A History of Authenticity

AHA Session 48
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 2
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Emily K. Hobson, University of Nevada at Reno
The Audience

Session Abstract

The 1900s could perhaps be labelled the “century of authenticity.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, hippies and other members of the counter-culture sought to “drop out” of society, to find a more authentic existence. In 1951, Holden Caulfield spent much of Catcher in the Rye decrying “phonies” who were more concerned with status than truth or happiness. In 1927, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time declared that awareness of the meaning of Being could only come through living an “authentic” existence, in which one fully acknowledges the inevitability of death. Today, many so-called “foodies” search for “authentic” dining experiences, in which a “true” culinary tradition is allowed to shine forth. These ideas of authenticity are not identical, but they share two central convictions. First, that there is something wrong, something untrue, about everyday life. Second, that an authentic, real, or natural existence is recoverable for those who are willing to open their eyes, and to unlearn the untruths that they have been taught. But where did these convictions come from?

This panel will examine the early history of the concept of “authenticity” in America and Europe. It will explore the question of authenticity in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries from a variety of perspectives, including race, gender, and sexuality, and also from a variety of fields, including the histories of science, the environment, and popular culture. In particular, it will seek to examine both the deep desire to pin down realities and its natural inverse: a focus on the inaccessibility of authenticity.

At the close of the 19th century and through the early decades of the 20th century, Europeans and Americans grew increasingly fixated on the “authentic.” As more and more people lived in modernized, mechanized cities, they began to sense a gap between what Jackson Lears called the “unreality” of modern life and something genuine that was lurking just out of reach. The language of authenticity seeped into everyday life: cheaply-reproduced art and mass-produced goods spawned what literary critic Miles Orvell has called the "late nineteenth-century culture of imitation.” (One of the earliest slogans for Coca Cola, long before The Real Thing, was "Get the genuine.") For many, the mechanized world of science was curiously opposed to finding what was truly authentic, and the truth of human—and especially masculine—existence could only be found in nature. For others, science offered a possibility of reaching a deeper, perhaps artificial or unnatural authenticity, in which surgical intervention would allow weak or degenerated men to reclaim their long-lost (or never-attained) masculinity and heterosexuality. And for others, widespread hoaxes offered a convenient critique of the society that seemed wrong in some way—with despair at the possibility of truth only magnifying in the wake of the hoax’s reveal. Through examining the early history of twentieth-century “authenticity,” this panel raise the question of how “reality” has been culturally defined, and will ask what aesthetic—rather than epistemological—values have been used to decide what is true or false, authentic or inauthentic.

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