Revisiting Adorno’s “Jargon of Authenticity” (1964)
One of the difficulties in approaching the Jargon of Authenticity is that it is written as a reaction to a specific tendency within German thought, particularly the existentialism of the 1920s and 30’s, and its revival in the 50’s and 60’s (cf. JA, xiii). The original title, Jargon der Eigentlichkeit, as a direct reference to Heidegger’s Being and Time, points both to the rhetoric and ideology of this tendency. Yet, Adorno’s text doesn’t primarily target Heidegger, and rather his imitators, who adopt his terminology without the philosophical originality of his thought — which Adorno does not overlook. Heidegger’s role within the Jargon of Authenticity is nevertheless ambivalent, as his idealisation of the rural and archaic, as much as his exaltation of singular words feed such vulgarisations. After all, Heidegger is also guilty of clouding such Germanic and rather untranslatable words like Geborgenheit (shelteredness), Anruf (appeal), Begegnung (encounter), Anliegen (concern) in a mystified aura (cf. ibid., 6). The rhetoric function of using the apparent archaism of language to uncover the true meaning of words directly relates to a philosophical conception of truth as something that has to be rediscovered after being ‘buried’ by modernity (as Dasein needed to be retraced from the wrong tracks of ontology in Being and Time). Concepts of authenticity are marked precisely by such lines of argument, by rhetorics of return and rediscovery. It is the political aspect of such ideas that interested Adorno, the functions that such reasoning fulfils. Today, once again, even though the political landscape has drastically changed, the jargon of authenticity reappears in a wide array of discourses, from nationalism to environmentalism, but also in the rising popularity of such schools of thought as existentialism, stoicism, Buddhism, and other practices of ‘mindfulness’. The jargon needs to be uncovered within the new context.
Authenticity doesn’t belong to any particular discourse, while somehow appearing in pretty much all of them. Still, as elusive as it is as a concept, its rising prominence in the last few years needs to be seen within the general tendency of commodification, the neoliberal “financialization of everything” (Harvey 2007, 33). It appears here as a potentially critical term, as a reaction, where the authentic is seen as the limit that the market forces cannot reach, the last bastion of the self in a world that is ‘selling out’. At the same time, the world of advertising is very prone to the jargon of authenticity, presenting the authentic self as something that is realised through the ‘right’ purchases. As contradictory as this seems to be, these two aspects of authenticity are part of the very same socio-economical development, and they put forward, as we’ll see, the same argumentative structures leading to the very same results. To understand that, let us start with a definition of authenticity in view of its seemingly critical function: The authentic is that which cannot be seized by any external powers. The subject, feeling that it has been completely integrated into the grid, protests by claiming that, as great as the external influence on our behaviour, decisions, and lifestyle has become, there is something that still stands above all that and that will forever resist integration: the authentic self. Its freedom cannot be renounced and it cannot be lost, even though it can be suppressed, censored, and besieged.
It is precisely due to this constant besiegement of the self by market and political forces through advertisements, the successful manipulation through media, the reduction of human beings to capital, the constant battle for our attention, and a fully interdependent global market, that authenticity appears as something that is always already lost. It is in that sense that this inner freedom seeks ‘individual’ expression, as a protest, through which the self is being reclaimed. But the form of such expression is limited to one’s consumer behaviour, one’s choice of lifestyle and career; and those can only be realised within the market. While such choices are viewed as subverting the influences of the economy, representing something that stands outside of the world of consumerism, it plays right into the hands of those who argue that the market forces are precisely those who guarantee one’s freedom. The neoliberal argument, after all, goes that the individual is constantly besieged by collective forces like the government and society, and in constant danger to fall prey to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and collectivism, so that the protection of freedom comes from their non-interference in our daily lives. But such a purely anarchic and individualistic view of the market contradicts the necessary predictability of its products’ success. The seemingly free market needs to be structured, and so does the seemingly free consumer subject.
