I’ve had two significant moments of clarity in my life regarding authenticity. “Authenticity” itself is kind of a buzz word now, and I don’t think I had that word in mind when these two independent moments occurred, but it changed the way I think about people and things quite a bit.
The first moment occurred while I was taking a class in high school called “Introduction to Media Literacy.” Frankly, I don’t recall much of what the actual course work was in that class, but most of that proved irrelevant to the actual lesson I learned. Our teacher, the delightful Matt “Martdawg” Martello, went out of his way to offer extra credit (I don’t think I even needed it?) for things like staying after school and watching The Yellow Submarine, projects included playing a song for the class and explaining why you liked it – he had posters of things like Bogart movies, playbills, and band posters on his walls. As a person he actually introduced his class to liking things that were popular without taking it for granted that we liked them and without particularly caring if we didn’t. At an age when students are still trying to distance themselves from their parents’ tastes in things, he made it feel like it was okay to like things that are monuments of pop culture without feeling like we inherited them along with our pajamas and lunch box. I was so used to teachers trying to be as sterile as possible and late 90’s early 00’s teens trying to like things so deliberately non-mainstream that it was a novelty just to have someone say something as banal as “I really like the Beatles.” It wasn’t really banal though – it was just the truth: he really liked the Beatles. I mean, not so long ago basically everyone did – and maybe everyone did while I was growing up too and we were all just too contrarian to appreciate things that were universally loved.
Whatever the case, a few friends and I sat in his classroom after hours with the new school building’s crisp understated carpeting and watched The Yellow Submarine. Even though it doesn’t exactly make a good after-school special, it was a coming-of-age moment where we could agree that despite being popular or obvious, we also loved the Beatles. I guess you could say we quit trying so hard to read secret alphabets and became the tiniest bit media literate after all.
Later in life I was reading some Chuck Klosterman books because they had edgy sounding titles and I like the essay as a literary form. Now, one really difficult thing I want to address before I get any further is that Klosterman spends a lot of time in some of his books discussing the concept of what is “cool.” As I previously mentioned, we like to use the word “authentic” now. The real difficulty here is that really, what is “authentic” is what is “cool” now, and things are only “cool” if they are “authentic.” We’ve anchored something that used to be wholly superficial to a word that is by definition non-superficial – so we can’t even think straight anymore about what “coolness” is.
I’m getting ahead of myself though.
The second epiphany I had was reading one of Klosterman’s books – I think it must have been in Killing Yourself to Live since I can’t find the passage I remember in any of the books of his I still have on my shelf (I lost that one). He had an extended discussion of M.A.S.H. and its enormous popularity, and he was at pains to point out that a part of the pleasure of enjoying things is that other people share them with you. At the time that seemed kind of obvious to me. The insidious point that Klosterman was making, though, was that sometimes enjoying things just because other people like them is worthwhile. It’s not really initially about whether or not said thing is any good, it’s just the point that sharing a thing, good or not, gives something value and interest by itself. Sometimes this is kind of obvious. Imagine you refused to watch Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings – all 3 franchises. Now, regardless of the merits or faults of any of those series, a certain part of the pleasure of these movies is just sharing in some of the major pop-culture stories of this generation. If you didn’t watch them are you some kind of social outcast? Do you have bad taste? Don’t be ridiculous – but I wouldn’t say you’re not missing out on anything.
The first experience with my teacher had taught me a lesson about counter-culture. I think it’s pretty illustrative that Kurt Cobain (the retrospective poster boy for 90’s counter culture) would in one interview talk about how the music on the radio was garbage, and then in private call radio stations to request his song or drop off tapes himself. I think this was a self-defeating ethos that grew out of the birth pangs of the transition from “coolness” to “authenticity.” After reading that passage about the cultural value of M.A.S.H. it opened up a new perspective – I quit caring quite so much about whether things had intrinsic value aesthetically or artistically or whatever and started caring about the relationship people have with things.
You may be asking at this point “so what?” That’s a good question. So far I’ve talked about “authentic” and “cool” a little bit, but there’s another term that’s practically a slur that gets tossed around a lot now: “hipster.” Now, some people are fanatical about not being labeled hipsters – some people don’t care, some people name anything “hipster” that they don’t like. What does it really mean though? To say someone is a “hipster” might mean that they pick up on things that are “cool” without being “authentic.” It might mean that they pick up on things that are authentic, but somehow still not cool (e.g. is a handlebar mustache really cool/appropriate right now?) There was a book that came out a few years ago by Brett McCracken, Hipster Christianity, that examined some of this in church culture. I don’t really think his book contains tons of industrial grade insight, but I thought it provided a nice counterpoint to Chuck Klosterman.
