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Authenticity and Authority
kateelliott

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.”

 

Mirrored from I Make Up Worlds.


In the fall of 1997, I took two upper-division literature courses, "Post-Modernism/Multiculturalism," and "Globalization." For both, I ended up reading essays from The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, a book which I later sold or donated, only to re-acquire once more several years after that. One essay, "The Myth of Authenticity," has stuck with me for its title alone. The essay itself focuses on the pursuit of authenticity in indigenous peoples as an activity as damaging as quiet marginalization, in that it flattens any understanding of the culture being represented in media. For me, there are multiple myths of authenticity, much like what you discuss above.

When I pulled it off the shelf in the process of composing this comment, it struck me that many of the essays in the reader are as relevant today as they were when the reader was published in the mid-90s. The essay following "The Myth of Authenticity" is "Who Should Write the Other?"... Seems like I've seen both themes appearing regularly over the past few years in the SFF community. Definitely justifies the re-purchase -- and if I didn't already have a mile-high to-read pile, I'd add it immediately. Either way, still a great resource to have.

All too often the people who want to keep a "native" culture "authentic" are keeping them poor, to say nothing of the hard labor involved in farming etc without modern tools. Who would want to beat clothing with rocks if they could have a washing machine?

Exactly. Much of what makes a particular traditional culture traditional are its means of basic survival. That equates to poverty.

I've done the "hard labour of farming" with tools that an eighteenth century West Indian farm labourer would have found familiar (hoe, mattock, cutlass). I don't have any nostalgia for the simple life, the good old days, &c. As my father used to say, "dem was neva good".

Some years ago I read a collection of academic essays on the economics of the developing world or ecoconsciousness or some such. The point where I stopped reading was the essay by a German scholar, I believe, in which she deplored the paving of roads and entrance of all that contaminating development into (probably) Nepal (not Bhutan, I don't think) over the decades she had been studying or traveling there. Because, you see, the first time she was there she had noticed that there was "no poverty" and "everyone was equal" and now, of course, the grandchildren were off working in offices in India and all that lovely egalitarian quaintness was lost blah blah blah.

I remember reading that and thinking (I was barely post college, but I grew up in farm country): "Yeah, strangely, the young'uns don't want to spend 14 hours a days gathering fuel on the hillside, and probably the grandmother who has been doing so all her life is glad to see her grandchildren have these other opportunities."

Not long after we moved to Jamaica, we had occasion to ride in a mule cart. To my twelve-year-old mind, this was something exciting and different. To my father,this was something backward and old-fashioned, and nothing to be excited about. Not until much later did I learn that, as a boy,he'd taken part in the last mule drives in the early 1930s. Jamaica used to supply draught mules to the Andean countries (until they were replaced by diesel trucks in the 1930s). Juan Valdez's donkey was originally (and authentically) a Jamaican muleto rather than a burro. They were replaced in Jamaica itself by trucks and buses. Should people have continued to rely on mule carts, or on the more modern conveyances?

In general, it's people who have never experienced what life is like under older conditions who think they shouldn't be changed. Or people who can go back to all mod cons whenever they choose. Candles and oil lamps are very romantic, but people who live with them do seem to want electricity (there's a reason why the Chinese government wants a refrigerator in every household).

No poverty? Everyone was equal? Not where I used to live.

Plus I should note that the eighteenth-century farm labourer, who was using the same tool set that I used (and working on the same estate -- though, unlike me,not living in the great house) was a slave.

Edited at 2011-09-22 01:24 am (UTC)

Ah, yes, the quaint customs of the olden times, so beloved as long as you're not stuck with them.

I'd love to find that book of essays again -- it was QUITE cutting edge, progressive, possibly even Marxist or whatever, of its time. I just got so irritated with it, possibly due to having grown up in farm country with older relatives who had done the back breaking work in Ye Olden Dayes.

Yes, exactly. It's almost a zoo mentality.

I still remember an online post to the effect of "My culture is being destroyed! Around here, people think learning English is a status thing!"

Posted, needless to say, in English.

The pursuit of authenticity is a really interesting question, not least because one must ask who is pursuing it and why?

I'll have to look for that title.

Indeed; it's almost like a function where the limit approaches zero--ever closer, but never arriving. The end seems to be some quest for a sense of the tangible and concrete to alleviate the common discomfort with ambiguity, the desire for a clear separation of black and white, no grays. Meh.

As for the book: Apparently, it's out in a new edition with an additional 121 excerpts, but it's running just shy of $40 with the Amazon discounts (and full list price is over $55). I have the old edition, which is apparently available new for $16.

"A sense of the tangible" -- yes, I think that's a good way to look at it.

