“…with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
mirror up to nature;”
— Hamlet, Act III, Scene II
Authenticity as an Emerging Cultural Value
The most puzzling thing about this year so far in politics is that people continue to act like they’re shocked (SHOCKED!) whenever unorthodox campaigns gain popularity. Jaws seemed to hit tables when Donald Trump gained popularity, and they fell through the floor when he was proclaimed the G.O.P. nominee. David Cameron, so startled by his country’s secession from the EU, seemingly resigned just to deal with the surprise of it. More locally, Pauline Hanson’s election to the senate has left liberal pundits pinching themselves.
That’s not to say there aren’t examples that don’t rely on phobic rhetoric. Against Trump, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders go from a dismissive “can’t win” to the Messiah of left-wing politics. And Nick Xenophon’s ability to absorb over 20% of the South Australian vote goes unrivaled among first-time parties, just as much as it adds another crease to Malcolm Turnbull’s already overpopulated forehead.
And yet I sit here, arrogantly twiddling my thumbs, telling you that I told you so. That we could have all seen this coming. I must have a pretty darn good reason.
The common factor linking these recent landslides is a trait that each of their figureheads share: authenticity. It isn’t Republican gerrymandering, or pandering to Adelaide’s unemployed, or any of the political excuses that the leaders improvise when asked by the media, but a broader cultural shift led by a generation that can’t all vote yet. And importantly, we can follow these changes through the literature and art of the past twenty years.
Let’s start with a book that became a duogenarian this year, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and how it rejects irony as inauthentic. Afterward, we’ll move onto the creative integrity of rapper/artist/director Donald Glover, and finish with how authentic personal connections feature in Shia LaBeouf’s performance art.
Infinite Jest: The Inauthenticity of Irony
In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram”, Wallace lays out the ideology behind Infinite Jest, which was only a draft manuscript at the time. He declares that:
“Irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and … at the same time they are the agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.”
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, … who have the childish gall to actually endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”
“Pluram” critiques the postmodern condition, where irony has become a form of inauthenticity and edges closer to its synonym, ‘caustic’. Infinite Jest, then, is Wallace’s attempt to become the “anti-rebel” and write a story which overwhelmingly succeeds at eschewing the comfortable laziness of ironic humour. The book discusses meaningful topics in serious ways—large sections directly confront depression and addiction—and it does so without having to wink and nod at the reader for being so banal and sentimental.
When IJ directly mentions sincerity, it’s powerful because the characters largely understate its importance. Wallace’s extensive use of first-person perspectives allows him to convey the undertone of isolation that permeates the postmodern experience, but nobody ever questions whether sincerity might be at the heart of their struggle. Take, for example, the handicapped Mario Incandenza’s thoughts on a halfway house:
“Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say ‘God’ with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.”
On a broader level, IJ contains a pure force of emotion and feeling that cannot be expressed as anything other than a recommendation to read it. The emergent trend, though, certainly points toward isolation due to a lack of authentic communication, which irony is often the cause of. At the end of the book, Wallace even goes so far as to make his protagonist mute, a symbolic realisation of their self-isolation.
Donald Glover: Cohesive Creative Integrity
The groundwork for a shift toward authenticity had been laid by one of the most prominent novels of the late 20th century. But the next 15 years were to be mired by a severe divide in ideologies. Just as much as authenticity was celebrated by texts like The Wire, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Flight of the Conchords or The Office U.K., it was slaughtered and ridiculed by the likes of South Park and The Simpsons, and ignored by The Office U.S.
Then Facebook and Twitter hit, and almost everyone under thirty learned how to manage two personas—public and private. As we navigated the waves of new social conventions, we began to value authenticity more and more. It was easy to lie online, but it was stronger to own your truth.
Artists from the hip-hop culture became some of the most successful users on social platforms. They already had creative integrity, which I’m defining as a fan-focused approach to creative endeavours that emphasises audience connection over monetary value. From the huge pool of hip-hop artists, I’d like to focus on Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino).
The focus in Glover’s career has been to create a running cohesion, where each of his projects reflects back on a whole and authentic character. Take one of his tweets (since deleted):
“i know im not loud, or outrageous, or a white girl with a big ass, but im fuckin honest.”
