Our Brands, Ourselves

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 30 2012 11:16 PM

Authentocracy in America

Our brands, ourselves.

121130_SBR_AuthentocracyinAmerica

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.

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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.

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