Manufacturing Authenticity: How We Yearn for the Real and Fall for the Fake
Let’s be honest: we all crave authenticity. More than ever, our contemporary culture seems to be characterized by a longing for the real, unique, sincere, pure, natural, and genuine. Consider the following diverse phenomena: the recent revival of vinyl, polaroid, and similar analogue technologies; our obsession with organic or biological eco- and superfoods; the omnipresence of unique ‘homebrewed’ beers in the supermarkets; real ‘Himalayan’ salt and water; minimalist fixie bikes and longboards; vintage clothing and ripped jeans; slow coffee and ‘the natural wine movement’, and the immense popularity of vlogs, Snapchat and Instagram that promise you a glimpse into the ‘real life’ of ‘real people’. But also: ‘brutally honest’ politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, who seem to owe their popularity for a great deal to their ‘authentic’ personalities; the rise of identity politics that focuses on the discrepancy between the ‘true identity’ of certain minority groups and its suppression by society at large, and our obsession with post-truth and fake news in general. And as a last example: the backpacking holiday almost every soul-searching millennial undertakes in search for authentic experiences, where we taste the real food, meet the real locals, listen to the real language, and experience real nature. We want to encounter the real foreign, often with the purpose of finding and expressing our true inner selves.
Once it has been seen, it cannot be unseen: we find the ideal of authenticity and authentic experiences literally everywhere. All the aforementioned phenomena — and the list could have been much longer — are designed, staged, and strived after in order to still our hunger for ‘realness’. They all evoke a sense or feeling of authenticity, be it in their directness and immediacy (analogue technology), their naturalness and pureness (eco-food and drinks), or their honesty and frankness (social media and politicians). At the same time, however, there is a blatant paradox at work in all these examples. Our desire for the real appears to be satisfied with manufactured authenticity, and more often than not with intentions we usually do not associate with authenticity at all: making profits or winning votes, or both. Hence, there seems to be an economy of authenticity at work that renders the inauthentic ‘authentic’ in order to satisfy a demand that is apparently easily fooled with a fake substitute. Ironically, most of us seem to be aware of this: we all know that Trump, Instagram, and carefully planned surprise and adventure holidays are anything but real. Yet, we experience this authenticity nonetheless, and it seems to satisfy a demand that somehow is really there. How should we understand this odd tension between the authentic and inauthentic?
· · ·
The concept of authenticity has a very long and complicated history — ranging from Shakespeare’s ancient verse ‘to thine own self be true’ to Kanye West’s recent tweet ‘don’t trade your authenticity for approval’ — and great philosophers and poets have filled libraries about the term, bickering about what it exactly means or whether it means anything at all. Although this versatile tradition has influenced the way we think about authenticity today in the most various ways, we cannot possibly discuss it here in its full scope and depth. We will, however, touch upon an intellectual leitmotif that is relevant for the question, where our modern-day demand for authenticity comes from, in what peculiar way it is satisfied and consumed, and how we experience the authentic in our everyday lives.
Since we are speaking in terms of demand, supply, and consumption, it will be no surprise that we need to take a look at the socio-economical history of the West for an answer to our questions. In their book The New Spirit of Capitalism, Boltanski and Chiapello show very convincingly how the notion of authenticity with which we are dealing here is intimately linked to the emergence of industrial society.1placeholder The sudden rise of mass production in the second half of the 19th century, as a result of the mechanization of the production process and the invention and implementation of the assembly line, led to a standardization of both products and people on a scale that was never seen before. Hence, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, authenticity has been used mainly as a critical concept to protest against the immense uniformity and conformism that was a direct result of these developments.
Indeed, from that moment on, every series of products that rolled off the production line looked exactly the same, had to be used in the same manner and had to satisfy the exact same demand. Moreover, not only did the factory workers become completely interchangeable insofar as they turned quite literally into a part of the machinery where their individual skills or know-how was no longer needed, but the consumers themselves became part of a standardized and uniform mass as well. The expansion of the capitalist market, accompanied by the advent of advertising and the development of a consumerist society in the beginning of the 20th century made everyone wear the same clothes, have the same haircuts, drive the same cars, listen to the same music, watch the same movies and think the same thoughts. In other words: the massification of products was accompanied by a standardization of desires, which entailed a widespread destruction of all difference between human beings as such.
