Monday, October 15, 2012

The Futility of Counterculture

Via Andrew Sullivan, Andrew Potter ponders the inherent consumerism and conformism of trying to escape from the consumerist, conformist mainstream. Most people, Potter argues, will at some point get disgusted by the obsession with having all the stuff that everyone else has, and long for something more "authentic":
For this segment of society "the search for the authentic is positioned as the most pressing quest of our age," writes Potter. This urge leads to those things that have earned the most anti-mainstream adjectives like local, organic, artisan, indie, all natural, underground, sustainable, free trade, slow, holistic, green, and so on. Yet, that ideology, that quest for the authentic, is the very thing that causes the world to seem so unreal and staged. . . .

People can’t stop themselves from competing for status. It is branded into the side of the brain before you are born. As a primate, status hierarchies are a part of life, and when you remove yourself from the competition in the mainstream you just join the competition in the counterculture. As long as there are clusters of people bent on avoiding what is most popular, within those clusters people will compete for status through conspicuous consumption of art and fashion, music and movies, furniture and gadgets, signaling to insiders the quality of their taste or the ingenuity of their search for the authentic, and signaling to the outsiders that they are not one of them. Whether you are a Juggalo in Kentucky or a Kogal in Tokyo, the internal affairs cool police are always on the prowl for posers.
My puzzlement with the weird status-consciousness of the anti-status crowd began in early adolescence. As an Aspergers-y 13-year-old, I marveled at the faux rebellion of older teenagers, who resisted conforming to adult expectations by conforming to teenage expectations, thereby only confirming adult expectations in a roundabout way. Everyone cared very much about not being seen to care.

I understand all this much better now -- wanting to fit in is too fundamental to our social primate heritage for us to ever escape. What I feel in myself these days is a sort of triple consciousness, in which I assert my individuality by refusing to try to be different because that would make me like all the hipsters, while nonetheless feeling in my heart that I am somehow different, while realizing that this is self-deception, because it is my very desire to be different that most makes me like my contemporaries.


Unknown said...

I wouldn't disagree with Potter's point about the falseness of a contrived striving for authenticity, but it strikes me as equally false to assume that competition and acceptance is the only or even the main motive for our cultural choices, conformist or not. It seems to me our culture and society are so fragmented, and the choices on offer are so finely calibrated, that many folks make their cultural choices based on personal taste (leaving aside for the moment what that is, but I'm convinced there's more in it than a mere drive for acceptance) and then find others who like the same thing. I would add that, for any cultural choice one makes, one can find groups that think that choice lowers the chooser's status. There are certainly groups where having the biggest truck would raise one's status, but others where it would either be irrelevant or low status.

There are of course individuals who are much preoccupied with the dichotomy conformity/difference; and of course most individuals are aware of, or even motivated by, this dichotomy at one time or another. But I really don't see it as the sole or main motivator for most consumer choices in contemporary American society.

John said...

I hope that I make some choices based on personal taste, but how do I really know?

Here's a good example: When I first heard Glenn Gould pay Bach, I didn't like it. I thought he was too fast and flashy. But a friend expostulated with me that Gould was the greatest Bach player ever, and over time I have come to appreciate his style. Have I learned more about classical music, or been trained to approve what the music insiders want me to?