Authenticity Redux

Frank questions my interrogation of the positive value of “authenticity”: “Mark Woods has linked to this post, giving it more substance and weight than I think it deserves. The Hermenaut link is as much piffle as the Fishko presentation. Either can be criticized or enjoyed for the superficial mind candy that each of them is.”

One way of getting at my dissatisfaction, Frank, is to confess that I’m a very careful, deliberate writer. That’s my style; were I to try to write more spontaneously, with more of the visceral spontaneity that characterizes Jeneane’s writing, I think it would be inauthentic for me (in the sense that it would give a false impression of my character and my typical mode of expression). To that extent, careful writing is authentic for me, that’s the kind of guy I am; and no-holds-barred vividness is authentic for Jeneane. [Side note: I’m picking on Jeneane here because she’s put a lot of energy into advocating her visceral bloggery, which is great with me and I admire her style, and also because she knows I think she rocks, so she’s not likely to construe my argument here as an attack on her or her chosen authentic style.)

But many people use the term “authentic” to mean, “baring the performer/writer’s inmost feelings, holding nothing back” — and to those who use the term that way, the style of writing that best fits my gnereal persona would likely seem inauthentic, inasmuch as I express myself in measured, deliberate prose. I do bar some holds. I do hold back some of my thoughts and feelings.

Which is why I raise the question, “authentic to what?” Do I fail the test of authenticity if I don’ write more like Jeneane?

Or to put it another way (because I admire Shelley, and I want to share out my links), if we were to find out that the Burning Bird’s phoenix-song were very carefully composed, to convey the effect of having been written by someone very much like the Shelley we imagine when we read her heartfelt, sometimes very pointed, clarion-calls — would that be inauthentic? What degree of deliberation and painstaking composition disqualify a recording or literary work from the category of “authenticirty”? A brilliantly gifted writer, after all, may well be able to depict impassioned spontaneity with utterly convincing prose. Is it only authentic if she really felt it?

The Hermenaut article’s invocation of Philip K Dick touches on the point for which I’m arguing. The relation between “the convincing artifice of genuineness” and “heartfelt painstakingly-devised prose” defies a binary taxonomy of authenticity. I like hearing the mistakes and rough edges when some performers play, the eyebrow-scorching graphic explicitness of some writers’ prose — and the elegant precision in some performers’ recordings, and some writers’ fine, exquisitely-assembled literary compositions. I like them all, authentically. Or not.

12 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I would add that what Ms. Fishko interprets as “monumentally unmediated” authenticity is itself the mediated product of the existence of recorded work, with all its attention to detail and concern for the end product. We could get dizzy with twisty passages of self-referential contingency here, but I think I’ve made my point.

    That is to say, were it not for studio recordings, in all their mediated inauthenticity, the performances Ms. Fishko so appreciates might merely be described as good piano playing.

    When I don’t write well, which I admit is nearly all the time, I don’t console myself or rationalize that I’m being authentic. Authentically bad maybe, but still, it’s no virtue. But most of the time I am sincere, and the thoughts and feelings I express are genuine, even if I do spell-check and try to proof-read.

  2. Can we get a tiny bit more comprehension on this by taking another angle? For example, would anyone prefer an “authentic” baker who makes his muffins in a passionate rush (egg shells often find their way in to the batter, undercooked on the inside because they are so desperately desired) over one who strives for an “inauthentic” perfection that adheres slavishly to the recipe? Not an exact analogy with music, but something to consider.

    Akma, I appreciated the original post, and the opportunity to think through this.

  3. Are we mixing up “authentic” and plain “bad” (as in the baker example e.g.). I’m thinking of Devonshire Clotted Cream (since I was visiting my mother in Devon recently), in the “old days” people made this at home in basins over erratic heat, the result was lumpy and delicious. Since the 60s successive beaurocracies have intervened to ensure the production is healthy and safe. The result is almost like soft butter… The authentic cream was wonderful delicious stuff. The beaurocrat cream is OK. I’d say the old-style cream was “authentic” in ways the temperature controled, homogenised, pasturised, safe cream is not….

