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The Paradox of Authenticity

Authenticity is celebrated in popular culture yet derided by philosophers. What is the future of this contested concept?
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Never in history has authenticity loomed so large within so many influential practices affecting countless people and yet been sneered at, literally or metaphorically, by so many pundits of deconstructionism, postcolonial and cultural studies and other trendy philosophical schools. There are two sides to this paradoxical predicament.

Let's look at the first side. Authenticity – the exemplary, disinterested alignment of the subject's inner states and outer conduct or, in Bernard Williams' phrase, “the idea that some things are in some real sense really you, or express what you are, and others aren't”[1] – between 1760 and 1960 played a pre-romantic, romantic, lebensphilosophisch and finally existentialist second fiddle to the mainstream notion of “autonomy”. Born as an antagonistic ideal of total truthfulness, critical of received social scripts, authenticity seems now co-opted and enervated by powerful economic forces: by the late 20th century it climbed to an unequalled popularity in marketing, the theory of organizations and management, and “nation-branding”.

Management and marketing's hijack of authenticity

“Rendering authenticity” is now the key to a firm's success, Gilmore and Pine, of the Harvard Business School, argued in Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want[2]. It used to be the case that firms would sell goods and commodities, inundating the public (and depleting their budget) with unwanted leaflets, unread ads and placards. Up and coming firms quickly moved on to sell services. In the 21st century, Starbucks or Disneyland are into selling experiences. However, experiences still look somewhat static. The next step in marketing, according to Gilmore and Pine, is selling transformations. Cutting-edge marketing campaigns claim that the firm's products help you turn into what you dream of being ­– Nike's sports-gear, investment plans for retirement, a new kind of SUV, or a trip to Venice (where already 10 years ago the ratio of tourists to locals was 200:1), could do that.  

Furthermore, smart firms no longer spend their money crowding unlikely customers with unwanted ads: they create “flagship venues” – Disneyland, Legoland, Guinness Storehouse in Dublin – where the firm's values are expressed most authentically, and customers pay an entrance fee to get exposed to the corporate message. The key to this epochal change is the firm's ability to infuse authenticity into its “offer”. The worst enemy, which adds one's own brand name to the endless list of losers, is the perception of phoniness, artificiality, fakeness: who wants to buy a fake product from a phony salesperson? Gilbert's and Pine's point is that while deliberate efforts at creating authenticity look inauthentic, customers do seek authenticity and firms must find ways of outdoing the competition in having their offerings look authentic. They must learn a code, which Gilmore's and Pine's book aims to reveal. Like in a parody of the 1960's counterculture of free love and sexual liberation turning into the commercialization of sex and the promiscuity of the club-privé for swingers, so the antagonistic valence of authenticity[3] fades into the mainstreaming of authenticity in the service of corporate profit.

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Authenticity has transformed the science of management. Up to WWI the code word for running any organization was “discipline”. Frederick Taylor's “scientific management”, adopted by countless manufacturing enterprises and immortalized in Chaplin’s movie “Modern times”, suggested treating the worker as a machine that receives an input and produces an output. Today, the idea of running an organization by forcing its members to do things they wouldn’t care or like to do is considered a sure road to failure. Already in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Mayo's theory of “human relations” emphasised “reciprocal solidarity” between managers and workers. Instead of asking workers to adapt to the task, he suggested that the task be adapted to the personality of the worker. In the 1960’s, this turn consolidated through Drucker's and Likert's “participatory management”, and Ordione's and Raia's “management by objectives”.

Now the functioning of a complex organization supposedly depends on its members' relating to one another as unique persons, not just as bearers of functional roles.[4] Well-managed organizations combine individual differences and benefit from the authentic participation of each member. Authenticity and “authentic identification with the organization’s mission” then become requisites of optimal performance, inauthentic adaptation a marker of impending failure.

And then, there’s “nation-branding”. Earlier in the 20th century the tourism industry branded special “destinations” (cities, villages, entire regions), in the effort to connect them with certain expected inner experiences.From the branding of touristic places the step was taken to nation-branding. Attempts at branding nations started with New Zealand in 2002, renamed “the Edge” and rebranded with the slogan “The Edge is a place of risk and reward”, and continued with Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia. This rethinking of national identity aims at revolutionizing self-representation in order to increase the competitive attractiveness of a collective identity in the global economy.

NGOs don’t escape the fate of re-branding either. In a world where human rights abuses cross borders and the media have global reach, Amnesty International knew it needed a single global voice, and asked Wolff Olins to create its image.

In these examples – fabricating authenticity for profit, demanding authentic participation in organizations, nation-branding – authenticity turns into inauthenticity. This deprives authenticity of its oppositional sting or, drawing on Girard, reduces authenticity to the “mimetic” desire to be what everybody considers desirable to be.

Is this phenomenon entirely negative? Perhaps not. These new trends signal that authenticity has become widely accepted in the public culture of late-modern Western societies. Ironically, authenticity suffers from its own success.

When hearing that Starbucks is successful solely due to it “sustaining coffee drinkers’ perception of the Starbuck experience as authentic”,[5] we react as though the concept of authenticity was somehow misused, distorted.

