Taste, optics, and authenticity
Epistemic status: Mostly torque, awaiting a torque in the opposite direction.
We are straitjacketed by worry—worry over how we come off, how we are read, how we are thought of. We are scared by the prospect of trespassing boundaries, offending others, seeming dull. New York City has a $2Bn cosmetics industry. Ambitious 20-somethings sacrifice years of their lives toward building bulletpoints on a CV. And yet we have the audacity to tout (on Instagram, natch) our authenticity—to ourselves, to our roots, our desires and feelings. Is there a way to read this as anything other than cope, a denial of our opticratic situation? Idealism is antagonistic towards optics, refuses to communicate or explain itself, is antithetical to pragmatism. To come face-to-face with the debts we owe others, the message we monitor and hedge around, the pragmatic way our image cashes out to power: this is the meaning of “growing up.” Instead we blindfold ourselves with propaganda. We carefully curate (others’) identities while pretending that no pressure is exerted on the behavior of those we curate; we carefully curate (our own) identity while pretending that every defensive act, in a red queen, isn’t an offensive gesture, too. The bands, brands, personalities, and athletes most praised for their authenticity are waist-deep in performance, even as we sing praises of their “trueness to self” (which, luckily looks more like novel niche-identification than obedience to original impulse). We’re’ waist-deep in performance even as we sing the propaganda of our selfhood. “Hey, you look good, that’s some dress you got on there.” “This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” To the opticratic-pragmatist, to be “authentic” is to nurture a “well-integrated social performance,” to cultivate a set of stances, tastes, beliefs, dispositions, attitudes, and ontologies which are robust to cross-examination. To be a myth which caulks its cracks. To sustain an aesthetically coherent set of stances across a variety of interactions, rather than inventing them wholesale, on the spot, as the niche arises. There is the legitimate sanctioning of two-facedness, but also a torque against the oppression of others’ expectations, a rebellion against the self-censorship which in public, rules nearly absolutely. (And in private, guides heavy-handedly.) Proclamations of freedom from others—their opinions, judgments, perceptions—are magical in the sense of striving for speech act status: they are attempts to make reality, rather than to represent it. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
At its most delusional, this denial of performativity takes taste as only ever personal. I mean taste broadly, but the original (culinary, gustatory, papillary) sense sheds light on the metaphorical extension. More than anything, taste is a system of preference, of preference for certain courses of action, development, unraveling, progression. Preference for the hedonic valences which tend, statistically, to accompany these actions and developments. And it is a system where, if we are possessed of any self-awareness, we feel sharply that there are two sets of preferences: one personal, one subcultural (varying between members, but with high degrees of overlap). A system of reputational baggage, the types of guy who tend to hold a given preference, the inferences that can be made about a man who listens exclusively to classical music, Broadway musicals, hair metal, or the Grateful Dead.
So maybe we can say that there are intrinsic and extrinsic rewards involved in consuming certain experiences or stimuli (~“artworks”). There are meals or food items we all have that we enjoy privately, but would never order in public. Times that, maybe we actually wanted one drink off the menu, and ended up ordering a more respectable cocktail. And these types or layers of reward interact in complicated ways; they’re far from separate.
For instance, one way to win a selection game is to fib. You might fib on a date by ordering a high-class dish you’ve never ordered before, as if it were a long-time favorite. This tends to go poorly, because reality is highly detailed, and small errors can give away the act:
See also the “three glasses” scene in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. This is a key aspect of Goffman’s theory of social performance: the definitions (of ourselves, of our motives, of our credentials) we perform for others are fragile things. Even one or two small slips can pop the bubble of belief which makes the interaction work.
Another way to win this sort of selection game is by actually cultivating a taste for expensive French entrees. By regularly going out, hearing the names of dishes pronounced, matching descriptors to entries, learning from others the proper way to pick apart a lobster. In other words, the occasional high-stake games we play (e.g. romantic dates, job applications) distort our behavior not just during the game, but outside it. (And this is to say nothing of the banal “keeping up with the neighbors” treadmills that similarly drive consumption decisions, investments of time and effort, choices of pasttime, choices of employment etc.)
This sort of social learning is more interesting than, and irreducible to, pure performance. While we are driven out of our comfort zones by social pressure, class aspiration, and shame, with time we come to genuinely enjoy our adopted experiences, and by extension, our adopted stance. Our tastes and opinions become second-nature, inseparable from our identity, impossible to imagine otherwise even as, in the abstract, we pay lip service to nurture over nature. We come to feel our fashioned self is “truly us,” amnesiac towards its ongoing construction process, the influences and censorings, the extrinsic rationales which gave it rise. And this is not incompatible with the idea that we might explore a domain (cuisine, painting, pop music) out of intrinsic curiosity; rather, it is to say that the extrinsic always shapes or delimits the direction of our curiosities. Expansions of taste are fundamentally aspirational—it is rare that we journey into realms of experience that are below our self-image of social standing.