The Real Deal: Authenticity in Literature and Culture

by Claire Chambers

Goodness Gracious MeIn the late 1990s, the BBC comedy team Goodness Gracious Me produced a radio sketch entitled 'Authentic Artefacts'. In it, an artefact buyer for a chain of London stores visits an Indian village. She expects its rustic denizens to be 'connected with the flow of the seasons, the pull of the earth, the soft breathing of the ripening crops'. Despite her naïve fears that these apparently simple people will 'never sell [their] heritage', they are attracted by the buyer's evident wealth. They take a pragmatic approach, selling her a rusty pail as a birthing bucket − 'three generations of downtrodden dung-handlers have squatted over its rim' − a deck-chair ('my maternal uncle's prayer seat'); a formica coffee table with a leg missing, which is presented as a 200-year-old bullock slide; and a can-opener as 'an authentic turban winder'. The villagers' constant refrain is that these modern-looking items are 'authentic', and the Western woman is easily duped out of two thousand pounds.

Authenticity is a term that often comes up in postcolonialism and especially my own subdiscipline of Muslim literary studies. But what does it mean to be authentic, and is the quest for authenticity a productive or stifling one? As the Goodness Gracious Me example suggests, a fetishization of authenticity can trap apparently 'authentic' cultures in picturesque poverty and a pastoral past that never existed, ignoring their plural present.

In the world of music, and folk music in particular, aficionados regularly ponder what traditional songs should sound like, and police those deemed to fall outside this. Think of the charge of 'Judas!' that was allegedly hurled at Bob Dylan when he went electric in 1965. In Irish folk circles, strident voices demand that music is sung in the Irish language, otherwise it is not the 'real thing'. Such a search for Irish 'purity' can be exclusionary, even racist. Often overlooked by Irish music critics are such groups as Limerick grime band Rusangano Family. The outfit comprises three members with heritage in Zimbabwe, Togo, and County Clare, respectively. In their song 'Lights On', frontmen God Knows and MuRli rap about their experiences as immigrants but also rightly lay claim to their Irishness.

Accordingly, in much recent thought, purity and authenticity are often challenged as part of a discourse in the service of power. AdornoSpearheading this trend, in his book The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno turned his attention to the matter of authenticity in artistic performance, which was then a very popular discourse amongst existentialist thinkers. This is also Adorno's riposte to late Heidegger's valorization of nation and folk. The authentic implies the inauthentic, just as in my field the approving term 'halal novel' for works by such believing Muslims as Leila Aboulela censoriously implies other writers whose fiction is haram and should be avoided. According to Adorno, the 'jargon of authenticity' includes such diction as 'statement' and 'commitment' − to which today we might add the vocabulary of 'voice', 'insider' or 'outsider', and 'faith'. As the last words suggests, authenticity has a religious dimension. Adorno decries authenticity's anti-intellectual tendencies and the Christianizing elements that overlay it: ​

The jargon makes it seem that without this of the speaker the speech would already be inauthentic, that the pure attention of the expression to the subject matter would be a fall into sin. This formal element favors demagogic ends. Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task and devaluates thought. That the whole man should speak is authentic, comes from the core. […] The tone of the jargon has something in it of the seriousness of the augurs, arbitrarily independent from their context or conceptual content, conspiring with whatever is sacred. (9)

The religious overtones of the 'sin' and 'pure attention' binary can also be co-opted to other religions than Christianity − 'whatever is sacred'. Again in relation to Muslim authors, authenticity is a watchword that can mean (at least) two things: what is regarded as authentic in the Islamic tradition, and an authentic reflection of Muslims' beliefs and lives. Adorno goes as far as to link the jargon of authenticity with the rise of fascism in Germany, an especially damning claim given that half-Jewish philosopher had fled the country in 1934, a year after Hitler took power. Yet readers may see contemporary resonance in this argument when they consider the claims to outsider status and to being the 'voice of the people' that eminent from populist politicians such as Nigel Farage in the UK, Donald Trump in the US, and Marine Le Pen in France − notwithstanding their wealth, family connections, and power.

In an essay from 1983 entitled '"Commonwealth Literature" Does Not Exist', Salman Rushdie argued that what was then known Salman Rushdie
as Commonwealth (now usually called 'postcolonial' or 'world') literature involves an oppressive search for 'authenticity'. He mocked critics' pious search for authors who write in ways that are regarded as being true to their national and cultural roots. This fruitless endeavour Rushdie juxtaposed with 'eclecticism', which he took to be a more positive, open-minded aesthetic approach. Elsewhere he calls this kind of improvisatory fusion of different components mongrelization or chutnification − and his friend Homi K. Bhabha famously theorized this as hybridity. Yet rather than embodying eclecticism or hybridity, work such as Rushdie's and Bhabha's can elevate its own kinds of purity or authenticity. In much postcolonial thought hybridity, pluralism, fragmentation, and uncertainty have been invested with a paradoxical authority that leads to Linda Hutcheon’s wry and quasi-religious observation: ‘Ye shall know that truth is not what it seems and that truth shall set you free’. For those who don't have the cultural or material capital to take for themselves 'a bit of this and a bit of that', just as for those brought up to take religious purity seriously, hybridity may be seen as the preserve of the frequent flyer set, a transnational elite.

