In The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, Andrew Potter recounts the story of how the book A Million Little Pieces got boosted, then booted, by Oprah’s book club by being initially sold as autobiographical when it was really just bullshit. He concludes with:
The point, then, is that what makes the whole Oprah versus James Frey affair so odd is this: the fact that Frey made up his book makes it fictional and historically inaccurate, but it does not thereby make it “inauthentic” in an Oprahian sense. In Oprah’s world, authenticity is nothing more than a contemporary version of Rousseau’s original idea that one’s true inner self is not so much discovered as it is invented, which makes the distinction between fiction and nonfiction essentially irrelevant. In that sense, A Million Little Pieces is still a perfect fit for Oprah’s Book Club.
The source of authenticity alluded to above is relevant. Traditionally, in the Aristotlian sense, what people were was defined by their habits:
But the Virtues we get by first performing single acts of working, which, again, is the case of other things, as the arts for instance; for what we have to make when we have learned how, these we learn how to make by making: men come to be builders, for instance, by building; harp-players, by playing on the harp: exactly so, by doing just actions we come to be just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave.
More recently, existentialism has refined this to “Existence Precedes Essence,” which Camus paraphrased in The Myth of Sisyphus as “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.” This is, in a way, the imaginary State of Nature that Rousseau toyed with, but Rousseau took the schism between perception and reality and tried to turn that on the temporal gap between how one is being currently and what one is being over time. If you’re not familiar with the perception gap, consider it as presented in Sneakers: if it is reported that a bank is unstable, then people will withdraw their money and the bank will be unstable. This can be difficult enough for people to navigate (bank failure isn’t fun!) before we get to the moral aspect: if you were the last person to be seen with a comb and now the comb is broken, did you actually break it? Rousseau would almost certainly claim that it doesn’t matter whether you did or you didn’t because if you seem guilty to other people, then it’s because you don’t seem innocent enough. Put another way, when people are intractable in their beliefs on what has transpired, then “the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is essentially irrelevant” and the only way to get back to relevance is for one person to seem more authentic such that their perspective is preferred by all involved.
Where this turns strange is as follows:
For Rousseau, pride does not come before the fall, pride is the fall. The sense of pride that comes from comparing yourself to your fellow man, and coming out ahead, gives birth to a new motivation, and new form of self-love, which Rousseau calls amour-propre. Unlike the natural and useful feeling of self-love he calls amour de soi (which is just a drive for self-preservation tempered by pity), amour-propre is essentially other-regarding. It is nothing less than the quest for status, from which all the evils of civilization follow.
Put another way, if authenticity becomes extrinsically motivated such that it is primarily a means of having one’s perspective imposed on others in this shared thing called reality, then miscommunication and strife will follow. So it is not idly that Potter claims
For a man convinced that status-seeking, selfishness, and insincerity are the great evils of civilization, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a stupendously vain and egotistical man.
We shouldn’t be at all surprised by this. The point behind behind the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is that even the most earnest belief in a lie won’t make it true. But Rousseau’s level of internalized self-delusion goes beyond parading around in nothing more than transparent claims and hypocrisy since what he was aiming for was an authenticity that he sabotages by contradiction. As Aristotle would put it,
It is truly absurd for a man to attribute his actions to external things instead of to his own capacity for being easily caught by them; or, again, to ascribe the honourable to himself, and the base ones to pleasure… As for the plea, that a man did not know that habits are produced from separate acts of working, we reply, such ignorance is a mark of excessive stupidity.
The integral illustrative flaw of Rousseau’s apparent belief that an admittedly imaginary state-of-nature person would have a better life by dealing directly with reality instead of with all of those other people was not lost on his critics. I gave up on Rousseau’s “A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind” when I couldn’t figure out how he would intend to build a rational argument on utter fiction, but evidently other people perservered to the end… and couldn’t figure it out either. About the fictional state of the state of nature,
For Roger Sandall, this is a fateful concession, and he accuses Rousseau of operating in what he calls the “hypocritical mode” of reasoning. On the one hand, Rousseau repeatedly concedes that we could never return to the state of nature, since it probably never existed in the first place. But at the same time, the whole tone of his critique of civilization implies that a tribal state would be far preferable to the predatory character of modern society, and the underlying theme is that civilization is a false and nasty cloak that we need to shake off. And so Rousseau’s writing, argues Sandall, “creates a pervasive atmosphere of ambiguous make-believe and insincerity.”
