Our culture is saturated with authenticity: we’re forever ‘finding ourselves’, ‘self-actualising’, ‘doing you’, ‘being real’, ‘going off the beaten path’, ‘breaking free of the crowd’. We spend our youth trying to figure out who we are; our later years trying to stay true to ourselves; and the time in-between in crisis about whether we are who we thought we were.
Today, one of the primary ways we deal with the anxiety of being ourselves is to construct fantasy versions of ourselves through acquisition. This includes not just the acquisition of stuff, but also of personal style, worldviews, sociopolitical identities. The self, as the American social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in his book The Culture of Narcissism (1979), becomes an end in itself whose impulses are to be trusted above all else. A therapeutic ‘cult of authenticity’ (a term that Lasch borrows from Adorno) emerges and leads to the contemporary self-help industry. All external constraints are viewed with suspicion, and everyday life, including politics, becomes a theatre for the individual’s self-creative performance. Bad faith and posturing – the objectification of the self – become a way of life, and a slew of products, treatments and self-defeating political movements rise up to fill the apparently bottomless market for self-creation and self-care.
Social media has become an avenue for and intensifier of this narcissism, the likes of which Lasch could scarcely have imagined. The result is not the philosophical anxiety of Kierkegaard that tries to stand firm before the abyss, but a clinical anxiety constantly measuring the self against virtual avatars and adjusting it to their tacit or explicit feedback by way of the marketplace. Instead of trying to come to terms with our radical freedom, ‘authenticity’ drives us toward a rebel conformity constantly searching for the exercise routine, clothing brand or political posture that’s really ‘me’.
Alone in front of a computer screen, the social-media user, despite pretensions toward self-creation, is fundamentally spectatorial and passive. This is a posture not of authenticity but narcissism. The narcissist, Lasch writes, alternates between fantasies of utter omnipotence and spasms of utter helplessness. This means, as Lasch makes clear, that narcissism is very different from selfishness. It’s a more basic confusion and insecurity about the boundaries between oneself and the world.
We can see this confusion in a political sphere that, irrespective of ideology, prizes personal narrative and expression above solidarity. And we can also see it in the almost complete breakdown of the value of privacy – the very idea that there are aspects of one’s life that one might not want to ‘share’ with the public at large. Meanwhile, this vision of ‘authenticity’ is taken advantage of cynically by the corporations that profit off our innermost desires, while they use the rhetoric of individual freedom, identity and ‘entrepreneurship’ to atomise, surveille and exploit their workers.
How can one avoid the pitfalls of this phoney authenticity?