Witness Me Eat this Pierogi
The recursive problem of being cool.
I’m liking Substack’s new Notes feature. Find me there. Also next week my book comes out! Pre-order The City Authentic or if you’re in the Albany area come to my book talk where I’ll have copies for sale. And if you know a place that you think would like to host me for a talk and/or signing let me know!
The European Enlightenment still looms large in our common sense. One particularly deep-rooted idea is that recognition of who you are has to come both from within and from peers. That is, you have to decide for yourself who you are, but you are not the ultimate arbiter of whether you have succeeded in the effort. This was a big theme in the French philosopher Montesquieu’s work, and it was carried into the nineteenth century by the Friedrich Hegel whose work was essential for a young Karl Marx to develop his dialectical thinking. Marx’s 1844 manuscripts were, in turn, the basis for the Marxist humanists of the twentieth century like Raya Dunayevskaya, Erich Fromm, C.L.R James, Stuart Hall, the Frankfurt school’s baby Herbert Marcuse, and one of my favorite writers, the great modernist mensch, Marshall Berman whose work taught me most of what’s below.
Hegel surmised that authenticity couldn’t be found in our relationship to the state or society, it had to be something more basic, more carnal. Unlike most philosophers before him who had considered logic or reason to be humanity’s greatest mental achievement, Hegel settled on the desire to be recognized by others as the central premise of humanity’s distinction from other animals. Desire is what makes us authentically human.
David Graeber wrote my favorite summary of Hegel’s reasoning in his excellent essay on consumption:
Animals experience desire simply as the absence of something: they are hungry; therefore, they wish to "negate that negation" by obtaining food; they have sexual urges; therefore, they seek a mate. Humans go further. They not only wish to have sex —at least, if they are being truly human about the matter— but also wish to be recognized by their partner as someone worthy of having sex with. That is, they wish to be loved. We desire to be the object of another's desire.1
The flip side of the desire to be desired is that the other person must have the freedom to ignore you. In this way, human consciousness is recursive: one cannot be considered or recognized as authentically human unless another person whom you recognize as authentically human, reciprocates that recognition. This presents a chicken-and-egg problem: How do you authenticate the freedom of the person standing across from you when you can’t even say the same about yourself? How do you really know that this person isn’t just being nice? Hegel reasons that a free person values their life and will defend it. Therefore, the only way to know for sure that you are both free is a fight to the death. Only someone willing and able to defend their own human life is capable of declaring another as human. Your authenticity as a human is determined by the other’s sense of self-worth.
Now, of course we don’t go around trying to kill each other and yelling “witness me!” like a sick boy in Mad Max: Fury Road. However, we definitely do face this recursive recognition problem every day. Reputation and truth are held close together: we won’t take a person’s word for something until we can verify their reputation. That is why advanced civilizations build institutions that act as third-party arbiters to grant degrees, certifications, and contracts. When I go see a new doctor, I assume they know their stuff because I assume there’s lots of regulations, certifications, and inspections for those people offering medical services. We also make a lot of assumptions based on the information we have at hand, as to whether another person is worthy of listening to and trusting. Absent a trusted third party that can verify and adjudicate claims, there are a few, less convenient options: direct confrontation, paranoia, gossip, or forging time-intensive personal relationships.
But because we never have perfect information we rely on flash judgements and assumptions to get by. Often enough these assumptions perpetuate structural inequalities like racism, patriarchy, and class oppression. Sharon Zukin and colleagues, for example, found that Yelp reviewers were more likely to describe Polish restaurants in the predominantly white neighborhood of Greenpoint “authentic” and “cozy,” while criticizing predominantly Black Bedford-Stuyverson “for [having] a dearth of dining options and an atmosphere of dirt and danger”. Moreover, a quarter of Bed-Stuy reviews mention the neighborhood itself whereas only eight percent of reviews mention Greenpoint. In the Greenpoint reviews, users hope that the old culture of Greenpoint’s multigenerational Polish families is preserved, while Bed-Stuy reviews cheerlead the transformation of the neighborhood from a “ghetto” into the next hot spot. Good restaurants are in danger of being yuppified in Greenpoint but such transformations are hoped for in Bed-Stuy which currently has “no options.” This sentiment is not universal however, and in fact it is the people who don’t like gentrification but are still outsiders seeking an authentic eating experience in Bed-Stuy that are most vocal about wanting the neighborhood to stay just the way that it is.
These reviewers —in true Hegelian fashion— tie the authenticity of the restaurant to the patrons not the food being served. In other words, the restaurant is only deemed an authentic Bed-Stuy restaurant once other people deemed authentic themselves, recognize the restaurant. A reviewer (quoted by Zukin et. al.) writes: “This is a local restaurant where actual local (born and raised in Bed-Stuy) people eat.” What this reviewer implicitly argues is that the quality of the food is not sufficient for a good restaurant experience. It has to have a history linked to the rest of the community. In a way, the reviewer is a passive witness to the verification of authenticity.
But if the food is good, who cares how long the restaurant has been there or who else is eating in it? What does the neighborhood or the ethnic identity of patrons have to do with food? The answer lies in our desire, not for pork belly or pierogi, but for authenticity itself. We want to find things and experience them as they are, not as someone else thinks we want them to be. Being successfully marketed to is halfway towards being a poser—someone that is predictably satisfied with a curated experience. Authenticity comes from the freedom to choose within a world of unwritten rules about the correct answer. Hegel knew this sucked and that’s why he called it the “freedom of the void.” Today, I think most people just call it social anxiety.
Album I’m listening to right now: