The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The search for authenticity in consumer culture
Milan Kundera begins his novel Immortality with a description of a gesture made by a woman he is observing at a swimming pool. This woman, who we will come to know as Agnes in the story, smiles and waves at the lifeguard who has just been giving her swimming instructions. There is something charming and elegant for Kundera about this hand wave that reminds him of the gesture of a young woman “playfully tossing a bright colored ball to her lover.” This unique gesture reveals to Kundera the essence of Agnes’ charm, and he is dazzled and strangely moved by it. Later in the novel we discover that this gesture is not as unique as it initially seems. It turns out that as a teenager, Agnes once observed a woman, who she suspected was having an affair with her father, raising her arm to wave goodbye to him. At the time this gesture, which evoked “vague and immense longing” in Agnes, became unconsciously imprinted in her memory. Shortly afterwards we find Agnes spontaneously using the same gesture herself, and it subsequently becomes part of her repertoire. One day Agnes notices her younger sister using exactly the same gesture, and Agnes realizes that it is not uniquely her own. She feels that it is a “forgery” and tries to inhibit it. But old habits die hard and the gesture has already become a part of who Agnes is.
Immortality becomes an extended meditation on the impossibility of any gesture, face or individual really being unique. Kundera expresses this economically as an aphorism: “many people, few gestures.” Throughout the novel, Kundera captures the experience of the fundamental insubstantiality and contingency of human existence, and portrays the various strategies that his characters use in an attempt to seek immortality — a way of establishing a place in the memory of posterity. So Kundera’s characters seek to overcome the insubstantiality of their existence, the sense of not being “real” by being original or unique — by being individuals. In fact, Kundera whimsically tells us towards the end of the book, that it should be entitled The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but that he has unfortunately already given this name to a previous novel.
The search for that which is real, original or authentic is a distinctive feature of contemporary culture. In contemporary discourse the term authenticity is used to refer to a host of different concepts that overlap to varying degrees. For example: choosing one’s life, being true to one’s self, uniqueness, originality, being guided by a chosen value system and acting in a way that is consistent with it, knowing one’s inner experience, being guided by one’s inner experience, being connected with one’s affective, bodily felt experience, being able to symbolize one’s affective, bodily felt experience, communicating one’s inner experience (including one’s feelings) to others, feeling “real,” experiencing vitality, spontaneity, and naturalness.
Social critics raise important questions about the implications of our obsession with authenticity for our culture. To what extent does the injunction to be true to oneself, harmonize with the needs of one’s family, friends and community? Does our preoccupation with authenticity go hand in hand with a culture of narcissism that promotes self-absorption at the expense of larger social concerns? And is it not possible that the pursuit of authenticity is both a symptom of an alienated society and a cause of alienation and meaninglessness?
As Charles Taylor suggested in his classic work, Sources of the Self, the concept of authenticity is a relatively novel invention that emerged in 18th century Europe. Its emergence was associated with the rise of the culture of Romanticism. The Romantic movement can be understood as a backlash against the Enlightenment. It was an attempt to recover a sense of oneness and wholeness lost with the rise of modernity. The Romantic movement held that truth is discovered not through scientific investigation or by logic, but through immersion in one’s deepest feelings. There is a distrust of society in the Romantic movement, and an implicit belief in the existence of an inner “true self” that is in harmony with nature. Conventional social rituals are seen as artificial and empty and spontaneity and improvisation are viewed as natural and real.
The notion of authenticity builds on earlier forms of individualism such as Descartes’ disengaged rationality or Locke’s political individualism, but at the same time it conflicts with these developments, insofar as it reflects a sensibility that emerged in the Romantic era. Although Rousseau did not use the term authenticity, he is often credited with articulating in a compelling way a cultural shift that was taking place in the 18th century that emphasized the importance of looking for moral guidance inside rather than outside. According to Rousseau morality is a matter of following the voice of nature within us rather than being bound by social conventions. This turn inwards emerges out of an earlier notion associated with the Protestant Reformation, that there is an inner voice that tells us what is right and what is wrong. In Luther’s famous words when he was ordered to recant his heresy: “Here I stand. I can do no other,” thus proclaiming his ultimate responsibility to the inner authority of his conscience rather than the external authority of the Pope.