I really like Zuni fetishes, and have quite a few of the traditional animals. I've noticed in the last few years more and more non-traditional animals offered for sale, ranging from loons to dinosaurs. They are still carved by Zuni craftsmen, but I've had the debate in my head as to whether they count as authentic. I think for the twenty-first century, they must be.

Sometimes the debate about authenticity, as everyone has said already, seems to be about preserving something for someone else's aesthetic taste.

We can extend this in another direction: generations. I've had readers of my UF insist that a character would have to have a certain electronic gadget just because that character is in her 20s. Doesn't "everybody" have an MP3 player? No one that age would listen to a CD . . . Well, some people don't want to go around with wires hanging out of their ears. :-) Not everyone is as madly in love with electronics as we geeks are. :-)

People do not come in Brands based on age or anything else. Come to think of it, what about women characters in general? We all often discuss writing "authentic" female characters. Some male writers still persist in thinking that women come in a limited number of brands, too: the Slut, the Good Mother, the Pure Girl, the Scheming Bitch.

Genre writers in particular want to produce creditable -types-, or so it seems to me at times. They judge the success of a character not as an individual, but as an Authentic example of a Type. I'm not at all surprised that this attitude extends to questions of nationality and ethnic group.


Again, this is true. People in Western culture are individuals and will do things out of individual desire.

Who'd a thought it! But, yes: What is with the lumping and needing to see everything as a Type? I wonder where this comes from.

Types are easy, both to write and to absorb in the fictional or even advertising sense.

I think the point about generations is very important as well (although I do have to say that basically everyone under 30 who can afford one has a cell phone, everywhere, pretty much, to generalize). Which is why I posted that tumblr photo of my daughter and my dad on their computers together.

Most people over 30 have cell phones, too -- those that can afford them, anyway. :-)


I think my parents even have one, but I doubt they know where it is as their kids forced them to get it and they don't use it.

Particularly when it comes to art and artists, they will incorporate, explore, experiment with whatever catches their interest. So the next question is who is an authentic artist creating art rather than merchandise? You can get lost in the forest and never find the trees, and I don't mean this in a good way, obviously! :)

There was a question the other day on ML, about a quote attributed to Twain. You read that quote and you know Twain did not say or write it. Neither the sentiment nor the style belong to his forms of expression, starting with the parallel construction of the quote. I've read a lot of Twain, and though I may employ parallel construction often, and way too much, he doesn't!

So there are modes of judgment about these things that are valid criteria, and not only for judging whether or not someone wrote what is attributed as by a particular author.

Love, C.

Or again, the early blues masters. Nobody thinks those cats would be singing Gene Autrey songs -- but they did. They sang what their audiences wanted to hear, and their audiences wanted to hear Gene Autrey music as much anybody else wanted to. If it was popular, they sang it, if / when the audience wanted it.

The greatest salsa bands are making great art, of that I am convinced. But the reason they are so great is that they are the best to dance to all night long, and that's what the audiences that supported them wanted.

Love, C.

But is it inauthentic to sing Gene Autry songs? Or to play a variety of songs for an audience? I don't know why it would be. Seems to me that if we had recordings of Robert Johnson doing a set, whatever songs he was playing that weren't blues would have his stamp on them regardless.

Of course again the element of merchandise becomes a loaded one, as per my example of Sawankholek ware. This was merchandise back in the day, and yet no one today would not see it as art.

I also agree very much that artists will explore and experiment. It's such a tricky question. Because I cannot speak either French or Bambara, I could not easily talk to the young artists at the bogolanfini cooperative, but I would really love to know how they look at their own work. It's difficult for me to imagine they do NOT think of themselves as artists doing authentic work.

It's tricky in so many ways. So much of what is African art is religious and in the context of their spiritual and community culture meant it was intentionally occasional, i.e. disposed of when the occasion had passed. Some is created deliberately to be destroyed -- the destruction is the completion of the work. So much of African art until the present era was religious or at the very least a celebration of the ruler. It wasn't considered art at all, but ritual object in the first case and regalia (as in the traditional objects carried by the peers in the Cornation ceremonies in England) in the second. It became art when collected by outsiders.

This applies equally to the musical and dance traditions.

But since the 19th century things have gotten more and more mixed up: members of the community steal the ritual and regalia objects to sell to outsiders; and there have been several generations of Africans since who very much are aware of all the art traditions of Europe, who have studied in Europe and England and the U.S., and who are as self-consciously Artist as anybody else who is self-consciously an artist.

