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Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and author of Singular Creatures: Robots, Rights, and the Politics of Posthumanism.

When, this time last year, the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster declared “gaslighting” the word of the year, the decision held out a glimmer of hope in a dark political moment. After all, recognizing that you are being manipulated psychologically, even unto the rocky shores of madness, is the first step in fighting back. The word itself is a defensive weapon. You’re not crazy! That man with the 91 indictments? He really was president of the United States!

This year’s choice, tracked by online hits and other use metrics, is “authentic.” That result might be read in a similar positive way, but to me it smacks more of anxiety, that familiar conceptual partner to quests for the authentic.

Just over a 100 years ago, in December, 1922, T.S. Eliot gave the world The Waste Land, a dark Christmas present about cruel Aprils and crowds of walking dead flowing over Waterloo Bridge.

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” the poem’s dominant voice reports shakily. His nightmare vision offers one of the most enduring images of embattled selfhood in literary modernism. Succeeding generations could not avoid the spectre of a fragmented self, struggling to find identity in hostile surroundings.

The great flowering of authenticity as a master key to such resistance and recovery is the existential philosophy of mid-century. Now out of fashion, Heidegger’s picture of Dasein grappling with the chatter of “average everydayness,” or Sartre’s lengthy engagements with “bad faith” and what nowadays we’d call performativity are equal parts rallying cry and confession. Looking for authenticity, we might recall Eliot again: “I did not think death had undone so many” in this “heap of broken images.”

This history gives added poignancy to our own anxious craving for authenticity, decades on. From food and fashion to innovation and ideology, we seem to want the authentic even as the conditions of its realization become more tenuous and perverse. Fake news and alternative facts dominate our routine distrust of the media, deep fakes and “counterfeit persons” haunt our technological imagination, and even escapism is no longer real in its fakery. One of the biggest cinematic successes of the year was two hours of product placement masquerading as feminist irony.

On a very optimistic reading, such confusion about authentic identity is actually all to the good. That is, in shaking off the shackles of imposed identity, we are finally in pursuit of our true selves, our authentic being-in-the-world. And given that, everybody should really just get out of our way. Some are excluded, others celebrated, and so the goodies get distributed. Authenticity is drained of meaning if it has no boundaries, and boundaries are ever sites of power.

Meanwhile, the very idea of authentic background, experience or identity – so necessary in underwriting membership in certain political movements – keeps coming apart in our hands. Who is Indigenous, and why? Who is Black? Who is female? It’s as though all self-presentation is no better than cosplay, or a version of what professional wrestlers calls kayfabe, the shared narrative fantasy of character. Authenticity morphs into just another avatar in the RPG (role-playing game) of life.

This has always been a problem when authenticity is applied to people and not, say, Picasso drawings, Champagne, Stilton or Rolex watches. “Authentic” seems like a powerful character descriptor, a kind of Holy Grail of genuineness; and yet, it cannot escape the whiff of a Ponzi scheme or bitcoin bandwagon. What we want to be a rock-solid guarantor of value turns out to be, most of the time, another form of status performance, a self-serving display of specialness.

That was obvious to Theodor Adorno, the cranky German critic who derided “the jargon of authenticity” in a 1964 essay. Adorno compared authenticity talk to cult lingo or the invocation of a sacred creed. As ritual rather than reason, it sets itself off from external challenge, much as certain identity discourses do today. Adorno didn’t offer a logical analysis, but one could. The idea of authenticity is either self-evident (something just is what it is) or self-defeating (as a command, “be authentic” fails the same way “be yourself” does).

The central tangle remains knotted. How can you be true to yourself when you don’t even know who you are? Forget looming AI and manufactured images. That’s so 20th century. Consider instead that there is a cluster of algorithms busy right now, aggregating your shopping preferences, social-media likes, web hits and facial-recognition screen grabs. Is that you? Sure looks like you.

In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay The Uncanny, the source text of all subsequent anxiety about doppelgangers, revenants and animated dolls, he notes a deeply unsettling incident. Travelling on a train, he sees “a disagreeable old man” invading his railway carriage, glimpsed through a window. After some confusion, Freud realizes that the window is a mirror and the old man is – himself. Who else?

You don’t need a funhouse mirror, still less the Internet’s infinitely distorting black mirrors, to feel the metaphysical vertigo of our desperately-seeking-authenticity moment. The basic uncanny valley of familiar strangeness lies right there in front of you, in your bathroom or hallway, when you gaze into a simple looking-glass. Who the hell is that?

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