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Erik Schilling speaks about "The yearning for immediacy"

7 Dec 2020

Genuine and sincere is how we would like the world to be, in short: authentic. But are we not just deceiving ourselves if we believe in clarity and consistency? Erik Schilling about the search for the true essence

Erik Schilling

© LMU

"Authentic is the new beauty." Perhaps this only refers to natural cosmetics or a new mindfulness flow. However, given their ubiquity, claims such as this clearly resonate, capturing the zeitgeist. Where is everything beautiful that is genuine, everything good that is authentic?

Schilling: Authenticity is the main longing of our time. Being authentic is almost universally considered a positive behavior. And everyone in the world of politics, society, art – and marketing, naturally – is jumping on this bandwagon. Because everywhere you look, from relationships to the party line and pop culture, appearance and reality are ideally one and the same. You are expected to present your true self and not put on a mask. This also applies to material things. We like consuming the real thing. We don't want copies, we want the original.

Where does this need come from?

Schilling: In a nutshell, I see it as a reaction to the digital revolution and globalization. We live in a world in which so much is virtual and intangible, even our immediate environment is on the verge of being swallowed up in the great confusion. Authenticity serves as an antithesis to this world of ours. It focuses on something that appears to be genuine. In principle, authenticity is a metaphysical yearning to see the essence of things in their supposedly true colors.

Supposedly? Does authenticity even exist?

Schilling: Authenticity is a phenomenon of ascription. We form a certain impression of a person or thing. And if our impression then coincides with a characteristic feature or conduct that we observe, we consider it authentic. Although that says something about the expectations and perspectives of those searching for authenticity, it reveals very little about the people or objects that are thereby labeled 'authentic.' To assume anything different, you would have to have an extremely essentialist concept of the world, to believe that a true essence actually exists and can be perceived if you only look hard enough.

Selfies convey closeness and immediacy.

Millions upon millions of selfies are taken and posted online every single day. What do they show? Our so-called true self or rather our penchant for self-display, a desire to curate every aspect of our lives?

Schilling: The selfie satisfies our yearning for authenticity by claiming to show an unadulterated image of a particular moment in time. It is impossible to hold the camera properly, you have to pose at an angle. Sometimes the finished result is even unflattering. It is therefore not an unnaturally enhanced, edited photo, just one that claims to be a true representation. At the same time, the selfie has become an art form, one that nobody who takes a few seconds to think about it still believes is actually authentic. If I'm in the Louvre, standing in front of the Mona Lisa and jostling for position with 100 other people to get the right angle for my phone so that only the Mona Lisa and I are in the picture, then anybody who has ever been to the Louvre knows that it is merely the illusion of an authentic tête-à-tête with the Mona Lisa. And yet it still works. For many people, the selfie conveys closeness and immediacy.

Many also look to literature for immediacy. The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård assumes an air of radical authenticity in his six-volume introspection. Over several thousand pages, he relates his 'struggle' as a man, a father, and an author. What makes it a bestseller?

Schilling: Everything Knausgård writes appears overtly tangible and relatable. Not a multi-layered novel, but an extremely relatable setting with a mundane tale of everyday life and failure. Plenty of people are looking for exactly that, to find this self right in front of them, preferably raw, genuine and sincere.

… and for it to be laid bare?

Schilling: To put it bluntly, Knausgård is satisfying our voyeuristic interest. It is similar to the fascination with the reality TV series I'm a Celebrity.

An astonishingly large number of books with an autobiographical theme have been successful in recent years.

Schilling: Yes, just take The End of Eddy, in which Édouard Louis describes the coming out of a young homosexual man in provincial France. In its review, Die Zeit called it a “raw sociological perspective”. It hits the nail on the head. The book fulfils our desire for an unflinching glimpse behind the scenes to find out what life is really like as a young homosexual in the homophobic backwoods. However, I prefer literature that does more than simply extract the hypothetical essence of an individual.

Can you give us an example?

Schilling: One I have in mind is The Years by Annie Ernaux. The text has a very similar effect, with an account of liberation and educational advancement. However, although certainly strongly autobiographical, it paints a portrait of an entire generation. In a way, it is a collective biography – in which, incidentally, the word 'I' is never used.

We don`t want copies, we want the original.

In recent years, a new rigorism has started to rear its ugly head, with writers, actors, and musicians accused of so-called cultural appropriation. Are these the excesses of our obsession with authenticity?

Schilling: As a matter of fact, I think that there is a connection between these demands and our yearning for authenticity. What they highlight once more is the idea that there could be a true essence in terms of certain individual characteristics, to which only certain people are granted access. For example, the actor Scarlett Johansson faced a barrage of criticism for wanting to play a transgender person. It is not long ago that the white American author Jeanine Cummins was condemned for turning the story of a Mexican family's escape from drug cartels by fleeing to the US into a thriller. Beyond the pale, she was told. The concept of authenticity thus leads to normativity.

By that reasoning, only Mexicans who have suffered the same fate may write about escaping to the United States?

Schilling: More or less. You might start by asking whether anyone should even be allowed to write a story like American Dirt in the first place because the family's experiences are too traumatic, too terrible to be used as the basis for a thriller. This has been widely debated for the Shoah: Is it wrong to write novels or make motion pictures about the Holocaust? If the answer is no, then we come to the next question, which I personally find more interesting: Is anyone who has done a reasonable amount of research permitted to write this story or only those who were actually there? Can a male author write from the perspective of a woman? Is it possible to write about migration even if you have always lived in the same place? No? Without doubt, I would argue to the contrary. The mere fact of having experienced something does not automatically qualify that person to write about it. After all, if you take this insistence on first-hand experience to its logical conclusion, neither journalism nor science would exist, for example.

Why is that?

Schilling: Well, they are based on the fact that you are writing about something, observing it from afar, that you have not experienced firsthand. However, I would argue that observing from the sidelines may well produce more interesting, more valid results because it makes the most of certain options that are not necessarily available to somebody who is personally affected, for example, specially trained powers of observation, a particularly sophisticated technique, or the ability to distance oneself from the situation. These skills are often essential in allowing us to observe things in a meaningful way.

À propos genuineness: Even politicians tout their authenticity in order to win votes. What makes the public identify with that?

Schilling: Obviously there is a deep desire to see Angela Merkel, for example, not just as chancellor, but as a wife, perhaps cooking potato soup or visiting the opera in Bayreuth, in short: to get a glimpse of the non-professional, private side of her. However, this side should be irrelevant as long as the public Angela Merkel is a politician of integrity and common sense. The search for authenticity goes even further nonetheless, not just seeking to uncover the private side of Angela Merkel, but judging her on her personal life.

Why do these roles have to be kept separate at all costs? What's wrong with the desire to be true to yourself at all times?

Schilling: Being genuine and consistent may well be worthwhile goals in our private lives. But looking for authenticity everywhere is a step too far. I want most of my everyday interactions to be on a professional basis, not an authentic one. I don't need to know the political views of the surgeon who is going to replace my hip. Private and social roles don't always have to coincide. It certainly doesn't keep me up at night if I act differently with my football friends than with my boss. We should accept the plural world and tolerate inconsistencies – including our own.

Interview: Martin Thurau

Dr. Erik Schilling is an associate professor (Privatdozent) of Modern German Literature and Comparative Literature at LMU Munich. He was recently awarded the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize by the German Research Foundation, its prestigious distinction for early career researchers. Erik Schilling's essay Authentizität. Karriere einer Sehnsucht was published by C.H.Beck in September 2020.