When trying to philosophically delineate the individual, we are first confronted with a fundamental question: Do we mean literally everyone, whereby we are tasked with the search for an all-embracing category that will transcend all cultural, historical, and, well, individual differences; or do we, taking into account the real mechanisms of de-individualization in authoritarian regimes, and the subject’s degradation to a mere consumer, set forth an ideal category of individuality that only a few might live up to? In the first option, we are in danger of diluting our understanding of the individual up to a point where it loses all traits of distinction and becomes purely abstract; in the second, we might end up with an elitist conception that excludes and belittles ‘the plebs’ and only applies to a narrow historical context anyway.
The notion of authenticity has long been an attempt to escape this alternative, as it reflects the real experience of ourselves and others acting ‘fake’ and ‘not being themselves’, while also situating the ideal that is to be realized within the individual, so that it does not depend on the participation in an external structure that would assign or deny us individuality. It is the subject that retains the means to be authentic, but it also retains the means of judging if it’s authentic or not. But it is here where we slide back into the same alternative. For if everyone is their own authority in judging their authenticity, does that not bereave this category of its critical force of pointing out overarching structures of suppression? Can we not be blind of our own flaws? And are there not signs of inauthenticity which are often seen better from the outside? But, on the other hand, if we once again situate the category of authenticity externally, does it not become, paradoxically, itself a potential means of suppression, even if, or especially when, it is used patronizingly ‘for your own good’?
All this seems to point towards a dialectic of the internal and the external, where the self is in need of others to ‘come to itself’. As easy and elegant as this solution might appear, it only reacts to the realization that the authentic can lie neither purely inside, nor outside. The whole area ‘in between’, the interaction between the two, that can be understood, say, as an a priori individualized tabula rasa that is continuously socialized, or as a genetically given social instinct that needs to slowly individuate itself, remains a blank spot. And it is a question of balance, or, rather, power. For a critique of consumer culture needs to assume that the individual is ‘strong enough’ to untangle itself from the enticements of advertising, but also ‘weak enough’ to always be in danger of falling into the traps of artificially created needs. In short, authenticity needs to come with an effort, an effort, though, that is not futile. And maybe the only thing that we can definitely say of authenticity, if we are to hold on to it at all, is that this effort must stem from within.
And not much has been said by that either, for the question remains one of genealogy, the impulse of such a desire to individuate oneself, and also, the pertinent question for any critique, how we are to externally induce a movement that has to originate from within. Yes, questions that beget questions! And are we not in danger of losing ourselves in them too? So, allow us to fall silent and present you with a few essays, whose intentions are to offer cursory sketches of a path through this jungle of question marks.
Cover Illustration: James Whistler, “Nocturne in Black and Gold”, (1875).