And to a certain extent Sandall is necessarily right. Who could take the urban diplomat-wannabe turned-intellectual and father-of-probably-five particularly seriously when he wrote
The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, “This is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!
since knowing where to put the stakes et cetera was crucial to the development of agriculture which has been rather necessary for the existence of everybody — inclusive of his offspring — in civil society that suffered all of those crimes and wars and murders and misfortunes and horrors and so on? But Sandall was probably acting on a kind belief that it would be offensively rude to attack Rousseau’s hypocrisy so directly — with the irony being that the separation of Roussau’s authentic actual self from Rousseau’s work not only gives credence to Rousseau’s claims about the dishonesty of civilized relations (“See what I did there?”) but also gives Rousseau an out (“But you didn’t get what I was trying to say!”). Potter is more direct in his critique of Rousseau
The real problem with Rousseau is that he was so utterly disgusted by the particular failures of Parisian society, and so wracked by his own insecurity, that he was unable to appreciate anything that such a society had to offer. While he certainly knew what he didn’t like, there was little sense of balance or understanding of the tradeoffs involved in civilization, and so what someone like Sandall sees as hypocrisy might be better interpreted as something closer to antimodern tunnel vision.
Even the flow of that indictment blunts the harshest charge: the intellectual philosopher had “little sense of balance or understanding of the tradeoffs involved in civilization.” But what else could be said of an occasional hypochondriac whose veneration for an imaginary state of nature should have been the death of him? After all, Rousseau imagined that
Nature treats them exactly in the same manner that Sparta treated the children of her citizens; those who come well formed into the world she renders strong and robust, and destroys all the rest; differing in this respect from our societies, in which the state, by permitting children to become burdensome to their parents, murders them all without distinction, even in the wombs of their mothers.
Though, tangentally, it must also be noted that Sparta had more slaves than citizens — so why ever do we fetishize Sparta so much? But regarding Rousseau’s writing… It would appear, in modern analogy, that Rousseau was deeply enamoured with what he believed would be the joys of being an, oh say, organic free-range farmer, without ever attempting to actually become an organic free-range farmer since writing about how life sucked because people weren’t organic free-range farmers — if not something even more primal — was rather easier for him. No wonder he was “wracked by insecurity” and deeply concerned with his authenticity: he was “a man did not know that habits are produced from separate acts of working,” apparently incapable of reconciling his life’s work to his apparent contempt for the utility of the money that people paid him to produce it.
Yet in this way he role-models for Frey that a belief in authenticity may transmute into authenticity just by virtue of believing hard enough. And while Rousseau may have been able to pull off this miraculous transformation by virtue of tapping into people’s preference of believing to doing, by tapping people’s desire to be able to eat cake and still have pie, this slieght of mind is a volatile fountain of cognitive dissonance that regularly erupts on those that would tap into it either consciously or, more often in our culture, by happenstance and coincidence. While it might be suggested that if he did exactly as he intended to do, then he had an internal authenticity — that is, his way of life was self-authentic — except that this runs afoul of both Aristotle and Rousseau: while he may have been a practiced and complete faker, the discontinuity between reality and perception practically ensures that attempting to corrupt other people’s perception of you will corrupt your perception of yourself. While Rousseau may have attempted to tap the power of positive thinking in terms of “What I project is what I want to become,” it does not reject the possibility that everybody else is right — in Rousseau’s story, the actuality of how the comb was mysteriously broken with him sitting next to it the entire time was tossed off as irrelevant. This results in the curious situation where Rousseau might agree with Sartre’s writing that “Hell is other people,” but for Rousseau it would be because other people just don’t understand the real me, while for Sartre it would because other people understand me all too well. And for Frey, it would be because I get tongue-lashed by Oprah on daytime television.
For Potter, though, the authenticity hoax is a hoax of authenticity itself. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a good read, it’s just not a complete one as readily demonstrated by the Wikipedia short article on Authenticity. For my part, I would say the following:
Authenticity is a possible inherent attribute of things — particularly artifacts of work, temporal relationships, and a way of living. The first hoax is that authenticity is not a transferable property — it cannot be caught or bought. Working from “existence precedes essence,” where the eventual essence become the first element of value existentially created in a life, authenticity should be a property inherent in the essence as it coalesces by the power of autonomous choice from the mere existence. Put another way, if a person consciously decides to be brave or be a barista and they work at being brave or being a barista to such an extent that it becomes part of their essential being, then their bravery or barista-ing could be said to have the authentic attribute, and artifacts that they produce from that — especially cappuccinos — would inherit authenticity from the maker’s authentic essence. And here’s the hoax: I may drink the world’s most authentic cappuccino, but all that makes me is a cappuccino drinker and possibly snob. The authenticity of the product I have acquired and/or consumed conveys no authenticity into me — the best it can do is convey status. Maybe I do enjoy some authentic chamber music, but by the time I’m telling my co-workers about it, it’s become a status symbol. (To be fair to Potter, he does touch on this point.) Getting back to Frey, Frey was inauthentic because he was essentially a writer, not essentially a junkie, which is probably best for everybody involved except the people who wanted to hear what actual junkies had to say instead of what actual writers would, using their finely honed talents and perhaps even some research, project that junkies had to say. Me, I watched Trainspotting instead.
