Postmodernism and the Commodification of Authenticity

Inspired by poststructuralism’s dropping of the referent—the conviction that language allows for no access to reality—authors, along with editors and publishers, have instigated a trend away from fiction with authoritative third-person narrators. Authority in general is now something of a bugaboo, a tired and transparent disguise for advocates of exclusionary and oppressive ideologies or discourses. The good intention behind this movement is to give voice to hitherto powerless minorities. But what it means to be powerless and what it means to be a minority are complicated matters. A different breed of truth of has taken over. A capturing of, or a representing of, the true experience of this or that minority has become the ascendant pursuit. Authenticity has supplanted authority as the guiding principle of fiction.

One way to achieve authenticity is to be a minority and to tell stories, preferably through first-person narration, that are culled from your actual experiences—or at least figurative representations of those experiences. White guys have a harder time for obvious reasons. To represent their experiences with authenticity usually means portraying their characters as demented. But the biggest problem for attempts at authenticity through first-person narratives is that no human consciously attends to the quantities of detail that make up the most effective, the most vivid scenes in literature. Instead of the voices of real people in real, underrepresented circumstances, readers encounter bizarre, hyper-articulate dialect savants, hybrids of the socially impoverished and the mentally rich, as if liberal documentary filmmakers had been shrunk and surgically implanted into the brains of poor immigrants.

To say that such narrators are like no one you’ll ever meet only addresses the most superficial of the dilemmas inherent in the quest for authenticity. For narrators to tell their stories in obsessive detail they must have some reason to do so; they must be anticipating some effect on their readers. They must have an agenda, which seems to be nothing other than to advertise their own and indirectly the author’s authenticity. Take J. Lo singing “I’m real” as a refrain to one of her songs and a reprisal of the main theme of them all. It begs the question, if you’re so real, why must you so compulsively insist on it? The answer—and J. Lo knows it—is that being real has become a commodity.

Ironically, this emphasis on the experiences of individuals is well in keeping with the so-called western tradition. One of the appeals of postmodernism is that in privileging subjectivity and entirely ruling out objectivity it implies an unbridgeable chasm between one individual and another. In a world of nearly seven billion, this affirmation of uniqueness comes as a welcome assurance. No overlap between individuals means no redundancy, no superfluity. It may also suggest that we can never really know each other, but that’s okay as long as we accept each other as real. But real as opposed to what?

Being real means not being manufactured, artificial, mass produced. It means not being a poseur. Authenticity is our clarion call of resistance to industrialization, commercialism, globalization—even tourism. No wonder so many marketing firms have embraced it. This paradox has placed both writers and readers in an awkward position vis á vis the purpose fiction has traditionally served. We can’t truly understand other people. And our rebel cry against consumerism has long since been packaged and sold back to us. So while reading we’re not learning about others, certainly not learning about ourselves, and at the same time we’re fueling the machine we set out to sabotage.

As poststructuralism’s original case for dropping the referent was pathetic, bringing reality, even the reality of a common humanity, back into the purview of literature suggests itself as a possible escape from this self-defeating solipsism.