Authenticity as a Service
Networked Society and the Disavowal of Self-Representation
Rob Horning

images by Ed Fornieles

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1. Authenticity is tautological: I am who I am because who I am is I. It can’t be postulated or spontaneously experienced but instead must be routed through social interactions that can unfold the tautology of selfhood as an experience in time, as a kind of discovery of the self that has always been there. Authenticity is an utterly redundant experience. Yet it has assumed a supreme importance in consumer capitalism. So central is authenticity to consumerism that it seems as though one could destroy consumerism merely by demystifying authenticity. But it resists all demystification: every debunking seems to make authenticity’s elusive promise of ultimate self-expression even more alluring.

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2. What makes authenticity a valuable, marketable service? Why do people even think they want it? It is pointless to talk about authenticity without recognizing it as a response to alienated labor. Inauthenticity corresponds with the begrudging sale of one’s labor power, which ought to feel inalienable. When we sell our labor, it opens a gap: I am not what I do; I only do that for money. One is left asking oneself, “What do I really do?” Authenticity hopes to address that question by permitting us to valorize nonwork. What I really am is what I consume. Consuming is my real job. But this tenuous principle can easily invert itself: I consume things in order to become real. “I shop, therefore I am,” as Barbara Kruger’s now-clichéd slogan has it.

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3. In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Boltanski and Chiapello argue that the “deconstruction of the old notion of authenticity — as a loyalty to the self, as the subject’s resistance to pressure from others, as a demand for truth in the sense of conformity to an ideal — goes hand in glove with the concept of a network world … In a network world, the question of authenticity can no longer be posed.” As social media makes unmistakable, we clearly live in a “network world,” yet authenticity remains potent as a marketing tool, if not a personal ideal or moral crusade. We still habitually judge people and things in terms of their “realness,” even when we know there can be no reference point, no essence that can make the assessment sound. We still wallow in our own doubts about our own authenticity. Can the emerging regime of data collection and processing help resolve these doubts? Is the solution to authenticity more surveillance?

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4. It may be that the “old notion of authenticity” Boltanski and Chiapello refer to was in fact a mutation of an even older version of it, which Lionel Trilling calls “sincerity.” Sincerity, he claims in Sincerity and Authenticity, is a matter of honoring the basis of one’s individuality, the social backdrop from which one has emerged and been shaped, and adhering to its codes. It means being true to your habitus, as if there were any alternative. Trilling opposes sincerity to the more modern notion of authenticity, which consists of seeking autonomy from social determinations and obligations. One is free and “authentic” only by killing one’s habitus, and by shedding all debts of social reciprocity. The modern version of authenticity produces the attitude that “being true to myself” is not a matter of maintaining internal consistency but is synonymous with “doing whatever I want,” as long as “what I want” isn’t a matter of my trying to impress or mollify anyone else. If I want something on account of someone else’s influence, that is inauthentic. I will need to try again and want something else.

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5. But sincerity and authenticity need not be opposed. Social critics like Marshall Berman used authenticity to denote a commitment to protecting the social preconditions for individuality, not transcending them. In a recent paper that traces that critical tradition, social-media researchers Georgia Gaden and Delia Dumitrica note Berman’s view that authenticity “does not end up fostering a hedonistic, atomized society, where each individual pursues her own pleasures and desires in complete disregard of others.” Instead, “living authentically depends on others recognizing your right to do so, allowing you to be yourself … In this tradition, authenticity meant recognizing the interdependence between ‘being for myself’ and ‘being for others’”. Authenticity, to this line of thinking, emerges through fostering and nurturing the social relations — the “network society”— that make it possible. The “network society,” in this view, would not be not a fallen condition brought on by technology but a reflection of how we are always and ever born into a web of connections and influences and limiting conditions.

