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Marginal Utility
Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Mass authentic


The tenacity of “authenticity” as an ideological talisman — as a motive force and a post hoc explanation for actions, 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, but in practice it does the opposite; it is always used to call the inherent fact of what is into question, to cast doubt over what people are doing and posit “truer” alternatives. But these alternatives are fictions, not revealed inner truths; they are speculations seeking substantiation at the expense of what is.

Authenticity articulates something that never was as something supposed to be always already lost, in order to promise you are on the cusp of reclaiming it, as if naming it was the first step toward embodying it again, and doing away with your need for the word. 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, or brands and products that seduce me by pinpointing that feeling of loss and making it seem recuperable.

Goods that promise authenticity work like all other goods meant to express identity: They create a feeling of inadequacy, a sense that they embody a quality you are supposed to have but feel unsure of. The goods seem capable of anchoring your “realness,” but only by intimating to you your present insubstantiality. Describing something as “authentic” primarily opens a gap in the self, permitting desire, manufacturing demand. They are machines of “inauthenticity.”

In a passage from the introduction of Authentic™ (2012) Sarah Banet-Weiser gets at some of these same points, the power of “authenticity” as an ideology:

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 that we should “discard as false the simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic” and not only because the definitions of these terms entirely depend on each other. But it’s tricky to discard that opposition without re-enacting the ideology that it authorizes. (The authentic thing to do would be to look past the idea of inauthenticity…)

In that passage Banet-Weiser seems to argue that we “need to believe” in the possibility of authenticity, even if the concept is bogus or untenable. But that “need” — that demand, that desire, is all “authenticity” ever refers to anyway. Her analysis suggests a gap between brands’ uses of authenticity and some “real” desire for realness (for “genuine affect and emotion”), but that gap is the trace of “authenticity” in action. It calls into question the inherent genuineness of any affect and any emotion in any situation. The presumption that only some feelings in some situations are real, and other feelings, though felt, are somehow false, is authenticity’s main ruse. The brands themselves are positing the “real space” outside of consumer culture that we are all supposed to yearn for; they aren’t fighting or denying that space, they are nurturing it.

That is to say, “authenticity” as it’s understood within consumer culture is internal to that culture and not the trace of a way of life that preceded it. It is not something off which consumer culture and brands are parasitically leeching. Authenticity, as we commonly use the term, is a product of consumer culture, even as it is deployed to try to evoke the life untouched by commercialization. As Banet-Weiser points out later, “Explaining brand culture as a sophisticated form of corporate appropriation, then, keeps intact the idea that corporate culture exists outside—indeed, in opposition to—”authentic” culture. Rather than thinking of incorporation by capital from some “authentic” place outside of consumerism, brand culture requires a more complex frame of analysis.”

If “authenticity” evokes “spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions,” it is because the term works to fashion such spaces as commercial properties; it creates them as new spaces of possibility internal to consumerism. “Authenticity” is that structuring process; it’s not a measure of the degree to which something eludes commercialization. “Authentic” things are not those that evade branding; in fact, only brands can be “authentic.” Authenticity-inauthenticity is fundamentally a continuum that can only be applied to brands. When we examine our own “authenticity,” we are thinking of ourselves in terms of our personal brand. If you are concerned about being authentic, you are concerned about your brand — not about how to escape the impact of branding on your self-concept.

“Authenticity” is commercialized nostalgia for that way of life that was articulated by a different set of economic relations: precapitalistic, or pre-massified, or pre-globalized — whatever word you want to use to describe how it seemed when you were nine years old, when things were “real” (because you were too immature to understand how they became that way, and how the world as given was both mutable and the product of human decisions).

In other words, authenticity doesn’t describe what we’ve lost through the relentless and implacable advances of consumer culture; it is how that consumer culture structures how an idea of the past is to be consumed in the present moment. “Authenticity” articulates contemporary consumerist values 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! 

But authenticity and inauthenticity are both internal to the system of branding and commercialized communication. When something is “authentic” it is certainly not “outside of mere consumer culture”; it is instead the apotheosis of that culture.

