Recently, I’ve been bothered by a perceived over-use of the word (and concept of) “authentic”. It’s become a potent buzz-word at least within the food media world, and I’ve noticed it increasingly, perhaps because I’m primed for it, across other conversations, as well.
I’ve been spending a lot of time mulling this over in my mind, and I’ve decided that there are some uses that bother me, and some that don’t so much. They can roughly be divided into two classes: internally-ordained authenticity and externally-ordained authenticity. This is just what I’ve come up with over several weeks of casual ruminating; the world has no shortage of other classification systems, such as those discussed here, which to some extent overlap with the way I am seeing this proposed dichotomy. And there are plenty of uses of the word that don’t really fit neatly into these two classes, either. I use them only as a proxy to discuss the way conversations about experiential (and cultural) phenomena take place and the power dynamics within them.
At its most basic, second-grade level, authenticity refers to realness or genuineness of something. This is self-explanatory and not really debatable in the case of, let’s say, a piece of artwork. Is this canvas of Starry Night an authentic — true and verifiable — work of Van Gogh? It is not this kind of authenticity I seek to explore here. Because it refers to physical objects in the real world, it is both easy to classify and not very interesting to consider as a linguistic or though experiment.
I am more interested here in the authenticity of non-tangible objects. Experiences, mostly, and “selves”, as influencer culture wants us to consider at all times. These are the types of things to which we love to affix claims of authenticity, without the resources of outside experts (e.g. Van Gogh historians) available to verify these claims.
The judgment of authenticity relies on comparison for verification, whether this is authenticity of a piece of artwork or the authenticity of an experience. Subject-matter experts are readily available to verify the authenticity of artworks, based on comparisons against their accumulated knowledge, skill, and experiences, as well as against confirmed examples of true artifacts. They are insiders as well as knowledgeable, trained outsiders. This is, as I said, a pretty non-controversial form of authenticity.
Discussions about this kind of authenticity are easily identifiable. From COCA, some in-text examples of this kind of verifiable authenticity (authenticity of provenance, perhaps), or dare I say, authentic authenticity (no, I daren’t):
- “…that certain experts know better than the rest of the world about which artworks are authentic, the idea that you can recognize an artist’s hand at first sight,“
- “…has concluded that the document — now known as the Sussex Declaration — is an authentic copy of the Declaration of Independence handwritten on parchment at some point during the 1780s…“
- “…we’ll have to take the publication’s word for it that the recording was authentic.“
In all of these cases, you can fairly readily substitute “actual” or similar, and understand that there is indeed a true or false outcome option, and that the result of the test for authenticity indicates “true”.
But authenticity of experience (whether emotional or gustatory or whatever else) also requires judgment and comparison to established veracity, and it requires the allocation of the power of judgment in a way that I will argue is often unfairly (and according to the inequitable power dynamics of our society) meted out. Someone or some group, after all, has to be responsible for establishing and measuring against veracity. Here, I’ll return to explain my two-pronged classification system.
Internally-ordained authenticity: This applies to two scales of human experience. The smaller is the individual. As is a popular trope in modern society, we can be our “authentic selves”, something that only we know how to be. We are the judge, jury, and enactor of authenticity.
- “…time in her life, Chelsea will have the opportunity to live freely as her authentic self, ” he wrote in the fundraising appeal.“
- “…professional presentation experiences that provide students with practice and feedback to substantially enhance their own authentic presentation styles.“
In both of these examples, the authenticity suggested can only be implemented by the individuals, and can only be judged authentic by them, themselves, according to their self-knowledge. “Authentic self” is as buzzy as buzz words get, but it refers to a completely subjective and yet inarguable version of authenticity.
If I am claiming to be my “authentic self” (and, I presume, I am doing so in good faith), there is little anyone can do to challenge this claim. It is in many ways like phrasing statements with “I feel…” instead of “I think…” because feelings are infallible and inviolable, whereas thoughts are not (but this is an entirely separate topic). I could spend a lot of time arguing that this kind of authenticity is actually totally ridiculous, is entirely aspirational and requires a wholly premeditated idealized self and/or extraordinarily high levels of self-awareness to speak about with any legitimacy. But arguing with people’s senses of self is, as we all know, a waste of time.
