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The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves Hardcover – April 13, 2010

3.4 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Potter (coauthor of Nation of Rebels), the cost of modernity's dismantling of traditional frameworks of truth and meaning has forced meaning and authenticity to become individual searches that are private and consumercentric. Potter's lively cultural analysis combines an astute analysis of foundational antimodernist thought (in particular Rousseau) with savvy surveys of mass culture to flag the pitfalls and ironies of the modern obsession with authenticity in its every incarnation (authentically punk, spiritual, environmentally conscious) from our jeans to our celebrities. Potter champions a mitigation of modernity's negative, alienating effects rather than a rejection of modernity, and his characterizations of antimodernists can be dismissive to the point of oversimplifying a large and varied spectrum of dissent from the status quo. But in redeeming modernity from primitivists, apocalyptic doom-mongers, and more subtle critics, the author offers a shrewd and lively discussion peppered with pop culture references and a stimulating reappraisal of the romantic strain in modern life. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

We live, Potter argues, in a world dominated by the prepackaged and the artificial, the fraudulent and the fake. Growing out of this increasingly bleak cultural landscape is a movement centered on the notion of authenticity: the honest, the natural, the real. That’s all fine and good, Potter says, except for one thing: we don’t have a clue what we mean by authenticity, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to find it. That is, the quest for authenticity is a hoax—there is no such thing. Authenticity is an exclusionist notion, defined, by what it isn’t, not by what it is, and, for the most part, so-called authentic lifestyles are just as artificial and contrived as the rest of modern culture. It’s a fascinating approach to a fascinating subject, and Potter bolsters his argument with examples drawn from pop culture, history, and other sources. Written in a lively style that invites the reader to argue with the author, the book, at the very least, will turn the reader’s eye inward, and make us take a good, long look at the way we present ourselves to the world. --David Pitt

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (April 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006125133X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061251337
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,422,460 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The above quote is from this book's seventh chapter. Not only are we all multiculturalists now, but the idea of being 'authentic' is simply part of our every day vocabulary. Bestsellers like The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Dilbert and The Office lampoon the inauthentic desk job, and a robust consumer market of 'authentic' everything (from jeans to organic produce) grows by the year.

So, why challenge it? Andrew Potter gives us several good reasons. First, he suggests that seeking for authenticity is as self-defeating as it is phony. It is self-defeating because when one quests for the authentic, one tends to get lost in the search (which is the opposite of focusing on any 'true self'). It is phony because, all too often, seeking the authentic - buying organic food, appreciating different cultural artifacts, etc - is every bit as much about appearing to be authentic to others as it is achieving authenticity for the self. The first several chapters (minus the first, which explores the emergence of authenticity as an ideal, explore these themes).

Next we come to some chapters that question the very distinction between authentic and inauthentic, on epistemic and ontological grounds. Ontologically, it is simply arbitrary to call x natural and y authentic when, in reality, they may be both made from the same stuff. What makes, say, an original painting authentic and a reproduction inauthentic? Now we get to the shaky epistemology. The original painting is real, says Potter, not because of anything about the painting, but EVERYTHING about our expectations of the painting.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Authenticity Hoax is worthy buying for the first 60 pages alone, a concise, exhilarating explanation of the birth of modernity: industrialization, individualism, consumerism and how these elements result in alienation. Some people, Potter point, try to reject modernity and find a romantic and nostalgic solution: reject the modern world and search for authenticity. He points to Rousseau whose works have been misinterpreted to this end.

The problem with Potter's argument is that he lumps all critics of modernity under the same label: "declinists." These are in Potter's mind crackpots. But fringe extremists should not be lumped with political leaders, such as Al Gore and others, under the declinist banner so that Potter can propel his conservative polemic.

I find this gross over simplification and faulty comparison both illogical and insidious propaganda lacking the intellectual rigor for serious debate. And I find it ironic that this kind of intellectual dishonesty (from a writer who knows better) is behind a book that purports to be interested in uncovering a "hoax."

My other criticism is that Potter has not clearly defined "authenticity." He uses the word in so many ways that it almost becomes meaningless; worse, a lot of the chapters have no logical connection to the other as the "authenticity" as a reaction to modernity has no relation to the "authenticity" between art and creativity as discussed in Chapter 3.

As a primer for the birth of modernity, this book is worth getting. But as a polemic that lumps all critics of modernity as charlatans and crackpots, this book fails. A far superior book on the subject of the quest of false authenticity (not even mentioned in Potter's polemic) is David Brooks' satirical Bobos in Paradise.
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The Bad: Several of Potter's personal positions go unexamined throughout the writing. The writing itself often feels undirected (and unrelated to the core thesis) from chapter to chapter. And Potter often spends so much time explaining previous findings and other arguments that his actual point gets lost.

The Good: There's a huge amount of stuff in here linking a wide range of philosophers to particular societal behavioral patterns that have played out over the years. I suspect that this book would be more valuable for people than most 100-level philosophy college courses. Really, I loved how much large portions of this book shifted my perspectives so that I could think about things in different ways.

The Ugly: Potter seems to run the entire book without tapping either existentialism or absurdism, which is a bit of a problem as they're directly concerned with answering to what is real about humanity, starting with the basic premise that Existence Precedes Essence (a.k.a. You are as you do, not as you think) and, as Sartre wrote "Hell is other people" not because they don't get the real you, but because maybe they do. Also, Erich Fromm might have been mentioned in passing for his work in Escape From Freedom, but not nearly enough to appropriately reflect his body of work on this topic.
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This was a pleasure to read. To me, the author's aim is to help us question the assumptions that we either take for granted or otherwise cling to as though they were unshakable truths.

Enter "authenticity," a term that most of us define by describing what "it is not." This contrastive definition is a start, but it makes us come up short when it comes time to actually identify what "authenticity" really is, or at least what we mean by it. The truth is, there is no consensus; "authenticity" is subject to personal bias and psychological "framing," a term that describes the application of our preconceptions to the matter at hand.

Essentially, Potter shows us that to define "authenticity" is to negate it. With several examples, he shows how the "authenticity" we end up settling for is a branded product, courtesy of a consumer culture long tweaked to our psychological needs.

What we are really after, according to the author, is distinction--status disguised and marketed as "authenticity." It's sold to us because we want it--and perhaps even need it in such a fashion, so it is not entirely fair to lay the blame on the corporations that are experts at fulfilling our whims.

To me, the search for "authenticity" also masks a search for the self--and identity is a fragile thing. We might get "lost finding ourselves," but I'm not so sure we know what we're looking for to begin with.

In his chapter about politics, for instance, Potter poses one of the best questions of the book: do we genuinely want honesty? I don't think so. I'm reminded of two observations, one by George Carlin made long ago: "If honesty were introduced into politics, the entire system would collapse.
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