Book Review: “The Authenticity Hoax”

The Walrus, Summer 2010

The Authenticity Hoax
by Andrew Potter
McClelland & Stewart (2010)

In the summer of 2008, a twenty-eight-year-old Frenchman named Florent Lemaçon quit his engineering job and set sail for Zanzibar with his wife and child. What he was looking for, according to Andrew Potter, was authenticity, a life free from the superficialities of modern society. What he found, unfortunately, were pirates. His quest ended abruptly in a gunfight at sea.

In The Authenticity Hoax, Lemaçon’s story serves as both a cautionary tale and a fine metaphor for our contemporary search for authenticity — a fool’s errand with ugly consequences. Jumping through a cultural studies syllabus’s worth of philosophers and theorists, Potter’s latest work argues that this quest — from ecotourism to Oprah’s Book Club to the local food movement — has become our primary vehicle for finding meaning in a world that can feel alienating. His central point is that authenticity is a positional good, only valuable because not everyone can have it. The search for the authentic, then, becomes a status race, where the elite compete to see who can vacation in the most obscure Portuguese village or eat the organic pear grown nearest their backyard.

Over the past few years, Potter, whose previous book was The Rebel Sell, has carved out a career for himself as a contrarian. He takes obvious delight in slaying the left’s sacred cows, and The Authenticity Hoax is filled with ostentatiously counterintuitive statements like “The contemporary struggle for genuine, authentic forms of living cannot be the solution to our problem, because it is the cause.” But though this contrarian streak at times acts as a corrective to sloppy “countercultural” thought (Potter has an excellent section diagnosing much anti-suburban writing as simple lifestyle snobbery, for example), his eagerness to contrast himself with the conventional left sometimes leads him to characterize his adversaries unfairly.

The worst example is probably his suggestion that the “hysteria” over global warming is “almost entirely driven by a ratchet of authenticity-seeking that progressively rejects more and more of the comforts and privileges of modern life.” Instead of engaging with the issue — and he is far too intelligent to actually argue against the science behind climate change — he’s content to simply get in a few shots at the yuppie environmentalists who shop at Whole Foods. In the end, then, while The Authenticity Hoax’s riffs on Obama, David Suzuki, and James Frey are entertaining enough, one begins to get the distinct feeling that Potter is so busy scoring points that he may be missing some of the more important ones.