by Andrew Potter
HarperCollins, 2010, 304 pp., $25.99
“Now and then it is possible to observe the moral life in the process of revising itself”, wrote Lionel Trilling in his masterful little book Sincerity and Authenticity (1972). Originally delivered as the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1969–70, the book and its opening line allude to the shift in values underway at the close of the 1960s, when droves of newly cynical citizens scurried from politics after a decade of three assassinations, a bloody and undefined televised war and a cascade of sizzling race riots. Trilling’s volume, rolling through the opening door of the Watergate fiasco, emerged at a time when the American ethos had transformed from that of a caricatured middle-class of conformist management drones—made famous by David Reisman’s “other-directed” lonely crowd, C. Wright Mills’s white-collared bureaucrats and William H. Whyte’s “organization” men—into freewheeling, existentialist Beats and Hippies who demanded the shedding of repression, propriety and clothing. Instead they would value personal liberation, uninhibited exploration and, above all, authenticity.
They launched themselves into their personal arcs of libération, the story goes, by saying “no” to their parents’ numbing suburban conformity and postwar patterns of conspicuous consumption. Against marching to the beat of someone else’s drum—especially the American military-industrial complex’s, man—they were going to do their own thing, blaze their own trail, “think different”, and have it their way.
Hey, wait a second! These rallying cries sound remarkably (actually, exactly) like the sales pitches used now to sell laptops and iPods, Jeeps, sneakers and flame-broiled hamburgers: phony, two-bit tropes crafted by advertising firms and trend-scouting agencies. What’s going on here?
An admirable new attempt to answer this question is The Authenticity Hoax by Andrew Potter, a Toronto-based journalist and philosophy professor. In language that is accessible, punchy and generally well informed, Potter lays out how the authenticity plague has mutated from maverick Birkenstock into rebel Reebok over the past five decades—and how it was cultivated in the first place.
Potter begins his romp with a gentle anecdote of today’s absurd search for supposedly authentic life. He tells of a French couple who, ignoring repeated warnings of Somali piracy, uproot themselves and their toddler from the horrors of civilization to sail to Zanzibar. During their journey they are, naturally, kidnapped by Somali pirates. The father, 28-year-old Florent Lemaçon, is shot and killed. “Why did they continue on their voyage, despite being repeatedly warned?” Potter asks. His answer is that the 1960s-inspired search for authenticity, “a form of individualism that privileges self-fulfillment and self-discovery”, has become “the foremost spiritual quest of our time.” It has become an undeniable quest, argues Potter, that we have come to believe may be undertaken only outside the corrupting influence of contemporary social life:
The search for authenticity is about the search for meaning in a world where all of the traditional sources—religion and successor ideals such as aristocracy, community, and nationalism—have been dissolved in the acid of science, technology, capitalism, and liberal democracy.
Potter convincingly details the history and lure of this spiritual pursuit and how it has become so enmeshed in contemporary Western culture that it now dominates the cultural spectrum—from Brooklyn hipsters to the Olive Garden, from Levi’s “vintage” jeans to Christian soul-seekers, from Sarah Palin and punk music to the slow food movement, “rustic” décor and ecotourism. “Authenticity”, says Potter, “has worked its way through our entire worldview.”
But for the enormous array of people yearning for authenticity, very little of it is to be found. “We live in a world increasingly dominated by the fake, the prepackaged, and the artificial”, Potter writes. “Whichever way we turn we are beset by outrageous advertising, lying politicians, and fraudulent memoirists.” To prove his point he cites a Zogby poll that concludes people are looking to get away from all of this unreality and political spin and back to leading authentic lives—even though, as a follow-up poll concluded, they don’t know exactly what that means. Potter says that as a contrastive term, “authenticity” is used condemn not only the ersatz facets of modern life, but also, implicitly if not directly, modernity itself: capitalism, consumer culture, political liberalism, technology. He includes on this list of “declinists” Al Gore, Prince Charles and disaster-film director Roland Emmerich. “Whatever [authenticity] turns out to be”, he writes, “people definitely want it.” That’s what keeps the dauphine, the prince and so many high-minded others in business.
