Whether Jean-Claude Biver, Virgil Abloh, Bjarke Ingels, or Yei one can hardly listen to an interview with a soi-dissant “creative”ii these days without being reminded of the Gen Z/Y/XBOX search for “authenticity.” But what does the term even mean ? And why is it the Holy Grail of our day ?iii Let’s dig into the ground a little bit to see what kind of worms we can unearth. Just beneath the surface, there’s much to uncover.
Let’s start with our present zeitgeist, which is, for better or worse,iv self-loathing.v Self-loathing because we’ve lost our identity as formerly proud citizens of a nation state, self-loathing because manufacturing and technical know-how have been exported and vilified leaving us with an as-yet defined “service economy,” self-loathing because we’re pessimistic about the environment, self-loathing because we’re inundated with salacious reporting from dying mainstream media outlets, self-loathing because we’ve never had more comfort and less drive, and of course self-loathing because large and highly interconnected networks reveal just how far from the best at anything each of us really is. So where does that leave us, particularly those of us under 40, who’ve hardly had a chance to mature before the Information Age swept in like Mongol hordes from the north ?
For the most part, it leaves us wishing we were older, wiser, and less utterly lost in the murky morass of complexity enshrouding and consuming our every waking minute. We imagine that people of earlier times “had it all figured out” and if only we could return to The Great Again, everything would make sense – we’d be on top of our shit – unlike now. Those of us who grew up in the “priviledged” (but utterly self-loathing) western world of the late 20th century feel this most acutely. We’re stifled by the burden of expectationsvi at a time when even the old fogies are being blown away by the pace of change. So who is the left to be master, shepherd, and spiritual guide ?
“Authenticity,” that’s who. Or at least that’s what. But what is authenticity exactly ? You’ll hear it alluded to, always with a sense of deference to those with lived experience and courage, as those who “live their truth” rather than someone else’s “simulation”vii ; those who have no fear and no shame about where they’re from and where they’re going. Being “authentic” means being proud, owning who you are and what you are, whatever that might mean to you. It’s externalising your internal narrative and wearing it proudly on your sleeve. Oh you’re the child of immigrants ? Great. Be that. Oh you’re deeply religious ? Fine. You do you. Oh you’re alopecic and in a wheelchair ? Wonderful. How can we help ?viii In essence, authenticity is the sterling icon of mental health, a precious commodity these days.
Authenticity is also the road less traveled. It’s the harder road. The higher road. The more fortunate road. It’s the antidote to and the antithesis of the click-easy vicariousness everywhere present. It’s anti-vicariousness. It’s the selfish. It’s the me. It’s my story, the one I want to have. Not the one you want me to have. It’s the individualist, not the collectivist.
Authenticity, however, takes time to develop.ix And even then, once it develops, it can stagnate too, failing to grow and mature with the years.x Those who balance a foundation of seemingly perfect stability nested beneath a thousand curious tendrils of upward blossoming throughout their lives are rightly considered icons. Think Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, or, say, the recently departed Karl Lagerfeld. Not that we need to be an icon to be authentic, but we do need to be vulnerable, to be able to be hurt, and far moreso than the cliché pretty girl who dons an “ugly xmas sweater lolz” for her seasonal party and spends the entire evening sticking her tongue out the side of her mouth in instagram photos, but also spent two hours before the event doing her hair and make-up just so.
To close the loop, what isn’t authenticity ? Well, it isn’t something we buy that’s marketed as such, that’s for sure, whether it be holiday packages or t-shirts from Virgil’s DJ shows.xi It’s not that money can’t buy authenticity – indeed, having lots of money certainly helps open the doors required to live a fully and uniquely expressed lifexii – but it’s still not for sale. The apparent paradox is paralleled in the label itself. As soon as it’s explicitly pursued, it vanishes like a mirage. Think of it like reverse “Beetlejuice.” Say it and it’s gone. Same goes for buying.
As a quest and crusade, then, the development of authenticity is an inherently solitary endeavour because no one can do it for you. It certainly isn’t done as a group, even if it can be done with other individuals alongside. It’s not anxiously nor self-consciously over-analysed. It’s done. It’s agency. The quest for this Holy Grail will be necessarily long, perhaps even lonely,xiii but it’s also the highest form of self-expression and self-actualisation. It requires patience, dedication, and some luck, to be sure, but all good things require these ingredients. While luck might seem the “X Factor,” to quote Gary Player, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Individuality, vulnerability, pride, courage, and good fortune… It’s a potent cocktail in any time and place, but in the midst of this epochal transformation we find ourselves in, the mix that makes up “authenticity” seems to be the most powerful and sought after element in the world.
Just don’t try to bottle it.
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- Or more recently, John Galliano in his podcast interview on the AW19 Maison Margiela collection. ↩
- Though for once, I don’t use “air-quotes” and my smattering of adopted French in a derogatory manner. Au contraire. ↩
- It’s even been said that authenticity is the new luxury, but I’m not quite sure why it hasn’t always been the luxury, if perhaps to waxing and waning degrees. To quote Coco Chanel : “Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” So I guess we know where we are now then. ↩
- Recall that there is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so. ↩
- Or as Freud would call it, “narcissistic mortification,” but self-loathing is a more intuitive term. ↩
- Children are supposed to do better than their parents, or at least they did for every generation since our ancestors came to the new world, yet the current generation’s prospects of this feel exceedingly dim, even if it’s impossible to calculate this correctly anymore than it’s possible to calculate what the weather will be on any given Sunday in 40 years time. ↩
- Both “live your truth” and “the simulation” are terms of art, particularly with the kids these days. Can’t say I’m in love with them but they fit the bill here. ↩
- Yes, there is the expectation that the inauthentic, the royal “we,” (ie. government bureaucracies and other spineless wonders) serve the needs and interests of the authentic. As it should be. ↩
- Only in Randian romantic novels like The Fountainhead are characters like Howard Roark born with authenticity. In real life, to quote Jung : “The priviledge of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” That is, men are made, not born. ↩
- For an example of a stagnater extraordinaire, think Bill Gates. ↩
1 x 10^9% authentic!!11~!!! ↩
- For more on which, see Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise by Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, Paris: Gallimard, 2017. Or for Francophobes, try The Economy of Enrichment: Towards a New Form of Capitalism? by Simon Susen, Berlin Journal of Critical Theory, 2018, 2(2), pp. 5–98. ↩
- Most of life is lonely, which is why helicopter parents do their children such a cruel disservice. The best thing you can do for your children, after loving them, is selectively but regularly ignoring them. ↩