Notes against authenticity

I saw Black Mountain in a bar last night. This isn’t actually a show review, I mean, the review is that they’re great (also, one of the openers, Bob Log III, is an actual factual one-man-band that must be seen to be believed). But I was thinking about some stuff and so I’m just going to skip straight to the pretentious theory part.

The venue was smaller than their popularity level, which translates into it being full of obnoxious drunks. This isn’t a complaint, it was a good show and it’s nice when people are enthusiastic, but there were a few instances of beyond-the-pale-ness that stuck out to me. Like, a normal thing that often happens is that someone will play a solo and then there will be a quiet part, and so people will start cheering at that point. But a few people at the show were seriously just yelling and clapping right in the middle of the songs, on a regular basis, and this is ridiculous. At one point some guy just started doing extremely loud off-rhythm handclaps for no reason. Again, I’m not, like, mad that people were behaving wrong at a rock show or whatever, it’s just that this kind of stuff is so bad that it can’t be justified – or, more to the point, there must exist a real argument against it.

Actually, this would be the appropriate time to relate my strongest anecdote in this regard, although it pains me significantly to recollect it. I saw Best Coast a while back, after they blew up, and the crowd was basically all morons. People were constantly stage-diving throughout the entire show, and at one point some lady gets up there and stands right in front of Bethany Cosentino’s mic, so she actually couldn’t reach it and missed a line because this rando was standing in her way. It’s like, oh my god, I’m so excited to be at this show, I love this band so much I’m going to physically prevent them from playing their songs.

Normally, the way we like to criticize people is to accuse them of being liars or hypocrites or something along these lines. We consider sincerity to be a positive trait; even when we strongly disagree with people, we will say things like “I respect their convictions, but” or “at least she’s honest” or “at least someone’s having fun.” In politics (I promise that this is as far as I’m going to go into this in this post), we almost always argue against policies by saying they have the “facts wrong” or they will be “ineffective” or whatever instead of arguing against the actual values they are attempting to advance. We have phrases like “you do you” that convey the underlying philosophical assumption that authenticity is an absolute good, even when it results in disagreeable externalities. Psychology (pop or otherwise) is generally oriented around the idea of recovering a person’s “true self,” assuming that this will necessarily be a good thing. In short, we never actually disagree with people’s motives. And this is a serious problem, because, as it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The behaviors at issue here are precisely examples of people expressing themselves honestly and without restraint. As a smaller example, there are often people who push their way as far to the front as they can get, but then back off for whatever reason after a few songs (this happened multiple times last night, so I wound up in the second row by doing nothing other than staying there and trying to fill in empty space). This does not make sense. Why would you bother pushing up to the front if you don’t actually want to watch the show from there? It is precisely because this behavior does not make sense in functional terms that it must be understood as authentic. There’s no other reason for it. Similarly, bad handclaps and obnoxious yelling can’t have any objective motivation precisely because they suck. These people aren’t being pressured into these behaviors; they are doing what they feel like. These things can only be understood as unmediated1 expressions of pure subjectivity.

So it’s long past time to admit that pure subjectivity sucks. Being a person is about learning and reconsidering and making informed choices, which is to say it is about rejecting authenticity. Now, the typical counterargument here is to call the person making this argument a Nazi, and this is not entirely unjustified. Certainly one does not wish to respond to this situation by insisting on one standard of behavior and forcing everyone to follow it. Sometimes spontaneous handclaps are actually fun; sometimes people yell out things that are supportive or engaging or funny.

We want people to be able to express themselves creatively, and even to make mistakes; more than that, we want dynamism. We don’t want to assume we have it all figured out, we don’t want everything to always be the same, and we want unexpected things to happen. But are these the only options? Is it either totalitarianism or barbarism? Well, it had better fucking not be. If one insists on this dichotomy, then the only available options are pure chaos, meaning meaninglessness, or pure order, also meaning meaninglessness. There must be a middle road – not one constructed out of mere compromise, but one that synthesizes the valuable aspects of both viewpoints into something that is genuinely good. I haven’t yet finished my research on this topic, so I’m not sure yet whether this requires reconstructing authenticity or simply abandoning it, but the current ideological orientation certainly requires a baseline of heavy skepticism.

That is, if we want to be able to argue against the general types of things that we’re talking about here, idealizing authenticity simply isn’t going to get us anywhere. Rather, it is on the objective level of the physical actions being taken that we must stake our claim. For example, calling pro-lifers hypocrites if they support the death penalty (sorry, I swear I’m stopping) is a completely useless argument, because who cares if you think something like this is a contradiction? Pro-lifers themselves are obviously fine with it, so why would anyone else change their minds on this basis? Rather, the real objection to the pro-life position is that it harms people. It is the behavior and not the motivation that matters. When you’re doing handclaps, doing them at the right time and on the right rhythm is more fun. I don’t care why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. I care about having good experiences.

Indeed, music fans above all others should be well-apprised of the situation here. Being in a band is not a matter of just getting up there and “going crazy”; even if you’re like the Germs or whoever, you still have to put a non-zero amount of effort into picking up your instrument and figuring out what you’re going to do with it. And a band like Black Mountain is clearly putting quite a lot of work into doing what they’re doing (the guitarist’s pedal configuration was probably more complicated than anything I did in college), into giving you an experience that you can’t get otherwise, and responding to that by screaming over it like an asshole is extremely disrespectful to the thing that you claim to be enjoying so much that you feel the need to scream about it.

Even though music directly affects a person’s subjectivity, it does so through reality; no matter how it feels, it is not in fact magic. The appeal to authenticity is a retreat; confronted with reality, it runs away. “I’m just trying to have fun” is what you say when you have no other excuse. So let’s stop making excuses. It is within objective reality that we have to live and have our experiences, so that’s our terrain. If we aren’t making claims on reality, we aren’t doing anything.

  1. not really, but this is way too much to get into right now. 

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