The Paradox of Authenticity

November 28, 2006

I would abandon myself altogether to the sole quest of her, like people who set out on a journey to see with their own eyes some city that they have always longed to visit, and imagine that they can taste in reality what has charmed their fancy.1

When we talk of tourism and authenticity, we must begin with several questions that demand answers: What is authenticity? Why do we want it? How do we decide what is authentic? It would seem that the first question is the one to begin with. But a clear understanding of what authenticity is cannot be had without first understanding why we want such a thing. In the single sentence above, Proust has set up the conditions of our longing for authenticity: the gap between our expectations and reality. I will argue that the primary objective of tourism is to eliminate such a gap, and that through its success in doing so, it has created a vacuum of meaning which has been filled by the concept of authenticity. But what is authenticity? Again, we can look to Proust for a hint.

I longed for nothing more than to behold a storm at sea, less as a mighty spectacle than as a momentary revelation of the true life of nature; or rather there were for me no mighty spectacles save those which I knew to be not artificially composed for my entertainment, but necessary and unalterable.2

Here Proust gives us his concept of the authentic as something that is not composed, but necessary and unalterable. Authenticity, then, is primarily a measure of a thing’s resistance to manipulation. It is a measurement that is only necessary in an environment that has obviously been manipulated in some way. This is the paradox of authenticity; the success of tourism has created an environment in which the gap between expectation and reality has been eliminated. The result is increased demand for proof of necessity. That proof is authenticity. In environments where the demand for authenticity is highest, the conditions for providing it are most absent. The only way to eliminate the paradox is to look at authenticity as a relatively modern concept and not as a necessary and universal property.


The heaviest of burdens is […]an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.3

Discovery and Reconciliation
It is difficult to make the case that meaning–that sense of importance we invest our lives with–is somehow dependent on participation in circumstances beyond our control. It is tempting to believe that the most meaningful moments in our lives are the moments in which we exercise mastery over a situation, where we eliminate the unexpected with our powers of reason and wisdom. But in spite of this temptation, I believe that a minimal amount of meditation on the meaningful situations in our lives will reveal a deep connection between that which we find significant, and that which is outside of our control. Or more accurately, the most meaningful moments in our lives are the ones in which we exercise mastery within a situation.
Let me introduce two terms that I wish to use specifically: Discovery and Reconciliation. Discovery, in the sense I intend to use it, can best be defined by its contrast with invention. To discover something is to suggest that the outcome resulted from a complex interplay between a person and the constraints imposed by their environment. That is, the process of discovery admits the relevance of the natural (and uncontrollable) world, whereas the idea of invention minimizes this relevance. It is commonly said that scientists make discoveries, and engineers invent things. While there are obvious reasons for the distinction, the gap is not as wide as it would seem. Engineers may have more options available to them in their process of discovery, but they are still constrained; the engineer that says he has discovered a way to solve a problem is more honest than the engineer who says he has invented a useful process. This conception of discovery does not deny our own relevance either. To discover something is not to happen upon that thing by luck. It is an active process, one that deeply involves the discoverer. It can’t be stressed enough that discovery (opposed to invention) does not eliminate or in any way diminish the individual’s contribution to the process. As Bugbee puts it, “…capacity for true response cannot be defined in terms of the resources at our disposal, even though the availability of our resources to ourselves, and the very richness of the resources at our disposal, may be intimately proportional to the truth or falsity of our mode of commitment.”4 Discovery, then, is our interaction with the world in a way that recognizes and appreciates the constraints of that world. It is a process that involves our personal resources of knowledge and creativity, with the burdens of reality. When we are discovering, we cannot do what we want and expect success. For successful discovery, we can only do what we must. Heidegger suggests a similar idea with his “four ways of being responsible” for an outcome, which he describes as consisting of (1)the material of an object, (2)the aspect of the object, (3)the bounds that lead to the aspect, and (4)the producer himself. Of these, he places the initial boundary as being “above all responsible,” for the object. He writes: “Circumscribing gives bounds to the thing. With the bounds the thing does not stop; rather from out of them it begins to be what, after production, it will be.” The last way of responsibility is the human agent. We can think of our engineer here, who is responsible for the production of the object, “but not at all because he, in working, brings about the finished [object] as if it were the effect of a making; the [engineer] is not a causa efficiens.” He also hints at the distinction noted between discovery and invention when he writes, “Whoever builds a house or a ship or forges a sacrificial chalice reveals what it is to be brought forth, according to the perspective of the four modes of occasioning…Technology is a mode of revealing.”5
Taking this idea we now have of discovery, and narrowing it a bit further, we come to the process of reconciliation. Reconciliation is similar to discovery, but relates specifically to what Bugbee describes as, “…the fatal discrepancy between what we intend and the way things turn out.”6 For everything we do, there seems to be an inherent amount of expectation. We make plans, we have fears, we have hopes, all of which we carry with us into the thing we set out to do. But, as anyone who has ever done anything can attest to, these expectations are not always realized. There is a discrepancy between what we expect (or intend) and what actually happens. I will argue (and I think Bugbee does the same) that this discrepancy is not inherently fatal and is, in fact, completely necessary if we are to find any semblance of meaning in our actions. It is the existence of this discrepancy that allows us the privilege of reconciling the difference between what we imagine and what we end up with. And it is through the process of reconciliation that meaning is generated. The only way to show this dependency between meaning and reconciliation, is through example, so here goes.

The Child’s Game
When we are very young, but old enough to speak, we all engage in a sort of verbal warfare with other children that entails made up attacks and defenses that are traded in rounds of back and forth one-upmanship. I say, “I just shot you with a missile.” And you say, “I have a force field.” This is a classic defense, but there are ways around it. Thus, I am forced to fire another missile at you, only this missile has been specially developed to penetrate your force field. Sure enough, my missile penetrates your force field and hurtles toward you. But, at the last moment you pull off a swift and brilliant maneuver, “I just shot your missile down with an anti-missile missile,” you say. And by golly, my missile gets shot down without even causing you a scratch. Of course I come back at you with increasingly faster missiles and you respond with stronger force fields (the infinitely strong force field is another classic defense). Unbound, this cycle continues indefinitely, or it would, if not for our eventual realization that the whole endeavor is pointless. That without some sort of limitation on the possibilities, something to constrain our minds, the game becomes a puff of arbitrary nonsense. It is not long before we grow out of the game, never to return to it.7
As games become more complicated through restriction, they take on more significance. As we move through the hierarchy of games, from the unrestrictive child’s game to chess, for instance, we see more semblance of meaning. Of course the most complicated game we know of may be the game of life itself. Our interaction with nature and other human beings is seen as most meaningful when the outcome of such interaction is not easily bent to one’s will. Bugbee writes of the meaning generated through his efforts to steer a ship in a rough sea:

Perhaps you are dead, dead tired, dead asleep in your bunk. A hand shakes you and a voice calls you once again to go on watch. The ship is reeling through the night. Wrenched from oblivion, you sit upright, clutching the chain by which your bunk is hung, staring into darkness, swallowed up in the crazed enormity you have been summoned to endure. Sick, sickened, dreadfully alone, you stagger onto the main deck, into the openness, into a darkness, a madness of waves from which one water-laden gust has drenched you before you have even secured the door. If you endure your way to the bridge you’ll never make it; a smash against the bulkhead jolts you out of endurance into fighting your way along. By rushes and hand-holds you reach the pilot house. How is it the ship isn’t pounded to pieces? You turn toward the man at the wheel and the ship tilts upward, hanging in the air. She pitches forward, throwing you ahead; you grab the man before you and hold on against the shuddering shock at the bottom of the fall. “Don’t grab me, take the wheel,” he yells. “Course is two-three-five. Steering engine is out; it’s on manual.” “Two-three-five,” the words come quickly from your tongue. Manual. With the first attempt to move the wheel you have the full weight of the ship’s departure from course, backed by the thrust of wind and sea, translated from the rudders to your arms and shoulders and back. You begin desperately, you fight back. But gradually you are drawn into it in the only way it can be done, working with the wind and the waves and the ship. […] Maybe the next time you go to steer that watch, you go to steer. Not to fight, nor endure, but to hold a course in a difficult sea.8

Not all experiences, however, are as harrowing as Bugbee’s. I do not wish to suggest that meaningful experience can only be generated through life-threatening adventure, though I do think extreme experience is a good way to ensure the generation of meaning. The popularity of sports like mountain climbing and BASE jumping is due, I believe, to the way in which such experience demands attention. Just as in Bugbee’s experience with the ship, many extreme sports require absolute attention and commitment. And I am not talking about the kinds of scripted extreme experiences where one pays to rappel off a cliff while guides fix ropes and oversee the operation. While such experiences may be exhilarating, they strip away the crucial aspect, the knowledge that only you are responsible for the outcome and that the activity in which you are engaged will not tolerate anything less than total acceptance of its demands. To find yourself with your life absolutely in your own hands is very rarely an exhilarating experience, but it is almost always an honest one.
But again, honest, meaningful experience need not be extreme. There is much to be gained from the unpredictable and demanding interactions between people. For many, personal interaction can be just as important as a life-threatening situation. Julia Harrison relates the experience of a tourist named Louise, who she interviewed for a book on tourist behavior:

