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Authenticity Crisis and the Dream of Escaping Irony

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Thursday, Sep 23, 2010
It's clear in the peculiar note of 2000s hipsterism, that mawkish nostalgia for juvenilia that passes for a "new earnestness". We want to build a self in the present that honors and remembers that pure self, before we had to try to be cool.

A section of Andrew Potter‘s mostly compelling new book The Authenticity Hoax deals with Soviet kitsch and mentions a park in Hungary that’s now home to Soviet-era monuments and statues. Hungarian authorities, anxious that the park would be misinterpreted as a cynical move to cater to what Potter calls oppression tourists, have given it this motto: “no irony, memento.”


That strikes me as a good motto for everyone laboring under the burden of authenticity, which seems like an increasingly desperate attempt to avoid striking an ironic attitude about oneself. It’s clear in the peculiar note of 2000s hipsterism, that mawkish nostalgia for juvenilia that passes for a “new earnestness,” the evocation of the comforts of familiar things from the developmental period that predates cool—the stuff people are into before puberty, before tastes matter to our sense of self. We want to build a self in the present that honors and remembers that pure self, before we had to try to be cool.
  
Potter, who previously co-authored The Rebel Sell, about anti-conformity marketing, argues that authenticity has supplanted cool as the au courant advertising strategy—which, because he sees advertisers as following the proclivities of the consumer public rather than shaping them, means that authenticity is an idiotic fetish that middle class people have somehow managed to get stuck on in their quest for status. “Cool fizzled out when it was exposed as just another consumerist status hierarchy…. 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.”


I agree with that analysis, but I think it’s not quite fair to blame consumers for falling into authenticity traps, as Potter does when he declares “we should not blame those who are selling the authentic, but rather those who are buying.” At that point the business journalist in him seems to get the better of him, as he ignores his own arguments about capitalism’s role in trigger an authenticity crisis. Potter, a philosophy Ph.D who writes for Maclean’s, a sort of Canadian Time magazine, does a good job tracing the history of the idea of authenticity, through Hobbes and Rousseau and Hegel and Benjamin (though it was a tease to use the phrase “jargon of authenticity” without citing Adorno), but that metaphysical spadework is dispensed with once we reach contemporary times, and individuals are expected to be able to transcend the social conditions into which they were born and reject myths of authenticity out of a common sense appraisal of the benefits of capitalism and liberal democracy. One of Potter’s primary concerns is with the ways the fascination with authenticity is currently taking an aggressively atavistic form, with people yearning to roll back the Enlightenment and market capitalism and get in touch with pure nature. I don’t think authenticity automatically implies a look back to a phony lost golden age (though it often does). Sometimes it is constructed as agreat leap forward; sometimes it is infused with technophilia, as when Mark Zuckerberg claims that people with integrity (i.e. authentic modern persons) share everything on Facebook to prove they have nothing to hide.


And Potter sometimes seems to border on adopting the right-wing narrative that regards eco-minded consumers and lifestyle connoisseurs as some sort of liberal fascists. But by and large his tone is shaped by an apparent desire to be accessible to general readers, which makes it reasonable and conversational. He gets into some issues in metaphysics without ever becoming obtuse or recondite (i.e., he wisely leaves Heidegger outside his bailiwick here).


Potter is quick to say alienated labor is simply “the way it is”—you know, work sucks, get over it—which strikes me as hasty. I don’t quite understand his claim that alienation “does not mean that there is a problem and that something ought to be done about it,” though I suspect it has something to do with his implicit rejection the idea of human species being (i.e. he implies that having meaningful work to do is not necessarily the goal/purpose of human life) and his advocation of tolerating a rigid separation of the private and public self—which I am totally on board with. More on that below.


Anyway, blaming consumers for allowing authenticity to become a marketing tool holds them unfairly responsible for the ontological insecurity brought on by modernity (to put it in Anthony Giddens’s terms). That insecurity, in my view, brings on the crisis of authenticity, which consumerism has attempted to ameliorate ever since. Marketing cool is one of many strategies, one that was especially suitable to a fragmenting media market that allowed each of us to regard ourselves as our own niche. Marketing environmental concern—a point Potter is especially strong on—seems to be the ascendant strategy currently.


