Nostalgic for the 1980s? Cakes, Snacks, Titbits, Childhood Games, and the Dangers of Nostalgia

Because I run with the older crowd, there have been quite a few 40++ (“the new 30s”) birthday celebrations since the start of 2015. At that age, it’s not that much of a treat getting stuff since they have the financial means to buy whatever they want. So rather than going with the cake-fad-of-the-month, we’ve had fun searching out retro cakes and snacks for the occasion. You’re never too young to get all nostalgic.

nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore cakes nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore cakesSponge cake slices with buttercream frosting held up amazingly in our hot and humid Singapore weather. They were from Nice Bakery in Ang Mo Kio (S$1 per slice). A few streets away, Pine Garden sells similar cakes for S$1.50.

Biscuit King, 130 Casuarina Road, Singapore. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro Singapore snacksBiscuit King (130 Casuarina Road, Thomson) is almost a one-stop shop for the snacks and toys and games that kids in the 1980s would have counted out pockey-money for at corner mamak shops and the drinks stall in the school canteen:

individually-wrapped hard-boiled sweets like Hacks, Mentos, and that fizzly orange sweet. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro Singapore snacksindividually-wrapped hard-boiled sweets like Hacks, Mentos, Haw Flakes, barley mints, Hudson wild cherry, Sarsi, White Rabbit, and that fizzly orange sweet,

preserved fruits, nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snackspreserved dried fruits (kana?) – grandmothers’ favourite afternoon chew. I only ate these to assuage sore throats,

biscuit tins. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snackstins of biscuits (usually from Khong Guan) – you pointed to what you wanted and the shopkeeper would then weigh your selection. I liked the ice gems (and debating the best way of eating it – icing first? biscuit base first? indulgently, both at one go?), pineapple jam in a flower-shaped biscuit, cashewnut cookies topped with one half of a cashewnut, salty sticks, butterfly crackers, peppery roll crackers.

nostalgic for the 1980s in Singapore? Mamee Monster
nostalgic for the 1980s in Singapore? Mamee MonsterMamee Monster (S$1.50 for a bag containing little packs from discount shops around Singapore) – seasoned instant noodles (in chicken or BBQ flavours) that you crushed in the packet, added even more seasoning to, then shook about to distribute evenly amongst the dried noodle fragments. I’m surprised they haven’t made a molecular gastronomy equivalent of this yet.

Bee-Bee Snack. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacks Bee-Bee Snack. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksBee-Bee Snack (S$3 for a bagful). The sort of fried flour stuff you ate after swimming class or while waiting for the school bus, after you’ve had your deep-fried chicken wings of course.

nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksLigo California Golden Seedless Raisins – supposedly the healthier snack. But with that amount of sugar… Sometimes the raisins were too dry and you needed to work them in your mouth so your saliva plumped up the wrinkles.

Hiro choc cake. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksKinos Hiro choc cake (S$0.40, Biscuit King). Some sort of sponge with a chocolate coating, tasting of nothing in particular. You needed several to fill you up.

Ding Dang. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacks Kinos Tora. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksDing Dang (S$0.60, Biscuit King) and Tora (S$1.00, Biscuit King) also from Kinos used mean wafer balls covered with chocolate. They’ve now been replaced by some cereal bar nonsense and the packaging art has been changed to reflect the lack of chocolate balls. Toys still included.

Apollo Milk Chocolate Wafer Cream. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksApollo Milk Chocolate Wafer Cream (S$0.80, Sheng Siong Supermarket).

Polo peppermint. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksPolo peppermint sweets (S$0.40, Biscuit King) – we offered them to friends, sucked them so that the circle remained intact, then tried to whistle through them.

Chupa Chups. nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksChupa Chups. Didn’t know they were a brand of Spanish lollies and that their logo was designed by Salvador Dali! Obscure flavours were the most sought-after. When you were done, you tried to whistle through the empty stick, or chewed on them like you didn’t know about the dangers of BPA, or flicked them onto unsuspecting classmates.

(See also Teck Leong Lee Kee for wholesale prices.)

nostalgic for the 1980s? retro "old school" Singapore snacksAh, and what about those childhood games before everyone sat in the canteen and stared at their smartphones? Goli (marbles), national flag erasers, hopscotch, zero point (jump-the-rope with a rope of rubber-bands), snakes-and-ladders, aeroplane chess, pick-up-sticks, Chinese checkers, kuti-kuti (small colourful plastic tokens),

retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Bestman Balloons. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s SingaporeBestman Balloon (S$1.20, from the man outside Sheng Shiong Bedok). A whole box just feels like an indulgence. I think we used to get just one or two tubes each, and had to make it last.

Snap card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Happy Family card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Donkey card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s Singapore Old Maid card game. retro nostalgic old school childhood games, 1980s SingaporeSnap, Happy Families, Donkey, Old Maid card games (S$2.50 for 4 packs from the man outside Sheng Shiong Bedok, S$0.60 each from Party Mama Shop) – these cards aren’t as good quality as they used to be.

On the bus today, an old man in front of me was commenting to his wife as we passed the graves opposite MacRitchie Reservoir:

“See, look all the graves. There are all these young people, keep getting angry that the graves are taken away. For what? All these dead already. And they think they live so nicely in their houses, go to their schools, drive on all the roads, don’t need to knock down old things? Always complain traffic jam, complain too expensive, complain everything. Ask them to take care of a family, a big family, they can anot? They can fit into one house meh? Cannot, then complain. Why not throw away all the old things, then can fit. We all did it before, why they cannot? Stupid nonsense, think they’re so smart!”

