Romantic-Essentialist Authenticity Approaches
The most common approach of authenticity entails that the less an attribute has been compromised by intervention or design, the more authentic it is considered to be. This romantic-essentialist perspective is based on an essentialization of nature. Rooted in eighteenth-century Romanticism, the cultural value and ideal of authenticity stands for “natural,” “pure,” “original,” “genuine,” and “unique” (Boyle, 2003; Brooks, 2000; Campbell, 2005; Lindholm, 2008; Taylor, 1992).
The romantic-essentialist view has a particular history and gained momentum in the eighteenth century. In Western pre-Romantic moral philosophy, people were summoned to embrace and reflect on God or the idea of “the good.” Valuing external entities and bodies increasingly was challenged and gave way to valuing the inner self of the individual. This shift can be interpreted from at least two different perspectives: valuing the inner self can be seen as a result of liberation from external agencies, but attributing value to the inner world or to nature can also be regarded as an alternative strategy for giving meaning to life now that this meaning is no longer secured by an external deity.
In the eighteenth century Romantic stance, it was particularly the force of nature within each individual, which came to be regarded as the ultimate source of all thought, feeling, and action (Campbell, 2005: 182–184). The key figure in this development was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) who presented the issue of morality as a voice of nature within us and articulated the related idea of being free and unique as an individual, deciding for oneself what to do rather than being shaped by external influences and pressures of conformity. “Being true to yourself” meant being true to your own originality, not living your life in imitation by others and finding the blueprint to life within yourself instead of outside yourself (Taylor, 1992: 25–29).
In the most general sense, the Romantic value of authenticity is formulated in opposition to (modern) society that alienates humans from their natural environment, “inner selves” and creative potentials. In contrast to the Enlightenment conception of nature as an object that could be studied, controlled, and technically manipulated, the Romantics interpreted nature as a meaningful and moral entity in and of itself. This idea is reflected in the Romantic resistance against industrialism and mechanical worldviews, and the perspective on human nature. The birth of an authentic self lies in the Romantic notion that human beings are gifted with a pure self-identity that is located in the deeper layers of the self and is uncontaminated by external society. Such an authentic inner self possessed an innate moral sense and intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong.
An important aspect of authenticity as developed in Romanticism is creativity and the ideal of the artist. Before the eighteenth century, art was understood in terms of imitation and portraying reality. The Romantic resistance against imitation gave way to a new criterion: art had to be a real, sincere expression of the artist himself. Spontaneity became an indication of sincerity and quality because the spontaneous was free of conventions and rationalizations (Taylor, 1992: 62–65). Along with this new understanding of art, artistic creation became a mode in which people could come to self-definition. These views of the artist and genius, as well as this conception of authenticity, spilled over into different areas of everyday life, such as the humanities and social sciences, from philosophy to psychology and management sciences. The emphasis came to be placed not on what someone said but on who he or she (mostly he) was.
All in all, the eighteenth century Romantics chose to raise the natural to a higher moral status and to problematize the artificial in the modern, industrialized world as the evil to be overcome (Campbell, 2005: 183). The Romantic worldview is generally considered a marginal counter-current in Western societies, but remarkably has increasingly evolved from counter-culture to cultural mainstream. In the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, middle-class youth gave expression to cultural discontents about processes of modernization, rationalization, and bureaucratization and massively embraced the Romantic worldview. Central to the counter-culture was a disgust of rationalized modern institutions and hierarchical power structures that demanded people to conform to narrowly defined and artificial social roles which oppressed people’s personal authenticity. Playing such roles was understood as alienating and being reduced to a cog in a rationalized machine. An alternative for these criticized processes was found in small-scaled, informal-organized communities, living in harmony with nature, searching the authentic self through artistic creativity, psychedelic drugs, spiritual practices, and meditation (Aupers et al., 2010).
