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The Rise of Expressive Authenticity

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 86, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 361-395 | 10.1353/anq.2013.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"Know thyself" was written over the portal of the antique world.
Over the portal of the new world "Be thyself" shall be written.

-Wilde (1905:34)

Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!

-Arnold (1896:74)

Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, what'er you may believe.

-Browning (1899:43)

Defining Terms

The quotes above are characteristic 19th century testimonials to the value of personal authenticity as "the reigning value of a society bereft of divine sanction and dissatisfied with the false comforts of modern life" (Jay 2011:9). In the rest of this special collection, a number of scholars will present ethnographic case studies and theoretical perspectives that situate the pursuit and instantiation of authenticity in cultural terms. In so doing, they expand upon recent work by anthropologists who have explored authenticity in its various forms, trajectories, and consequences.

However, this is not my purpose. Rather, my contribution is a preliminary one, setting the stage for the more specific articles that follow. In it, I will outline some of the major ways in which one aspect of authenticity, in the particular form of "being thyself," came to serve as a prevalent trope for transcendence in the Western world. My (necessarily simplified) foray into social, intellectual, and literary history is intended to provide a useful survey of the philosophical and aesthetic context and the social circumstances in which the value of personal expressive authenticity has arisen and taken hold of modern consciousness. With this background drawn in, the later, more ethnographically informed articles should gain greater purchase as they fit within, and critique, the larger cultural-historical narrative about authenticity and its realizations. I have another agenda as well: to demonstrate that Western philosophy, aesthetics, and literature are fair game for anthropological analysis which expands the traditional boundaries of our discipline.

I'll begin my task simply, with definitions. The word authenticity (German Authentizität) is derived from the Greek autos or "self" and hentes or "prepared." In his classic book Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling (1974) writes that authentes originally meant having full power over something, and so came to signify not only a master and doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, and even a suicide-indicating the term's primordial connection with violence, assertion, and ruthlessness. However, in modern times, its valence is wholly positive.

In English, the word "authentic" is one of an overlapping set of evaluations that includes sincere, true, honest, absolute, basic, essential, genuine, ideal, natural, original, perfect, pure, real, and right (Phillips 1997:5-6). All of these words refer to some state of being that is believed to lie outside or beneath the vicissitudes of ordinary existence. But they also have a banal function as intensifying adverbs: "I'm really telling the truth," "ideally speaking," "to be perfectly clear," "essentially, the argument is," "I mean it sincerely." It is significant that it is impossible to substitute "authentically" into any of these adverbial constructions. Unlike its cousins, the authentic cannot be reduced to a mere intensifier. Authenticity has higher claims to make.

In legal jargon, authenticity means that evidence has been correctly gathered from a reliable source and has not been tampered with before presentation. More specifically, authenticity refers to the verification of objective representations such as signatures, documents, and paintings. When these are designated authentic, they are legally considered to have been authored by the person who signed them and to correspond in fact with appearance. They can then be used to validate legal claims.

In the lexicon of the computer age, authenticity indicates that a message received over the Internet is indeed the same as the message sent, and that the sender is indeed the person who signed the message. Authentication of a message's integrity and the sender's identity is vital in the virtual universe, where communications can be hijacked in cyberspace, and where credit cards, driver's license numbers, and email addresses take the place of personal recognition. Anxiety about the validity of experience and about the maintenance of personal identity is at the core of this computerized definition.

From these contemporary usages, we can see...



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