Authenticity isn’t performative

By Gus Nations IV, Guest Writer

College is very loud. 

OK, maybe loud isn’t the right way of describing it; in college, there is a lot of noise. It’s like a drum that never stops beating. Or maybe a better analogy — living near train tracks; hundreds of trains pass you every day, but after a while you just kind of learn to tune them out. Such is college. 

Constant information, constant activity, and maybe most importantly, constant people. It’s a little overwhelming at first, but after a while you sort of fall into a groove, and, like your brain tuning the trains out, you develop your own style of moving through the chaos.  

I became especially aware of this phenomenon as I moved through my fall semester this past year. I’d say that my normal style of coping with this aforementioned “noise” throughout my first two years here at Xavier has been what I would call “intentionally devil-may-care.” 

By this, I mean that I try to act with a sort of casual indifference toward life and school that does not end up being so casual. In a way, I’m performatively authentic. You see, despite how much I try to make it seem like I am cool and unaffected by the highs and lows of college, my intentionality in acting in such a way gives away the fact that I am not, in fact, “cool and unaffected” at all.  

Fortunately for me, the realization that I wasn’t nearly as cool as I was trying to be didn’t come all at once. In one of my classes, I was introduced to a 1950s philosopher named Michel Foucault. I’ll preface this story by saying Foucault was an instance of a topic cutting through the noise that we normally are deaf to as college students. 

Foucault was a genius to me because his theory — in as watered down a way as possible — was focused on how power manifests and affects the way we act subconsciously in our daily lives. To make a long story (semester) short, I started paying attention to the effect interactions with information, teachers, friends or really anything, were having on me. How is my experience as a university student shaping me and disciplining me in other areas of my life?  

It was a little jarring thinking like this at first; it was like when you were young and you’d look in the mirror and think to yourself, “Wow, I’m really alive, I can move my arms myself!” But after the initial shock of that close observation tends to wear off, you start to get an idea of how college noise has a hold over you. I’d spend all day thinking about whether I was writing a paper that would be well received by my professor, or whether I would say exactly the right thing in a class presentation. I’d think about what music I was going to play for my friends on the way back from practice, or what clothes I would wear that would make me seem in style without being too trendy. The matrix of college, through its constant pressure of performance, has the biggest hand in shaping how I act toward myself and others, and I never even noticed it.  

In fairness, some people might be a little defter at handling the stress of college naturally, but for me all this close observation made me realize something pretty jarring. I noticed that because of the nature of college and its innate pressure of intellect and competition, I’ve always tried to subtly act or prove that I am a certain way: That I am smart, or that I have good style, or that I am turning in a good paper or that I have a good taste in art or music. The list goes on. The kicker is that all the while, I was trying to make it seem like it was no big deal. Juxtaposing the intentionality of fitting into a setting like college with this fake, nonchalant attitude did nothing for me but plant seeds of self consciousness. 

“Am I really smart? Do I really have a good taste in music?” As I continued reading Foucault, I realized that this was precisely the problem. I was trying to write well or, at least, write how I thought I was supposed to write. I was trying to have good style. I was trying to have good taste in music.  

My breakthrough moment came when I finally realized that authenticity doesn’t come from a performance. What makes anyone “cool” is the idiosyncratic nature of their habits; of letting go of that guise and listening to the noise of life, rather than tuning it out. Once I realized this, I ended up getting an 87% on my paper about Foucault.  Its still my favorite piece of writing I’ve ever done. The point isn’t to prove that you can do something, it’s just to do it. Dressing well or writing well may be a choice in the sense that I am choosing to write or dress well, but at the end of the day, a person’s genius comes from the individualistic nature.

Maybe I was a bit too introspective, or maybe this was a roundabout way of realizing the age-old trope of the importance of “being true to yourself,” but either way, recognizing the importance of authenticity in facets of my life that seem effortless was the step I needed to finally realize that the noise you and I make probably sounds alright after all.