Two quite different things I was reading this morning made me think again about the concept of authenticity. First, an article about Susan Boyle getting a makeover which cited people complaining that she was “altering her appearance” and was no longer “not done up.” The other was #116 of Stuff White People Like – Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore. In here it mentions the idea that white people like “Real Hip Hop” as opposed to what black people actually listen to (and as usual made me cringe slightly in recognition of my own, clearly stereotypical whiteness).
In our increasingly hyperreal world, the search for “authenticity” has clearly become an increasingly desperate one, and, as with an commodity which is desperately sought, one which is subject to marketing like anything else. Tourism searches to offer us ‘authentic’ experiences, but like the cultural pageants Julian May refers to at the beginning of the Pliocene series, these are constructed representations built to meet our own expectations. The first world travellers wants to see the genuine life of people wherever they are visiting – but when this genuine life involves coke cans and satellite television, we feel oddly let down. The slum tourism which has risen in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire is an example of a search for this (and it is ironic that in the film itself, the boys act for a period as guides helping Americans experience “genuine India”).
But what is authenticity in our modern, globalise world. Are we actually looking for forms of primitivism – whether it is the untouched eyebrows of Susan Boyle or the villages without cell phones in central Africa. The more we choose to trek in Nepal, the more this becomes customised to meet our needs as travellers. This is evolution, globalisation, inevitable change. Give people money and they will buy things – give them access to the 21st century and they will embrace it. Is our desire for authenticity indeed a form of cultural imperialism, allowing us to assert our innate superiority by being able to gain pleasure from something while still being able to feel above it? We didn’t live in our “natural” state, the Western world has changed and evolved, rich people have embraced makeovers and improving our appearance – how can we then criticise those who seek to do the same.
We need to re examine our use of authenticity and understand that it doesn’t mean what we think it means – and allow ourselves to experience what is actually authentic that is, how it is.