As different academics argued, the countercultural imperative of resisting modern institutions and seeking authenticity, so vivid in the 1960s and 1970s, has paradoxically become part of mainstream society and even been co-opted by business life (Aupers et al., 2003; Houtman et al., 2010; Campbell, 2005; Heath & Potter, 2004; Doorman, 2004; Kennepohl, 2014). Not only has authenticity become a binding value and common norm in Western societies, consumer culture has incorporated the rebelliousness and non-conformism of the 1960’s counter-culture and calls consumers to set themselves apart from the gray masses (Frank, 1998; Houtman et al., 2010). As professors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argued: “The Romantic critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for the past forty years” (Heath & Potter, 2004: 98).
Constructionist Authenticity Approaches
In constructionist approaches, authenticity is decoupled from the Romantic tradition to align authenticity with naturalness. Here, human nature is understood as something that needs to be adjusted, corrected, or even defeated; authenticity must be constructed, developed, or created instead of found or preserved. Romanticism with its essentialization of nature is experienced as an oppressing convention that needs to be escaped from through the construction of an authentic self. Instead of finding authenticity in nature, authenticity is something that is created out of cultural elements. Authenticity is about transcending social orders and cultural classifications through active self-creation, breaking free from existing cultural repertoires, and developing one’s own cultural language; for example, through breaking free from classifications such as “natural-born artist” or “natural-born man.”
It is remarkable that, like the essentialist approach, this approach is also often presented as a liberation offensive, however from a different rationale. In essentialist approaches, it is external influences, industrialism, and mechanical worldviews that the individual needs to be liberated from, while in constructionist approaches, all these aspects can be part of the cultural elements through which an authentic self can be created. In constructionist approaches, the existential assignment cannot be reduced to the principles of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who assumed an authentic reality that must be discovered. Constructionist approaches of authenticity are often inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche and philosophers, writers, and artists inspired by Nietzschean views. From this perspective, authenticity is not about finding or regaining your true nature, but about creating your own nature; not about self-knowledge but about self-creation through the transcendence of both natural orders and cultural classifications (Aupers et al., 2010: 4).
The constructionist approach of authenticity is often presented as the opposite of an essentialist approach. However, constructionist authenticity approaches come in many different shapes and forms and can be recognized under different names. “Existentialist authenticity,” for example, is commonly referred to as a form of self-invention where individuals can construct an identity to which one wishes to be true (Shanahan, 2018; Waterman, 2014). This idea carries existential concepts of transcendence: a moving beyond the confines of what the self is and toward what it can be (Erickson, 1995). In the rise of existentialism as a school of thought during the early twentieth century, the fundamental freedom of the individual was paramount. Instead of a fixed self, individuals choose the self they wish to be (Shanahan, 2018: 4). Another version of the constructionist authenticity approach is reflected in the “creativity framework.” Instead of approaching life as a gift that should be respected (“the gratitude framework”), it is our obligation to transform the gift and exhibit our creativity (Parens, 2005: 37–38). This view strongly resonates with vistas of contemporary proponents of human enhancement technologies.
Where essentialist views preserve cultural dichotomies of “the natural” versus “the unnatural,” constructionist approaches repudiate the very notion of “the natural” and consequently debunk the distinction between “the natural” and “the unnatural.” This, for example, is done through the premise that the “natural body” is a discursive illusion because bodies are constituted by culture. Working from a feminist and social constructionist perspective, Susan Bordo traces female corporeal vulnerability not to anatomical differences between males and females, but to cultural forces that have defined woman as the object of masculine desire (Bordo, 1993). From Bordo’s perspective, women and men have no “biological essence” situated in the body, but the body is socially constructed in terms of male or female.
From this perspective, it becomes clear that what is authentic and what is not, and what is natural and what is not, is dependent on particular (sub)cultures. What is considered (in)authentic is shaped by available discourses and the cultural habitat of images and narratives that shape the tastes, desires, and ideas of the people living in that particular culture. As culture changes—and with it, tastes, beliefs, values, and practices—so too do definitions of what constitutes the authentic. Instead of seeking an unchanging or promissory essence of what authenticity is, constructionist approaches are multidimensional, performative, and often at peace with the seeming contradictions of everyday life (Vannini & Williams, 2009: 12).
