenticity is always aspirational.

Like “golden ages” generally, authenticity can only be identified retrospectively: In the past I was “genuinely myself,” but now all I have are elusive memories of that fleeting experience — and maybe the brands and products that help me articulate that feeling of loss and make it seem recuperable. Authenticity takes the complex cross-currents of my relations, desires, and behavior at any given moment and simplifies them, orients them: The complexities I am experiencing are “inauthentic” and can be jettisoned in my pursuit of my real self, which I will know by its self-evidence.

The tenacity of “authenticity” as an ideological talisman — as a motive force and a post hoc explanation for what I’ve done, as an all-purpose aspiration and excuse — stems from how it posits what it purports to merely describe. It seems to denote “genuineness,” like it were simply a rhetorical equals sign, a blunt tautology.

It offers a promise of “truer” alternatives to the messy facts of what is. But these alternatives are fictions, not inner truths on the cusp of revelation. They are speculations seeking substantiation at the expense of what is.

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Authenticity as escape

In the hands of humanist philosophers like Charles Taylor or social critics like Marshall Berman, a commitment to “authenticity” refers to the effort to foster a society that makes individuality’s emergence possible. For them, “authenticity” means coming to terms with an inherited set of assumptions about what constitutes a meaningful life, limits and horizons we don’t choose but grow to work within and preserve. A similar idea from folklore studies suggests that to be authentic is to belong to one’s culture as a generic representative.

Those idealized versions of “authenticity” play into how the concept has been operationalized in marketing discourse, where the emphasis on individuation is married to consumerism but divorced from the complexities of social relations. Currently, the point of seeking authenticity is no longer to build or sustain a society that makes individuality possible but to escape from the supposed constraints society places on the self, mainly through imaginative association of oneself with things.

Rather than use “authenticity” to acknowledge the tension between individualism and the social norms that permit individualism to flourish, marketers seized upon the concept to try to disguise or simplify away that tension. In their hands, authenticity is employed to let us to think that we are unique, different, but not so different that we are perceived as alien or threatening. Authenticity allows us to think of ourselves as singular, but with that singularity remaining somehow deeply sympathetic.

From this point of view, feeling compromised by the demands of the social, or consumed by conflicting, irresolvable desires of one’s own are marks of inauthenticity rather than an accurate appraisal of one’s condition. Rather than confront the ways in which we want what other people have, or are consigned to compete with others as we cooperate with them, or the way identity is conditioned inescapably by histories of oppression, injustice, violence, and hierarchy, we can focus instead on a purely personal crisis: a self that really is pure but that we have lost touch with somehow. It simplifies an otherwise irreducible complexity, giving us an evocative vocabulary with which to talk about how we fit into society while not engendering in us any feelings of responsibility for it.

 

Authenticity versus society

Authenticity in marketing discourse presupposes the unique individual we all were supposed to be, according to 18th century thinkers like Rousseau and Herder, and pits it against society, which is no longer seen as the source and grounds of individuality — no more folk culture or tradition, they are strictly in the past — but instead consists of standardized, bureaucratic, massified, synthetic culture. “Authenticity” becomes commercialized nostalgia for a way of life that never was, in which we experienced no ambivalence.

But even as it obsessively conjures a nostalgic vision of a world outside it, “authenticity” is always internal to the culture of consumerism. Though it evokes the lost truth, it is never that truth itself. It is, in fact, truth as lost.

Authenticity emerges in marketing discourse as both critique and consolation prize for consumerism and modernism. It reconfigures an old Romantic ideal of choosing your own life, of uncovering one’s originality as life’s purpose, into the terms of consumer society, where you choose your own clothing brands or your favorite foods. We consume authenticity in lieu of the integrity it is always fomenting and promising.

So authenticity doesn’t point to or reconstitute any experiences that we’ve lost touch with through the relentless and implacable advances of consumer culture. Instead it structures in simple terms how we imagine what those experiences might have felt like. It gives an idea of the past to be consumed in the present. In the process it represents what are contemporary consumerist values as if they really came from tradition, as if they were really external to consumerism and could ground it, give it transcendental meaning: You really can consume your way into being real! Your brand really can be authentic!

 

Authenticity as real subsumption

That is to say, “authenticity” is not something off which brands are parasitically leeching. It a wholly ersatz experience they are making. As Banet-Weiser argues, “Explaining brand culture as a sophisticated form of corporate appropriation … keeps intact the idea that corporate culture exists outside — indeed, in opposition to —‘authentic’ culture.”

