Friday, May 24, 2013

Inauthentic Authenticity: The Problem of Inheriting the Concept


We stumble upon a situation of remarkable irony when we realize that there is perhaps no concept in the Heideggerian corpus more improperly inherited than that of eigentlichkeit, or, as it has been most commonly inherited in English thought, authenticity. Ironic --and, when understood as an indication of an historical condition unique to the present age, ominous. This irony is prima facie not entirely lost on Stuart Shneiderman, who remarks on its historical significance, observing: 
In the age of authenticity more people aspire to authenticity than know what it is. But, we have it on the authority of no less a philosopher than Martin Heidegger, the godfather of authenticity, that small talk or idle chatter (gerede) is bad.
Heidegger extended the category of idle chatter to any use of language that is formulaic, that repeats commonly accepted wisdom and that expresses what everyone thinks, rather than what I think. Authentic speech, in Heidegger’s philosophy, wells up from the depths of your soul. It is original and personal and unique to you. It might involve your latest research into Western metaphysics; it might express your sentiments about the state of German politics in 1933.
There may be good reasons for calling ours "the age of authenticity," or, better, the age where an historical decision gets forced upon human beings regarding whether and how they can any longer be authentic, but as Shneiderman goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that his own rough account of the question of authenticity is itself an instance of a rather common, public acceptance of the term --an instance, that is, which is at variance with Heidegger's own nuanced use of it. Shneiderman has merely taken over this common notion of authenticity without first putting the very term itself up for question. His use of "authenticity" is as unexamined as it is inauthentic. To see why one need merely to return to Heidegger's own use of the term, since, by Shneiderman's own admission, Heidegger is none other than the "godfather of authenticity" (a rather hilarious title). And what is it that marks Heidegger's understanding of "authenticity" as a unique understanding? What is it that makes the meaning  Heidegger imparts to the words so distinctively...Heideggerian? Is it so obviously true that, for Martin Heidegger, "small talk or idle chatter (gerede) is bad." Not at all. Though this misunderstanding is persistent and widespread, the Heidegger of Sein und Zeit is emphatically clear on this, in a move that makes his understanding of authenticity uniquely his own: authenticity is a mere "existentiell modfication" of inauthenticity; the latter is presupposed by the former. That is to say, not only does "gerede" as a devolution or falling away from the more original "rede," but also "eigentlich rede," such as the eventual discourses of philosophy, poetry, the State, etc. has its origins in "Alltäglichkeit" ---and that means in a domain where the everyday "connection-making small talk" called gerede has its home. Thus when you write that Heidegger claims authentic speech "wells up from the depths of your soul" you misconstrue his unique insight. In fact, Heidegger goes so far as to say that there is no "your" in "your soul" unless it is first wrested from "Their" or "One's" soul or understanding (Das Man). To miss this is to miss the entire raison d'etre for the second division of SZ's prospectus, namely, the "Destruktion" of the history of ontology, in which the so-called "primordial understanding of Being" is to be retrieved precisely from those now formulaic traditional ontological assertions. The inauthentic harbors the authentic and is its condition of possibility. Recognizing the necessity and even worth of inauthenticity is not as un-philosophic a gesture as Shneiderman's amusing piece would have its readers believe, Indeed, it is, for Heidegger, the only way something that was once called philosophy can be done in the present age; the thought of Being is essentially historical, if by historical we mean inherited and not, therefore, initially owned up to. It presupposes a condition of historical irresponsibility. Shneiderman ends his piece offering the following advice:"The next time a Pied Piper comes along to suggest that you give up schmoozing in the name of authenticity, think twice before going along." But "thinking twice" is precisely what distinguishes the authentic from the inauthentic. By the same token, one wouldn't have the opportunity to "think twice" without encountering the received (inauthentic) wisdom (e.g. "inauthenticity is bad") of some pied piper. The matter is thus a complicated one and it indicates a unique historical danger in the present age. And it was Heidegger who first of all, in a dangerous move which threatened to eclipse itself simply by being communicated, so powerfully drew attention to this.