Why Cultural Authenticity is Becoming Impossible

Here is one blog quoting another blog, which itself is quoting another blog. I did not differentiate by font the four different voices. The content is a collective musing on the role of authentic in religious products and the role of kitsch in modern relgion. What was the role of kitsch in the year in Israel or the creation of Centrist Orthodoxy. If we one made fun of Reform homes for their dancing hasids on the wall, what will we make fun of in Centrist homes? And how much do they really believe the religious objects are authentic? Is the myth of authenticity essential to creating Centrists? Anyone remember when Peshischa and Kotzk were emblems of authenticity?

There is a problem of the white middle/upper class pursuit of authenticity – namely, that this pursuit itself can never be “authentic.” In response to counter-critiques against critics of consumerism (particularly when such consumerism is used as a means of attaining “authenticity”), he uses the metaphor of a sinking ship to point out the necessity of prophetic doomsaying even in the absence of a solution:

Of course criticism is cheap and easy, and there will always be folks demanding that the critics provide positive solutions. There is a certain banality here methinks. It may be banal to state that the ship is sinking, but it is even more banal to dismiss the man who points out that the ship is sinking because he has not provided an explanation detailing how it is all persons on the ship might survive. Sometimes there simply are not enough lifeboats and to reject the message of the person who says as much because that person’s message contains no positive element, or no positive element which we have any confidence in, is, well, not always prudent.

In a similarly depressing fashion, he notes that “many if not most Americans cannot now fathom a life, that is to say a lifestylization, not formed by mass media.” As a result of this mis-shaping of our entire lives, there seems to be little hope of the United States emerging from this “post-cultural” situation, one in which the dominant (and dominating) culture is both purposely contrived for the sake of profit and yet free from the would-be rational restraint of its contrivers. Because the genie is out of is bottle, there seems to be no path of return.

As soon as you self-consciously seek to be “authentic” you have guaranteed that you are not “authentic” and that you will not be so long as you seek to be. The rule here is akin to that which applies to a person who thinks that he is humble. As soon as you think you are, you are very much not.
This principle with regard to humility was vividly illustrated in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters , as the unwitting human target had little means of escaping from pride about his humility (and about his humility about his pride about his humility, and so forth). Similarly, cultural authenticity cannot be consciously possessed, although it can be reflected on in retrospect.

In the end, it is through the path of ascesis, of measured and rational self-denial that our souls might be saved, since even the minds of those who reject consumerism are so poisoned by sins of pride and greed:

Branding yourself countercultural or even “anti-consumerism” is itself often a form of consumerism, especially when the mind of such a person is formed in the age of consumerism.

American consumerism is driven by, even obsessed with, the seeking of “authenticity.” From the WalMart commercial which shows you “real,” “honest,” average joe Americans (and thus infers that authentic people love to save money at WalMart) to the Whole Foods marketing which suggests that expensive organic and free trade foods are more authentic

I am inclined to think that the extent to which America is post-cultural, there is no substantial “authenticity” to be found – and this seems to correspond to post-cultural America’s drivenness to sell and resell itself as authentic. The best we can do at this point is to find little corners of America where post-culturalism is not yet as homogeneous as it is in other places. But even that does not “make us authentic” – it may be nothing more than a more intent and focused hungering to escape rampant inauthenticity.

One might rightly here demand a definition for authenticity. One reason to abandon the word is that its definition is now quite problematic. There is an extent to which all notions of authenticity are in the eye of the beholder. There is an extent to which authenticity cannot rise above social construct. There is an extent to which authenticity is relative and thus malleable. I think that our contemporary hunger for authenticity is a hunger for that which is real in human life. When we buy a backpack from L.L. Bean, we want to think of real things like family hikes and cute kids on buses and relationships between real human beings like us. We do not want to think about such things as the one armed Indonesian 12 year old working 60 hours a week for $7 a day making a bag that costs L.L. Bean 1/30th of what we paid for it, leaving L.L. Bean nothing much more than a group of pampered cubicle jockeys, who stare at the computers which order backpacks from Asia, and ship them to retailers in America, and count the money which L.L. Bean makes from its rugged American image, an image which is a false and sterile façade .

It seems to me that the self-conscious desire for “authenticity” is part and parcel with participation in the establishment and maintenance of a community of individuals.

The same applies to religious kitsch. There is a difference between a poor Catholic peasant embracing some kitsch religious form for intent devotion in an act which in no way is motivated by a desire to become or to prove an “authentic” Catholicism (the Catholic peasant has nothing to prove in that regard, but takes his or her Catholicism for granted) than there is in the adoption of religious kitsch by a white person from the middle class suburbs who wants tokens of authenticity about their home to help them feel like they are a real Catholic.

h/t or really taken entirely from Medieval Leftist and The Ochlophobist. I only found through my research on popular culture and relgion.

2 responses to “Why Cultural Authenticity is Becoming Impossible

  1. I agree that the notion of authenticity is at best vexed – and probably has only ever been self-ascribed when indigenous and non self-reflective cultural performance was no no longer possible; but “Post Cultural America”? What could that possibly mean?

    In any event, the idea of authenticity has been a driving force in Orthodoxy writ large. In America its has successfully vied with other denominations for the mantle of authentic, and used that to attract baalei teshuva searching for something that speaks to their Roman Vishniac inspired yearnings.

    Centrism has relied on some unspoken idea of intellectual authenticity to provide the authenticity it lacks in its other cultural engagements. It is telling that much of R. Soloveithik’s writing drips with nostalgia for the lost authenticity of his childhood.

  2. Are these bloggers saying all our presentations are inauthentic? Are there no differences between those who are the way they appear and those who are phony? We’re not talking about the possibility of error, but of a systemic breakdown between appearance and reality. For example Is gender a performance, not indicative of our personality. Heterosexual couples live together for many decades and it’s all a show. Is a Rolex and a $25 Chinese- knockoff equal except for price, because both are unreal?

    When it comes to fashion, I would argue there is some non-arbitrary connection between the way a person looks in public, the way they put themselves together, and who they are. This is true despite the fact that all the clothes and all the personal styling are purchased, many times at high end stores with huge profit margins. It’s complicated since the connections are neither necessary or sufficient. Nevertheless not all looks are inauthentic, i.e making believe they are what they are not, any more than all actors are equally effective. As a proof text I refer to Goffman’s famous book, and the very popular, much admired blog The Sartorialist. The blogger shoots photos of people he sees on the streets who he thinks looked great. (http://thesartorialist.blogspot.com/) Many do look just terrific, and many times this is an indication of who they are, e.g. chic, stylish, rich, together, hip and many other possible adjectives.
    Some philosophers are skeptical about enduring selves and the constancy of personality and character. This skepticism about how to identify an inner continuous self goes back to Shakespeare and Montaigne, and has little to do with authenticity or post cultural America, whatever that might be. (See Colin McGinn’s “Shakespeare’s Philosophy.”)

    (Though it wasn’t apparent to me at the time, I wrote many posts dancing around these questions of authenticity. My favorites are McMansions and McJews (11/12) on what is authentic , Femme Fatale Bais Yaakov Girls (12/09) on truth in advertising, and What Is Modern Orthodox (12/19).) http://evanstonjew.blogspot.com )

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