The Problem with Reflexive Authenticity

Joshua Glenn's 1999 essay on fake authenticity, reprised at Hilobrow, has lost none of its acuity in the decade since it was written. And that's more or less his point: there can be no end to the quest for authenticity. It can't be realized reflexively. Once you recognize it as an independent quality of things, it has become ersatz. Identifying it in something speaks only to its actual absence, or worse, to a gap in our own ability to know and experience authenticity without alienating it and mediating it back to ourselves first. A similar phenomenon is at work when photograph ourselves somewhere to prove that we were really there; the "really being there" doesn't sink in when we are actually there, but when we contemplate the photo much later. Identity is also similar, in that reflexivity about it diminishes it, calls it into question, invalidates it. We can't assess the "truth" of our "real self"; we can only live it. The degree to which "the real self" becomes a problem for us measures the external pressure being placed on us to be other than we are. (Is that tautological? I mean that the effort we put into becoming who we really are merely measures the gap opened by outside pressures; it doesn't help to close it.) It traces "consumer dissatisfaction" and "perpetual obsolescence," as Glenn puts it.

Spontaneity is subject to the same critique. Glenn notes that "decades before the slogan Just Do It was burned into our brains, Adorno noted that 'Authentic Ones' like Heidegger were given to making gestures of autonomy without content, serving only to help advertising celebrate the empty meaningfulness of immediate experience." Marketing is the destruction of meaning (always contingent and personal) in favor of meaningfulness, a seemingly transcendent quality that masks the pressures of persuasion. At best, meaningfulness is our understanding of meanings that could be ascribed to certain things without our having intuited or experienced them ourselves. It is the sense that others might ascribe those meaningful experiences to us.

Implicit in Glenn's differentiation of the fake and the fake-authentic ("the 'fake' is simply kitsch, which can be transformed by the lovingly ironic person into camp; the 'fake-authentic' is nothing but cheese") is a reassessment of what makes experience valuable, away from reified authenticity (the mode of value important to collectors) and toward engaged enthusiasm -- not necessarily earnestness, but rather a courage to appropriate, to suppress self-consciousness in favor of performativity, to be boldly unoriginal. The tyranny of authenticity as an ideal rests with its stifling that enthusiasm -- it is a conceptual cousin to intellectual-property laws meant to prevent sampling, cultural remixing, the free and rapid circulation of ideas. As Glenn, citing Baudrillard, notes, there is no authenticity as such. It is a contrived, wholly ideological category designed to alienate others from the significance (or meaningfulness) of their own lived experience. Authenticity is a matter of controlling the flow of cultural trends to allow for established interests to secure the profits they had planned for, or to protect their authority. Glenn writes, "when that sphere of society whose role it is to enforce inherited forms and norms gets into the action, the result is always an example of fake authenticity."

A corollary theory: The experience of inauthenticity, then, is when we internalize those external forces, negate the legitimacy of our own experiences in order to validate those imposed norms. When we recognize the inauthenticity of something else, the pleasure we experience stems from our having internalized those norms as our own aesthetic judgment. Paradoxically, judging experiences in terms of their authenticity is precisely the best means for refusing to accept them on their own terms. Experiences don't have to try to be what they are; judging the authenticity of something, though, posits that effort, introduces a gap between what something is and what the person passing judgment would demand of it, attributing that gap to flawed execution. Then, alas, we start making that effort with regard to what we do (or with regard to projecting our identity), alienating ourselves from our experiences at the outset.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.