The Authenticity Hoax: Why the “Real” Things We Seek Don’t Make Us Happy

Potter, Andrew

What does it mean to be authentic? The demand for authenticity--the honest or the real--is one of the most powerful movements in contempo-rary life, influencing our moral outlook, political views, and consumer behavior. Yet according to Andrew Potter, when examined closely, our fetish for "authentic" lifestyles or experiences is actually a form of exclusionary status seeking. The result, he argues, is modernity's malaise: a competitive, self-absorbed individualism that ultimately erodes genuine relationships and true community. Weaving together threads of pop culture, history, and philosophy, The Authenticity Hoax reveals how our misguided pursuit of the authentic merely exacerbates the artificiality of contemporary life that we decry. In his defiant, brilliant critique, Andrew Potter offers a way forward to a meaningful individualism that makes peace with the modern world. Editorial Reviews Gregg Easterbrook "A totally real, genuine, authentic book about why you shouldn't believe any of those words. And it's genuinely good." John Zogby "Unique insights on every page and breathtaking in scope... We're not quite certain what is authentic but we know what it is not. Andrew Potter helps us sift through the confusion." Thomas De Zengotita "The kind of criticism that changes minds." National Post "Potter's book is very smart." Wall Street Journal "Potter's broad-ranging survey makes a good case that the authenticist fantasy is deeply embedded in the culture." Newsweek "There are excellent arguments here to steal for the next time some bearded hipster at a party enthuses about brining his own beets or vacationing in an eco-tent." January Magazine "Potter weaves elements of history, philosophy and pop culture together in a book that will leave an impression even if it doesn't necessarily show us the path. Is Andrew Potter one of the great thinkers of our age? He may well be: this is great stuff." Toronto Star "The Authenticity Hoax has the estimable virtue of bringing the profound down to scale while keeping the big picture in hi-def clarity. It's as lively, funny and easy to read as one would want a book on epidemic spiritual malaise to be." Publishers Weekly According to Potter (coauthor of Nation of Rebels), the cost of modernity's dismantling of traditional frameworks of truth and meaning has forced meaning and authenticity to become individual searches that are private and consumercentric. Potter's lively cultural analysis combines an astute analysis of foundational "antimodernist" thought (in particular Rousseau) with savvy surveys of mass culture to flag the pitfalls and ironies of the modern obsession with authenticity in its every incarnation (authentically punk, spiritual, environmentally conscious) from our jeans to our celebrities. Potter champions a mitigation of modernity's negative, "alienating" effects rather than a rejection of modernity, and his characterizations of antimodernists can be dismissive to the point of oversimplifying a large and varied spectrum of dissent from the status quo. But in redeeming modernity from "primitivists," apocalyptic doom-mongers, and more subtle critics, the author offers a shrewd and lively discussion peppered with pop culture references and a stimulating reappraisal of the romantic strain in modern life. (Apr.) Kirkus Reviews Ottawa Citizen politics editor Potter (co-author: Nation of Rebels: How Non-Conformity Drives Our Consumer Society, 2004) argues that the widespread quest for "authenticity" simply exacerbates our discontent with modern life. A journalist with a doctorate in philosophy, the author writes with authority about the ways in which today's men and women seek authenticity, or meaning, in their lives-loft-living, ecotourism, yoga, the slow-food movement, etc. Dissatisfied with a world dominated by the fake, the prepackaged and the artificial, they seek "the honest, the natural, the real, the authentic." But the quest is a hoax, writes Potter. There is no such thing as authenticity, any more than there is an authenticity detector that you could wave at something. Our search for authenticity is a response to the malaise of modernity. Emerging between 1500 and 1800, the worldview of modernity swept away traditional sources of meaning on a tide of secularism, liberalism and the market economy, leaving people with profoundly changed attitudes toward science, religion and personal identity. Potter draws nicely on the writings of Lionel Trilling, on philosophical thought from Rousseau to Diderot and on elements of popular culture from the singer Avril Lavigne to the TV program The Office. He shows how alienation from the ever-changing modern world has prompted several centuries of "rainbow-chasing" after authentic living that is often simply nostalgia for a nonexistent past or disguised status-seeking. For example, the case against suburban living "is little more than lifestyle snobbery disguised as a quest for authenticity." Potter's anecdote-filled book explores such topics as art forgery, plagiarism,organic living, fake memoirs, politics and Oprah Winfrey's "cult of authenticity through therapeutic self-disclosure, of the sort promoted by her frequent guest Dr. Phil." The author's discussions of authenticity as a strategy for marketing "vintage" jeans and other goods and as a way of promoting an undiluted cultural past to tourists are especially rewarding. How to avoid the authenticity hoax? Potter writes that we must pursue forms of individualism that make peace with the modern world, with all its benefits and losses. A provocative meditation on the way we live now. The Barnes & Noble Review From Andrew Keen's "PUBLIC & PRIVATE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review Words have once again become subversive. Last February, when Helene Hegemann, the 17-year-old German author of the sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll "novel" Axolotl Roadkill, was said to have plagiarized portions of this 2010 book from a blogger, she responded by hurling a grenade of a sentence back at her accusers. "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity," the Berlin-based writer said, ironically issuing this subversive statement through her venerable publisher Ullstein-Verlag, a business which, for nearly 140 years, has been predicated upon selling copies of its authors' original words. Note that Hegemann didn't just place authenticity above originality within her pantheon of creative values. The teenage writer's statement actually denies that originality -- a central assumption of the creative economy for the past 150 years -- exists. "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." In Hegemann's creative universe, where it's impossible to be original because everything has been said before, all that is left for the author to cultivate is the virtue of individual authenticity by, it seems, transparently reorganizing other people's work. But in the shadow of the death sentence Hegemann imposes upon originality, what distinguishes authentic from inauthentic writing? According to Hegemann, it's the uniqueness of the author's organization of other people's material, rather than the uniqueness of his or her writing, which defines authenticity. As she told the daily newspaper Berliner Morgenpost, "I myself don't feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me." Artistic truth, for Hegemann, lies in the supposedly collaborative creativity of the remix. Many of her German readers and reviewers appear to share her perspective, or at least to not hold it against her. In early February, after the plagiarism scandal broke, not only did Axolotl Roadkill shoot up to #5 on Spiegel's hardcover bestseller list (which, appropriately, includes both fiction and nonfiction), but it was also short-listed for the $20,000 prize in the best fiction category of the Leipzig Book Fair. Yes, we live in vertiginous times, an age in which much of what was culturally solid appears to be melting into air (Joshua Cooper Ramo has dubbed our epoch The Age of the

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