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The Authenticity Hoax
How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves
By Andrew Potter
McClelland & Stewart, 275 pages, $33
In our increasingly artificial world, many social commentators tout authenticity as the cure for shallow consumerism, isolated individualism and the malaise of modernity.
In this provocative but aggravatingly uneven book, Andrew Potter takes a contrarian approach, arguing that our obsession with authenticity often creates the problems it's meant to solve.
Fixated on some lost paradise of authenticity, we view the modern western world as fatally lapsed. Our quests for authenticity fuel escapist dreams, indulgent self-expression and nihilist apathy, and we end up standing outside our own lives.
Potter, a former philosophy professor at Trent University in Ontario and current public affairs columnist for Maclean's, put forward a similar argument in the controversial 2004 bestseller Rebel Sell.
Potter and co-author Joseph Heath suggested that leftist counterculture, though it seems to challenge consumer capitalism, actually fuels consumption by pushing it into hip, highly competitive areas.
In The Authenticity Hoax, the Ottawa-based writer blends philosophy, history and pop culture in a far-reaching analysis of the authenticity fetish in art, politics and everyday life.
Starting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who championed nature and subjective emotion over the sterile rationalism of civilization, Potter defines the authenticity impulse as anti-modernist and often anti-social.
Potter goes after Oprah, whom he sees as a teary authenticity junkie, and the trend for local and organic food, which he views as a sneaky form of status-seeking (or, as he calls it, "conspicuous authenticity").
He takes on elitist critiques of mass culture, particularly the tendency to see other people's consumption as brainwashed and vulgar but our own as somehow discerning and authentic, and has no patience for ahistorical wishful thinking.
When people envisage a simpler, more authentic past, Potter says, they're conveniently forgetting about infant mortality, malnutrition and endemic disease.
Modernity is so successful that we've forgotten how tough the pre-modern world could be. As Potter points out, if we spend more time sunk in existential despair than our pre-modern forebears, it's partly because we have the luxury for moping.
While many of Potter's ideas are crisp and stimulating, he can be grumpily dismissive of any impulse that challenges modernity, the market economy or liberal democracy. Readers who remember Potter as an Adbusters contributor might think he's taken a hard right turn.
Even readers who like Potter's central thesis might be vexed by his style. Having worked as both a journalist and an academic, he's prone to awkward mash-ups in tone, as talk of authenticity turns from Plato's ideal forms to the question of whether Avril Lavigne knows how to skateboard.
Some sections wander away from the book's central point into obscure intellectual footnotes. Others fall into oversimplification. (Writing about anti-modern "declinists," Potter groups global warming activists with New Age prophets who believe the world will end in 2012.)
Potter's often incisive critiques are a corrective to sloppy, sub-Rousseauian romanticism, preaching-to-the-choir complacency and the conspiratorial tendency to blame "the System" for all the evils of modern life.
But his stated desire "to find a way forward, to an individualism that makes its peace with the modern world" remains mostly unexpressed. While Potter faults authenticity fanatics for being unconstructive, The Authenticity Hoax is written mostly in the negative mode.
Free Press pop culture columnist Alison Gillmor digs modernity, mostly.