What happens After Authenticity: Polysemic Consumption

A new theory of taste and social differentiation

In 2009 I shared a flat with two male housemates in South London. As young professionals we were predictably taken with the booming craft beer movement that was spreading rapidly across the capital at the time.

One memory sticks in my mind: a disagreement about a recently opened brewery in Bermondsey called The Kernel. All three of us had separately taken a tour of the brewery and been introduced to the owner and the master brewer.

The dispute didn’t relate to the taste of the beer itself, but our respective knowledge of how it was produced, and most importantly, our intimacy with the producers themselves. Our legitimacy as consumers was based on our capacity to retell the true story of the product and our proximity to the people behind the beer.

The original Kernel Brewery, Bermondsey, South London (Source)

Looking back we were competing over who was consuming The Kernel in the most authentic way.

10 years later several influential articles have argued we are entering an age of ‘post-authenticity’. Toby Shorin argues that the hipster obsession with ‘singular non-commoditized’ items (like The Kernel) is being replaced by an acceptance of mass brands. Kyle Chayka believes that the rise of the algorithm has called into question the very notion of authentic taste. While Jay Owens writes that in an era of fake news young people are turning to re-hashed memes to provide a sense of shared truth.

All this talk of ‘post-authenticity’ has provoked an existential crisis in me. For the last decade I’ve held up The Kernel as emblematic of the kinds of products and experiences I seek. Whether travelling, buying new clothes or eating, my perception of authenticity has been a primary influence on the choices I’ve made.

But if, as we shall see, authenticity is becoming a busted flush, then what comes next? If authenticity seeking isn’t a meaningful way to make choices anymore than what is?

I want to put forward a tentative theory. I call it Polysemic Consumption.

But to explain what it means we need to trace how we got here in the first place.


Authentic goods and the allure of a deep, singular story

In ‘Masters of Craft’ sociologist Richard Ocejo investigates the phenomenon of young university educated men* who opt out of professional careers to pursue ‘blue collar’ jobs in bartending, distilling, butchery and barbering. For Ocejo, these men are drawn to the way these classic crafts combine manual skill with cultural and intellectual mastery of a specific domain.

These workers experience manual labor as meaningful and even fun through the enactment of a set of cultural repertoires that allow for physical, bodily labor, challenging mental problem-solving, cultural understanding, and interpersonal communication.
Tuthhilltown Distillery, where Ocejo conducted part of his fieldwork (source)

These men exist in a long tradition of nostalgia for simpler economic relations in which, in the words of consumer theorist Don Slater, “peasants and craftsmen transform materials in direct relation to their needs, unmediated by market exchange”. In Marxist terms, they seek to overcome the alienation imposed by the capitalist system and return to a simpler mode of production in which they feel connected to the fruits of their labour.

Ironically it is this intimate mode of production which is precisely what has made their output valuable on the wider market. Mainstream urban elites leverage white-collar incomes to become connoisseurs of the authentic, personal stories imbued in these products.

As Toby Shorin argues, what marks this as a peculiarly modern phenomenon is that consumption begins and ends with authenticity seeking — whether it is food, furniture or real estate — the authenticity of the product often trumps other aesthetic or functional concerns.


The democratisation of Authenticity

Anthropologist Charles Lindholm describes authentic objects as “original, real, and pure; they are what they purport to be, their roots are known and verified, their essence and appearance are one.”

In a world of mass brands authentic products have offered urban elites differentiation because they are, by definition, a scarce resource. Scarcity operates at three levels: (a) access and affordability (b) capacity to understand why the product is valuable and (c) intimacy with the producers themselves

A superior taste is signalled by your financial and cultural ability to successfully navigate these three levels, enabling urban elites to mark themselves out from mainstream consumers.

But today major brands have diluted the value of authenticity as a class marker by isolating the aesthetic and scaling it for a mass market. The spread of authenticity aesthetics is a phenomenon Venkat Rao has dubbed ‘premium mediocre’.

Starbucks provides an intuitive example. In isolating the hallmarks of authentic coffee culture — trained baristas, wooden benches, community noticeboards — Starbucks has, in effect, scaled an aesthetic founded on scarcity.

Starbucks Roastery, Shanghai, features AR overlays to explain the production process (source: author)

I’m not here to argue that Starbucks coffee is authentic in the sense that the small-batch whiskey in Richard Ocejo’s study is. But what it has done is decoded authenticity for the masses, and, in doing so, made it a meaningful and accessible to everyone.

Today most consumers can “read” authentic goods, or at least have the tools to start understanding them, even if they don’t want or can’t afford the most expensive or scarce version.


The collapsing value of Authenticity Goods

In the seminal work on class and taste — Distinction — Pierre Bourdieu explains how taste structures social relations. We instinctively judge the choices of others, and these choice situate the subject within subtle class structures. And because we are aware that consumption choices say something about our status, we modulate them according to the aspirational image we want to project.

The greater your social, cultural and economic capital the more ‘sophisticated’ and knowing this modulation becomes as your access to knowledge and the means to act on it reveals goods and lifestyles unavailable to others.

But as the internet has flattened these asymmetries the capacity of authentic goods and services to provide such differentiation has eroded. Airbnb reveals the belief that “I travel more authentically by embedding myself in the local culture” as a conceit: in fact such a mode of travel is an undifferentiated mainstream pursuit. Etsy reveals that just because you are acquiring hand-crafted goods doesn’t exclude you from conforming to a highly predictable aesthetic.

Etsy — the uniform aesthetic of authentic, handmade goods

These global platforms generate cognitive dissonance by holding up a mirror to urban elites. They reveal to them how uniform, predictable and scaled their tastes truly are. They reveal that today the mass market, empowered by technology, has the capacity to decode and read any given authentic good, however sophisticated.

As Bourdieu puts it “tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘sick-making’) of the tastes of others.” And if the tastes of others are revealed to be your own? Then the disgust becomes self-disgust. It is this self-disgust that is driving the elite backlash against these global platforms as much as any ethical or economic concern: the feeling that your elevated cultural status has been compromised.

The reason people are turning off Airbnb is in this sense the same reason as they reject a cherished fashion label that has gone mainstream. The explicit justification is framed in functional terms — “the quality isn’t as good at it used to be” — but the true rationale is closer to home: distancing oneself from less sophisticated holiday makers.


The Polysemy of the flat white

McDonalds Ad, 2018

The skewering of hipster ‘Flat White’ drinkers in this recent McDonald’s ad demonstrates how passé authenticity culture has become; to the point where the most symbolically mainstream brand in the world can poke fun at it, knowing that everyone will appreciate the joke.

The ad also reveals a deeper dynamic. McDonald’s may be making fun of authenticity seekers, but not the product itself. After all they too are in the business of selling Flat Whites. But their approach to marketing is very different. Their story is a simple, functional one “it’s like a stronger latte, but with less milk”. A basic story onto which their myriad customer segments can project onto their own reasons for consuming it.

An older brand campaign from 2011 ‘There’s a McDonald’s for Everyone’ pre-empted this style of marketing, celebrating the diversity of the McDonald’s customer base.

McDonalds Ad, 2011
“Now the labourers, and cabellers, and council motion tabellers, are just passing by, and the gothy types and scoffy types and like their coffee frothy types are just passing by”

McDonald’s know different customers experience their brand in distinctive ways. For some McDonald’s is an expensive treat, to others it’s an ironic hangover cure, while others go there when they have no time to go anywhere else.

Rather than trying to link their products to an ‘authentic’ story which a single interpretation you can either get right or wrong, they are allow for multiple readings of their experience that welcome different perspectives.

McDonald’s were the first to embrace this style of marketing because of the ubiquity of their brand and diversity of their customer base. But I believe it anticipates a fundamental shift that I believe is starting to filter across consumer culture. From brands attempting to claim and control an authentic origin story, to enabling consumers to interpret and project their own meanings onto the products so they can claim them as their own.

This approach was also reflected in Nike’s recent World Cup campaign.


Eddie Izzard and the hierarchy of taste

“The fabric is right because it’s right. Maybe one day you’ll change your taste.”
“Maybe I won’t.”
“Maybe you have no taste.”
Phantom Thread, Universal Pictures, 2018

Daniel Day Lewis’ master dressmaker could assert his taste unambiguously in the 1950s as a member of the London urban elite; his seeming objectivity built on the insurmountable edifice of his education, status and training. But today taste has become more complex. In sociology the concept of the ‘cultural omnivore’ has been created to explain the ‘new middle class’ who transcend classic taste boundaries.

Nowadays urban elites identify with opera and modern art as well as grime music and UFC. They are marked out by the “legitimacy, confidence and ease” with which they are able to deploy their cultural capital to pivot seamlessly between diverse worlds.

But recent research has demonstrated that modern taste boundaries are not only asserted by assembling a patchwork of cultural interests. Rather distinction is achieved through the manner in which those interests are pursued.

In his study on comedy tastes in the UK Sociologist Sam Friedman demonstrates how the same comedian — Eddie Izzard — is appreciated by people from all parts of the social spectrum, but for different reasons.

“When respondents were asked to explain why they liked Izzard, their reasons were often very different. Izzard’s comedy was found to be a polysemic resource, open to multiple readings”
Eddie Izzard — different audiences find him funny for different reasons (source)

Izzard is famously fluid with his identify and style, making multiple readings easy to make. But not all readings are equally valid. Those with lower cultural capital enjoyed Izzards’ ‘energy’ and ‘silliness’. While those with higher cultural capital understood these readings they were dismissive of them believing them “less sophisticated and missed out on Izzard’s full comic potential”. Instead they appreciated the way Izzard’s comedy “made you think”.

As Friedman summarises “In the case of Izzard and other comedians such as Simon Amstell and Jimmy Carr, the object itself did not hold any rarity and therefore distinction had to come from an embodied style of appreciation”


The arbitrary construction of new taste boundaries

There is a class dynamic at play behind this shift. With authentic goods no longer offering a means of differentiation, elites have turned to constructing more subtle and obtuse modes of consumption.

A few years ago I consulted for global drinks firm Diageo to help them market Red Stripe in the UK. The lager had shown remarkable growth in recent years among inner urban areas and the brand managers weren’t sure why.

We discovered what was appealing about the drink was inscrutable to people outside this specific social milieu. The wider market regarded the lager as little better than a supermarket white label brand. The basic packaging combined with patchy distribution in corner shops to situate it as a low-end lager, only worth considering if it was on offer.

But to Red Stripe drinkers in East London it was a special product that had emerged for a number of contingent reasons — availability, price, design, affiliations — as a marker of group membership. For a period of time drinking Red Stripe became the equivalent of a knowing nod across the room of a house party (as long as you were consuming with the requisite accoutrements and style). In some ways the emergence of Red Stripe as the specific marker of this affinity was entirely arbitrary, and little to do with any intentional marketing or origin story.

To understand why drinking Red Stripe marked you out, you needed to be situated within this specific culture. It only made sense if you had experience of a social and cultural context in which it was defined it as a product worth consuming. Importantly this isn’t about irony but rather belonging and social signalling. Unlike an authenticity good with a singular origin story, Red Stripe could not be appreciated by outsiders — enjoyment was contingent on existing group membership.


The body and the production of Polysemic meanings

During the War I was able to make many observations on this specificity of techniques. The English troops I was with did not know how to use French spades, which forced us to change 8,000 spades a division when we relieved a French division, and vice versa. This plainly shows that a manual knack can only be learnt slowly. Every technique properly so-called has its own form.
Marcel Mauss

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss was one of the first theorists to think about the role of the body in reproducing identities and practices. His observation was that culture was not just expressed through language and representations, but though the body itself.

When we consume a product — whether it is Eddie Izzard, a Flat White or a Red Stripe — we do so in person, in a context. Who we are, what we wear, our style and mannerisms dictate how we consume the product, and by extension, what the product is.

