Authenticity, Remix Culture & Rousseau

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


October 14, 2012

Authenticity, Remix Culture & Rousseau

As a younger man, I was fiercely critical of the inauthentic. We all were; by “we,” I mean certain of us who expressed our pessimism and general moodiness about the society we were forced to face everyday in these terms. Not that I knew anyone like that, but somehow I believed that there were others out there, and I was like them.

For me, the problem was not so much with the falseness of inauthenticity, but the way it is accepted as a substitute. At the time, it seemed clear that the two concepts were linked, that a fake is accepted as the real thing because it has the capacity to deceive. The fake masquerades as the real, and we are all taken in by it, so it follows that exposing the lie is what will liberate us.

But it didn’t really work out that way. Generally people roll their eyes and say something cynical at the moment of the great unveiling, when the Lie Is Exposed. And then keep doing whatever they were planning on doing anyway. If you critique Disneyland by pointing out how Cinderella Castle is a fake, theatrical copy of the authentic Neuschwanstein Castle, you will soon find out that the original was designed by a German theatre set painter. OK, but wasn’t he at least copying something authentic? No! Even those originals have theatrical elements, as they were partly intended to awe and inspire visitors just as Disneyland is today. Therefore authenticity is a hoax, there never was an original.

As this example shows, the critique of authenticity has unexpected connections with the critique of originality advanced by partisans of remix culture. Disneyland’s castle turns out to be a remix of Neuschwanstein Castle, which is itself constructed out of sampled ideas from earlier designs. The problem of plagiarism is very much like the problem I mentioned, of the copy incorrectly substituting for the original.

There are other examples of how the notion of authenticity is deployed that strengthen this relationship: authentic ethnic food opposed to the weaker imitations that appeal to Western tastes; authentic blues music opposed to it’s co-optation by white performers; the authentic self as opposed to artificial façade. The common feature here is a distinction that’s drawn between a good original, and a bad imitation that resembles it.

But other critiques of authenticity address themselves to a totally different model – Andrew Potter’s Authenticity Hoax is the best example. In this model of authenticity, the opposition is between the artificial and the natural, two concepts understood not to resemble each other at all. Rousseau’s distinction between nature and society has nothing to do with thinking of society as a poor copy of authentic, original nature. If we take this as our model of authenticity, then inauthenticity is much closer to alienation than plagiarism.

There are cases where these two ideas are collapsed and used together, especially in regards to food, as in the difference between apple juice that’s made out of only apples and nothing else, and imitation apple juice that contains high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings. Here, the artificial juice is inauthentic in both senses.

The challenge of talking about authenticity as a cultural phenomenon is to figure out whether you are dealing with one or the other meaning, or both. It’s true that Rousseau was very influential in mapping the two concepts together, by coupling nature with genuine amour-de-soi, and society with the imitation amour propre, but it’s not enough to assume, as many do, that the ideal of authenticity is Rousseauian, always and forever.

Separating these two meanings makes it easier to analyze the concept in Lacanian terms.

First, Lacan views alienation as constitutive of subjectivity. It is impossible to overcome this and achieve wholeness, because we are fundamentally alienated from ourselves. This process is associated with the famous mirror stage that marks the subjects entry into the Imaginary order, and occurs because of the division between the fragmentation of the individual’s body and the illusory wholeness of its reflection, generating a feeling of jealous rivalry between myself and my more perfect mirror image. Alienation is constitutive of the imaginary order, says Lacan.

The rivalry that exemplifies the Imaginary is perfectly captured in Rousseau’s description of amour propre — pride, envy, social comparison, insincerity, status-seeking, etc. — which means Rousseau should be regarded as a Lacanian critic of the Imaginary order, a reading which can be supported with Sally Howard Campbell’s book Rousseau and the Paradox of Alienation. Here is the central thesis, which is not intended as a critique: “Rousseau’s solution is the same as the problem he seeks to solve — alienation.” Or as Žižek puts it: “We need more alienation from our life-world, from our spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial.”

Lacan uses the term separation to refer to this second alienation, the transition of the subject into the Symbolic order, or what Rousseau calls the Social Contract and posits as the unification of individual and collective interests. Rousseau is frequently and mistakenly read as a naive Romantic anti-modern philosopher who wants us to return to an imagined state of Edenic bliss prior to the advent of civilization — the 60s counterculture is particularly prone to this mistake, as are its critics.

In Lacanian theory, alienation marks the transition out of psychosis and into perversion, so some have argued that the countercultural rejection of alienation should create a psychotic society, but this strikes me as alarmist. I think that the countercultural critique was a perverse discourse, a disavowal of castration — the second alienation — which means that ironically, Rousseau was appropriated in a way that made him into an advocate for what he criticized, and producing or perhaps accelerating the production of today’s society of generalized perversion.

In my essay Data Transgression, I argued that internet culture overwhelmingly conforms to the contemporary hegemonic discourse, and rather than producing new forms of subjectivity that are capable of instigating social change, is even more effective as sustaining perversion. So I greatly appreciated Campbell sketching out a Rousseauian critique of social media buried in a footnote, which is worth quoting in full:

One has to suspect that Rousseau would be particularly horrified by the impact of current technology and social media on our sense of ourselves and our relationships with others. Is a Facebook status or a Twitter message really an expression of our inner self, or are we caught up in a now-constant need to create clever reflections of ourselves for widespread consumption by people that we barely know? The “false veil of civility” that so concerned Rousseau in his own day has now been extended to include being “friended” by people that we have met once and may never see again. Surely Rousseau would argue that the hyperreflective, hyperconnected society we now inhabit is only driving us further from ourselves and from others. That from which we seem to draw the sentiment of our modern existence (how many “likes” our last Facebook post garnered or how many followers we have on Twitter) is becoming decreasingly meaningful.

To return to a prior point, it is not difficult to imagine the response to such a critique from partisans of internet culture: there is no falseness in social media because there is no primordial authentic self. We’re not fakers, we’re remixing our personality!

Recall the Lacanian idea of the deferral of meaning along the signifying chain, one signifier endlessly referring to another and resisting our attempts to define it. A metonymic relationship like this can be found in the example of Disney’s Cinderella Castle “remixing” Neuschwanstein Castle “remixing” its predecessors, a vision of cultural production which denies the existence of an original or authentic work that’s being copied. The Original is what Lacan calls the master signifier, the point de capiton which stops the endless sliding and fixes meaning. Since this is a form of castration which is disavowed, remix culture is a paradigmatic example of perversion.

Although superficially anti-authoritarian — against the authority of the author — remix culture is deeply conformist, as is evident in Simon Reynolds’ recent critical essay You Are Not a Switch.

You don’t have to be an antiquated Romantic or old-fashioned early 20th-century-style Modernist to find this input/output version of creativity unappealing. Surely the artist or writer is more than just a switch for the relay of information flows, the cross-referencing of sources and coordinates?… [Remix culture] tends to reduce us to the textual: a receiver/transmitter of data, a node in the network.

Reynolds claims that the desire to stand out and be original is inegalitarian, but in reality, it is the proponents of remix culture who relish their submission and conformity to the demand of the Other. The pervert takes pleasure in being the instrument of the Other’s enjoyment, which is why remix culture endlessly varies the metaphor of humans as technological apparatus: we are switches, nodes, receivers, modulators, transmitters, relays, filters or search engines. This is only egalitarian in the truly twisted sense that in such a scheme, we are all equally dominated.