· · ·
At the end of the 19th and throughout much of the 20th century, this rise of the ‘mass society’ and its concomitant loss of individuality was critiqued and commented upon by a lot of different thinkers. In order to illustrate how widespread this criticism was, we will make a short stroll through this intellectual history and highlight some of its main protagonists.
Marx was of course one of the first to analyse the consequences of this industrialized massification. He famously lamented the deplorable state of the factory worker, who became completely alienated from himself and his fellow workers as a result of his repetitive and stultifying labour. Around the same time, the political philosopher De Tocqueville discussed the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that was, according to him, an inevitable result and necessary evil of democratic regimes that hold equality and freedom as their highest values. Somewhat later, the sociologist Durkheim pointed out how the disappearance of traditional societal structures and an increasing individualization within society made the people — paradoxically — more vulnerable for mass manipulation. In a very similar vein, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset sketched in his The Revolt of the Masses a fairly bleak picture of the emergence of the mass-man, who obeyed blindly to the only relevant rule in such a mass-society: ‘to be different is to be indecent’ — conformism became the sacred ideal of modern man.2placeholder
We find a similar critique within existentialist philosophy, albeit now from the perspective of the individual that is directly linked to the ideal of an ‘authentic live’ as opposed to that of the mass-man. Already Kierkegaard spoke during the first half of the 19th century of the dangers of an ‘amorph mass’ and an ‘anonymous people’ that absorbs every individual and renders it into ‘a third person’. In the 20th century, this theme was taken up again by German and French existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre. All of them stressed the importance of leading an authentic life: affirm your individual freedom, accept the responsibility to determine your own life without letting it be determined by other people, and confront yourself with the existential angst that necessarily follows therefrom. To put it in a corny way: stay true to yourself and become who you really are.
In the course of the 20th century, both perspectives — on the one hand the economic and political commentary upon this emerging mass society and on the other hand the existential point of view that emphasised the importance of leading an authentic life — can be found once again in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurter Schule.3placeholder Dazzling analyses by Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin, and many others tried to reveal how the political and economic structures of our capitalist consumer society oppressed the individual without him being aware of it. They argued that capitalism had learned its 19th century lessons and continued to suppress and exploit the people, but now in such a way that they were being presented the illusion of individuality and freedom. After all, the long working hours seemed to be compensated with some free time in the weekends, in which you could spend your well-earned salary on a seemingly infinite amount of consumer goods or watch 500+ different channels on your television. What more freedom could you possibly desire?4placeholder
The critical theorists argued that this kind of freedom exists only insofar as capitalism allows for it. It is mediated by and wholly dependent upon an economical system of supply and demand that grants its existence solely to an ever increasing accumulation of capital, which must be accompanied by a simultaneous expansion and exploitation of the market if it wants to survive. The ‘free’ choices you make and the products you buy are to a large extent determined by this market, which needs you, the consumer, to be as similar as possible to all the other consumers for an efficient production, sale and economic growth. Capitalism had adjusted itself to the early critique of the physical exploitation and estrangement of the worker by enslaving people no longer to the assembly line but to the products they buy. The possibility of a constant satisfaction (and creation) of desires became a new opiate of the people and its hallucination of freedom and happiness paralysed every kind of resistance and critique.
This criticism against capitalism and consumerism became more and more prevalent during the 1960s and reached its peak during the student protests of 1968. The intellectual guru of this movement was Marcuse, and his book One-Dimensional Man became a surprising bestseller. It described how a capitalist mass-society reduced the various dimensions of human existence to only one: consumption. People work, eat and sleep in order to consume. Their whole identity seems to be based around this sole principle: I consume, therefore I am. Or even better: I am what I buy. The book was thus a grave charge against a society that made any form of authentic existence impossible. Very importantly, Marcuse explained with his concept of ‘repressive tolerance’ how any critique of this system would be incorporated and neutralised by the system itself, insofar as it could be rephrased into a demand that the market could subsequently satisfy. According to this logic, any critique on consumption eventually becomes a consumable product itself and is thereby rendered ineffective and powerless.
Ironically, it is exactly this fate that would befall the capitalist critique of the 1960s, as it was rephrased into a demand for individuality and difference, in short into a demand for authenticity. The rise of sub-cultures in the course of the second half of the 20th century and the concomitant increase of the merchandising business that stimulated these different ‘target groups’ are a clear example of his dynamic. The advertisement industry discovered the process of identity formation — products are produced and advertised as a means to become a certain person — and markets started to capitalize on our wish to become whoever we think we are or want to be. Since capitalism uprooted every kind of overarching societal structure and left us with nothing else than bare monetary exchange as a source of meaning and value, it has the incidental advantage that it accommodates for every kind of identity which sells. Identity politics and social movements as LGBTQ+ have certainly benefitted from this, and in a way, Marx’ wish to ‘to fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon and rear cattle in the evening’ is now fully allowed for and even supported as long as it generates capital. At the same time, the formed and acquired identities become increasingly fragmented, instable, and are replaced in relatively short intervals, with the possible consequence of incessant identity crises and an overall frustration and disappointment on which we will expand below.
However, we will first take a look at the way capitalism accommodated its own critical offspring. Another very concrete example of this is the increasing interest in ‘green consumerism’ and eco-products that started in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, lots of companies were afraid that their sales would come to a standstill because their products were deemed unhealthy or polluting by environmental organisations. This panic quickly turned into optimism when they discovered that this critique actually opened up a whole new market with clients willing to pay even more for products that were branded and sold as (but were not really) eco-friendly and natural. For a rather staggering illustration that these companies did not beat around the bush, we can give the example of the aptly titled book The Environmental Marketing Imperative: Strategies for Transforming Environmental Commitment into a Competitive Advantage (1994), where we find the very honest statement: “‘It’s the greatest new business opportunity of this century,’ people said. What could be easier? Turning clean, green deeds into big green bucks?”5placeholder
A quick search through the business section of the Amazon bookstore shows a recent proliferation of similar management and economy books. They all try to explain that we, the consumers, want authentic products and experiences, and that they, the businesses, need to present themselves and their products as genuine and authentic as possible in order to meet this demand. Again, these books really do call a spade a spade. Take a look at the following telling titles: Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (2007); Building Brand Authenticity (2009); All Marketers Are Liars. The Underground Classic That Explains How Marketing Really Works — and Why Authenticity is the Best Marketing of All (2012); Authenticity: The Head, Heart and Soul of Selling. Discover a New World of Sales Power (2014); The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self (2016); Outrageous Authenticity. You Are Your Best Sales Weapon (2016).
Interestingly, almost all these books open with the very honest disclaimer that there is no such thing as ‘real’ authenticity, but that it all boils down to somehow artificially imbue your products with this peculiar and magical quality. For an example as how this might be done, we can take a brief look at the first book I mentioned, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, written by the two renowned Harvard economists James Gilmore and Joseph Pine. They distinguish between five ‘genres’ of authenticity — natural, original, exceptional, referential, and influential — and give very helpful advice, in the form of catchy slogans, to render your products authentic depending on the kind of authenticity you want to evoke.6placeholder
Do you want your product to have a ‘natural’ feel? Then stress materiality, leave it raw, reek rusticity, be bare and go green. One only need to think of the average minimalist interior of a downtown hipster restaurant to know that this works really well: the seemingly self-made raw wooden tables and wobbly chairs, the bare lightbulbs hanging from the industrial ceiling, the houseplants that make the place look like an ‘urban jungle’ and the handwritten menu stating that their products are locally grown in the backyard: it all screams authenticity. But maybe you want to evoke a more ‘original’ feeling? Then stress your firsts, revive the past, look old, mix and mash and anti-up. The (not so) surprising polaroid renaissance is exemplary for this category, with their rather clumsy and retro looking pastel-coloured photo cameras.
Two more examples: the traditional Italian restaurant we find all around the globe, with its black-and-white pictures of old Italian movie stars eating spaghetti, the ‘very typical’ basic red-and-white checked tablecloths and staff that speaks with an Italian accent (or, if you’re very lucky, speaks only Italian); and the ‘Dutch’ cheese stores you find everywhere in Amsterdam nowadays, with names written on their shop-windows in supposedly 17th century typefaces and where well-groomed bearded men in flannel shirts sell you Old Amsterdam Cheese, which is neither very old nor from Amsterdam. Both are, however, a beautiful combination of what Pine and Gilmore call referential and exceptional authenticity: they want to evoke a time and place, and be foreign, direct and unique.
All these examples demonstrate that capitalist enterprises turned authenticity very consciously into a product or commodity. A closer look at this commodification of authenticity brings to light the deeply paradoxical structure of this phenomenon. As Boltanski and Chiapello explain, ‘the authentic’ is actually associated with that which lies outside the sphere of commodities and capital: a product is deemed authentic when it has an original and intrinsic value that is disclosed in the individual and unique relationship with its owner. In other words, all products that are mass-produced with the intention of making money — with an exchange-value instead of a use-value — are automatically seen as inauthentic. After all, it is very difficult to develop a unique relationship with a mass-product. This brings again the fundamental tension between difference and uniformity to light — authentic means first and foremost: differentiated from the uniform mass.
Hence, when capitalism eagerly tapped into this demand for authenticity — driven by its relentless imperative to transform noncapital into capital — it gave itself the impossible task to commodify difference, that is, to produce difference on a mass-scale. In doing this, capitalism ran into its own limits insofar as it tried to commodify that which was inherently bound to get lost in the process of commodification. Therefore, the incorporation and neutralization of the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of authenticity is in a way a self-defeating process: the consumer, who can only be fooled so long, will eventually find this out and get disillusioned, with ‘rapid cycles of infatuation and disappointment’ as a result, ultimately leading to “a new era of suspicion,” as Boltanski and Chiapello argue.7placeholder
· · ·
This disappointment is easily recognizable in the tourist who found out that her unique and life-changing journey was preceded and followed by thousands of others in the exact same way, a feeling that is all too often converted into an ironic and cynical stance the moment she is confronted with this fact. After all, playing a tourist, while laughing at the naiveté of the other real tourists, makes you really stand apart from the mass. In a similar way, we simply ‘adore’ shitty B movies and trashy music — but never without the almighty inverted commas that showcase our detached and superior ironic stance. At the same time, the disappointment that precedes this irony is real and fuels a growing suspicion against consumer goods, advertisements, companies and social media at large. In such a society, every intention of being authentic, honest, genuine and sincere becomes very suspect and irony becomes the default attitude to deal with this uncertainty.
A beautiful case study of this dynamic is the phenomenon of Lana Del Rey, one of the most famous present-day popstars, and a perfect example of our longing for authenticity.8placeholder One only need to listen to one of her songs to know why: backed up by soft synthesizers and an acoustic piano or guitar, she sings in a sultry and sighing voice about all her personal sorrow and the burdensome emotional life of a struggling young American woman: every song wants you to wallow in self-pity and misery. This grotesque sentimentality is further illustrated in her nostalgic videoclips where we see Del Rey in heavily filtered shots and dressed in retro clothes walking lonely through Los Angeles or staring through a window into the void, mulling over a lost love. In short: everything about Lana Del Rey tries to sell you the idea of authenticity, of real emotions, and there is not one grain of irony in this imago.
At first, this bothers us, because we know that everything about this image is carefully constructed an thus utterly fake: her looks (botox and fillers), her background history (not self-made but completely financed by her extremely rich dad), and even her name (she was born as Elizabeth Grant). Hence, it is no surprise that the start of Del Rey’s career prompted a rampant ‘Lana Del Ray backlash’ on social media: she became one of the most hated artists around and fans were genuinely disillusioned when they found out about her artificial identity. However, this public hatred completely turned around the moment she started to embrace her fake façade and exaggerated this artificial authenticity. Her second album was actually praised for its ‘synthetic nostalgia’, and what was first seen as ridiculously pretentious now became a sincere simulacrum. Our suspicion turned into ironic playfulness and it was suddenly accepted again to play Lana Del Ray at a party and ‘like’ her music.