Though the reader can see the paradox coming, Potter asserts that “our pursuit of the authentic ideal has become one of the most powerful causes of inauthenticity in the world.” This is in part because what used to count as rebellious and unique, and was thus proof of authenticity (tattoos, organic food, rarefied travel destinations, extreme sports, alt rock, “thinking outside the box”, your inner artist, whatever) has itself become trite and stale. Once interesting, it has all migrated into the pumping, sugary heart of mainstream commercial culture and become the perfect marketing pitch in lockstep with the shift in values that enables its very success: Be different and unique by buying our things. All authenticity is now a marketing ploy. When it came to fetishism, Marx didn’t know how right he would be.
This is a fine display of dialectic, as far as it goes. The problem is, it’s a rerun. Daniel Bell made the same observation in the 1970s in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, as did Marshall Berman in The Politics of Authenticity, Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man and Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism. “Cultural modernism”, Bell wrote in 1976, “though it still calls itself subversive, finds a home largely in bourgeois, capitalist society.” Baffler editor Thomas Frank, too, coined the genius phrase “commodify your dissent” more than a dozen years ago. It is unfortunate that no mention of the older generation of towering figures ever surfaces in The Authenticity Hoax. While Potter does credit the likes of Naomi Klein, Todd Gitlin and Ben Barber for their socially critical insights, there is, bafflingly, no mention of Theodor Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity (1964), which took the German Existentialists to task for their own yammering on the topic. This is the large gray animal squatting in the corner, not least because “The Jargon of Authenticity” is the title of Potter’s first chapter.
Instead of standing on the shoulders of these and other giants, Potter lays the groundwork for his exposition on authenticity by hop-scotching through the last 2,500 years of intellectual history, beginning with Socrates’ suicide and his injunction to know thyself. There are snappy yet relatively unedifying forays back into contemporary pop culture: from The Matrix to Mad Men then back to Greek cosmology; from Thales and Zeus to Monty Python and Stephen Jay Gould and then on to Marxian alienation and The Office. It’s not that these narrative fragments can’t be made to “hang together”, as Richard Rorty said good intellectual work should do, but rather that Potter’s narrative never really stabilizes in such a way that the diversity of his examples and the relationships between them convincingly cohere. In addition to this intellectually scattershot quality, he often seems rushed, which leads him to tepid treatments of crucial subjects. The Protestant Reformation, for example, one of the most significant caesuras in the history of Western social and political life, the one that ushered the moral value of sincerity to the fore, gets all of two paragraphs, both of them sophomoric. To wit: “Unlike Catholics, whose faith is mediated through the supreme authority of the Church, Protestants regarded each person’s interpretation of the Bible as authoritative.”
Potter does eventually find a focus of sorts by settling on the man he—and many others before him—deems the main culprit of the authenticity boondoggle: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The incipient Romantic writer—a Calvinist not once but twice, by the way—did much in “The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” (1750) and the autobiographical Confessions (1782) to advance the ideal of being onself as a noble and moral good; that is, before he was shunned by Parisian society for being a weirdo and bolted into the woods, more than seventy years before Thoreau’s Walden, to write Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1776). Rousseau fled from Society to Nature because he reviled the fake propriety of the day, thinking society nothing more than a continuous and not especially convincing sham. “The plain and noble effusions of an honest soul”, he wrote in Letter to M. d’Alembert (1758), “speak a language far different from the insincere demonstrations of politeness (and the false appearances) which the customs of the great world demand.”
As Potter tells it, the sentiment behind Rousseau’s accusation—that society corrupts the noble, authentic human being and should thus be resisted—motivated not only the art and literature that would flow from Romanticism, but also the tidal wave of aesthetic modernism it would unleash. Only what was outside of civilized society was really real: the primitive, the insane, the nostalgic past, the criminal, the exotic (think Picasso, Dubuffet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Foucault). “Rousseau launched”, Potter writes, “the centuries-long dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois.” He is absolutely right that these Romantic dichotomies still cling to us, and that they are based on the idea that “society is corrupt, commerce is alienating, and the whole system should be abandoned, if not completely destroyed.” This quiet sentiment is the unsavory corollary to the search for authenticity.
