I. Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction famously details the consequences of our capacity to reproduce works of art, or, more broadly, sense experiences, with ever-increasing fidelity. Technology allows the transmission and re-creation of more and more, and Benjamin was one of the first to note a cost, in 1936:
In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus —namely, its authenticity— is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object… One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.
The aura of the work of art withers in the age of mechanical reproduction, and the self is a kind of work of art, too. As with a work of art, a person’s “most sensitive nucleus,” his or her “authenticity,” is interfered with by the reproduction of the self, its transmission and portrayal and multiplication. While “no natural object is [similarly] vulnerable,” selves and works of art, and all that self-aware humans intentionally create, are not natural in the sense meant here: unselfconscious, automatic, invulnerable to attentive or perceptual interference. Selves are negotiated, photonic: affected by detection, observation, relay.
Shortly before World War II, Benjamin saw the coming crisis of authenticity, the diminishing of auras and meanings. He was sensitive to an anxiety that would soon register with artists and philosophers everywhere, and within a decade or so would inform an enormous amount of discourse from the academy to the arcade. In its second half, the twentieth century concerned itself with authenticity.
II. A crucial moment: in 1951, J.D. Salinger publishes The Catcher in the Rye, whose protagonist Holden Caulfield despises, with the timeless fury of youth, everything he considers “phony.” Fools like Polonius have always advised us to be true to our own selves —without explaining which parts of them are “our own,” if any— but it is Caulfield who announces the promotion of authenticity to a moral virtue and the classification of phoniness as a capital crime. At the halfway point of the century, the moral law was established. Salinger is sometimes credited with the popularization of this fetish, this preoccupation with phoniness; sometimes, it is attributed to the existentialist philosophers and their ideas about “bad faith” and so on. But neither philosophers nor novelists much affect the attitudes of the public, and the Tolstoyan view of history is, in this instance, accurate: men like Jean Paul Sartre and Salinger sensed and obeyed the mysterious, unwilled moral injunctions that arose in the 20th century from “History, that is, the unconscious, general herd-life of mankind…”
III. The herd’s obsession with authenticity is an anxious response to the technological reproduction of perceptual experiences, which has improved such that we fear that essences too might be fungible. Just as the primacy of the original artwork is reduced by ten million posters, so the primacy of the original self is reduced by ten million portrayals: by the flickering face on seas of screens, the exhortatory voice filling fleets of commuting cars, the flesh of bodies on billboards along crowded interstates. The multiplexed multiplicity of personality and identity drives us deeper into the self to search for what cannot be reproduced, devalued, commodified, into the world of intentions, subjective states, secrets. We flock to the aura of the artwork and to the Platonic self: an unmediated self of inimitable, irreducible, meaningful purity. We vigilantly test for forgeries and phonies.
We want what the camera cannot show: a person’s fidelity to his innate truth. We want the soul we doubt, the core we have learned isn’t there. We want the antidote to personality, the desperate and neurotic fictions of the performative self. We want the inner, abiding fact: may it abide beyond death.
IV. As the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s pass, authenticity is increasingly a criterion of intense importance; its absence provokes devastating judgements. The zeitgeist, particularly in the counterculture, demands a pure transformation of artless, unconstrained, uncontemplated intent into action. Indeed, the best action is purely thoughtless; spontaneity —which can as easily be considered a liberating delight or an abrogation of contemplative ability— is sanctified, consecrated; improvisation is the technique of the day, especially in music. Criticisms of moral systems like religions, of social mores, of individuals concentrate their fury on the great accusation of the 20th century: hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy emerges as our leading sin as nearly all other sins are being recategorized, legalized, made ordinary. The forces of change —science, technology, urbanization, globalization— chase away our souls, commodify our selves, give us a new crime to fear, and provoke us to persecution. We become a police state of Holden Caulfields, rooting out whatever is contrived or inauthentic, and like any pogrom there are innocent victims: we turn, too, against the deliberate, the thoughtful, the mediated. With phonies must go manners, self-possession, self-creation. For decades, no one will admit that they attend to their appearance; for much of the century, we claimed to none’s credulity that we “just roll out of bed and throw whatever on.” We speak our minds; we do what we feel; our revolution is against self-control. A constellation of judgments attends such words as “artificial”; schools of analysis argue that intentions in art scarcely matter, as though to recover the act of the art from the problematized will of the artist.
From splashed paints on a canvas to junkie saxophonists screaming their rage into the horn to the real awkwardness, real stupidity of reality television, we are finished with trained performances and the demands of propriety; we demand the real, the pure and true, the ejaculations of Freud’s atavistic psychic entities straight out into the world, uncorrupted. (But uncorrupted by what? The rational mind against which we’ve turned, the sober and dispassionate author of civilization, with its rules, schemes and structures, machines and automations? The rational mind whose technologies are now reproducing our selves with such facility that we cannot believe that we’re special? Reason: the factory foreman; the self: sausage being made).
If hypocrisy is a sin, however, it is original and universal. No self-aware creature can escape the first consequence of self-awareness: the ability to consciously influence what were once instinctual processes. As soon as one becomes of oneself and begins to control how one acts, one is calculating, disguising, living twice or more within one identity. One is a hypocrite: one says one thing and does another. One contains multitudes. That the contemporary world criminalizes what all humans share, of course, means only that it is precisely like the ancient world; the moral values of a culture don’t reflect the culture as it is but as it wishes to be, and the sins it prosecutes are those it perceives as threatening infections.
V. But while this fetishized and extended notion of authenticity is an anxiety-induced obsession, it is nevertheless the case that we all know and detest ordinary conversational falsity. Nothing is more unpleasant than interacting with someone who is not truly themselves, someone whose performative identity necessitates unfelt reactions from you. Their act makes demands of an audience; their laughter at their own jokes is really an “Applause” sign. When someone’s personality is a lie, they oblige you to lie back to them, to feign credulity, to simulate the responses they seem to expect.
The excruciating deformation of selves by other selves, the pressures selves put on one another without the awareness of their owners, so to speak, is the focus of much of Witold Gombrowicz’s hilarious and brilliant fiction. In his novels, selves are bloated, hypertrophied things which push against one another, jockey for space in small rooms, wear from friction or expand when flush with trivial successes. The dynamics of these collisions are unintelligible to the characters, as they are to us: some people seem to draw us out, others to push us in; around some we are funny, around others hopelessly awkward; who we are and how we act is constrained, deformed, molded by the accidental and degraded selves of others, themselves thusly shaped, and so on.
…if I am always an artefact, always defined by others and by culture as well as by my own formal necessities, where should I look for my ‘self’? … I have found one answer: I don’t know who I really am, but I suffer when I am deformed. So at least I know what I am not. My ‘self’ is nothing but the will to be myself.
The self is nothing but the resistance to deformation. It is a kind of relation or process, not an inner truth to which one is faithful or not. The principle demand of authenticity, then, is not that we scrupulously compare our behavior or personality to some inner ideal; to be authentic should mean, above all, that we never deform the selves of others. It means permitting others to be who they are, not insisting that we are a certain kind of unedited immediacy which others must accept.
If reproductive technology has eliminated the aura of the work of art, it has also problematized our belief in the inimitable, unmediated self. As film, television, and computers proliferate, culture develops an obsession with authenticity in a silly sense, prosecuting a pointless search for bad faith, phoniness, and eventually even self-composure and self-control. But this is no different from interrogating works of art to find their real aura: the point is that there is no aura anymore. And there is no soul-like self underneath expressions of personality, only our laudable, instinctive discomfort when we’re forced to be something we’re not.