Further on Authenticity, Race, and Music

I’ve blogged before about the problems relative to un-nuanced judgments relative to race and music, most recently in relation to my search for the “Young Caucasians” clip from Saturday Night Live.

At the time, I didn’t think to link this to Michelle Shocked’s long, tireless devotion to the problem of race and music. She’s spent more time working through this topic both in performance and in theory than anyone I can think of (cf. the album notes to Arkansas Traveler). So, when she stands at the front of the choir of the Church of God in Christ Church in West Los Angeles — well, what’s the authenticity quotient?

It would be tough to convince me that that’s not the real thing; but then, I’m inclined to believe Michelle Shocked about almost anything (except copyright, but that’s another story).

Authenticity and Sincerity

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.

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.

Imperfection, Authenticity, and Excellence

I was in a cranky mood yesterday afternoon at about 4:45, so when NPR commentator Sara Fishko started expatiating about her recent hunger for “authenticity” in recorded music, my buttons didn’t even need pushing; she merely brushed them, and set off my temper.

This is not a new topic; others have treated it with wisdom and profundity, online and offline. I don’t have time to search for specific links right now, but I’m sure Jeff Ward, Tom Matrullo, the Happy Tutor, and Ray Davis would provide more than enough grist for an edifying mill; I’d love to convene an online seminar on “authenticity” with those luminaries, chaired by Heideggerian philosopher David Weinberger — what a treat! Hermenaut’s article on “fake authenticity” opens the topic nicely, and if you’re more comfortable with print media than digital media, Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity and I’m inclined to think there’s something by Dorothee Soelle that led me to Adorno — her critique of Rudolf Bultmann — that led me to Adorno, but I can’t find the reference right now.

The short expression of why “authenticity” vexes me comes down to, “There’s no there there.” Fishko rhapsodizes about the informal, flawed performances that she prefers to the technically-refined, highly-engineered masterworks by perfectionist performers. She’s entitled to that preference, of course, but identifying it as “authenticity” perpetuates a critical sleight-of-hand by which Fishko’s preference for endearingly imperfect performances ascribes to the work in question a positive attribute: “authenticity.” That ascription, though, occludes the question of “authentic to what?” Are the missed notes and “risks” that Fishko admires part of, say, the composer’s own vision of the work? Or do they constitute a more genuine performance than one in which the instrumentalist doesn’t miss any notes, or take risks with the piece?

In other words, “authenticity” all too often serves as an ideological placeholder term for “stuff I like, for which I don’t have a more precise or reputable adjective that justifies this appreciation.” That’s sloppy thinking, and I object to it.

For the record, I too tend to prefer performances that involve risky, technically-imperfect expression of the compositions in question — though not by any means across the board, and certainly not because such performances are more “authentic.” Some performances benefit from a swung tempo, some from an urgency that missed notes actually reinforce, some from precision and immaculate engineering, some from the casual ambiance that amateur recordings imply. Some rare, astonishing performances combine technical virtuosity with imagination and risk-taking in a sublime confluence of the highest standards in accuracy of performance, recording and artistic imagination; would they be more authentic if the performer flubbed a few notes, or the engineer recorded the performance with a narrow dynamic range and mediocre microphones? When performers deliberately select minimalist, one-take recording techniques, are they opting for greater authenticity, or are they inauthentically adopting a style that doesn’t reflect their customary practice or capacities? Different listeners will assess different combinations of qualities differently, but not because one recognizes true authenticity while the other doesn’t.

To paraphrase the quotation I have most often heard ascribed to Sam Goldwyn, “The secret to success is authenticity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Warmer and Still Cool

8° but it felt chilly nonetheless, felt all right but not strong or especially limber, pace was undistinguished. Yes, two miles.

