The Authenticity Hoax

By Andrew Potter

In The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter, Maclean’s columnist and co-author of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, rehashes all of the same resistance-is-futile thinking from that earlier book in another strident defense of liberal, free-market, consumer capitalism. The “overarching theme” here is that “there really is no such thing as authenticity.” To posit an authentic self or lifestyle outside of the market is a delusion, silly at best and at worst a threat to western civilization. In fact, it may even make you a terrorist. History really has ended and we need to grow up and accept the world we’ve made for what it is – a lesson Potter seems to have gleaned less from Francis Fukuyama than an episode of Mad Men.

Beyond this, things get messy. The book begins with a pop-philosophy backgrounder – taking us through a casual history of the creation of the modern world – that is predictably vague and simplistic. There is some improvement in subsequent chapters dealing with authenticity in the art world and online, as a marketing tool, and in North American politics, though these chapters stand alone as separate essays and don’t fit together to form a coherent intellectual framework. Finally, two chapters dealing with suburbia and the end of history in the triumph of Western capitalism are long on rhetoric but only tenuously connected to the book’s supposed theme.

As is the case with most cultural criticism, the presentation takes on an air of exhibitionism as Potter drags in the size of the playlist on his iPod and things he did on his European vacation. Presumably this is all done to make the author appear more authentic, or cool, as he goes after various left-wing writers he doesn’t like. Some easy points are scored here, but for the most part Potter is only tackling his own brand of straw men. Particularly egregious in this regard are his attacks on the environmental movement, which he apparently sees as consisting of nothing but latter-day hippies and eco-terrorist cranks. Nature doesn’t score any points for being authentic either.

Of course a book with as settled a political agenda as this isn’t meant to persuade anyone not already onside. And since the essence of Potter’s argument necessarily relegates anyone with another point of view to a Canute-like role outside the, yes, authentic cultural mainstream (the one fashioned and made inevitable by free markets), criticism seems particularly irrelevant. Still, a more rigorous and balanced approach would have given his argument more credibility, and made for a more enjoyable read.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, March 2010. Potter would do better a decade later with On Decline, which could be read as calling into question many of his assumptions here. Indeed, that latter book left me feeling that the ideas presented in The Authenticity Hoax were only ones that seemed fashionable at the time and not ones that were held with any great sense of commitment.

%d bloggers like this: