‘Today, there is little premium placed on being authentic,’ writes the American philosopher Gordon Marino in his moving meditation The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (2018). In our world of ‘selfies, social media branding, and managing your profile on LinkedIn and Facebook … [i]t is not who you are but who you seem to be!’ In interviews for my own sociological book on everyday suffering and our troubled quest for self-mastery, I too found little premium placed on ‘being authentic’. And yet, organisational consultants inform us, in the pages of the Harvard Business Review, that ‘the term “authenticity” has become a buzzword among organisational leaders’. In fact, authenticity is ‘now ubiquitous in business, on personal blogs and even in style magazines’, according to another writer. ‘Everyone wants to be authentic.’
So, which is it? Is authenticity fading away as a personal ethic or is it something everyone wants to be? In fact, both are true – because the meaning of authenticity is changing.
Authenticity, which in its modern sense dates back to the Romantics of the late 18th century, has never had a single meaning. In much of our everyday usage, the term means something more or less analogous to the way that we speak of an object being authentic – as the genuine article, not a copy or a fake. We think of people as authentic when they’re being themselves, consistent with their own personality and without pretence or pretending. And when they’re being reliable and trustworthy, generally resistant to the whims of the moment or the emotional approval of the crowd. In other words, when they show themselves to be stable and consistent over time and in different circumstances.
But, as an ethical ideal – as a standard of what it is good to be, both in the way that we relate to ourselves and others – authenticity means more than self-consistency or a lack of pretentiousness. It also concerns features of the inner life that define us. While there is no one ‘essence’ of authenticity, as Marino observes, the ideal has often been expressed as a commitment to being true to yourself, and ordering your soul and living your life so as to give faithful expression to your individuality, cherished projects and deepest convictions.
The meanings of authenticity that concern the inner life are now fading away
Authenticity in this ethical sense also had a critical edge, standing against and challenging the utilitarian practices and conformist tendencies of the conventional social and economic order. Society erects barriers that the authentic person must break through. Finding your true self means self-reflection, engaging in candid self-appraisal and seeking ‘genuine self-knowledge’, in the words of the American philosopher Charles Guignon. It means making your own those truths that matter crucially to you, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor stresses, the truths that it’s right and necessary to be true to. In this understanding, the inward turn is not an end in itself. It’s a means to personal wholeness and access to shared horizons of meaning that transcend the self and contribute to a richer, more human world.
The meanings of authenticity that concern the inner life are now fading away. They are not, as Marino suggests, and as I too have argued, consistent with how life is generally lived today. But there is an alternative meaning – an authenticity that is harmonious with our times. Here is a mode of authenticity that we might say ‘everyone wants to be’, because here is the mode that everyone is expected to be.
In his book The Society of Singularities (2017), the German social theorist Andreas Reckwitz argues that a larger ‘authenticity revolution’ has swept the world during the past 40 years. The register of values has shifted, he shows, away from anything standardised and regular and toward objects, images, services and events that are regarded as being unique and singular. Think of artisan bread and craft beer, off-the-beaten-path travel destinations and local diversity, online profiles and Spotify playlists, self-tracking and lifelogging, products with ‘stories’ and spaces with ‘atmospheres’. The list is endless, especially among the educated middle classes. Enormous energy is now directed to making things appear ‘authentic’ – that is, particular and distinctive, standing apart from the typical, the ordinary, the mass-produced. Uniqueness has a social status and value of its own.
The high status accorded to the singular, Reckwitz argues, includes people. Each person is enjoined to stand out from the crowd, to achieve something special and extraordinary. Authenticity has become an obligation. Reckwitz captures this conundrum with the paradoxical concept of ‘performative authenticity’. Authenticity, in this sense, is the way to be because to be ‘somebody’ is to develop your unique self, your differentness from others and your noninterchangeable life. Being merely average or well adjusted, or without a cultivated portfolio of special competencies and attractive qualities, is a mark of failure – a mark of inauthenticity – regardless of your inner life and relation to self.
Performative authenticity is tied to economic success and social prestige, which means – and this is a further paradoxical feature – that your specialness and self-realisation have to be performed. In order for people to distinguish themselves, they must seek attention and visibility, and positively affect others with their self-representations, personal characteristics and quality of life. In doing so, they have to take great care that their performance isn’t perceived as staged. To be ‘authentic’ – genuine – they have to give the impression that they’re just being themselves. The effort has to appear effortless, otherwise it will backfire.
