Chapter 13: The Age of Authenticity

In this fascinating chapter, Taylor takes us through the revolutionary shift that took place in Western Society in the post second world war period, with the 1960s as the symbolic watershed. It would be helpful to briefly contextualize this shift in the larger story we have been telling. We begin in the enchanted world of medieval society, with belief in God widely assumed and reinforced by the social and cosmic imaginaries. With the rise of exclusive humanism, belief in God becomes contested by unbelief. Dissatisfaction with Orthodoxy on one hand, and Exclusive Humanism on the other, leads to the proliferation of new options, responses and counter responses, Taylor calls this the Nova effect. This remains largely an elite phenomenon. In many countries, especially the United States, there remains a close connection between civilizational order, and belief. Religious belief is connected to a disciplined, orderly, productive life, and is seen as an essential ground for the morality of a nation. Americans live as “one nation under God”, while being part of a diverse range of denominations, depending on their belief and preference. All this starts to come undone after the second world war, leading up to the 1960s. The rise of the consumer society and advertising, as well as the general affluence that comes along with it, leads to a greater emphasizes on self expression: decorating your suburban home with your “own tastes”, finding your own style and brands. The pursuit of pleasure and happiness, the fulfillment of desire, all take a more central role. It is here that we start to see the emergence of “authenticity,” this sense of being true to yourself, following your own desires, finding your own path: 

“I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressionism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

Taylor calls this “expressive individualism.” It is a continuation of the modern individualism, disembedded from social belonging and authority, but now it “shifts on to a new axis”: The self seeks its own authentic way of expressing itself, rather than taking some prepackaged meaning from authorities or institutions. This ethic of authenticity was a widespread elite phenomenon ever since the Romantic era, but what is distinctive about this period is that it becomes a mass phenomenon: “a simplified expressionism infiltrates everywhere.” 

In the 1960s there is a revolt against this kind of disciplined, orderly society, which is seen as: “conformist, crushing individuality and creativity, as too concerned with production and concrete results as repressing feeling and spontaneity, as exalting the mechanical over the organic.” In its place, we see the emergence of new ideals. Equality, anti-consumerism, living in harmony with nature, the unity of opposites (eg. work/play, male/female, heaven/earth, science/spirituality), authenticity and non conformity, a reemphasis on the body, sensuality, sexual expression, and many others. We see many of these ideals carried on in our own day, but often in an isolated and fragmented form. David Brooks speaks of the “BoBos”—a combination of bourgeois and bohemian”—that upper class which has “made its peace with capitalism and productivity” but: 

“retain their overriding sense of the importance of personal development and self-expression. They retain the whole-hearted embrace of sex and sensuality as a good in itself, but they pursue it with the kind of earnest concern for self-improvement which is light-years away from the Dionysian spontaneity of the 60s.”

We see elements of this fragmented ideal in say the modern environmental movement, the woke Silicon Valley class (probably who Taylor has in mind in the quote above), as well as in the more popular trends opposing capitalism (while purchasing the latest consumer product and iPhones), seeking authenticity and a connection with nature. 

Taylor has some fascinating things to say about the place of fashion in the Age of Authenticity. The world of fashion is a language of signs and meanings, to which our individual fashion choices respond to and speak within: 

“The space of fashion is one in which we sustain a language together of signs and meanings, which is constantly changing, but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have. If my hat can express my particular kind of cocky, yet understated self-display, then this is because of how the common language of style has evolved between us up to this point. My gesture can change it, and then your resounding stylistic move will take its meaning from the new contour at the language takes on.” 

This common language of fashion, is an example of what Taylor calls a “meta-topical” space: a “non space” (That is, not existing in a particular location, in this sense it is “meta-topical) which brings together diverse media and locations into one large conversation. The trends, meanings, brands, associations, ect. connected to fashion are a context within which our stylistic choices make sense. So in this way, we form and express our identities in this language of fashion; my stylistic choices tell you something about who I am choosing and aspiring to be, and you respond in your own way. Brands also play into this, when I choose a particular brand, I am connecting myself to the celebrities, values, ideals attached, through advertising, with those products. In our own time, this has gone even further, where making consumer choices becomes a moral act: choose this brand of chocolate to save the children, this hoodie to save the earth, these peanuts to support sustainable farming, and so on. What I communicate with my fashion/consumer choices, is not a mere act of self expression, it is a moral/spiritual act. In this way, the modern expressive individualist isn’t completely cut off from forms of community: her act of self expression only makes sense within the social background, the matrix of culture and the observers. In my display to you, I am responding to your display and expecting your response:

“Here a host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication. My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addressed only to my immediate companions, my family group I sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing, but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the messages the cross take their meaning. This strange zone between loneliness and communication strongly impressed many of the early observers of this phenomenon as its arose in the early nineteenth century.”

