24 February 2002

The Return of Authenticity

You thought the blogthread was dead, but when you went to the basement alone and opened that cobwebby closet door — egad! it lives!

Friday, the Rev. Lane Hensley (a Seabury alumnus who survived at least one class with me) leaned over to me at chapel and whispered, “I’ve been reading your blog, and I can explain what people mean by ‘authenticity.’ ” Lane points out that people typically apply “authentic” to a particular experience to indicate its visceral impact, its vividness; subsequently they use the term to mean, “something that revives memories of what that prior experience was like,” even though the context of the experience, perhaps even the character of the experience itself, is quite different.

I’m not quite convinced by this, but it catalyzed a different explanation in my speculative imagination. Perhaps the problem derives from an ellipsis, by which people mean to say something like “her voice is authentically human” or “his website reflects his authentic personality” — then gradually the specific referent of “authenticity” drops out and leaves only “authentic” behind.

I’d probably have forgotten to blog Lane and just left the topic behind, but Tom Shugart poked the blogthread’s carcase and it twitched convulsively. (Yes, Tom, we do need a new word.) I like Tom’s treatment of self in its temporal extension; that’s something the rest of us hadn’t brought out well enough. The suggestion that the “true self, in my view, is created as a conscious act of existential will,” sounds a lot less convincing. My true self includes a mountain of stuff that I didn’t choose, and some of what I did choose (much of it in the 70s — say no more) I would like to think doesn’t express the truest dimensions of my self. Not to say that I repudiate those choices, but to say that the truth about myself emerges from the complex interplay of conscious will and unconscious impulse and unchosen circumstance, all of them. Tom’s version begins to sound a little Promethean, a little Ayn-Rand-ish, a little of the dangerous part of Heideggerian (what Adorno scathed him for in The Jargon of Authenticity). Some of what is truest about us is more or less bred in the bone, and some of who we are depends on the material conditions under which we live. However much we may wish that we were altogether our own creation, a big, powerful, inexorable world of contingencies exerts its claims on us every time.

One thing that makes the Web so interesting is the extent to which the hyperlinked world operates with different environmental conditions than the material world. It’s as though gravity no longer held us to the earth, and we could fly from place to place without benefit of United Airlines, we could change our appearance at will, we could appear and disappear on a whim (or ISP failure). When the conditions that make “authenticity” possible themselves change, then everything else changes willy-nilly, authenticity included (if one must say “authenticity”).

Si’s Birthday

Son Josiah turned 15 today, but by the time we had breathing space to notice it his day was over. Since he’s precisely 12 hours opposite us in Sri Lanka, his version of his birthday arrived yesterday at noon (midnight Sri Lanka); the overlap of his day with ours expired at noon today. And we were busy all morning, and he’s in the mountains reminiscing about indoor plumbing–about any kind of plumbing–and avoiding elephants. Happy birthday, Si! UPDATE: an hour or so after I typed those words, Si made it to a hotel in Anuradhapura and arranged 90 seconds of telephone time to assure us that he was having a great time.

Duke 97, St. John’s 55

Glad Doc got to see a good one.

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