Authentic Lives, Authentic Times: A Cultural and Media Analysis

Nicholas Hookway, Sara James

Abstract


Authenticity is the value of our times. From reality television and self-help literature to expectations to find the “real you” in work, love and relationships, authenticity pervades contemporary social and cultural life (Vannini and Williams). In contemporary Western culture the ideal of living authentically, of being “true to yourself,” is ubiquitous. Authenticity is “taken for granted” as an absolute value in a multitude of areas, from music, to travel to identity (Lindholm 1). We seek to perform authentically, to consume authentic products and to be authentic people. To describe something as inauthentic is the critic's cruellest barb, implying that the product or person under review is contrived, insincere, or at worst, soulless.

The prevalence of authenticity is linked to what Charles Taylor (26) calls the “massive subjective turn of modern culture.” As religion and other traditional forms of authority weaken in modern secular societies, individuals need to draw on their inner resources to find answers to life’s big questions. It is in this context that ethical ideals of authenticity—wrapped in notions of self-discovery, self-fulfilment and personal improvement—come to play a central role in modern Western culture. While Taylor posits that authenticity can be a worthwhile moral ideal, it has tended to get a bad wrap in much cultural diagnosis. From Lasch to Bauman, authenticity is routinely linked to narcissism and declining care for others.

For this issue of M/C Journal we wanted to develop a more nuanced conception of authenticity that moved outside abstracted theoretical accounts such as those provided by Taylor, Lasch and Bauman. We wanted to curate an issue that captured the concrete and situated ways in which authenticity is mobilised in everyday life and use this to interrogate the meaning and consequences of authenticity for contemporary living. In aiming to do this, the issue builds upon a one-day symposium—Cultures of Authenticity—we organised in our roles as co-conveners of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) Cultural Sociology group. The symposium was held at Flinders University City campus in Adelaide on 28 November 2014 and supported by TASA thematic group funding.

Building on the focus of the symposium, we invited papers for this issue of M/C Journal to analyse the role of authenticity in late-modern life and its real world meanings, applications and consequences. We asked for papers to investigate the significance of authenticity across diverse areas of media and culture. The result is an exciting collection of articles that address authenticity from a variety of angles that draw upon established and innovative empirical sources, including blogs, internet forums, reality TV, radio transcripts, interviews and focus-groups.   

Our feature article by Patrick Williams and Xiang Goh offers an emotionally powerful account of how discourses of authenticity are constructed on a breast cancer Internet forum. Using qualitative research methods, the article analyses two key dimensions of authenticity: 1) the existential, which focuses on cancer patients’ ability to face crisis and death; and 2) the interactional, which focuses on the collaborative making of the authentic cancer survivor.

Nicholas Hookway and Akane Kanai also use online mediums to excavate contemporary applications of authenticity. Hookway uses blog data to show the prevalence of “being true to yourself” as a contemporary moral ideal, but suggests that the version of authenticity produced by the bloggers tends to miss the relational basis of self and morality. Kanai engages with the topic of authenticity as it applies to Tumblr blogs, arguing that they produce a concept of authenticity constituted in tension between individuality and belonging.

The following three papers address the significance of authenticity in relation to work, religion and authenticity. Sara James shows that constructions of authentic selfhood in relation to work can offer existential answers to questions of meaning in disenchanted times. Steve Taylor looks at how authenticity as originality is claimed by alternative Christian communities and appropriated by mainstream groups in the UK while Ramon Menendez Domingo explores the different meanings that individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds associate with being authentic. 

The next two papers address the production of authenticity in chat-based radio and reality TV. Kate Ames uses Kyle Sandilands to examine authentic performance in the chat-based radio genre, before Ava Parsemain moves our attention to how authenticity as truthfulness is deployed as a pedagogical strategy in the SBS show Who Do You Think You Are.

Amy Bauder and David Inglis then close out the issue with analyses of country music and wine. Focusing on Bob Corbett and the Roo Grass Band, Bauder offers an ethnographic account of the role of authenticity in country music, arguing that family is used as a central vehicle to authenticate the genre. Inglis book-ends the issue by challenging readers to consider authenticity in wine production and consumption not simply as a social construction.

Highlighting the importance of developing specific accounts of authenticity, Inglis argues that unlike the example of country music, authenticity in wine is never solely a cultural fabrication. Specifically, Inglis urges us to consider the importance of terroir to authenticity, not simply as the branding of place but also the physical and chemical components involved in wine making. Inglis’s paper was a fitting way to close the issue—it not only highlights the importance of authenticity as a modern value it also underscores the importance of historising the concept, demonstrating that demand for “authentic” wine is not just a modern value but one that has ancient roots.

Putting together such a project involves the support and cooperation of a large numbers of people. Thanks to the authors for their wonderful contributions, the reviewers for their generous comments and The Australian Sociological Association, Flinders University and the Australian Cultural Sociology group for your support and advice. Thank you to Axel Bruns and the M/C Journal team for supporting not only this issue but also providing an exciting avenue to share new research and ideas.  

This is an on-going project but we feel this issue makes an important contribution to the operationalisation and application of authenticity to the study of self, culture and society. We hope you agree.

References

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1979.

Lindholm, Charles. Culture and Authenticity. Malden: Blackwell, 2008.

Taylor, Charles. Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Vannini, Phillip, and J. Patrick Williams, eds. Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society. Ashgate, 2009.


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