How authentic is the experience you are having right now? What kind of reality does your current experience inhabit? We are already in the later stages of the push to inauthenticity. In the reading of this article, notice how you may be very distant in time and place from the original composition, which happens in April of 2022 in Edmonton, Canada, in a basement home office on the southeast side of the city. Snow is resting and melting outside my window, above my head. You, however, might be in a very different context. An essay or blog post has already lost its “authenticity” if it is read from a mechanically or technologically reproduced medium, such as in a book or online. If like me, you doubt whether we human beings are becoming more and more detached from authentic experiences, then you are feeling the effects of a consistent push towards inauthenticity. You are becoming acutely aware that something is slipping through our grasp, that we are leaving something important behind. Certain authors in the 19th and 20th centuries help us to realize what is at stake in leaving authenticity behind. In my efforts to articulate and clarify the moral ideal of authenticity, Let’s consider the work of Walter Benjamin, the brilliant and underappreciated German Jew who committed suicide at the French-Spanish border tragically, and shortly before the gates to his escape from the Nazis were opened.
“The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” With this remarkable sentence, Walter Benjamin emphasizes, in the context of a work of art, a basic feature of the individual in her human condition: her presence in time and space, i.e. her unique existence at a place where she happens to be. (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Part 2)
Following Benjamin’s argument, the human individual loses, surprisingly, all her authority in the face of various data-based and social media avatars of her. Why? There are two reasons. First, the types of avatars that are generated on social media, and through data-based analysis (eg. a marketing profile) are quite independent of the original person. They may, in fact, bring out features of the individual that are not accessible through direct experience of her. After all, data-based analyses are adjustable and the perspectives they offer are very flexible to what the beholder of data analysis may wish. Data analysis can capture a portrayal of a person which will escape our physical observational capacity. Second, the data-based analysis or social media avatar can be placed into situations that would be out of reach for the individual herself. By communicating online via social media, authentic individuals and their works meet the viewer or perceiver halfway. The avatar of an individual leaves its locale to be received where the viewer happens to be. As a kind of object lesson, my avatar enters your eyes as you read your phone, sit at your desk, or drink your beverage – and always at a different time than at which this is being written.
The situations in which an individual’s avatar can be brought may not touch the actual person herself. Yet, the quality of the person herself is always diminished in the appearance of the avatar. In the context of the “sensitive nucleus” of a work of art, Benjamin writes, “its authenticity… is interfered with… The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former [the historical testimony], too, is jeopardized by the reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” (ibid., Part 2) Here, he helps us realize that what is at stake may be the end of both the authenticity of individuals and the history they express. We may be familiar with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History thesis which asserted that Western-liberal democracy was the final form of human organization. Fukuyama was a false flag. If we are to believe Benjamin, the end of history is deeply connected to the end of authenticity and this may be the real apocalypse.
That which withers in the age of mass reproduction is the authenticity of the individual. The technique of the avatar detaches the human being from the domain of her biological life that is connected to both time and space. With the sheer plurality of copies of the avatar, we generate a plurality of copies of her unique existence. To transmit the avatars to the viewer/receiver in his own particular situation, it reactivates the avatar (not the unique individual). Both processes (the generation of the avatar and its mass reproduction, are connected deeply with the logic of mass society. While we can notice this in the case of our physical perception (what we see with our eyes, touch with our skin, smell with our noses, taste with our tongues, and hear with our ears), this inauthentic reproduction of the individual in the form of the avatar is theoretically prescient in the importance of statistics. “The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.” (ibid., Part 3).
The uniqueness of each individual is inseparable from her being embedded and embodied in a social context. The context itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. Hannah Arendt, for instance, stood in a different context with the post-World War II Jews, who thought of her as a Jew-hater, than with the American intelligentsia, who thought of her as a Jew-liberator. Both contexts, however, were equally confronted with her uniqueness.
Any analysis of uniqueness, of the identity of an authentic person, must do justice to the relationships of the person with their social context(s). Benjamin emphasizes that the work of art must be considered in context to the rituals it is embedded. By reproducing it we detach it from the rituals through which it appears. The extension of this argument means that we must understand that the avatar emancipates the unique individual from her historical connection. To an ever greater degree, the individual reproduced as an avatar becomes the individual designed for reproducibility and on a mass scale no less. I have hinted at this in my previous work on Performative Authenticity. The disappearance of the unique individual corresponds to the loss of freedom – and the avatar is its technique.
With that being said, I hope to remind you that I am a real person, and I hope that instead of caricaturing me, you reach out and connect with me.