Authenticity is a very rich vein. In fact, there may not be a richer one at this moment in our cultural milieu. It’s a buzz word, sure, but it’s a buzz word because it has become value numero uno for a certain type of post-Cobain, Generation Why mindset, and I would include myself in that demographic. Turns out it didn’t die out with grunge (or punk) at all – it merely adopted a new and more self-consciously ironic vernacular. Instead of “posing” and “selling out”, we talk about things as “pandering” or “artificial”; instead of describing people/places/things as “earnest” or “sincere”, we use the words “real” or “honest”. If you don’t believe me, just check out the exchange between comedians David Cross and Patton Oswalt about Cross’s role in the Chipmunks movie that played out a few years ago on The A/V Club this past week–or watch any episode of Portlandia. Indeed, for vast swaths of the population, Authenticity is the standard against which all people, ideologies and works of art are measured, to say nothing of churches(!). As a purveyor of meaning, it has become a purveyor of identity and status, or what we on this site call a Law–what You Ought To Be–and like all Laws, it is a harsh mistress. Not only can one never be “authentic” enough (there’s always someone more “real” than you!), the more we try to be authentic, the more phony we become. Of course, this doesn’t mean that authenticity itself is somehow a bad thing–quite the opposite! Just that, like happiness, it cannot be approached directly. Or, to bring it closer to home, while I’m truly gratified when people tell me how “authentic” the talks at our recent conference were (and they definitely were!), I also know that the second we start trying to be “authentic”, we may as well hang it up.

Anyway, what got me thinking about the subject (again) was the excellent recent episode of David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart podcast, which features an interview with Andrew Potter, the author of the brilliantly titled The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. McRaney, as you may know, is a tireless and very entertaining curator of self-delusion (his article on Procrastination is an Mbird cornerstone), and his intro to the episode doubles as a pitch-perfect rumination on how our conflicted relationship with righteousness is currently playing out. Potter himself is equally impressive, speaking very clearly about the religious dimension of Authenticity, that we have imbued it with spiritual hope that we used to (theoretically) give God/the Church. The episode is very much worth your time:

If you don’t have an hour of spare time right now, here’s a quote from the book which spells out the underlying religiosity beautifully. It goes without saying that Potter isn’t exactly a believer, but man-oh-man, he might as well be:

The search for authenticity is about the search for meaning in a world where all the traditional sources — religion and successor ideals such as aristocracy, community, and nationalism — have been dissolved in the acid of science, technology, capitalism, and liberal democracy. We are looking to replace the God concept with something more acceptable in a world that is not just disenchanted, but also socially flattened, cosmopolitan, individualistic, and egalitarian. It is a complicated and difficult search, one that leads people down a multitude of paths that include the worship of the creative and emotive powers of the self; the fetishization of our premodern past and its contemporary incarnation in exotic cultures; the search for increasingly obscure and rarefied forms of consumption and experience; a preference for local forms of community and economic organization; and, most obviously, an almost violent hostility to the perceived shallowness of Western forms of consumption and entertainment.

The quasi-biblical jargon of authenticity, with its language of separation and distance, of lost unity, wholeness, and harmony, is so much a part of our moral shorthand that we don’t always notice that we’ve slipped into what is essentially a religious way of thinking. The ease with which we talk about our alienation from nature, or the alienating nature of work, or the suburbs, or technology, is part of this language as well, hearkening back to our ongoing sense that we are fallen people.

The Authenticity Hoax came out in 2010, and the Wall Street Journal gave it a glowing review, parts of which are worth reproducing here as well. Again, while his conclusions may not be terribly sympathetic (i.e. that we simply make peace with modernity, rather than look to something that transcends the entire continuum), the diagnosis is unbelievably incisive. Someone give this guy a TED talk!

In “The Authenticity Hoax,” Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game. Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before. The local-food trend illustrates what Mr. Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity,” by which the well-heeled embark on a “perpetual coolhunt,” whether it is for authentic jeans, pristine vacation spots or mud flooring, part of the “natural building” movement. The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

But the authenticity fixation, according to Mr. Potter, goes deeper than consumer choices. It is the culprit, for instance, behind “a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination.” Political candidates are always selling their own sincerity, so that any crack in the façade (never too hard to find) launches a hundred attack ads. Taken to its darkest extremes, obsessive authenticity can become deadly, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism… Less toxic, but more common, is the craving for authenticity among those in the West who see a market economy and consumer culture as sterile and false—inauthentic, in other words—and who defend the world’s most repressive cultures, looking past their brutality to admire their resistance to modernity. It is the disillusionment with modernity, Mr. Potter maintains, that underlies the authenticity quest. When man was preoccupied with finding food and appeasing capricious gods, he didn’t have the time or inclination to ask whether he had “sold out” for an easy paycheck or failed to align himself with some abstract ideal of the “authentic” life. But then science made the formerly mystical cosmos explainable, and a spread of democratic ideas, in politics and markets alike, made food and freedom more broadly shared. The result was “a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person,” Mr. Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning and not liking what he found there. The individual’s own self-definition filled the gap left by faith and authority.