We might be tempted to understand this shift from naiveté, towards suspicion and culminating into irony as a redefinition of authenticity in terms of the intention behind the product, instead of the product itself: we accept Del Rays corny kitsch when we find out she does not really have the intention of making profound art, but just wants to capitalize on our need for instant melancholic moods and sepia-coloured videoclips. Our appreciation for such authentic inauthenticity can lead to the absurd but recognizable preference for the real fake over the fake real: the phony, kitsch and camp are at least honest in their inauthenticity and thus in a sense more real than everything and everybody that desperately makes a futile attempt to be ‘really’ real. Extreme proof that this is no exaggeration can be found in the immense popularity of The Venetian in Las Vegas or the elegant Chinese replicas of Parisian quartiers, often with a perfectly duplicated Eiffel tower: why would you go to the ‘real’ thing if you could go to a cheaper, friendlier, and cleaner version nearby?
However, although Boltanski and Chiapello do indeed observe this redefinition of the demand for authenticity in terms of intentions as an advanced phase in the critique on the destruction of difference in our mass-society, we already noted above that our suspicion is also — today maybe even primarily — directed at these intentions themselves.9placeholder It might be true that there are still some areas where we appreciate genuine intentions, especially in our private and personal relations, but within the public domain we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish and recognize any form of sincerity. This in turn fosters again our disappointment, irony, cynicism, and suspicion, which ultimately can lead to a complete indifference towards any form of authenticity as such.
In this situation of indifference, disinterest and inertia — which we have not yet reached, but we are definitely on our way — it is neither the product, nor the intention behind the product, but the complete lack of any intention to connect or reconnect with reality that we long for. It is a detachment from reality, a lack of any engagement which resembles our very own ironic modus vivendi, that becomes the very thing we strive after. As Boltanski and Chiapello observe, the demand for authenticity becomes at this stage more and more “anachronistic, even ridiculous.”10placeholder As a result, the ideal of authenticity will ultimately collapse into its total opposite, which is not the fake that still bears an essential (negative) relation to reality, but the simulacrum that does not refer to any original reality whatsoever. It is not necessary to immerse ourselves in Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality and simulacra to see how our very desire for authenticity has produced its own antithesis — and it does not look like we are heading for an Aufhebung very soon.
This reversal has in addition alarming consequences for the critical function that the concept of authenticity once characterised: whereas the ideal of authenticity used to prompt an outspoken engagement with reality insofar as it implied a critique of the status quo, a paralyzing indifference that refrains from any engagement will consequently become critically crippled or downright impotent. This withdrawal from any critical confrontation can lead to a passive resignation and acceptance with how things stand.11placeholder Such a detached attitude will only allow for a very impoverished form of criticism that is not so much directed at socio-economic problems or political policy, but only at other people who dare to bother us with their different views and opinions, that is, at people who in all earnest do try to engage and confront. In such a society, self-mockery, one’s ability to relativize, and an antisocial form of tolerance that equals the imperative to leave everyone’s filter bubble intact are seen as virtues, whereas any form of serious engagement is regarded a vice. After all, why so serious?
Now, of course we will not turn immediately into passive zombies the moment we don’t care anymore about authenticity, and one could argue that a little bit of irony and self-mockery surely won’t lead straight into apolitical apathy. Moreover, doesn’t this whole analysis itself attests to the suspicion and scepticism it attempts to criticize? Why can’t we just listen to Lana Del Ray, eat organic food, and indulge in retro fashion and analogue photography? Is this theorizing about such personal and subjective tastes not doomed to fail? Why spoil all the fun with speculative analyses in which all of our behaviour suddenly acquires a hidden meaning and motivation of which we are not aware at all? And how does this whole theory of our supposed indifference tie in with our current obsession with authenticity which we diagnosed at the outset of this essay? Is that not quite contradictory?