The delineation and creation of new markets goes along with the delineation and creation of target audiences, as the only form of communality that is compatible with neoliberalism, and it is a key for the stabilisation of the market forces. While neoliberalism therefore needs to uphold the market as the sole area of individual liberty, it needs to perpetually undermine its unpredictable and anarchic elements — but the liberal concept of freedom was always based on precisely these two factors. To coincide this contradiction, it equates equating consumer choices with expressions of identity. Affirming one’s affiliation with a target audience (be it a political party, an ice hockey team, or a subculture), means buying the products that supposedly express one’s individuality that finds its fulfilment from being part of that group. Freedom lies in such affirmation, not in the subversion of these given structures; it is negative only in the sense that it sets itself apart to other market identities. To make that work, advertisement must make sure that the various products are not substitutable for each other, as “the stronger the attachment of the public to this particular brand, the less elastic becomes the demand with which he [the monopolist] has to reckon and the more able he is to raise his price without suffering a commensurate loss of revenue” (Baran/Sweezy 1966, 116). But because the market needs to be in perpetual flux — stagnation is the great enemy — the expressions of individuality through brands can never be fully satisfying, nourishing the desire for new modes of expressions. The ‘subversion’ by the authentic self is therefore sanctioned by market forces, as it helps the creation of new markets and the delineation and development of old ones. The authentic self is held in suspense between being something that is always lost and that, at the same time, eludes control. The ‘critical’ view of authenticity leads to the very same relentless dynamic:
In the experience of being lost, the authentic self seeks expression, but its expression once again confirms the power of the market, which pushes for new expressions through new consumptions. The ‘critical’ and the ‘affirmative’ way of describing the dynamic of authenticity, leads to the very same result. That way, the perpetual problem of capitalism, the need to absorb surplus due to its overproduction (cf. ibid., 108), is solved by “stimulating demand,” “the creation and expansion of markets” (ibid., 110). Authenticity is that which keeps the whole constellation moving; as that which constantly eludes genuine expression, it is both affirmed as something superior to the market forces, and becomes that which integrates the self more and more into the grid.
Attempts of using authenticity as a critical impulse against universal commodification are therefore not only futile but will also potentially lead to disastrous conclusions. For example, if freedom lies in that which cannot be renounced, then, by implication, all that can and could be renounced, is illusionary and ideological in the first place. This not only legitimises the constant loss of worldly freedom, it makes necessary conditions out of suffering and oppression, as they are the ones that make the authentic element come to light. There is a survival reflex in calling the powers that ‘besiege’ the self mere illusions, but it’s also a form of self-discipline where the subject renounces its claims to the worldly and returns to itself. The motto “spiritual but not religious,” which completely surrenders religiosity to the individual, “elevates limitation,” a self-imposed solipsism, “to the level of virtue” (JA, 22). This leads to a profound impoverishment of the concept of the self. If psychological laws manage to predict our behaviour, the argument goes that it is because our psyche has never been part of the self; if the body can be controlled by (bio)technology, then the soul turns into something volatile and otherworldly. Such an asceticism exempts from responsibility. While the cult of religion disciplined the body no less than the mind, the cult of the authentic starves the concept of the soul, which originally included the temperaments, one’s personality, and life-story until it becomes so inconspicuous that no one can perceive it.
In search of interiority
Certainly, authenticity lays claim to a ‘praxis’. Optimistically, the authentic is given the power to radiate, so that one’s own sanctified everyday life shines in its light (cf. JA, 33). However, since there are no external categories for such a ‘praxis’, no criterion can be found which can urge the existing structures to change. This ethos, therefore, is not a movement outward, but inward; it is not a ‘battle’, but rather a search for what’s been left in the rubble. The affirmation of authenticity, of the untouchable, guarantees that not everything is lost. But the claim is even stronger: Thanks to this loophole, the subject wins by default, as it is the cliff on which power breaks. But if this is the case, then the only change necessary for a way of life to become authentic, is to ‘become aware’, which ultimately means that everything remains the same. While awareness as a political category is indubitably valuable, its ability to bring change on its own is highly overestimated. The cliché of ‘Eat up for the children in Africa’ conjures the image of a whole starving continent, without ever changing one’s behaviour — outside the dining table.
