Authenticity through self-commodification

This is from a paper at First Monday by Georgia Gaden and Delia Dumitrica called “The Real Deal: Strategic Authenticity, Politics, and Social Media.” I think this passage suggests why authenticity has managed to retain some of its positive valence — why you still occasionally see people use it without irony. (Emphasis added.)

“Authenticity,” before it was co-opted by marketers, was a word invoked by social critics like Marshall Berman to denote a care for the preconditions for individuality. Much as Gilbert Simondon argued that individuality must emerge from a pre-individual sociality, an earlier generation of philopshopers of authenticity emphasized the inevitably social basis for personal authenticity. Individuality comes as a consequence of belonging to a society; it doesn’t precede belonging. 

To care about authenticity meant fostering and nurturing a society (and its set of typical social relations) that made individuality’s emergence possible. For these often existentialist-leaning thinkers, individuality was taken as end goal whose value is self-evident. The purpose of life as far as they are concerned is to individuate for the sake of it. 

“Authenticity” as marketing discourse adopts this emphasis on individuation but marries it to consumerism while divorcing it from society. The point is no longer to build or sustain a society that makes individuality possible, but to escape from the supposed constraints society places on the self by buying things (and buying spaces to display them). The paper’s authors argue that social media has permitted users to seek authenticity through self-commodification, which turns other people into mere consumers to be satisfied “rather than known, understood, or respected.” The connection between the self and the society that permits that self to exist becomes an instrumental exchange rather than a reciprocal relation.

Self-commodification allows authenticity to be certified by attention. You are authentic if you are faved, retweeted, etc. They signal that you have been consumed appropriately, that the self-expression you attempted has been received and is regarded as real/legitimate.

At the same time, self-commodification also circumscribes the role of other people; it allows you to imagine other people are nothing but consumers, or audiences, while you are the center of attention, free to do whatever.    

This helps transform “authenticity” into a zero-sum game: Authenticity is measured and expressed in terms of freedom from the constraints others place on you, and it can be bought by spending enough to opt out of the social interactions that otherwise condition people’s behavior. Hence, the more “convenient” you make you life, the more “authentic” it feels. This is why authenticity tends to be associated with spontaneity, immediacy in marketing discourse. That discourse is trying to collapse the experience of a lived relation (your relation to the others who make it possible for you to recognize your life as real and meaningful) into a gesture, into something you can buy and display (this ethical water bottle stands in for the relations I want to have with people, indicating my fundamental human decency and concern for our shared environmental future, but I don’t know which people nor do I have the time to relate to them, really).    

Even when “authenticity” is defined as transcending social limits, it still relies on the participation of others. Only now they are competitors rather than collaborators. They make authenticity possible by being defeated, by having their social actions determined by your own and disappeared. Authenticity becomes a power relation that disguises itself. Individuation becomes a means to this end, more power.


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