Authenticity, American Style

The meaning of authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics

In her 2012 book The Politics of Authenticity in American Presidential Campaigns, Erica Seifert documents the growing importance over a 25-year period of the voters’ perception of candidates’ authenticity in determining the outcome of presidential elections. In recent years Al Gore, John Kerry and Mitt Romney’s bids for the presidency were all plagued by the public’s perception of them as too robotic, scripted or wooden. And Hillary Clinton’s inability to “connect” with voters who continued to see her as inauthentic, guarded and secretive (despite her best efforts to challenge this image) was a significant obstacle for her in both 2008 and 2016. Since Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency a little over a year ago, the fact that his loyal base continues to see him as authentic because he is often unscripted and says politically incorrect things, raises important questions about the meaning of authenticity in a contemporary American context. Moreover, the fact that authenticity has become a guiding value in American culture despite the ambiguity of the concept — and the absurdity of the fact that many employ it as a criterion for evaluating a presidential candidate’s suitability for office — raises important questions both about the meaning of authenticity as an American cultural signifier as well as the cultural and historical factors that have promoted the centrality of authenticity as an ideal, and that underlie its changing meaning over time.

In historical terms, the concept of authenticity is a relatively new ideal that evolved in Western Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. This period of time was marked by the breakdown of the traditional feudal order, an increase in social mobility, the emergence of capitalism, and an evolving sense of individualism. Lionel Trilling suggested that the origins of authenticity as a moral value can be traced to an earlier tradition emerging in sixteenth century Europe that came to view sincerity as an important virtue. The ascendance of sincerity as a cultural value may itself have been linked to a growing distinction between an inner self that is viewed as real versus a public self that is seen as artificial. In addition, the emergence of a growing middle class based on the acquisition of trade-based wealth led to an increasing preoccupation with the art of self-presentation as a way of gaining entrance to the higher echelons of society. This in turn may have led to a growing appreciation of sincerity as a virtue, since the sincere individual can be trusted not to misrepresent his or own motives for personal gain.

In contrast to sincerity as a means to achieve social repute, the value of authenticity places greater emphasis on the nature of one’s relationship to oneself. In the same way that the rise of the value of sincerity can be understood as being linked to cultural changes implicating the destabilization of traditional social structures and an increase in individualism, the emergence of authenticity as a value can be understood as reflecting further developments in the direction of this trajectory. One factor relevant to emergence of authenticity as a value was an inward turn consistent with the spirit of the Protestant Reformation. Here the emphasis was on the importance of establishing a personal relationship with God rather than relating to the divine through the mediating influence of the clergy and other ecclesiastical authorities. A second dimension can be traced to the emergence of the Romantic tradition in eighteenth century Europe. The Romantic movement held that truth is discovered not, as Enlightenment thinkers believed, through scientific investigation or by logic, but through immersion in our deepest feelings.

The Romantic movement’s emphasis on subjective emotional experience and passion directly challenged Enlightenment ideals, especially those concerning the rationalization of religion and the mechanistic worldview associated with the rise of science. Romanticism can also be understood as an attempt to grapple with the emerging sense of alienation and meaninglessness associated with the early blows to the traditional social order, the growth of secularization, the rise of capitalism and mass production, and increased social mobility. Keenly sensing industrial society’s inclination toward conformity and its capacity to dehumanize, the Romantic movement was associated with a distrust of society, alongside an implicit belief in the existence of an inner “true self” that is in harmony with nature. Conventional social rituals were seen as artificial and empty instruments of class society, while passion and creative expressiveness were viewed as natural and real. The growing tendency to experience traditional rituals as meaningless can also be understood in part as a byproduct of the inward turn associated with the Protestant tradition. Romantic philosophers and poets attempted to overcome the disenchantment of modernity associated with the Enlightenment and to reconnect the individual to the cosmos by establishing a linkage between self-feeling, nature and the cosmic order.

Rousseau is often credited with first articulating the notion of authenticity as a compelling way of capturing an important cultural shift that was already taking place in the eighteenth century. This shift involved a changing conceptualization of the relationship between self and society that emphasized the importance of looking within for moral guidance rather than outward to an external authority. Rousseau’s fundamental concerns were thus of a moral or ethical nature. He was less concerned with the Victorian ethic of sincerity than he was with our inability to distinguish between our social roles and ourselves. In other words, he was concerned with the problem of self-alienation. From his perspective, it is essential for people to cultivate a type of inner autonomy in order to distinguish between themselves and the social roles they played. Thus, for Rousseau, inner autonomy was a precondition for genuine morality and integrity.

There were a variety of factors influencing the central role that the value of authenticity came to play in American culture. To be begin with the tradition of American transcendentalism, which flourished during the mid-nineteenth century, contributed to the development of a popular culture that was conducive to the development of a romanticized view of the individual that viewed the inner self as providing a potential link to the cosmos. A number of key intellectuals, artists and poets, including Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman, formulated a cultural and intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of looking inside of oneself for spiritual and moral guidance, rather than living one’s life according to the dictates of a formal religious doctrine. The transcendentalists were influenced by German and English romanticism, as well as the Eastern spiritual tradition. Transcendentalist thinkers both reflected and contributed to the characteristically optimistic tenor of American culture.