His personality and emphasis on honesty is maintained through his 2013 album because the internet, particularly the track “Life: The Biggest Troll”:
“Every thought I had, put it in a box
Everybody see it just before the cops”
Here the ‘box’ is a metaphor for a text field, like the one where Glover writes his thoughts out on Twitter. Later in the song, he also airs his anxieties about the divide between his two personas:
“I mean, where’s the line between Donnie G and Gambino?”[10:1]
One of the biggest ways that artists like Glover express their creative integrity is by spending time and energy on projects which are ultimately unprofitable or have low returns. For this album he produced a 72-page screenplay, a 30-minute short film, and spent 1.2 million of his personal finance on funding the subsequent tour. This shows his fans that he’s not in it for the money, but rather to create personal and meaningful experiences. Similar uses of personal wealth have fueled the campaigns of Trump and Sanders.
The other thing which has big political implications is the notion of ‘selling out’, where an artist compromises their stated positions to make money, whether through a change in direction (Pharrell Williams) or paid endorsements (George Clooney). Donald Glover has done neither, and it would be safe to say that he selected his roles in recent movies such as The Martian and Magic Mike XXL to fit with his creative integrity.
Shia LaBeouf: The Need for Personal Connection
Selling out leads us to our final flag-bearer of the new surge in authenticity: Shia LaBeouf. The transformation in Shia’s career from the low-quality storylines and rampant product placement of the Transformers franchise to his performance art of the past three years reflects a broader cultural shift.
Each of his performance pieces with Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö explores the need for authentic human connection. In “#IAMSORRY”, Shia sat alone in a room wearing a paper bag, with one participant at a time. Writing on the experience in another piece, “#INTERVIEW”, he says:
“most every one who came in
had preconceived notions of what they were going to experience
and as soon as Nastja brought them through the curtain- everything changed
i went from being a celebrity or object
to a fellow a human”
“#INTERVIEW” is also an interesting piece in itself. The multimedia work features Shia and Aimee Cliff, a journalist for Dazed, filming themselves silently staring into each other’s eyes for an hour. It is juxtaposed with an email interview between the two. At one point, Cliff offers Shia a photo shoot for the magazine, and Shia responds with images of his hands scrolling through his Twitter feed, saying:
“they would represent my physical self in the magazine as opposed to a photo shoot which is the antithesis of real”[14:1]
Since, LaBeouf has crafted and shaped his public persona as a wholistic vehicle for authenticity. He’s opened his deepest secrets to the world—even going so far as to livestream his heartbeat for an entire week during SXSW 2015, and spending four days with a public telephone line in a piece called “#TOUCHMYSOUL”.
The place of irony in an authentic culture is still under question. While Wallace always rejected it, Glover used it a lot in his earlier projects, and LaBeouf, Turner & Rönkkö celebrate irony while maintaining authenticity. The names of their performance projects use hashtags and capital letters ironically, and Turner’s “Metamodernist Manifesto” claims that:
“metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity…”
Glover, however, recently launched a concert series where the fourth of five rules is “No Irony”, which is a bold shift from his comedic career in Derrick Comedy and Community. Perhaps irony’s role is closer to the way “#IAMSORRY” worked, where it lures people into an authentic connection.
Notably, all of the artists in discussed have high levels of creative integrity, and are all willing to go above and beyond for their fans/followers/audiences. And though LaBeouf, Turner & Rönkkö best emphasise the importance of connection (through proximity to their audience), each of these artists heavily prioritises it.
The broader trends are very real. Just as art “holds the mirror up to nature”, we can gain valuable insights into ways of thinking by analysing literature, music, art, and even politics. There is no doubt that the need for authenticity in an increasingly connected world is the major contributing factor to the success of everyone discussed, whether they’re a racist politician, or a posthumous Pulitzer finalist. Perhaps Luke Turner is right, and we’ve moved beyond postmodernism toward something greater. Perhaps irony will have a different role to play in the future, or perhaps it’ll be gone altogether.
I am sure of one thing: Authenticity is here to stay, and to be ignored at your own risk.
Wallace, D. (1996). Infinite Jest. Little, Brown. ↩︎
Wallace, D. (1993). E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993. ↩︎
ibid., p. 171 ↩︎
ibid., p. 192 ↩︎
Infinite Jest, p. 590 ↩︎
There’s a copy in the Stevenson Library. ↩︎
A focus on Jaden Smith, Kendrick Lamar, or Kanye West would be just as valid here. ↩︎
Childish Gambino (2013). because the internet. Glassnote Records. ↩︎
Childish Gambino (2013). http://becausetheinter.net. Self-published. Accessed through http://genius.com/albums/Childish-gambino/Because-the-internet-screenplay ↩︎
LaBeouf, S., Turner, L., & Rönkkö, N. (2014). #IAMSORRY. Performed at Artspace Warehouse, 7358 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles. ↩︎