The Authenticity Hoax by Andrew Potter. McClelland & Stewart; Toronto, Ontario, 2010. (296 pages). Reviewed by Donald R. Officer.
When I was a kid getting a haircut seemed to take a long time so I passed the minutes looking in the mirror before me which was in turn mirrored by another mirror on the opposite wall. Within each reflected frame was a smaller version of the image on the opposite walls and within that… well you know what I’m talking about. As the clippers droned, I speculated about how accurate or, in a sense, authentic, the smaller and smaller images in the mirrored mirrors truly were. I eventually questioned where the demarcation between representation and reality lay. Of course I knew my reverie was just a game to pass time in the barber’s chair, not to be taken seriously.
Years later, I discovered a whole class of intellectuals known as philosophers who actually do take this kind of bemusement seriously. Although he is actually paid as a columnist by MacLean’s, it seems Andrew Potter is a fully fledged one of those, complete with a doctorate and academic apprenticeship. Unfortunately, Potter makes the rookie error of assuming that because our awareness of a complex, abstract and murky concept is flawed there is nothing “real” to apprehend. In his new book, the target for analysis is authenticity itself.
Much about the title is very much on target. Modern life is characterized by authenticity as an obsession bordering on fetish. In The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves Andrew Potter explores, analyzes and compares many of the skewed forms this phenomenon takes. That we tend to look for short cuts and even create hypocritical rules for manufacturing authenticity (take distressed jeans, branding, electronic netiquette or the cult of cool as conspicuous examples) is certainly worth contemplating. However, to scoff at ordinary people with limited time and money trying to express themselves as individuals or otherwise belong in the only ways they believe they can, which, granted, may include a cookie cutter house in the suburbs or a black velvet rendering of a tiger, is elitist snobbery.
The author sums up his view of contemporary life as the inheritance of Romanticism which he stigmatizes as an ill-founded, unrealistic burden. “The Romantic response to modernity was an attempt to transcend or mitigate the alienating effects of the modern world and recoup what is good and valuable in human life.” For many, myself included, this response is only a burden in discouraged, weary moments. Most of the time it is a worthy challenge. It’s probably fair to say that Potter is a post-modernist and wears his reflexively cynical mantle easily. Post-modernism is the direct intellectual descendant of the Classical enlightenment that prompted the very Romanticism which arose in opposition to the emerging rational order’s worst manifestations.
What generally masquerades as authenticity is indeed hoax, but the struggle for personal dignity, for what we ultimately subjectively recognize as authentic in the daily struggle to comprehend the world, is anything but. This book is well and cleverly written. It’s worth a read for enjoyment and because it articulates a position shared by many pseudo-cosmopolitan Torontonians who have an inordinate influence on our lives through decisions taken for “our own good.” Yet counseling, among other things, that we just accept the drudgery of soulless work and not seek something more meaningful or showing a reflexive disdain for well intentioned causes like the local food movement because some manifestations are inevitably contradictory, is smirking yuppie perversity.