Nostalgia and the Myth of Authenticity
What is authenticity? If you boil everything down to its lowest common denominator, it looks frighteningly like a William S Burroughs novel. Once you remove every layer of the onion of reality as we know it, what you find at the centre is not jam jar drinking jugs or the crackle of an old record on the turntable. It is not rose-patterned bunting and Victoria sponge on the village green whilst the local lads play cricket. It’s blood and guts, dirt and ash. Authenticity is, ultimately, all that we fear, all that repels us. But that isn’t how we see it.
Nostalgia and the quest for authenticity expresses itself in myriad ways. There are the young hipsters who wear Ginsberg glasses, grow a beard, and ride an old bicycle with no gears and a wicker basket. There’s the parents who reject bright plastic in favour of traditional wooden toys. Then, there are the folk who vote for Brexit because life was better ‘before’ – when they were younger and their joints did not ache.
Perhaps, at the heart of it all, we’re all just yearning for our childhoods back. Perhaps our ‘authentic’ self got lost in the socialisation process. Everything in the world in which we’ve grown up is somehow false. There’s a sense that the true reality is situated somewhere in an elusive and ever-moving site outside that which society and culture ‘allow’ us to perceive.
As we grow older, the scope of possibilities for our lives shrinks. Layers of bureaucracy, burdens, responsibilities suffocate us. We no longer feel ourselves. Progress is supposed to liberate us, but instead, scared, we retreat to ideas of heritage, to things like arts and crafts, to the mirage of authenticity. This is our refuge from fake news, simulated sensation, untrustworthy leaders and institutions. You can hardly blame us.
In a 1988 paper by Stauth and Turner, the two academics propose four presuppositions for a collective nostalgic fixation:
- The idea of history as decline;
- The sense of a loss of wholeness;
- The feeling of the loss of expressivity and spontaneity;
- The sense of loss of individual autonomy.
Do tick all that apply. Then ask yourself if it’s all just fear of growing older, clawing backwards against the rush of time to regain the better times of the past.
The irony is that most of the signifiers of authenticity that we can share on our Pinterest boards or salvage from car boot sales can be repackaged and sold back to us by consumer-capitalism, the force of inauthenticity and simulated desire from which we wish so hard to run. The production of simulated ‘authentic’ goods that play on consumers’ sense of nostalgia has become an effective device for driving the wheels of consumer economy to an increasingly pervasive extent.
Perhaps it’s time, then, to give it all up. Looking back never got anybody anywhere, after all. Accepting that there is no escape and embracing the future in all its simulated glory may be a more personally fulfilling exercise than trying to hold back the tide or, like Caligula, whipping the waves because they’re more powerful than yourself.
Admit that the simulated authenticity that is fed to you is the best you’re going to get, and that it feels soothing to hold on tight as though it were what you’d been looking for all along.
Perhaps big business and this notion of stepping outside into an authentic counterculture are merely two sides of one coin? Consider, for example, The Conquest of the Cool, an essay by Thomas Frank, particularly this passage:
“In the late 1950s and early 1960s, leaders of the advertising and menswear businesses developed a critique of their own industries, of over-organization and creative dullness, that had much in common with the critique of mass society which gave rise to the counterculture. Like the young insurgents, people in more advanced reaches of the American corporate world deplored conformity, distrusted routine, and encouraged resistance to established power. They welcomed the youth-led cultural revolution not because they were secretly planning to subvert it or even because they believed it would allow them to tap a gigantic youth market (although this was, of course, a factor), but because they perceived in it a comrade in their own struggles to revitalize American business and the consumer order generally.”
Isn’t this precisely what is going on in Silicon Valley right now? Yes, those (mostly) young white men, just like their Madison Avenue forebears, have unleashed demons on society, in the form of social media and smartphone zombies. But, like the Mad Men, this was not necessarily the intention.
The innovators of Silicon Valley are creative people, whose creativity necessitated commoditisation in order to justify its existence. If you believe that creativity, in all its forms, is an agent of human authenticity, as well you might, then perhaps it’s time to stop retreating into the past. As Roland Barthes once put it
“There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it.”