Against the Authentic

Exoticism depends upon authenticity. Fetishes, romanticisms and condescensions of various kinds on the one hand, and claims of one's own unique insight, abilities or inalienable right to an audience on the other, require a presumption as to what "the real thing" is, and by definition "the real thing" must be something foreign and alien in some way. People tend not to gawk at things that are relatable, just as they may be less inclined to seek judgements from you if they think they might have it in themselves, with enough effort, to understand all the things you do. The allure of secret, forbidden or simply "alternative" knowledge drives people to seek it from that which is as foreign as can be, with which they can tell themselves they have little in common, often projecting an inversion of whatever values — positive or negative — they think of as defining themselves or their society. Difference acquires a tawdry cachet. To the degree to which that essential difference of whatever kind is valued, and all parties agree that it is not illusion or fabrication it becomes authenticity. (Of course they may only appear to agree, or — like Nietzsche — be of the opinion that the illusion and deception are a price worth paying.)

The authentic is merely that subset of the exotic where either you haven't yet managed to see through the bullshit, or you yourself have a vested interest in keeping someone else from seeing through it. Or both. Much nationalist bullshit and obfuscation has gone into portraying the acceptable as authentic or demonizing the unacceptable as inauthentic. Exoticism is often simply what you call it when someone still buys the bullshit about "the other" and you don't want them to.

Differences that don't become part of some sort of dog-and-pony-show don't flag authenticity. They're just different. Consider how Russian adults almost exclusively use cursive for handwriting today, but American-socialized English-speakers generally do not. Differences that may be interesting, but not in any way mysterious, or anybody's vested interest, are neither authentic nor inauthentic. "Cursive is authentic to Russian culture" sounds neither true nor untrue so much as simply weird.

Sometimes it's fun to play the game, of course. Even for me. Like thinking about what an "authentic" Classical Greek pronunciation might be as a vehicle for exploring things of interest. But it's a mistake to take oneself too seriously.

As the German poet said....

"Kein Grund, sich aufzuregen", sagte der Dieb. "Es sitzt
Hier unter uns gar mancher, der meint, das Leben sei nur ein Witz.
Doch du und ich, wir kennen das, und unser Schicksal ist das nicht,
Drum lass uns hier nicht schwadronieren, es ist spät, schon schwindet das Licht."
— Ruprecht Zimmerman

1 comment:

  1. "x is authentic to Russian culture" sounds weird to me for any value of x ("vodka", "the experience of communism", "loving cats"), but "authentic Russian cursive" doesn't seem like an odd phrase.