Quill & Quire
In The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter, Maclean’s columnist and co-author (with Joseph Heath) of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, rehashes all of the same resistance-is-futile thinking from that earlier book in another strident defence of free-market consumer capitalism.
The book’s thesis is that “there really is no such thing as authenticity.” To posit an authentic self or lifestyle independent of the market is a delusion – silly at best and at worst a threat to Western Civilization. In fact, it may even make you a terrorist. History really has ended and we need to grow up and accept the world we’ve made for what it is – a lesson Potter seems to have gleaned less from Francis Fukuyama than an episode of Mad Men.
The Authenticity Hoax begins with a pop-philosophy backgrounder, taking us through a casual history of the creation of the modern world that is predictably vague and simplistic. There is some improvement in subsequent chapters dealing with authenticity in the art world, online, as a marketing tool, and in North American politics, though these chapters stand alone as separate essays and don’t fit together to form a coherent intellectual framework. Finally, two chapters dealing with suburbia and the triumph of western capitalism are long on rhetoric but only tenuously connected to the book’s supposed theme.
The book takes on an air of exhibitionism as Potter drags into his argument the size of his iPod playlist and things he did on his European vacation. Presumably this is all done to make the author appear more authentic, or cool, as he embarks on a take-down of various left-wing writers he doesn’t like. Some easy points are scored here and there, but for the most part Potter is only tackling straw men. Particularly egregious are his attacks on the environmental movement, which he sees as consisting of nothing but latter-day hippies and eco-terrorist cranks. Nature doesn’t score any points for being authentic, either.
Of course, a book with as settled a political agenda as this isn’t meant to persuade anyone not already onside. And since the essence of Potter’s argument necessarily relegates anyone with a dissenting point of view to a role outside the, yes, authentic cultural mainstream (the one fashioned and made inevitable by free markets), criticism seems particularly irrelevant.
Still, a more rigorous and balanced approach would not only have given his argument more credibility, it would have made for a more enjoyable read.
“Unique insights on every page and breathtaking in scope, The Authenticity Hoax is a useful guide to understanding what we humans are all about.”
— John Zogby, Chairman of Zogby International and author of The Way We'll Be
"A totally real, genuine, authentic book about why you shoudn't believe any of those words. And it's genuinely good."
— Gregg Easterbrook, author, Sonic Boom
“In The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter masters two of the trickiest balancing acts in contemporary social criticism. He takes on a wide range of highbrow sources — from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Walter Benjamin and Lionel Trilling — and he makes them accessible without reducing them to cartoons. And he comments on an even wider range of pop culture items — from The Matrix to skateboarding to locally grown produce and the YouTube aesthetic — in a tone that’s pitched just right, each mordant insight framed in terms that show he understands the appeal of the quest for authenticity, even as he unmasks it. That’s the kind of criticism that changes minds.”
— Thomas de Zengotita, author of Mediated
“A provocative meditation on the way we live now.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“A shrewd and lively discussion peppered with pop culture references and a stimulating reappraisal of the romantic strain in modern life.”
— Publishers Weekly
From the Back Cover
What does it mean to be authentic? For many, the search for the authentic provides a powerful source of meaning in a secular age, allowing a person a unique personal identity in a world that seems alienating and conformist. This demand for authenticity—the honest or the real—is one of the most powerful movements in contemporary life, influencing our moral outlook, political views, and consumer behavior.
Yet according to Andrew Potter, when examined closely, our fetish for "authentic" lifestyles or experiences—organic produce and ecotourism, bikram yoga and performance art, the cult of Oprah and the obsession with Obama—is actually a form of exclusionary status seeking. The result, he argues, is modernity's malaise: a competitive, self-absorbed individualism that creates a shallow consumerist society built on stratification and one-upmanship that ultimately erodes genuine relationships and true community.