  4. Thank you, AKMA, for addressing this with such care. My reply got too long and (authentically? well, characteristically at least) overwrought and oblique for a comment box.

  5. I recently visited a family member’s church that styled itself as “authentic.” There were two other words that they used, too, in that this is our values-statement-mission-statement style that says they have pared down what they are to these three concepts. I don’t remember the other two words.

    But I was trying to figure out what an authentic church or congregation is. I don’t know what that means in relation to what it is, what significance it holds for its attendees or what an inauthentic church would be.

    Your earlier post reminded me that I’m starting to see churches refer about themselves with this term and it is always a bit jarring.

  6. If you weren’t authentic, you wouldn’t still be blogging these many years later. Authenticity can’t be inferred in a moment, but in time.

    Plus, I’ve met AKMA, and the AKMA who blogs is very much the AKMA who talks to you and loves his wife and kids and gives sermons from the alter (is that what it’s called still–i dunno–been a while).

    I had the SAME discussion by phone with David Weinberger the summer before last, because David is also a careful writer, and was going through what I thought was a more-careful-than-usual period and I wanted to push him to bristle it up some, whatever that means and those weren’t mye exact words, and he used that very same descrption of the way I blog that sort of pissed me off, that I’m fast or… what was the word… it wasn’t careless… it think it was spontaneous or something… and it pissed me off not because of what David said, but because I had to think about WHY he said it, and it was I’m sure because sometimes I pop off, and sometimes I take some personal/professional risks in saying things a certain way, and sometimes I don’t spellcheck or edit before I post, but folks that’s mostly really because I’m so busy that if the writing I do in my blog became the same careful job of writing I have to do OUT THERE (to earn a living), then why would I bother blogging?

    SO that’s how I see it sort of, but there’s more, and I should post about it.

    I don’t ADVOCATE writing personal stuff. I advocate going to that place of memory or pain or joy or whatever moves you and writing FROM that place. Not necessarily about it. Those are two different things. The distinction is important, especially as the blogworld has transformed from a community of kin to a world of strangers, some of whom will be glad to meet you, some of whom will be out to get you.

    okay then.

    that was all off the cuff. Three minutes flat. Have four hours left to work tonight. Hope I didn’t leave too many typos in my trail….

  7. A lot of the heat here seems to me to be caused by taking the word out of context. There’s a vast difference between someone trying to express themselves (or their artwork) honestly and someone talking about something’s “authentic” sound or look. The first is an ethical imperative; the second is, at best, forgivable critical laziness. At its formal worst, though, it has a history of diverting attention away from the particulars of both the art and the artist, often erasing them completely (and profitably), as with the wealthy importers of “primitive” art. Because I write mostly as a critic, that second context is what I associate with the word; Jeneane takes it the first way.

    The results of trying to write (or sing or paint or waltz) “honestly” varies from person to person and time to time. Sometimes spontaneity is needed; sometimes it’s deadly. Aesthetic honesty means listening for the voice of the work; “spontaneity” often drowns out that wavering and perplexing voice with a triter borrowed voice. Like when Elvis would just do his Elvis impersonation instead of singing the song. Yeats’s first notes for a poem might seem much more mendacious, clicheed, and self-serving than the final lyric. As someone else pointed out, Gould’s “authentic” performances could only take place in a studio. As a professional musician, Willie McTell needed to convey “liveliness” as reliably as a self-help lecturer. He does it better, but that has to do with medium and talent and intelligence; some self-help lecturers are pretty scarily sincere.

    The writing I’ve done which seems most directly honest to me tends to seem hermetic and mannered to other people. Often when I speak in what seems like a more “direct” and “straightforward” way, inside I begin to feel like a lier, like a seducer or a bully. It’s a moral revulsion.

    But it’s a peculiar one, for sure — I’m very grateful that not everyone has those problems! Most of my favorite writers end up with very clear surfaces.
    (Which have often been very labored over.)

