July 12, 2019

When On and Off Collide

It always piques my interest when marketing professionals discuss authenticity. They approach it without any philosophical baggage, taking for granted that it’s a word best used to describe a relationship with a customer or an aspect of brand equity. It’s not an existential concern; it’s just business.

In “The Kind of Authenticity Customers Will Pay More For,” a recent post on the Harvard Business Review website, a group of management professors outlined what they regard as the two forms of marketable authenticity. The first is when something is “representative of a particular social category” — that is, something is “authentic” if it fulfills established genre expectations for what it is supposed to be. They use the example of an Italian restaurant, which may rate as “authentic” if it has red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and chicken parmesan on the menu. According to the professors’ research, people won’t pay more for this type of authenticity; they probably just won’t buy something at all if it fails on this front.

The kind of authenticity people will pay more for is what they describe as “values-based,” which “relates to whether or not someone or something offers a true expression of core beliefs.” Okay. No matter how many times I read that definition, it still seems like empty sales talk to me. Perhaps I have no core beliefs or true values or values that truly express my core beliefs, but this sort of definition always seems entirely circular — what is a “true expression”? Isn’t that what you are trying to define with “authenticity”? What is a “core belief”? Isn’t the “authentic” thing precisely what allows someone to figure that out? People pay more for it, so there must be “authenticity” in there somewhere.

As a term, “authenticity” seems deliberately slippery. It makes things disappear behind it. It can be dropped in as a placeholder that doubles as a magic secret ingredient. It tends to be deployed to explain the value of something without referring to the underlying sociopolitical conditions — “authentic” to mean gentrified when talking about neighborhoods, “authentic” to mean racialized when talking about food or music, and so on. It is also used to mask the kinds of work required to make “authenticity” appear. If something is treated as “authentic,” the work to produce it can appear as a kind of natural process, not a strategic bid for status or approval. “Claiming to be authentic seems akin to claiming to be humble or wise,” the management professors write. “Merely making the claim suggests a lack of understanding of what it means to be authentic in the first place. So managers face a bit of a paradox: Consumers demand authenticity but managers must be careful in crafting an authentic image because efforts to do so can easily backfire.”

It seems to me that the “paradox” is the essence of what consumers are demanding. “Authenticity” can’t be separated from that “careful craft” of negotiating the intrinsic contradictions of making something that “feels real,” above and beyond its simply existing, and that openly profits from that without appearing cynical.

Rather than treating authenticity as a quality, it makes more sense to think of it as a form of work that makes visible and irrepressible contradictions cohere. Authenticity work makes something that is both marketable and outside markets, both planned and spontaneous, both disinterested and calculated. Or to borrow from the management professors’ framework, it makes something that is both generically representative and true to a unique set of “core beliefs.” These are not discrete poles, but blend and inform each other and gain value by being confused for each other in the course of an “authentic” experience.

So when “customers” are said to “demand authenticity,” whether from products or performers or brands, they are demanding some proof of that kind of work, an embodiment of those contradictions as something alive and in play. In Playing to the Crowd, Nancy Baym describes the “relational labor” required of professional musicians to sustain an emotional connection with audiences. Part of that involves finding a convincing way to commercialize intimacy, mediating the dialectic between making money off people and sustaining a relation with them “for its own sake.” Drawing on Arlie Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor and Viviana Zelizer’s work on selling intimacy, Baym describes how the “authentic, natural feeling” that grounds commercialized emotional connection pivots on the blurring of what one does for money and what one does gratuitously. What makes artists seem “authentic” is not their ability to eliminate or disguise the commerce from the connection, but their ability to make it work like those gestalt optical illusions, as both figure and ground, and thereby seem to be there and not there.

Authenticity as a form of work produces a system of calibrated disavowal. In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu argues that gift exchange is grounded in an “institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition,” which can “transmute, by the sincere fiction of a disinterested exchange, the inevitable, and inevitably interested relations imposed by kinship, neighborhood, or work, into elective relations of reciprocity.” In other words, the ritual of giving gifts makes necessary relationships feel like chosen ones, but this requires a system of collective disavowal that takes a lot of work to sustain.

The “relational labor” that goes into producing “authentic” emotional connections between strangers works similarly: It makes a relationship that is a product, an object of exchange, nonetheless feel “elective” and reciprocal on a level beyond the cash nexus. An “authentic” relationship between a performer and an audience is both interested and disinterested simultaneously, falling within the penumbra of “institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition.” To put that another way, an “authentic” commercial relationship affirms that the “misrecognition” is in effect, is functioning as a social operating system — that (as Bourdieu puts it) the “complicity of collective bad faith in the good-faith economy” is still binding. It shows us that we can be self-interested, as our condition under capitalism demands, while still being disinterested, as a Kantian ethics requires.

This kind of work — the relational labor involved in making real yet commercial relationships — seems to be what is at stake with the emerging class of influencers, streamers, YouTubers, and so on whose main appeal is supposed to be their “authentic” connection with an audience. Taylor Lorenz’s recent piece about teen YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, for example, connects Chamberlain’s success to her ability to “make videos that feel authentic.” What does that mean? Intuitively we all probably know what that is supposed to refer to, just as we all probably know also that the concept of “authenticity” is incoherent and self-contradictory. It’s essentially a hoax that consists of little more than declaring “I’m not a hoax. I’m just me.”

But it is not as though anyone is taken in by the hoax; it’s more that the brazen execution of the hoax is inspiring in some way, renewing the hope that the contradictions in “having an identity” or “having a brand” can actually be resolved, or even better, that they don’t have to be resolved. This is part of the “complicity of collective bad faith” Bourdieu invokes.

In this thread, Crystal Abidin argues that “‘authenticity’ in the influencer industry is not an achievable status/state but a performed aesthetic in and of itself. Claims of amateurism, casualness, unfilteredness are still intended to persuade followers of sincerity and to mask the commerce.” Part of her point is that what comes across as sincere depends on what motifs have been exhausted within the performer’s genre or medium, and which ones remain fresh or less obviously formulaic. This may appear “natural” but is actually much more labor-intensive than spontaneous communication. It has to continually re-establish a different basis for connection, and find a new means for signifying a disavowal of commerce. This means that “authenticity” has no stable method and refers instead to a fluid socioeconomic process, not to anything like “a fidelity to oneself.” But it is not so much that commerce is masked as that is put into that oscillation of figure and ground — both the backdrop against which sincerity can appear, and also the foregrounded reason that makes the situation “rational.”

Dean MacCannell’s work on the “staged authenticity” of tourist attractions gets at the shifting boundaries of what counts as “real” as well. Tourists don’t ever see “the real thing” but instead are always approaching it through “an infinite regression of stage sets.” Being trapped in this “manifold” of staged realities is essentially everyone’s situation under conditions of capitalism — the “complicity of collective bad faith”— so tourism is a way of dealing with that, making it explicit, something we can physically proceed through.

We need tourism because it posits the existence of authentic things when there aren’t any; tourism reclassifies ordinary or idiosyncratic experience as “authentic.” In other words, authenticity doesn’t incite tourism; tourism produces authenticity: the idea that some experience is more “real” or “characteristic” than some other experience, and that there is a privileged position from which to consume it. (This lament about Instagram “ruining” Antelope Canyon is a good illustration of this phenomenon. There are lots of slot canyons to visit, but the touristic apparatus around this particular one imbues it with social meaning and puts it on the continuum of authentic-inauthentic experience.) “Authentic” performers also posit a way of being that bridges “real” (aka noncommercial) and “fake” (commercial). Authentic people show us how to be human capital and still be human.

So being worried about or covetous of authenticity isn’t a way to preserve the world from touristic incursions any more than it is a way to resist capitalism. “Demanding authenticity” generalizes tourism (and capitalism) as an attitude and extends its reach. Tourism isn’t about going places; it is a way of seeing, a form of subjectivity, an attitude toward experience that treats it as a discrete commodity. As one appears or feels as though they are closing in on something authentic, what that means is they have become more and more of a tourist. They are perfecting their connoisseurship of experience. Something similar is at work with “authentic” performers. The more authentic they seem, the better we have become at consuming “emotional connection” as a product.

In the epilogue of the 1999 edition of  The Tourist, MacCannell defines “touristic” as the “circulation of the gift of shared notice … how else do we know another person except as an ensemble of suggestion hollowed out of the universe of possible suggestions.” That sounds a bit like he is talking about influencers as a universal model for selfhood, circulating an aspirational way of life to sustain “institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition.” The “gift of shared notice” can also be a commodity, and the commoditized version may be more effective at aggregating attention and circulating that experience — making something feel momentous and noticeable. This produces  the tension in “authenticity” — the most authentic thing is also at the same time the least authentic thing, for the same reasons: it’s good at selling itself.

As Baym points out, “when you have to be authentic to be a real artist and also to market yourself, you’re walking a fine line.” The person or brand that comes across as “authentic” isn’t simply “who they are”; rather they are adept at moving that line, redrawing the boundary of what seems authentic and what doesn’t. Moving that line is a form of work, and that seems to be what audiences respond to: “Authentic” performers succeed in positing new “backstages,” as Abidin argues; they can make mundanities into “attractions,” as MacCannell suggests. They can make changes in fashion appear plausible and inevitable, not contrived. In various ways they make commerce and intimacy co-exist, as they unfortunately must.

Baym notes that “we are in a time that calls us to use intimacy as a tool with strangers on an unprecedented, technologically mediated, everyday scale.” We want “authenticity” to teach us how to navigate our own inevitable need to sell out.