Weaving together threads of pop culture, history, and philosophy, The Authenticity Hoax reveals how our misguided pursuit of the authentic exacerbates the artificiality of contemporary life that we decry. Potter traces the origins of the authenticity ideal from its roots in the eighteenth century through its adoption by the 1960s counterculture to its centrality in twenty-first-century moral life. He shows how this ideal is manifested through our culture, from the political fates of Sarah Palin and John Edwards to Damien Hirst and his role in contemporary art, from the phenomenon of retirement as a second adolescence to the indignation over James Frey's memoir. From this defiant, brilliant critique, Potter offers a way forward to a meaningful individualism that makes peace with the modern world.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
THE MALAISE OF MODERNITY
In one of the most famous road trips in history, an emaciated and notoriously untrustworthy Greek youth named Chaerophon trekked the 125 miles from Athens to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to consult with the Oracle as to whether there was any man wiser than his friend Socrates. No, Chaerophon was told by the Oracle, there was no man wiser, and so he returned to Athens and informed Socrates of what the Oracle had said. At first Socrates was a bit skeptical, since it struck him that most of his fellow Athenians certainly acted as if they were wise about a great many things, while he, Socrates, didn’t really know much about anything at all. But after wandering about the city for a while, questioning his fellow citizens about a range of topics (such as truth, beauty, piety, and justice), Socrates eventually decided that most of them were indeed as ignorant as he, but they didn’t know it. He concluded that he was indeed the wisest Athenian, and that his wisdom consisted in the fact that he alone knew that he knew nothing.
Socrates should have known there was a bit of a trick to the Oracle’s pronouncement. Inscribed in golden letters above the entrance to the ancient temple were the words gnothi seauton – “know thyself.”
“Know thyself” thus became Socrates’ fundamental rule of intellectual engagement, which he continued to deploy in Athens’ public spaces, conversing at length with anyone who would indulge him and spending a great deal of downtime in the company of handsome young men. It cannot be said that his fellow Athenians appreciated this commitment to debate. In 399 bce, Socrates was charged and tried for the crimes of teaching false gods, corrupting the youth, and “making the weaker argument the stronger” (a form of argumentative trickery called sophistry). At his trial, when the jury returned with a verdict of guilty on all counts, his accusers pressed for the death penalty. Given the chance to argue for an alternative punishment, Socrates started by goading the jury, going so far as to suggest that they reward him with free lunch for life. As for the other options – exile or imprisonment – he told the jury that he would not be able to keep his mouth shut on philosophical matters. Philosophy, he told them, is really the very best thing that a man can do, and life without this sort of examination is not worth living.
Socrates chose death rather than silence, and ever since he has been hailed for his integrity, a Christlike figure who was martyred for his refusal to sacrifice the ideals of intellectual independence, critical examination, and self-understanding. For many people, the Socratic injunction to “know thyself” forms the moral core of the Western intellectual tradition and its modern formulation – “to thine own self be true” – captures the fullness of our commitment to authenticity as a moral ideal.
For its part, the visit to the Oracle, with the cryptic pronouncement about Socrates having a special hidden characteristic, has become a stock motif of countless works of film and fiction, where the hero has to come to believe something about himself before he can help others. Perhaps the most hackneyed version of this is the scene in the film The Matrix, when Morpheus takes Neo to visit the Oracle. Morpheus believes that Neo is The One, the prophesied messiah destined to rescue humanity from the computer-generated dreamworld in which it has been enslaved. Neo is, understandably, a bit skeptical of his ability to serve as the savior of humanity. So Morpheus drags Neo off to see the Oracle, hoping that the good word from a maternal black woman who speaks in riddles while baking cookies will give Neo the boost of self-confidence he needs to get into the game and set about destroying the machines. Instead, the Oracle looks Neo in the eye and tells him he hasn’t got what it takes to be the messiah. On his way out, she hands him a cookie and says, somewhat oddly, “Make a believer out of you yet.” As Neo leaves, we see inscribed above the entrance to the kitchen the words temet nosce, which is Latin for “know thyself.”
