Saturday, August 17, 2019

436. Authenticity and identity

There is much talk of authenticity[i], and it is confused. Sometimes it refers to the nationalist concept of being a ‘true’… (English, French, German, Dutch …) person, at other times it refers to an opposite notion of standing out as an individual, being different from others, unique. This reflects the same confusion as that concerning identity: personal vs. collective/cultural identity, which I discussed elsewhere in this blog. In both cases the connotation is being ‘true’, not fake, not posed but genuine. So ‘genuine’ should also be distinguished from ‘authentic’.

To avoid the contradiction, I propose to accept only the latter, personal authenticity, as the meaning of authenticity. You are the ‘author’ of your own identity. There is no collective authorship, and conformance to collective identity or ‘authority’ is the opposite of authenticity, surrendering your authorship to authority.

This is Nietzschian authenticity, doing things no-one else is doing or has done, transcending the common.

However, this matter is not so simple. Personal identity builds on interaction with others and requires some commonality. The philosopher Wittgenstein said: there can be no private language. If I lived on an uninhabited island, hit my toe on a stone and called it ‘clink’, and hit a stone again and call it ‘clunk’, there is no one present to correct me, to point out my inconsistency. My assignment of meanings to words can fly off in all directions. If I utter something I believe it, or I would not have uttered it. Like having a pain: you have it and cannot doubt it. It is odd to say ‘I think I have a pain’.   

Earlier in this blog I contrasted Nietzsche and Levinas (item 63, 2012). According to Nietzsche one can transcend oneself by oneself, like the Baron of Munchhausen pulling himself out of a swamp by his bootstraps. According to Levinas one needs opposition from others to have a chance of being freed from one’s prejudices.

Rousseau at first celebrated the individual acting according to his nature, freeing herself from the suffocation and distortion of collective culture. Later he made the radical turn to the opposite, commanding the self to submit to the collective will. Heidegger at first pleaded a turn away from the collective (‘Das Man’), and later submitted to the lure of Nazi national identity.    

So, difficult as it may be, one has to balance authenticity and conformity. How can this be done?

Business makes a profit out of this dilemma and the inherent ambiguity of authenticity and identity. They make us believe that we are authentic if we buy their brand (of shoe, pants, dress ….), with symbols of conduct associated with the brand. Then one can feel authentic without the trouble and ostracism of going against the norm. Clever people then give that a personal flavour by adding or changing something (colour of shoestrings, a crazy shawl with the dress).

Foucault struggled with the problem, as he identified a number of institutions (prisons, laboratories, insane asylums) that impose their order on thinking and conduct, to the point that even the victims of the system acknowledged that this is the way it should be. Towards the end of his work the best he could offer for authenticity was the maxim: ‘Create your life like a work of art’.

Yes, but how does one do that? I offer the following idea, inspired by the distinction that Ferdinand de Saussure made, in linguistics, between ‘langue’ and ‘parole’.[ii] Langue is living, individual language, evolving in time (‘diachronically’), with idiosyncratic meanings that do not quite overlap with the intersubjective order of langue, at any moment (‘synchronically’), in langue.

This makes language ambiguous, to some extent, allowing for partly deviant clouds of individual meaning around what is generally accepted. That ambiguity is a good thing. It gives some leeway to hide in the shadows, in the periphery of order, to tinker with one’s deviance, for the sake of authenticity. 

[i] Among others in a recent Dutch television programme ‘The philosophical quintet’ (Sunday 21st July 2019)
[ii] De Saussure, Ferdinand, Cours de linguistique générale, Paris: Payot, 1972.

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