The Quest for Authenticity in the Age of Celebrity

I’m feeling wordy lately, or perhaps heady. Vessels in my brain bursting with pressure. It seems to be time for another metamorphosis. Lots to think about on this grey afternoon in the city.

This came up for me at my men’s team meeting last night. I have an alter ego. I have many alter egos. I am a galaxy of masks, alternatives, refections and distortions of who I really am at the pulsing, glowing, beating core. A million stars circling an invisible but undeniably powerful and present black hole, a singularity of identity and energy. But just what is in there? Who am I? What do I want?

My subconscious is clearly on top of this, communicating in the only way the subconscious can. Subtly, with signals and gestures faint and unwavering. Its no accident that I’ve grown obsessed with the mythos of Batman – a man with two identities, or that my favorite film is Fight Club. Who is Tyler Durden?

Fight Club addresses the idea of masks, very, very well. The question of authenticity. Who you really are. What you really want. The fear in finding the answers to those questions. The danger in losing control of your mask, the mask controlling you.

The concept of authenticity comes at least in part from the existentialists and their precursors, people like Sartre and Heidegger. I have always identified with existentialism, probably because authenticity has been the primary struggle in my life. The definition of authenticity, briefly is thus;

The conscious self coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces and influences which are very different from itself; authenticity is one way in which the self acts and changes in response to these pressures.

In essence, linking it with a more eastern tradition, it is following your own Tao or way of being.

Now let’s bring Guy Debord and the situationists into the debate. Debord argued that modern society exists within a spectacle, a matrix of representations and signs but lacking in substance. In essence its a world where appearances are more important than truth. This is born out every single day in our chaotic, data driven society where object oriented programming comes to replace actual objects. Indeed we’re beginning to talk about virtual worlds as though they were real.

Perhaps the greatest example of the society of the spectacle today is celebrity. Celebrities are by definition spectacles, amalgamations of external meanings, notions and values. John Travolta is not the man who showed up on set every day for Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta is a cultural simulacrum representing films, politics, aesthetics and values that may have little to nothing to do with the man who eats, sleeps and acts. So to it is with all of us.

The 20th century ushered in a new age of celebrity with the widespread distribution of movies, radio, television and magazines. Never before have we been subject to so many signals as to how we should be, act, think and feel. Now in the 21st century we move into the second stage, the stage of mimicry. Now instead of just watching and absorbing celebrity we become celebrities ourselves.

A couple of months ago there was an article on the net generation and the new age of celebrity in the New York Times. Part of the thesis was that celebrity now belongs to everyone. Just look at a MySpace or facebook profile if you don’t believe me. Thousands of little rockstars and movie mavens plucked right out of suburbia, artifice piled upon posing in every profile picture. How the fuck can we be authentic when we’re all encouraged to be as fake as the people we see every day on TV?

Studies have indicated that many youth identify more strongly with sports and media celebrities then they do with their own friends and family. Is it any wonder that so many of us are so hollow, lonely and confused?

Nathan Taylor or Kay O. Sweaver? Tyler Durden. Bruce Wayne. What is real and what is a mask?

The answer isn’t self-evident. One of the creators of Batma: The Animated Series said in an interview that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s secret identity. Indeed in many of the more serious comics the struggle for identity is a constant underlying theme. Hmmm. Where does Agent Kaos fit into all of this?

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