What was your New Year’s resolution? To exercise more? Drink less? Did you commit to it with a hashtag? Or perhaps you joined the camp of the anti-resolutioner, refusing the imperative to endlessly self-optimise. Maybe you posted a photo of this as evidence: the mess of your kitchen or a hungover selfie. Either way, your position on the spectrum weds you to a modern mandate: not only must you “be who you are, you must also be seen to be who you are”. The idea of authenticity has become so pervasive it’s easy to mistake it as innate.
Authenticity emerged in the late 18th century, in association with Romanticism, as an attempt to recognise the true self. While then it encouraged acknowledgement of an inner life, now, Emily Bootle argues, authenticity “serves as a moral bolster for the individualism that drives capitalism”. Her book, This Is Not Who I Am, offers a sharp commentary on the pervasiveness of “authenticity-culture” and probes its contradictions.
Across a series of essays, Bootle examines six areas of contemporary culture: celebrity, art, product, identity, purity and confession – taking in everything from hipsterism and cold-brew coffee to Foucault, the Kardashians, the messy heroine of Fleabag, Simone de Beauvoir, influencers, wellness culture, food advertising and Jennifer Lawrence’s red-carpet falls. Throughout, one abiding idea holds: while in some contexts authenticity may attempt to offer a “conceptual antidote to … hyper-capitalism”, by demanding “that we don’t conform to expectations: that we are purely, exquisitely ourselves”, the bigger problem is that one must perform this original self to others in order to prove it exists. The catch is that “the moment you begin to perform authenticity, it becomes meaningless”. And yet this very failure creates a greater need to get closer to the truth, re-performing and revising the self-performance ad infinitum.
Key to each essay is this uneasy alliance between our desire to be true and the mandate to perform that truth. In a culture that insists selfhood be “narrativised”, an authentic person is “made real … through the telling”. This phenomenon is lucidly unpacked in the essay on art, where Bootle assesses the rise of autofiction. It’s a genre, she argues, that creates a double bind for women writers in particular: they are “undermined for creating something overtly personal … [yet] are also expected to be authentic”. A similar unease is traced in the chapter on identity politics. While “identifying” can offer a sense of rightful belonging, identity politics can just as often create exclusionary boundaries, compelling us to realise authenticity in spite of identity.
Authenticity-culture is fuelled by a sense of dissatisfaction; the endless loop of seeking to be more oneself in a context that insists upon the commodification of the self. When we reach maximum discontent, wellness culture is waiting, reminding us that authenticity “is not just about being ourselves – it’s about becoming them”. If only we purge ourselves of all that is toxic and unnecessary, we might find our true self. This is the minimalist authentic self, intent on purification; the Marie Kondo self who also owns a Goop jade egg. But if this irks, you can also become authentic by moving in the other direction, embracing chaos, mess and impulsivity – resisting the “optimisation obsession” and “essentially doing whatever the hell you want”.
Whatever your path, authenticity in capitalist culture remains a profitable mirage and Bootle’s book offers a timely and compelling critique on the messiness of this quest. Is it possible, she muses at one point, that we’ve reached peak-authenticity? What would happen if we stopped trying to prove ourselves to ourselves and took up a position not only of indifference, but one that nurtured a potentially private self? What if instead we said, “This is not who I am”?
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