Authentocracy in America

Our brands, ourselves.

Illustration by Lilli Carre.

A scant few weeks ago the New York Times published an essay that upset the Internet, entitled “How to Live Without Irony,” written by a Christy Wampole, assistant professor of French at Princeton. The gist was that we should cool it with all the mocking detachment and just live authentically and kindly. Y’know?

I’m sure you’ve seen such pieces before: Paeans to honest dealing, encomia to loving the ones you’re with, to turning off your cellphone when you go a-mapling in Vermont. No sound is sweeter than the bark of a fox on a chilly morning while you drink that cup of Earl Grey, peering out of your bay window, etc.

I’ve heard foxes bark. What interests me more is why people keep writing these things. I’m subscribed to this mailing list, the Listserve, where once a day a person is selected at random to write whatever they want and send it to the rest of the list, its membership now numbering in the tens of thousands. And nearly every one of these emails ends up with someone telling a bunch of strangers to live, dammit. To love openly and dance like no one’s watching.

I’ve come to resent the Listserve. What’s with this innate assumption that everyone is living in some repressed nightmare? This urge to punish a mass of strangers with bromides that would test the patience even of the editor-in-chief of a fridge magnet company? From whence comes this desperate human urge to advise?

From media, of course.  The media is comprised of people who have dedicated their lives to drawing distinctions for others:

Real things Fake things
War in Afghanistan Petraeus scandal
Certain kinds of rock music Rihanna
Love-inspired sexual intercourse Twitter
African teenagers American teenagers
Local Artisanal
TV with friends Blogs
Seapunk Seapunk
Christmas Fat acceptance

Thus says the contemporary Authentocracy, who derive power and authority by drawing a line of authenticity then saying that anyone who crosses that line is tacky, unspiritual—someone who eats, but without the requisite praying and loving. (Eat, Pray, Love is of course fake.) Our world is filled with authentocrats, propping up velvet ropes wherever they can.

And so, wrote Wampole in the Times: “People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry.”

It’s not just bad to be an ironist; it’s a surrender to infantilizing commerce. That “commerce,” marching through our streets like the Soviets in Red Dawn, is something to which we might surrender is a common bit of received humanist wisdom. It would surprise most people in commerce, by which I mean most of us, to learn how much we are feared.

Which is why Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, by Sarah Banet-Weiser, is an interesting book, because it makes it its business to find the halfway point between this so-called infantilizing commerce and the world of the authentic and real—thus that “ambivalence.”

“In the contemporary US,” writes the author, “building a brand is about building an affective, authentic relationship with a consumer, one based—just like a relationship between two people—on the accumulation of memories, emotions, personal narratives, and expectations.” Familiar territory for anyone who lived through the No Logo years: We live in a branded world doing branded things and thinking branded thoughts. (Full disclosure: I love branding and have enjoyed both its practice and study for many years. There’s just something majestic about the ability of humans to turn bullshit into money.)

But there the book starts to diverge from the nologoesque. Banet-Weiser, a professor at USC, clearly came to this world of commerce with deep academic suspicion, but to her credit she left with—well, not an appreciation, but a sort of hesitant, furrowed-brow empathy. There are worse things than living in the same world as Beyoncé and Applebee’s, and this book, in its attempt to describe the “transformation of culture of everyday living into brand culture,” doesn’t imagine otherwise.

The book leads off with a somewhat perfunctory breakdown of the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, in which perfectly attractive women who occasionally enjoyed cupcakes were encouraged by Dove Soap to stop thinking of themselves as hideous hag-beasts but rather to esteem themselves and, not coincidentally, to celebrate their unique and perhaps curved bodies by cleaning them with Dove. “When Dove criticizes the beauty industry for damaging girls’ self-esteem through a very visible, social activist campaign that is funded through the selling of beauty products,” concludes Banet-Weiser, “the relationship between political (read: individual) empowerment and consumer culture is intricately, and often ambivalently, configured within the contours of the brand.” By which she means: Dove wants a feminism that sells soap. “Ambivalence” here is almost a synonym for “having it both ways,” but it’s key to remember that “both ways” is a fiction. The folks who want you to sell that soap also want you to feel great about your boobs, even if they’re not aspirational boobs. That’s noble and all, but it’s happening because they want to get some soap on those boobs. And not just any soap.

The Dove stuff has few surprises, but things pick up a bit when she gets to YouTube. YouTube may be a crap volcano, but its freedoms afford people—her focus here is on girls—the ability to play and explore and perform different identities. Okay. But she also points out, and this is an astute observation, that many of these videos are reactions to the larger branded culture: Girls dancing to “Single Ladies,” for example, or discussing beauty products, or playing with Barbie dolls. “The almost inevitable presence of commercial brands as structuring narratives for YouTube videos,” she writes, “indicates that self-presentation does not imply simply any narrative of the self, created within an endlessly open cultural script, but one that makes sense within a cultural and economic context of recognizable and predetermined texts and values.”

Sarah Banet-Weiser.
Sarah Banet-Weiser.

Photo courtesy Sarah Banet-Weiser.

