273 pages | Buy this book
Organic food. Handcrafted beer. Eco-tourism. Yoga. All worthy pursuits for those seeking a more authentic life, right? Maybe not. Turns out, authenticity is even harder to define than pornography (do we even know it when we see it?). In fact, authenticity may not exist at all. And it’s only once we stop chasing it that our lives will have the value and meaning we crave.
What’s the Big Deal?
With magazines, TV shows, blogs, and an apparently endless stream of books instructing us how to lead more “authentic” lives, it’s high time someone asked what authenticity means. And, more importantly, what’s so great about it anyway? Potter argues that the search for authenticity is really a reaction against modernity that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution a century ago. It’s not only a fruitless pursuit, he argues, but a misguided one, as the quest for authenticity is really just nostalgia for the pre-modern era. According to Potter, once we realize the good old days were not that great, the present will stop looking so bad.
In a review, The Wall Street Journal agreed with Potter, saying the “authenticist fantasy is deeply embedded in the culture.” But it’s doubtful the book will have anywhere near the mass appeal of authenticity peddlers like Oprah, Real Simple magazine, and Martha Stewart.
One-Breath Author Bio
Potter took on the mainstreaming of counterculture in Nation of Rebels (coauthored with Joseph Heath). He is politics editor at the Ottawa Citizen and a columnist for the Canadian weekly Maclean’s magazine.
The Book, in His Words
“There really is no such thing as authenticity, not in the way it needs to exist for the widespread search to make sense. Authenticity is a way of talking about things in the world, a way of making judgments, staking claims, and expressing preferences about our relationships to one another, to the world, and to things. But those judgments, claims, or preferences don’t pick out real qualities in the world. There could never be an authenticity detector we could wave at something, like the security guards checking you over at the airport” (page 13).
Don’t Miss These Bits:
1. Oprah and James Frey have more in common than they think. Harkening back to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the created inner self, Potter argues that A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s memoir of drug abuse, is actually an ideal Oprah book. (Oprah publicly skewered Frey after learning he’d fabricated many of the book’s most harrowing scenes.) Likewise, Potter writes that Oprah “is the reigning queen of a form of heavily emotive authenticity that is relatively unconcerned with any hard-to-pin-down notions of ‘historical accuracy’” (page 139). In other words, for Oprah or for Frey, whether it feels true is more important than whether it actually happened.
2. The branding of politicians is a good thing. Politics is complex, and the average voter has neither the time nor the inclination to sort through all the fine print. Rather than robbing the political process of “authenticity,” which it never had anyway, Potter suggests that Nike-style branding is what enables the system to run smoothly. “The role of the party is more or less to take the dense convolutions of modern governance and reduce them to a relatively simple brand proposition” (page 184). How can we vote if we don’t know what we’re choosing between?
3. Communism was fun! Or at least it looks that way to the generation of Eastern Europeans growing up in the post-Soviet era. According to Potter, tourists now visit theme parks where they try on gas masks and undergo a faux KGB interrogation, and “entrepreneurs have resurrected some of the old brands of food and clothing, while state-produced TV programs have been reissued on DVD” (page 250). His point is that anything from the past—be it bad food, terrible TV, or tyrannical politics—can look attractive if there’s anxiety about the present. What Eastern Europeans call Ostalgie (East+nostalgia), we know in the West as simple nostalgia for olden times, when we had fewer choices and endured character-building hardship: in other words, the bad old days, when life was more “authentic.”
Swipe This Critique
There are excellent arguments here to steal for the next time some bearded hipster at a party enthuses about brining his own beets or vacationing in an eco-tent because, it’s, you know, more real, dude. And rather than just taking potshots at fuzzy-thinking trendsters, Potter quickly segues into a mini overview of the history of modern thought, from Plato’s cave to Bertrand Russell. Still, at times you get the uncomfortable feeling his argument is conservatism in contrarianism’s clothing. Followed to its logical conclusion, Potter’s refutation of the cult of the handcrafted would have us all eating the most processed, mass-market food, vacationing at chain hotels, and watching only mainstream blockbuster films. Just as we can’t go back to a pre-modern society (and shouldn’t want to), we’re not likely to give up our authenticity jones anytime soon. It would have been nice if Potter had offered a more plausible prescription for reconciling our authenticity craving with reality than simply telling us to cut it out.
Prose: Conversational and easy to follow, but unnecessarily long-winded.
Construction: Good for a cover-to-cover read, but not easy to dip in and out.
Miscellaneous: Potter pierces the pieties of his bigger targets—Oprah, Sarah Palin, Obama—but never engages in snark, or even excessive cynicism.