Hey, Anil Dash (whom some of us actually remember from the old days at Movable Type) has a very apt reflection on ‘selling out’, a concept that seems to be coming back into vogue. The discourse complements my arguments (again from the olden times of blogging) concerning ‘authenticity’, and if the Internet were a smaller world again, and I were to tag Anil in a post and he could actually read referrer logs that pointed to this blog, he might respond. But that was a different world, with different mediations of friendship, and different malefactors whose practices require concealing the desire lines from one link to another…

Desire and Interpretation

HoopoeAs the Sturm und Drang about the (apparently forged) Jesus’ Wife Fragment waxes and wanes (the Sturm waxes, the Drang wanes?), my predictably eccentric interest concerns the role of evidence and of non-evidential factors in shaping positive or negative assessments of the fragment.

Let’s start again by noticing that, even at its very earliest plausible date, its most genuine condition, the fragment doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know: that in the late second century, some people thought Jesus had been married. If we didn’t think Jesus was married before, we don’t have more reason to think he was; we just have further evidence affirming this particular view (often associated with, or dismissed as, Gnostic). Apart from the ordinary interest that the discovery of a hitherto unknown manuscript from early Christianity, this fragment should not generate much excitement in any but the more arcane academic circles — and that’s on the assumption that it’s genuine.

So the furor over the fragment, and the side-taking over its authenticity, require an explanation. If the JWF is not particularly novel, if it may not even be genuine, why did it become controversial? Certain aspects of the fuss can easily be explained: there is money in media coverage, and a television special would certainly line somebody’s pockets. Likewise media attention to the fragment, for which each click and link meant more advertising revenue. And even high-minded scholars like attention; most of the time, most people ignore us, and the glamour of broadcast authority would be difficult to resist for all but the most ascetical among us. (I mean no slight at my colleagues who appear in documentaries or news coverage — those whom I know are all lovely people whom I respect, and for whom I wish only the best, for whose good fortune I congratulate them.) One can dispose of much of the sizzle by ascribing it to cash considerations and publicity — “most”, but not by any means “all.” The role that money and publicity play in the construction of academic controversy and knowledge warrants closer attention, but I’m particularly interested in the residuum.

For instance, why did anyone think the fragment was genuine in the first place? I am not a papyrologist, a palaeographer, or a reader of Coptic — but the early photos of the fragment looked odd to me right away. Clearly, they looked right enough to pass muster to Karen King and the experts she consulted, so my unease doesn’t count for much.

I can’t keep from thinking that somewhere in the alchemy of academic judgement, some people wanted to think the JWF was genuine, and others that it wasn’t. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that I know this was true. Did a prior disposition in favour of revolutionary, disruptive, rebellious parties in early Christianity have any effect on Prof. King’s judgement about the fragment? In an irreproachably sound academic way, it certainly did: she more than many other scholars is open to the possibility that non-standard traditions about Jesus circulated broadly and for centuries after the consolidation of conciliar doctrine about Jesus (as in fact it still does). Many scholars would be less disposed to consider anything about a JWF from the start. So without impugning her scholarship in the least, it seems fair to say that her disposition affected her judgement at least as far as her interest in the fragment and her willingness even to consider its genuineness.

By the same token, plenty of vociferous scholars have the opposite disposition, and we saw some immediate negative responses to the JWF which may well have owed as much to the scholars’ inclination to downplay the genuineness of apparent evidence that early Christians held divergent views about Jesus as they owed to identifiable faults with the evaluation of the fragment.

And some scholars, I should add, contributed substantive evidence to the discussion. The direction of their inquiries may have been affected by their desires to support or debunk the genuineness of the fragment, but evidence resists desire somewhat more effectively than do sentiment and temperament, and the comparisons to other fragments and to other texts (and their provenance, and their conditions of publication) help immensely in reaching a thoughtful conclusion about the JWF.

Over and above the reasonable, inevitable, productive inclinations (“positive prejudices,” as Gadamer called them), though, is there not visible a certain longing-to-[dis]believe, wishing-it-were[n’t]-so, that we see more clearly when non-specialists latch on to particular notions regardless of the historical or evidential basis? The attraction of metanarratives such as “the church conceals the truth from you”, or “in the twenty-first century no rational person can believe…”, or “this is the truth unambiguously and definitively handed down changelessly from the first century to now…” resides not in the evidential basis for any of them so much as in the desire that they be so.

