Ramblings Regarding Authenticity and Identity in an Age of Performance

What is authenticity? It is the holy grail of modern life.

Why?

Some thoughts.

Take One …

Because modernity is one long identity crisis.

In traditional societies, identity was given. It was grounded in the relative solidity of pre-modern life. Individuals inhabited an identity that was given by time, place, the structures and institutions of daily life.

In modernity, all that is solid melts … and choice is the solvent.

A multiplicity of choices arise were once there were few or none – choices regarding vocation, home, spouse, religion, and more. Consumer society is simply the apotheosis of a very long trajectory – Luther is her prophet.

Crisis of identity used to be the province of exiles and their children. Modernity generalizes the condition of exile.

Where there is choice there is freedom. There is also uncertainty, anxiety, regret, and self-consciousness.

Choice foregrounds the choosing self.

Freedom  and choice lead to performance. Choices, because they could have been otherwise, become signals to be read. They disclose and they reveal. When this dynamic is embraced, happily or despondently, identity becomes performance.

A performed identity – relative to an inhabited, given identity – feels inauthentic.

Take Two …

“The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment; one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all.” (W. H Auden)

Achilles is authentic. His identity is experienced as the fulfillment of a destiny. Further, there are no psychic gaps between circumstances and emotions and actions. Sorrow, tears, rage, murder – all follow immediately upon circumstances. Passionate intensity characterizes experience.

Self-consciousness lives in the gaps.

Once they open but a little, self-reflection and moderation emerge. Emotions are tempered and cooled.

Open them further and the space becomes a stage and performance ensues.

Performance is knowing, cool, detached, ironic. Performance feels inauthentic because it is rehearsed action.

Take Three …

“Writing heightens consciousness.” (Walter Ong)

Writing captures the mind. The diary is emblematic. Authentic self is the private self.

Images heighten self-consciousness.

Images of oneself capture the self as seen by others.

Images evoke performance.

“The medium is the message.” (Marshall McLuhan)

The medium is the message and we are both; it’s the ratio that matters.

Until recently the power to produce media has been in the hands of a relative few. Under these circumstances individuals were the medium and culture was the message. When the power to produce media is democratized the relationship is reversed. Culture becomes the medium and the self is the message.

“Any person today can lay claim to being filmed.” (Walter Benjamin)

Any person today can lay claim to being a filmmaker.

“The distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character … At any moment the reader is ready to become a writer.” (Walter Benjamin)

Digital media has democratized the production of media even further. We are not only actors, but also directors of our own lives as we perform them for an audience, imagined or real.

Authenticity, if it is taken to mean either non-performative action or immediate action that is not self-reflexive, is no longer an option. In the world created by the expansion of choices, we have no choice in the matter.

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7 thoughts on “Ramblings Regarding Authenticity and Identity in an Age of Performance

  1. “The medium is the message and we are both; it’s the ratio that matters.

    Until recently the power to produce media has been in the hands of a relative few. Under these circumstances individuals were the medium and culture was the message. When the power to produce media is democratized the relationship is reversed. Culture becomes the medium and the self is the message.”

    Based on how McLuhan is popularly (mis)read, this makes sense and I understand what you are trying to say. That misreading defines medium as “anything that goes between two things and transmits stuff” and defines message as “the stuff that is transmitted.” Or something like that. Medium is the channel and the message is the content.

    However, McLuhan defined medium as “any extension of ourselves” and message as “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that comes with that medium. Under this definition, it doesn’t really make sense to call individuals a medium (although the phrase “Culture becomes the medium and the self is the message” does, just not it the way I think you intend it).

    • Eric,

      You’re right. I’m still wanting to make the point I was getting at, but hooking it to the McLuhan line may not be the best way to get there. Might it be more faithful to McLuhan to say that the message of digital media insofar as it democratizes production is heightened self-consciousness and the imperative to construct identity rather than reproduce culture?

  2. JesusChrist!

    You must have been noticeing, wondering, observing, reading and thinking about this a while, to ramble such a clear, informative jewel strand of relevance. You just provided me a few missing links.
    Some u

  3. Perhaps mediated authenticity brings us back to Luther as prophet; acknowledging the bondage of our will? I wonder if authenticity, though the expressed ideal, is seeking something deeper to our core. Perhaps, a quest for acceptance and absolution from angst?

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