The demand to be authentic is so commonplace that it has lost its meaning.

‘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). The increasing prevalence of social media constructions of ourselves, as we live more and more of our public lives online, has made obvious our rather innate tendency to construct our social selves; if we look at these instances carefully, the mass amount of evidence for social construction would act as reliable documentation of such behavior.  And with the increasing ‘corporatization‘ of the public realm, business seems to own a special institutional place in being a significant home for moral ideals. Organizational consultants inform us, in the pages of the Harvard Business Review, that ‘the term “authenticity” has become a buzzword among organizational 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.’ In this case, the corporatization of the public realm is the application of the logic of transactions to all our public relationships. While transactions, considered abstractly, are not inauthentic, they cannot be the base structure of all our public relationships. I have contended in “The Value of Work” and elsewhere that transactional relationships are a feature of mass society. And it should be observed that mass society has crept into the furthest corners of our private lives – to the point that it is corrupting our authentic selves.

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 varied understandings of authenticity are being expressed by reaching for legitimacy towards an ideal that is not well understood. To understand it is not so much to be able to grasp its essence as it is to comprehend the depth at which we mean it. And by articulating that, we are indeed providing a valuable service to all who use the language of authenticity; we don’t simply mean it on a consumer choice level, we employ authenticity at a moral and metaphysical level – as in ideal with roots in who we are, and at what is real. Authenticity has a depth that requires articulation if we are to use it to provide meaning or to ground our behavior. As such, one should be amazed at the seeming “flatness” of the uses of authenticity in contemporary Western social theory. The individual, in her striving to live a fulfilling, meaningful, and emotionally and spiritually rich life, seems to reach across a range of available choices in a type of consumer model of exploration; one picks and chooses available options for presenting fulfillment, and puts them together in unique ways to show a uniquely fulfilled life. Like the world of the market, claims of authenticity can have a “flat” character. Like walking in a shopping mall where one picks and chooses where to shop and what to wear, one can post images and stories that present a fulfilled life.

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 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 one ought 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, ordering your soul, and living your life so as to give faithful expression to your individuality, cherished projects, and deepest convictions.

Authenticity in this ethical sense also had a critical edge, standing against and challenging the functionality and conformism 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. An authentic individual owns those truths that matter crucially to her, 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. The inward turn is a way to personal wholeness that also transcends the self; one has access to shared horizons of meaning and shared experiences that constitute the world. Crucially, the inward turn also relies on significant others who are others who have had an intimate investment in individual identity.

Market uses of authenticity don’t tap into this deeper meaning. 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. But the sense applied to this use of authenticity is its “singularity”.

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 standardized 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. LinkedIn career specialists even say as much.

Performative authenticity is tied to economic success and social prestige, which means – and this is a further paradoxical feature – that your specialness and self-realization 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 the richer 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 moral ideal of authenticity aims at a way of being that is unfeigned and without illusions (partly guaranteed by the presence of significant others). It resists the cultivation of an affirming audience, because being a ‘whole’ person, with a non-instrumental 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 organizational 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 recognized as such – as original, interesting, complex – and brings esteem and tangible success. 

Identifying one’s own uniqueness and staying true to that in earning a living isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. Markets and digital technologies have greatly expanded the infrastructure of possibilities. Since such behaviour occurs in the marketplace, 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. And this requires the presence of an audience, which has an integrally different relationship with an individual than that of significant others.

Given the sharp dissimilarities, we can see how authenticity might be both in decline (as a moral ideal) 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 the moral ideal authenticity is being lost, as seemingly ‘everyone has become their own unabashed publicist’. We can see why people lay little stress on the need for introspection and fault themselves, not for being too caught up in the superficialities of society, but for failing to meet its imperatives of success. They, in fact, get caught up in performing authenticity than in being authentic. In conceptualizing 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 moral ideal itself. In his powerful critique The Malaise of Modernity (1991), Taylor argues that our contemporary culture of self-fulfillment and unfettered choice is built, in part, on ‘trivialized’ and ‘self-centered 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’.

If anything, the performative mode pushes the individual further on to herself and within a totalizing environment of the audience and away from stable frameworks and sources of meaning that would be provided by significant others. But the problem runs deeper, as the demonstration of specialness and optimized self-development are built into the very standards of success. Performative authenticity fosters a detached form of self-awareness that potentially measures everything in terms of its strategic value for visibility, recognition, and reward. Knowing the game fosters the skeptical 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 profound isolation and a sense of insecurity. This mode captures how people evaluate themselves and find themselves wanting – they weren’t outgoing enough, positive enough, performing highly enough, moving on from loss or defeat quickly enough, organizing their intimate relations contractually enough. They weren’t ‘special’, but ordinary – in dread of being labeled ‘losers’. We can confirm 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. Marino guides us to begin 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, and the seeming meaninglessness of “it” all. In this case, the “it” is the type of audience which generates performative authenticity. Instead, we should follow Taylor in digging back almost a century earlier – to Humbolt and Herder – that is, to the counter-Enlightenment. We should begin deeper because it is in the quiet moments surrounded by our significant others that we have acquired the rich languages of expression needed for being authentic.  It isn’t in the moral revolt of existentialism that authenticity acquired its power; it is in the intimate surroundings of our significant others that who we are became as important as it is. If the constant need to prove our worth explains how prevalent depression and anxiety are, then perhaps we need to root ourselves back in the place where we need not prove our worth, i.e. with our significant others. 

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