Debating Authenticity: Concepts of Modernity in Anthropological Perspective T. Fillitz, A. J. Saris (eds.) New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013. x + 225 pp., notes on contributors, index. ISBN: 978-0857454966 USD $85.00 (Hc.)
Article first published online: 12 APR 2014
© 2014 Australian Anthropological Society
The Australian Journal of Anthropology
Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 112–113, April 2014
How to Cite
Kaul, A. (2014), Debating Authenticity: Concepts of Modernity in Anthropological Perspective T. Fillitz, A. J. Saris (eds.) New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013. x + 225 pp., notes on contributors, index. ISBN: 978-0857454966 USD $85.00 (Hc.) . The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 25: 112–113. doi: 10.1111/taja.12074
- Issue published online: 12 APR 2014
- Article first published online: 12 APR 2014
Someone once suggested that the concept of ‘authenticity’, like love, loses more meaning the more one talks about it, but this quip does not apply to the new volume edited by Thomas Fillitz and A. Jamie Saris. Debating Authenticity presents the reader with a rich collection of ethnographic case studies, unpacking the complexity of the concept in various social settings across the globe.
The book opens with a very good essay by the volume's editors highlighting the fact that authenticity has become a far more salient concept in anthropology over the last few decades due to the external realities of globalisation and internal shifts in the discipline following the postmodern turn. But, they point out, the search for ethnographic veracity has always been at the core of anthropology. The authors then travel over a wide territory in relation to authenticity that includes transnationalism, cultural diversity, art, commodities, material culture, and identity. I would like to have heard more from Fillitz and Saris about all of this, but I mean this not so much as a critique as a compliment. Their brief intellectual history of the notion of authenticity in and out of anthropology seems quite relevant for much larger current debates across academia about ‘human nature’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’; for example, their discussion might provide the opportunity to critique the irresponsible conclusions from emerging fields like evolutionary psychology.
Following the introductory chapter, the book is divided into four parts. Part One consists of a pair of chapters by A. Jamie Saris and Rajko Muršič, which fulfills the promise of the title by presenting the reader with two very different arguments about the concept. In reviewing Sapir's classic essay ‘Culture, Genuine and Spurious’, Saris defends the utility of the notion of ‘authenticity’. He makes several claims, including the fact that the key element determining authenticity is the issue of productive control. While this political-economy approach to the social construction of ‘authenticity’ is not new, it is worth pointing out again, and Saris does so rather nicely by embedding his argument in two interesting case studies set in Dublin, Ireland. Muršič on the other hand polemically calls the idea of authenticity ‘good for absolutely nothing’, but I found myself disagreeing with the broad sweep of his claims. In this regard, the book was already a success in my mind. While I tried to approach it as an ‘objective’ reviewer, looking primarily at its structure and form, I found myself immediately drawn into the content of the debate itself. I could not resist having an internal dialog with the authors. The flames of the debate in these first chapters turn to smoldering coals with only occasional flare-ups throughout the rest of the book, but again, I found myself reading each subsequent chapter through the lens of Saris's and Muršič's opening arguments. This, it seems to me, is the point the editors had in mind when they structured the book.
The rest of Debating Authenticity is a series of rich ethnographic case studies. Part Two explores the moral discourses of authenticity. Lawrence Taylor explores the production of the idea of ‘wilderness’ in the American Southwest, Jean-Pierre Warnier discusses ‘ethnogenesis’ and the invention of tradition in Northeast France, while Jorge Grau Rebollo focuses on kitsch tourist souvenirs and cinema in Spain. Part Three examines popular and academic discourses. Inger Sjørslev takes a classic emic/etic approach to the question of authenticity, as does Paul van der Grijp, although their essays pit themselves against one another in terms of the usefulness of the concept. In his chapter, Andre Gingrich points out, correctly in my view, that local understandings of ‘authenticity’ are worthy objects of analysis even if we as academics question the theoretical value of the concept. And Marcus Banks fruitfully borrows the distinction between ‘nominal’ and ‘expressive’ authenticity from Denis Dutton. The Fourth and final section of the book disentangles the spaces of authenticity. This section has as one of its major threads, the arts. Roy Dilley's fascinating essay analyzes the life and photography of a colonial administrator in order to make the point that knowledge is constructed as ‘authentic’ for particular social milieus in specific times and places. Judith Okely argues for an authenticity in the act of creative recycling of objects and cultural influences in Gypsy culture(s). Hybridity is not an erosion of a supposedly ‘authentic’ culture, she claims, but rather a legitimate cultural practice in-and-of-itself, one with historic continuity. Finally, Thomas Fillitz echoes Banks’ earlier use of Dutton's two versions of authenticity to analyze contemporary African arts.
Limited space prevents a more extensive summary of each chapter, but the most successful were those that allowed the theoretical arguments about authenticity to emerge from the complexities of the ethnographic material. Lawrence Taylor's beautifully written essay about the ‘moral geography’ of the US/Mexico border is one example; Inger Sjørslev's chapter on Candomblé ritual possession in Brazil is another. Each chapter is short enough to serve as a vehicle for classroom debates in upper-level undergraduate classes, or the whole book could be assigned for a graduate-level seminar. The nature of the debate about authenticity is particularly applicable to studies of the arts, music, dance, ritual, globalization and cultural hybridity. The book devotes a significant amount of space to these areas, so it will be of particular interest to scholars who study these topics as well. Debating Authenticity illustrates nicely the slippery nature of the concept, and the ways in which it succeeds or fails as a theoretical tool when applied to specific cultural situations. The debate about the notion of ‘authenticity’ has been with us for some time, and this book treads a few well-worn paths; however, there are fresh ideas here too, and a collection of fascinating case studies.