The anti-authenticity stance can also be challenged on academic grounds, because what is research if not a process of authentication? Through the trawling of archives, the selection of materials, the rigorous referencing of other scholars, and so forth, even the least scientific and most arty scholar tries to establish a better truth than those who have gone before. Authenticity cannot be so easily dismissed as a discourse of power, since it is one in the service of knowledge too. If one takes a an extremist view of authenticity-as-power, then does that mean that the expert assessing an antique as genuine or fake, or the researcher discovering the provenance of a piece of classical music are simply making it up? This is not to say that there isn't much fakery around the production of the authentic. Art forgeries or literary hoaxes like Australia's Ern Malley affair indicate that even the most reputable 'experts' can be deceived. But in a sense, these are exceptions that prove the rule. With Trump in the White House, we are seeing what it means to live under a regime that doesn't value expertise, and it is a violent, confused, and ecologically catastrophic experience.

In my colleague Matt Campbell's book Irish Poetry under the Union, 1801−1924, he argues that authenticity is 'a synthetic construct and that the hybrid, the bogus and the counterfeit lurk at [its] roots'. Rather than choosing between authentic or hybrid approaches, Campbell intimates that it is important to know the different elements that have gone into the synthesis of authenticity, and holds that: ​

Synthetic or authentic, pure or hybrid, original or translated, organic or cultured, political or amatory, male or female, Irish or English: these opposites will frequently reveal themselves to be nothing of the sort, and change conceptual places promiscuously. (14)

For me this is the most helpful way of thinking about authenticity. Rather than placing authors on a scale based on how authentic or synthetic they are perceived to be, it is surely more suggestive for critics to complicate the borderline, tracing how texts’ various layers have come together and critiquing thin characterization or under-researched plot points while celebrating rich description and attention to detail.

Let us take one literary example of a writer for whom these questions of authentic and synthetic regularly come to the surface. In Monica AliBrick Lane (2003), Monica Ali makes clothing an important motif around which discussion of identity, religion, and culture coalesces. The novel's protagonist, Nazneen, a housewife who becomes a seamstress, has an arranged marriage with an older man, Chanu. Yet Ali does not let Nazneen remain in the apparently automatically oppressive space of her arranged marriage. She moves the character out of her religio−cultural milieu once Nazneen starts to take in sewing and has an affair with the younger British Muslim overseer, Karim. Brick Lane met with commercial success and critical plaudits, as well as criticisms that Ali did not have the right to represent the British-Bangladeshi community and that she borrowed too heavily from Naila Kabeer's non-ficton account of the East London garment industry The Power to Choose. Germaine Greer, for example, took Ali for task for her choice of language and ventriloquism of the voice of Nazneen's Bangladeshi sister, Hasina: '[Ali] writes in English and her point of view is, whether she allows herself to impersonate a village Bangladeshi woman or not, British.'

However, when Ali wrote about a topic not associated with 'her' group, in the follow-up novel Alentejo Blue (2006), set in Portugal, Untold Story negative reviews ensued. There has also been something of a backlash against her 'girly' novel about Princess Diana, Untold Story (2011). This may partly be due to the uneven quality of the writing, but it is also because her later novels do not operate 'in an expected way', which, as Ana María Sánchez-Arce argues, is demanded by established notions of ethnic minority 'authenticity'. This seems a curious double bind, whereby a mixed-heritage woman writer like Ali is damned if she does write about Muslims in Britain and damned if she doesn't.

At the end of the Goodness Gracious Me sketch, the Indian villagers persuade the British woman that an old bedspread is a 'traditional hessian covering woven by blind Punjabi widows', and that its images of the Power Rangers are 'our ancient Indian gods'. It is because she has scant knowledge of these gods that the artefact buyer makes the costly mistake of believing the quilt is an 'authentic' representation − it is not that more reliable pictures don't exist. What Sánchez-Arce calls 'authenticism' can lead to the notion that particular groups have ownership of certain cultures or topics, to rabid identity politics, and to censorship. But without some idea of what is authentic and what is not, there emerges insensitive cultural appropriation, lazy stereotyping, and a lack of deep attention. It is wiser to say: 'A plague on both your houses' and try to steer a middle course between these two extreme positions.