It’s not that old forms of authenticity still exist and capitalism figures out a way to exploit them — a process Marx called “formal subsumption” with respect to labor processes. Rather, authenticity as we know it issues from consumer culture in a process of “real subsumption”: It is fully integrated with consumerism’s workings and integral to its perpetuation. We can’t conceive of authenticity independent of the function it serves in consumer society.

If “authenticity” evokes “spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions,” it is because under consumerism such spaces have become tangible, concrete commercial properties — new spaces of experiential possibility internal to consumerism. Authenticity is ultimately not a measure of the degree to which something eludes commercialization. When something is “authentic” it is not “outside of mere consumer culture”; it is instead the apotheosis of that culture.

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Authentic goods, authentic selves

“Authentic” things, then, are not those goods that evade branding or commercialism. Rather, only brands, only things for sale, can be “authentic.” When we examine our own “authenticity,” we think of ourselves in the same terms, constituting ourselves as a clearly defined personal brand capable of being convincingly sold.

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Because authenticity is tautological (it is what it is), it must be routed through “authentic goods” that make it tangible for an audience who can then validate the proposed equation. This collapses the experience of a lived relation to others who make it possible for you to recognize your life as real and meaningful into a gesture, something that can be bought and displayed. (This ethical water bottle stands in for the relations I want people to have with me.)

 

Authenticity as Scarcity

As marketing consultants James Gilmore and Joseph Pine emphasize in their treatises on authenticity, authenticity is fundamentally a means for imposing a perceived scarcity on otherwise satiated consumers. Therefore it has nothing to do with a good’s physical properties or utility — which refer to demands that can be satisfied. What “authenticity” appears to render scarce is the sense of self, with “authentic” goods as the means of reconstituting the plentitude.

Authentic goods position their target consumers as continuous with the products’ impossible promise of mass-produced uniqueness, while seducing them with the possibility of easy, individualistic solutions. But this action doesn’t address the actual sources of anxiety and ambivalence; it merely circulates a sign of authenticity while increasing economic activity. The failure to deliver doesn’t undo the overall quest for authenticity, however — it simply intensifies the feelings of inauthenticity that drive such consumer behavior.

Because seeking authenticity is fundamentally incoherent, a quasi-mystical attempt to discover something intrinsic to the self, it forestalls any critique on the basis of logic, or empirical results, or cause and effect. Once you entertain the idea of becoming more authentic, you have exposed your basic lack of true authenticity without invalidating it as a life pursuit.

In pursuing authenticity, we become complicit in consumer desire, and its mystifications of our social condition. If am concerned about my authenticity, I am not escaping the effects of consumer culture on me as much as I am escaping into them — looking for solace in the simplified terms of brand messaging.

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Authenticity as ambivalence management

The protocols of authenticity take the complicated ways in which selves are bound up with the inevitable disappointments of social life — its conflicts and rivalries, the struggles for recognition and distinction — and simplifies them into a real/fake dichotomy. In that way, authenticity forms an intelligible structure for what Lauren Berlant calls “the management of ambivalence.”

Authenticity offers a kind of compensation for a way of life — consumerism — that structurally forbids personal satisfaction. You always have to want more; consumer demand must be continually stoked. Authenticity rationalizes and personalizes that process. Our consumerist dissatisfaction becomes an integral matter of personal growth.

We can try to address our ambivalence with performances of self that are ultimately directed at ourselves as the audience, in which we try to persuade ourselves that we are getting closer to our true self, something no one else can question. But it is very difficult to perform magic tricks on oneself.

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Authenticity as legibility

What authentic goods permit is not the restitution of the self but ongoing self-consumption. They don’t heal the subject; they allow one to contemplate oneself as an object, or a medium, a whiteboard on which I can scrawl my preferred beliefs about myself. In other words, goods are “authentic” when they evoke a self-conscious subjectivity, when they permit you to revel momentarily in the fact that you are you. We can see ourselves as getting progressively more legible. They let us consume as an ephemeral but definite thing the promise that we have a real self in the first place. This is both our punishment and reward for ever having doubted it.

I may “need to believe” my “real feelings” are anti-commercial or anticapitalist, but that belief resolves nothing. The tensions we inhabit remain. Meanwhile, the stronger I insist on having my opposition to the “crassness of capital exchange” acknowledged, the more I am under consumerist ideology’s sway. The feelings feel real because they are commercialized, because they circulate within the channels carved out by capital flows and networks.

