Authenticity and Authority

Writer Malinda Lo has a really great post up on her blog on the topic “What does authentic mean, anyway?”

I’m going to excerpt a few things to comment on, but you should read Malinda’s entire post if you want to comment on what she said rather than what I’m discussing. In fact, you should read it anyway, because it’s a great post.

There are many elements to discuss. I’m only excerpting a couple at the moment.

There is so much concern over authentic representations of minorities because there are so few of them. Nobody really worries about whether they’re being authentic in representing white, heterosexual people, because there are so many of those representations in the media.

There’s a lot to discuss in the above comment, which I agree with in the general sense. Lo goes on to say that “authenticity is a ghost. You can chase it but you can never catch it.”

One of the interesting elements for me in representations in popular literature and media of what is culturally considered normative is that often the most stereotypical normativity trumps more nuanced, realistic portrayals.

I see this in depictions of “gendered” behaviors all the time.

A couple of years ago I read a book set in Scotland, written by a UK writer, in which a pair of Americans appear in the plot (they are distant relatives of the main character). Their broad speech patterns and stereotypical bluff, hearty behavior amused me; it was a stock rendition of “the Americans” as written by a person who wasn’t American, and fell quite in contrast to the far better rendered depictions of everyone else. But, you know, it was a specifically a depiction as written by someone who was observing the Americans as interlopers and outsiders, working from surface impressions.

These ruminations are really a distraction, however, from Lo’s exploration of authenticity as a “construction.”

I think it’s more useful to talk about two concepts that are related to “authenticity,” but are much more specific: (1) anxiety; and (2) authority.

Anxiety — This is an anxiety over cultural boundaries, or marking out what defines a particular identity. You can see this in the question, What makes a “real” American?

Authority — In other words, who has the authority to declare that something is authentic? Or, when writing about the Other, who is authorized to do so? This is entangled in issues of power and appropriation.

When we were in Mali in January/February 2010, we visited an artisan compound in the town of Segou where young men were making bogolanfini, the mudcloth for which Mali is justly famous. The subject is too complex to go into here, but to simplify for a moment, while some of these artisans were using traditional design, others had branched out into their own design and artistic aesthetics some of which was quite modern. Furthermore, this cloth was produced for the market and to a great degree specifically for the international market, not for traditional use. Is this authentic?

I could not help but contrast the quite interesting artistic elements there with the remarkably skilled stone carvers in Cambodia who, again creating for the international market, hewed pretty much to historical forms. That’s what the market wanted (although there is a growing modern art scene in Cambodia, it isn’t much attached to the  archaeological tourist market). Is this authentic?

Meanwhile, in Sawankhalok, Thailand, a special kind of green ware called Celadon, quite astonishingly lovely, became an export ware several hundred years ago, sold across South and East Asia. It is now, of course, of historical and archaeological value. Is it authentic? That industry also flourished for the international market.

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I think the way Lo explores them (within the constraints of a short blog post) demonstrates how complex such questions are.

As Lo says: “cultures and traditions are not tightly bounded; they are fluid and many times hybrid.”