As it turns out, Neo is (of course) the messiah. The Oracle could not just come out and say so though, because Neo had to believe it himself. He had to buy into the whole worldview that Morpheus and his gang had laid out, about the rise of the machines, the scorching of the earth, and the enslavement of humanity. As Trinity tells Neo later on, it doesn’t matter what Morpheus or even the Oracle believe, what matters is what Neo himself believes. The lesson is pretty clear. Before Neo can save humanity, he first has to believe in himself. The idea that self-knowledge and self-discovery are preconditions for social contribution is a thoroughly modern lesson, well steeped in the ethic of authenticity.
The Wachowski brothers were no doubt aware of the parallels they were drawing between Socrates and Neo (and, indirectly, between both of them and Jesus). Yet in Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling makes it clear that this claim of continuity between the ancient world of Socrates and modern world of Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle is an anachronism, and that the authentic ideal is actually something relatively new. According to Trilling, the necessary element of authenticity – a distinction between an inner true self and a outer false self – only emerged in Western culture a few hundred years ago, toward the end of the eighteenth century. So despite superficial similarities, there is no real continuity between the Socratic dictum to “know thyself” and the thoroughly modern quest of self-discovery and self-understanding as an end in itself. What separates them is a yawning chasm between us moderns on the one side and the premodern world on the other.
What does it mean to be modern? That is a big and difficult question, and it has been the subject of a great many big and difficult books. One problem is that we often use modern as a synonym for contemporary, as when we marvel at modern technology or fret about modern love. Furthermore, even when we are careful to use modern to refer to a specific historical period, just what that is depends on the context. For example, historians sometimes refer to as “modern” the whole period of European history since the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. Modern architecture, however, typically refers to a highly functional and unornamental building style that arose around the beginning of the twentieth century.
Here, I am concerned with modernity less as a specific historical epoch than as a worldview. To be modern is to be part of a culture that has a distinctive outlook or attitude, and while an important task for historians involves understanding why this worldview emerged where and when it did, it is essential to the concept of modernity that it is not tied to a particular place and moment. Modernity is what Marshall Berman, in his 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, calls “a mode of vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils – that is shared by men and women all over the world today.” More than anything, modernity is a way of being, a stance we adopt toward the world and our place in it.
The rise of the modern worldview is marked by three major developments: the disenchantment of the world, the rise of liberal individualism, and the emergence of the market economy, also known as capitalism. Between 1500 and 1800, these three developments ushered in profound changes in people’s attitudes toward everything from science, technology and art, to religion, politics, nd personal identity. Put together, they gave rise to the idea of progress, which, as we shall see, does not necessarily mean “things are getting better all the time.” More than anything, progress means constant change, something that many people find unpleasant and even alienating. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s begin with the disenchantment of the world.
In the first season of the television series Mad Men, set in the advertising world of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, graysuit-and-Brylcreemed advertising executive Don Draper finds himself caught up in an affair with a bohemian proto-hippie named Madge. She drags Draper to parties and performance art clubs in Greenwich Village where he jousts with her anti-establishment friends over marketing and the moral culpability of capitalism. (Typical exchange: “How do you sleep at night?” “On a big pile of money.”)
One night they end up back at an apartment, drinking and smoking pot and arguing once again. When one of the stoned beatniks informs Draper that television jingles don’t set a man free, Draper replies by telling him to get a job and make something of himself. At this point, Madge’s beatnik boyfriend chimes in with some classic countercultural paranoia: “You make the lie,” he tells the ad man. “You invent want. But for them, not us.” Draper has had enough, so he stands up, puts on his hat, and gives them some serious buzzkill: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe . . . is indifferent.”
“Man,” goes the extremely bummed reply. “Why’d you have to go and say that?”
If he’d bothered to stick around to continue the debate, Don Draper might have answered, Because it is true. For the most part, this exchange is nothing more than stereotyped bickering between hipsters and squares, of the sort that has been going on in dorm rooms and coffee shops for over half a century. But that...