Taylor was writing (in 2007) before the emergence of social media, and those developments accentuate the phenomenon he is describing. Via social media, we are always existing “in public,” as we recreate our selves, and our reality, for a public audience, responding to their cues (in the form of ‘likes’) and the prevailing trends. The strange phenomenon of being alone, yet together, is radicalized by social media. I am, in reality, alone on my phone, and yet, I am, in a sense, acting in public, forming a public identity, performing in front of others. The actions I undertake in the privacy of my own bedroom (swiping on the screen) are influenced by, in response to, shaped by, my peers. This creates a strange sense of a blurring of the lines between reality and illusion: do I really know this person I interact with online? Is this online person, the same person I know in real life? All of this points to a strange set of paradoxes of the modern condition. We are individualistic and lonely, and yet more “public” and social than ever. We seek to express our authentic selves, and yet in our embeddedness in the public matrix of trends and fashions, we seemingly undermine this: Am I following the trend or being authentic? Is my repudiation of all trends, not itself a trend? 

We also see forms of “common action” which fuse these “urban monads” together into a whole, uniting them with something “higher.” Taylor points here to examples such as sporting events, the Olympics, or a concert: “Not so much an action, as an emotion, a powerful common feeling. What is happening is that we are all being touched together, moved as one, sensing ourselves fused in our contact with something greater, deeply moving, or admirable.” Taylor wonders weather these “festive” experiences are “among the new forms of religion in our world.” 

The new expressionist revolution with its emphasis on “choosing your own path” and tolerance of a wide range of spiritual options, is partly a reputation of the earlier connection between Christianity and civilizational order: “In the new expressivist dispensation, there is no necessary embedding of our link to the sacred in any particular broader framework, weather “church” or state.” In other words, religion/spirituality has become disembedded from any national, institutional, communal belonging: we are less and less “Catholic” because we are “Polish” and so on. Spirituality has become a personal spiritual journey. It makes much less sense to a growing proportion of spiritual seekers to conform to an inauthentic spiritual authority: 

“Just as in the neo-Durkeheimian world, joining a church you don’t believe in seems not just wrong, but absurd, contradictory, so in the post-Durkheimian age seems the idea of adhering to a spirituality which doesn’t present itself as your path, the one which moves and inspires you. For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life. The injunction is, in the worlds of a speaker at a New Age festival: “Only accept what rings true to your own inner self.” 

This helps to explain the “culture wars”: “In a sense, part of what drove the Moral Majority and motivates the Christian Right in the U.S.A. is an aspiration to re-establish… the understanding… where being American would once more have a connection with theism, with being “one nation under God”, or at leas the ethic which was interwoven with this.”

Another key facet of the “expressivist dispensation”, is, of course, the sexual revolution and the repudiation of the traditional sexual ethic. As we pointed out in chapter 12, Christianity and “morality” was connected to a upstanding, productive life. The drinking, gambling, promiscuous man would give up those habits and live a moral life, providing for his family and earning money. In this earlier context, Christianity is connected with civilizational order, discipline and prosperity. Taylor makes the fascinating observation that many in the modern period maintain this strong discipline in their work life, but relax those disciplines in their private life. In many third world countries, where the disciplines “are still too new and distant from their way of life,” this kind of duality is impossible: “in the developing world your disciplines must govern your whole life, or you fall by the wayside—or fall into crime.” In a strange way, the sexual libertinism of western countries is made possible by the deeply inculcated disciplines (Protestant work ethic etc.) while perhaps simultaneously partly being driven by it: the sense of drudgery and duty of the workweek cries out for some release/escape in the weekend. 

Taylor also gives us a useful historical backdrop for the Christian attitudes towards sexuality and notes some unhelpful developments that took place through the process of Reform. He points out that the standards on sexual behaviour of medieval peasants were quite lax—this was by no means endorsed by the church, the “clerical minorities…were always trying to get [them] to shape up.” This sort of laxity among the laity and the higher standards of the clergy, belongs to the “two speed” dynamic of medieval society, which Taylor was describing earlier. Enter the process of Reform: there is this top down attempt to make the masses over, to conform to higher standards, to do away with carnivals, festivals and so on. A key motivating factor in all of this is the fear of hell: shape up or face the consequences in eternity. Taylor points out that a more genuine and lasting reform could have been made by a positive, inspirational approach, but wonders weather this kind of mass reform is only possible through the power of fear: 

“But we can perhaps also see it as inseparable from the Reforming enterprise itself. If the aim is not just to make certain forms of spirituality shine forth, and draw as many people as possible to them; if the goal is really to make everybody over (or everyone who is not heading for damnation), than perhaps the only way you can ever hope to produce this kind of mass movement is by leaning heavily on threat and fear.” 

