Leftover thoughts about authenticity

by Rob Horning

23 September 2010


I found the bookmark I was using when I was reading The Authenticity Hoax, on which I had made a bunch of near illegible notes. I think I covered most of it, but I missed this: Potter at one point dismisses the problem of alienated labor and more or less endorses what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, “a pervasive atmosphere conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” Or to put it another way, the attitude of “work sucks, get over it” is an ideological position, not a statement of fact—it’s an example of the way capitalist ideology shapes what appears to be realistic and what registers as slacker daydreaming, establishing the range of expectations for working life and normalizing the idea that work should be personally nonproductive—it’s effort made to forward somebody else’s ideas in return for cash, or it’s not “real” work.

Authenticity, as a result of that prevailing ideology about work, takes on a compensatory function in the sphere of consumption—once the private sphere, but no longer. It becomes a code word for the process of self-making within the “empty work/frantic consumerism” dialectic. We suspend our real self while we work, but are then empowered through cash to elaborate that self in leisure time. That typically means buying products and experiences from the cultural-industrial complex and immersing oneself in consumerism’s code rather than diving into some interior possibilities latent or dormant in one’s own intrinsic make-up. I sometimes subscribe to the idea that engaging in meaningful work within a clearly delimited community as an ongoing practice is the only way to tap into something that could be called the “real self” or “species being.” But that only defers the question of what defines “meaningful” and “community” and so on. Anyway, consumerism thrives on atomized individuals who neglect collective identity and chase an unbounded authenticity through serial purchases and collecting as opposed to letting go of the authenticity ideal in favor of something more like flow, self-confidence through collaborative doing.

I don’t know. I’m troubled by the thought that the insecurity about identity seems to be addressed in our society through building a durable personal brand, with the strategies adopted from ubiquitous marketing and self-broadcasting tools. Seeking authenticity now means, more than anything else, developing a strong personal brand. But what is the product we are branding? Bare life? What market are we after a share of? My problem with that isn’t that the personal brand is inauthentic—it just seems subject to kinds of evaluation and tracking and manipulation that corrodes human dignity, which rests in the myth that there is something ineffable and inexpressible about all of us that only comes out when we are in the process of doing something for people.

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