Freedom From Authenticity

Last night I listened to a recording of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address.  I know, I know. Wallace is one of these people around whom personality cults form, and its hard to take those people seriously. If it helps, there’s this one guy who is really ticked at Wallace for what must have been some horrible thing Wallace did to him, like having had the temerity to be alive at the same time as he. I also know that Wallace could at times be a rather nasty human being, or so some have reported. That said, the man said some really important and true things which need to be heard again and again.

These things as it turns out, or as I hear them now, in this particular frame of mind that I am in, have everything to do with authenticity. This is not because Wallace is talking directly about authenticity and its discontents, but because he understands, intimately it seems, what it feels like to be the sort of person for whom authenticity is likely to become a problem, and without intending to propose a solution to this problem of authenticity, he does.

Authenticity becomes a problem the second it becomes a question. As William Deresiewicz put it, “the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it.” Authenticity, like happiness and love and probably everything that is truly significant in life partakes of this dynamic whereby the sought after thing can be attained only by not consciously seeking after it. Think of it, and now it is a problem; seek it, and you will not find it; focus on it, and it becomes elusive.

So authenticity is the sort of thing that vanishes the moment you become conscious of it. It’s what you have only when you’re not thinking of it. And what you’re not thinking of when you have it is yourself. Authenticity is a crisis of self invoked by a hyper-selfawareness that makes it impossible not think of oneself. And I don’t think this is a matter of being a horribly selfish or arrogant person. No, in fact, I think this kind of hype-rselfawareness is more often than not burdened with insecurity and fear and anxiety. It’s a voice most people want to shut up and hence the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

What does Wallace have to say about any of this? Well, first, there’s this: “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.”

This is what he calls our default setting. Our default setting is to think about the world as if we were its center, to process every situation through the grid of our own experience, to assume “that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This is our default setting in part because from the perspective of our own experience, the only perspective to which we have immediate access, we are literally the center of the universe.

Wallace also issued this warning: “Worship power you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

So then, worship authenticity and … 

But, Wallace also tells us, it doesn’t have to be this way. The point of a liberal arts education — this is a commencement address after all — is to teach us how to exercise choice over what we think and what we pay attention to. And Wallace urges us to pay attention to something other than the monologue inside our head. Getting out of our own heads, what Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms” — this is the only answer to the question of authenticity.

And so this makes me think again of the possibility that certain kinds of practices that help us do just this. They can so focus our attention on themselves, that we stop, for a time, paying attention to ourselves. Serendipitously, I stumbled on this video about glass-blowing in which a glass-blower is talking about his craft when he says this: “When you’re blowing glass, there really isn’t time to have your mind elsewhere – you have to be 100% engaged.” There it is.

Now, I know, we can’t all run off and take up glass blowing. That would be silly and potentially dangerous. The point is that this practice has the magical side effect of taking a person out of their own head by acutely focusing our attention. The leap I want to make now is to say that this skill is transferable. Learn the mental discipline of so focusing your attention in one particular context and you will be better able to deploy it in other circumstances.

It’s like the ascetic practice of fasting. The point is not that food is bad or that denying yourself food is somehow virtuous or meritorious. Its about training the will and learning how to temper desire so as to direct and deploy it toward more noble ends. You train your will with food so that you can exercise it meaningfully in other, more serious contexts.

In any case, Wallace is right. It’s hard work not yielding to our default self-centeredness. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace explained, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” I know I’ve cited that line before and not that long ago, but the point it makes is crucial.

Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want, when we want. It has nothing to do with listening to our heart or following our dreams or whatever else we put on greeting cards and bumper stickers. Real freedom comes from learning to get out of our “skull-sized kingdoms” long enough to pay attention to the human being next us so that we might treat them with decency and kindness and respect. Then perhaps we’ll have our authenticity, but we’ll have it because we’ve stopped caring about it.


A transcript of Wallace’s address is available here.

7 thoughts on “Freedom From Authenticity

  1. Hi Michael,

    As usual, a lovely reflection, and, as usual, I find myself agreeing with most of what you say.

    I’m sure you recognize that there’s a circularity to deciding to search or not search for authenticity — that once the question is posed at all, we’re stuck. And thanks to technology, the question has been posed, so that we’re all locked in that hall of mirrors, like it or not.

    I’m showing my age here (hard not to at this point), but I remember back in the days when cigarette advertising was still allowed on television, one of the brands, I forget which one, had a campaign in which it was positioned as the cigarette for regular (read: authentic) guys. The series of commercials to promote that message all showed this guy who clearly had nothing to prove (nothing to prove = authentic) surrounded in various public places by people who were dressed in all sorts of outlandish stuff, all of them desperately trying to prove that they were something or other. That guy was a precursor to the “regular guy” in Apple’s ad campaign of a few years ago, the guy who was standing there with a bemused grin on his face (standing there bemused = cool/authentic) as he watched the bumbling fat guy (bumbling + fat= mega uncool) trying to make his computer work.

    Speaking of mirrors, your piece reminded me of Lewis Mumford’s brilliant pages, in Technics and Civilization, on the widespread introduction of mirrors in the 17th century. Here’s a quote: “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror conversation developed with the new object itself: this preoccupation with one’s image comes at the threshold of the mature personality when young Narcissus gazes long and deep into the face of the pool — and the sense of the separate personality, a perception of the objective attributes of one’s identity, grows out of this communion.”

    Mumford goes on to argue that it’s no coincidence that some of the great painters (Rembrandt) and some of the great philosophers (Spinoza) of that period emerged from Holland, where the techniques of glass (and hence both windows and mirrors, as well as glasses and microscopes) were most advanced. (A coincidence, I assume, that you cite glass blowing as a focal activity.)

    The arrival of television, of course, upped the ante on that whole process exponentially. In a former life in journalism I covered the television industry for many years, and during that time wrote several articles about MTV. Obviously the arrival of the music video as a regular feature on television accelerated the sale and consumption of cool-guy (and later cool gal) images exponentially, an acceleration that received a strong early push from the Beatles’ appearances on Ed Sullivan.

    But to go back to my original point (and to again show my age) I remember well the music of the 60s counterculture, and how it was a point of pride at that time NOT to put on a false persona. (Examples: the Grateful Dead, the Band, Neil Young.) But of course not putting on a false persona turned out to be almost as much a persona as anything else. I say “almost” because I do think you get some points for trying.

    I don’t know much about David Foster Wallace, but I’ve been mightily impressed with what I’ve read of his work and what I’ve read about him (acknowledging, as you did, and as he himself clearly did, that he was not always a nice guy). I have to wonder if his realization that he would never be able to escape the hall of mirrors was one of the things that opened up the abyss he fell into at the end. His death suggests that the quest for authenticity in the modern/post-modern era may be doomed to failure and is therefore a tragic one. He still gets points for trying.

    One more thing. I noticed that in your very appropriate emphasis on the need for disciplined attention, you never comment on the myriad opportunities that modern technologies, from television into the era of the smartphone, offer us to move in the opposite direction. Perhaps that was an implicit point here — I’m sort of jumping into this authenticity conversation in the middle, so forgive me if I’m out of context. I know the point has been made many times, and thus it’s uncool to raise it again, but it’s nonetheless a fact that chief among technology’s many gifts is the gift of distraction. I’ll skip the obligatory Eliot quote.

    1. Doug,

      Thanks for this really helpful comment, as per usual. The circularity you mention is, of course, unavoidable. You can’t un-see what you’ve seen. But it does seem to me that you can move either toward obsessive contemplation or relative forgetfulness by redirecting your attention, to whatever degree is possible. This is what I think Wallace was getting at.

      In any case, that is a fascinating passage from Mumford, which I will go looking for as soon as I wrap this comment up. I’ve dipped in Technics and Civilization often, but never read it cover to cover. This means there are still gems like that one waiting to be found. Also, thanks for the examples you cited (even at the risk of betraying your age). I think they’re helpful precisely because they remind us that this dynamic preceded contemporary hipster culture and has perhaps always been at the far end of modernity’s unfolding.

      Regarding the contrary effects of many of our digital practices, yes, I decided to leave those implicit. For one thing, as you say, it’s a point that’s been registered often; but chiefly because I’m trying to be better about keeping these posts from spilling over 1000 or so words.

      And it is hard not to read Wallace’s life as a kind of sad allegory. It certainly lends a peculiar retrospective pathos to his writing. In a long interview that was later published as “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” he said this about the work of a writer: “What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit — to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time.”

      I think this very much characterizes his own work.

  2. Wish we could talk about this ‘mano a ‘mano en persona. Wait no that’s not right. Anyways, G.K.N. (Darn, I gotta say it: I feel like you interpreted Wallace as advocating some form of escapism? That’s at least how I’m interpreting your interpretation. That to escape the problem of authenticity, you can’t even worry care about it? Which makes complete sense. But reading alotov DFW, I’ve gotten the impression that he’s pretty anti-escapist, ie via entertainment a la Infinite Jest or unboredom a la The Pale King. He instead addresses problems and attempts to somehow solve them, rather than disregard said problem (vying away from disregarding a problem as a possible solution). In fact, in some weird sortov-nonsensical way, he tries to transcend the problems of PoModernity by staying within the problem and somehow (and this is the part that always mystifies me) crossing the problem, transcending it. But not by escape or getting outside of the system-context, but somehow traversing the system. Trudging along (and hoping others are trudging alongside ov you? I’m not shure). But then again, this is all pretty abstract and The more I write, the more I start feeling like I either mis-interpreted you, or I’m just getting lost in my own thoughts. But anyways, wish we could talk about this more in person!)

    1. We’ll put it on the agenda for next time, but here’s my quick take on it for now. First, I readily acknowledge that what I’m doing here is not making a claim about what Wallace proposes regarding the problem of authenticity. Rather, I’m proposing an appropriation of some of what Wallace says in this particular address as a way of approaching the problem. But that said, I still think we’re not necessarily that far apart. I think, based on my more limited reading of/about Wallace, that you’re on the right track. But I wouldn’t describe what I’m proposing here (via Wallace) as a form of escapism. I see it rather as the opposite of escapism. I would venture to say that escapism better describes the flight into our “skull-sized kingdoms” that Wallace portrays so well here. Analogously, a fixation on authenticity is an escape (of sorts) from the world outside of us. I hear Wallace advocating the conscious, painstaking choice of directing our attention elsewhere; not to ignore, but to think differently. My suggestion is that a similar conscious decision not to focus on our authenticity angst but instead to direct our attention outward, to be mindful of others — that may be the best way of coping with the authenticity problem.

      Insofar as we cannot help but be conscious of authenticity as a problem once we’ve first thought it, I would say that this may be a kind of traversal. It can’t be an undoing of the problem/question of authenticity; that is not an option. But it is a passing through the problem to a place where the problem is acknowledged but it is not thereby allowed to dictate the terms of our thinking and being.

      I did have someone comment that Rilke’s counsel to “live the question” might also be useful here. I think there’s something to that.

  3. I think Wallace is a lot like someone he greatly admired, Dostoyevsky. Struggling with the moral, philosophical and ontological, except one was read by an audience fluent with Plato and the other is trying to speak to a culture diluted by inane entertainment. Wallace says (in Lipsky’s “Of Course You End Up Being Yourself”) “…it’s very hard to talk about people’s relationship with any kind of God, in any book later than like Dostoyevsky. I mean the culture, it’s all wrong for it now. You know? No, no. Plausibly realistic characters don’t sit around talking about this stuff.”

    This was an insightful blog post on authenticity and how striving for it ruins any chance of having it. I’ve been working on writing a long form essay on Wallace for a while, so instead of posting it all here, I’m going to link to it:

    [Warning: very long and pseudo-intellectual.]

    Anyway, thanks Michael for another good piece of writing on what it means to be human/authentic in this modern age, without relying on irony or scorn. I didn’t address this, but did think about your essay in connection to being a hipster–which is a perpetual need to be more authentic (and earlier in authentic tastes) than others, and results in a strangely artificial display of carefully contrived authenticity.

  4. I enjoy your blog very much. I am certainly no expert on DFW, though I am more than a fan or a ‘follower’… I seldom use this word, but I honestly feel W was a genius. By this I mean simply: he created a wholly new form of rendering the inner lives of men and women. For me (please don’t laugh) his peers are indeed Dostoyevsky (see W’s review of Joseph Frank’s peerless biography of D), but also Henry James (perhaps William as well) and Proust. Not Pynchon or Barth or the other meta-fictionists with whom he is often compared. A lot of nonsense is written about Wallace–well, about everyone. The thing is–just read him.

    Best wishes,

    1. I enjoyed your Restoration of Perfection very much and found it an excellent contribution to the history of technology and Christianity. Very pleased to have you come across this blog. I am inclined to agree with your estimation of Wallace. I’ve not read any of his fiction, but have engaged with his essays, interviews, etc. That small sample, to my mind, supports your perspective. I do hope to tackle his fiction in time, thanks for the encouragement to do so.


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