The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves — Andrew Potter

A lot of us are searching for something “real” and “authentic” in the same way that Jake Barnes is searching, fruitlessly, in The Sun Also Rises:

We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Some one had put it on the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans, so we had to wait forty-five minutes for a table.

As soon as Americans arrive, the place is spoiled, but, more importantly, a paradox emerges: when something is identified as “untouched,” it immediately becomes the focus of attention and is touched. The same phenomenon occurs with bullfighting: a nominally pure activity becomes contaminated by Americans seeking authenticity. Notice, however, that no one is directly responsible for putting Madame Lecomte’s on the list: it just happens. “Someone” does it, with no effort to identify that someone: the action is as natural as the dawn and perhaps as inevitable. There is no sense in fighting. It just is, which is part of the small joke, and a rare one in The Sun Also Rises. The meal ends: “After the coffee and a fine we got the bill, chalked up the same as ever on a slate, that was doubtless one of the ‘quaint’ features, paid it [. . .]” The supposed authenticity is inauthentic, and made so by people who are seeking the authentic. This leads us into a paradox that we can’t really get out of.

Unless we acknowledge that authenticity itself is a pernicious desire. That’s Andrew Potter’s main point in The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, which is as authentic a book I’ve read because it doesn’t strive to be authentic. He says:

In the end, authenticity is a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it. The upshot is that, like the earlier privilege given to the upper classes, or the later distinction gained from being cool, the search for the authentic is a form of status competition. Indeed, in recent years authenticity has established itself as the most rarified form of status competition in our society, attracting only the most discerning, well-heeled, and frankly competitive players to the game.
Any status hierarchy is socially pernicious when it is used to allocate scarce goods and resources on the basis of arbitrary or unearned qualities. It is good to be the kind, and almost as good to be a prince, or a duke, or a count, and on down the aristocratic chain. But not all forms of status are illegitimate: higher education is a status hierarchy that helps allocate wealth and privileges, yet for many people, the fact that the education system is for the most part a meritocracy makes it a fair, just, and even democratic form of status competition.

Once it becomes positional, it becomes fake. Still, I would argue that not everyone can have authenticity in the same way, but everyone can probably have it some way. Even the seemingly inauthentic can become authentic if pursued with sufficient vigor: think of the pop culture bubbles Paris Hilton or The Jersey Shore, in which crass commercialism becomes something like authentic. Las Vegas exists by being inauthentic and appropriating the styles of other places—and the pastiche has become a style of its own. Once aware, you can never become unaware:

Authenticity is like authority or charisma: if you have to tell people you have it, then you probably don’t. […] authenticity has an uneasy relationship with the market economy. This is because authenticity is supposed to be something that is spontaneous, nature, innocent, and ‘unspun,’ and for most people, the cash nexus is none of these. Markets are the very definition of that which is planned, fake, calculating, and marketed. That is, selling authenticity is another way of making it self-conscious, which is again, self-defeating.

The best you can do is fight back by not using the language of authenticity, because once one uses it, the thing itself becomes its opposite. Potter is pointing to something like The Gift, which deals with how people tend to have two modes: a commercial mode and a gift mode. Authenticity is supposed to correspond mostly to the gift mode, in opposition to the commercial one, except that this often doesn’t work out.

In The Sun Also Rises, there are long passages about “aficion” that can’t be stated exactly but can be seen. Once seen, it is not spoken of as such; it is only felt, as in this scene with Jake Barnes describing his friend Montoya introducing Jake to other aficionados:

Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. When they saw that I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent, there was this same embarrassed putting the hand on the shoulder, or a ‘Beun hombre.’ But nearly always there was the actual touching. It seemed as though they wanted to touch you to make it certain.

In a world where the language of authenticity has been stolen by advertisers and whoever else happens along to appropriate it, we’re stuck striving for “conspicuous authenticity,” a play on Thorstein Veblen term, “conspicuous consumption.” Instead of merely consuming goods, we’re consuming status, which might come in the form of goods, but might also come in the form of experiences, behaviors, acts, postures, and the like. Potter gets this, and he hopes that once we get that the authenticity game—and it is a game—is a phony one, we’ll stop falling for it. And if we do, maybe we’ll also stop falling for some of the other major tropes of our time, in which everyone is striving to be unlike everyone else—and in the process is just like everyone else:

The idea that authority is repressive, that status-seeking is humiliating, that work is alienating, that conformity is a form of death. . . none of this is remotely original. We have heard every variation of the tune, from nineteenth-century bohemians to twentieth-century counterculturalists to twenty-first century antiglobalists, and we know every part by heart.

It is not the sheer persistence but rather the amazing popularity of the stance that ought to give us reason to pause and maybe reconsider our attitude toward modernity. Look around. Is there anyone out there who does not consider him or herself to be an ‘antihero of authenticity’? Anyone who embraces authority, delights in status-seeking, loves work, and strives for conformity?