Authenticity began to emerge as an American ideal following World War II, when French existentialism crossed the Atlantic. When existential thinking became fused with American culture it began to take on a more optimistic tone than its European counterpart. The ideas of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were introduced at the levels of both popular and elite culture. Magazines such as Life, TimeNewsweek, and even fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar began to familiarize Americans with this new development in French philosophy. At the popular level, much of the emphasis was on the bohemian lifestyle of Sartre, de Beauvoir and members of their circle rather than the intricacies of their ideas. Although French existentialism did not have the same impact on American academic philosophy as it did in France, it did have a substantial impact in literary and artistic circles and became extremely fashionable among middle-class college students.

A second important influence was the underground countercultural ferment that began in the fifties. The United States had emerged from World War II as the dominant economic power and the most prosperous nation in the word. It was an era of great economic and material abundance. During this period, any white male high school graduate could reasonably expect to earn enough money to support a family, own a house, a car, abundant material goods and household appliances, and send his children to college.

On the face of things this was a time of prosperity, abundance and contentment.

It was also, however, a time of conformity. One important factor in this respect was the rise of anti-Communism following the disintegration of the wartime alliance between America and the Soviet Union, the onset of the nuclear arms race, and the emergence of the Cold War. Americans united around the ideal of the supremacy of the American way of life over Communism, and a fear of infiltration from within by Communist agents that was inflamed by the McCarthy investigations. This led to a stifling of political debate and a discrediting of left-wing political factions that traditionally had challenged the social inequities of the capitalist system.

Continuing the accelerated industrial productivity that was mobilized in order to arm the U.S. and its allies for the war, American consumerism kicked into high gear. Increasingly sophisticated technologies and mass production provided affordable household utilities and consumer goods. The ability to purchase and choose from among a wide array of products came to be equated with American freedom, individualism and equality. Increasingly sophisticated advertising strategies manufactured the desire for a proliferating array of new products and brands marketed to symbolize the achievement of the American dream. Mass production of inexpensive television sets made them available to a substantial majority of the population, and advertisers had a vested interest in sponsoring bland and inoffensive television shows that represented the average American household as the white middle-class nuclear family. American politics became dominated by a liberal center consensus, increasingly aligned with consumer capitalism.

Although it is true that postwar prosperity led to a substantial increase in the standard of living for some segments of the American population, significant social inequities continued to persist. New suburbs that were developed tended to be segregated along lines of social class and ethnic lines. The G.I. Bill, which contributed to a substantial increase in the proportion of white male veterans receiving postsecondary education, had little impact on women, working-class men and African Americans. In the forties and fifties a cultural avant-garde emerged among American artists, writers and musicians that challenged the conformist cultural norms of the dominant postwar social order. This avant-garde movement rejected the values of the corporate liberal center and the artistic realism of the discredited Stalinist left. In the art world, painters, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko developed a form of abstract expressionism, influenced in some respects by European surrealists of the twenties, that rejected formal traditional artistic forms and that valued subjectivism, expressiveneness and spontaneity.

Bebop jazz, which emerged towards the end of the war in Harlem jam sessions, was in important respects a statement of Black pride and defiance. African American musicians such as Charlie Parker, Theolonius Monk, Sony Rollins, Dizzy Gilespie and later Miles Davis, broke away from the swing tradition of jazz that had preceded it, and began introducing new musical conventions, that broke with the European orchestral style. In an effort to create a culturally authentic form of music, they built upon musical elements characteristic of African American music such call and response, prosodic tone and polyrhythm. Call and response as a musical convention can be found in many traditional cultural settings, but it was particularly significant in the context of African American culture where call-and-response patterns of singing, was commonly used to deal with the hard work and repetitive monotony of working as part of a slave gang. This call-and-response format evolved into the improvisational and conversational style that was to become a central feature of jazz music.

The beat authors and poets: Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsburg, William Boroughs, and others, were another important influence on the emergence of the culture of authenticity in the United States. As was the case with the bebop musicians, the Beats were outsiders in their own ways. Kerouac came from a working-class French-Canadian background, Ginsburg was Jewish and gay, and Boroughs, although he came from a wealthy southern family, was gay, and addicted to drugs of one kind or another most of his life. Kerouac and Ginsburg met at Columbia University. Kerouac had dropped out and Ginsburg was suspended shortly after they met. As outsiders to the dominant American mainstream, Kerouac and Ginsburg embraced their marginal status and identified with the defiant and rebellious spirit of the bebop musicians. Kerouac attempted to model his writing style on the spontaneous, and improvisational style of bebop jazz.