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6. That social critics could define authenticity as both an embrace and a rejection of interconnectedness suggests how fertile and ambiguous the terrain was. This made “authenticity” ripe for appropriation by marketers, who promise a way to resolve the contradiction. They acknowledge the reality of “network society” by offering products that let us believe we can master it. In co-opting authenticity as an advertising trope, marketers retain the emphasis on individuation,but they ground individuality not in the sociality that Berman argues makes it possible but in autonomous consumerism. By consuming authentically, I can get recognized for being beyond the need for recognition.

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7. The discourse of authenticity espoused by marketers posits a pretend space untouched by capitalism where social relations are “real” instead of mercenary. Since all interactions under capitalism are corrupted by generalized exchange, the only way to be “authentic” is to not interact with people. So naturally that’s what marketers sell to us as “authentic”: goods that promise to make us feel real without requiring us to have any reciprocal social interaction.

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8. The point of authenticity discourse is never whether the products themselves are authentic. Ultimately, only the consumers can be authentic. One doesn’t have “authentic experiences”; one experiences authenticity. What is at stake is always whether the consumer feels authentic: whether the products permit you to contemplate your own realness. Goods are “authentic” only insofar as they evoke a self-conscious subjectivity, when they permit you to revel in the fantasy that you are uniquely you.

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9. Authenticity posits the deficit in meaning that it purports to make whole. In their book Authenticity, marketing consultants James Gilmore and Joseph Pine treat authenticity as a means to create consumer demand in the midst of abundance. They treat authenticity fundamentally as a means for creating a perceived scarcity — a lack of sincerity — in a populace of satiated consumers. Consumers pay sincerity-service providers — artisanal brands; Etsy vendors; Disney imagineers; artists; anyone who can offer sincerity in a packagable, transferrable form — to make them feel real for a time.

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10. “Feeling real” is a fictional performance, akin to a kind of historical re-enactment. But it relies on enabling people to successfully forget the effort they have made to try to be themselves. Authenticity is presumed to be spontaneous, since you shouldn’t have to calculate who you are supposed to be. Every effort to be true to yourself is self-canceling; making an effort changes who you are. “Authenticity” happens when you can regard something you made or chose as something you discovered or remembered. In Club Cultures, sociologist Sarah Thornton describes the experience of authenticity as the “reassuring reward for suspending disbelief.” It splits and heals the self simultaneously: You become a credulous audience to your own performance of integrity.

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11. When companies try to invest their products with the air of authenticity, they hope to inspire in customers that enjoyable experience of the suspension of disbelief. Chipotle, for example, doesn’t expect customers to genuinely believe the tchotchkes on their walls are made by Aztecs, or that exposed brick proves some sort of fidelity to “how things really are.” They want to give customers the opportunity to play along. The “authentic experience” is a staged moment of forgetting fakery. It is when you see through the ruse and surrender to it. The possibility that there is no ruse would be far too threatening to consumers who know their own self-presentation is made up of nothing but ruses.

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12. Gilmore and Pine make the obvious point that marketers must not treat authenticity as a moral issue: “The pursuit of authenticity should not be mistaken for the way to eternity.” But authenticity marketing nonetheless cloaks itself in morality to help with the suspension of disbelief. Heightening the contradictions involved with faking realness makes the suspension of disbelief more satisfying and more miraculously convincing when one finally achieves it.

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13. Authenticity marketing has a tricky relationship with consumer demand, because authentic people are supposed to be beyond social influence. To address this dilemma, consumer demand is becoming increasingly automated. Data-collection systems amass information on our consumption habits and use algorithmic predictions to present us later with our authentic desires, in an unassailably empirical form. We can want these things while feeling influenced only by our own behavior: What could be more authentic than that?

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14. Social media and the emerging Internet of Things, with its battalion of interconnected sensors, seeks to make this representation of the self as data happen automatically, allowing one to more easily disavow the effort involved in self-representation. All the passively recorded affiliations and gestures become de facto authentic, beyond question. So if we want to be authentic, we must tolerate an increased amount of surveillance, which can tell us the untainted truth about who we are and what we really want. We can learn the secret of ourselves as long as we consent to be controlled.