A man who is prone to bar fights and punches another man at a bar is certainly being his authentic self, but this turn of phrase is much more often used in the aspiration setting of new-age self-help, on some level inseparable from juice cleanses, bowl food, and beer yoga.
Anyway, internally ordained authenticity is much more interesting from a community perspective. Think about your in-groups: familial, religious, cultural, linguistic, whatever they are. There is some set of behaviors or practices, whether they be foods, activities, or speech patterns that characterize your group and which can serve to identify you to other members.
You can probably readily identify things that are authentic representations of your group, but I suspect you would be hesitant about applying this identification to a larger swath of your broader community. For example, at a family holiday celebration, a visitor who is unfamiliar with the religion or the holiday asks if some food you are eating or some tradition in which you are partaking is “authentic”. You don’t know how to answer, because while it is authentic and traditional for your small in-group, you wouldn’t dare claim that it is a universal, extended to all groups within the broader community of celebrants. Naturally, your perspective is more nuanced, since you are privy to more information about the variations of culture within this culture than your guest.
These few examples below (all from the same text, from COCA) use “authentic” to describe this kind of collectively-moderated, small-group authenticity.
- “…told by a family elder when she grew up, which makes it authentic for her. Its message is one she internalized and still finds meaningful and powerful…”
- “…original and continuous with past narratives, rendering their telling of “new myths” authentic, given the dynamics of tradition understood in folklore studies today….”
- “…honoring the past, reflecting the present, and envisioning the future. To be authentic is less about exact replication than intentionality and recognizing the past along with living in…”
Notably, the speaker (writer) is likely outside of the group, but is constructing an in-group perspective on authenticity for the reader which hopefully exemplifies the type. Note that in two of the three examples, the claim of authenticity is mediated by further classifications: “for her” is highly specified, and “given the dynamics…” bounds the authenticity as being according to a certain, accepted structure of understanding. In the third, “authenticity” is accepted as a vague, broad claim, but I’d argue in context clearly refers to a specific group’s experience. Adding a caveat along the lines of “in this case” or “for her” would not change the meaning of the proposition.
To go back to the food thing, but not get too far ahead of myself, here are a few examples of in-group authenticity identification from local restaurant descriptions:
- “Sichuan Kitchen is excited to bring AUTHENTIC sichuan(sutran) style cooking to the people of Maine.”
- “For a really authentic experience, bring your friends and try a shared plate. Somali people usually eat in groups together. But be ready to get your hands dirty. We serve large plates to share that come with… .” (Mini Mogadishu)
- “We’re always excited to share our family’s favorite recipes with people who haven’t tried Somali food. While we cater to nearly every taste, here are a few suggestions to make for an authentic and delicious experience!” (Mini Mogadishu)
- “tailgaters, yet all different. But they can all stake their claim as an authentic Wisconsin brat experience.” (from COCA)
Note in (2) and (3), from the same restaurant, authenticity is framed with indicators of personal credibility: “we”, “our family”. Claims are also tempered with evidence of deep, nuanced, in-group knowledge: “Somali people usually eat in groups together” refrains from making blanket statements or overarching claims about Somali people or Somali food. It is clear that this is an expression of collective, internally-ordained authenticity, which in turn is essentially a scaling-up of individual authenticity. The authentic “self” here is actually a family group.
In reality, it’s difficult to find examples of internal, in-group authenticity claims, because it seems in-group members will not often use “authenticity” to describe themselves. They feel little need to do so because they know they are being authentic. They are insiders, after all. I don’t need to verify to an outsider that I am my authentic self, so why should my group have to do so?
And to make the effort to claim authenticity begs the question — why? To claim something is authentic is to mark it. It suggests that others are inauthentic, and it challenges other knowledge-holders or presumed-knowledge-holders to test or challenge the claim. It identifies not only purported legitimacy but also exclusive knowledge-holding. The person that can identify an authentic Van Gogh as drawing on extensive knowledge to be able to do so. Likewise, to identify some food, behavior, tradition, etc. as “authentic” is both to mark that thing but also to identify yourself as knowledgeable in this particular area.
