Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax offers sharp insights into contemporary culture. He equates the contemporary quest for “authenticity “in Western culture to conspicuous consumption, terming it conspicuous authenticity. Authenticity is anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-capitalist. In the past 30-40 years the downsides of modernity, industrialization, and capitalism had become glaringly obvious. The trappings of the modern age are well on the way to ruining our environment and have undermined traditional social structures that leave modern people feeling isolated.
It is not without reason, then, that the authenticity mongers have turned away from the modern. Potter’s point is that our lives are inextricably linked to the trappings of modernity. By making a lifestyle of persistent authenticity seeking, we are replacing one type of consumption – conspicuous – with another.
From my perspective, the problem with the quest for authenticity is that it can take attention away from all too real problems. Perhaps the best example of this is in food and agriculture. One of the grandfathers of the authenticity mongers, Michael Pollan, told the readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the best food to eat is that which takes place the fewest places removed from you. Pollan has inspired an army of backyard gardeners and an entire class of people who insist upon harassing their waiters about where their food comes from.
The food movement is a lifestyle. Adherents shop at organic co-ops, make social outings to the farmers market on weekends, and participate with a local Community Supported Agriculture farm. A new publication called Modern Farmer began publishing this month to serve those involved in the organic lifestyle. The target audience is, “it is for window-herb growers, career farmers, people who have chickens, people who want to have chickens and anyone who wants to know more about how food reaches their plate.” The “modern farmer”, then, is not only the “career farmer” but now includes anyone who even wants to have chickens (which is nearly every educated liberal). Modern Farmer is on the vanguard of forming the aspirational lifestyle brand that is organic.
In the inaugural issue of Modern Farmer, there is an essay entitled “In Defense of the Rural.” The position of a magazine called Modern Farmer towards the rural is important. Though urban farming is socially important and may provide a important source of fresh vegetables for urban dwellers, a majority of American’s caloric intake will continue to be produced in rural America.
Thomas Jefferson imbued America with a strong agrarian spirit. From the dawn of the industrial era, there were worries about the health of rural America. The concerns were both pragmatic – with so many people leaving farms for cities there would be no one to grow crops – and romantic – without a thriving rural culture there will be no source of American values. The contemporary romanticism of farming and the rural, then, has a long and storied past. Analyzing what form these fantasies take is useful for understanding the contemporary relationship to the rural.
The author of “In Defense of the Rural” grew up in the suburbs, and had no particular desire to move to the country. His father, it seems, had longstanding rural fantasies, and moved his family to the country when he found a suitable piece of land. Happy for the relative cosmopolitanism his suburban lifestyle afforded him, the author moved to the country reluctantly, but found himself taken with the beauty of the countryside when he was there. In fact, the biggest advantage of his time in the country was learning an appreciation for beauty.
Now residing in New York City, the author describes himself as an “enthusiastic” part of the problem of rural decline. His time on the farm turned him into an idler and a dreamer. This puts him strongly in the tradition of Jefferson who had slaves to run his farm and allow him time to be an idler and a dreamer. This does not seem like a desirable lesson to be learned from rural life now though.