He had never seen a white person before, and I was like a monster to him. I didn’t approach him [right away] because I realized that I scared him. But I was always hanging around the same place as he and his mom, grandmother, and uncle, so he got used to seeing me. Shola [the boy’s sister] was five and she wasn’t scared of me. She would come to me and we’d play, or maybe I had some gum… I can’t even remember the exact situation, but it would just kind of be like adult and kid playing. […] One day, after I’d been around for two or three days, Shola and Dapo were walking along. I remember saying, “Dapo, come here, Dapo.” And Shola went to Dapo. She took him by the hand, brought him up to me, then she took his hand and with his hand she caressed my arm. She said words to the effect of “See, Dapo, she won’t hurt you.” She was basically having him pet my arm, so to speak, to get used to me, and that was a really neat experience, winning him over.9

While this experience may have been somewhat life-threatening for poor little Dapo, its meaningful nature did not come from danger. Whereas Bugbee’s objective was to steer a course in a difficult sea, Louise’s objective was to interact with those around her. And Dapo, simply by being a reluctant participant, made the experience more meaningful for Louise, while her interaction with Dapo’s sister Shola, she takes for granted. In both situations, the environment makes demands on the actors involved–demands that they must submit to. Neither Bugbee’s nor Louise’s expectations will suffice to carry them to their objective. The meaning is discovered as they reconcile the demands of their environment with the demands of their expectations.
But so far, all that has been said pertains to the source of meaningful experience. We have yet to answer the question: why do we want authenticity? An outline of the answer to that question would go like this: We want to have meaningful experiences. Because meaning is generated when experience makes demands on us, and because our modern technological world has become so adept at removing those demands, we needed to come up with some other process to replace reconciliation. We came up with the concept of authenticity to meet the need for meaning. We took it so far, in fact, that we began to see authenticity as meaning–to the point where we all want so desperately to lead authentic lives, to surround ourselves with authentic friends, authentic objects, and authentic experience. This is, perhaps, the most difficult proclamation to accept, that authenticity is incapable of giving us what it promises and that if we feel ourselves searching for authenticity, then we are not in a situation in which we can find meaning. When authenticity is invoked, it is already too late to find what authenticity promises. Perhaps it would be useful to compare the multitude of writing that has been published on the topics of war and travel. Though my analysis is by no means thorough, I have noticed that descriptions of war experience by those who have participated in it, lack significant mention of the authenticity of those experiences; it is not a judgment to consider making. Whereas the literature on travel, as told by tourists themselves, is rife with judgments of authenticity.
It is no wonder, of course, that authenticity has such a powerful hold. Most would rather go on holiday than to war. But we have no reason to assume that meaningful experience will make us happy or is in any way easy to achieve. Meaningful means having a serious, important, or useful quality. Enjoyable means having a delightful or pleasurable quality. It is not surprising that we should desire to merge the two. And if authenticity can make even the most arbitrary and superfluous experiences meaningful, then it’s no wonder authenticity is a hot commodity. But now the question is: how does it do that?

Authenticity works by acting as a stand-in for the process of reconciliation. It is simulated, pre-digested reconciliation; as such, it is no longer even a process, but a product. The effectiveness of authenticity is measured by how clearly it shows an object or experience to be resistant to manipulation. This is a tricky concept because authenticity shows this resistance by fixing an object or experience in a web of explanation; but there are tricks. At this point I think an example is in order.

