Mass Authenticity

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By Rob Horning / 10.03.2016

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The tenacity of “authenticity” as an ideological talisman — as a motive force and a post hoc explanation for actions, as an all-purpose aspiration and excuse — stems from how it posits what it purports to merely describe. It seems to denote “genuineness,” like it were simply a rhetorical equals sign, but in practice it does the opposite; it is always used to call the inherent fact of what is into question, to cast doubt over what people are doing and posit “truer” alternatives. But these alternatives are fictions, not revealed inner truths; they are speculations seeking substantiation at the expense of what is.

Authenticity articulates something that never was as something supposed to be always already lost, in order to promise you are on the cusp of reclaiming it, as if naming it was the first step toward embodying it again, and doing away with your need for the word. Like “golden ages” generally, authenticity can only be identified retrospectively: In the past I was “genuinely myself” but now all I have are elusive memories of that fleeting experience, or brands and products that seduce me by pinpointing that feeling of loss and making it seem recuperable.

Goods that promise authenticity work like all other goods meant to express identity: They create a feeling of inadequacy, a sense that they embody a quality you are supposed to have but feel unsure of. The goods seem capable of anchoring your “realness,” but only by intimating to you your present insubstantiality. Describing something as “authentic” primarily opens a gap in the self, permitting desire, manufacturing demand. They are machines of “inauthenticity.”

In a passage from the introduction of Authentic™ (2012) Sarah Banet-Weiser gets at some of these same points, the power of “authenticity” as an ideology:

Even if we discard as false a simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic, we still must reckon with the power of authenticity—of the of experience, of relationships. symbolic construct that, even in cynical continues to have cultural value in how we understand our moral frameworks and ourselves, and more generally how make decisions about how to live our lives. We want to believe—indeed, I argue we need to believe—that there are spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions, something outside of mere consumer culture, something above the reductiveness of profit margins, the crassness of capital exchange.

I agree that we should “discard as false the simple opposition between the authentic and the inauthentic” and not only because the definitions of these terms entirely depend on each other. But it’s tricky to discard that opposition without re-enacting the ideology that it authorizes. (The authentic thing to do would be to look past the idea of inauthenticity…)

In that passage Banet-Weiser seems to argue that we “need to believe” in the possibility of authenticity, even if the concept is bogus or untenable. But that “need” — that demand, that desire, is all “authenticity” ever refers to anyway. Her analysis suggests a gap between brands’ uses of authenticity and some “real” desire for realness (for “genuine affect and emotion”), but that gap is the trace of “authenticity” in action. It calls into question the inherent genuineness of any affect and any emotion in any situation. The presumption that only some feelings in some situations are real, and other feelings, though felt, are somehow false, is authenticity’s main ruse. The brands themselves are positing the “real space” outside of consumer culture that we are all supposed to yearn for; they aren’t fighting or denying that space, they are nurturing it.

That is to say, “authenticity” as it’s understood within consumer culture is internal to that culture and not the trace of a way of life that preceded it. It is not something off which consumer culture and brands are parasitically leeching. Authenticity, as we commonly use the term, is a product of consumer culture, even as it is deployed to try to evoke the life untouched by commercialization.

If “authenticity” evokes “spaces in our lives driven by genuine affect and emotions,” it is because the term works to fashion such spaces as commercial properties. “Authenticity” is that structuring process; it’s not a measure of the degree to which something eludes commercialization. “Authentic” things are not those that evade branding; in fact, only brands can be “authentic.” Authenticity-inauthenticity is fundamentally a continuum that can only be applied to brands. When we examine our own “authenticity,” we are thinking of ourselves in terms of our personal brand. If you are concerned about being authentic, you are concerned about your brand — not about how to escape the impact of branding on your self-concept.

“Authenticity” is commercialized nostalgia for that way of life that was articulated by a different set of economic relations: precapitalistic, or pre-massified, or pre-globalized — whatever word you want to use to describe how it seemed when you were nine years old, when things were “real” (because you were too immature to understand how they became that way, and how the world as given was both mutable and the product of human decisions).

In other words, authenticity doesn’t describe what we’ve lost through the relentless and implacable advances of consumer culture; it is how that consumer culture structures how the past is to be consumed in the present moment. “Authenticity” articulates contemporary consumerist values as if they were really external to consumerism, and could ground it, give it transcendental meaning: You really can consume your way into being real! 

But authenticity and inauthenticity are both internal to the system of branding and commercialized communication. When something is “authentic” it is certainly not “outside of mere consumer culture”; it is instead the apotheosis of that culture.

Trying to be “authentic” is to pursue an apolitical, individualistic solution to an intrinsically political question. As André Spicer argues in this Ephemera article, the search for authenticity is not “a form of liberation” but “involves a profound ‘turn inwards’ whereby social struggles are pushed back onto the individual. This results in the search for authenticity becoming an internal psychological struggle rather than collective political struggle.” So it would solve nothing to insist on the pursuit of “real feelings.” That tends to lead to authenticity being used to disenfranchise those deemed “inauthentic” — that is, those who lack the means to insist on the standards that favor themselves.

To short-circuit this logic, one might begin by acknowledging that the affect and emotion generated by brands is as “genuine” as any other feeling. The extent to which “we need to believe” otherwise is the extent to which that “belief” precludes itself from becoming real. Letting consumer culture sell you a commodified sense of your immunity to consumer culture does not dismantle that culture.

Built into Banet-Weiser’s claim above is the assumption that it’s natural that most people think “real feelings” are inherently anti-commercial or anticapitalist. But if we have been habituated to capitalist society, it may be that the commercialization of feelings makes them feel more substantial, more shared, more real. Profitable things are understood as “viable.” Brands are “authentic” because they are valuable, popular, viral, etc. Many of us feel validated by the same sorts of measured engagement: We are more “real” when we get more likes. It is insufficient to think this is simply mass inauthenticity.

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