The New Left, the counterculture and humanistic psychology

The New Left emerged in the sixties, as a successor to the American Communist Party that had been weakened by both McCarthyism, and the growing recognition of the totalitarian nature of Russian Communism. In contrast to the traditional American left which consisted of an alliance between leftist intellectuals and blue-collar workers, the New Left consisted primarily of college students, coming from financially comfortable middle-class families, who rejected mainstream, consumer culture establishment values and embraced aspects of left-wing ideology, and a series of progressive causes including the civil rights movement, gender equality, pro-abortion policies and gay rights. Other important unifying themes were the antinuclear movement of the late fifties and early sixties and perhaps most explosively, the Vietnam War protests.

What we broadly think of as the counterculture of the sixties was not synonymous with the New Left, but there was a reasonable degree of overlap and mutual influence. The counterculture as a broad cultural phenomenon did not consistently have an organized political philosophy or agenda, but it shared the New Left’s critique of mainstream establishment values, embraced the importance of liberation from oppressive forces and instinctually repressive values, and prioritized the value of personal or psychological liberation, if not political liberation.

The emergence of the counterculture of the sixties coincided with the development of the humanistic psychology tradition. Humanistic psychology emerged as an alternative to the dominant psychoanalytic culture and the emerging behavioral tradition. Abraham Maslow, considered the founder of humanistic psychology, argued that the psychologically healthy individual must have the capacity to stand apart from his or her culture — to be inner directed. He argued that human beings are born with the innate need to realize their own unique potentials. He referred to this need as one of self-actualization.

Similarly, Carl Rogers the founder of client-centered therapy argued that human beings have a natural tendency towards self-actualization and that the therapist’s task to facilitate this process through providing the core conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence (Roger’s term for authenticity). Another key figure in the emergence of humanistic psychology was the German émigré analyst, Fritz Perls. Perls, in collaboration with his wife, Laura and the American social critic Paul Goodman, developed gestalt therapy, in part as a critique of what they saw as the conformist, atomistic and intellectualist qualities of the psychoanalysis of the fifties.

The politics and values of the New Left and the counterculture became fused with the values and language of humanistic psychology. The ideal of authenticity provided the counterculture with a framework for critiquing what it viewed as the conformist and repressive aspects of the prosperous and complacent culture that had come to dominate American values and politics during the postwar boom. It provided young people with a language for distinguishing between the outer-directed versus the inner-directed, “real” or authentic lifestyle to which they aspired.

Consumer culture and the commodification of authenticity

While the concept of authenticity acquired new significance in the fifties and sixties as a critique of an evolving consumer culture, over time its function has shifted as it has become assimilated into mainstream culture and co-opted. The hyper-individualistic, self-contained American self, uprooted from traditional communities, and living outside any web of unifying traditional meaning, experiences a type of internal emptiness associated with a lack of any value or meaning. In this cultural context the individual strives to “fix” the empty self, by filling it with consumer goods that are marketed as objects that play to fantasies of self-transformation.

Consumer products thus acquire a type of magical power through a process of constructing brands that are effective in creating a form of symbolism that resonates with important shared cultural anxieties and desires, thereby creating a type of myth with which consumers can identify. These myths create a sense a meaning and purpose in life- a sense of identity. For example, Coca Cola, which originally contained cocaine, was first marketed as a “nerve tonic” even after the active ingredient of cocaine was removed. It was rebranded during Word War II, when the producers shipped free bottles off to the front, and produced ads celebrating the war efforts. Coke thus acquired a cultural meaning during this era that celebrated national solidarity and pride. In the postwar era, as American culture took hold in other countries, it came to be identified with an idealized American life. Since then Coke has been rebranded in various other ways for different historical and cultural eras. Tellingly, by the seventies it was being marketed as “the real thing.”

Although the practice of branding originated in the context of marketing, in recent years the intersection of branding with the digital and social media revolutions has had such a profound impact on our culture that some media theorists compare it in scope to the industrial revolution. They argue that this intersection plays a significant role in the construction of self and identity in contemporary culture. One of the key anxieties in contemporary American culture revolves around the sense of meaninglessness so keenly identified by the existential tradition. Given the pervasiveness of the search for solid ground in the context of the shifting grounds of contemporary culture, branding strategies that resonate with the desire for authenticity have become particularly potent. 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 cafe franchises that evoke images of authenticity in an effort to transform the self in order to realize fantasies that are shaped through marketing.

Authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics

Given the central roles that marketing and branding play in the construction of contemporary identity, the search for an authentic self becomes an increasingly challenging enterprise. This is certainly true at the level of individual psychology, and even more fraught with complexity at the political level where the line between image and underlying reality is blurred beyond all meaningful distinction. The ideal of authenticity originally emerged during an era of growing secularization when traditional grounds for morality were being challenged, and a new sense of self as separate from society was in the process of being constructed. In this context, authenticity was in part a new way of thinking about the nature of virtue and integrity. As Charles Taylor suggests, in a contemporary context, the link between authenticity and morality is tenuous at best. Trump’s credentials among his loyal supporters as an “authentic” politician would seem to have more to do with his “speaking his mind” than with a perception that he has integrity. And this in turn is linked to a perception that he is “real” — a curious quality to attribute to our first “reality show” president.

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Jeremy Safran

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