Culture is for tourists

Andrew Potter’s Authenticity Hoax: How We Got Lost Finding Ourselves is an engaging look at the quest for the authentic life in the wake of modernity. It is equal parts historical analysis, cultural critique, philosophical pinings, and pop culture bromides. Potter argues that

“the whole authenticity project that has occupied us moderns for the past two hundred and fifty years is a hoax. It has never delivered on its promise, and it never will. This is not because we aren’t trying hard enough or are looking in the wrong places, or because the capitalists, politicians, and other purveyors of the fake are standing in our way…My argument is not that once upon a time we lived authentic lives – that we used to live in authentic communities and listen to authentic music and eat authentic food and participate in an authentic culture – and now that authenticity is gone. This is not a fairy tale. Rather, the overarching theme of this book is that there really is no such thing as authenticity…There could never be an authenticity detector we could wave at something, like the security guards checking you over at the airport.”

Instead of an abstract concept of the authentic that we pursue, Potter argues that most of the search after authenticity is really a “disguised form of status-seeking” (p. 15). As a result, the jargon of authenticity has taken on religious aspects, and the striving after the authentic is a striving after wind. In fact, when one embarks on the quest for the authentic, he ultimately gets lost on the way and loses any semblance of what authenticity really means. As part of the status-seeking hoax, the search for authenticity takes many forms, and Potter examines this search in the realm of history, consumerism, politics, technology, media, and culture.

On this last point, Potter’s chapter on cultural tourism is especially poignant, as he argues that much of what we think of as authentic culture is for status-seeking tourists. He refers specifically to reenactments, period dress, and other “theme park” atmospheres where we have tried to conserve “authentic” culture. For that matter, even the slow-food and organic food movements are heavily influenced by status-seeking. Wonder why the most outspoken proponents of organic food quietly stepped off their soap box once organic food went mainstream and Wal-Mart jumped on the bandwagon? Potter explains an aspect of this status-seeking by asking,

“is there anyone out there who does not consider him or herself to be an antihero of authenticity? Anyone who embraces authority, delights in status-seeking, loves work, and strives for conformity? Living inauthentically is always something other people do. In which case, what is surprising is just how much apparent inauthenticity there is out there.”

To cement his point, Potter argues several times that as soon as one brands something or someone as authentic, then chances are it probably isn’t.

Mixed with his his cultural criticism, Potter traces the history of the quest for the authentic life and authentic self from Plato and the Greeks to Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Descartes, Marx, Benjamin, and more. Potter does a commendable job in discussing the philosophies of these philosophers in an accessible way without dumbing it down. He melds many different aspects of life into his critique of authenticity. On the way, he takes intelligent but scathing shots at Sarah Palin and President Obama, capitalism and socialism, Fox News and the liberal media, Oprah and beat poets, designer pre-ripped jeans, suburban and urban living, and modern art. You may not agree with everything he says, but one can’t disagree that he stimulates much thought.

While I enjoyed this book, I would have liked to see more of a discussion on religious matters. Potter argues that the search for authenticity has religious aspects of it, but he mostly stays away from Christianity and other religious movements’ adoption of authenticity jargon. I’m especially thinking of post-modern Christianity, the Emergent movement, etc. I think he would have had plenty of material to critique. I also think he would have benefited greatly from pulling the book of Ecclesiastes into his criticism, as much of his argument was based on the fact that there is truly nothing new under the sun.

2 thoughts on “Culture is for tourists

  1. I think it might be – I enjoyed it a lot. The first few chapters are pretty heady and philosophical/historical, so depending on if you're into that sort of thing, it could be worth your time, or a good book to read if you're having trouble falling asleep.

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