Once upon a time, in the days when they ran the Internet on an engine salvaged from a defunct 1967 VW Beetle, a number of us got into a running brouhaha about “authenticity.” I was an “authenticity skeptic,” reluctant to allow more than ideological content this usage. The topic comes up frequently enough that our debates never quite faded from memory, nor even from on-going currency among us discussants, and this morning I fell to thinking about what I might say to stand in for the abused term “authenticity.”
I wonder whether we might get any traction on the disagreement between me and the defenders of authenticity if we were to compare authenticity with sincerity (another term that’s suffered a lot of abuse). I’m willing enough to commend sincerity, in a way that I hesitate to buy into authenticity.
“Sincerity,” I think, invokes the correspondence of the outlook one expresses with one’s actual convictions and sentiments. If I were to say, “I’m terribly sorry that the Baltimore Orioles dominated baseball in the early 1970’s,” that apology would be insincere inasmuch as I’m a devoted (and nostalgic) Orioles fan. “Sincerity” involves one element of what most people seem to want “authenticity” to do, but it falls short; one can imagine a blues performer who sincerely performs “Hellhound on My Trail,” but who has never known poverty, bigotry, or profound romantic disappointment — as sincere as she might be, there’s a strong chance that her performance would lack something that many people would identify as “authenticity.”
Here, though, I respond: I agree that her performance misses the point, but do we advance our understanding of what’s wrong with this picture by saying that she’s “inauthentic”? Might we not more helpfully call her interpretation unconvincing, or shallow, or glib? My students often have to read Henry Louis Gates’s essay “ ‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree” (it would be great if I could link to the New York Times Book Review November 24, 1991 — but alas, that’s not possible), in which Gates clearly tracks numerous occasions when presumably “authentic” expressions were commended and acclaimed until their authors were revealed. The point of departure for Gates’s reflections is Asa Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, which many praised for its depiction of Native American wisdom, until they learned that it had been written by a white man (with a long history of racist writing and action).
When I fret about the value of “authenticity” in discourse, I’m more concerned about ways we can clarify the basis for our praise and derogation; I’m still not sure “authenticity” contributes much to that end.