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"The Sources of Authenticity"
Transcript of "The Sources of Authenticity"
This week's reading is a fairly challenging one, but also an important one because it demonstrates a classic truism:
the more things change,
the more they stay the same.
"The Sources of Authenticity" is taken from a 1991 book by Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher who's been awarded multiple recognitions around the world.
According to the dictionary, "authenticity" means the quality of being authentic; genuine; accurate; of undisputed origin or authorship.
However, Taylor is talking about "the ethic of authenticity," which is a widespread cultural belief in the individual's power to govern him or herself.
This may seem fairly obvious today. Of course we're in charge of our own actions and decisions! Even children are encouraged to make mistakes and learn from the consequences -- to follow their own path and learn from it.
But this belief in the power of the individual is actually pretty new, in the grand scheme of history.
In order to get a sense of the ethic of authenticity, you need to get a sense of what was going on in the second half of the 19th century.
Prior to this time, everywhere you went there were people telling you that you weren't in charge of anything. In order to have power, you had to be seen as expressing and enforcing on the will of God.
God was portrayed as the only real authentic individual, and people in authority were granted that authority because they had a claim to being chosen by God -- mainly, those with royal power (kings, queens, etc.) and those with religious power (popes, priests, etc.).
So, at this point, people were seen as rather empty inside, and the presence of God (God's will, God's message, God's love, etc.) had to fill them up so that they could be a proper member of the community -- a true human being.
People were told that they didn't know the difference between right and wrong -- they had to be taught by God's messengers (the monarchy and whatever religion was in power at the time).
But things were starting to change in radical ways, through three separate revolutions.
The first of these was the Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain around 1760, with the invention of increasingly sophisticated machines built to increase textile production.
First came the fly shuttle, then carding machines, then the spinning jenny.
Next, the power of a water mill was used to mechanize the weaving process.
When steam-powered engines were invented, plants and factories were built and production increased. Fortunes were made, and communities were changed, and for the first time, neither the king nor the pope had anything to do with it.
Inventors and entrepreneurs kept improving on each other's designs to create more and more efficient machines.
The use of coal instead of wood to burn in new blast furnaces led to smelting techniques that increased steel production, which led to the manufacture of machine tools, hardware...all the things needed to support an expanding industrial world.
Up until this time, the majority of society was agrarian -- i.e. it worked in agriculture. Families stayed on the same land, in the same villages, for generations. Now, people had a sense that they could move independently -- they could move to growing cities where factories were springing up, and get jobs that didn't rely on family farming. Again, it wasn't God telling them to find a new life -- they relied on their own inner sense of what they wanted to do.
In the "New World" across the Atlantic, another revolution was starting: the American Revolution.
From 1775 to 1783, Americans fought for independence from the British, who had colonial power over them.
I think you probably know how that whole thing turned out!
The British lost the 13 American colonies it had controlled, but it got to keep Canada as part of the peace treaty that wrapped things up in a 1783.
The French, growing increasingly angry at how much power and wealth the monarchy and aristocracy kept for themselves, were hugely inspired by the American Revolution, and in 1789 they started their own.
Many aristocrats lost their heads in the guillotines of Paris, including the king, Louis the 16th.
The point that I'm trying to make is that there was a very powerful new sense in the world that people had their own inner depths and rights.
In "The Sources of Authenticity," Charles Taylor writes about a philosopher whose ideas helped guide the French Revolution: Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau articulated the notion of a "self-determining freedom," in which individuals are free because they decide for themselves what concerns them, "rather than being shaped by external influences."
Later, ideas about self-determining freedom grew to include the notion that "each of us has an original way of being human."
In other words, it's not enough anymore to decide things for yourself; now everyone's original!
As Taylor writes, we have arrived at the cultural moment when we believe that "each of our voices has something of its own to say," and that is the philosophy of authenticity.
If we're going to be genuine, real, and authentic, we must be original and "do our own thing" and realize our potential.
And this is how Facebook and Twitter
can be seen as 18th century inventions!
Social media is the perfect illustration of the belief that "each of our voices has something of its own to say."
It also explains what Taylor means when he writes that the culture of authenticity can appear in degraded, absurd, and trivial forms.
I want to show you another way we can use the philosophy of authenticity to think about our world today.
This idea of originality being valuable is a powerful thing.
In November 2013, Francis Bacon's "Three Portraits of Lucien Freud" sold for $142,405,000.
It's a triptych, which means it's made up of three paintings that appear together, side by side.
In that same month, Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog (Orange)" sold for $58.4 million.
These two works of art are very different. Bacon's portraits are all about originality -- he almost seems to be showing off a bit by demonstrating how he's capable of seeing Lucien Freud in a completely new way that's never been achieved by anyone else.
But Koons' balloon dog goes in the opposite direction entirely. He's taken a completely ordinary, everyday object and made a giant version of it.
Why has he done this?
And why do we celebrate it as art?
In fact, it's kind of relying on the value of originality twice over, since it suggests that not only the painter is completely unique in his artistic style, but also that the subject is a complex individual (which is why he looks so weird).
Koons isn't the first great American artist to poke holes in the idea that "the original" is the only thing worth anything. Pop art was all about celebrating the popular -- the things that are available to all of us.
Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were part of a movement that questioned the value of authenticity. If people love soup, then soup is beautiful, even if it's produced by the millions in the exact same can with the exact same recipe. If people love comics, then they're just as important as rare masterpieces hanging in museums.
Of course, original works by Warhol and Lichtenstein sell for millions of dollars too, so they've been swept up in the culture of authenticity just as much as any other respected art work.
There's a huge economy built on the value of the original. Vintage toys in their original packaging...memorabilia signed by sports stars and movie stars...the first editions of important books...
All over the world there are trade shows and auctions and museums that exist purely because we believe that the original is better, and they circulated billions of dollars through our world economy.
So, in a way, the culture of authenticity contradicts the culture of authenticity.
After all, though we may behave as though we're all originals and we all have something unique and valuable to say (or tweet), when it comes down to it, we're still really attached to the idea that an original is a rare, expensive thing that can only be produced by unique, gifted individuals.
So, if you can't afford a trip to Paris to see the real "Mona Lisa" painting, you're out of luck, because the poster version just isn't as good.
Is there some kind of magic aura in the paint?
Or is this an idea that serves to keep art and originality in the world of the elite?
One final thought: is it better for us all to believe that we're originals and have something different to say, or is it better for us to concentrate on the things that make us the same? The things we have in common?
Does the privileging of originality and uniqueness reinforce difference?
Is it better to see each other as different, or the same?