Inauthenticity as Ideal Approaches
Few studies distinguish another non-Romantic type of authentication, which amounts to cultural celebrations of inauthenticity. This is foremost illustrated in examinations of cosmetic surgery and celebrity culture that replaced ideals of originality and authenticity by parody and pastiche (Elliott, 2011;Van de Port, 2010; Smelik, 2012). We coin this the “inauthenticity as an ideal approach.”
In his examination of Brazilian “camp” subcultures, anthropologist Matthijs van de Port interviews a drag queen who accentuates and celebrates the artificiality of her cosmetically enhanced look, instead of concealing it. Where Romantic authentication processes try to conceal artificiality behind auras of naturalness, cultural celebrations of inauthenticity aim to reveal that everything that presents itself as natural, is in fact artificially created (Van de Port, 2010: 78). Although consumers as well as cosmetic surgeons have long described the goal of aesthetic surgery as the production of an “improved” but still “natural-looking” body, several empirical studies have demonstrated that “the artificial” has become increasingly prevalent within consumers’ narratives of surgical enhancement. For example, in woman’s desire for artificial breasts that look “too good to be real” (Gimlin, 2013) or in youngsters who try to look like their digitally filtered Instagram selfies through cosmetic surgery (Rajanala et al., 2018). In deliberately accentuating the artificially enhanced body, aesthetic “fakery” is celebrated instead of concealed or problematized.
Where the Romantic-essentialist framework tries to find authenticity in a “natural body” that is left alone, these studies demonstrate that authenticity is also sought in a moral framework that accentuates the fake. As a result, cultural celebrations of inauthenticity can be understood as a hyperbolic manifestation of constructionist authenticity where inauthenticity—as the counter ideal of authenticity—has become an aesthetic and moral ideal in itself.
This ideal of inauthenticity is not only reflected in bodily self-transformation, but also in sociological studies that have discussed the social virtue of inauthenticity in human relationships. Sociologist Dennis Waskul, for example, performed a breaching social experiment where he tried to stay true to himself and others for 1 day. Waskul finds himself incapacitated by the continuous struggles to define what is authentic and morally honest versus what is inauthentic and socially right. After angering students, colleagues, and family members with his authentic and sincere ways, Waskul concludes that inauthenticity is often more desirable: Inauthenticity, insincerity, or the necessity to abandon moral struggles and say “to hell with it!” are common features of everyday life, and even of a good life (Waskul, 2009). His experiment captures the complexity of dramaturgic approaches to the ideal of authenticity and is inspired by sociologist Erving Goffman (1978) who argued that we wear masks and perform roles because our expressive action is directed at the maintenance of relationships through the saving of face. From a dramaturgic perspective, and contrary to the Romantic-essentialist perspective, the value of authenticity does not reside in choosing a role with which we feel as little distance as possible. Rather, the value of (in)authenticity lies in being a “more or less person” rather than one’s own “true self” all the time. A “more or less person” exists through experimenting with multiple roles, and concealment and information control as an actor who understands that social life demands secrecy and thus a certain measure of insincerity and inauthenticity. In pointing out how acting honestly is conceptually different from acting sincerely, Waskul highlights how there is virtue in inauthenticity and thus how impression management is not the epitome of inauthenticity but the very root of what it means to be a functional, socialized, integrated, and lovable member of society (Vannini & Williams, 2009: 5).
As Van de Port demonstrated in his study of Camp and Baroque subcultures, contemporary societies also contain cultural registers that accentuate the constructionist nature of things. At first glance, these registers appear not to be about the cultural production of authenticity. However, when he looks at what the revealing aesthetic does in the subject’s experiences, this also turns out to be preoccupied with the production of authenticity. After all, accentuating “the fake” appears to generate an unstoppable desire for what is real. In this revealing aesthetic, it is the desire itself that constitutes the sensation of the real (Van de Port, 2010: 85). In other words, authenticity is found in a cultural aesthetic and moral logic that underlines the truthfulness of the fake. So, in order to be authentic, you must not only construct yourself, but you must also value and embrace this ongoing construction process as your real self.