Nostalgia is nice and neutral, but we never stop there do we? We rose-tint the past, we talk about the “good old days” when things were better and easier, when people were honest and caring, things were just more authentic. And we know about the inauthenticity of authenticity.

Mired in self-deception:

  • we become needlessly negative about our present;
  • we fail to learn from history, and in our blind nostalgia deliberately repeat the mistakes of the past (eg. the nostalgic theme parks of Eastern Europe longing for their fascist past);
  • we reject the good that has been achieved by the progress of the intervening years;
  • we are unable to properly solve present problems guided by a clear view of past mistakes and present successes.

iced gem biscuits with a cup of milky teathe aforementioned iced gem biscuits

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The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor

Cultural Authenticity. Bangkok, Thailand.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia)

The Nattakan Transportation Company bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok wasn’t a pleasant experience for many fellow passengers, mostly due to a very demanding group of Americans who spent the time complaining dumb these people were and then shouting the same question repeatedly, not because they didn’t understand the driver’s reply, but because he wasn’t giving them the answer they wanted.

Border between Cambodia and ThailandLater at immigration at the Cambodia-Thai border, one of them deliberately, with the urging of another of the party, cut a queue some of us had been waiting in for a long hot sweaty while, then pretended she didn’t understand the queuing system, and bitched loudly how unreasonable people could be. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they took their aggressive self-righteousness with them on a mini-bus they’d badgered the company for.
mini-bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, ThailandI felt very sorry for a French couple with two young children who were waiting patiently and quietly for things to come together.

On the next bus after the border, we had two very lovely Spanish guys and one German who chatted about how long they’d been on the road, and a couple from Shanghai who explained alot about modern Chinese culture in the big city – how money was not scarce but prestige was, and so Louis Vuitton and Hermes were now too common for the arms of the truly rich and more exclusive brands were sought. We parted, very sadly, when we arrived at Khaosan in Bangkok.

Many complain about how touristy Bangkok has become, how polluted with backpackers, so that it is no longer an authentic Thai city, but merely one set up for tourists.

Who cares? I’d say, somewhat deprived traveller that I am, come, let’s check out all that cheap plentiful delicious street food!

My first stop after a whole day of travelling without a bite to eat (on account of having no more US$ or Thai baht) was Sukhumvit Soi 38:
street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
pad thai, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
pad thai, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
satay, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
satay, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
mango sticky rice, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
mango sticky rice, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand

Because I’d known Bangkok quite well in the past, I was happy to stay a while longer to get re-acquainted and to hoover up the culinary delights of the City That Never Sleeps.

Breakfast:
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
sugar on toast, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
soft-boiled egg in a coffee cup, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailandglass of iced Thai coffee, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailandtraditional breakfast of sugar on toast, steamed soft white bread with kaya, soft-boiled eggs, and a mug of iced Thai coffee at ออน ล๊อก หยุ่น On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Road;

toast and grilled bananas, street food, Bangkok, Thailandon a random street, a charcoal grill topped with toast and bananas;

Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
ข้าวเหนียวดำสังขยา khao neow dam sang kaya (black sticky rice with egg custard / kaya and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf, at the Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailandข้าวเหนียวดำสังขยา khao neow dam sang kaya (black sticky rice with egg custard / kaya and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf, at the Silom Soi 20 market;

roast chicken, white chicken, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
vats of curry, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
bananas, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
strawberries, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailandand a range of other cooked food, and fruits at the Silom Soi 20 market – the cooked food might be consumed for breakfast, or kept for lunch.

For lunch:
Bangkok, Thailand
Green Chilli restaurant, Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, ThailandGreen Chilli, Section 2, Soi 38, No. 126 in Chatuchak Market, was run by Ann, an ex-Thai Airways public relations officer. No-MSG in the food, she assured me, a choice of organic brown rice, and all the raw fresh vegetables I could eat.

Afternoon snacks just anywhere along a street in Bangkok:
street snack, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailandcrispy shredded coconut rolls

Khanom Buang, Soi Convent, Bangkok, Thailandkhanom buang (crispy Thai crepes with shredded coconut and gooey meringue) on Soi Convent.

And as is necessary when navigating the crowds and the narrow indoor sois at Chatuchak Wholesale Market, something very cold:
Hale's Blue Boy, Bangkok, Thailand
Hale's Blue Boy syrup with basil seeds, Bangkok, ThailandHale’s Blue Boy with “frog eggs” (sadly, actually just seeds of the ocimum basilicum or sweet basil),

famous chatuchak coconut ice-cream. Bangkok, Thailandthe original famous Chatuchak Market coconut ice-cream, and

coconut ice-cream with free "toppings", Bangkok, Thailandone of the many stalls that has jumped on the coconut ice-cream bandwagon, this one distinguishing itself by inviting customers to help themselves to the “toppings”.

iced teh tarik man, Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, ThailandA twirling iced teh tarik man at Chatuchak Market who drew a large crowd with his tea-mixing dance.

And for dinner, perhaps something from Talad Rot Fai?
salt baked fish, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailand
horseshoe crabs, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailandsalt-baked fish and, yeeeuurrr, horseshoe crabs which I refused to even contemplate since we already drain them of blue blood.

people eating on a street, Bangkok, ThailandIn the chapter of his book, The Authenticity Hoax: Culture is for Tourists, Andrew Potter, who is more serious about such matters, argues that in effect even if the Thais had retained their ethnic dresses and never built anything more than a hut, they would still fail to be authentic.