Externally-ordained authenticity, on the other hand, is the most frequently used and abused kind. To be an outsider and identify something as authentic implies that you are, somehow, an expert. In a world that values “authenticity”, that ephemeral ghost of an attribute, to hold the keys to its discovery and identification is to be a powerful individual indeed. Below are numerous examples of “authentic” used to describe mostly restaurants, and it should become evident how problematic this usage is:
- “…and Kal’s own recipes are there too, like the Mezze Sampler with authentic healthy Lebanese appetizers.“
- “Leone’s aims to provide authentic Italian fine dining in downtown Norfolk.“
- “…watering hole featuring Colorado libations and authentic German food truck grub from an authentic German chef – the Blacks’ cousin, Fabienne Schempp…“
- “…based on our panel of judges, it’s the go-to place for an authentic NYC deli experience.“
- “The more authentic their Irishness, the more successful they are. But the more successful they are…”
- “Modest digs, authentic eats at Kitchen of India in Parkville.”
- “…was about 80 to 90 percent Mexican, calling the food “very, very authentic… before its time.” A year and a half in, the restaurant…“
- “…Tourists gripping guidebooks that listed Vitelli’s as the only authentic Italian eatery within a hundred miles made their way up and down the aisles, …“
- And this interesting chunk: “…restaurant desires to limit its staff to ethnic Chinese employees in order to maintain an authentic Chinese atmosphere, it is not because a non-Chinese person would be unable to cook …. Instead the employer has made a business judgment that its customers would prefer an authentic Chinese atmosphere.”
- “in the wake of colonization only serve to make them seem less Indian. Equating authentic Indian[-]ness with a static and idealized image of the past effectively vanishes contemporary Native peoples…”
These are all framed by an us-vs.-them structure, meaning for our purposes they are all examples of externally-ordained authenticity applied to groups. This is the third type in my typology, and the most interesting — and problematic.
The reason they are problematic is as follows. Fundamentally, “authenticity” is a judgment based on expert-level knowledge and is a true-false proposition. When an expert says something in their field is authentic, we believe it. This is how both society and language work, cognitively, for this word and concept. (I don’t have data on this but just roll with it.) Externally-ordained authenticity emanates from outsiders: or, if you’d rather, non-experts who have (just) enough credibility to make people believe them. A restaurant reviewer is an expert in dining experiences, but is not an expert in all cuisines. A Monet expert is not a Van Gogh expert. But either masquerading as another is just topically proximate enough to be believable for a non-discerning audience.
In the case of externally-ordained authenticity as applied to a group, an outsider (“us”) is judging some product or some group (“them”) as being authentic to “them”, according to our allegedly immense foundation of knowledge from which to make this claim. We (“us”) have identified these elusive examples of exotic*, ethnic* authenticity, and we want to make sure we are duly acknowledged and rewarded for these discoveries and for our comprehensive knowledge that has led to our ability to accurately identify them. Authenticity is a forceful claim: being bold enough to claim something as authentic substitutes for a credential, and this is problematic when the person or people making the claim are not experts in e.g. Van Gogh and yet are believed to be so.
These examples beg the question, what makes something authentic? Who is the judge? It is, frankly, impossible for every restaurant reviewer, especially the amateurs, to have achieved the level of in-depth knowledge required to make appropriate and accurate judgments of authenticity, especially in the case of cuisine or culture in which “authenticity” is not clear-cut or fact-based, as it is for identifying works of art. (NB: I am not an art historian and I suspect it’s harder than I’m making it sound, but it’s a useful comparison. Sorry, art.)
The writer (restaurant reviewer, in most of these cases) is assumed to be the expert, knowledgeable enough to be a reliable arbiter of authenticity in an impossibly diverse and complicated world. But if we require someone be an expert in Van Gogh to verify a Van Gogh, why is the category of “food” not too broad? No one sits around and verifies the authenticity of “art”. (I realize there is a market/capitalism-based explanation for this in the world of restaurant reviews … a newspaper cannot possibly employ an expert in every fine-grained cuisine of the world to write reviews of restaurants.) Reviewers, and readers, ought to recognize the limitations of their own experience and knowledge before they purport to be the judges of someone else’s authenticity.
