This past summer, a controversy broke out in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, leading to a consumer backlash about the dangers of authenticity. When Summerhill, a self-described “boozy sandwich shop” launched in August 2017 with a press release showcasing a cocktail in front of a “bullet-hole-ridden wall,” the local community, historically West Indian and African-American, was enraged. The 31-year-old white owner, Becca Brennan, a former attorney and Toronto native, retroactively defended the press release as a “cheeky” branding maneuver. Regardless, she was unable to show protesters any evidence that the pockmarked wall was, in fact, originally damaged by bullets. Residents accused Brennan of racism and cultural appropriation, suggesting that her restaurant was an attempt to appeal to neighborhood gentrifiers.
Similar critiques have been made of other watering holes in big, affluent cities in the United States. In “The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation,” July Westhale posits that San Francisco’s hipster destination Butter Bar “prides itself on being a true-blue, trailer park-themed bar, serving up the best in ‘trashy’ cuisine and cocktails,” including Tater Tots, microwaved meals, deep-fried Twinkies, and cocktails made with Welch’s grape soda. Likewise, the drink menu of a bar called Saint Felix in Hollywood recently received viral attention on Twitter for a photograph that showed the $15 price point for a 40-ounce bottle of Colt 45 sold in a brown paper bag.
From Starbucks’ triumph turning the countercultural coffeehouse into a ubiquitous global conglomerate to the mainstream-ification of the farm-to-table “movement,” the consumerist search for the authentic has never been more prevalent.
In “Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding,” the social anthropologist Douglas B. Holt turns to the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to explain his theory of “postmodern consumer culture.” Adorno and Horkheimer saw the emergence of mass-produced culture as a deterrent to personal freedom and identity. “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry,” they wrote in Dialectic of the Enlightenment, “is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.” On the Adorno-Horkheimer view, media, including films, television shows, magazines, and the Internet create a common language reflecting a shared belief system. That belief system is, in effect, “culture.”
Holt builds on Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of modernity, asserting that postmodern consumer culture today thrives from our ideological assumption that we can actually realize a deeper connection to our personal identity through the commodities we consume. We can engage in “the pursuit of personal sovereignty through brands,” even as technology and globalization perpetuate conformity in our daily lives. I may be identifiable to others as another yoga-pants-wearing, selfie-taking, #blessed millennial, but I can locate my individualism and autonomy in my love of local kale salads and foraged shiitake mushrooms. That is, I may try to define myself through the products I buy, but the culture industry renders those individual choices null.
Holt suggests that the search for the authentic looks different for every consumer, given that each of us is “a work under construction” attempting to project an authentic self to the world “premised upon making thoughtful, sovereign choices rather than obeying market dictates.” Perhaps I’m someone who chooses small-batch craft beer at my local farmers’ market instead of Heineken. Perhaps I even envision this choice as having broader meaning—say, a reflection of my support for local artisans, a critique of mass-production. Or consider this: Maybe I’m among the millions of American millennial hipsters who fetishizes the low-brow, nostalgic appeal of Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), a brand whose sales increased by 200 percent between 2004 and 2013. In both cases, the ideological assumptions underlying these consumption habits reflect a tendency to regard commodities as “cultural resources”—that is, “useful ingredients to produce the self one chooses.”
The notion of seeking the warm glow of authenticity by repudiating the cold glare of modern progress is not unique to our current epoch. “Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books,” the Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote in his celebrated 1738 poem “The Tables Turned,” which reads, in part, as an anti-Enlightenment manifesto. “Come forth into the light of things,” he implores. “Let Nature be your teacher.” Wordsworth may not have been looking for spiritual fulfillment in small-batch jam, but his wistful celebration of nature was a direct response to Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Immanuel Kant, all of whom envisioned a linear teleology of social change in which things are perpetually but gradually getting better.