I've witnessed this process first hand, in Afro-Cuba, among its dominant naciónes and spiritual practicioners. Everything changed so fast among them after the end of Soviet insularity. The same in Brasil and West Africa -- which is what I know best.

Love, C.

I badly wanted to buy a chiwara but could never bring myself to do so. It just didn't feel right.

The problem with attempts to definie authenticity, though, again becomes if the past or a form of stasis becomes the agreed upon marker of authenticity. As Fragano says, a static culture is a dying culture.

Over the weekend I've been thinking a lot about the issue of art and religious art. Academy of Arts in Hawaii a few years ago featured the first exhibit of Bhutanese religious art outside Bhutan. It was pretty intense as an exhibit, textiles and paintings. I can't see how anyone would call it inauthentic, but it's interesting because in an art museum it is seen out of context, and I do often wonder how much the context matters in religious art (I tend to think it matters a lot, as you point out in your comment above).

Then there's the issue of art is a thing vs art as performance, which is emphemeral in a way that an object is not necessarily. But still art. My examples happened to be drawn from art objects, but I meant the larger discussion to cover all those things we tend to identify as art.

When it comes to various arts and crafts I think that there are multiple sets of "authentic". Traditional and modern versions can both be "authentic" as long as no one is claiming that the modern versions are historically accurate.

True. And then they are historically accurate for their time. In a hundred years, they may look traditional.

I guess a person is authentic if she's what she claims to be. A thing is authentic if it is what people claim it is. Maybe the problem comes in when we're not sure what the claim is that's being made. Or at least, that's one thing that makes it complicated. The fact that things--culture, people, locations--are always changing also complicates matters. And then I guess, too, there's the matter of who adjudicates the claim. If someone claims to be Native American, on the one hand there's the matter of understanding what that claim means. Then there's the matter of the fact that what it means may be in flux, and then there's the matter of who gets to judge.

Yes. This.

Even the claim of being part of a group cannot be easily resolved by, say, DNA testing because it isn't always that simple either.

In fairy tales, it's sometimes amusing to read writers who think that fairy tales were handed down unmodified from primordial times except when "contaminated" by other stories. And the vapors over how literary tales could contaminate folk tales.

Sometimes it's less than amusing. In reality, the publication of Grimms' Fairy Tales produced a noticable change in the folk tales being told in Japan. Influence is more common than isolation.

Cross pollenization is something that I feel is a major gift to storytelling in general and where a lot of interesting creative stuff occurs. People don't exist in a vacuum. Why would our arts and stories be any different? That's rather like handing a kid a doll and telling them that they aren't allowed to play with it unless they keep it in mint condition.


Yes, we're all richer for cultural contact. There remain other issues to be dealt with because, I think, cultural appropriation is a significant factor that is related to but not the same as the natural tendency of cultures to be fluid.

Cultures are always borrowing, absorbing, giving, taking. They are never static.

To me, certain kinds of demands from the outside that indigenous cultures need to remain static to remain authentic feel like a kind of colonialism.

If a culture is static, it's dying.

I remember a Navajo woman who told me, back in the '60s, a story about her grandmother. As a young woman, her grandmother was thrilled to have the money to buy magenta and bright red aniline coal-tar dyes from the local trading post. Red was one of the 4 sacred colors, as well as being beautiful, and none of the native plants could supply it in any permanent (ie washable) form.

The white women who came into the shop where I worked were always deploring those awful chemical dyes that had somehow forced "native women" to stop using the natural plant dyes. I had done a lot of reading on natural dyes, and it's very hard to get anything but green, gray, and brown with the plants available in the American South-west. Weavers like color, generally.


Part of the problem of course was that the buyers of the natural-dye revival rugs lived lives surrounded by bright colors in the modern city. They wanted something restful. This was not a problem for the original Navajo weavers.

For some reason that reminds me of some homeowners associations and their stipulations that you must paint your house in "earth tones." They always mean some beige-ish brown color, but I keep wondering if they've ever considered that some sands come in a rather nice green. It seems to all boil down to preconceptions.


That particular restriction makes me want to find out exactly what crazy colors could be made from various earths. Sulfur counts as an earth, right?

But then, I hate homeowners' associations on general principles. They're fascist by definition—public control of private property.

Public only in a limited way, though. I live under a homeowner's association (not because I want to but because the place I live has one). We have actual government over us -- the federal and state and city and county -- and then the town association, which is some kind of weird not public not private amalgamation. I should look up the genesis of the town association, because the "town" was all privately developed and then the town association stuck on top of it, so it isn't a state or city derived entity. They are definitely crazy with their rules, though (including the insane paint tones rules! Yes! We have them!) -- it's very weird and annoying.

Really interesting anecdote.

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