We cannot extirpate desire from our interpretive reasoning, not even by dint of determined will. Must we then be silent about our entanglement with desire? When a professed radical interpreter finds Paul to be an anti-imperial subversive, is it disrespectful to note that the exegetical conclusion conveniently fits the interpreter’s wishes? And most difficult of all, what of the interpretive desires of people whose allegiances and principles cannot conveniently be labelled and mapped? And — when any charge of interpretation-by-desire can be answered with a tu quoque (“the same to you”) so that one can’t simply dismiss an interpretation because of its background, how can we construct a discourse in which desire is neither a taboo nor a blank cheque?

One might think that the hermeneutics of desire follow relatively straightforwardly from autobiographical interpretation, but I don’t remember hearing the topic addressed as a matter of methodological or metacritical reflection. If I missed something, please let me know.

Great Moments in Popular Music 2

I have some of the ambivalence about Graceland that many politically-concerned listeners have expressed. I admire Paul Simon’s New York craftsmanship in composing infectious, compelling pop melodies, arrangements, and lyrics; his work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always well done. And I don’t begrudge him the brilliant contribution that his African colleagues made to the album; that would be a weird form of racism (“no, you may not record with African musicians, white man”). Nor do I want simply to indict him of exploitation or inauthenticity. I gather that the performers all appreciate the Western audiences’ attention that he brought to their work, and I haven’t heard that any of them grouse about working with him. The album is a stunning gesture of incorporation; it’s a Paul Simon album, but it’s an African-flavoured Paul Simon album, and that’s just kinda weird.
And he pulls it off, by and large. As I get older, I remember a smaller and smaller proportion of the tracks I hear, but Graceland has impressed itself on me, track after track. Well done, sir!
Simon being a consummate musician and craftsman, the album abounds with compelling touches, but there’s just one that makes my heart gasp every time I hear it (and I’ve gone back to listen several times over, to make sure of what I’m hearing). “You Can Call Me Al” wins much of its audience, I suppose, with the whimsical-nonsensical lyrics playing over a bed of rich pop hooks (“bed of hooks” — I’m going to remember reuse that phrase), or the charming video with Chevy Chase cheerily miming/lip-synching the lead vocals as Simon sits dolefully beside him, pushed to the margin during his own song.
The melody prances blithely along, with the African contributions held in the background: a few “Aaa-ohhhms” in the vocal tracks, and the irrepressibly funky rhythm tracks. Over the top, though, the horns and synthesisers and guitars sound mostly like an ordinary, jazzy Paul Simon number, and the very Manhattanite lyrics affirm that familiarity of the most prominent instrumental tracks. At the first bridge, the recording introduces a pennywhistle break to great effect — that’s fine, but it’s at the second bridge that the arrangement makes room first for a drum break (is that Isaac Mtshali, or Ralph Macdonald, or both?) and then the marvellous moment when Baghiti Kumalo tears off a breath-taking lightning-like bass line. Oh, my goodness! The last few notes sound as though they’re going backwards, presumably through studio manipulation, but that short break recast the whole track for me. I loved going back and hearing it several times over, alone and in the full context of the song, in order to write it up for the blog. Mmmmm.

Four Things, Two Pairs

Relative to teaching: Thought-provoking blog (as usual) from George Siemens and chat transcript over at weblogg (ed) moderated by Will Richardson. (Unnumerated bonus, but this would make it “Five Things, Three Plus Two”: Blog from the University about undergraduate teaching.)
And Suw points to an HBR entry by Roger Martin that discusses the problem of “inauthentic communities” for business leaders. Suw, soundly, suggests that social media represent a changed and changing environment for community, which promises some advantages for sound community connections that late pre-digital business culture lacked; and Martin underscores the baneful effects of executive insularity (for which Suw hopes social media may be a partial remedy). I note these partly because I admire and respect Suw, and wanted to affirm the possibility she cites, and partly because I think that both she and Martin can get at the important points of their observatiuons withlout the use of the red-herring word “inauthentic.” I started out on the ’Net carping about the usage of “authenticity” and its evil twin “inauthenticity” in conversation with David, Tom, the non-Groundhog Day (now Net-absent) Dave Rogers, and others, and I have revived my jaundiced view repeatedly since then. I just don’t think that conceptual vocabulary contributes to clear thinking about the problems to which it points. Not that there isn’t a problem — just that framing it as an “authenticity” problem usually (inevitably?) invokes ideological mystification about what counts as “authentic,” rather than pointing to specific weaknesses, conundrums, contradictions, and so on. It’s a familiar, comfortable ideological mystification — but I remain persuaded that we’re better off taking a different tack.
And now I can close five tabs that have been open on my browser far too long!