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 "...new trends signal that authenticity has become widely accepted in the public culture of late-modern Western societies. Ironically, authenticity suffers from its own success."
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That perception, however, clashes with the widespread skepticism about authenticity in contemporary philosophy. We couldn't perceive a disfiguring of authenticity if the widespread philosophical critique of this notion had any traction.

Authenticity versus the center-less individual and collective

Thus we need to explore the second side of the paradox of authenticity. Deconstructionist critics are a good starting point. If authenticity makes any sense, it must be predicated of a subject, individual or collective, capable of unity. Authors like Nancy, Rancière, Blanchot, Agamben, Esposito, instead, urge that the self cannot be understood as a center of unified agency: heterogeneity, fragmentation of motives, incompatible drives are the norm.[6] The community, the group, the polity cannot be the locus of unified agency either: collectivities are just the juxtaposition of singularities. Their unity, constructed by an objectifying gaze, is false[7]. Only difference exists. Therefore they dismiss authenticity, because even when it escapes essentialism and is “reflective”,[8] it still aims at unity and suppresses the contingent, the bodily, the sensorial. Instead, subjectivity is best rethought as fragmented, un-unifiable.

If the deconstructionist view made any sense, we would not react to the colonization of authenticity by marketing and management as though it was a reductive and illegitimate high-jacking.

There are five more things that undermine deconstructionism.

Firstly, without presupposing a purposive unity of its will, we cannot impute one course of action to a subject. The self then becomes a receptacle of acts and responses none of which can be called its own more than any other.

Secondly, by not being responsible for anything, the subject cannot commit itself to anything.

Thirdly, entire areas of moral phenomenology remain beyond reach. Hume, who most poignantly questioned the idea of “personal identity” as consisting of anything beyond the memory of successive perceptions of the self, developed a phenomenology of pride and humility as passions that take nothing else than the self in its entirety as their object.

Fourthly, the center-less subject cannot determine whether its life is flourishing or stagnating, because again those notions presuppose a unified notion of the self.

Fifthly, the collective subject or community, defined by deconstructionists as its members' shared exposure to finitude, loses its difference. It becomes synonymous with the human condition or humanity.  There is no sense in which one community is different from another. For all their insistence on difference, Nancy, Agamben, Blanchot and Esposito deactivate our capacity to connect concrete human groupings with singularity: they merge community and the human condition to an extent unprecedented even among their most universalist antagonists.

Moreover, they fail to distinguish their “inoperative”, “unavowable”, “coming”, “munus-connected” community from random and transient human groupings. Gate 22 is the nightmare of communitas.  For at Gate 22 the crowd waiting to board the plane is all difference and no unity. Passengers share nothing of their past, nothing of their future, of what they'll do after arriving. They only share a micro-segment of their life and exposure to the same vulnerability. The community propounded by deconstructionists is undistinguishable both from these random groupings and from the larger humanity – a dual flaw that deprives it of unique singularity.

We can now grasp the paradoxical predicament of authenticity. Our reaction to the disfiguring of authenticity by those who treat it as a tool for increasing profits, the efficacy of organizational action or the attractiveness of countries for investors is counter-evidence against the deconstructionist dismissal of authenticity and of the purposeful unity of the individual or collective subject.

Authenticity remains invaluable for designating the unity of the self without repression and violence. When thinking of collective subjectivity, for instance of a democratic political community, we may not use the word “authenticity”, but the same idea is there of a unity without oppression and reflective of who we intend to be politically.   



[1] Quoted in S.Jeffries, “The Quest for Truth”, The Guardian, 30 November 2002, retrieved on 30.06.2017 at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/30/academicexperts.highereducation

[2] James H. Gilmore & B. Joseph Pine II, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want  (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Books, 2007).

[3] L.Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 94.

[4] See P.F. Drucker, The Practice of Management (New York: Harper & Row, 1954); R.Likert, New Patterns of Manage­ment, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1961) and The Human Organization: Its Management and Value, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967); G.S. Ordione, Management Decisions by Objectives (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969); and A.P. Raia, Managing by Objectives, (Glenview, Scott Foresman, 1974).

[5] Gilmore and Pine, Authenticity, 2.

[6] See J.L.Nancy, The Inoperative Community (1986) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 3-4 and 28-35; M.Blanchot, The Inavowable Community (1983) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 17-18; G.Agamben, The Coming Community (1990) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 10.1; H.Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 175; A.Seligman, “Ritual and Sincerity”, Philosophy and Social Criticism, special issue on Ritual and/or Sincerity, 36, 1, 2010, 11-15.

[7] See J.Rancière, Dis-Agreement. Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1998), 64 and 108; J.L.Nancy, Being Singular Plural (1996), (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 75-76; G.Agamben, The Coming Community, cit., 85.6;  R.Esposito, Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, (1998) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 16; R.Esposito, Third Person. Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal (2007), Cambridge: Polity, 2012, 14-15, 145-146, 125-33, 142-45.

[8] For a more detailed argument see A.Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity. Rethinking the Project of Modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) and “Authenticity Without a True Self”, in Ph.Vannini, J.P.Williams (eds.), Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009),  21-36.

 

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