 

Intimate publics

Part of how consumer society reproduces itself is to commercialize prominent forms of social recognition. The way authenticity is deployed across a range of products, brands, and brand strategies allows commercialized feelings to appear as more substantial, more shared, more real. In consumer culture, safe spaces, as Banet-Weiser argues, are branded spaces: oases of familiarity that convey feelings of security, stability, and belonging — they are harbors of “utopic normativity” that function as the lost ideals of communal folk culture once supposedly did. They are what Lauren Berlant calls “intimate publics,” in which “consumer participants are perceived to be marked by a commonly lived history.”

Brands seem authentic when they let us feel as though we belong without blending in. We are able to feel “normal” because of the visibility of brands we associate ourselves with. This normality has more to do with feeling oneself to be “authentic” then the narratives of personal distinction often associated with authenticity marketing. “Authenticity” functions by harmonizing the desire to belong with the desire to be unique. The slippery incoherence of it is what allows us to find comfort in it.

We aspire to authenticity because it promises recognition without any of the associated limitations or responsibilities. Goods that signify authenticity minister to such fantasies about community and individuality, positing consumers as generic and unique at the same time.

A few years ago, Carles, of Hipster Runoff fame, depicted what this sort of thing looks like now with a post about “the Contemporary Conformist,” who pursues studied nonchalance: “Wood. ‘Weathered.’ Exposed Brick. Zany Light Fixtures. Hints of Metal. Plants (but not generic flowers). Plaid. Gingham. Denim. ‘Chambray.’ Shirts with subtle stripes. Contemporary Conformists wear loud neutrals to try to shock you with their naturalism.”

As a kind of intimate public, the trappings of authenticity, in Berlant’s words, “offer the simplicity of the feeling of rich continuity with a vaguely defined set of like others.” It typifies the “constantly emplotted desire of a complex person to rework the details of her history to become a vague or simpler version of herself.”

Again, authenticity works as an ideology because it simplifies identity and manages our ambivalence about it. Pursuing authenticity doesn’t necessarily make us deeper or more complex; it makes us more superficial, more predictable, more easily controlled.

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Authenticity as domination

The most effective “authentic” goods evoke a mainstream while seeming to stand distinctly apart from it. This is why they are often products of cultural appropriation.

Just as authenticity posits a split self, it also establishes a distance between a commodity and the ideal it has been positioned to evoke. It inserts itself in the gaps that already exist in the social fabric and justifies them, rationalizes them, allowing the distance between a mainstream perspective and an othered perspective to become a concrete property, something that can fluctuate and appreciate in value. The authenticity we consume is often someone else’s exclusion commodified.

The goods that read as authentic are the ones that allow consumers to flaunt how they can present their consumer choices as decontextualized. But they also make a “real self” contingent on the distance it can sustain between itself and the social milieu that is both a necessary audience and a threatening subsuming mass.

Given the tension between self-expression and the audience required to make that expression meaningful, authenticity often appears to be measured in terms of freedom from the constraints others place on you. This makes it seem a zero-sum game. The more “convenient” you make you life, in terms of avoiding interpersonal contact, the more “authentic” it can seem to feel. But this same strategy isolates people from the social interconnectedness that makes authenticity seem worth the trouble.

The convenient short cuts to identity are only available to people who are being “inauthentic,” but authenticity is also understood as the ability to reject the conditioning of other people’s judgments. Embroiled in this confusion, we feel licensed to assess and doubt or overrate the authenticity of others, across any social distance. We perceive someone else’s apparent authenticity, their apparent belonging to a community, as our own inauthenticity. But this doesn’t mean it is a generous judgment. It is an assertion of domination to judge someone else as authentic, because to be “authentic” (instead of struggling to become authentic) is to be a product. Feeling inauthentic yourself authorizes you to vicariously consume others’ experience as a commodity. This has the side effect of deauthenticating that same experience for these others, while confirming and reifying their otherness.

Authenticity is a curse we assign to other people that traps them in their identity while we are free to shop around for ours, claiming tokens of theirs as our own.

But this sort of scrutiny gets turned around on ourselves as well. Social media, as I will get to in a moment, lets us vicariously consume ourselves.

In this process, being authentic and seeking authenticity are framed as mutually exclusive conditions. Being authentic makes you an object that spontaneously and inadvertently displays its essence. Being inauthentic, though still seeking authenticity, makes you a subject, albeit a devious and strategic one. Harmonizing that sort of agency with the ability to be “genuine” calls for disavowal.

