Andrew Potter’s new book demystifies the quest for “authenticity,” but how many people actually buy into the idea?
You can fly halfway around the world and find people there wearing the same brands, eating at the same franchises, and listening to the same music as back home. If you find this thought depressing, you’ve helped constitute the allure of the authentic that Andrew Potter attempts to demystify in The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves.
Or maybe you‘re the kind of person who makes fun of people who subscribe to an organic vegetable delivery service or go to lengths to consume wine straight from the terroir? Then you’ve probably already realized that the quest for authenticity is a socially destructive form of status seeking. You too will appreciate the narrative that Potter outlines as he traces contemporary society’s irrational acts of consumption designed to somehow provide us with “true” experiences and a meaningful life.
Of course, no one wants to live an “inauthentic” life or be seen as a fake person. But Potter demonstrates that the question of whether or not to be authentic is a false one. The search for authenticity ends up being a shell game of mythic proportions that often frustrates us more than fulfilling us.
We should, rather, think of the “authentic” as an ever-evolving series of influences, borrowings, and re-imaginings whose origins may be both mixed and clouded. Instead of a thing to be obtained, it is a sensibility that motivates many and promises to ground us in a world where modern comforts alienate us from nature, and the human barnyard of contemporary society pits us against one another.
Potter takes readers on an engaging romp through the philosophical underpinnings of today’s quest for “the real.” His writing takes an almost conversational tone, easy to digest even when a single page can find him referencing Socrates, Holden Caulfield, and Kurt Cobain. He manages to enlighten and entertain with his personal anecdotes and facts that make you question assumptions about what is really real and what is really virtuous.
Potter’s virtue, then, is his ironic take on authenticity. Robertson Davies once described “irony” as: “Not sarcasm, which is like vinegar, or cynicism, which is too often the voice of disappointed idealism, but a delicate casting of a cool and illuminating light on life, and thus an enlargement…. The ironist speaks with a moderation which is occasionally embellished with a flash of controlled exaggeration.”
And Potter definitely exaggerates on occasion for poetic flair. For instance, as part of his condemnation of those who turn their backs on modernity and wallow in nostalgia (forgetting that the bad old days far outnumbered the good), he claims that David Suzuki has “lost touch with reality and common sense.” But by showing us that reality is not what it appears to be, Potter challenges readers to make more sensible decisions in their everyday lives and thus make common sense a little more common.
What Potter doesn’t do so well, however, is telling us how to make it happen. He spends 263 pages outlining how we are all affected (or at least tempted) by the authenticity hoax, but only two on what we should do about it. We can see ourselves clear of this hoax, he argues, but to do so, we must rehabilitate the idea of progress and humans’ ability to exercise reason. Just what those exercises should entail though he doesn’t say, leaving readers to discover this themselves.
This is easier said than done given that the idea of progress is an enlightenment ideal and that enlightened critique and reasoned debate are endangered species in today’s marketplace of ideas. I’ll use Potter’s own words to describe why: “This is a world where truth has ceased to have any connection to reality, where each person’s ‘truth’ becomes as valid as any other person’s.” This sounds like a bit of postmodern lament. Fortunately, not all is lost. Perhaps progress will not come in people’s shared exercise of reason but in people’s attempts to be reasonable.
Somehow, I doubt people are buying into the claims of authenticity as much as Potter suggests (although the language of authenticity is certainly as prevalent as Potter adroitly reveals). Many people may participate in the hoax understanding its mythical nature and winking knowingly at its fictive facticity. Potter himself demonstrates this by recounting a trip to Eastern Europe in which he visits a Soviet Sculpture Garden known as “Stalin’s World” and takes a tour through Krakow, Poland in a vintage [Trabant](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trabant). While some tourists may seek out these experiences “in the hope of feeling some faint shudder of what it must have been like under totalitarianism,” surely many others know, as Potter does, that there is nothing “real” about such simulations and appreciate the fakery as an integral part of the experience.
As Potter shows us, authenticity is fakery and, in the end, it’s easy to get lost (in a good way) in Potter’s narrative about this. Discovering what all of this means as we relate it to our own lives – that’s up to each individual reader.
Listen to our interview with Andrew Potter here.