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How Managerial Aesthetics Explain Why Cities Can't Authentically Market Themselves
Have you ever noticed that there’s nothing more generic than a “local” coffee shop?
As Orianna Schwindt wrote for New York magazine about the unbearable sameness of cities:
I was in a non-chain coffee shop in Columbia, South Carolina. I was on a mission to the cities and towns closest to the geographic center of each state, and this was only stop No. 6 of 50, but I remembered seeing the same lights in coffee shops in Bend and Portland in Oregon, and innumerable others I had frequented while living in New York and the Chicago area.
This one small observation opened up the floodgates. I noticed the same kind of person was behind the counter: young and tattooed and bespectacled. The same kind of patrons: young and tattooed and bespectacled, clacking away on MacBooks. The WiFi passwords were all some cutesy variation on “coffee culture”: !Java!, TheGreatBambeano, that sort of thing. I couldn’t stop noticing. I’d go on to see the same in Colorado Springs, in Fresno, in Indianapolis, in Oklahoma City, in Nashville.
And it wasn’t just the coffee shops — bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar.
Despite the obsession with “local” today, it seems every city is trying its hardest to make itself as generically hipster as humanly possible.
This is also how they sell themselves. Every city marketing video is basically the same. This is an older one from Lincoln, Nebraska that is a particularly clear version of this.
Frankly all of them are some variation on this same theme. The newer ones are only different in that they now tend to show two to three times as much diversity as actually exists in these places. They are almost all extremely cringe.
Why is this? Why can’t cities actually emphasize their uniqueness? Why is that that while they boast about how unique they are, their presentation is invariably generic?
I’ve had a number of theories over the year. One is a sense of shame and lack of self-confidence, that is, cultural cringe. Another one is the effect where those who are on the outside hoping to get into the cool kids club always try harder to do what the cool kids are doing. Still another is that locals have a lot of emotional associations with scenes of their own city, and so can’t appreciate how an outsider lacking any personal connection will view it.
These probably all play a role. But Benjamin Mabry’s essay on managerial aesthetics opens another window on to this.
The aesthetics of the local coffee shop or microbrewery, ones are so standard issue that they might as well be a franchise, are managerial aesthetics. It is “local” detached from any genuinely local self-presentation and co-opted into just another cosmopolitan brand.
Genuinely local or authentic self-presentation, whether that be of a person, a people, or a place, is, as Mabry points out, at some level anti-managerial. And thus to embrace such a self-presentation is to signal that you are placing yourself outside of or at odds with the managerial system.
As Mabry notes, the managerial class is made up of a thin layer of the 1-2% people who are genuinely elite by capability - the proverbial “10X programmer,” for example - with a much larger group of 18% or so of people who are undistinguished by capability but elite by status. The generic hipster aesthetic is the aesthetic that serves to demarcate this group from those below and signals their embrace of managerialism and its ideologies. As these people and places are not genuine elites, their leverage in signaling against managerialism by a adopting an authentic self-presentation is low because there are fewer and fewer routes to financial security and prestige outside the managerial system today.
In this world, the route to marketing your particular local attributes is to recapitulate them as an exportable, managerial, cosmopolitan brand. A good example is “Nashville hot chicken.” Nashville hot chicken is no longer a niche product consumed in a particular manner by a particular group of people in a particular city as part of a particular cultural tradition, but a brand that appears on menus coast to coast.
As managerialism has grown more triumphant, we’ve seen people, places, and institutions increasingly do this consciously, by, in essence, managerializing themselves aesthetically. NASCAR is a good example here, as described in a great American Conservative article about it. The old concept of a “stock car” has been replaced literally by a fake grill and logo on a totally standardized industrial product. NASCAR markets itself today almost entirely through managerial shibboleths like diversity and inclusion. The historic identity of NASCAR and its organic fanbase has been treated as a source of capital to be monetized and slowly liquidated over time.
Unsurprisingly, genuinely elite people and places have the ability to engage in some level of genuine self-presentation. New York City does this very well. It’s very conscious of its uniqueness as a city, knows that it is at the top of the heap as the most important node in the managerial economy, and thus happily and self-consciously presents itself as New York.
When I talk about things like the fall of the WASP establishment or the managerial revolution, it’s not just to show off some esoteric history or political theory. It’s to provide tools you can use to understand the world we live in. Managerialism, and the resulting bureaucratization of civic leadership, for example, explains why my home city of Indianapolis is unable replicate the magic of the 1980s when it used a sports strategy to transform the city. The triumph of managerialism in the post-Cold War world has been slowly extirpating civic and institutional capacity throughout America. A city like Indianapolis is thus arguably no longer what Samo Buja would call a “live player.”
Similarly, managerial aesthetics help explain the generic urban culture we see in America, and helps explain why it seems like most cities almost physically cannot market themselves in a truly authentic way. Managerial aesthetics are a barrier that limit our repertoire of available actions.
We shouldn’t try to overdetermine or over explain things. Managerialism isn’t a single all powerful force that explains everything. But the managerial lens is an interesting and important way to make sense of what we see around us. Explaining the genericness of “local” is a practical example of that.
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Cover image via Yelp.