Thursday, March 10, 2005

Williamsburg, the Authenticity Capital of the World

Richard Sennett's excellent The Fall of Public Man depicts the increasing isolation people experience as public life becomes more and more ruled by questions of authenticity -- contemporary society doesn't permit a person to stand independant of his public roles, and no distinctions are recognized between public and private behavior. The truth of one's inner self is held to be accessible through all instances of behavior equally, and thus we are required to monitor it constantly, as though we are always being scrutinized, as if our entire self-concept is at stake everytime we step outside. The paradox is that you end up having to make a big show of believing your own bullshit to demonstrate just how authentic you are in being yoursel, to prove you are not being a phony, even as you calculate how best to show you are organically what you are.

I always marvel at friends of mine who live in the post-collegiate crypto-artist ghetto, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where everyone seems to be posturing at all times, and every walk down the street becomes a confrontation between those who are "real" Williamsburgers and those who are nouveau hipster arrivistes. One's made conscious of this displaying-authenticity problem during even the most innocuous trip to the bodega. It seems like everyone is trying to demonstrate some leading-edge trend in hip to thereby prove they would have had the same leading edge before, and moved to the neighborhood before everyone else, and therefore belong more than you do, so get the hell off their street! (These same people often make a show of tryng to elude capitalist consumerism, only to fall prey to its most insidious psychological weapon, status-positioning anxiety, and its most nefarious currency, cultural capital.) These hipster turf wars epitomize the "tyranny of intimacy," the way status-consciousness infiltrates the most inocuous of quotidian tasks. Suddenly the trip to the laundromat is fraught with anxiety. Does my laundry look cool enough? How casual should I be in my laudromat wear? Will it be cool to wear my house slippers? Does my bed head look like real bed-head, or does it look like I moussed it? While I'm waiting for the spin cycle to finish, should I read magazines or would it be better to read Kierkegaard, or maybe a book of John Ashbery poems, he's pretty cool, or maybe something more obscure, maybe something in a foreign language.

The more we try to prove and promote our sincerity, the more insincere our interior monologue becomes, the more our lives are in cosmic bad faith with ourselves. (Fiction, by the way, may have first taught us how to read people this way, judge their sincerity and whether they are being "true to themselves" -- another way the fictional imagination may be harming us.) Soon the questions haunt us even when we don't go out on the street; we live every minute with the sense of our phoniness, and wonder if the people who pretend to love us can see right through us and our posturing. There ends up being no haven, no place where the guard can be let down, where one can stop performing the role of "one's true self." This is one of De Zengotita's main points in Mediated -- culture has made all of us "Method actors."

One of the many ironies about this is that we have become less tolerant of "inauthenticity" in other individuals, but we are more and more indulgent of coroporate interests when the dupe us with silly ads or bad product. We love to suspend disbelief for ads, but we give no quarter to our friends.

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