What makes such a journey inwards problematic, is that the claim that an untouched core is to be found there is derived purely from of a desperate necessity: because it has to be this way (or else everything is lost), it is so: “The Being of the sheltering space of shelteredness [des bergenden Raumes der Geborgenheit] is simply derived from the necessity that man should ‘make for himself’ such a space” (ibid., 34). Such a conclusion, in which suffering only damages the ‘circumstances’, ignores that in robbing the exploited of their childhoods, creating traumas, lasting insecurities, it is the very existence of the individual that can be broken. But this example of Hume’s law is not just erroneous, but also dangerous. What remains untouched in this process is not the soul, but power itself. If it is claimed that what is oppressed, exploited, abused is merely the body, the psyche, and all the other ‘illusionary’ elements, then all suffering is at best self-inflicted, or otherwise non-existent. This releases the powers of all guilt and negates the necessity for change. The ‘praxis’ of authenticity takes place in a ghostly parallel world, while at the same time, paradoxically, the marionette of the body, as it were, performs its dramas in a world of dreams.
What matters in the inward movement of this ethos of authenticity, is that every action is an emanation of that inner power that imposes on each act the seal of selfhood. This ‘doubling’ of each act is not to be confused with actual change, as such an ‘awareness’ is but a reaffirmation of the already existing. Still, the fact that such an inner connection exists can only be known by the subject; from the outside, a ‘real’ and a ‘faked’ authenticity can not be distinguished (as Kierkegaard also explicitly recognised). The thread that leads into interiority is as invisible as this interior itself. But if the ability to distinguish ‘real’ authenticity from its ‘fakes’ depends on the subject’s power of judgement, while the latter, like all other forces of the self, has been ceded to the external powers, then even the solipsist affirmation is disempowered. If being a self is an effort, so too is to recognize oneself as a self; the latter, however, is practiced in the mundane. Kierkegaard knew this, hence his “insistence on the unity of the sublime and the pedestrian” (ibid., 33); but the ‘sanctification of everyday life’, as a parody of this insistence, plunges the two, both of which Kierkegaard develops dialectically, into indifference. Only when the self becomes, as with Kierkegaard, the concept of authenticity stops belonging to a mystical interiority — or past. This opens the path of reflection.
In search of origin
Authenticity is not only said to be found ‘within’, but also in the past. The ambivalence is even stronger here, as the praise of the ‘noble primitive’ is a known currency of imperialism. As long as a civilization does not abandon the myth of the expulsion from paradise, barbarism overwinters in it, reoccupying its ‘authentic’ place in heated times. Ideas of the innocence of children, who then get ‘spoiled’ by entering the adult world, are examples of this myth’s persistence. As Bergson rightly notes, it is wrong to think that the ‘primitives’ have stopped where ‘civilization’ has progressed (cf. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, passim). All cultures that are still alive today have developed and lived over the same amount of time. Today’s ‘primitive’ is as far removed from the origins of humanity as ‘we’. ‘Distance’ here has a purely normative character; it measures both the apparent superiority of those who have ‘gone further’, thus legitimising the domination over the ‘innocent’, and the accumulated guilt, consequence of the primal expulsion. It never contradicted a racist mindset to admire minorities for their talents in sports, singing, dancing, or playing instruments, just as it didn’t contradict it to rape and having children with them, as those are aspects of an ‘authentic’ sensuality. But even the ‘cerebral’ talent of composing, just like all intellectual activities, were denied, as the apple of knowledge, as all rationality, was supposed to be both a sign of guilt and superiority. Such ideas persist in contemporary critiques of capitalist greed, in contrast to the self-sufficiency of the ‘primitive’ and the frugality of the poor — a form of critique that at the same time affirms their exploitation. The lifestyles that such a ‘critique’ creates are perfectly compatible with consumerism, with yoga, super-foods, and ‘alternative’ medicine all drawing from the ‘wisdom’ of the authentic ‘primitives’. But even more so, excluding the ‘dignity’ of the poor and the exploited from materialist culture, thereby ‘preserving’ their ancient ways, served as an excuse to vindicate their perpetual exclusion from access to material goods and to the market, as much as their lacking possibilities to rise in the social and economic hierarchy. The embracing of materialism in hip-hop culture (C.R.E.A.M.) was thus more subversive than one would expect.
