Authentic Revolt

In search of authenticity.

Photo by Roger Viollett

Tom McCarthy's debut novel, Remainder, is a brilliant exposition of our collective loss of authenticity. The story is told from the perspective an unnamed character who suffers a bizarre accident and receives several million dollars in compensation. With this financial windfall the protagonist funds a series of "reenactments." He hires teams of actors who recreate his memories and experiences on a constant loop while he sometimes watches and other times participates. The goal, as he explains it, is to experience a feeling of authenticity -- to go through the motions of life as if they were intuitive, perfect and natural. The result is a novel that reveals the pervading sense of inauthenticity that haunts the twenty-first century.

If the catch-phrase of the late twentieth century was Holden Caulfield's "phony," then our century may be best described as "inauthentic." Whereas phony designates a way of being that is superficial, inauthentic refers to a type of existence which is unreal. Of course, McCarthy was not the first to offer this description -- as early as 1927, Martin Heidegger used authentic/inauthentic as definitions of what it means to be human. For Heidegger, however, and in contrast with McCarthy, the experience of inauthenticity comes when one's self is lost in the bustle of life. In Being and Time Heidegger explains that inauthenticity occurs when we "have lost ourselves in the everydayness of existing among things and people". This position, which appeared misanthropic to some, led to a rejection of Heidegger's diagnosis.

What McCarthy offers, however, is a different interpretation of inauthenticity. In his novel, the main character's reenactments progress from acting out memories to experiences to future events. In the beginning of the novel, the protagonist spends hours practicing how to move around a kitchen counter and open a refrigerator perfectly, as if he were in a movie. And one of the final reenactments is a bank heist, where after going through the motions of a robbery repeatedly in an artificial environment, the reenactment becomes suddenly real and authentic. For McCarthy, the twenty-first century experience of inauthenticity is no longer losing ourselves in the bustle of everydayness, but is instead a basic aspect of life where our media worlds offer a level of reality that we no longer experience for ourselves.

What is most striking about McCarthy's novel, and the reason why I'd suggest culture jammers read it, is because of the political implication of our inauthentic existence. Oftentimes it feels as if our protests are merely reenactments. We go through the motions, chanting, locking arms all the while feeling unreal. And we confound the situation by confusing the symptoms of revolution (broken windows, people getting arrested, marches in the street) with the causes of revolution. But just because we are reenacting the protests of May 1968 does not mean that we are authentically experiencing a revolutionary moment.

McCarthy's work offers a way to think though this problem. And although he offers no concrete solutions, his novel puts forth the profound conclusion that the greatest challenge for culture jammers today may be how to regain a feeling of insurrectionary authenticity.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. or