The Pequod Review:
This is a very good book on the concept of authenticity — that nebulous concept that we nonetheless are all striving for. Andrew Potter's analysis is sometimes a little too surface-level and his numerous anecdotes are not explored as rigorously as they could have been, but his core argument pretty much nails it:
The quasi-biblical jargon of authenticity, with its language of separation and distance, of lost unity, wholeness, and harmony, is so much a part of our moral shorthand that we don’t always notice that we’ve slipped into what is essentially a religious way of thinking. The ease with which we talk about our alienation from nature, or the alienating nature of work, or the suburbs, or technology, is part of this language as well, hearkening back to our ongoing sense that we are a fallen people.
The quest for authenticity is a quest to restore that lost unity. Where once we did it through actual religious rituals, prayer, and communion with God, now we make do with things such as Oprah’s Book Club, which offers a thoroughly modern form of spirituality that is a fluid mix of pop-psychoanalysis, self-help, sentimentality, emotionalism, nostalgia, and yuppie consumerism. Or through our obsession with anything “organic” – organic beef, chicken, vegetables, cotton, dry cleaning, chocolate, or toilet paper. Similarly, a growing concern with a more local economy – local farmers, local bookstores, local energy production – reflects an underlying feeling that the holism of a small community is more valuable and more rewarding that the wasteful and messy free-for-all of mass consumerism. Finally, there is the almost visceral distaste for the market economy, driven by a conviction that the mere act of buying and selling is intrinsically alienating.
In all these guises, the search for the authentic is positioned as the most pressing quest of our age, satisfying at the same time the individual need for meaning and self-fulfillment and a progressive economic and political agenda that is sustainable, egalitarian, and environmentally friendly.
My central claim in this book is that authenticity is none of these things. Instead, I argue that the whole authenticity project that has occupied us moderns for the past two hundred and fifty years is a hoax. It has never delivered on its promise, and it never will. This is not because we aren't trying hard enough or are looking in the wrong places, or because the capitalists, politicians, and other purveyors of the fake are standing in our way. My argument is not that once upon a time we lived authentic lives – that we used to live in authentic communities and listen to authentic music and eat authentic food and participate in an authentic culture – and now that authenticity is gone...Rather the overarching theme of this book is that there really is no such thing as authenticity.