As authenticity is something that cannot be lost, but only covered by one’s being lost in the world, the condition of the ‘primitives’ is universalised and essentialised. Heidegger’s conception of man as the “shepherd” and “neighbour of Being” is such a mystification, lauding the “essential poverty of the shepherd, whose worth consists in being called, by Being itself, into the trueness of its truth” (quoted in JA, 51). Real poverty is blindly equated with a metaphysical asceticism, a form of existentialist liberty, while at the same time the former is supposed to facilitate experiences that overcome the latter. The poor and the exploited thereby have a privileged access to metaphysical insights — their suffering is thus sanctified, as their primordial proximity to Nature. Indeed, such a view can be calming for those whose existence has been drenched in pain, a kind of religiosity that Adorno calls “the front-line creed [Schützengrabenreligion, literally: religion of the trench] of the escapee” (ND, 367); but it does, at the same time, exempt the oppressors, who, in their ‘metaphysical suffering’ claim to be in the same boat, both from having to experience real anguish and from undoing the pain that they themselves perpetuate — and profit from. Yet, this “front-line creed” has not only a calming effect, but often comes along with a certain pride in regard to the hardships that one had to bear. Just like those who have had to live with depression for a long time are afraid of being healed, feeling that their identity is inherently tied to it, those who have lived through painful times might feel that their strength is tied to their suffering. The latter now becomes a necessity, a didactic tool, which affirms its perpetuation. But it is not the imperturbability of standing in adversity that is a sign of strength, and rather the capability to make sure that suffering is no more. And this capability can express itself just as well in acts of compassion, love, and liberation.
Since the hopeless, when they reach the point where they have nothing left to lose, are prone to starting revolutions, the appeasing affirmation that one’s ‘authentic’ dignity is untouchable, expresses the no lesser hopelessness of ‘that’s how it is’. Power bows to authenticity, and at the same time occupies all its territories. Hope lies in the invincibility of the last tower; but this hope is instrumental for the voluntary withdrawal. The war is over before it has begun. In general, the powers can discard all martial rhetoric; since they are now equated with the mundane, the world (mundus) is theirs right away, while the authentic rules in a ghostly realm. This is expressed in the concept of the ‘world order’. It proves the ruling classes’ legitimacy by showing that their rule is primordial, as once the nobility did with its genealogy to archaic kings.
Power and authenticity, it seems, are both works of essentialisation, and more interdependent than it might seem — even more so as they both need to found their originality and their legitimacy in myths. We saw one such example in the myth of the expulsion from paradise. The essentialisation of gender, to give another one, lies in the near universal association of the masculine with activity and of femininity with passivity — whose universality does not stem from a presumed wisdom of the ancients, and which is instead merely a crude extrapolation not even of the sexual act, but of the male ‘giving’ his ‘seed’ that the woman ‘receives’. But given that one could just as well choose the moment of birth, in which it is the man who is passively standing by, as the ‘essential’ aspect of the, say, ‘energy polarity’ of gender, it seems that the choice of what event constitutes a legitimate foundation, is arbitrary. Or, rather, it is a question of power, of the power of decision and the creation of narratives. And it is here that we might ask ourselves, if not all essentialisation is but a mystification, while the function of the latter is to legitimise and perpetuate power structures, but also to inhibit and divert the aggression of the oppressed away from the oppressor (for that aspect also cf. Fanon 2011, 465f.). The persistence of such myths, it seems, is due to the persistence of the power structures that feed them. Assuming one’s essence amounts to knowing one’s place. It is in that sense that Adorno calls the critical impulse of rationality demystification (Entmystifizierung) — but, of course, the ratio is also in constant danger of mystifying itself and surrounding itself with heroic narratives of progress that cloak its tendencies of domination and control in its guise as the calculating mind. Herein lies the dialectics of enlightenment and the necessity for a negative dialectics: “If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true — if it is to be true today, in any case — it must also be a thinking against itself” (ND, 365).