Hello Kitty shop, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailand
Beer House, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, ThailandThere has been the idea, throughout human history, on possibly all continents, that a particular society should be internally homogeneous in traditional art forms, festivals, language etc. Yet, history has shown that all living societies continually change as they interact with other societies in trade, marriage, warfare.

Ronald McDonald says sawadeekup, Bangkok, ThailandSo when one seeks, artificially, to preserve these things, they become inauthentic since the real society has moved on. And even if it had not, the fact that tourists had travelled just to see these things, and the fact that the audience isn’t indigenous means that the act or event is divorced from its historical and cultural significance and has in fact turned into ” museum piece” to be gawked at.

Thai King's birthday light-up. Bangkok, Thailand
yellow "Long Live The King" t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand
tak bat, morning alms, monk blessing, Bangkok, Thailand
tak bat, morning alms, monk blessing, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand
please offer the seat to those in need, Bangkok, Thailand
monks on the river boat, Bangkok, ThailandBut what Potter is more concerned with is the effect on globalisation on the ethos or worldview of a society. “For all the benefits that the outside world can bring, it is possible for a society to be overrun by external influences, diluting and undermining the culture to the point where little remains of the original ethos. The possible destruction of a unique and probably irreplaceable worldview is one of the real and tragic consequences of globalisation. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that the forces that lead to the destruction are both thoroughly legitimate and almost impossible to control or impede in a free and open society. Individuals have the desire and the right to improve their lives through trade, to adopt new technologies, to explore other ways of seeing the world. This process by which individuals acting in their own interest collectively ensure the demise of their own ethos is the great tragedy of the cultural commons.” [Comment: objectively, why would this be tragic?]

This has led in the last hundred years to liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant popularising the idea of cosmopolitanism. “The cosmopolitan rejects both particularism and localism, seeing instead his or her loyalties and obligations as extending to the entire human race. But this is not with the aim of homogenising all mankind, rather, they thought that variety was valuable. “For [John Stuart Mill], “diversity matters…his argument was straightforward: just as different plants and animals flourish in different physical environments, different people flourish in different moral and cultural environments. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and unless “there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.””

Buddhist statues for sale, Bangkok, Thailand
statues of Buddhas, Bangkok, Thailand
begging bowls and monk effigies, Bangkok, ThailandHowever, communitarians have been pushing back at what they see to be liberal self-centred-ness and narcissism. The Kantian liberal’s goal is the maximisation of individual freedom; the Mill-ian liberal’s aim is the maximisation of individual happiness or welfare. Paramount importance is placed on satisfying individual needs. “[But] it’s not all about you”, the communitarian says, “there are common goods that transcend our individual wants, that command our allegiance, and might require our sacrifice.”

Potter suggests that liberals and communitarians have been talking at cross purposes: “The cosmopolitans are talking about the importance of certain liberal principles, while the communitarians are concerned about the effects of that liberalism on values. The principles/values distinction is one that we don’t usually make in our everyday language, and it is not uncommon for the terms to be treated as virtual synonyms…”

“When we talk about principles, we are referring to the general rules that govern our sense of right, such as the constitutional statements of due process, equality, and the freedoms of religion, speech, and association that support a liberal society. Values, on the other hand, refer to our sense of what is good to do or believe. Values are what give our lives meaning or purpose.” So the two are not mutually exclusive. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting incident, for instance, the liberal principle of the freedom of speech would agree that you could express your thoughts should you choose to do so, and communitarian values would determine the manner and method by which your thoughts would be expressed.

But what of communitarian values in a diverse community? Voltaire thought that religious diversity was the foundation of public order rather than a threat, saying,”If there were only one religion in England, there would be the danger of despotism, if there were only two they would cut each other’s throat; but there are thirty, and they live in peace.” He was referring, however, to 30 version of Protestantism.

Where there is true multiculturalism, Robert Putnam has found that large-scale immigration and increased diversity within a society has made people “act like turtles” and become “less open and more distrustful of one another”. But the solution to this is not less diversity, rather Putnam argues that a society’s long-term project would therefore have to be the deliberate construction of a broader and more inclusive civic identity.

[Comment: this is something the pioneers in Singapore have sought to do for its ethnically and religiously diverse population. The racial riots of only a few decades ago is still fresh in the minds of the older generation, but it is tragic that many of the younger generation have scoffed at this as mere PAP propaganda, as they sneer at anything any of arm of the government says, regardless of content. A recent issue has been a petition for Thaipusam (a Hindu festival) to be made a public holiday in Singapore. Not everyone who supported it was Hindu, some were just on the extra holiday bandwagon. This well-worded reply came from SIngapore’s Ministry of Manpower:

We appreciate the perspectives shared by many Singaporeans on whether Thaipusam should be reinstated as a public holiday.

As many have noted, Thaipusam was a public holiday until 1968. The prospect of the British withdrawal and the need to compete for a living in world markets necessitated many changes in the country. The government decided to reduce the total number of public holidays, amongst other things.

The decision on which public holidays to give up in 1968 was reached only after careful consultation and discussions with various religious groups. The Muslims chose to give up Prophet Muhamed’s Birthday as well as an extra day for Hari Raya Puasa. The Christians, who had to give up two days as well, chose to give up the Saturday after Good Friday and Easter Monday. The Hindus had to choose between retaining Thaipusam or Deepavali as a public holiday, and chose the latter.

These were difficult decisions for the leaders of each faith, with something of value being given up by each group in the larger interest. The Buddhists, who comprised the largest faith and had only one public holiday to begin with, Vesak Day, were not asked to offer any cuts. Some groups continued to celebrate religious events of significance to them, such as Vesakhi for the Sikhs and Lao-Tzu’s Birthday for the Taoists, without these being public holidays.

