The Authenticity Hoax: The Jargon of Authenticity

It is tedious fielding questions about what local Singaporean food I missed while away, or what I am craving to eat now that I’m back. It’s not just the repetition that’s dull, but the expectation that I would have missed anything at all. So the protestation that actually, I miss the food in London more has inevitably met with groans of being an inauthentic Singaporean.

banana pancakes with hazelnut Valrhona chocolate sauce and toasted almond slivers

Ah, but is the concept of authenticity itself a hoax?

That’s modern society for you, eh, casting doubt on the authenticity of zeitgeist of the day, to prove oneself more authentic. Still, Andrew Potter is well worth listening to when he points out, in The Authenticity Hoax, the lack of clothes on the emperor of authenticity. Much of what he says coheres with what I’ve been thinking about, but he expresses himself far more eloquently. So within intellectual property rights (another post altogether!), some quotes from his introduction:

The Authenticity Hoax: The Jargon of Authenticity:
“In the summer of 2008, a 28-year old French engineer from Brittany named Florent Lemaçon, his wife, Chloe and their three-year-old son, Colin, embarked on what looked to be a the trip of a lifetime. After quitting their jobs, the Lemaçons set sail from France in a boat…as [they]…headed down into the Indian Ocean, they spoke to a French frigate that strongly advised them to turn back from a journey that would take them into some of the most lawless, pirate-infested waters in the world…Why did they continue their voyage, despite being repeatedly warned about the dangers?…the Lemacons wrote:”The danger is there and has indeed become greater over the past months, but the ocean is vast…The pirates must not be allowed to destroy our dream.” And their dream as they told everyone who would listen, was to protect their son, Colin, from the depraved elements of the modern world, especially the sterile government and its officious bureaucracy, the shallowness of the mass media, and the meaninglessness of consumer society and its destructive environmental impact. “We don’t want our child to receive the sort of education that the government is concocting for us…we have got rid of the television and everything that seemed superfluous to concentrate on what is essential.” Lemaçon is not the first person to get himself killed while searching for a leaner and less complicated mode of existence. But there is something especially pathetic and pointless about this case…civilization has its drawbacks, but if there is one unambiguous good that it provides it is safety, security, and the rule of law.”

“The object of their desire, the “essential” core of life, is something called authenticity, and finding the authentic has become the foremost spiritual quest of our time.”

“One widely accepted view is that it is impossible to build an authentic personal identity out of the cheap building blocks of consumer goods, while an essential part of living authentically involves treading softly upon the earth and leaving as small a footprint as possible…Yet too often for comfort, the search for the authentic is itself twisted into just another selling point or marketing strategy,,,”

“What Zogby [John Zogby pollster and trendwatcher, author of The Way We’ll Be] found was a desire for authenticity. But it is one thing to say you prefer the authentic. It is something else entirely to know what that means.”

“Authenticity has worked its way through our entire worldview and our moral vocabulary is full of variations on the basic appearance-reality distinction, such as when we talk about someone exhibiting an “outer” control that masks an “inner turmoil”. When we meet people who are living inauthentic lives, we call them “shallow” or “superficial”, as opposed to the more authentic folk who are “deep” or “profound”. When it comes to relationships, authenticity is closely allied with the notion of sincerity, which demands a congruence between explicit (“outer”) avowal and true (“inner”) feeling. And it is because we are so concerned with this alignment of inner and outer selves that falseness, insincerity, and hypocrisy are seen as the great moral transgressions of our age.”

baby rocket salad with roast carrots, wagyu beef cubes, mozarella balls, and pumpkin seeds“[Lionel] Trilling [in his seminal Sincerity and Authenticity] suggests that the way authenticity “has become part of the moral slang of our day points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences.”…The search for authenticity is about the search for meaning in a world where all the traditional sources – religion and successor ideals such as aristocracy, community, and nationalism – have been dissolved in the acid of science, technology, capitalism, and liberal democracy. We are looking to replace the God concept with something more acceptable in a world that is not just disenchanted, but also socially flattened, cosmopolitan, individualistic, and egalitarian. It is a complicated and difficult search, one that leads people down a multitude of paths that include the worship of the creative and emotive powers of the self; the fetishization of our premodern past and its contemporary incarnation in exotic cultures; the search for increasingly obscure and rarified forms of consumption and experience; a preference for local forms of community and economic organization; and, most obviously, an almost violent hostility to the perceived shallowness of Western forms of consumption and entertainment.”