Trying to be “authentic” is to pursue an apolitical, individualistic solution to an intrinsically political question. As André Spicer argues in this Ephemera article, the search for authenticity is not “a form of liberation” but “involves a profound ‘turn inwards’ whereby social struggles are pushed back onto the individual. This results in the search for authenticity becoming an internal psychological struggle rather than collective political struggle.” So it would solve nothing to insist on the pursuit of “real feelings.” That tends to lead to authenticity being used to disenfranchise those deemed “inauthentic” — that is, those who lack the means to insist on the standards that favor themselves.

To short-circuit this logic, as Banet-Weiser eventually suggests, one might begin by acknowledging that the affect and emotion generated by brands is as “genuine” as any other feeling. The extent to which “we need to believe” otherwise is the extent to which that “belief” precludes itself from becoming real. Letting consumer culture sell you a commodified sense of your immunity to consumer culture does not dismantle that culture.

One shouldn’t assume that it’s natural that most people think “real feelings” are inherently anti-commercial or anticapitalist. If we have been habituated to capitalist society, it may be that the commercialization of feelings makes them feel more substantial, more shared, more real. In consumer culture, safe spaces, as Banet-Weiser points out, are branded spaces: oases of familiarity that convey feelings of security, stability, and belonging — harbors of “utopic normativity.” Extending that, profitable things are understood as “viable.” Brands are “authentic” because they are valuable, popular, viral, etc. Many of us feel validated by the same sorts of measured engagement: We are more “real” when we get more likes. Moreover, 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.

Consistency through adulteration

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An article in a recent issue of the Economist details the tobacco industry’s troubles around the world with maintaining the value of its “intellectual property”: brand names, logos, package designs, and advertising aura. Governments have apparently recognized that tobacco companies have “the best pricing power of any industry,” as a consultant cited in the article somewhat euphemistically put it — that is, their customers are literally addicted to their product and will probably buy it if it came packaged in dog vomit. Given that the companies have that sort of leverage, states are acting to take away their brand power, mandating plain packaging and banning various forms of advertising. “The design of the box is where they must convey not only the name of the brand but abstract qualities, such as masculinity or the idea that a product is ‘premium,’ and worth an extra outlay,” the article explains. “If such traits are stripped from packs, consumers may choose cheaper brands.” But won’t those smokers fail to taste the magic in the more expensive nicotine itself?

The article also points out that the industry has described anti-advertising initiatives as “expropriation of intellectual property” — theft of the immaterial value added to tobacco products over and above whatever intrinsic value they have through advertising and design. Tobacco, seen from this vantage point, is just a (toxic, unfortunately) medium for conveying ideas and social values in a compelling, visceral way. It is just another form of media that we get addicted to.

A cigarette is a cigarette is a cigarette, and when a smoker chooses one brand over another, they are in the realm of pure ideology. They have bought into the idea of the cigarette as a medium, which maybe isn’t physiologically addictive but can be a hard habit to break nonetheless. Ideology is addictive. It feels good to consume an idea like, say, “masculinity” as so much smoke you blow out of your mouth. It functions like a tautological argument: I can’t explain in logical terms why the Marlboro makes me feel more manly, but I can feel something indisputable happening in my lungs. It is reassuring to feel why you believe something on the bodily level, even if that feeling is ultimately associated arbitrarily with what it represents for you.

Governments, then, are trying to turn tobacco from a medium back into a generic substance again. They want to strip tobacco down to its core compulsive essence so that smokers must face that they smoke because they are nicotine addicts, not because they are brand loyalists, or because they like the message the cigarette medium can convey: that they are young or rebellious or sexy or sophisticated or cool or whatever other abstract idea companies have managed to associate with smoking. Rather than regulate the messages cigarettes communicate, the government is trying to make cigarettes noncommunicative by censoring the messages packaged around them, as if people won’t think to feel anything about smoking if the discourse around it is somehow stripped of all allusiveness. As if then they will just be addicted to smoking qua smoking or, even more abstract, addicted to the state of being addicted.