  8. Thanks, Ray. I’m all about writing “honestly,” and I have no objection to using words such as “honestly” to describe that phenomenon. In congruence with what I think you suggest, the rhetoric that chars my toast deploys the mystified term “authentic” to activate a whole array of occluded ideological forces.

    I second your observations about clarity, labor, hermeticism, honesty, and Elvis. Well said.

  9. While showering just now, I remembered how “authenticity” became suspect to me: in Chesapeake, Viriginia, in sixth grade, when the best teacher I had before college, the person responsible for my majoring in math, Miz Johnson, delivered a long scathing monologue on her family’s authentic down home soul food restaurant and its white patronage, the servile idiot masks up front, the Boschian hell of the kitchen…. So that’s one place it comes from.

  10. It’s been too many years now since I had someone who could play the word association game with me – play it out until the edges of sense and logic were folding back into themselves and each new word was a surprise and a joy. The rules as we played were that there was to be no hesitation at all – precisely the spontaneity AKMA places against careful editing toward a more accurate presentation of the self.
    Rahsaan Roland Kirk how about? Lots of people are bothered by that kind of jazz, hearing nothing but discordant honking, and putting it down as self-indulgence and scam. Willie McTell in his day would have met similar attitudes, outside the circumference of his intended audience.
    There was a time when blue notes were very irritating to sophisticated ears.
    And really to talk about authenticity, before you even start to define what it is against what it isn’t you have to get ahold of what it is that’s being authentic, don’t you?
    Take dancing, maybe. Maybe you don’t dance, or only dance ballroom or tango, so free-form spazzing around to jamming cacophony would not be “authentic”. It would feel strange, and look strange and awkward. At first.
    It’s just that it’s fun, and when things line up – when the band or the drums are really there, and you can let go into it, it’s a powerful release. After all, we’ve been dancing like that for close to a hundred thousand years, at least.
    The process of moving from controlled and methodically placed steps toward something just as honest and “you” may involve a passage of inauthenticity, but maybe that’s all it is.
    My junior year of high school I was given the Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language for Christmas. I got through it eventually, and for a little while after there would be these rushes of association and glossolalia that if I let them would just erupt into the car or the room, or wherever I was, to the irritation or bemusement of present company depending.
    Jerry Garcia, the most famous rock&roll improviser of all time, said once that most people weren’t aware how much discipline it took to be a musician.
    What I thought he meant was that under and around all that freedom was a lot of work, and once you’d gotten something like command of the instrument and its notes, the rest was all about making accurate decisions, disciplined decisions. But sometimes those decisions are to “let go”, I guess would be the point.
    One time in late summer a bunch of us went up to the river to enjoy the sun and swim and loll around, and we were sitting there mildly festive on the bank, a little strip of beach above the water, just down a ways from the parking lot and this guy comes down the trail lugging a cooler and some towels a blanket with his wife and some little kids tagging along and it was obvious the children hadn’t been anywhere like this before and there’s an air of stress and dissatisfaction coming from the whole family and the kids go on down to the edge of the water and just stand there huddled together looking stiff and not very happy, and the guy throws down the cooler and the towels and the blanket while his wife kind of hangs back and we watch as he goes up to them and yells in an accusatory tone, “I brought you kids down here to have fun – now goddamn it, get out there and have FUN!”

  11. This is really a horrible subject to blog about. Too many people get overly excited about it, and if there was ever a “much ado about nothing” subject in music, this is it. Personally, I can appreciate period instrument performances or modern instrument performances or transcriptions from one genera to another. Printed music is not, after all, the actual (authentic) music, but it is only a map for making music. The fact that subsequent generations can follow that map to different destinations than those the composer envisioned is one of the things that makes music the most sublime of all the arts, IMO.

    Which reminds me. Was Stradavarius really a great, or even a very good, violin maker? No way he could have known his instruments would sound the way they do today with steel strings on them (Since steel strings didn’t exist in his day). I think he was just lucky and that his fiddles probably sound dead as a brick with gut strings on them. ;^)

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