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15. Algorithms promise a simple solution to the riddle of having a self; they promise a certainty that data alone can suffice to make a self. Algorithmic identity — the person you are according to Big Data and its predictive analytics and micro-demographic assessments — is a new form of “realness” that is not our fault. The self algorithms make of us afford a supreme opportunity for the suspension of disbelief, making us an audience to our own desires, a consumer of the genre of you. With algorithmic identity, we are free to contemplate our authenticity without having to use other people as our mirrors. We don’t need them to confirm it; we can self-assess and make all our adjustments on social-media platforms rather than in direct social contacts.

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16. On social media one can seem to be working at a credible form of authenticity that isn’t as circumscribed — that isn’t limited to local displays of personality to familiar observers — as the forms available beyond social media. Social media make a realm in which the work of trying to be authentic is itself “authentic behavior” and not its antithesis. Trying too hard is the only authenticity available in online platforms that insist on participation. There is no way to use social media in a way that doesn’t connote “trying.” Algorithms then distance users from their effort, making meaning out of it for them and allowing them to believe in their own spontaneity again.

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17. Just as you can have authentic experiences through consuming, you can be confirmed as authentic by being consumed by others in social media as part of their authenticating consumption rituals. You can buy goods or experiences that make you feel authentic, or you can be bought into as authentic by other people. These processes are intertwined: Undergoing an “authentic experience” prompts an act of self-commodification by which one presents oneself as a self-contained authentic object (or perhaps a “work of art”). I bought this; they bought me buying it. This replaces the need for mutual recognition to make for a “real” moment between people.

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18. As Gaden and Dumitrica argue, self-commodification turns other people into consumers to be satisfied “rather than known, understood, or respected.” This helps make them irrelevant to your own authenticity. They become a passive, receptive audience while you are a spontaneous unfettered performer. Your relation to them is “authentic”; their relation to you makes them phony.

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19. If authenticity is a matter of autonomy (as Trilling claims), then it is a zero-sum game: It is measured and expressed in terms of freedom from the constraints others place on you. Authenticity is not being who you are; it is a disguised power relation. Individuation is only a means to an end, that is more power andmore autonomy. It is a useful concept for marketers because it can be bought by spending enough to opt out of the social interactions that otherwise condition our behavior. Hence, the more “convenient” you make your life, the more “authentic” it feels. At the same time, what is “convenient” is not a matter of efficiency; it is whatever makes consumption into a performance.

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20. Efforts at behaving authentically are collected as marketing data and converted into “meaning” that can be applied to goods. These goods retroactively invalidate the authenticity of those who had consumed them, making them seem like they were trying to be authentic, forcing them to consume something more. Consumers are only authentic in the work of consuming; once they have made a good seem valuable according to a systematized exchange of information, it becomes obvious they are working on its behalf and are thus inauthenticated. Authenticity reveals itself as a burden, a trick, a spur that robs meaning from our lives to turn it over to products.

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21. From the marketing point of view, authenticity is always aspirational. It posits a limit that can’t be achieved, because awareness of authenticity cancels it. We know we’re not being “real” in pursuing authenticity, but it is an alibi for a different desire, the desire to be infinitely malleable. We want to indulge the fantasy that what we buy can truly change our essential nature — that we can absorb all those desires into our self, whatever the algorithms tell us, and expand with them.

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22. By archiving all our stabs at authenticity, the massive data collected through social media makes us own what seems most fake about us, our attempts to try to seem real. What becomes authentic in relation to those efforts are the unanticipated fruits of those confessions, the algorithmic processing that transmutes that data into something pure and untouched by intentionality. That processing yields a shadow self also traceable through social media who has been absolved. The degree to which we renounce intention and publically surrender to this shadow self by embracing it as true, the more authentic we become.

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23. The “truth” about oneself is final only in so far as it is no longer useful, no longer dynamically productive in the circuits of value creation. What is authenticated is that which has ceased to be productive and can be forgotten. The most authentic self is the slate wiped clean.

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