on 21 November 2014
The first two chapters of this book are sublime. Potter weaves a historic narrative of western civilisation, which, couched in terms of the shifting identity politics and existential mode du jour, makes for quite a ride: He takes us from the pre-modern certainty of knowing one’s station in the cosmos and social hierarchy, through the disenchantment of spiritual life and the rise of science, commercialisation during the industrial revolution, our subsequent disenfranchisement and the backlash of romanticism, and finally to today’s post-modernism. The ever-growing power of capitalism and ruthless individualism, Potter suggests, has all led to our mass alienation, a loss of personal identity and a nostalgic desire to return to something more ‘authentic’. Nothing new here, but this is really great stuff.
The bulk of the rest of the book discusses a number of themes relating to authenticity (as found in art, in politics, in culture…) all of which makes for interesting reading, dense with philosophical and psychological tidbits. The central thread of the book is an argument that, since self-awareness is the antithesis of authenticity, a knowing quest for authenticity will always be self-defeating. Any deliberate attempt to be authentic, or to have an authentic experience, or provide an authentic product or service, will suffer its own paradox –i.e. the same maxim as ‘if you try to be cool, you’re not cool’. Consequently, authenticity is fake: little more than an unattainable horizon. We are ‘chasing the rainbow’ in a zero-sum game of one-upmanship, with authenticity simply representing the latest fad in status-seeking (where ‘coolness’ was the commodity of status for the previous generation, and accumulation of material wealth was the modus operandi prior to that). As such, whilst our lust for authenticity may stem from a genuine spiritual void, it is channelled into mere consumerism and status-chasing, catered for by an ever-growing ‘economy of authenticity’ steeped in bulls***. That’s the hoax, says Potter.
The main problem is that Potter’s perceived scope of authenticity is restricted to a lifestyle device: a sought-after and buyable commodity. Despite presenting the book in a broad-sweeping philosophical context, he’s actually only talking about 'conspicuous authenticity', the type that’s marketed and sold in holiday brochures, political campaigns and Italian restaurants. In this sense the book’s achievement is disappointingly trivial. He fails to examine in-depth the notion of authenticity as a deeper existential goal, and in highlighting the self-defeating nature of conspicuous authenticity, he doesn't seem to recognise the possibility of inconspicuous authenticity – that which may genuinely exist precisely because it is not knowingly sought after. And so couched in these very limited terms his thesis holds water, just, but reduces to something rather patently obvious – apparently, the companies selling rustic hemp clothing and organic toilet paper to trendy urbanites are cashing in on nothing more than a thin caricature of ‘authenticity’, and the individuals buying this stuff are, subconsciously at least, more concerned with its status appeal than it's bona-fide authenticity... well who'd have guessed. What’s more, Potter tars all pursuers of non-mainstream lifestyles, be they doomsayers stocking up on tinned beans in preparation for the apocalypse, or casual purchasers of organic bananas, with the same brush. In doing this he comes across as hugely ignorant.
Of course, critiquing authenticity in such limited terms is easy, but does not entirely negate the existence of that elusive quality many people are looking for, and which many feel is missing from our post-modern, individualistic, consumerist existence. In shunning faux-authenticity Potter seems to imply that ‘real’ authenticity – a sincerity of connection to others and to the world around us, a belief that artistic creation should genuinely represent it’s cultural context (rather than be faddish or imitational), and a quality of product that evidences personality, rather than faceless consumerism – is delusional and doesn’t exist.
These oversights are not merely due to the narrowness of his approach, but also the inconsistency of his definitions. Those pursuits he seems to be so cynical of: eco-tourism, organic produce, home-schooling and so on, are not correctly identified as potentially misguided routes to authenticity, but seem to discussed as though synonymous with authenticity itself, and so their often phony nature is presented as the de facto phoniness of authenticity. The redeeming argument; that true authenticity may still thrive where it is neither forced, sought after, nor packaged, is completely absent.
Ultimately Potter’s version of authenticity, that it is nothing more than a marketing hoax, is perhaps symptomatic of our widespread disenfranchisement, and in this respect the rise of rampant individualism and social ‘progress’ has a lot of answer for. However his version is not authenticity in its entirety, but rather a bastardised version of authenticity that is easy to criticise. I can only assume that this is the only form of authenticity he's ever known, perhaps because of a perpetually cynical outlook and a lifetime stuck within Western consumerist society (punctuated only by the occasional package holiday and force-fed portion of ‘culture’ - equally Westernised and consumerist). Whilst this view might very often be accurate, he lacks the capacity to view the pursuit of nature, simple living, eco-friendliness or spirituality as anything other than a trite, scripted and pretentious foray of self-delusion. Tragic, really.