Doug Bruns

Buzzwords of authenticity

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on March 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm

There is an article in the current Yankee magazine about the tradition of the Maine guide. At its heart, the guide program here in Maine is the practice of handing down skills and knowledge, guide to guide. It is, by definition, a tradition, like an apprenticeship. The article speaks to the context of “ritual history” verses “artifact history.” Artifact history is stuff, the offal of civilization, the things one finds in antique stores and museums. Ritual history, however, is the action of a skill handed down, including the knowledge of time and place contained in the memory of the teacher, drawing on previous teachers. There seems such natural symmetry to history practiced, if that is the right word, in this manner.

Turning still to contemporary culture, I received a catalog from a company called Ibex. They specialize in outdoor clothing. The catalog is quite nice and filled with lovely photography and interesting copy. Not all the copy is specific to selling clothes, at least not directly. There are several short essays that articulate the life-style choices of the Ibex clothes wearer. They are good little pieces, and frankly inspiring. One title, in particular, caught my eye: “Do (Authentic) Things.” The piece describes a sixth generation Vermonter, Bob Harrington, who runs a 140 acre sap farm. He collects sap with a horse-drawn tank. Drawing an overlap between their clothing and Harrington’s story, the copy reads, “We understand taking a longer road, a road tied to an artisan product and a strong connection to the natural world. We get it.” Consumerism aside, I respond to the pitch with a good deal of appreciation.

The business of authenticity has held center to my attentions for some time. It is the classic challenge: how to ensure that your experience of experience is valid. I have to reject in principle Sartre and Heidegger who held that modern civilization is already lost, that authenticity had been crushed by modern cultural norms and the attendant technologies. However, despite my rejection of that claim, it does not escape me that we first turn to outdoor guides and sap farmers when thinking of a life drawn authentic. I enjoy the comforts of modern existence. I’m not a Luddite. But there seems something fishy about much of modern existence (perhaps what Roland Barthes meant by “the plastic attempts of modernity”); so devoid it often appears of ritual history, to use our new phrase.

I wish to eat at the table of authenticity where the test of time is a basic ingredient of the recipe. That meal is most satisfying when the skills of its making are handed down from previous generations. Whose meal would you rather, Grandma’s or Ronald McDonald’s?

Does not something in our DNA long to connect with the ritualized promise of our ancestors? I fancy that if I find the right combination with which to respond to that question, a satisfaction, rich and unique, will be my reward. How best does one understand the nature of authenticity and assimilate that knowledge into a life?

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  1. According to Guy Debord:

    Self emancipation in our time is emancipation from the material bases of an inverted truth. This “historic mission to establish truth in the world” can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses, but — only and always — by that class which is able to effect the dissolution of all classes, subjecting all power to the disalienating form of a realized democracy — to councils in which practical theory exercises control over itself and surveys its own action. It cannot be carried out, in other words, until individuals are “directly bound to universal history”; until dialogue has taken up arms to impose its own conditions upon the world.

    As I understand it authenticity, in Debord’s case, alludes to the necessity to remain “emergent” in other words that any “established” idea (ideology) is a falsehood and counter to progressive thought. That life in its purest most appreciated and enjoyed form is a matter of simplicity, has long been clear, but the construction of illusion is a well honed skill of ours that needs perhaps to be used as a channel for change in a system which seems all too determined to achieve a static state?

    • Thanks for stopping in and your thoughts. I’ve never read Debord, nor any of the Marxists theorists. There is little about your comments–quite a mouthfull–that I can comment on. Except: this business of “the construction of illusion” and its being a “well honed skill.” That is an interesting notion and makes me wonder as to the nature of this illusion about which you speak–an illusion which seems, based on your comment, to be at odds with simplicity and thereby authenticity. That I should pursue. As I said, your comment is chock-full of notions–emancipation, inverted truth (how can truth be inverted? It would cease to be truth, as if we even could understand and agree on that definition.), atomized masses–about which I have no authority to speak. Thought provoking. Thanks.

      • Yea it was a stream of consciousness sort of post. The idea of inverted truth is not my own, it is a term coined by Debord to describe the spectacle of constructed truths as projected by mass media to represent reality. This projected reality in turn seems to be recycled to pervert internal truths…I suppose this is a comment on blind consumerism and the neo-liberal agenda…if we believe such a thing to exist.
        The notion of illusion I suppose for me begins with the shortcomings of our senses. We experience a very dull version of the complex and fascinating world around us as a result of our dull internal mechanism. There can be many reasons for this, a guess would be that beings as self aware, conscious and emotional as we are may not be able to handle more sensory stimulus than we are currently exposed to. Another thought would be that we have lost our way through the choices made in the pursuit of progress, perhaps we have neglected senses which could reveal a deeper view of our space and place.
        However the illusion making to which I referred as a well honed skill, hints largely at the conditioning of mankind through tradition and conformative attitudes. One need only think of established institutions in this regard, our governments, law houses, schools etc. The illusion here being that it is possible to establish a static state of being. The authentic truth in this instance being that life is emergent, not established. Everything about nature, our universe and even our path to emancipation is emergent, never static and certainly never finite.
        Or something like that……

      • That’s good–and helpful. Thanks. Your comments span my experience from zen to David Foster Wallace, which is a good deal of geography. This business of our dull senses being a result of self-awareness is interesting. I mentioned to a friend recently that one reason I love dogs is that they are not aware of their ultimate and pending death and that consequently they live in a present and constant state of being fully alive. Of course, that is my projection. More likely they are, as a neighbor recently put it, concerned with only two things: when do I eat and what is this smell. Thanks for your thoughts.

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