But the goal of selling a claim to lost authenticity is as old as the forces that first broke up traditional ways of life and melted everything solid into air, to borrow Marx’s phrase (from a passage Potter also cites). The first anti-irony wave was perhaps the cult of sensibility in the late-18th century, which was a response to the rising tide of commercialism and “interestedness” in English culture as capitalism began to reshape subjectivity and inculcate rational calculation as a socially tolerated morality. Hence all the literary fad novels full of weeping men and feeling heroines—A Sentimental Journey, The Man of Feeling, the works of Fanny Burney and Frances Sheridan and countless other forgotten late 18th century writers. The characters are obsessed, just like we are, with displaying sincere emotions without letting the fact of the display and the self-consciousness of it invalidate the gesture—and with outdoing the displays of others on the scale of “conspicuous authenticity” that Potter derides.


In other words, the need to prove authenticity and the capacity to “really” feel things is not a new status hierarchy, but one that emerges with capitalism and consumerism (which was born in the late-18th century). It undergirds the class distinctions that come into play as aristocratic titles and such get washed away. It always serves along side of the conspicuous consumption that Veblen famously described to establish class boundaries. It’s been there all the time, helping differentiate those who consume vulgarly from those who consume tastefully—or genuinely, authentically, organically, etc. And since authenticity has no metaphysical basis—there’s no intrinsic “real self” to display; it’s defined negatively, as Potter notes; it’s always contingent, as Rorty argued among many, many others—the grounds of authenticity can always be shifting in order to freshly reinscribe the hierarchy. Fashions can change as class markers get appropriated without posing an existential threat. The problem is that privilege gets laundered as authenticity and gets to pass without being questioned. It becomes authentic to be inegalitarian.


The “authenticity hoax” is precisely the Romantic idea that we have a true self to which we must display our faithfulness. We think our integrity is at stake in consumerism when really what we are doing is attenuating the status system, replenishing the “code”. We think we are recalling something—a memento of the real self—that isn’t there at all; we blind ourselves to the truth of irony, an inescapable and paradoxical self-awareness that our self is a construct, a work in progress, an open-ended (and mortal) set of possibilities rather than a timeless essence. As Potter puts in in his introduction, “we need ... an individualism that makes its peace with the modern world while allowing for a meaningful life free of nostalgia, reactionary politics, or status seeking.”


That sounds pretty utopian, but it’s also what Rorty seems to be after in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. He argues that, since there is no true self, we are burdened with a crushing anxiety of influence—a sense that we are creating ourselves out of someone else’s language and merely establishing our non-existence as a unique being. Each person has a “need to come to terms with the blind impress which chance has given him, to make a self for himself by redescribing that impress in terms which are, if only marginally, his own.” That is to say, we need to create “authenticity” out of rhetoric, a unique personal vocabulary and point of view, through creative restatements of what has already be said, of what already simply exists. We can’t be free of contingency, but must seek freedom through it. And we cannot mistake our own definition of authenticity as being the true, universal one—we must keep it private while adhering to an ideal of cosmopolitanism in the public sphere. One needs to be an ironist, in Rorty’s terms—one must accept that our descriptive language is open to influence and is not permanent or true. So basically, when we are setting up our Hungarian statue park of the self, we should flip the motto, and make it “Irony, no mementos.”


You can’t ever complete the quest for the authentic self, but you can’t really ever get it wrong either. You don’t have to borrow someone else’s notion of the authentic itself. But the idea of authenticity as it’s deployed by persuasion professionals (who strive to amplify the feelings of ontological insecurity, since our feeling insecure gets us to buy goods), tends to militate against that idea obviously, positing instead the notion that we have an inner truth that we are in danger of betraying. The sustaining consumerist myth is that authenticity is a matter of manifesting individual novelty and nonconformity rather than a private mode of assimilating inevitable influences. Consumerism perverts romanticism by adopting its critique of modernity and using it to co-opt the quest for authenticity, generating a cultural environment in which most efforts at self-fashioning intensify the feeling of insecurity and phoniness. Potter notes that “selling authenticity is another way of making it self-conscious, which is again, self-defeating.”


Creativity, even as it pertains to self-creation, appears as a strict matter of consumption—not as something attached to a broader sense of practice. So all our efforts can tend to feel like poses, stabs at fashionability, attempts to crack the consumerist code and reap the social benefits. That’s in part because the search for self can’t take place in private anymore, as Rorty seems to hope. It is now situated in social media, wherein the various gestures and experiments we make searching for ourselves get redeployed automatically as marketing, as signifiers of what is trending.


So I think the specific way to resist the evils of commodified authenticity is to police the public-private boundary more carefully. Rorty writes that we have to “overcome authority without claiming authority”—to slightly shift that, I think that means we have to find ways to validate our self-making project that don’t rely ultimately on commercialized modes of validation, which appear to have transpersonal authority. And we can’t broadcast our identity, mediatize it, because that amounts to the same thing. 

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