Postmodernism, Authenticity, the Internet and the New Aesthetic

This most may be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

I’ve been reading up on various talks from SXSW and the one that seems to have most interested me (as with many people) was the New Aesthetic, hosted by James Bridle. You can read his write-up, and then thoughts on their own blogs from Joanne McNeilBen TerrettAaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies, each members of the panel.

John V Wiltshire put it best (as he often does) when he said “Following The New Aesthetic’s progress as an idea over the last few months has felt like a very vital thing to do, without perhaps knowing exactly why.”

Like John, I’ve been trying to understand why I find it interesting, and spent the morning in an internet rabbit hole, going from the New Aesthetic tumblr to this article on the rise of the fake authenticity of brands (and how they are even lauded for being so). From there, I read this brilliant article from Edward Docx in Prospect magazine from last year on the death of postmodernism and the potential birth of a new age – an age of authenticity.

So the below is a somewhat clumsy attempt to rationalise and understand why I’m interested in it all

The Internet and Postmodernism

From the Prospect Magazine article:

“… the notion of a single, overarching view of the world—a dominant narrative (or to use the jargon, meta-narrative)—vanishes. There is no single narrative, no privileged standpoint, no system or theory that overlays all others. Hence, Lyotard argued, all narratives exist together, side by side, with none dominating. This confluence of narratives is the essence of postmodernism.”

I wrote an article for AdMap recently around the notion of hyperlocal culture, and how the internet causes a constant fragmentation of culture as ever more niche interest groups can find like-minded people and form cultures around what they believe. The postmodernist addition to this is to say that all of these cultures are of equal importance – the internet doesn’t allow for a dominant narrative.

The problem with postmodernism is that by removing the concept of a meta-narrative we also remove remove the ability to judge value. Or as Docx puts it, “If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective …”

This means the only remaining value system, the only means by which we can judge success, is the capitalist market itself. The question becomes simply, “how much money did you make?”

So, if postmodernist society is marked by the removal of all narrative except for the market (all that is left after the removal of everything else) then online, this manifests itself in simple volume of membership. The constant obsession of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, the size of the online group to which you belong are all examples of a need to place some kind meaning on a system bereft of any dominant narrative. But what if society is changing to reflect a growing discontent with this?

The Internet and Authenticity

Again, from Prospect Magazine:

“If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word ‘proper’ on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word ‘legend’ as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world.”

In general, I feel that we’re beginning to move towards a new narrative defined by the authentic. I’ve been talking to people for a while about a desire to shrink the number of Facebook friends I have, in the belief that if they were all closer friends, I would use the platform more. The emerging popularity of social networks such as Path, which actually limits the maximum number of friends you can have, is further example of a move away from a market-led numbers game online. It’s a search for authenticity, for wanting your digital life to more closely reflect the social structures you have in your real life.

But there is a wider question here – how can we communicate authentically over a medium where machines are in charge of the communication? Where the machines we use do things like this (from Damn You, Autocorrect):

Disney or Divorce

Authenticity and the New Aesthetic

In the context of an age of authenticity, New Aesthetic becomes an exploration of what constitutes ‘authentic’ in a time of machines. When machines are drawing, painting and talking, often in ways that are indistinguishable from humans, our concept of authenticity is going to be challenged. In a world full of auto-correct, we need to reevaluate what it means to all of us.

So, if we really are moving out of the Postmodern Age, and into the Authentic Age, what’s interesting is how we begin to resolve the dissonance created by trying to be authentic via postmodernism’s greatest creation, the internet. To me, that is what is interesting about the New Aesthetic – the meaning of authenticity in the age in which we now live.