What’s Authentic?

Cole Campbell’s death prompted me to start this blog. I’ve been wanting to start my own for some time. I have other blogs and websites of sorts — one for my neighborhood, a couple of academic home pages, a couple of start-up ventures — but nothing until now that I would use to write about what I think in my own voice. I didn’t quite know how to start, what voice to start in. I’m not a pundit, not a critic, not a gossip monger. I’m an academic, as well as an associate of a foundation. But I am about to give up tenure and I don’t have any guarantees for the future. I have all kinds of reasons not to speak candidly. All this is all the more reason to figure out how to do so.

It’s hard these days to even imagine what it is to be candid. Who is candid? Who isn’t selling something — whether a platform, a product, an ideology, or an image? Except for the occasional artist who doesn’t care about the art world — and how many are those? — who doesn’t care what readers think? Who doesn’t censor oneself?

Who wants to admit that authenticity is a problem or something to strive for? On the conventional side, everyone pretends to be authentic. I get the democratic party e-mail missives nearly daily. I read what they say, but I don’t know what these people really think. I read the blogs of friends who advocate for all kinds of good causes, but it’s the causes speaking not the authors.

The last great skeptical champion of authenticity was Heidegger. He knew it was a problem. But he also had hope that it was possible. I’d like to be like Heidegger — at least on this point. I’d like to be wary of authenticity but strive for it at the same time.

Since Heidegger, intelligentsia on the postmodern left look askance at authenticity — “as if there were any true self, ha!” So maybe there is no “true self.” Maybe we fashion ourselves every day. Authenticity is an existential project. We make ourselves up; we live lives that make our lives such as they are. We speak things that render us meaningful. The chicken comes after the egg.

So, here I am, dear reader. I do care about my reputation as a public intellectual, an advocate for deliberative democracy, a continental and feminist philosopher. And I still want to speak in my own voice. Can this marriage be saved???

First attempt: how not to succumb to the kool-aid. I am an optimist. I tend to always look on the bright side (sure Bush is destroying the world but democracy might still be possible!) and downplay the dark side. This is a congenital attitude, but it can easily be used to avoid difficult problems. Problem: a lot of people seem to be complacent and willing to suffer through Bush’s nonsense. I just heard an NPR story reported from an army base (if I recall correctly) where the troops stationed at the local tavern barely paid attention as Bush proclaimed that he was sending in an extra 20,000 troops. Not that they didn’t care or mind. Yes, they did. But they didn’t seem to sense any possibility of affecting things one way or another. Yeah, on we go, defending democrcacy…. without being in the least bit democratic.

Given the overwhelming pessimistic picture, why am I still optimistic? I think of my neighbors. Note, I live in an incredibly progressive and avant-garde neighborhood in, of all places, northern Virginia. These people who have hoped so much are, at least many of them, beginning to give up hope. Many friends of mine in their sixties are more despondent than ever. It’s as if the damage Bush has wrought is irrevocable. Now, that can’t be. We’ve seen lots of damage. We can overcome it.

My husband, who like me is in his forties, has little optimism. He tracks the ways and means of terrorist funding, U.S. machinations, all the bad stuff our government does. His antenna is always tuned to the dark side, as I guess it should be.

So why am I optimistic? I can’t help it. This may make it possible to speak here with some honesty and authenticity, to be an advocate for democracy who is not completely full of you know what; though I hope my readers will keep me honest. When I speak with hope, it’s real, if it’s possible to say so for attitudes one manufactures for oneself. This is the only way I know how to live this life.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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