Performative authenticity shares with older, inner conceptions of authenticity the notion that each of us has our own unique way of being in the world. But the concepts otherwise diverge. The inner ideal aims at a way of being that is unfeigned and without illusions. It resists the cultivation of an affirming audience, because being a ‘whole’ person, with a noninstrumental relation to self and others, is often at odds with the demands of society. The benefit is a richer, examined life, but there is always the risk of paying a price for living authentically in terms of lesser social acclaim and outward success. Authenticity thus understood, it’s safe to say, was never a ‘buzzword among organisational leaders’.
In the performative mode, by contrast, this tension between self and society disappears. Self-elaboration still requires self-examination, but not necessarily of any inner or even aesthetic kind (‘life as a work of art’). Something more like an inventory is needed, and some schools of psychology and popular self-help actually recommend that the way to know yourself isn’t through personal reflection, but by convening a focus group of those familiar with your personality, desires and talents – ‘likes’ and other social media feedback serve this purpose. Useful personal traits are cultivated in interaction with the appropriation of unusual or unusually combined objects, experiences, styles and identities – a rare breed of dog, special cooking techniques, the obscure knowledge of sneaker brands, an offbeat musical style, a novel sexual orientation, and so on. Together, they’re put to work as the basis for composing and curating your unique difference. This difference has no meaning or standing of its own; it only achieves value, only counts as authentic, when it’s socially recognised as such – as original, interesting, complex – and brings esteem and tangible success.
The performative mode is a further flight into atomism and away from stable sources of meaning
Performing your difference isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. Markets and digital technologies have greatly expanded the infrastructure of possibilities. It is, however, a competition for scarce attention that requires continuous assessment and feedback, and offers little respite. Like fashions, there’s pressure toward the new and the novel, and what was unique one day might be commonplace the next. Even if you pull off a good performance, there’s a need to be flexible, to be ready to reinvent your difference. There’s always the danger of becoming inconspicuous.
Given the sharp dissimilarities, we can see how authenticity might be both in decline (in the inner mode) and in ascendance (in the performative mode) at the same time. The evidence for the decline of one might be a sign of the rise of the other. In light of the performative mode, we can see why Marino sees that authenticity (in the inner mode) is being lost, as seemingly ‘everyone has become their own unabashed publicist’. We can see why, as I found in my interviews, people laid little stress on the need for introspection and faulted themselves, not for being too caught up in the superficialities of society, but for failing to meet its imperatives of success. In conceptualising the practice of the self and its relation to a good life and a good society, the two modes are nearly mirror opposites.
Marino’s book is called a ‘survival guide’ and what we need to survive might be usefully thought of as distorted pictures of authenticity, including corrupted expressions of the inner mode. In his powerful critique The Ethics of Authenticity (1991), Taylor argues that our contemporary culture of self-fulfilment and unfettered choice is built, in part, on ‘trivialised’ and ‘self-centred modes’ of authenticity. ‘Properly understood,’ however, ‘authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self’ – demands of society, nature, tradition, God or the bonds of solidarity – ‘it supposes such demands.’ To bracket them off, he continues, ‘would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters’.
The performative mode is, if anything, a further flight into atomism and away from stable frameworks and sources of meaning. But the problem runs deeper, as the demonstration of specialness and optimised self-development are built into the very standards of success. The performative fosters a detached form of self-awareness that potentially measures everything in terms of its strategic value for visibility, recognition and reward. And, knowing the game, it fosters the sceptical sense that everyone else’s actions carry an ulterior, manipulative intent. Just being ourselves becomes a guise, behind which we fashion ourselves to be – in the worldly scale of values – someone who counts.
The performative mode fosters a profound isolation and sense of insecurity. This mode captures many of the normative standards against which the people I interviewed evaluated themselves and found themselves wanting – they weren’t outgoing enough, positive enough, performing highly enough, moving on from loss or defeat quickly enough, organising their intimate relations contractually enough. They weren’t ‘special’, but ordinary – in dread of being labelled ‘losers’. What I found confirms Reckwitz’s claim that the demand to stand out and prove your worth is ‘a systematic generator of disappointment that does much to explain today’s high levels of psychological disorder’.
Taylor suggests that, to confront false modes of authenticity and open a space to consider alternative conceptions of the good, we should remind ourselves of those features of the human condition that show these modes to be empty. A place to begin, following Marino’s guidance, is with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Our existential condition reveals itself to us most clearly when our lives have become unmoored, when we come face to face with our vulnerability, our dependence, our limits, the seeming meaninglessness of it all. Just here is where Kierkegaard intervenes. If we want to live authentically – properly understood – there’s no wiser guide.