A critical thing to notice about these examples is that they are almost universally invoked in discussions of Otherness. Cuisines (which are invariably non-homogenous) discussed above are all those that in a less-woke era we might have described as “ethnic”: Chinese, Italian, German, Mexican, even “NYC deli experience” which is basically code for Jewish. Not a single example invokes authentic American-ness. Quick thought experiment: what is “Authentic American-ness”? Consider why this is a difficult question to answer, and now ask yourself again if you really know what “Authentic Lebanese” or “Authentic Mexican” or “Authentic Vietnamese” means. This kind of simplified authenticity, used to sell newspapers or digital ads or restaurant reservations, ignores deeply complex social-religious-political-historical-economic realities. It ignores that cultural authenticity is, actually, entirely subjective, and dependent on one often-small group’s shared experience.
And the reason it matters? Money. Consumers seek authenticity, in art collection as well as in dining experiences.
Our discussions of authenticity would do well to be more highly specified. I can identify, let’s say, Lebanese appetizers as authentic, but only to the extent of my experience with Lebanese food. I (or the reviewer) should more accurately say “these appetizers are authentic to (or representative of) my experience with other Lebanese appetizers”. Experiential authenticity is valid, but it cannot be mistaken for comprehensive understanding or in-group knowledge which is almost always more nuanced than an outsider is capable of being or cares to be. We need also to be mindful of what our judgments are compared against: if I were to assess that a recent meal were the most authentic [insert cuisine here] meal I’d had, what am I really comparing it against? Other [cuisine] meals in the US? Abroad? In one city or many? In countrysides? At borders? Made by community members, or not?
Returning to our examples, (10) departs from our restaurant/culinary theme but explains fairly succinctly why our perceptions of authenticity are tied up inextricably with our social stereotypes and our power dynamics. Re-copied here for reference:
“… in the wake of colonization only serve to make them seem less Indian. Equating authentic Indian[-]ness with a static and idealized image of the past effectively vanishes contemporary Native peoples…”
The authenticity here discussed is clearly externally-ordained, and applied to an impossibly large, minority (and therefore less-empowered) group. Authenticity is judged according to a “static and idealized image of the past.” This is problematic because it ignores the reality and self-perception — the internally-ordained authenticity — of “contemporary Native peoples”. Regardless of accuracy, it is still the powerful outsiders whose judgments of authenticity are honored by those who consume media. We consumers accept that the (false) knowledge that the (powerful) outsiders hold is somehow deemed deep and nuanced enough to create an authentic construct of perception that we are inclined to blindly accept.
For this particular example, I think this Instagram post and comment explains it exceptionally well. Authenticity cannot be bestowed by outsiders. We don’t accept this in the world of tangible objects — we would not accept a non-expert’s judgment of the veracity of a priceless work of art — so we should not accept it in the world of culture, cuisine, and community.
I can’t tell you how many times Project 562 has been compared to the work of Edward S. Curtis. . . Recent studies have revealed that 64% of Americans believe that The American Indian no longer exists. This includes our current President. We feel that this is in part due to the preponderance of Edward S Curtis’s “vanishing race” images in galleries, books, and online platforms – all of the spaces that could otherwise be held by images of contemporary First People. . . Project 562’s sole mission is to Change the Way We See Native America by spreading authentic narrative and images direct from contemporary Native Americans. We hope that one day when you Google search ‘Native American’ instead of seeing 1800s Curtis images of a “vanishing race”, instead you will see images like this one, by Nadya Kwandibens @_anishinaabekwe. . . More on why we refuse to exhibit alongside Curtis in our new blog post, link in bio. . #retirecurtis
We would do better to humbly and deferentially ask insiders what, to them, makes something authentic. And we ought to be open to their answers, rather than assuming that we already know, and know better. Before we identify our new favorite taco joint as “super authentic”, we should ask ourselves if we really are the expert in tacos that we think we are. And remember that our judgments have real economic impacts. This is a research project for another time …
Basically…authenticity can be bestowed by two parties: insiders or outsiders. Because authenticity suggests veracity and infallibility, we are inclined to believe that the person or people labeling something as authentic have the credentials to do so. They are deeply knowledgeable about the subject area: they have comprehensive knowledge from which to draw these judgments. Authenticity can also be bestowed upon tangible objects (this is boring), individuals (this is also boring), and groups (this is interesting). However, to be responsible consumers of media, we need to be able to question these assumptions that we have. Who is saying what is “authentic”, and why?
Anyone that claims the work of someone else exemplifies authenticity does not, to a large extent, have the credibility to be doing so.