Culture

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.

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