The resulting 11 public holidays that we now enjoy is neither high nor low when compared to other countries. It is the same number enjoyed by New Zealanders, Canadians and the French, among others. Our closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, enjoy a few more days than we do, but we have a few more than developed countries like the United Kingdom and Germany.

But beyond numbers and economics, our calendar of public holidays is a reflection of our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. There is much value and meaning attached to each of our ethnic and religious festivals, including Thaipusam, both among that particular group and Singaporeans generally.

But any move to reinstate any one festival as a public holiday will immediately invite competing claims, and necessitate considerable renegotiation with all communities. Balancing the wishes of each community will not be a simple matter. Neither can we simply re-allocate public holidays by ethnic group, as amongst both Chinese and Indians we have citizens of a few different faiths.

While we will always ensure that all Singaporeans can practise their faiths freely, it is impractical to make all important festivals of all faiths public holidays. But it must always be possible for Singaporeans of all faiths to make arrangements to observe their respective religious festivals. We encourage all employers to show understanding and flexibility in this regard.

We have learnt to live harmoniously with each other with this balanced approach, where everyone makes some compromises for the greater good. It has served us well for the better part of five decades and remains the best way for Singapore.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director, Workplace Policy & Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower

To which at least one Singaporean on Facebook commented, without reason: “absolute crap!” and another, illogically in light of the explanation given, complained of unfair treatment of Hindus because they were not the main religion in Singapore.]

Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, ThailandPotter suggests, however, that the reason for this is less “racism, classism, prejudice, or any xenophobic refusal to associate with the “other””. Instead, the ethnocultural society starts with few shared norms. In cities, the absence of a small, close-knit society where there might have been regular interaction that facilitates enforcement of existing social norms, the breakdown of the economy of trust is accelerated. (It is this community of trust that yuppies yearn for when they move to the suburbs, at least in an American/Canadian context.)

So while seekers of authenticity wish to preserve Havana or Bhutan romantically in yesteryear, Potter argues that this narrow and selfish desire misses “any sense of what is gained in the way of political freedoms, increased material wealth, and greater intellectual and creative opportunities…it ignores the way that cosmopolitanism represents not only a material advance, but also a form of moral progress.”

Societies do not exist to be “compatible with someone’s preferred account of what constitutes an authentic culture…”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Authenticity in Politics. Siem Reap, Cambodia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, CambodiaBoarded the Giant Ibis again to get from Phnom Penh to Cambodia. The bus was much older this time, and crowded. The infrastructure in Cambodia not being as well-developed as Vietnam meant we were treated to the sight of things covered in fine red dust as the vehicles on the “national highway” whizzed along, bumping on rocks and into potholes.

Siem Reap, CambodiaWe stopped at a roadside hut for lunch and these kids ran up. They waited at the door of the bus and peered at us as we ate. You could almost hear the Western consciences groaning under the weight of their stares. “Don’t give them money; don’t give them anything,” warned the waitstaff. Apparently, tourist money and other free stuff led to their parents pulling them from school. What use was learning if handouts were so easy? And why bother with dull drills when they could have fun and as much candy as they could manage to wheedle off people? But some gave anyway, so they wouldn’t feel so bad.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, CambodiaWanted to make a quick stop at Angkor Wat and friends again (after a decade!) before heading down to Thailand, so hired a tuk-tuk first thing the next morning to take me round. While I could navigate the place from memory, what threw me off were the hordes of visitors.

Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, CambodiaThey seemed like the insidious roots of trees, getting into every crack, tearing apart buildings in their enthusiasm, as they pushed and pulled at the ancient moss-covered bricks.

Siem Reap, CambodiaPreviously, I’d climbed the old temples alone, the only sound that of cicadas and my pounding heart, afraid that if I fell, no one would find my crumpled body. Now, I’d be lucky not to be trampled to death.

What’s interesting about the Angkor Complex is the change of architecture and architectural features as political power passed from a Hindu king to a Buddhist one, and then back to a Hindu king before returning to a Buddhist one. There are various accounts of the violence that accompanied some of the successions.

Siem Reap, CambodiaPower struggles in the modern day are of a different breed altogether: not by might but by the elusive authenticity again, it seems.

In my read-through, Andrew Potter now turns to authenticity within politics in The Authenticity Hoax: Vote For Me, I’m Authentic:

The Bayon, Siem Reap, CambodiaTelevision altered politics first by making the politician’s appearance and ability to perform in front of the camera their most important quality. Television also brought money into politics because now there was the need for lots of it to pay for television advertisements. What television thrives on is conflict so it is “no wonder then that politics in the age of television consists almost entirely of heavily scripted events that offer little more than prepared statements, canned responses, and memorised talking points”.

Now the internet has led to a fundamental transformation of journalism itself so that anyone is an “insta-pundit” and anyone with a mobile phone can report “live” from the scene. Guy Debord calls this The Society of the Spectacle. “Building on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, Debord argued that the trajectory of modern society is characterised by a shift from an authentic and active lived reality to an alienated existence that is mediated by images, representations, and passive consumption…social relationship between people mediated by images”.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, CambodiaIn addition, the irony, says Potter, is that “we say we want to see the real person behind the mask…we say we want spontaneity and real emotion…we say we want to be able to choose from parties and policies that accord with our beliefs and values, but when presented with all these, react with revulsion.