“The quasi-biblical jargon of authenticity, with its language of separation and distance, of lost unity, wholeness, and harmony, is so much a part of our moral shorthand that we don’t always notice that we’ve slipped into what is essentially a religious way of thinking.”

“The quest for authenticity is a quest to restore that lost unity. Where once we did it through actual religious rituals, prayer, and communion with God, now we make do with things such as Oprah’s Book Club, which offers a thoroughly modern form of spirituality that is a fluid mix of pop-psychoanalysis, self-help, sentimentality, emotionalism, nostalgia, and yuppie consumerism. Or through our obsession with anything “organic” – organic beef, chicken, vegetables, cotton, dry cleaning, chocolate, or toilet paper. Similarly, a growing concern with a more local economy – local farmers, local bookstores, local energy production – reflects an underlying feeling that the holism of a small community is more valuable and more rewarding that the wasteful and messy free-for-all of mass consumerism. Finally, there is the almost visceral distaste for the market economy, driven by a conviction that the mere act of buying and selling is intrinsically alienating.”

baby rocket salad with roast carrots and wagyu steak cubes and pumpkin seeds“In all these guises, the search for the authentic is positioned as the most pressing quest of our age, satisfying at the same time the individual need for meaning and self-fulfilment and a progressive economic and political agenda that is sustainable, egalitarian, and environmentally friendly.”

“My central claim in this book is that authenticity is none of these things. Instead, I argue that the whole authenticity project that has occupied us moderns for the past two hundred and fifty years is a hoax…My argument is not that once upon a time we lived authentic lives – that we used to live in authentic communities and listen to authentic music and eat authentic food and participate in an authentic culture – and now that authenticity is gone…Rather the overarching theme of this book is that there really is no such thing as authenticity…”

“…part of this book’s argument is to trace the origins of the authenticity quest, to show how, for all its apparent urgency and postmillennial relevance, very little has changed on the map since the battle lines were first drawn in the latter half of the eighteenth century.”

“Another part of this book’s agenda is to argue that the problem was badly formulated from the start, and that the quest for authenticity has – at best – amounted to a centuries-long exercise in rainbow-chasing. More worrisome is the way our pursuit of the authentic ideal has become one of the most powerful causes of inauthenticity in the modern world.”

“We are caught in the grip of an ideology about what it means to be an authentic self, to lead an authentic life, and to have authentic experiences. At its core is a form of individualism that privileges self-fulfilment and self-discovery, and while there is something clearly worthwhile in this, the dark side is the inherently antisocial, nonconformist, and competitive dimension to the quest. The hippie version of the authentic ideal, “doing your own thing.” means standing out from the crowd, doing something other people are not doing. This creates competitive pressures to constantly run away from the masses and their conformist, homogenized lives. At the same time, when we take a closer look at many supposedly “authentic” activities, such a loft-living, ecotourism, or the slow-food movement, we find a disguised form of status-seeking, the principal effect of which is to generate resentment among others.”
quinoa, roasted carrots and aubergine, asparagus, fried red onions“An even more severe consequence of the cult of authenticity…in the jargon of the street, “keeping it real” ostensibly involves staying true to yourself, your family, and your community. In practice though, it amounts to a rejection of everything the Man wants you to do, like staying in school, working for a living, staying out of jail, and taking care of your kids.”

“In the public sphere, the desire for authenticity has contributed to a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination. Meanwhile, a misguided nostalgia for illiberal and even premodern forms of political organization has fuelled the forces of reaction, leading many otherwise well-meaning progressives to make common cause with dictators, fascists, and Islamic fundamentalists.”

“Many people are rightly concerned that our culture is locked into a competitive, self-absorbed, and hollow individualism, which gives us a shallow consumerist society completely lacking in genuine relationships and true community. But this leads to an uncomfortable paradox. After all, nobody ever admits to being shallow or false, and no one ever claims to love the artificial and the mass-produced. But if we all crave authenticity, how is it that the world seems to be getting more “unreal” every day?”

“The argument of this book is that our misguided pursuit of the authentic only exacerbates the problem. We need to find a way forward, to an individualism that makes its peace with the modern world while allowing for a meaningful life free of nostalgia, reactionary politics, or status seeking.”

iced gem biscuits with a cup of milky teaLooking forward to reading how Potter argues his case!

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

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