Plus, It’s Raining

I remember back in the halcyon days of blogging, when we participated in lengthy back-and-forths about the unique transparency of the blog genre, about letting it all hang out in full view of the thousands of readers, and about how authentic a blog had to be. I always hewed to the line that blogging can be self-revelatory, but it need not be, and subsequent events suggest that sometimes people are better advised to hold back some of what’s on their minds.
For my part, I’ve held back a fair amount. Readers know that I’m looking for a job, and am frustrated and anxious about it, but I’ve withheld a lot of backstory to those frustrations and anxieties. As they accumulate, it gets harder to not just cut loose with an impassioned self-justifying memoir of the past months — but even if it makes me “inauthentic” when I maintain a moderately calm tone in my prose, that inauthenticity paradoxically bespeaks the kind of guy I am. More times than I can count, my father told me the chreia about the occasion when Epictetus’s angry master punished him by twisting his arm. “If you twist it further, it will break,” the slave said. When his master did indeed break his arm, Epictetus allegedly pointed out, “I told you so.” My dad prized that kind of Stoic self-control; I don’t buy in as unabashedly as he did, but nonetheless that ideal shaped me (and Stoic ethics and the Gospel do converge and diverge in an intriguing ideological arabesque). Whatever may be the case for others, I don’t commend the truth by spilling my guts.
Plus, it’s been raining for the past couple of days.
More positively, the campus shuttle driver pointed out that any December day when the temperature breaks sixty is a gift. And the woman at Famous Haircuts who once (accidentally) whacked me on the head with a hair dryer ran out of the store to catch me and introduce me to a crowd of others to whom she was telling the story. So there’s blessing and sharing, too, in the midst of rain and cares.

Do I Read an “Amen”?

From Stephen Downes, a post from Michael Umphrey that emphasizes the importance of actually improving students’ writing (at the high school level — but gosh darn golly, maybe something like that would even help college and graduate students). Some of the standout points include Stephen’s comment that “I do believe that there are good reasons for good writing, and that there are ways to become a better writer. Clarity and precision – whether in writing, art or athletics – are virtues, because they help you obtain your objectives. The principles of writing are intended, in the first instance, to foster clarity and precision,”; Michael’s observation that although “empowerment, authenticity, and voice” may identify dimensions of writing that teachers should encourage, “research (not just Googling). . . . truth, and accuracy” were pretty desirable too (I would add “even more desirable,” and I’d import Stephen’s “clarity and precision” here. Plus, “knowing the difference between an argument and an opinion).”

Michael suggests that getting students to write online, where they stand visibly responsible for what they say, would be a good step — blogging, for instance.

Michael notes that you can’t simply assume that accredited teachers make good writers (one might think this self-evident, but the ideological power of credentials obscures the obvious in this as so many other respects). Teachers need to be taught to write better, and the whole curriculum should support the value of strong, clear, focused writing — otherwise, in a culture that accords little explicit emphasis to effective expression, it will be perceived as a cranky obsession of the minority who uphold it. “Promote this school as the place where writing matters.” In theological education, one can only imagine what would happen if a particular seminary got the reputation as forming remarkably articulate, effective preachers and communicators.

It’s not that it has been tried, and found wanting. It’s that it has been found difficult, and not tried.


I was going to celebrate the walls tumbling down on the New York Times archive by pointing to my favorite article, Henry Louis Gates’s “Authenticity, or The Lesson of Little Tree” (November 24, 1991), but for some reason it doesn’t show up in the archive. Several letters in response to the essay, but not the essay itself. So look up Kwame Anthony Appiah’s article from the Times Magazine, “The Case for Contamination.”