My guess would be yes: people in the military or law enforcement embrace authority. A lot of celebrities or others of very high status seem to delight in status seeking. People who love work are common enough that we have a phrase for them: workaholics. And high school students either strive for conformity or for the anti-conformity of wearing all black as a group. But the overall point stands—like the point that

One reason I might find novels a more real or satisfying experience than cinema is because they feel further from the cash economy: although novels are obviously protected by copyright and charged for by their authors, many feel less crassly commercial. This is the problem with articles like “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which detail exactly how calculating the movie industry is. Taken with Edward Jay Epstein’s The Hollywood Economist, and it’s hard not to feel bamboozled most of the time when you go to a big Hollywood movie.

Elif Batuman might agree with much of The Authenticity Hoax, especially after she spends a summer in Uzbekistan, which she describes this way in The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them:

I have never been so hungry in my life as I was that summer [in Uzbekistan]. I remember lying across the bed with Eric, fantasizing about buying anything we wanted from the twenty-four hour Safeway across from our apartment in Mountain View.
When we first moved to Mountain View, I used to think it was depressing to look out the window and see a gigantic Safeway parking lot, but that was before I spent any time in the ‘Fourth Paradise.’

If the authentic is starvation, give me McDonald’s. If the authentic is local vegetables, give me the avocados and bananas shipped halfway around the world so I can have salads and smoothies in December. In the case of Batuman, Safeway is banal and boring and symptomatic of soul-deadening consumer capitalism, right up to the point where you just want to buy some french fries and maybe one of those takeaway meals that aren’t very good, unless you’ve been subsisting on tea and rancid borscht in a third-world former Soviet republic. Modern life probably also looks sterile and boring up to the point when you’re kidnapped by pirates and die in the ensuring firefight. Some experiences are better left to the movies, unless you have to undergo them.

For example, one thing that makes The Lord of the Rings so effective is the reluctance of the hobbits to leave the Shire; they don’t really want to go on an adventure, or if they do they only half do, and would tarry a long time unless forced. Sam wants to go see Elves on an adventure chiefly because he doesn’t really conceive of what’s ahead. But if they must go, they will.

Their longing for home, rather than for power or for the misery that traveling entailed in a world before planes, trains, and automobiles, is what makes their experience so real. The Authenticity Hoax is partially about what happens if you try to take fantasy experiences and make them into messy realities without the many amenities that many people in developed countries now effectively assume will be there, invisibly woven into the fabric of our lives—like Safeway, and which so many generations have toiled so long in order to give us the standard of living we now enjoy (despite the anxiety still generated around status issues).

The book is worth reading, but skim sections. Some of the later chapters in The Authenticity Hoax are weak: there’s a gross misinterpretation of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence at one point. The chapter “Vote for Me, I’m Authentic” is funny but overly focused on contemporary issues, like the 2008 election. At one point Potter says that “[…] it is dangerous for anyone, no matter what their partisan alliance, to have so much contempt for voters. Democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance, from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance between freedom and security.” The problem isn’t that voters disagree—the problem is how little voters know. If you read Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, it’s hard not to have contempt for voters: their ideology is incoherent, they don’t understand how economics or politics work, they know their individual votes are unlikely to affect the outcome and thus can vote irrationally or against their best interests without consequences, and they don’t know how the government they’re voting on is structured. As Caplan points out, the politicians who are elected are often substantially more knowledgeable than the people who elect them.

Later, Potter says that “[…] a great share of the blame [for politicians who massage the truth] lies with the media and its obsession with controversy and scandal at the expense of more difficult question of policy (sic) and other serious issues.” But the real issue is, once again, within us: a lot more people subscribe to People magazine than Foreign Affairs or The Atlantic, and a lot more voters (“consumers” might be a better word here) watch brain-dead network news shows than good-for-you special reports on the situation in Lebanon, or South Ossetia, or wherever. The problem isn’t the media or politicians—the problem is us. It always has been, and it probably always will be. You can gloss authenticity problems over political ones, but the political ones really point elsewhere.

Skip the last third of the book and pay great attention to the first half. If you read The Authenticity Hoax, maybe you’ll come out with a better conception of your self as an authentic person—which is to say, an inauthentic person. You’ll come out caring less. And when your friend comes back from an “exotic” location you’ll roll your eyes—as you should.

Who is our authentic self, exactly?

We can tie ourselves in knots [over the cynical idea of society’s corruption and commerce’s alienation], but the fact is, the relationship between the stuff we buy and who we are, and the broader relationship among consumer culture, artistic vision, and the authentic self, is fraught with bad arguments and bad faith, and the usual themes and oppositions (between genuine needs and false wants, or between the shallowness of a branded identity and the depths of the true self) are too crude to be helpful.

That’s from Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax, which is so far a fascinating rebuttal to the idea that we’re all merely automatons, creations of the media, men in gray flannel suits, mindless conformists, better off going back to nature, incapable of meta thinking, mere cogs in the machine, alienated labor, brainwashed by Disney, or instinctive conservative reactionaries.

My authentic self appears to be the kind of person who doubts that my authentic self exists.

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