Over at Less Travelled, Ross has written an impressive post on the idolatrous virtue of authenticity – and his post has triggered the release of a rant that has been building up in me for some time. It’s a rant, by the way, which only partly aligns with Ross’s post, so you shouldn’t tar him with my brush.

Authenticity is a myth. That is, when we speak about authenticity, we are drawing upon a very powerful and very attractive picture of how things are. It is a picture which enables certain kinds of forms of life. But it is also a picture which has been invented. That is, it is a picture that has a history. Rather than being the way we have to see things, it is one evolving and questionable way of thinking about who we are and how life works.

Authenticity is a pathology. The authenticity meme – this myth that has evolved and spread until it has become pervasive – is ultimately a destructive one. It is deeply corrosive of social life, and so deeply corrosive of true personhood. Authenticity is a disease from which we need to be cured.

By ‘the authenticity meme’, I mean that picture of the self which suggests that what is real, what is true, what is most properly me, is what goes on inside, behind closed doors, away from the distorting, inauthentic traffic of social life. I mean that picture of the self which suggests that my task is to work on the deceitful surface of my life – all the faces that I present in interactions with others, in groups, in institutions, in society – until it becomes transparent to the authentic depths of who I am. I mean that picture of the self which suggests that you have not met me – not the real me – until I have become authentic with you.

In the face of this corrosive myth, I offer a counter-myth.

I claim that I become who I am only with and through others – and that I discover who I am only in company. Who I am. That is: what I can contribute, what my real strengths and weaknesses are, what I need, what I want, what I can give, how responsive I can be. All these are not sitting there quietly inside me, waiting only upon sufficient introspection, a sufficient effort of honesty, to become clear to me and so expressible to others. Rather, they will emerge (both in the sense of becoming visible and in the sense of coming into being) as I enter seriously into conversation with others, experimenting, exploring, trying out, working – and so finding what resistances and what possibilities emerge over the course of those conversations. And the self I find in the process will be, and can only be, something that both discovered and made in the process. That is, the self I find would have been different had my conversation partners been different, and would have been different had it been someone else engaging with these same conversation partners – but there is in principle and in practice no sorting out what I have brought to this self from what others have brought to it.

Any inner dialogue I have, in which I tell myself my own story behind closed doors, is an imitation (and perhaps a pale and distorting imitation) of the dialogues I have with real others. It is one particular conversation partner, and not necessarily a very good one. It may lie about who I am far more persistently and persuasively than any of my other conversation partners. If it has any insight, any true ability to see and communicate who I am, it will be because it has learnt it from real others over time. The inner voice, after all, grows – it can be taught new things, be given new words. It can be mistaken, and can learn. If I think my job is to go into conversation with others armed with the purity, the inviolability, of this inner voice, then I will simply be binding myself to immaturity.

None of this means, of course, that conversation with others is unproblematic. A conversation partner can impose upon me, can force me into a mould into which I do not fit. A conversation partner can deny me, colonise me, overwrite me. And that’s because a so-called conversation partner can be inattentive, can take shortcuts, can disregard the possibilities and resistances that emerge. A so-called conversation partner can be so taken up with the story he wants to tell that he refuses to allow me anything other than the role he has written for me. But the problem there is not that he is not listening to my authentic self, but rather that he is not letting me become or discover who I am in conversation with him: he is preventing me from becoming a self, not preventing me from expressing an already-formed selfhood. And that distinction is important, because without it we may fail to notice that one of the areas which can be colonised, distorted, imposed upon by others is precisely our inwardness. It may well be that it is my own deep sense of who I am that has been most deeply broken in my encounter with others – that my inner voice, that tells the authentic story of who I am, peddles lies it has learnt from an oppressor.

What we need is not authenticity – the stripping away of constraints until we can be outwardly who we now are inwardly – but love.

One Thought on “Authenticity

  1. Rachel on August 15, 2005 at 12:21 pm said:

    In a way I often do, I note without much elaboration lots of interesting resonances/connections: eg with scholarly attempts to give accounts of “mysticism”, especially mysticism among groups variously marginalised in church or society, that don’t rely on an idea that mystical practices & texts find a refuge in a pre-given individual “authentic” spiritual experience – but that recognise nonetheless the difference/oddity, and often what you might call the anti-idolatrous character, of the texts and practices. One suggestion would be that where the “mystical” voice becomes prophetic it does so not simply because it comes (authentically) from “within” but because it speaks from and furthers the taking-apart of an oppressively constructed (supposedly authentic) “within”.

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