The Basket Weaver
Keeping within the context of tourism, let’s imagine a native of the Pongo village who weaves baskets for sale to tourists. We’ll call our weaver Shirley. Now let’s imagine an interaction between Shirley and Bob, our tourist. Bob has his eye on one of Shirley’s baskets. Bob, in this case, will be making an authenticity judgment about Shirley’s baskets. Bob asks Shirley a few questions and determines that her baskets have been hand-woven by members of her family and that they are all dyed red because that is the color of the dye that they are able to produce with the locally available materials. This all sounds very good to Bob who concludes that the baskets are indeed authentic examples of Pongo basket weaving. But Bob is a shrewd consumer and so he thanks Shirley for the information and moves on to the next booth. Here, he learns from Marge that her baskets are hand-woven as well, but she admits that they are woven in a village factory. She is not sure exactly which of the villagers wove her baskets. But she assures him that they have all been dyed red using the locally produced dye. Bob thanks her, but decides the Shirley’s basket, which has been woven by her family, is more authentic. But he’s one heck of a comparison shopper so he moves on again, this time to Ethel’s booth. Now Ethel’s baskets aren’t anything like Shirley’s or Marge’s baskets. They are woven in a strange design that Bob has never seen in Pongo. And Ethel has baskets in all kinds of crazy colors. Bob determines that Ethel’s baskets have been designed by a Pongo artist who refuses to submit to traditional designs. And they are made by machines at a factory just outside of the village. And they have secured a supply of many dyes so that they can offer baskets of nearly any color. Bob decides that Ethel’s baskets are clearly not authentic examples of Pongo basketry.
So Bob determines that the family-woven naturally died, traditionally designed basket is most authentic, followed by the traditional, red, village-woven basket, and that the crazy, multi-hued, machine-made baskets are nothing more than tourist trinkets. But let’s say that Bob finds out that all of the basket makers have access to any color dye that want, and in fact, keep supplies on hand of the same crazy hues that Ethel sells. Suddenly, the authenticity of the red baskets drops, because Bob’s no longer sure why he baskets he saw have been dyed red. Do they dye them red because they know tourists buy more red, or because they care about tradition? Things were much easier for Bob when he though the redness of the baskets was fixed by a technological limitation.
In order to replicate the process of reconciliation, authenticity must show a resistance to arbitrary manipulation. Thus, the things that seem most inauthentic will be things (or experiences) that are clearly manipulated, but for reasons that are unclear.
I have begun working on a simplified model of authenticity judgment that attempts to explain and predict the authenticity judgments people make. More work needs to be done to show the model’s usefulness, but I include a sketch of it below.
The Number Line Model
The Authenticity Model is based on the observation that authenticity judgments are related to some fixed constraint. The model is constructed on a number line with the left bound being zero and the right bound being set by the evaluated object. The individual terms are described in detail below.
Each instance of the model is defined by three elements: an Object, a Producer, and an Observer. Every unique combination of these three elements is a unique instance. Comparisons between models are possible, however, because they all start at zero on the left and they all have common units. The zero on the number line is the Natural Law.

Natural Law (NL) is the fixed constraint mentioned earlier. It equals zero because the unit of measurement used in the model is that of a single choice. For every Object, a fixed number of decisions had to be made by the Producer during its production. Choices about an Object’s color, shape, use, marketing, etc., all contribute to a value known as the Degree of Manipulation (DM). Even choosing not to do something is counted as a choice if the producer was aware of the choice at the time of production. In actual practice, this value can be very high, especially when evaluating a complex product in a technological society (a hint at the reasons for the animosity seen between technology and authenticity).

The scope of the model is defined at the left by Natural Law (0) (the point at which the Producer has no more choices available regarding the production of the evaluated Object), and at the right by Degree of Manipulation. Two important variables move over this interval and are determined by the Observer making an authenticity judgment: the Limit of Perception and the Limit of Understanding.
The Limit of Perception (LP) is the total number of choices available to the Producer that the Observer is aware of. Put another way, it is the Degree of Manipulation that the Observer thinks an Object has. And, from the perspective of the Observer, the Degree of Manipulation and the Limit of Perception are the same value.

The Limit of Understanding (LU) is the total number of perceived choices (LP) that the Observer understands. That is, the observer knows not only that a choice was made, but also for what reasons it was made. For example, a tourist might be aware that a woven blanket was made on an old fashioned loom, but might not know if this is because the producer doesn’t have access to more modern methods, because they just prefer the old loom for personal reasons, or because they know it makes the blankets more attractive to tourists; there is a gap between the perception of choice and an understanding of it. This gap is the measure of authenticity as judged by tourists. Or, more accurately, it is the amount of perceived inAuthenticity (the higher the number, the less authentic an Object).

Graphic Model

Authenticity Model

The model is actually very simple when seen in graphical form. The value (PA) is the measure of inAuthenticity. The higher this value, the less authentic an object is perceived to be.
Definition of Elements
The Producer is the person responsible for creating the Object. The Producer knows the most accurate value DM for a given Object.
An Object is anything (a physical object, an idea, a person, etc.) that is evaluated for authenticity by an Observer and has a unique value DM as perceived by the Object’s Producer.
The Observer is the person making an authenticity valuation on an Object.
Degree of Manipulation (DM)
One unit of Manipulation is a single choice available to a Producer in the production of an Object. Therefore, the DM is the total number of choices made by the Producer in the production of an Object.
Natural Law (NL)
The left bound of the model. It always has the value zero (0). NL is the point at which a Producer has no choices available in the production of an Object. NL can be based on a physical law or on a concept such as historical tradition.
InAuthenticity (A)
InAuthenticity is a measure of the gap between what the Producer knows and what the Observer knows. A is defined as the absolute value of the difference between the Degree of Manipulation and the Limit of Understanding. A=|DM-LU|
Perceived inAuthenticity (PA)
Perceived inAuthenticity is the gap between the number of choices an Observer perceives as available to a Producer, and the number of those perceived choices that the Observer understands. PA is defined as the absolute value of the difference between the Limit of Perception and the Limit of Understanding. PA=|LP-LU|