Authenticity turns out to be “the reward for suspending disbelief,” as sociologist Sarah Thornton has argued. It’s a self-imposed gullibility. That means it is quite far from “recovering the unique self within.” It also permits us to suspend disbelief in consumerist magic more generally; it suggests we have the capability to be infinitely malleable. Authenticity marketing lets us indulge the fantasy that what we buy can truly change our essential nature, even as we persist in believing we are merely expressing it.

Berlant sees an intimate public as achieving something similar: it “produces an orientation toward agency that is focused on ongoing adaptation, adjustment, improvisation, and developing wiles for surviving, thriving, and transcending the world as it presents itself.”

 

Authenticity as neoliberal

That sort of flexibility suits a neoliberal structuring of society, in which, to cope with a fully marketized society saturated with competition at every level, we become malleable selves perpetually trying to expand our human capital and make our identity productive. The search for authenticity finds expression as self-neoliberalization.

Insofar as authenticity organizes an intimate public, it prepares us to find fleeting solace in constant self-revision, offering a sense of underlying stability to ongoing flexibility. The pursuit of a “real self” rationalizes all the remolding. Seeking authenticity becomes not resistance to capitalist exploitation but surrender to it, with one’s entire personality given over to various forms of exploitable labor. The validity of your “true self” is confirmed in being employable, in being put to use.

In managing our ambivalence with authenticity, we commit ourselves to the process of endlessly managing our personal brand, valorizing authentic goods, performing emotional labor, circulating tokens of “realness,” building out quasi-professional networks, generating new circuits of value. Self-realization becomes alienated at its core, as personal creativity becomes indistinguishable from an ongoing job interview. This is why Frédéric Lordon suggests that the artist — “the very emblem of free will and the unreserved commitment of the self” — has become the “avatar” of the ideal employee in neoliberal society.

Neoliberalism’s fusion with authenticity has found its full flowering in social media, where enormous quantities of labor are volunteered and harnessed, and self-presentation is foregrounded as entrepreneurial human capital development. Social media, which specialize in collapsing the generic and the particular, friends and strangers, is at once a perfect space for organizing an intimate public around authenticity and for organizing labor around an ongoing project of self-branding. We manage our ambivalence one social media post at a time, and let the decontextualized response they receive from no one in particular, serve the managerial role of impelling or redirecting our efforts.

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Know Your Product/No, You’re Product

It’s common to critique social media by pointing out that users believe they are consumers but are in fact are the product, a packaged and labeled audience being sold to marketers, the real “users” of ad-supported social media. Or worse, users are both the product and the labor making the product, all for the benefit of the social-media companies — the owners of the current means of identity production. This means we are not merely deluded but also exploited when we think of ourselves as “consuming” social media.

The assumption in that critique is that we don’t want to be a product and instead want only the agency and autonomous expression that social media seem to promise. From that point of view, users sign up on Facebook with the goal of expressing themselves and following what their friends have to say but are eventually warped into becoming a kind of reified personal brand through exposure to the product’s toxic affordances of self-quantification. Naive users think they are signing up for a personalized public sphere and then, undeterred by the evident oxymoron, find themselves in a hall of mirrors in which all they can see — and all they end up wanting to see — is themselves.

But this analysis doesn’t seem adequate to explaining the pleasure users derive from social media, even as they become reifying and exploitive. What the ideology of authenticity ultimately allows is for users to enjoy becoming the product.

The services that social media supply (holding a “graph” of one’s social connections; amassing and archiving personal data; making the promise of an on-demand audience for oneself plausible; permitting a variety of pre-formatted modes of self-expression; offering algorithmically constituted recommendations of what you should read, who you should know, how you should spend your time, and so on) help constitute the self as something “authentic” that a user can consume. On social media we are not on a hopeless quest to integrate our identity but are instead dividing by it into a self that can watch over itself, seeing its authenticity unfold in how social-media interfaces change to accommodate us.

We get to be a commodity and consume it at the same time. We are like a hot dog putting ketchup on itself.

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Authentic surveillance

This self-commodification does not diminish the user’s self-conception but rather makes the self conceivable, legible. Exercising agency no longer threatens one’s authenticity. If being calculating, unspontaneous, manipulative, phony, etc., threaten the integrity of the self, the self as product can be seen as something that simply is, a given thing articulated in a definite form. It enters the realm of the socially conspicuous. It is authentic rather than trying to be authentic.

The self presented to us by algorithmic processing of our data becomes the most authentic possible self, one from whose construction we have been excluded. It appears as the “real us” because we can absolve ourselves from strategizing its representation.

This puts digital surveillance in the service of authenticity, as it gathers the data behind our backs and makes sure we don’t “corrupt” it with our conscious intentionality. The data collected allows us to know we are leaving an impression regardless of whatever effort we make or don’t make.

Extensive surveillance of the self and the “end of privacy” appears far more tolerable in this light, much as attention metrics normalizes social stalking and spying. This is in keeping with the basic principle of social media: Only by being watched can we see who we really are.

Surveillance will let us chart the path to “being natural” without immediately feeling unnatural about it. Our data gets processed and what we really want to know, or how we really want to be, is presented to us encapsulated in product form.

Only as a product can we recognize ourselves as “genuinely” real, given the amount of attention and effort collectively directed at enchanting and foregrounding products within a consumer-capitalist culture. We are ideologically trained, repeatedly, every day, to love consumer goods; naturally we would want to become a consumer good ourselves, to appear deserving of love — from ourselves as well as from other people (who, on social media, offer quantifiable tokens of that deserved love in the form of likes and so on).

Products in consumer-capitalist culture quickly lose their lovability, however, as they lose their novelty. They become moribund. They become trash. The self, as a product, loses its enchantment for us and needs to be revitalized to the extent that it becomes familiar, known, understood. We love ourselves only as a novelty, a mystery, not as a staple product. We want to be able to apprehend ourselves as a new, desirable thing that we can consume and enjoy. On social media, we can imagine someone buying into the idea of us, and that helps us buy into ourselves. But inevitably our desire for ourselves needs to be renewed, and we will need to be repackaged.

 

Authentic purging

It is untenable to feel authentic only when you’re surprising yourself. Social media try to make this contradiction seem to cohere. They offer ways in which to always consume ourselves anew as new. Algorithmic recommendations in particular cater to this hope of seeing a stranger in the personal data we’ve generated, an alien person we can claim as a real self. They can enlarge our ability to desire (making us grow) while seeming to draw on true information about us that we have passively provided. Everything you have consumed, expressed, and expelled online gets purified and re-presented as new desires, a new you.

By processing our personal data into things like Facebook’s Newsfeed, algorithms can present us with a carefully repackaged self. We then get the thrill of unboxing ourselves and seeing what surprise awaits within. That this box we are continually rewrapped in is also a cage can be more readily excused. In that cage, we will only see what reinforces the central importance of novelty, but it won’t matter as long as we feel new ourselves.

The way our data is processed and represented to us is usually seen as a form of hypertargeting that treats us as a demographic of one. But it is more indicative of the ways in which we are standardized in order to be processed through the same procedures, in order to be included. The processing is a way of belonging. It addresses the same anxieties that authenticity address, how to be a person in general and a particular person at the same time.

The self presented back to us can serve as a simplified guide to how to be ourselves. That version of selfhood that has been pre-approved, pre-certified, but is also indefinite in its outlines, consisting mainly of things like product recommendations and crude assumptions about what sort of information you are presumed to want to know. It is a set of generic conventions for the genre of you. You can become a more authentic you in relation to this algorithmic prediction of yourself, know exactly what the network expects you to know, while taking a secret pride in the ways in which you exceed it. It defines a negative space that doesn’t have to be part of your human capital, your “authentic self,” or your identity. Our data selves are authenticated so we don’t have to be.

When our social media profiles can be authentic in lieu of us, authenticity becomes a matter of quantified attention, network prominence, not self-consistency. If you are liked or retweeted, or even if you are given a tailored set of recommendations or push notifications, it signals that you have been consumed appropriately, that your information has been received and is regarded as real and legitimate. That self is not a matter of expression but of circulation. The content expressed doesn’t need to be original or spontaneous or true, it just is a pretense for measuring the circulation, which becomes the “authentic” expression of one’s situatedness within a network.

Authenticity ceases to be a performed absence of performance and becomes a matter of efficient performance and broad circulation. This feeds a loop that reinforces the centrality of networks, the requirement of being constantly connected.

Discovering the truth about oneself is not about clarifying the permanent picture of one’s sense of self (as if it were an eternal, underlying thing waiting to be unearthed and communicated). Instead, it is about clearing a space and simplifying subjectivity in the present moment. It is about finding relief from the burden of selfhood, particularly when the self is regarded as “human capital.” Social media offers a repository for that capital, and for its authentication, and takes responsibility for how it is put to use. It takes authenticity out of our hands.

What is seen as authentic is something that is no longer our fault. The “truth” about oneself is final only while it circulates, but when it ceases to be productive it can be forgotten. The most authentic self is the slate wiped clean.