What Does 'Authentic' Mean Anyway?

VDH writes:
One common denominator, however, seems to govern today’s endless search for some sort of authenticity: a careerist effort to separate oneself from the assumed dominate and victimizing majority of white heterosexual and often Christian males.
Even before we got to the present moment, I always wondered what the 'authenticity' debate was really about. It seems to be an attempt to define yourself by adopting someone else's categories. A country music singer who wanted to be successful might well say that he was "an authentic cowboy," or in any case present himself as such, as if Roy Rogers hadn't already mocked that concept way back in 1943.

That song came from "King of the Cowboys," which was a classic example of Roy Rogers' particular approach to the genre. It wasn't an 1880s "Wild West" bit, it was set in its own present day. Are they cowboys? Well, yeah, in a way: "The Old Bar X is a barbecue."

In another way they were quite self-consciously performing an iconic role, for reasons of their own. Roy Rogers was definitely Roy Rogers. He had his own unique style and manner even within the context of the 'cowboy' genre of the 1940s-1960s. How much he was like the cowboy of the open range days was a question that amused even him. How much were any of them "authentic" cowboys?

You might think this is less applicable to whether or not one is 'authentically' a member of an ethnic group or a sexual minority, but I'm not sure. Really people are individuals, like Roy Rogers was. Membership in social groups is to some degree performative, just as playing a cowboy on the screen was. What does it mean to be "black," for example? Barack Obama was from a white family on his mother's side, even a cousin of George Washington's. On his father's side, well, his father was from Kenya in that generation. The whole thing we think of as 'the black experience' -- the Western passage, the heritage of slavery, Jim Crow, the long economic oppression in American cities -- neither side of his family experienced that. His father had some claim on a similar heritage of being oppressed by the British within Africa, and of course he had black skin. But what we normally think of as 'black American' experience had no role in Obama's heritage. Yet he performed as 'the first black American president,' and was accepted as quite authentically so by everyone.

At this point we've started to let people make performative exceptions even to their physical sex, and are treating the performance as more authentic than the genetics. What could authenticity mean in such a context?

It's got to mean that, like Roy Rogers, you're delivering a great performance. Which is to say that the word is a kind of contradiction in terms as we currently use it; to be authentic is to be great at constructing and presenting yourself as something. It's artifice, it's artificial, and yet the word we use for it has exactly the opposite connotation.


james said...

"Authentic," as you well know, means "uninhibited by any restraints of reason or courtesy."

Texan99 said...

We enjoy the "Mind of a Chef" series, but some of their featured chefs get really tangled up in this stuff. Is it OK to enjoy fried chicken, knowing that black people were forced to cook it for white people under unpleasant conditions? Who could care about this nonsense? Why do people waste their lives worrying about whether it's OK to be influenced by someone else's culture, or adopt some of its best ideas?