11 February, 2002

( 8:59 AM )
Before I generate any official, this-is-today’s-blog blog, it occurred to me during the afternoon Hymn Festival yesterday that the problem with “authenticity” may lie in part with how we’re trying to get at it, rather than with the concept itself. That is, “inauthenticity” tends toward homogeneity and imitation; the kind of “authenticity” for which people generally aim, derives from (a) not worrying about whether one is sounding authentic and (b) not trying to sound like something else, whether an ideal of one’s own or a model provided by someone else.
So while “authenticity” may be necessarily elusive as a positive quality, “inauthenticity” may be easier to get hold of. Or as Tolstoy might have said if he had been a Web visionary, “All inauthentic web voices are alike, but an authentic web voice is authentic after its own fashion.”


Hasty reader that I am, I missed David Weinberger’s “If your outer self doesn’t pretend to represent your inner self, you’re now in a politics of theatre or authorship, not one of personal identity” until Tom Matrullo (weblogs.comlink lost) pointed it out. But this is just the kind of distinction I’m wondering if we might want to question; after all, isn’t “the politics of theatre or authorship” a constituent of “the politics of personal identity”? It might not make sense to ask if RageBoy is “authentic” (and here I’m presupposing, contra my intuition, that it’s worth deploying that concept), but since Chris Locke has made his sharing RageBoy’s voice a transparent gesture, it seems to make sense to ask whether Locke/RageBoy’s voice is authentic.
Moreover, don’t we expect theatrical or literary characters to have distinctive, convincing, expressive voices? One of Gosford Park‘s strengths lies in the richness of the characters; they strike us as authentic characters. So I’d hesitate before I affirmed David’s proposal from yesterday.


Well, in response to David and Tom and Steve Himmer (link lost) and Dave R., I will push us another step beyond. The various contributions from these wise gentlefolk have tended to operate within the set of assumptions that treats our Web personae as somehow extrinsic to the real “us” (observations on corporate websites anon); but what if our Web personae are, quite simply, yet another part of us?
I am a different guy at home with my family from when I’m teaching, and different yet again when I’m leading worship or preaching, and different again when I’m discussing my fantasy baseball league team, and so on. (How different are these personae? That’s part of the meta-question.) Culture has variously urged us to be natural & strip off our masks; or to keep our affections in the closet; or to compartmentalize; or a thousand other bits of identity-shaping instruction. Perhaps it’s a mistake to parse this advice as involving different “inner” and “outer” selves (as one might say, “my ‘inner’ self is a gay Mets fan, whereas my ‘outer’ self is a straight Red Sox fan”). Perhaps the question ought not concern “inner” and “outer,” but ought to involve the extent to which our ways in the world are coherent with one another, the extent to which they complement one another in constituting an engaging whole.
Now, that’s of little immediate help in evaluating Web personae; I know none of my present interlocutors as anything other than a stream of electrons (though sometimes I hear David Weinberger’s stream of electrons on NPR). But that doesn’t mean that my acquaintance with them is less real; it simply means that I know less of them. I know relatively little of the Academic Affairs Assistant at my office apart from her work on campus; I know more of the administrator of the Seabury Instute, because she worships in my parish; I know even more of the professor of Church History, because she and I belong to the same parish and we work side-by-side; I know yet more of the professor of Systematic Theology, because we became close friends way back in graduate school (walking around following Aristotle).
The issue at hand in both Web personae and workplace/family/gang/etc. personae isn’t reducible to “inner” and “outer.” There are whole vast Venn diagrams of persona whose complexities it would take a lifetime to map. Here Steve Himmer’s blog seems quite to the point, and I’d quote him except I can’t copy-and-paste from his page. Any one of the facets of our identity may represent an unexpected, radically incongruous aspect of the whole, or it may draw on a broader pool of characteristics that our various personae share.
The matter of a corporate persona gets complicated in large part because we construe a site as a single voice (unless different voices re marked out for us), yet that single voice has been proiduced by a committee, or “to suit a committee,” or “so as not to offend a number of people important to the well-being of this institution.” This usually doesn’t yield a convincingly human-sounding voice–the overlap among the various constituent personae get awfully thin, and some of the personae who might contribute to making the web voice get flattened out or ignored.
This is me. This is what I’m like when you can’t see my face, or hear my voice, but can make out the words I’m scrawling on your computer screen and can tell from the color scheme and logo that I teach at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.
At this point, I’m going to sleep. I’ll blog more tomorrow. By the way, David W., Margaret loved the curling metaphor; she said, “Oh, AKMA, you finally made a team!” I want to know when I get my uniform.

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