In actual fact, the authenticity we claim to desire must mirror our own narrow values and ideals. This is the “reason politicians hire image consultants and stick doggedly to their talking points…”spontaneity and frank talk is punished far more frequently than it is rewarded…political leaders are trying to appeal to as many people as possible without turning anyone off. Worse they have the additional burden of trying to do it under the omnipresent and omni-hostile gaze of a media that will rip them apart at the slightest misstep”.

And such media runs on controversy and scandal, eschewing the important issues of policy to pounce on anything that might sell copy put doubt on someone’s authenticity. [Comment: but there is no supply without demand, so it is the public who are to blame, surely?]

And even without the media, because authenticity is such a purportedly-valued characteristic in a political leader, negative advertising (character assassination, casting doubt on the moral valence of a candidate) will do the job.

“…this puts politics in a death spiral. A fixation on authenticity and a candidate’s character creates an opening for attack ads by the opposition. But this in turn gives a candidate an incentive to lie about his past or hide his true character, which provides jobs for all the spin doctors and image consultants whom nobody likes. In the end…it isn’t the spin doctors who have drained the authenticity from politics; rather, it is the desire for authenticity that provides opportunities for men who can help you fake it. The only alternative is to vote only for candidates who are so upright, honest, and unimpeachably dull that you wouldn’t want them having supper with you, let alone running the country.” Siem Reap, CambodiaAnd as for how “politics seems more and more a branch of marketing, with parties and leaders packaged and sold using the same techniques used to sell energy drinks, NBA players, and everything in between”, Potter argues in his usual manner that “the selling of politics does not undermine democracy, it enhances it, and the branding of political parties and leaders is not a tool for manipulating voters, but a mechanism for enabling democratic participation…[because] most people don’t have the time or frankly, the ability to properly digest budgets, policy documents, or drafts of new bills, and the distillation of the stupendous complexities of the modern state to a handful of simple but distinct brands is not just useful, but necessary”.

Siem Reap, CambodiaHowever, in the previous chapter, Potter’d already mentioned Andrew Keen and Cass Sunstein’s assessments of how undemocratic the internet is. And if “democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance, from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance of freedom and security. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then the truth is you no longer believe in democracy”.

Siem Reap, Cambodia“You buy my postcard…one dollah!” cried the little boy as he followed me around. Because I had in my mind the monks that might have lived here previously, perhaps meditating or deciphering a palimpsest, I couldn’t help but giggle at the incongruity. And the two children started laughing as well. “Haha!” said the boy quoting himself,””Buy my postcard one dollah”…hahahaha!” as he chased the girl amongst the old stones

wait, a stegosaurus? Angkor Complex, Siem Reap, Cambodiawait, a stegosaurus? or did a rookie stonecarver try and fail to do an iguana justice?

On the topic of dinosaurs, a really good example of unreasoned ignorant echo-chamber hatred on the internet is the time Steven Spielberg’s photo with an apparently deceased triceratops went viral, with people accusing him of violating animal rights etc.

And on the topic of internet hate, this New York Times article on Justine Sacco has been making the rounds. Most of the “lessons learnt” comments though, are not about circumspection in judging someone negatively or refraining from indulging in mob violence, but on ensuring one does not get on the bad side of the fickle crowd…

street food carts, Siem Reap, CambodiaThe street food didn’t look very fresh in Siem Reap, so, instead of doing the usual Pub Street routine, decided to splash out a little on Khmer restaurants instead: Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia banana chip, Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia coconut, Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia frog legs, Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, CambodiaChanrey Tree Restaurant

salad, The Sugar Palm Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia amok, The Sugar Palm Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia pomelo salad, The Sugar Palm Restaurant, Siem Reap, CambodiaThe Sugar Palm Restaurant

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Coach from Saigon (Vietnam) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia). The Perils of Transparency.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Giant Ibis coach from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
banh mi for the bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Giant Ibis water and pizza snack on bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, CambodiaWalked to the Giant Ibis coach office in Siem Reap, waved along by some older Vietnamese ladies who were sitting on the street having a yabber. It was a fairly empty coach for a Saturday. I’d brought a banh mi for brekkie and there was complimentary water and a pizza snack.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
duck ponds, Phnom Penh, CambodiaEnjoyed the buccolic scenery. After we crossed the border, artificially man-made as it was, we started to come upon duck ponds and houses on stilts (with the bottom bit filled in, in some cases) and spirit houses.

Phnom Penh, CambodiaThis place looked mighty familiar. Then I realised we were in Neak Loeung where I’d stayed in many years ago! The shops and markets were exactly where I’d left them. A comfort.

Neak Loeung ferry to Phnom Penh, CambodiaThen the entire coach followed several heavy vehicles onto a ferry to cross the Mekong. Motos and assorted vehicles milled about.

them three guys, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, CambodiaWhen we started seeing boards of these three guys at ever-increasing intervals, and then of the Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (នរោត្តម សីហមុនី), we knew we were near the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. “King Sihamoni gay” prompts Google when I type in the name of the former ballet dance instructor. Why would his sexual preferences be of interest to anyone, more than say, his political or philosophical preferences?

Yet, it is a question that none of us would think twice about asking in this day and age.

balloon man, Phnom Penh, CambodiaDidn’t think Andrew Potter’s chapter, The Authenticity Hoax: Perils of Transparency, had a terribly cohesive structure, and his conclusions seemed a little slap-dash. But he does identify viewpoints to be looking at issues from:

“Recognising that authenticity is a positional good with a built-in self-radicalising dynamic helps us make sense of a lot of the seemingly bizarre behaviour that manifests itself as authenticity-seeking. The fetish for the public display of emotion, which exploded into our popular culture with the death of Princess Diana and whose embers are tended by Oprah Winfrey’s cult of self-obsessed sentimentality, can be understood as a form of radically conspicuous authenticity.” “The Oprah Winfrey brand is built around a cult of authenticity through therapeutic self-disclosure, of the sort promoted by her frequent guest Dr. Phil.”

Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), Phnom Penh, CambodiaToul Tom Poung (Russian Market)

Andrew Potter goes on to dissect the James Frey A Million Little Pieces incident where Frey was found to have invented events in his memoir “in order to serve what [he] felt was the greater purpose of the book”. Oprah agreed with this saying that what impressed her was the “underlying and universal message of redemption at the heart of Frey’s tale”. The Oprah-ian world embraces the Rousseau-ian ideal that feelings are the touchstone of authenticity, not historically accurate facts. So it was odd that there was such a furore over his confession of fictionalising major parts of it.

Potter explains this through Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Rousseau recognised that the making of an authentic self is a group effort. You cannot just impose any old narrative you want onto the events of your life; the sotry has to seem plausible and sincere if it is to be accepted by others…[these vices of authenticity] include plagiarism, hypocrisy, and gossip.” [Comment: I’m not sure gossip is seen as such a sin in this parts!]

Mr. Bunnareth, Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Mr. Bunnareth, Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, CambodiaMr. Bunnareth at Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), probably the best iced coffee in Phnom Penh. Since his success though, several other iced coffee shops have set up next to him, forcing him to distinguish his business with newspaper cuttings, flags, and photographs

Joma coffee, Phnom Penh, Cambodiacoffee with the lovely J at Joma Bakery Cafe, a Western-style coffee import from, erm, Luang Prabang

Plagiarism
Potter suggests that in some instances, the plagiarist may not even admit that there was anything morally wrong with his actions if they were “an authentic outward expression of [the plagiarist’s] deepest feelings and creative impulses; it is “the appropriation of something that is a part of [their] true self”.

And what about the rise of the concept of intellectual property rights? This might stem from what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence” where artists are concerned that they are not authentic (that is, original, creative) enough, that they have been hindered by their influences and produce only something borrowed and derivative. So we “fight over credit for things”.

Pushing back against this is Lawrence Lessig who claims this stifles creativity and innovation and squanders the democratic potential of new technologies – “What’s at stake is our freedom – freedom to create, freedom to build, and, ultimately, freedom to imagine”.

However, Andrew Keen, in his The Cult of the Amateur, sees the internet as a “cesspool of ignorance, egoism, bad taste, and mob rule. He laments the loss of the professionalism, integrity, and authority of old…As far as he is concerned, there is nothing “democratic” about the new media. If anything they work to undermine democracy by helping spread propaganda and lies through fake videos, guerilla and viral marketing campaigns and the widespread use of “sock puppets”, which are fake online identities that are used to promote a cause or a product under the guise of independent support or endorsement. There are too many places to hide online, Keen argues, and what we are left with is not the democratic wisdom of crowds but an idiocratic mob rule, a cynical and infantilised political culture and a degenerate civil society.” [Comment: sounds like what the Singapore internet scene is like in this age.]

Cass Sunstein sees the internet as harming democracy due to the rise of the “Daily Me”, that is, the way the “internet permits highly personalised and customised information feeds that guarantee that you will be confronted only with topics that interest you; they screen out those that may bore, anger, or annoy you…[leading to] group polarization: when like-minded people find themselves speaking only with one another, they get into a cycle of ideological reinforcement where they end up endorsing positions far more extreme than the ones they started with…the blogosphere functions as a series of echo chambers, where every viewpoint is repeated and amplified to a hysterical pitch. As our politics moves online…we’ll end up with a public sphere that is partisan and extreme…The result…will be serious obstacles not merely to civility but also to mutual understanding”.

So this is a world where truth has ceased to have any relation to reality and is only what the self-contained ego feels to be true.  Keen and Sunstein conclude that “the ultimate goal of the new [Read-Write] culture is isolation, solitude, and narcissism” Potter disagrees and suggests instead that it is connectivity and “the perpetual and utterly transparent We of social networking” that is the taken to be the basis for authenticity.

dogs sniffing each other, Phnom Penh, CambodiaGossip
Authenticity in this culture is where everything is laid bare online for everyone to see, nothing is hidden, and everyone speaks his mind spontaneously without self-censorship, declining to observe social mores or standards of good taste.

“Our lives now resemble the teenaged prison called high school, where the predominant form of discourse is something known as gossip…Gossip is often defined as malicious or harmful talk about the private affairs of others…”

motorcycles! Phnom Penh, CambodiaPotter however defends gossip for serving to “expand our consciousness of what life is about in ways that are effectively inaccessible to other modes of inquiry”. Furthermore gossip “subverts traditional hierarchies: by cracking open the private sphere to general public scrutiny, gossip can be an instrument of egalitarianism and social leveling…we may want to call gossip a virtue of authenticity.” [Comment: but this fails to acknowledge the difference between repeating truths and repeating falsehoods]

Perhaps, he then says, “there is a flaw in the ideal of authenticity as complete disclosure”, but only because voluntary discretionary personal disclosure is “a way of building trust and fostering intimacy”, so the “Facebook-style habit of promiscuous disclosure very much misses the point” and makes such transparency much less valuable because it is shared with a wide audience.