In search of meaning
The withdrawal of authenticity into interiority is the withdrawal of meaning from the world, even when — or especially when — it is clouded by ideas of karma and fate. The existence of such anonymous forces is supposed to both “take away any initiative from the oppressor,” thus banning, as we’ve seen, the pain that he causes to the realm of illusion, and to re-establish the importance of the subject, which thereby reaches “a serenity of the stone” (Fanon 2011, 466). But even more than being mere survival reflexes, such ideas are borne out of an experience of superfluity, and of the impotence of the self to establish a meaningful order. They are a symptom, not a cure, as they witness a return of the subject to itself, frustrated by an undecipherable world — because its signs were never meant for us. Fairy tales of the failed ‘journey into the world’, whose happy ending is the return home and surrender to paternal authority, attest to the failures in establishing meaning in the world, affirming the domestic hearth and the subject itself as the locus of meaning and substitute for the paradisiac. Fate, after all, cares about us, even when it keeps us in our place.
The confrontation with a meaningless world is sometimes interpreted as a chance; this was the fundamental idea of the existentialists. In the spirit of Nietzsche, such a condition is supposed to give the individual the possibility to affirm its own meaning, to create its own values. According to a dominant narrative, the crisis of meaning was borne out of the demise of the old institutions and ideologies (religion, state) due to the progress of modernity. Attempts to re-establish such institutions, the nostalgia for the ‘old values’ follows this narrative, which once again follows the structure of the expulsion from paradise. But if we accept the downfall of the old ideologies as just, as the ‘meaning’ that they had put forward was illusionary all along, then the narrative of the ‘new’ crisis of sense falls apart as well. The ‘age of post-truth’ is a chimaera because there never was an ‘age of truth’.
What is characteristic for our (post)modern condition might not be our metaphysical “need for residences [Wohnungsnot, literally: housing shortage]” (JA, 33), but an experience of superfluity within the contemporary production process, where the subject may still work solely thanks to the “administered grace” (ibid., 35) of the market and can feel useful only as long as it is integrated into it. The existential empowerment of the individual is mute if said individual is thrown into a world in which it is superfluous, and where it can only realise itself thanks to the offerings of the market: a job and a consumer identity. The “disposable worker’s […] world of flexible labour markets and short-term contracts, chronic job insecurities, social protections, and often debilitating labour, among the wreckage of collective institutions” (Harvey 2007, 170) constitutes their existential experiences much more than any seemingly metaphysical crisis of sense. Ersatz-religions and -communities feed on such structures by providing for ‘moral’ needs, while profiting from the people’s very material frustrations and insecurities to establish their own profitable narratives.
The only character imbued with a ‘will to power’ is the entrepreneur, who supposedly creates meaning by founding companies and creating markets — and jobs. But if we look closer at this heroic self-presentation, the entrepreneur is nothing but a gambler, whose ‘created value’ only lasts until he manages to sell his start-up to one of the monopolistic corporations who can draw full profit from it and lay off expendable workers to increase productivity. In the end, his ‘creation’ does not reach beyond the whims of the market either and it follows the logic of profitability, even where his new markets seemingly ‘change the game’. But even if the entrepreneur was a sustainable image of the active subject for the neoliberal era, it is only a small minority that could take up this role. Far from being the announcement of a new humanity, it is merely the self-legitimation of a ruling class.