Limit of Perception (LP)
The Limit of Perception is the total number of choices (DM) available to an Object’s Producer that the Observer is aware of. DM may be greater than LP and when it is, the Observer is completely unaware of it and assumes the value of DM to be equal to LP.

Limit of Understanding (LU)
The Limit of Understanding is the number of perceived choices (LP) that an Observer understands and can explain. That is, the Observer is aware the Producer made a choice and knows why the Producer chose as it did.
Preliminary Observations

This model has the potential to rationalize the connection tourists make between authenticity and scarcity. The connection seems strongest when the object is one that gives identity to an observer. Taste in music, travel destinations, name brand clothing, all of these objects are tied up with an individual’s self-identity. And it is precisely in such situations where mass adoption has the most detrimental effect on authenticity.
These types of objects are valuable because of their defining power. As more people adopt them as identifiers, the (LP) of the early adopters must increase because it becomes plainly obvious that others are choosing to be identified by the same object for reasons other than those of the early adopter. While (LP) increases, (LU) lags behind, if it ever catches up at all. The resulting increase in (PA) is experienced as a reduction of authenticity.
To deal with this problem, producers must artificially reduce the limit of perception. To do this, they employ what I term a Stereotype, which is any method of artificially lowering (LP) and, from the perspective of the observer at least, lowering (DM) by an equal amount. This idea of a stereotype is similar to MacCannell’s idea of “negative education,” which hides the experience of the market from the tourist (29). An example of a stereotype would be the blanket producer who uses the old-fashioned loom to make her blankets because she knows that it appeals to tourists. A stereotype in this case would be her claim that she has no access to modern equipment, or that she weaves in the tradition of her people out of cultural respect. Another example would be the little stories on the back of food products that paint a picture of primitive artisans making wholesome foodstuffs using the arts of their forefathers. These stories, usually fictitious, seek to simplify the perceived production of the object, thereby increasing its authenticity (31).
Imperfection is also frequently employed as a stereotype. Given the refined state of modern manufacturing, it is perfectly natural to assume that a product with imperfections is somehow more authentic because it is produced with simpler methods.
Marketers employ stereotypes. In the graphic model above, there is a value labeled (ARZ). This is the Arbitrary Zone. The ARZ is the favored operating space of marketers because within it they are free to work, unburdened by the constraints of consumers or the natural world; it is the realm of arbitrary choices.
Marketers seek to maximize authenticity while reducing the observer’s perception. This desire can be defined as the reduction of the following ratio:
In an ideal marketing situation, the perceived inAuthenticity is zero, and the arbitrary zone is as large as possible.
This goal is evidenced by observable marketing campaigns. Whenever possible, marketing strategies seek to reduce LP as a first measure. Witness the tales of master brewers on the backs of beer bottles, or the “native rituals” performed for tourists and portrayed as a component of their daily lives and culture (though their present reasons for continuing the tradition are much more complex).
When this reduction is not possible, the only solution is to increase the limit of understanding, incorporating the consumer or tourist into the process, and thereby reestablishing authenticity. The outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, offers a good example. Angela Wyant writes for Fast Company:

But in a rare display of radical corporate honesty, Patagonia found itself wanting and posted “Louder than Words,” a self-indictment, in each of its stores. The statement reads, in part: “In fact, we’ve come to understand that the [headquarters] building is a monument to superficial satisfaction over environmental priority. We used virgin materials everywhere — new wood, new fixtures, new gypsum board, carpeting and paint. And the vertical grain fir [ used in the ceiling beams ]? It’s made from the old growth forests that groups we now support are fighting to protect. Surrounded by these persistent reminders of our own naïveté, we are committed to a new approach (3).

Here the consumer has been invited into the process of making the corporate identity. This marketing strategy, whether it is sincere or not, effectively increases the limit of understanding in an arena where it couldn’t have reduced perception (its customers being too active and environmentally aware).


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