Authenticity as purgative

More from Foucault:

I would like to underline that the Christian discovery of the self does not reveal the self as an illusion. It gives place to a task which can’t be anything else but undefined. This task has two objectives. First, there is the task of clearing up all the illusions, temptations and seductions which can occur in the mind, and discovering the reality of what is going on within ourselves. Secondly, one has to get free from any attachment to this self, not because the self is an illusion, but because the self is much too real. The more we discover the truth about ourselves, the more we have to renounce ourselves; and the more we want to renounce ourselves, the more we need to bring to light the reality of ourselves. That is what we could call the spiral of truth formulation and reality renouncement which is at the heart of Christian techniques of the self.

I think this tracks with the quasi-confessional use of social media, and with the use of social media to purge the self in the process of “expressing” it. That is, the self is expressed like juice from an orange in a masticating juicer.

What I find interesting is that we need the presence of authenticity to sanctify this project of self-purification. Only what is recognized as “true” or “authentic” can be purged, and provide the relief that comes with expurgation.

Whatever remains ambiguous about the self and its intentions, whatever remains under suspicion of being strategic, remains in play and can’t be expelled. We continue to remain responsible for everything that we can’t have socially verified as authentic. We own only what seems fake about ourselves. What is seen as authentic becomes something that is no longer our fault. It has been successfully confessed, renounced, surrendered.   

Discovering the truth about oneself, then, is not about clarifying the permanent picture of one’s sense of self (as if it were an eternal, underlying thing waiting to be unearthed and communicated). Instead, it is about clearing a space for a more fluid subjectivity in the present moment. It is about finding relief from the burden of selfhood, particularly when the self is regarded as “human capital” within a neoliberalized society.

The “truth” about oneself is final only in so far as it is no longer useful, no longer dynamically productive in the circuits of value creation. What is authenticated is that which has ceased to be productive and can be forgotten. The most authentic self is the slate wiped clean.

The use of authenticity as a marketing ploy is not about “the truth of the self” or any actual desire or ability to claim authenticity. It’s about positing authenticity as a limit. In this sense, authenticity is always aspirational. The least authentic thing one can do is buy something that promises to make you feel authentic. It cancels itself out: You know you’re not being “real” in pursuing such a strategy. But in these purchases of “organic” and “artisanal” goods and experiences, authenticity is just the alibi for a different desire, the desire to be infinitely malleable, which is what consumers (and capitalism) truly want. We want to indulge the fantasy that what we buy can truly change our essential nature, but we are obliged to pretend that it somehow expresses it instead.


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