After setting up this romantic logic, Potter ventures to question its wisdom in a complex, post-industrial society such as ours. Thoroughgoing discussions of the consequences and contradictions follow: the cult of the artist (Damien Hirst), confessional culture (Oprah), plagiarism and copyright infringement, suburban nowhere-ness, the Web and social transparency, and insincere, authenticity-strategizing politicians all show that Potter feels more at home with contemporary issues, which he handles with considerable journalistic agility. The result of these disparate sorties is his claim that the contemporary search for authenticity, as his title boasts, is a lark:
The whole authenticity project that has occupied us moderns for the past two hundred and fifty years is a hoax. It has never delivered on its promise, and it never will. . . . My argument is not that we once upon a time lived authentic lives . . . and now authenticity is gone. This is not a fairy tale. Rather, . . . there really is no such thing as authenticity, not in the way it needs to exist for the widespread search to make sense. Authenticity is a way of making judgments, staking claims, and expressing preferences about our relationships to one another, to the world, and to things. But . . . [t]here could never be an authenticity detector we could wave at something, like the security guards checking you over at the airport.
This is a welcome observation. We should not romanticize the past and think that everything was great back then. Communities were smaller and more intimate, sure, but smallpox and tuberculosis were more intimate, too. People had more time to enjoy life; unless, of course, they were slaves. Food came from local markets (or one’s own field) instead of Wal-Mart, but there was no Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of lead in your turnips. Our designation of something being authentic—in food, clothing, travel destination, music or personality—is merely a way of expressing preferences, Potter says, not something that inheres in the world.
I can see where Potter wants go to with this—essentially to limit authenticity to the role of a hip discriptor—but he himself seems not to actually buy it. Aside from his scholarly slapdashery, which can be forgiven in an author with sights on the commercial publishing world, this is where the book really goes off the rails.
Authenticity, for one, is not entirely subjective. As a modern philosophical concept, in fact, from Montesquieu through Marcuse, it is intriguing precisely because it, like beauty or the good, bridges objective and subjective categories. Indeed, in the realm of behavior and feeling, some are more authentic—more primary to human experience—than others. In social relations, many are more sincere than others, and they were closer generally in the West prior to the Industrial Revolution and capitalist “alienation.” Going to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris is more authentic than seeing “it” in Las Vegas. Jeans that are actually old are not the same as the ones that say “authentic” and just look old. And someone who is guided by a set of internalized moral principles and integrity is more authentic than someone who imitates the look and behavior of his favorite actor, rapper or even philosopher. Authenticity, that is, has something to do with a blend of historical fact, self-determining freedom, personal sincerity, the shunning of deadening social proprieties and a willing divestiture of illusion. As a personal trait, it marks the difference between un-self-aware behavior and behavior staged for a purpose.
Potter knows all this, of course, and he stealthily proves it when he addresses calculated attempts to create authenticity or unravels concepts such as “fake authenticity”:
To call something fake implies it corresponds to something real. In contrast, the fake-authentic does not imply something genuine of which the fake is a mere facsimile. So the agenda of the fake-authentic then is to replace the whole real-versus-fake game with one where that distinction no longer serves any purpose, or even makes any sense.
This crystal clear reasoning reveals Potter’s own conversion, however inconvenient, to a belief in distinctions between what is an authentic fake and what is a fake-authentic. If he accepts that there is truth behind the façade, that there are qualitative differences among experiences, then he believes in the authentic. Furthermore, he holds authenticity in high enough esteem that he can come down on things that are blatantly inauthentic (the fake 1897-erected Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, for example). If authenticity is simply a way of making subjective judgments, and if the fake-authentic is authentic in its own right, then on what basis can one recognize the inauthentic?