This seems an unlikely outcome. It seems more plausible that addiction generates its own rationalizations, its own myths, its own ideology. We need to experience a physical grounding for our ideological beliefs, and we need to have ideological excuses for our physical addictions, so they tend to work in tandem, symbiotically. The compulsion to smoke drives a quest for ideological rationalizations (“smoking is cool”), just as the need for belief drives the quest for compulsive, physically affective practices that seem uncontestably “real.” Compulsion authenticates practices and the ideas associated with them; it removes incentives and calculations from the equation. You do and feel and believe because you have to, altogether. At a certain point it seems inconceivable that I decided to smoke; the taste for what smoking represents to me no longer seems optional, a conniving ploy at something, either. It feels reflexive, like a craving.

Brands can seem like a way to add a phony value to an otherwise undifferentiated commodity. But they also mark the entry point for consumers into some vicarious fantasy, some idea tangential to consumption. The potential value of a brand rests in the conflation of compulsion and the desire to believe. It must make you feel as though you are choosing and also have no choice.

When governments mandate that cigarette packaging must be ugly, it may be that smokers’ ideas of beauty will change. There is no reference point for beauty that compulsion can’t shift, no absolute ugliness that can anchor a sense of repulsion where we once felt compelled. A substance makes us compulsive and we put that compulsion to use to make something else, some idea of ourselves, feel desperately necessary, mandatory, inescapable. We’ll create a brand-shaped hole wherever we project our compulsions.

So it seems doubtful to me that a government can take a thing that has functioned as a medium, as a vehicle for wishes and fears and fantasies, and nullify it simply by making it plain. The smallest differences can be made to signify. Our desire to enjoy brands is probably stronger even than the desire to smoke. We can’t suppress the yearning to have a specific name for the things we love.






Social media as masochism


When I read anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s book on gambling, Addiction by Design, it started me thinking of how machine gambling works as an analogue for social media: Both facilitate an escapism through engagement, an immersion in immediate risk-taking routines that obscures the larger existential crises. (A lot more about that in this post.)

Both also seem like masochistic practices that one adopts to escape or offload the burden of self. You do these things to forget about who you are and how you are responsible for how you are seen. That maybe makes more obvious sense about gambling machines, which narrow subjective experience to immediate and arbitrary reward seeking, but perhaps seems like a paradoxical thing to claim about social media, given that they ostensibly serve to build up, circulate, and store the self (or at least the carefully curated tokens of identity). It might seem weird to say that we express ourselves to escape ourselves. But self-expression can dissolve the self as well as build some enduring, legible version of a self.

This 1988 paper by psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Masochism as Escape From Self,” may help in addressing the apparent paradox. He argues that masochism is essentially the shadow of individualism. The pressures of having a unique self — the “high-level self-awareness” and high-pressure decisionmaking involved — can become aversive, and lead to an intensification of the desire to escape from self.


He adds later that “there may even be a cyclic escalation, in which the more responsibility and esteem a person accumulates, the more difficult and exhausting it is to sustain them.” He also notes that “high levels of esteem and agency produce the most complex and elaborate selves, which may also be the most burdensome selves. As a result such individuals may seek the strongest modes of escape—such as masochism.”

Much of social media is a calculated effort to “accumulate” esteem and grant agency. It seems plausible that the intense self-consciousness of ongoing social-media use (certainly a “recalcitrant social environment,” despite its responsiveness) could trigger an intense need to escape from self. Social-media use intensifies self-consciousness through a deeper awareness of the contingencies and vulnerability of our identity, leading to a greater need to escape from it, or at least suspend our consciousness of it.

Somewhat less plausible maybe, though I still believe this is worth exploring, is the possibility that the escape from self that social-media necessitates is often sought through an intensification of social-media use. If some portion of social media use can be characterized as masochistic, or if it can be at once masochistic and self-aggrandizing, then it may be used to alleviate the “burden of self” Baumeister describes even as it intensifies it. Not only would this let us keep obeying the imperative to “express ourselves” and build out our all-important online reputations and networks, but it would allow us to address the anxiety of self-consciousness in the environment that prompts it. To address and control how social media make us feel would seem to require deeper engagement with social media, as in a negative feedback loop. Social media, in other words, has affordances to make “self-construction” masochistic and self-negating — as well as addictive, or self-affirming, or strategic. (Social media makes the self cohere in contradictions.)

According to Baumeister, masochism allows people to escape the self by orienting them on the immediacy of physical experience and by allowing them to dissociate through the creation and inhabitation of a “fantasized identity”:

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Those points about fluid identity and physicality seem not to correspond to social-media use; social media seem detached from physical reality (the “digital dualism” illusion), and sites are frequently committed to imposing real-names on users. But social media can be visceral. Your pulse can race, your stomach drop, as you check to see what has been said about you, to you. You can find yourself unable to tear yourself away from a screen in a chat, held cruelly in suspense as you wait for a response to a message that seems dumber and more misreadable as it hangs there. And as much as real name policies are imposed, alternate identities proliferate, even within the same profiles. The “real-name” identity anchors the creation of fantasized identities, gives them an online baseline from which to differentiate, become operant.

Intensive sharing on social media, then, can cease to seem a building up of a self but its dissolution. That’s not merely in the sense that the more information there is in an archive, the harder it is to assemble into a coherent identity; it’s also a phenomenological dissolution: The acts of engaging with social media become points of narrowed attentional focus, akin to the masochistic myopia that Baumeister notes in the literature. He cites Elaine Scarry to claim that pain destroys our will to consider symbolic meanings and abstractions — the essential components of social identity.


Each act of social-media participation plays on the level of symbolic meaning and identity, but awareness of the ongoing ramifications of this may be so overwhelming as to need to be deferred. More sharing defers that recognition while exacerbating the problem, in part because of that knowledge — the humiliation potentially inherent in sharing can evoke a sharp psychic pain of vulnerability that overwhelms itself. Sharing also figures as a gesture of seizing control of the moment in which pain and humiliation will be administered, and the anxiety can also be diverted to a “fantasy” version of the self that is being elaborated in online platforms and thereby disavowed. (The online self, the avatar, is vulnerable, not me — even if that avatar bears my real name and I occasionally identify with it fully and proudly.)

Baumeister’s analysis hinges on distinguishing between a qualitatively “high” and a “low” level of self-awareness. Judging by the following description, the “high” level sounds a lot like conventional, neoliberalistic use of social media to establish one’s flexibility, fitness, and capacity for projects by building up a network and an archive of self. The “‘low” level sounds like the zoned-out flow experience Schüll associates with poker-machine compulsives (more from me about that here).


In social media, the archive can take on the roles of what Baumeister calls the “high-level awareness of self” so that we don’t have to and can lapse into self-annihilating flow instead by attuning to its rhythms of checking, updating, responding, waiting. Those rhythms are easier to find if we post a lot and post intense or risky or embarrassing things that can desubjectivze us through humiliation and/or pain. The platform’s constrictions take on the function of bondage, restricting autonomy to a limited set of actions.

But the key to social media’s masochistic potential is in how it seems to guarantee an audience. Baumeister notes that “use of mirrors or even audiences in S&M probably also intensifies the immediate, low-level awareness of self. Through the mirror or audience, the masochist’s attention is drawn to his or her immediate condition and predicament…the witness confirms the loss of self by conferring social reality.” Social media, of course, is both a mirror and an audience at once.

Masochistic acts of sharing are meant to invoke an audience, but not for the continuous, archived self — not for the ongoing, identity-signifying connotations of what is shared. Instead the audience is invoked to energize the obliteratingly powerful affect of the present moment by seeming to confirm its humiliating reality, the fantasy identity crystallized in that moment. One puts an aspect of oneself (actual or invented) out there to dream of it being mocked, and that pain of mockery disassociates us from the deeper vulnerabilities of the “real self” that is being deferred and protected for the moment.