the authenticity-based value system, subcultural identities, aesthetics, and the specific form of commodity capitalism involved are all interrelated. [Venkatesh Rao] sees premium mediocrity as a “rational adaptive response” to being thrust into insecure economic circumstances, but we have already observed that the conditions for an authenticity aesthetic were developing long before the financial crisis triggered its eruption. On the other hand I’m reminded of Marx’s assertion that everything comes down to economics “in the last instance.” Maybe Venkat’s not wrong.
One thing is certain: the authenticity aesthetic served as a cohesive for all of these developments. It tied the spectrum of consumable items, spaces, and identities into a single unified visual experience. There could be no more perfect illustration of this entire series of events than Paste Magazine’s 2009 and 2015 satirical “Evolution of the Hipster” photo series. In the 2010-2015 session note the unironically worn authenticity goods (TOMS, Red Wings, leather dopp kit), the startup references, and the visibly inflating tech wealth of the demographic.
If your garage craft beer brand didn’t make it big, at least you could learn to code and join a startup. Unfortunately, when your new WeWork office displays the same hand-lettered signage as your neighborhood coffee shop, has the same brick walls as your fast casual farm-to-table lunch spot, and advocates the same “do what you love” message celebrity entrepreneurs have told you since grade school, it becomes impossible to think outside of authenticity politics. […]
No wonder millennials, the Authentic Generation, all seem to think they can be the next Steve Jobs. If you believe in a “true self” that can be discovered or achieved you’re not a far cry from believing in destiny. Worse still, you could start extrapolating all sorts of conclusions from an imaginary “truth” at your “center.” It does not escape my attention that exactly this kind of assumption is at work whenever someone asserts absolute speech rights based purely on the combination of unique identities they can lay claim to. The more differentiated the self, the more defensible this demand tends to be. Identitarianism is mirrored in—would not be possible without—the widespread preoccupation with authentic selves. In the future we may be able to look back at toxic wantrepreneurship, white entitlement, and identity politics both “left” and ethnonationalist as being underwritten by the same philosophical blunder.
Meanwhile, years of semantic slippage had happened without me noticing. Suddenly the surging interest in fashion, the dad hats, the stupid pin companies, the lack of sellouts, it all made sense. Authenticity has expanded to the point that people don’t even believe in it anymore. And why should we? Our friends work at SSENSE, they work at Need Supply. They are starting dystopian lifestyle brands. Should we judge them for just getting by? A Generation-Z-focused trend report I read last year clumsily posed that “the concept of authenticity is increasingly deemed inauthentic.” It goes further than that. What we are witnessing is the disappearance of authenticity as a cultural need altogether.