Sunday, September 11, 2011

The jargon of "authenticity"

In article in today’s NY Times (Sunday Styles), Stephanie Rosenbloom assembles a collage documenting the recent plague of the adjective “authentic.” Here are a few examples:

TV anchor Anderson Cooper: “in everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real.” (Btw, if the Coop is so authentic why can't he make a public acknowledgment that he is . . . GAY?)

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York: “if you fear what people think about you, then you are not being authentic.”

TV anchor Katie Couric: “I think I love to be my authentic self.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton:“I believe in being as authentic as possible.”

As a self-descriptor, the adjective is proliferating on dating sites. The immediate source may be, Rosenbloom avers, the ubiquitous Oprah Winfrey, who popularized the notion of discovering your “authentic self” in the late 1990s after reading Sarah Ban Breathnach’s “Something More.”

However the real source lies in Old Europe. A clue comes from a June statement by Pope Benedict XVI, entitled “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” The pontiff said that increasing involvement in online life “inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being.” He added that “there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

In fact, authenticity figures importantly in the thinking of the controversial German thinker Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Being authentic is a key aspect, or at least a potentiality of the mysterious Dasein (loosely translated as “existence”). According to one commentator, for Heidegger authentic existence can only come into being when individuals arrive at the realization of who they are and grasp the fact that each human being is a distinctive entity. Once human beings acknowledge that they have their own destiny to fulfill, then their concern with the world will no longer reside in eagerness to do as the masses do, but can become an "authentic" commitment to fulfill their real potential in the world.

An immediate objection arises. How can we know that a person has truly achieved authenticity, whether claimed by him or herself or by someone else? It seems that “authenticity” fails the refutability test. We can never be certain that it is there --or that it is not there. Nonethelesss, the concept turned out to have legs, gaining the support of such luminaries as Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

How in fact can we (so to speak) authenticate a claim of authenticity? Most of the time we must simply rely on the claimant's word for it. When all is said and done, it comes down to a simple assertion: "I'm authentic, and you're not--so there." At all events, Heidegger seems to have been the first to award himself the precious accolade of living authentically. Ipse dixit.

In his own day the idea did not go unchallenged. In "The Jargon of Authenticity" (1973) Theodor Adorno attacked Heidegger's obscurantist use of language, which sought to transform a "bad empirical reality into transcendence." Perhaps it is time to go back to Adorno’s book.



Blogger Napier said...

At least for my existentialist readings of Satre, De Beauvoir and Kierkeggard the issue isn't worry about the authenticity of the Other but is instead about our own authenticity. Authenticity in asmuch that we can be truly happy in our lives, that we follow the path that we want to and don't seem follow the path of the masses because it is simply expected of us but actually think about ourselves and where we want to be/go/do and work from there.

8:42 AM  
Anonymous said...

It will not really have effect, I feel like this.

11:12 AM  

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