"The exceptionalist fallacy"

by Rob Horning

6 August 2008


Drawing on Rob Walker’s Buying In, philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, postulates the existence of the “exceptionality fallacy”:

Most people believe they themselves are immune from marketing tactics even as they note the sad susceptibility of other people. I tested the EF on myself and it held: I drink Starbucks coffee because it tastes good; you drink Tim Hortons because you have bought into nostalgia and sham nationalism. Now you try.

A corollary to this is the idea that advertisers are shrewdly trying to persuade us that we are smarter than they are and we can fully resist them—they advertise their own futility as a way to actually enhance their subtle power. (Thomas Frank explores this in The Conquest of Cool.) So it takes ads to persuade us that we are smarter than ads, and everyone else. Then we are in that vulnerable hubristic state when we are most open to being persuaded.

Kingwell notes the futility of trying to stay ahead of marketing in pursuit of authenticity: “You can do the dance of sideways dodges, trying to stay cooler than the cool-hunters, savvier than the savvy-trappers. But however you dodge, you are done, because they’re already inside your head.” I relate this to the problem of a good’s actual functionality serving as the ultimate self-deceiving ruse—it’s what permits the exceptionality fallacy. As Baudrillard argues in several different places, the “use value” of a good is just an alibi; it anchors our ploys for status through goods in a kind of objective-seeming authenticity. To use Kingwell’s example, I have to find ways of justifying my love for Starbucks in the product’s alleged superiority, so I don’t come across as a phony, mindlessly consuming a brand that has come to signify membership to the haute bourgeoisie that I want to belong to. My defense of its quality, even to myself, becomes a ploy in a larger game of trying to seem as though I’m not playing the identity game. Of course, I’m playing the identity game at a more self-deceptive level.

This becomes a spiraling process which makes it harder and harder for us to actually access the use value of something; we have to instead consume the idea of ourselves being the kind of person who would find this sort of good useful. It becomes impossible to taste the coffee qua coffee.

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