This fear of hell leads inexorably to moralism: “The threat has to attach to very clearly defined failures. Do this, or else (damnation will follow). The “this” has to be clearly definable.” Christianity comes increasingly to be reduced to moralism, following the code, “to the detriment of spiritual growth.” Taylor quotes Sister Elisabeth Germain who describes the spirituality of a 19th century catechism in wide use: 

“morality takes precedence over everything, and religion becomes its servant. Faith and the sacraments are no longer understood as the basis of the moral life, but as duties to be carried out, as truths we must believe, and as means to help us fulfill these moral obligations.” 

The goal of the religious life in this view, is less about bringing a person into a transformative relationship with God, than it is to bring him into conformity with the moral code. Being moral, in a sense, is a precondition: “We should all come closer to God; but a crucial stage has to be the minimal conformity to the code. Without this, you aren’t even at the starting line.” A further development occurs around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the Christian sexual ethic comes be equated with the modern moral order: as the design of God for our flourishing. Here, the ethic is seen in completely naturalized terms, as something we can fulfill on our own lights, rather than needing grace and transformation. In the scientific age, this ethic comes to be couched in scientific/medical terms: “…The medicalized view offers us a picture of health, which ought to be attainable by the average person, bar some terrible defect in nature or depraved training.” Those who do not live up to the ideal are not just seen as falling into Sin, but as somehow being depraved by nature, “sick”, even less than fully human: 

“Thus the medicalizing nineteenth century needed an explanation why normal sexual fulfillment was not very widespread… a lot of weight was up on depraved training (evident in immigrants, natives of colonies, the working class, etc.); and also…more ominously on supposed differences of race. There were certain “degenerate types” and certain inferior races.” 

In the twentieth century, this link between the Christian sexual ethic and scientific justification starts to become undone by figures such as Freud, who take a much more positive view of sexual fulfilment: “For thinkers like Freud, Havelock Ellis, Edward Charpenter, sexual gratification was either itself good, or at least seen as a virtually unstoppable force.” And so we move into the modern era with its notions of equality of the sexes, sexual freedom and the “new conception of sexuality as an essential part of one’s identity.” Taylor notes that Christian views on sexuality—especially if they are deaf to these new realities, and still couch their ethic in the natural/scientific/medical language—will be difficult to hear in wide zones of the Age of Authenticity.” 

In his exploration of the shift brought about by the 60s revolution, Taylor has a helpful stance that progressives and conservatives could learn from. Taylor critiques those progressives who would see in the movement from the 60s onward (and earlier) as a simple story of progression with no losses. This is a stance with wants to “affirm the values of the new ideal as thought they were unproblematic, cost free and could never be trivialized.” At the same time, he has no sympathies with the conservative critique, which wants to judge the entire shift by its most “degraded” or “trivialized” features, as if this shift were a mere embrace of “egoism and the pursuit of pleasure.” This kind of “root and branch” attack on the Age of Authenticity, “help to make our lives worse while being powerless to put the clock back to an earlier time.” Instead of falling pray to this progressive (or its opposite mindset) Taylor wants to think in terms of the possibilities this transformation opens or closes. The Age of Authenticity opens up options that were previously unavailable, new modes of thought, lifestyles, moral visions and so on. At the same time, it closes off other options, makes them unintelligible or unlikely to be widely held. His is a stance that does not fall pray to either nostalgia or condescending triumphalism: we are in a new era, with new challenges, opportunities, options and positions: we must find our place within this matrix. (Indeed, we are products of this matrix weather we like it or not) We see this kind of stance all throughout A Secular Age. When discussing the medieval world for example, Taylor is able to present a sympathetic, yet critical picture. In the transition to the modern there have been some real losses (the enchanted cosmos, community embedding etc.) and also, some real gains (individual liberty, order, etc.). We could make a “reasoned over-all judgement about the gains and losses in the transition”, but the picture that emerges will not be a clear, no losses, story of progression, nor a nostalgic sense of a lost Eden.

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