Youth as authenticity

by Rob Horning

17 October 2006


In a consumer society, shopping is never strictly about the goods themselves. Because we by and large define ourselves through consumer choice rather than what we do, we use shopping as a means to answer larger questions than “What can I clean my dishes with?” and “How many pairs of socks do I need to get me through to laundry day?” We try to get at things like “Why I am I here?” “Who am I supposed to be?” and “How can I make sure I seem more important than him?” In other words, shopping becomes the field in which we pursue not just utility but meaning, we pursue objects that anchor reality, give it shape, remind us of our place within it while making us feel as though we have the power to shape it. (When I buy that new widescreen flat-panel monitor for my computer at home, I have in a very tangible way changed the shape of reality as I experience it.) We seek to access the wellspring of authenticity; we want triggers that remind us we are having a real experience.

N+1 editor Mark Greif, in an essay reprinted in the most recent Harper’s, suggests that we collectively locate that fountain of authentic experience in sexualized children. He argues that we are socialized to regard our first sexual experiences as our first real experiences—fumbling and awkward as they often are at the time, they become the core of all our nostalgic yearnings as we grow older, and advertising’s efficacy derives from exploiting those forever-lost moments of pure possibility. “The lure of a permanent childhood in America” (and here I think of postcollegiate enclaves like Williamsburg, Brooklyn) “springs from the overwhelming feeling that one hasn’t achieved one’s true youth, because true youth would be defined by a sexual freedom so total that no one can attain it.” Though we never know this kind of libidinal bliss, we acclimate ourselves to the notion we could have had it if only we weren’t so stupid when we were young, and by having fleeting images of the erotic elysium repeatedly thrust before our eyes, we can’t bring ourselves to let it go. Instead we let these images represent to ourselves what we should have been, what we were in our chrysalis, what we still might be now underneath the wear and tear of age. “From the desire to repossess what has been lost (or was never taken advantage of) comes the ceaseless extension of competition”—competition for commodified youthfulness, now identified with desirability and authenticity, and conveniently enough, impossible to ever truly possess. In Greif’s view, this leads to sexualizing children, the bearers of youthful sexuality (the lodestone for our fantasies of recapturing authenticity) in its most pungent, concentrated form. “One fears our cultural preoccupation with pedophilia is not really about valuing childhood but about overvaluing child sex”—the specter of pedophilia occults the images of youth used for marketing and sharpens their appeal. And even a cursory glimpse at Star or In Touch Weekly is enough to confirm the unsavory obsession with teenage celebrities and their budding sexuality. Even if we don’t know their names or recognize their specific faces, they are the centrifuges capable of enriching inert consumer commodities with explosive energy. They serve as the matrix from which desires are manufactured and refreshed. They are humans as pure objects, without self-awareness but supercharged with the attention of others, they seem to promise that all the human qualities we yearn for can simply be possessed as objects—purchased, even, from indifferent vendors—rather than laboriously and tentatively teased out of rare fortuitous moments of existence after fraught, fragile interactions with those we care about.

This may explain why pedophilia waspointedly invoked with regard to the Foley scandal, which involved pages who were past the age of consent. Some argued this was a way to tar homosexuality, as though it was always a perversion like pedophilia; it may also be an expression of how our culture’s instinct is to wish to expand the boundaries of youth, extend its domain and aura and enchant more of our shared experience. Because sexuality has become so bound up with the marketing of youth, it has become, in Greif’s term, “a new kind of unfreedom”—echoing Foucault’s argument in the first volume of his History of Sexuality Greif argues that we are compelled to a sexual “liberation” that plays out as a compulsion to confess and be evaluated in terms of sexual standards not entirely our own but the social products of fashionability and novelty (the correlative of youthfulness). We are forbidden from not thinking about it. Wisely, Harper’s pairs Greif’s essay with Chinese personal ads from people who aspire to asexuality yet seek the companionship of marriage. I wonder if it represents a specifically Chinese reaction to the encroachment of sexualized marketing that comes with consumer capitalism, or whether similar enclaves exist in America. Has it gotten so bad that asexuality could be the new distinction, the latest way to be cool?

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