Potter writes with skepticism that the received definition of the authentic self “is about being spontaneous, risky, sentimental, and creative”, and social relations that are “small, organic communities that are noncommercial.” Careful to steer clear of contradicting his central point that authenticity does not exist, however, he cites only what others have made it out to be. But it is nonetheless clear that Potter does have some kind of positive idea against which to measure wrongheaded attempts at the authentic. He also believes that he is in a position to determine what that is, though he doesn’t say so explicitly.
In so doing, Potter falls prey here to a disingenuous egalitarian’s shroud. In his own act of standing out from the (hipster, liberal academic) crowd, Potter wishes to combat this sentiment: While me and my smart friends think that heading to a theme-resort with faux-authentic eateries can only be done ironically, that doesn’t mean that the millions of others who do it seriously are deluded. Potter could have made a stronger case if he confessed to believing that many people actually are being deluded, that the mass of consumers really do go bonkers for kitsch and the fake authentic, and that we should judge them as such. There really is a lot of inauthenticity out there, after all, and satire, philosophy and social criticism have a responsibility to expose the scams foisted upon the naive as genuine by profiteers in illusion-making. There certainly are, as P.T. Barnum reminded us long ago, plenty of suckers.
Instead of owning up to this bias, Potter accuses sarcastic, left-leaning, well-to-do aesthetes for leading the charge in this false search. They are the ones who most want to escape the drivel that coats mainstream consumer society (see, for example, America’s most-sold artist, Thomas Kinkade). In the chapter “Conspicuous Authenticity” Potter blames not the people who populate corporate “authentic Italian” eateries, but rather
the people who go to special invitation-only set-menu dinners hosted by professional Italian chefs or who own cabins on remote, closed-development lakes in Northern Ontario or the Gulf Islands. These are the people who are setting the bar for everyone else; their privilege manifest[s] itself as the successful discovery of authenticity.
Potter makes this connection between privilege and authenticity because, as he sees it, the search for authenticity is ultimately about status competition. It’s about showing others that you are authentic via your off-the-beaten path lifestyle (if you can afford it). This updated version of Veblen—whom, along with Max Weber, Potter does discuss at length—sees authenticity seekers as defined not by what they seek but by who sees them seeking it. Authenticity has become external competition rather than internal motivation. The people to be blamed are not the sellers, but the buyers.
Still, that Potter successfully unearths a strand of nauseating social competition does not mean that the authentic is just a figment of individual taste or imagination. The authentic does exist—in things and in people—and not all of it is to be found among the upper social echelons. Perhaps Potter was looking at the circles he knows best, but log on to Facebook and peck around until you find Charlotte from West Virginia standing next to a tinsel-smothered Christmas tree with her most recent update: “Jesus is real and loveing! Jesus is real and he is comeing!” Like it or not, this is authentic, too. As the recipe of aesthetic modernism has it: the less enlightened, the more authentic.
In the end, The Authenticity Hoax is a well-written and courageous attempt at tackling a very thorny subject. But Potter would do well, as would we all, to take a cue from his Canadian compatriot Charles Taylor, winner of 2007’s Templeton Prize and perhaps the most important living philosopher of modernity’s spiritual gambit. Taylor’s lifelong work, notably in Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age (2007), has focused, to put it blandly, on the philosophical transformation of the modern Western self. Over the last half millennium this murky entity has gone from a God-tethered supplicant to an atomistic solipsist to an inwardly turned being with subjective depth. It is during this last phase, beginning with Romanticism, that the moral ideal of authenticity emerged. Taylor writes that for all its narcissistic faults this ideal “points us towards a more self-responsible form of life” and encourages “self-determining freedom.” He casts the ethic of authenticity as a living ideal that directs actual lives, and thus as something to take seriously in the history of Western life. It may be a morally troubled pursuit, but it is no hoax.
As with Bell, Sennett and Lasch, neither Taylor’s name nor his clearly relevant Ethics of Authenticity (1992) is ever mentioned in The Authenticity Hoax. It is omissions like these, plus Potter’s pusillanimous view of radical human depth, his shallow treatment of the influence of religious history on our secular culture, his neglect of the inward dimension of authenticity, and his thin account of key intellectual movements that drastically under-serve this very timely topic.