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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. Read the rest of this entry »