Meaning that all that empowerment and self-expression is happening within the larger context of big brands and big money. With ads layered on top. Living as they do inside of a world filled with commercial narratives, little girls work with what they’ve got. As a result, concludes Banet-Weiser, “The contrast between an offline empowerment that is ‘real’ and an online empowerment that is ‘fake’ is ultimately beside the point.” The same things that make the Internet so socially transformative—its openness, its focus on entrepreneurship—also “provide the logic for the girl’s self-branding,” situating them evermore into a “hegemonic gendered consumer culture.” (As should be clear, this is an academic book. The words situate or situated appear more than 20 times. I counted.) Hegemony aside, this is a useful lens through which to view YouTube videos. What are the messages that are here? To what is this person (often, indeed, a young woman) reacting? What products are mentioned or displayed? Are these people engaging with and seeking some sort of power from those brands, or pushing back against them and demonstrating their control and authority? Do all the commenters seem to be racist child molesters? (yes).

Banet-Weiser engages similarly with branded street artists (like Banksy), branded political activism (like breast-cancer ribbons), and religious branding (like “prosperity gospel” types). The goal of the author is to demonstrate that with brand culture ascendant, “realms of culture and society once considered outside the official economy—like politics—are harnessed, reshaped, and made legible in economic terms.” She does so, but if there’s one big flaw to this book, it’s that Authentic chooses its subjects too wisely. Ambivalence comes built-in with Banksy; he’s made himself into a sort of fruit fly for capitalist experiments.

Say there’s a continuum from “traditional” authentic culture (Baptists, banjo music) to “branded” culture (Baby Gap, Britney), with Banksy puckishly dancing in the middle, Dove soap in one hand and a purity ring in the other. Like the maidens of YouTube, all of us exist somewhere along this continuum. We’re called to the authentic at times, but other times we’re beckoned to by the brands. And all this harkening is the source of our ambivalence.

The subjects of the book tend, naturally, towards the branded side of things. Reading about Banksy and Shepard Fairey brought another street artist, Swoon, to mind. Swoon sells her art, sure, but where Banksy might art-direct a Simpsons couch gag, and Shepard Fairey may brag over the number of times he’s been arrested, Swoon builds and opens a community center in Haiti—as “authentic” an activity as one can imagine. And yet all of these people coexist; they are part of the same scene, and they must negotiate with themselves as to their own relationships with the authentic.

I recently went out in search of a copywriter to write a big old-fashioned full-page ad for a big old company. But as far as I could tell no copywriter was to be found in all of New York City. Having once been a copywriter I was shocked; we used to be everywhere, like drunken pigeons, walking around Union Square despairing over an assignment to write 50 taglines for a line of baby guns. A friend who works in advertising assured me that a few copywriters still exist, lurking inside of agencies, but for the most part they’ve been transformed, or died out. All of the small, young agencies where I was looking were now doing experienced-based branding. And on visiting I found that their offices had live dogs and old vinyl records and smelled like burning crayons; their employees seemed impossibly young, almost fetal. They do not buy space in magazines and then fill it with advertising but rather build parks or give out scarves at events or create interactive spaces that might appear briefly in a town. Theirs is the world of the pop-up ad—not on a website but in real space, and not intrusive but inclusive. Or at least intrusively inclusive.

Seeking to define the authentic, Banet-Weiser writes: “What other explanations can be found if we look beyond the authentic versus the fake, the empowered consumer versus corporate dominance?” Thinking about my search for a copywriter made me wonder if perhaps we’re all looking at this stuff from the wrong angle.

See, you might say that branding seeks to commodify authenticity, to use it to its own ends, to sell more soap—and use authenticity also to frame our thoughts. But you might also say that authenticity itself is an artifact of power. So people in the branding industry use the tools at hand—graphic design, large marketing budgets—to get access to that power. If you were a big old brand in yonder days you could do two things: (1) Advertise to the public; and (2) Use public relations to get to the press. Your bases were covered.

But now anyone can have an opinion in public, and any human being can pop up on a mailing list and tell 20,000 other people what it means to be real. If you’re not part of that reality—if your products contain gluten, or you occasionally use slave labor to pre-assemble your shelving units—you’re screwed. Which is why there are so many jobs for “social media managers” nowadays and so few jobs doing things that aren’t awful. You need to get out there because people, given half a chance, will get authentic on your ass.  One dork can blow half a year’s PR budget with a viral tweet. Because authenticity.

The issue is not just that we live in a branded world and crave the authentic, but that the nature of the “authentic” has become as fluid and reactive as the world of advertising itself. The Authentocracy has the tools, especially but not exclusively with social media, to propose a counter-narrative in which the things they prefer are promoted, the things they despise rejected. Their reward for their efforts is authority, the authority to say what is real and what is not. The modern branding expert’s efforts are spent in an endless attempt to anticipate, to route around, to please, and co-opt—not the “authentic,” which is just a concept after all, but to enlist the Authentocrats themselves. Of course an authentocrat co-opted loses all ability to claim authority; their secret powers fade with the first junket. On and on: This endless loop, this ceaseless, pathological battle, is the great endeavor of modern branding. Within that loop, as Banet-Weiser correctly discerns, is where we live now.

Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture by Sarah Banet-Weiser. NYU Press.

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