Against all this it can be said that philosophy sometimes needs to provide alternative and far-reaching narratives, employing coherent and convincing arguments to put the status quo into question or cast our current predicament in a different light. As one of its most principled tasks it questions the most common and ordinary phenomena we take for granted in our everyday lives, and at the same time interprets these phenomena in new ways, forging syntheses and bestowing meaning where we expect it the least. To some, this activity might seem suspicious or even threatening — and in a way, philosophers truly are the masters of suspicion — to others as downright ridiculous and a waste of money and time. However, both anger and laughter — which have established themselves since Plato’s dialogues as the privileged reaction to the provocative philosopher — are an easy flight from what philosophy and thinking in general is all about: a most serious and thorough attempt to confront and engage.
· · ·
In this essay, I have made such an attempt with the phenomenon of authenticity and our longing for the real, which indeed seems to have resulted in some seemingly contradictory conclusions. Seemingly, because there is a very clear and rational logic at work in the commodification of authenticity and its different cultural manifestations, our shifting attitudes towards and concomitant redefinition of authenticity, the final collapse of interest and concern for any authenticity at the limits of this commodification process, and the ultimate desire for a detachment from reality as a soothing last resort: a flight into everyone’s sterile hyperreal bubble which serves as a relieving palliative and might entice at the most ironic laughter or annoyed anger, but certainly no creative and provocative thinking.
For now, however, we still seem obsessed with experiencing the authentic in as many ways as possible, and in a surprisingly similar way as everybody else. Not very much unlike the early 1900s, we wear the same clothes, have the same haircuts, drive the same cars, listen to the same music, watch the same movies, make the same travels and think the same thoughts. This time, however, they are all ‘authentic’ clothes, haircuts, cars, music, movies, travels and thoughts. This time, we are more than ever convinced that we do find and express our true unique individual inner selves, almost to the extent that it becomes pathological. Nevertheless, this compulsive concern for authenticity and truth might actually be a sign that times are changing. Baudrillard expected a “panic-stricken production of the real” right before we would be confronted with a total “implosion of meaning,” and his characterisation of this panic seems to fit our time and age in an uncanny way:
“When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality — a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity. Escalation of the true, of lived experience, resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared.”12placeholder
Boltanski & Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso 2007. See in particular chapter 7: The Test of the Artistic Critique (p. 419–482).
It must be noted that almost all of these sociological and economical critiques are at least partially inspired by the writings of German romanticist thinkers. See for example Schillers 6th letter from Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen for a striking ‘Marxist’ analysis of labour, alienation, and individuality, dating from 1793(!).
Although Adorno wrote a very well-known critique of the existentialist and especially Heideggerian concept of authenticity (see his Jargon der Eigentlichkeit), it is my assumption that in the end both existentialism and critical theory addressed similar problems, albeit from different perspectives.
For a beautiful and accessible example of this way of thinking see Adorno’s essay on free time (Freizeit).
Cited in: Boltanski & Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, p. 477.
See in particular chapter 4 (Rendering Authenticity) of: Pine & Gilmore, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, Boston: Harvard Business School Press 2007.
Boltanski & Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, p. 446.
This example was brought under my attention by a smart essay on Lana Del Rays ‘authentic inauthenticity’ in the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland by Doortje Smithuijsen, who analyses this phenomenon in a very similar way, although she settles on a different conclusion, see: https://www.vn.nl/lana-del-rey/
Other examples might be our omnipresent suspicion regarding the ‘well-intended’ raisings of charity funds, every kind of outspoken idealist ambition of a company that is supposedly ‘not aimed at making money’, the ‘genuinely’ expressed concern of politicians for the public interest, or any other form of real ‘altruism’.
Boltanski & Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, p. 453.
The recent explosion of stoic self-help books and our obsession with meditation and mindfulness can hardly be called surprising in this regard. For an interesting critique of mindfulness as a practice which stifles activism and makes people (instead of a certain culture) feel responsible for their stress, depression and other mental illnesses see Ronald Pursers McMindfulness: How Mindfulness became the New Capitalist Spirituality (2019).
Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017, p. 6–7.