He concludes: “But there’s no dignity in doing your job or remaining faithful simply because you have no option. Thus the end of privacy will also mark the end of our cultural adulthood. Surveillance is for criminals and pointless gossip is for children…”[Comment: this feels (ah, feeeelin’) like a long shot. as if he sensed (feeeeeeelin’) that total transparency at the expense of privacy was undesirable and just needed a reasonable rationale (but why not just feeeeeeeel). Most commentators, having pushed God out of the picture ab initio, struggle to align their consciences with their theories.]

monks in front of a coach, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Conspicuous Authenticity, but not in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLondon -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

What was refreshing about Ho Chi Minh City (aka. Saigon) was the continued lack of conspicuous authenticity. Being a city just getting a dip into the conspicuous consumption pool, it was still way behind the next wave of status competition: conspicuous authenticity.

park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
songbirds in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
crickets as food for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
mealworms for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercising in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
dance practice? Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
broom and basket, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
more dance practice, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercise equipment in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn contemporary advertising in other cities, a fundamental marketing technique is to appeal to the authenticity of the product.

Andrew Potter, in The Authenticity Hoax: Conspicuous Authenticity,suggests that it is Denis Diderot’s portrayal of the titular nephew in Rameau’s Nephew that transformed authenticity from a quest for individual freedom and self-fulfilment into a marketing strategy. His awareness that his sponging off various rich people was “the beggar’s pantomime”, said G.W.F. Hegel, made him “the avatar of a new individual consciousness” that “looks upon the authoritative power of the state as a chain…obeys only with secret malice and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion.”

Now however, such awareness is so familiar and ubiquitous that there is no one who does not consider himself to be as Rameau’s nephew, an anti-hero of authenticity. Inauthenticity is a cuss word we use on other people – office drones, government lackeys, yuppies etc.

Perhaps, Joshua Glenn argues in Fake Authenticity, the nephew’s “cultivated alienation and easy nonconformity”, far from making him an anti-hero of authenticity, makes him the archetypical hero of fake authenticity, “the face of hip capitalism, and an architect of consumer dissatisfaction and of perpetual obsolescence”. If one defines authenticity as “a struggle against received truths, inherited contingencies, any ideology (in the Frankfurt School sense of the word) which impedes the possibility of freeing oneself — and others — from all forms of oppression”, then authenticity itself has become an ideology.

Elsewhere, simulacra is what Jean Baudrillard famously calls things that aren’t copies of the real but constructed to resemble expectations of what that the real is to look like, and therefore becoming real in themselves while bearing no connection with the thing it is meant to resemble in reality.

And there is much demand for such simulacra.

tea and sweets, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
flowers, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
alleyway of pedicure and manicure shops, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
paintbrushes for sale on a street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Over the course of the twentieth century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each market by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of Veblen’s time to the bourgeouis conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the twentieth century, a pattern of status competition commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses”. The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivate non-conformity that is variously known as “cool”. “hip”, or “alternative”. This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the 1960s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life, we saw the emergence of what we call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image – underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes”. [Comment: oops, i guess that’s all tired and old mainstream now.]

“Norman Mailer set the agenda in the 1950s when he wrote that society was divided into two types of people: the hip (“rebels”) and the square (“conformists”). Cool (or hip, alternative, edgy) here becomes the universal stance of individualism, with the hipster as the resolute non-conformist refusing to bend before the homogenizing forces of mass society. In other words, the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else, that is, a culture dominated by mass media such as national television stations, wide-circulation magazines and newspapers, and commercial record labels. The hipster makes a political statement by rejecting mass society and its conformist agenda.”

“Cool fizzled out when it was exposed as just another consumerist status hierarchy, and when it passed so deeply and so self-consciously into the mainstream that it became simply embarrassing.” [Comment: hence the very popular threadless T-shirt “I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet“]

“But status, like power, abhors a vacuum…The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. what matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life that is focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.”

“Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques, or objets d’art that can’t be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialised parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin in British Columbia or a farmhouse in Portugal, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.”

“Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet.”

Andrew Potter then uses organic produce as case study. About 15 years ago, organic food was exclusively consumed by certain enlightened people. It was essential to authentic living and, to quote Mark Bittman, “the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically”. When organic produce became so popular that produce was easily obtained in huge stores like Whole Foods and Walmart, the standard of authenticity shifted: locavores started to extol the benefits of locally grown food as tastier, fresher, more environmentally-friendly (all of which are subject to debate). The 100-mile diet, says Potter, is an illustration of this one-upmanship, “the trend of turning environmental authenticity-seeking into a competitive anti-consumption publicity stunt”.

Authenticity is a “positional good that derives its value from the force of invidious comparison. You can only be a truly authentic person as long as most of the people around you are not.”

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
cooked snails, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn other news, please note how eating local food with the locals makes my travels oh so very much more authentic (tone: dripping sarcasm):
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamBún mắm stall, Bến Thành market

iced Vietnamese coffee, iced Vietnamese tea, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnamiced Vietnamese coffee, to be washed down with complimentary iced Vietnamese tea, on a sidewalk

Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
fried crickets, Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLuong Son (Bo Tung Xeo)

(On the way home, a Vietnamese girl stopped me to ask for directions in the vernacular. Again, I unthinkingly replied in English. She was so shocked she giggled into her hand and fled.)

Now this guy was authentic:
evangelist, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Hello,” he said to an American backpacker waiting for her bus,”I am Vietnam evangelist. I want to tell you about Jesus.”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

There has been no end of people gushing how my London to Singapore trip, over land, was going to be the journey of a lifetime. I just could not understand it – all I was doing was taking a really slow and tedious route from Europe to Asia.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamAnd many of the epic train journeys, like the Trans-mongolian Railway and now the Reunification Express were just normal means of commuting for many people. Perhaps it wasn’t the cost of train rides that were the issue, but the rarity of the experience in our little social circle?