Our culture of convenience facilitates a coexistent culture of nostalgia. Today’s Utopians look for personal meaning and moral virtue in the past, searching for the “authentic” in everyday consumerist choices—from organic heirloom tomatoes to eco-tourist yoga retreats to small-batch whiskey. As Andrew Potter argues in The Authenticity Hoax, the search for the authentic is nebulous, leading to:
[A] multitude of paths that include the worship of the creative and emotive powers of the self; the fetishization of our premodern past, and its contemporary incarnation in exotic cultures; the search for increasingly obscure and rarified forms of consumption and experience; a preference for local forms of community and economic organization; and… an almost violent hostility to the perceived shallowness of Western forms of consumption.
It’s as if we believe there’s something inherently redemptive about favoring the anti-consumerist, the anti-modern, the unfamiliar.
The irony is that our reactionary obsession with nostalgic notions of authenticity in consumer culture has rendered it an empty virtue. “Farm-to-table,” for example, is no longer unique to sustainable farming and environmentally conscious food service, but a branding buzzword often thoughtlessly slapped onto the menus of hipster restaurants by corporate marketing agencies. The problem is that the “virtuous” choice to dine at a farm-to-table restaurant doesn’t actually do anything ethically upstanding.
Just a few weeks ago, I went out for brunch at Allswell, a so-called “gastropub” in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that boasts of “nouveau American” cuisine on a menu that changes frequently. Eager to eat something “authentically” farm-to-table, I ordered the alliterative dish “Grains & Greens” for $16, charmed by its simplicity. The server explained the restaurant’s ethos of seasonality and sustainability, and I was adequately convinced that a bowl of unassuming produce and grains would be worth 16 bucks. Promptly, the server brought over a carefully curated bowl of heirloom quinoa, wilted mustard greens, a fried cage-free egg, edamame hummus, and toasted almonds. It was a small portion, but I didn’t want to complain. That would be gluttonous, after all. My server also offered me hot sauce in an unlabeled glass bottle sealed with a tiny cork, and, expectedly, a pitcher of tap water and a mason jar. As I ate, I looked around the restaurant, with its large wooden communal table, stucco walls, giant paned windows, and candelabra light fixture. The environment was cozy and rustic. My meal made me feel primed to tumble out of the restaurant onto the rolling green hills of rural England. But really, I’d just paid $16 for an egg only to wade through wealthy tourists on Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue. Later that afternoon, I ate a slice of pizza to tide me over until dinner.
The popular salad chain Sweetgreen is perhaps most representative of the total proliferation of the farm-to-table trend. Started in 2007 by three Georgetown graduates, Sweetgreen now has 73 locations in D.C., New York, Boston, Maryland, Virginia, and, most recently, Los Angeles. According to one of Sweetgreen’s founders, Nathaniel Ru, the chain aims to be “the Starbucks of salads,” burgeoning into a national fast-food salad company while making sure to commit to their six core values: creating win-win solutions, thinking sustainably, creating meaningful connection, making an impact, keeping it real, and celebrating your passion.
Sweetgreen’s core values reflect the company’s commitment to selling the ideology of authenticity. Every Sweetgreen location prominently displays a chalkboard that provides updated information about the various organic farms and suppliers from which the store gets its produce. And the menu calls attention to items that are particularly sustainable, either due to local sourcing or seasonal availability. In the array of cities where they have stores, Sweetgreen sponsors local food-education programs to teach fourth- and fifth-grade students about nutrition and the value of local produce. What Sweetgreen’s rapid rise to popularity and financial success—largely due to approval from well-known venture capitalists—says about the cultural quest for authenticity is that fans of fast-food salad and farm-to-table meals have as much of an appetite for “keeping it real” as they do for baby kale.
In seeking out farm-to-table restaurants, local or organic produce, and small-batch whiskey (which is often just factory-made whiskey with clever marketing), we’re not exhibiting an authentic desire to make sustainable choices, but a desire for self-expression. As the marketing scholars Michael Beverland and Francis J. Farrelly argue in “The Quest for Authenticity in Consumption,” one of the primary reasons consumers seek so-called “authentic experiences” and products is to feel “in control,” “connected,” and “virtuous”—to express “purity of motive” and feel purposeful in the act of what they call “self-authentication.”
On Beverland and Farrelly’s account, the consumer’s “search” or “quest” for authenticity is necessarily self-referential: “the consumer co-creates product value or a consumption experience” in the very act of searching for it. We choose products and services partially based on how they make us feel, on meanings we derive from our choices. Or as Randall Rose and Stacy Wood argue in “Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity Through Reality Television,” a consumer’s drive for authenticity is largely “a reaction to threats of inauthenticity inherent in postmodernism”—namely, the worry that our lives may be meaningless and superficial.
Figures like Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau remind us that the celebrated myth of self-actualization through puritanical frugality is embedded in our country’s history. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau writes of his sojourn to Walden Pond in Walden. Today, we regard Thoreau’s quest for self-sufficiency without proper context, reading texts like Walden as an inspirational yet authentic account of one heroic man’s attempt to live in harmony with the woods—and with himself. Yet at the center of Thoreau’s quest was a self-referential impulse to reach moral high ground, to evangelize the virtues of subsistence living, which he chose from a position of extreme privilege.
The impulse to fetishize a “stripped down” or “simpler” quality of life has recently proliferated as a consumer trend, and is among the more nefarious examples of our cultural quest for authenticity. For example, the Tiny House “movement,” which began in the 1990s, has caught on with more momentum in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as a trendy way for Americans to reduce living costs. Tiny House dwellers see themselves as participants in a social movement built on values like environmental sustainability and community. Popular TV shows like Tiny House, Big Living and Tiny House Hunters idealize the life of small-home and trailer living, highlighting the simplicity, freedom, and happiness it affords. While the Tiny House Movement seems genuine in its intention to reduce our environmental footprint, its benefits are marketed to people who have a choice to live simply instead of excessively, not those who grew up in poverty, living in tiny homes or trailers without the option not to.
In the oversharing age of social media, the notion of authenticity is pricklier than ever before. Our world is mediated by screens that encourage us to share everything from our deepest political beliefs to what we ate for dinner. Yet every one of these “authentic” personal disclosures must be curated. Those of us who grew up curating our self-presentations on AOL, Friendster, Myspace, and eventually Facebook may have been raised to believe, as sociologist Sherry Turkle has suggested, that there is only “one identity that counts”—our identity online. But technology only encourages us to share our authentic selves if we show up with a coherent and explicitly-state-able sense of self, with the real goal being to keep us engaged in using social media.
At its core, the quest for authenticity is paradoxical: After all, how can anything be authentic if we are doggedly searching for it? There is nothing immediate or spontaneous about predetermining what is or isn’t authentic. This dynamic is what Rose and Wood describe as an “ironic mixture of the factitious and the spontaneous,” enabling consumers to experience a mix of “daydreaming, imagination, and pleasure.” The quest for authenticity is ostensibly born out of a desire to resist mass-produced capitalism, yet the pervasiveness of this desire means countercultural trends are rapidly appropriated by the mainstream. In The Authenticity Hoax, Potter concludes that we need to “come to terms with modernity” by recognizing liberal democracy and the market economy as givens, but I’m not so sure.
If we choose to see only the aesthetic virtue of nostalgia, ignoring its ideological dimensions, we participate in an inhospitable value system that excludes, well, most people. When we buy into a trend like eco-tourism, for example, we’re not just glorifying living without electricity and with daily meditation, we’re consuming an ideological system. As Slavoj Žižek argues: “When we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks, we also buy quite a lot of ideology… ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others,’ but then comes the story. ‘We give 1% of all our income to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy… [or] some Saharan farmers, or to save the forest, to enable organic growing for coffee, or whatever or whatever…. Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure of fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity.” This absolves us of guilt but ensures that consumerism continues.
Žižek refers to this model as “the ultimate form of consumerism”—selling redemption as part of the price of consumption, both literally and figuratively. But if we make peace with liberal democracy, the market economy, and blindly embrace Starbucks’ clever business model as a convenient way to find meaning outside the consumerist machine, we threaten the rigor with which we might define social progress. If we regard “authentic” consumer choices as an outlet for self-expression reflecting a commitment to personal beliefs, we displace useful energy from serious issues to the personal performance of “politics.” And with politics in scare quotes, the threat to progress becomes a real—dare I say authentic—object of fear.