The Romantic philosophers and poets attempted to overcome the disenchantment of modernity and to reconnect the individual to the cosmos by establishing a linkage between self-feeling, nature and the cosmic order. Traditionally people were linked by more unified and coherent social and religious institutions, and shared values, beliefs, rituals and traditions. As the sociologist, Richard Sennet argues in The Fall of Public Man:
Today public life has become a matter of formal obligation. Most citizens approach their dealings with the state in a spirit of resigned acquiescence, but this public enervation is in its scope much broader than political affairs. Manners and ritual interchanges with strangers are looked on as at best formal and dry, and at worst phony. (Sennet, 1974, p.3)
Historically there was more of a balance between an impersonal realm in which people could invest one kind of passion (e.g., experiencing a shared sense of affective connection to a religious ritual or weeping and laughing together at the theater), and a personal realm in which they could invest another type of passion (e.g., sharing intimacies or personal disclosures). With the rise of secularism and the breakdown of traditional social structures, shared social rituals have come to lose meaning, the meaning of personal intimacy has been transformed and the pursuit of intimacy has intensified. For example, for the majority of history, marriage was a social institution devoted to acquiring wealth, power and property. Although feelings of love and intimacy might develop within a marriage, such sentiments were considered to be of secondary importance if not in some situations downright problematic. It was only with the emergence of Victorian era that people began to sentimentalize marriage, and to look within it for romantic love, intimacy, personal fulfillment and mutual intimacy.
With the collapse of the public realm and the growing experience of alienation from social ritual, people have developed a more intense need to find meaning and intimacy. The problem here is that that the craving for intimacy has been increased to the point where people’s expectations become idealized and unrealistic. The public realm (ritual, tradition, etc.) thus becomes empty and meaningless and the private realm becomes incapable of fulfilling people’s unrealistic needs for intimacy.
In traditional cultures people spend their lives with their extended families, relatives and childhood friends. The intimacy of their relationships is a function of familiarity with one another over extended periods of time, sharing personal histories, and constructing narratives of those histories together. It emerges out of living together through joy, pain and loss. The bond between people is thus established through time and shared history rather than through possessing similar tastes and interests or confiding one’s innermost secrets to one another. In modern, highly mobile urban cultures many adults do not live in communities with their extended families and childhood friends. The bonds between people thus need to be created in different ways. Considerable emphasis is placed on finding friends and lovers with similar tastes and interests and on establishing intimate and “meaningful relationships” through confiding personal intimacies to one another.
The common wisdom in our therapeutic culture is that self-disclosure is a good thing, and that it is important to be able to share one’s feelings with others. Popular daytime television shows have people parade the intimate details of their personal problems in front of millions of television viewers. There has thus been a type of commodification of personal feelings that has taken place. Internalizing cultural rules about managing our feelings and communicating them to others can be understood as a type of technology of the self (to use Focault’s term). Intimate disclosures and personal feelings have become a type of social capital through which one can enhance the likeability of the self. If however, one confides the intimate details of one’s like to others indiscriminately, the meaning of intimacy becomes debased. And to the extent that self-disclosure and the sharing of feelings become instrumental, they lose their connection to authenticity.
Commercial products are marketed on the basis of their claims to authenticity. Contemporary politicians are judged on the basis of whether or not they appear to be authentic. The campaigns of presidential candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry were plagued by concerns about their stiltedness. Hillary Clinton has struggled with similar concerns. A key moment in her 2008 presidential campaign took place when she teared up in response to a question about how she managed to stay upbeat given the hardships of campaigning. This prompted New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to write an op-ed piece with the headline: “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?”
Regardless of its historical origins, it is important for us to recognize that contemporary uses of the ideal of authenticity are thoroughly imbricated with multiple, contradictory, and paradoxical meanings that have emerged in different cultural contexts and different historical eras. In the 1960s the concept of authenticity was invoked by the counterculture as a challenge to conformist cultural values of the 1950s. During this same era, the emergence of the humanistic psychology tradition promoted the value of authenticity as an alternative to what was seen as the conformist bias of American psychoanalysis, on the one hand, and the dehumanizing qualities of behaviorism on the other.
As the radical values of the 1960s became assimilated into mainstream culture, the meaning and uses of the concept of authenticity inevitably transformed in various ways. The adoption of authenticity as a slogan by pop psychology and the self-help industry, contributed to the development of intriguing paradox. Self-help books offering readers formulaic prescriptions for becoming more “authentic,” encourage a form of self-commodification through which they can become more successful in the social marketplace. Products and brands are marketed to people on the basis of their claims to authenticity or their ability to evoke images of authenticity. Consumers buy “authentic brands” or patronize café franchises that evoke images of authenticity in an effort to transform the self in an effort to realize fantasies that are shaped through marketing.
Given the fact that the meaning of authenticity in our times cannot be extricated from the web of meaning that is shaped by the consumer culture we inhabit, the search for authenticity is at one level futile. At the same time, however, I think it is a mistake to think about this issue in binary terms. If we keep in mind that the contemporary self is constituted by this same culture, then we need to find new ways of thinking about what the self is. In the same sense that the bounded, unique and isolated individual that emerged in 18th century Europe was different from the self of medieval times, the self that is emerging under advanced capitalism is different from the self which preceded it. Just as we are currently in the process of developing new ways of conceptualizing the nature of selfhood and identify in a contemporary cultural context, I believe we need to look for new ways of interrogating the concept of authenticity, and of clarifying whether or not there are meaningful pathways for pursuing the project of authenticity in a contemporary context, and if so, what they might be.