(source)

This famous meme of the queen driving a Range Rover plays on competing readings of the brand, which shifts depending on who is behind the wheel: an English aristocrat or a rapper. The joke is that the queen is embodying both.

If such products only make sense in relation to their consumers, then logically these consumers are integral to the value of the product.

In the 1960s the Mods demonstrated how a subculture can successfully appropriate and re-interpret products and give them new meanings.

Mods, 1960s (source)

Mods relied on ‘non-verbal’ cues to express their collective identity. This embodied form of consumption remade what products such as scooters and suits meant when they were consumed within the context of their cultural gestalt.

In many senses the recent obsession with authenticity obscured this aspect: by fetishizing the product the emphasis was not on who was consuming it, but who was making it and how it was made.

In a world of post-authenticity consumers become central again to the construction of meaning.


Memes and Polysemic Consumption

It is no coincidence the rise of online memes has mirrored the proliferation of polysemic consumption of physical goods.

As Jay Owens has explained, memes are the ultimate signifiers of the post-authentic world we are moving into. Their ubiquitous forms are the online equivalent of McDonald’s, at once instantly accessible and throwaway.

And like McDonald’s memes are polysemic. In the same way customers appreciate the restaurant for diverse reasons, specific interpretations and remixes of memes are appreciated by specific audiences. So while the form of the meme is stable — Distracted Boyfriend, American Chopper — specific iterations can quickly become very niche.

Memes gain popularity by telling universal truths, but quickly iterate into niches that affirm specific group identies

And while many memes have the power to unite swathes of people across borders, they also serve to reinforce specific group identities, quickly becoming obtuse to those without the same prior experiences and reference points.

There is a threshold at which point the form of a meme itself — in this case the American Chopper — becomes too ubiquitous for the tastes of the internet illuminati, at which point it is discarded as too obvious, in favour of more obscure and emergent forms.

In this sense memes mirror what is happening in the consumer world. We are no longer defined by what we consume — everyone enjoys Distracted Boyfriend — but how we consume it: here is our specific version that reinforces our shared experiences and identity.


Does the end of Authenticity mean the end of Taste?

As authenticity becomes a less important choice criteria, algorithms have become increasingly influential in guiding consumer choices through predictive recommendations. We are now so in thrall to these recommendations that Kyle Chayka has claimed that a post-authentic era may also be a post-taste era.

But, as we have seen, taste is still alive and kicking in the post-authentic age. Distinctions are just becoming more subtle. As the specific product is becoming less crucial, the context in which you consume it becomes more so.

LOT2046, the clothing and lifestyle subscription service, has been frequently referred to as the poster-child of the post-authentic age. But I don’t believe it represents the end of taste. On the contrary I think it perfectly illustrates how taste boundaries are necessarily becoming more complex.

Like a can of Red Stripe, or an emergent meme, LOT2046’s generic products are a blank canvas onto which specific consumer groups can weave their embodied meanings onto.

Spotting a LOT2046 subscriber means not necessarily recognising the product, but the way and context in which the product is consumed.

It is telling that the company offers its ‘users’ retreats. This speaks to the fact that customers are, in fact, composed of a tight-knit community — boasting similar levels of cultural capital and inner city wherewithal.

The bnb (no air) reveals the subtle snobbery that can be found within ‘post-authenticity’ aesthetics

Unlike authenticity products, these new forms of consumption are almost impossible to decode, creating a new zones of intrigue and, at times, exclusion.


Key References

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction

Kyle Chayka, Style Is an Algorithm

Sam Friedman, Comedy and Distinction

Charles Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity

Richard Ocejo, Masters of Craft

Jay Owens, Post authenticity and the real truths of meme culture

Marcel Mauss, Techniques of the Body

Venkat Rao, The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millenial

Mike Savage et al, Social Class in the 21st Century

Toby Shorin, After-Authenticity

Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity


Thanks to Toby Shorin for his insightful thoughts on an earlier draft