Conspicuous Authenticity

When I saw two articles in a week that covered the booming Williamsburg craft moonshine industry, I knew that  smug had gone mainstream.  You’ll see no shortage of people riding overpriced vintage bicycles with ironic sunglasses this spring, and soon you’ll spot people shouldering their NPR tote bags on the way home from the farmer’s market.  I’m guilty of all these things (excluding the tote), but I get a little disgusted feeling if I hear someone mention about their compost setup and taste in indie film.

Andrew Potter’s recently published book, The Authenticity Hoax, explains the phenomenon of conspicuous authenticity – the process of buying specific goods and experiences to express our status and wealth. As public displays of conspicuous consumption have become less acceptable and people have accumulated houses full of clothes, cars, and gadgets, people have developed new ways of distinguishing themselves. If you like the idea of purchasing White Dog and telling your friends about the bearded Brooklynites who work the stills, you may be guilty of conspicuous authenticity.

So what’s wrong with buying local food and handcrafted furniture?  Potter says that these conspicuously authentic products are positional goods; they are only valuable in that not everyone has access to them.  If everyone owned a pair of custom Argentine leather shoes, then it wouldn’t mean much.  Potter argues that underneath our good intentions we are trying to show wealth, status, and sophistication.  We buy seemingly authentic goods for the very reason that we can and others can’t.

Here’s the thing: I absolutely love many of these psuedo-authentic products and experiences  I have fun buying local meat, brewing beer, and I’m considering buying a locally-made wool sleeve for my laptop. I completely buy into the ideas and philosophies behind hand crafted and custom goods.  I like to have the chance to tell a story behind a thing; it’s more fun to explain how your screen printing buddy made your shirt than to say “I got it at Target.”  Maybe I am a conspicuous authenticity consumer to the nth degree, but I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to be able to tell a story about what you buy. We’d be a healthier and happier bunch if we knew the stories behind our food, clothes and toys.  We’ve all collected loads of junk that we keep in the basement and then toss when we move.  I don’t think that we should focus on accumulating stuff as much as we do, but given how much we consume, it could be worthwhile to believe in what you buy.  Or maybe I’ll just move to Williamsburg to get my judging on.

image courtesy of dontcallmeikke on flickr