To illustrate some of the sort of considerations someone like me who is neurotic about being authentic and interested in cool things, here’s a graphic of some different thought processes. Keep in mind the idea is to see whether you authentically like something specific: it doesn’t work for abstractions like “organic goods” – “organic” is instead a property that some particular thing could have.
To be actual people we have to have things we like an
d things we don’t like. I can’t make a lot of universal declarations, but personally I don’t care for liking things ironically because it short-circuits the whole authenticity = cool paradigm I’ve been trying to push. If we decide that liking things ironically isn’t really liking them, then all the hipster name-calling degenerates into something like people just constantly calling each other liars – and that’s what it is. “I don’t believe you really like this thing” is what you must mean when you call someone a hipster. I think the key is understanding that there is a difference between liking things that are trendy and liking things because they are trendy. I still use the word “hipster” from time to time – but I don’t mean it as a slur. I’m not calling people unauthentic, I’m just acknowledging that they like things that are counter-culturally popular.
On a certain level, real honesty and genuineness is difficult and requires self-examination. For example, I know that I don’t like country music. For a while, it might have even been a knee-jerk hipster dislike – with an equally knee-jerk maintenance of the appreciation of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams as a counterbalance. The truth of it is though, no matter how much I try to screen my tastes for affectation I still just don’t care that much for country as a genre. I admit that I like my lyrics cryptic, my aesthetics either urbane, pretentious, or utterly stupid. To try to enjoy country music simply because I think it’s often more genuine and relatable despite my (apparently?) natural dislike of it would be silly – the same way that I’ve decided it’s silly not to buy things because they’re marketed to me, or to not watch things because I’m clearly in the middle of the demographic. The point: it is equally dishonest to try to like things you don’t really like just because you think they’re more authentic as it is to try to dislike things because you think they’re not authentic. I still like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. If I were to try to stop liking them or like other country bands simply for the sake of not being cliche, that is itself dishonest.
In sum, besides the initial lessons I learned in life to temper the urge for elitism or being a contrarian, there are a few decent maxims I’ve decided to live by.
One of my favorite little anecdotes about Diogenes is one where he sees a clique of affluent students wearing fancy clothes, earrings, etc. arrive at a banquet and he shouts, “Affectation!” Later, some much more austere Pythogorean monks arrive wearing shabby cloaks, clearly emaciated from harsh self-discipline and Diogenes shouts “More affectation!”
Both excess and conspicuous anti-excess are affectation.
Balthasar Gracian wrote a neat book on worldly wisdom, and he advised that we “don’t profess to be satisfied with nothing; it is a foolish extreme, more odious if from affectation than if from character.” (§65 p.37) Likewise, Voltaire’s Candide had a neat little exchange:
Martin: “…It was an observation of Plato, long since, that those are not the best stomachs that reject, without distinction, all sorts of food.”
“True,” said Candide, “but still there must certainly be a pleasure in criticizing everything, and in perceiving faults where others think they see beauties.”
“That is,” replied Martin, “there is a pleasure in having no pleasure.”
The impulse to criticize everything and enjoy as little as possible is usually a character flaw, not a sign of good taste.
I once went to a men’s retreat with some guys from my church in Denver. As usual, I brought along a satchel with some books for reading while I was there, and included in it was a book by Donald Fairbairn, Augustine’s City of God, and the complete works of Pseudo-Dionysius. Mind you, I have a very genuine interest in all three – but reading the Pseudo-Dionysius has a certain mystique attached to it that is undeniable. People asked, in passing, what I was browsing through and I would answer them. My good friend and sometimes shepherd Ken Robertson was talking with me later on in the evening and I confessed that I’d probably brought Dionysius with me more as an affectation than because I really needed to re-examine neo-platonist Christian theology. I thought I was being genuine when I packed it, it’s interesting reading, but I can’t honestly say that it was wholly without contriving that that was an interesting thing to be found reading. This isn’t to say no one can ever read Pseudo-Dionysius without being a hipster – but some things by their very nature require careful self-examination concerning authenticity.
Sinful pride is always trying to take genuine likes and turn them into affectation.
There are few things I find more endearing than guileless enthusiasm. This is what I strive for, above all else.