Of course, this is contingent on autonomy granting capacity for choice. This is because Rousseau was right about one thing: if you can’t choose whether or not to break the comb, then it doesn’t matter whether or not you broke the comb. Only a free moral agent can place inherent value in their essence, with inherent value being necessary to care about other possible attributes like authenticity. Apparently this puts my thinking mostly in line with Erich Fromm (so I suppose I should add him to my reading list) in that absolute freedom of choice isn’t necessary for autonomy, just adequate freedom of choice whereby any course can be reflected upon and potentially denied. Or, using borrowed eloquence, “behaviour of any kind, even that wholly in accord with societal mores, [is] authentic if it results from personal understanding and approval of its drives and origins, rather than merely from conformity with the received wisdom of the society.” Fromm also identified thee common ways that people actively destroy their autonomy: automaton conformity, authoritarianism, and destructiveness (where “destructiveness” appears to encompass all destructive behaviors, and would likely be where addictions et al fit in). So with autonomy on one side and conformity, authoritarianism, or destructiveness on the other, it would appear that the market economy featuring division of labor and freedom of exchange is necessary for authenticity — that is, and please pardon the fluffiness, necessary for people to fulfill their calling.
At this point, Daniel Pink’s core of Drive should be popping up in your mind as we’ve got the autonomy choosing a purpose and developing mastery (as part of coalescing the essence from the existence). “But wait,” you should be saying, “making an authentic cappuccino is way too simple to qualify as a purpose!” And thus it’s clear that you’ve never made one — joking! — but it is quite right. Purpose, according to Pink, is something bigger than you, the pursuit of which will out-last you. (At this point, I’d like to cite Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for a line about people deriving a lot of happiness from feeling like they’ve attached themselves to something with more permanence than their little mortal self has but I can’t find it.) But this is where the second, larger hoax of authenticity is: authenticity isn’t actually a valuable attribute so much as it is a side effect marking progress towards a transcendent purpose. This is where things become a bit difficult to describe, so I’d advise going and watching Jamie Oliver’s TED Talk on teaching kids about food. Jamie has developed the essence of a chef, but has taken on participation in the greater purpose of “get people to stop eating poison.” And you don’t even need to taste a meal that he has created or even watch him at work in the kitchen to get the sense that this man has an authenticity about food — but so what? The authenticity is a side effect that’s already been accomplished and, yes, it laid the groundwork for his choice of purpose, but it was not an inherent or independent point in the way that the modern marketer might attempt to use the word.
What is even more fundamentally strange about a purpose like that is that it is going to be necessarily inauthentic as an artifact of life’s work in its implicit incompleteness. Thus it becomes important to mark the shift from having an authentic essence, chosen and pursued autonomously, to sacrificing that autonomy to a greater transcendental purpose. This isn’t to say that a person stops making choices, but rather that the person no longer makes significant choices independent of the larger purpose which has taken over so much of their mind. But the unwieldy immensity of the purpose reveals the underlying inadequacy of the individual who champions it, with the inadequacy being an inauthenticity of hope for progress against the purpose, and in this we come back to the original irony: it is only through perception of what doesn’t exist that we can care enough to formulate an essential self to dedicate to a higher purpose that will consume us.
In Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, Death explains that “Humans need fantasy to be human… As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.” Susan asks “So we can believe the big ones?”, which Death explains are “Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.” When Susan disagrees on this point, Death retorts
[T]ake the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.
So it seems that we have come full circle, but the difference that we have picked up in the process is in the clarity of the subject’s purpose. Jamie Oliver knows what he’s up against and knows it’s a fight he’s not going to be able to win. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bono, they don’t stand a chance. Sisyphus hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hades, right? But it doesn’t stop them. Where there is no justice, we will bring some. Where there is no mercy, we will show some. Where there is no duty, we will act on some. In each of these ways, the purpose larger than the self calls the self to tap into a greater essence that preceded its existence and add its individual essence to it. And so here we are with a social contract that was essentially penned on the hopes and dreams of generations of our predecessors who knew they couldn’t get it right and would have to leave it to people like us to make it better.
But are we? Have we grasped the cultural underpinnings from the mythology of our youth that were really just metaphors for the intangible inheritance we’ve been given? I sometimes suspect that we’ve become so generally accustomed to rapid pace of people making or claiming immediate breakthroughs that we’ve lost our ability to imagine in the long-term. In A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut observed that fewer and fewer people were thinking about the kind of world their grandchildren would grow up in. I know I’m certainly not — I don’t even have children. I have to admit that I really wouldn’t know exactly how to move them from the mythology to the motivation even if I could imagine wanting such a long-term commitment.*
And this brings us to the closing irony of Rousseau’s view of the Social Contract; specifically that the profusion of “abuses of this new condition often degrade him” denoting the weaknesses of the social ties that bind society are being driven by people alternately exploiting and trying to circumvent Rousseau’s differentiation between reality and perception between individuals.
* – I suppose I might do it musically with U2: “I can’t see what you see when I look at the world,” “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” “Walk on… All that you fashion, All that you make, All that you build, All that you break, All that you measure, All that you steal, All this you can leave behind.”