Thursday, April 22, 2010

Real vs. Authentic

The notion of authenticity is practically obsolete, and the idea of realness is just another categorical index, devoid of meaning. When real is gone, then there is no longer a litmus test for that which deviates from it. It's all real because it's all "real." We mined all the gold, and now we're mining the gilded.

Carrie Brownstein

The quote above reminded me of a long piece on authenticity that my friend Brian has been urging me to write for months now. Authenticity, it seems, has been wholly replaced by the "real." This is hardly a revelation, but regardless, the culture is still grappling with it. After all, what is "real"? Reality television presents edited and packaged versions of things that really happened, but when producers go about choosing stars who will act in the most salacious way possible, create situations that will assure stars' misbehavior, and then shape it into a narrative, in what sense is it more real and less constructed than fiction? Facts, it seems, are easy to take out of context and manipulate. But even if we grant that the cast members of Jersey Shore are real people doing real things, who in all seriousness could possibly call them authentic?

Archaic though it may sound, I feel strongly that something is lost when we substitute "realness" for "authenticity." Realness seems to have been created by marketers and producers for their financial gain, but is that true, or was it merely co-opted? And if so, authenticity was frequently co-opted too, right? Did realness just get snatched up faster? Part of the reason I've been less than eager to write a piece on authenticity is that I worry that I've failed to properly understand the meaning and value of realness or that I've inflated the meaning of authenticity, which has always been a complicated and often flimsy term.

Still, I wonder, what do teenagers today feel when they read Catcher in the Rye? Does the fact that we've so devalued the authenticity make Holden Caufield's cries against phoniness more urgent, or does it seem like a relic of some past generation that saw value to ideas that simply don't apply or speak to modern life?

Comments welcome.

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