- Introduction: Power, Pain, and the Cultural Work of Authenticity in American Studies and Beyond
What does it mean to deem something authentic—a particular person or group, a cultural object or performance, an embodied experience or sensation? What is measured or evaluated and against what are these measurements taken? What is disciplined or adjudicated by this designation and who has the power or authority to bestow it? What desires are signaled and what fears are managed? What imaginations are affirmed and what connections are denied, what histories asserted and what possibilities foreclosed, in holding up the authentic as a site of value and attachment? If assertions of authenticity also mark anxieties circling around its opposite, what forces threaten to erode or diminish that which the authentic names and holds dear?
In taking up these and related questions, this forum tangles with authenticity as a keyword that travels with impressive range and endurance across the varied terrain of American studies, cutting a path through diverse fields and conversations: in Indigenous studies, music, African American studies, theater and performance studies, Asian American studies, Latinx studies, tourism studies, visual and material culture studies, and film and media studies, to offer a by no means exhaustive list. While the path is wide and well worn, however, the explicit status of the keyword as such—the foundations that undergird it, the genealogies that animate it, the work it enables or forecloses, its ultimate usefulness or lack thereof—is a question sometimes left by the wayside.1 This is in contrast to disciplines like anthropology or philosophy, for instance, in which questions of authenticity have been more central, focused around the identity of cultural objects (and subjects) in the former context, and around notions of selfhood in the latter,2 and to allied fields like Indigenous studies, in which the enduring psychic and material violence enacted through Western constructions of authentic cultural identity have been interrogated with particular force.3 While these are inquiries that inform and contribute to American studies deeply and directly, however, in many accounts, the notion of [End Page 123] the authentic as a meaningful qualifier of experiences, performances, objects, and identities continues to circulate without explication.
In addition to its status across diverse academic fields, authenticity plays an outsize role in modern mass culture, where it serves as a sales pitch for a dizzying array of products and experiences, feeding the very consumer culture felt to threaten or destroy it. As the folklorist Regina Bendix observed in the late 1990s, as a culture we are obsessed with the commoditization of both authenticity and its imitation: the perfect copy that, in its success, highlights the convergence of “the genuine and the spurious” (although the value assigned to the copy as such still relies on this conceptual distinction).4 Contemporary marketing discourse emphasizes with particular zeal the self-conscious manufacture of the authentic and the sincere;5 indeed, the market seems to drive this paradox, propelling through the commoditization of nearly everything the production of kitsch alongside the rising stock of authenticity.6 At the same time, the anxious specter of inauthenticity has gained particular prominence in contemporary political discourse, as both traditional news media and new forms of social media are debated or discounted on the basis of their feared or presumed fakery or phoniness, augmenting the timeliness of this forum’s critical reflection.
In tangling with authenticity and the uses to which it has been put, the forum grows out of and extends discussions initiated at a roundtable at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Honolulu in November 2019. The roundtable convened a group of scholars, students, and practitioners working in diverse areas to grapple with the status and significance of authenticity as a keyword in both American life and American studies scholarship. In the panel’s original CFP, I asked participants to consider what is named, recognized, or constituted through claims to authenticity, how the term can be historicized, and what its genealogy has to tell us about the cultural, political, or ideological work the concept performs. In line with the annual meeting’s theme Building as We Fight, the call invited both an interrogation...