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on 17 June 2017
Most of us, for at least some of time, are seeking status. This might be as a means of fitting in with a group with which we identify or showing ourselves to be different from groups with whom we don't want to be identified. Authenticity is one of the tools we use, and Andrew Potter argues convincingly that much of the 'authentic', including the organic movement, is driven more by this desire to demonstrate one's status than any rational basis for valuing 'authentic'. His comments on the reaction of organic enthusiasts to Walmart providing affordable, easily available organic produce were a particular highlight, showing how the real value - status and differentiation - was eroded to the dismay of many, who then needed to shift the goalposts to local, organic produce, despite the lack of evidence for reduced carbon impact.
The only drawback of reading this book is that most honest, self-aware readers will be forced to admit that a number of the things they buy and do in the name of authenticity, really serve primary as ways of showing off their status or intellect or membership of an in-crowd. Not me of course. My purchase of authentic products is purely rational - and based on quality, functionality and aesthetics. Nothing to do with status...
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 November 2010
24 people voted for one of the 8 reviews of this book. In contrast 52 read one of the 20 reviews of Mike Robbins' "Be Yourself: Everyone Else Has Been Taken" (which was a phrase by Oscar Wilde). The latter is a book by a motivational guru who sets out to help us look for our "authentic" selves. He derides the fakes and tells us how silly and futile we are trying to be someone other than ourselves. His readers love him and his book. It is a very positive book full of opsitive and helpful advice - like speaking one's mind and not be diplomatic because we think that's not expected of us. Andrew Potter's book is the antithesis to Robbins in a way - that is, if we are seeking our authetic self in the same way we seek authentic everything else in life, then we do need to re-examine ourselves. We need to start by understanding why it is that we seek something, and not by asking what it is that we are seeking, be it an object of art, a watch, a rare book, koi fish, the iPhone 5 6 or 7 or whatever is the latest gizmo on sale. Potter, in a way, is a deconstructionist and Robbins a constructor. Although these terms describe what they do in their books the implications are different. Unless we understand what Potter is saying, and we destroy all the superficial ways of thinking and approach to life, we might likely construct a "fake" authentic self. Thus the depth of Potter's book is greater and his book deserves greater attention. It does not tell us the step by step way we can become authentic - that's up to you - but he casts the bright light on all that we value and forces us to reconsider our values. Otherwise, "being ourselves" might turn out to be another hoax.
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on 10 June 2013
The authenticity Hoax was Very very interesting and thought provoking perceptions on authenticity, and the quest for authenticity that marks our society. It is very nice put together and easy to read, and so captivating! so read it now.
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