Continuing my read-through Andrew Potter’s book:

The Authenticity Hoax: The Creative Self

“In the last couple of chapters, we have followed the turn in Western culture that began with an initial, visceral reaction against the three pillars of the modern world: spiritual disenchantment, political liberalism, and the growth of the market economy. As we traced it through the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this reaction gave rise to the ideal of authenticity, which culminated in a celebration of spontaneity, emotional transparency, and a fixation on the creative powers of the individual to provide meaning in a world that otherwise offers none.

This last development is particularly important. Once the authentic self becomes, in effect, an artistic project, that puts a number of questions relating to art and authenticity front and center. What counts as an authentic work of art? What threatens artistic authenticity?…”

“There is an ambiguity in the way we use the term authenticity when discussing art. The first kind of authenticity, what the art world refers to as its provenance, is concerned with the correct identification of the origins or authorship of an object or work…[the second kind is about] whether the work is a true expression of the artist’s self, her vision, her ideals, or perhaps her community, culture, or “scene”. What we are concerned with in this case is that there is a divergence between the art that is expressed and what we think the artist ought to be expressing, or is entitled to express.”

“The underlying intuition here is that there is an intimate connection between your upbringing and your identity: that the biographical question “Where are you from?” is a reliable guide to answering the existential question “Where are you coming from?” Further, there’s a normative dimension to this, insofar as your background (including your race, your class, your schooling, even what part of the country you are from) frames the scope and limits of what you can legitimately claim to speak, or sing, or paint, or write about.” [Comment: class distinction and social hierarchy smuggled in another form?]

“This intuition manifests itself all over the place. For example, it is what drives one of the longest-running battles in the culture wars, over “appropriation of voice” and the question of when, if ever, it is permissible for someone of one culture or racial background to speak in the voice of another.” [Comment: long-running assumption that “blacking-up” is politically-incorrect, but what about cripping-up then? ask some]

“…what the [Sonia] Sotomayor incident highlights is the way this type of identity politics quickly turns into a form of status competition, where the relative authenticity of one voice over another results in a game of moral one-upmanship.”

“According to the standard picture of cultural co-optation, what happens is an authentic art form emerges organically out of a given subcultural milieu. Eventually, members of the dominant culture (usually rich white males) come along and appropriate the superficial looks or sounds or techniques of this artform while taking some sandpaper to its rougher edges. This softened version is then sold to the masses as the real thing…What happens if we can’t tell the difference between the original and the fake, or between the authentic and the ersatz?”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam “We might think it is a straight-forward, empirical fact whether a painting is an authentic Rembrandt, and the connoisseur is the one who can tell us. But in a world where art can be copied, reworked, and reproduced in an indefinite number of copies, the very idea of the “original” work becomes problematic, and by the end of the twentieth century it had led to a serious crisis of authenticity in the world of art.”

“[Walter] Benjamin argues that there is a straightforward answer to the question of what distinguishes an original work of art from the perfect copy, since even the perfect copy is lacking in one crucial element, namely, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…the sense of awe or veneration we have for an authentic relic or a work of art is captured by more than just its past. What we value is its aura, which consists in the history and individuality of the object, insofar as it is embedded in what he calls the “fabric of a tradition.” That is, an authentic work of art is an object that was created at a certain time for a specific purpose.”

“In secular cultures, the aura is preserved…by what Benjamin calls “the cult of beauty”, the secularised but quasi-religious worship of art for art’s sake.”

“So to qualify as an authentic work of art, it is essential that it be connected in some way to a community and its rituals, and the further removed an object is from this ritual power, the more the aura withers. This is why Benjamin thought that the early-twentieth century debate over whether photography and film are legitimate forms of art completely missed the point. The real issue was the way in which these had completely transformed the entire nature of art by dissolving the relationships within which the concept of the authentic work made sense. The two main solvents at work in the age of mechanical reproduction are massification and commodification.”

“In the age of secularised, commercialised, mass-marketed entertainment, what plays the role of the ritual in preserving the aura of the work is the artist’s life. Their past, their history, their lifestyle or persona is what provides the ballast that anchors the work in some sort of creative tradition or narrative, saving it from the frothy superficiality of mere commerce.”

“…in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity – cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam“…in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratized but its production as well…But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it, even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve.”

“Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity…Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground…This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect.”

“But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle…now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money.”

I wondered what people would have paid for a journey from Hanoi to Saigon in a compartment full of sweaty Vietnamese men…if it was sold as performance art or as an authentic trip unlike any other.

My compartment-mates were a few too many – it seemed that they’d only paid for two berths but were 6 (and maybe more). There was an older man in a uniform and two underlings who looked very uncomfortable. And there were three other men who drank frequently from a jerry can of moonshine, smoked cheap cigarettes, and played cards. All the space under the bottom berths and under the table were taken up with their large pieces of luggage. Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThey felt at liberty to sit on my berth as well, inching closer and closer to the ball I’d made of myself next to the window, until I told them to please remove their unwashed selves.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamStill, there were offers of moonshine, and then tea as they sought to deal with their moonshine headaches. I wondered how my perception of the situation would change if this were my weekly commute, or if this was the set of a interactive art installation. Food on the train was rather dismal after the tastiness of Chinese restaurant cars: bao and steamed corn for brekkie: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnama restaurant car patronised only by train attendants, and where it was made clear that I was unwelcome: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamafter which I decided to take my chances with the packed food coming round: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThis was the only station we managed to hop off for some food-shopping: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamSo, the glamorous authentic adventure of train travel.

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore