Book Review – The Authenticity Hoax
reviewed by Justin Dillehay
Organic food. Samuel Adams. Mud-floors. Vintage Levi’s. What do they all have in common? According to philosopher Andrew Potter: authenticity. People eat, imbibe, walk on, and wear these things in an effort to be “real.” Potter views this so-called authenticity as a reaction to modernity, describing it as a “rejection of the various tributaries of mass society’s current, including the media, marketing, fast food, party politics, the Internet, and—above all—the program of free markets and economic integration usually derided as ‘globalization’” (8). In the space of 273 fascinating and often hilarious pages, Potter analyzes the history, meaning, and manifestations of authenticity, ranging from Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century to Oprah Winfrey in the 21st. Through it all, Potter concludes that authenticity is a hoax; a “dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive” (270).
For me, Potter’s most helpful (and entertaining) insight is that authenticity is a form of one-upmanship and status-seeking; an effort not to be real, but to be different. If everyone starts listening to the Avett Brothers, the truly authentic will drop them like last month’s YouTube sensation (they must be sell-outs anyway). If Wal-Mart starts placing organic food within the financial reach of the hoi polloi, this is cause—not for rejoicing—but for anti-capitalist consternation (129). Once indie bands and organic food lose their ability to distinguish the authentic from the rabble, the truly authentic move on in search of substitutes, like locally grown food. All this and more in a chapter entitled “Conspicuous Authenticity,” a term Potter adapts from economist Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.
From what has been said thus far, Hoax may sound like nothing more than a philosophically sophisticated version of Stuff White People Like. That’s what I was expecting when I first picked it up after seeing it on Doug Wilson’s Top 10 list. While I, for one, would have been happy to read just such a book, I soon found that Potter’s scope was much larger than that. Among the diverse questions discussed are: Why is plagiarism on the rise in colleges? How much can a piece of artwork be altered (even by the artist himself) and still be considered authentic? Are suburbs an example of an artificial life sold to brainwashed people? Is the decline of the mainstream media and the rise of online news something to be lamented or celebrated? Why do politicians tend to stick to their talking points, rather than speaking from their hearts? Does globalization destroy authentic culture? Throw in some penetrating discussions of The Matrix, burkas, and communist tourism (along with, yes, a six pack of Samuel Adams), and you’ve got yourself some enjoyable evening reading.
A couple of closing reflections. As a disciple of Thomas Sowell, I appreciated Potter’s repeated emphasis on the necessity of trade-offs. As Sowell has pointed out in many of his works, people on the political left tend to approach social problems with the goal of implementing cost-free “solutions,” rather than recognizing that there is no free lunch and that even socially beneficial policies will have downsides. Those with this “unconstrained vision” of human potential will invariably point with dissatisfaction to the unmet needs, urban sprawl, and McWorld cultural kitsch left in the wake of modernity. To this, Potter rightly responds:
“In order to see ourselves clear of the authenticity hoax, we need to come to terms with the modern world and accept that the last 250 years or so has not been a tragic mistake. At the very least we have to concede that while there has been a trade-off, losses to balance against the benefits, on the whole it would be a mistake to want to pull the plug, put the wagon train in reverse, and head back into the comforts of nostalgia.” (270)
Nevertheless, while modernists like Potter (and Sowell) feel like a welcome gust of wind in the stagnant sea of postmodern relativism, there were times when his secularism grated against my biblical worldview.
For instance, he noted that one of the key features in the shift from premodernity to modernity was the “disenchantment of the world,” in which the world came to be seen no longer as a cosmos, but as a universe—a universe in which “appeals to ultimate ends or purposes or roles being built into the very fabric of the universe come to be seen as illegitimate or nonsensical” (24; see 21-29). As a disciple of C.S. Lewis, however, I don’t find nature quite so “disenchanted” as Potter does. According to Scripture, nature teaches, the solar system preaches, and God’s design instructs. Despite having to broadcast amidst the static of truth-suppressing sin, the created “is” still teaches a few moral “oughts” clearly enough to leave men without excuse.
But the clearest example of missing the mark comes on the book’s final page. In his concluding chapter entitled “Progress: The Very Idea,” Potter charges the search for authenticity with leading people into “sin,” which he then describes as “an utter lack of faith in humanity, believing that we will inevitably abuse the gifts of freedom, knowledge, and power, and become the agents of our own destruction” (271). If this is the case, then the Apostle Paul was wrong: I am the chief of sinners! How then does one repent of such “sin,” according to Potter? Answer: “faith in progress”—“the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and good will…” (271). Needless to say, we’re going to need some serious common grace here. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to see the need for it. For Potter to tackle with the real version of sin, he’s gonna need a bigger boat.
While the orthodox Christian believer in original sin will have a difficult (i.e. impossible) time agreeing with some of Potter’s prescriptions, this shouldn’t discourage him from profiting from Potter’s diagnoses. He has given us some quality thinking and writing. In the end, though he may not see the need for common grace, he still serves as an example of it.
Justin has recently been awarded the Master of Divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a pastoral intern at Grace Baptist Church in Hartsville, Tennessee. He has been married to his dream girl, Tilly, for 9 months. Justin and Tilly live in Lafayette, Tennessee, just north of their old friend and KC author, Marc Hays. Justin frequently posts excerpts and other unoriginal thoughts on his blog, “Excerpts and Other Unoriginal Thoughts.”
The Kuyperian Commentary is grateful for his contribution.