If Marx understood the proletarian revolution as a re-appropriation, it is because in his conception, a subject’s work was inherently its own (an idea that you’ll also find in Locke). Alienation results from socio-political structures in which this inherent activity is taken away from the subject by a ruling class. In capitalism, however, everyone is by nature unemployed, and receives only from the market (and the owners) access to ‘meaningful’ activity; or, rather, it is by the approval of the market, i.e. profitability, that an activity becomes meaningful. But the market can not and will not deliver unconditional ‘bonding’ and ‘comfort’, since the permanent fear of unemployment, as the actual source of ‘metaphysical restlessness’, makes its subjects obedient (with help of the ‘industrial reserve army’, as Marx called it). The subject has meaning as long as it works; but it must first show its worth. Diplomas, references, and IQ tests ‘prove’ one’s value, which is not so unquestioned after all. The essential unemployment of the subject is compensated with a substitute gratification, in which the subject becomes an instrument and is gracefully allowed to feel useful. What is left are individuals in permanent need of salvation, by good economic results and the ‘trickling down’ of jobs and wealth from a not so metaphysical heaven. If there is a genuine experience of metaphysical forlornness, then, if it is to be taken seriously, its dissolution of sense needs to include all entities of salvation, be they ‘spiritual’, religious, or economic.
Merely renouncing the ideal of authenticity does not lead to salvation either. But if the worldliness of meaning is to be reclaimed — not as something that is given, but as something that is to be realised — then it can stand only as a negative to the occupying powers, which do not intend to surrender voluntarily. It is not an affirmation, but a critique. The martial nature of Nietzsche is only for this liberation, the will to power alone the smiting of the myths. In the recapture of the mundane, the concept of the soul, as the epitome of that which is one’s own, is expanded again, beginning to encompass not only the body, but also its actions, thoughts, gestures, and its world. It is not about replacing the old chains with new ones, but about finally breathing worldly air: “For one is not always tearing down, in order to build again; on the contrary, one tears things down eagerly in order to win free space for light and air, which appear as it were by themselves, wherever some obstructing object is removed” (from Der Grüne Heinrich, cited in JA, 39f.). This counter-image to the efforts of overcoming (of nihilism, the metaphysical ‘homelessness’) and to a search for salvation, is one of holding firm to negativity, whose only demand is “that things should be different” (ND, 381). An ethos that is far less satisfactory than the pseudo-identities that flood the market, that awaken our tribal instincts and thereby saturate archaic needs. But Adorno’s “different” is not to be understood abstractly; to speak of an ethos is justifiable as it opposes a way of thinking where “the seminal experiences of metaphysics are simply diminished by a habit of thought which sublimates them into metaphysical suffering and splits them off from the real suffering which gave rise to them” (JA, 38).
Real suffering giving rise to the seminal experiences of metaphysics does not mean that those who suffer have any privileged access to metaphysical truth — as this would once again nobilitate them. Rather, suffering as pure negativity negates the truth of all ‘metaphysical’ entities or authorities, as it is caused and perpetuated by humans, and therefore ‘all too human’. Only by negating this negativity, by eliminating suffering, and not by overcoming the negative with a positive creed or dogma, can the possibility of truth arise. Authenticity thus becomes dialectical: It is the negative experience that neither the ideologies’ order nor nihilism’s chaos, neither affirmation nor indifference, have the last word. In short, suffering doesn’t grant access to truth, but it proves the untruth of all those who affirm its necessity, who build on it and perpetuate it. What is meaningless is not ‘the world’, but the world of suffering, of torture, of exploitation. The suspension of the split between metaphysical suffering and real suffering, the abolition of the latter, is the only means for the self to create a world that can be lived.
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For a closer look at Adorno’s critique of the existentialists, see On Absurdity. Adorno, Beckett, and the Demise of Existentialism; on Adorno and suffering, see Adorno’s Negativity: Suffering Devoid of Sense, Sense Without Suffering; for a general critique of suffering as a source of meaning, see Transcendence through Suffering. A Eulogy to Martyrdom.
Abbreviations and Works Cited
JA – The Jargon of Authenticity
ND – Negative Dialectics
Adorno, Theodor W.: The Jargon of Authenticity, Northwestern UP, 1973.
Adorno, Theodor W.: Negative Dialectics, Routledge, 2004.
Baran, Paul A.; Sweezy, Paul M.: Monopoly Capital. An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, Monthly Review Press, 1966.
Fanon, Frantz: Oeuvres, La découverte, 2011 [the quote is from The Damned of the Earth].
Harvey, David: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford UP, 2007.