Defending the authenticity quest

by Rob Horning

23 April 2009


The pursuit of authenticity frequently takes a beating on this blog because it seems to me the operating ideology of marketing and the moral underpinning of consumerism. Accumulating things is supposed to reveal to us something that doesn’t really exist—a unique self we can attenuate and express only through a well-curated set of products. Often, my temptation, abetted by reading a lot of continental philosophy, is to dismiss the notion of authenticity altogether as a fantasy about finding a transcendental signified. The fundamental insecurity of our being, the provisional nature of subjectivity, ends up being eternally ripe for exploitation in the absence of a stable social structure that assigns identity and fixes it. This is to say, the crisis of identity derives from the terrible responsibility that comes out of the ideal of liberty, which in turn prompts some to seek to “escape from freedom” and so on. But I’m never completely comfortable with this position—I’m hesitant to advocate a return to feudalism or a return of religiously defined social roles (as Bell seems to in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism). And saying we should revel in the “free play” of provisional identities seems Pollyannaish.
A society in which its members perpetually reinvent themselves seems utterly unstable; with no grounds for mores of interpersonal trust, it would rely entirely on institutional contract enforcement. Such a world wouldn’t be all that different from the late-capitalist one that’s always being complained about—a hedonistic world of atomistic individuals with no responsibility to anything but the self, which can be constructed around any set of values willed into being for only how long it seems desirable. The instrumental exploitation of others for personal ends is limited only by the law, that is only the calculated likelihood of being caught. In this Foreign Policy article, Leo Panitch quotes Marx on a related point, how capitalism engenders isolation by eroding other ties—the ties made possible by an identity that transcends economic roles: Marx

knew very well that capitalism, by its nature, breeds and fosters social isolation. Such a system, he wrote, “leaves no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ ” Indeed, capitalism leaves societies mired “in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” The resulting social isolation creates passivity in the face of personal crises, from factory layoffs to home foreclosures. So, too, does this isolation impede communities of active, informed citizens from coming together to take up radical alternatives to capitalism.

So it seems worth preserving the social requirement of a stable identity, as this seems to promise an escape from the mechanistic rationalism and self-centered atomism of capitalist society—it makes the potential for a broader role for collective action seem plausible, whereas the unstable, provisional identity allows for the ideological refashioning of social isolation as personal convenience. But how to anchor identity without relying on the crutches of consumerism—how to prevent the search for self from becoming an all-consuming project that then negates the collective action it was supposed to make possible? Philosopher Charles Taylor, in his 1991 book The Ethics of Authenticity—a book I discovered serendipitously at the library when checking out Bell’s book—attempts to defend what he terms the authenticity ideal, the premise that the meaning of life is to discover one’s unique self. He traces the ideal’s roots not only to individualistic capitalism but to 17th century philosophy and its postulates about the moral sense, the idea that within us is a guiding moral light that we must strive to discover and obey in our pursuit of the good. Later philosophers would dispense with some of the spiritual aspects of this and highlight the notion of a personal inner truth that it is our duty to discover if we hope to experience true fulfillment: “each of us has an original way of being human,” as Taylor summarizes it. “This gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.” So much for species being; this view (which incidentally fit well with the atomization required for industrial capitalism) negates the notion of inherent and common human nature, paving the way for a metaphysical sanction for the division of labor.

Taylor seeks to salvage this by resituating the pursuit of authenticity within a social-determined field of relevance. His point is that we can’t determine our authentic being arbitrarily—the points aren’t which we develop our uniqueness have to be recognized as being socially relevant (this is akin to the idea of value deriving from “socially necessary labor” in Marx). “Things take on importance against a background of intelligibility,” Taylor asserts, a “horizon of significance” that options for self-definition must exceed. People can’t simply decide that something is self-defining simply because they chose it—simply because the choice is autonomous or proves one’s autonomy. Taylor argues in effect that you can’t simply wear a corny old T-shirt you found in a thrift store or in your parents attic and pronounce yourself self-actualized, because no one else has a reason to care about the claim to difference you have thereby staked out.

This is what the ongoing war against hipsters is about—about refusing to legitimate the claims to socially relevant meaning that the youth-culture entrepreneurs are always trying to get us to buy into. Bell cites this type of struggle as the fundamental social problem—“The interplay of modernism as a mode developed by serious artists [he means abstract expressionists, mainly], the institutionalization of those played-out forms by the “cultural mass” [read, “hipsters”—those with an economic stake in mastering cultural trends and making sure they continue to cycle], and the hedonism as a way of life promoted by the marketing system of business, constitutes the cultural contradiction of capitalism…. But the social order lacks either a culture that is a symbolic expression of any vitality or a moral impulse that is a motivational or binding force”—that is, he argues contemporary society lacks the shared “horizon of significance” that Taylor theorizes that makes self-definition possible. Hence, anomie, solipsism, nihilism and the rest of it. Taylor argues,

The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized…but this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements…. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands than emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.

That seems like a recipe for conformity, if oppositional modes to the hegemonic culture are ruled out as inauthentic. Taylor doesn’t necessarily want to argue that position (Bell arguably does), but he does want to undermine the formation of “trivial” identities—what stands out so much in hipster culture. The existence of these identities, and the fact that some attempt to legitimize them, points to a societal defect.

Taylor ultimately sees in this sort of subjectivism what he calls radical anthropocentrism—humans refusing to accede to natural limits; everything is given for our instrumental use. (This would seem to suggest environmentalism as a solution to hipsterism. That seems to be what is happening now, but it fights the reactionary effort to reduce green practices to attempts to seem cool.)

For Taylor, what is pivotal in the pursuit of authenticity is social recognition. Recognition, taken for granted in periods with a rigid social hierarchy, becomes legible as a problem when the hierarchy breaks down. “The thing about inwardly derived, personal, original identity is that it doesn’t enjoy this recognition a priori,” Taylor writes. “It has to win it through exchange, and it can fail.” The word choice here seems important—“winning” identity through “exchange.” That resembles the paradigmatic arrangement of capitalism—trading commodities in order to realize an advantage. Capitalism, in breaking down the social hierarchy that assigned identity and made the circulation of social recognition inherent and unproblematic, generates a mode of recognition that mirrors how it functions generally. We’re back to the brink of “necessary consumerism”—we need a ongoing series of exchanges to establish our sense of ourselves.

They need not be economic exchanges—they could be gifts (see Lewis Hyde on that). But the opportunities to shop to sate this need for self-defining exchanges (which renders the other person’s actions in the operation pretty predictable and “convenient”) are ubiquitous and alluring. (It may explain why I start to feel uncomfortable when I find myself somewhere without 24-hour stores. My self is threatening to become unmoored.) This is another way of articulating Bell’s “cultural contradiction”—capitalism makes possible the freedom/problem/goal of self-definition and it shunts us into its preferred solution, consumerism, which seems to abrogate self-definition and empty out the very concept of authenticity that made capitalism seem ethically worthwhile in the first place.

Anyway, this post seems a bit tautological—I hope there was something worthwhile in it along the way.

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