10 Replies to “Authenticity is OVER (If You Want It)”

  1. Thanks for bringing up all four of Bruner’s parts of authenticity. I think this is really helpful for getting more specific about what someone is actually saying in a given situation. So when someone says “are these files authentic” it’s in the context of genuineness and verisimilitude. With that said, those broader aspects of authenticity are still very much at play in terms of developing collections and making sure that what matters about those collections persists into the future. I think that is a big part of why Ippolito and Reinhart have such problems with the primary focus in digital preservation on fixity. Fixity is great at making sure one thing stays the same over time, but it’s not sufficient (necessary) at getting at all the aspects that make something useful.

    Your example at the end of member checking your interpretation of an experience is a great one. I think the more that archival practice embraces documentary practices that resonate with ethnographic methods and approaches that it will be useful for archivists to spend more time learning from anthropology.

    1. Thanks for raising some of the points about Bruner’s work. When thinking about verisimilitude and genuineness, an example that came to mind was a zine collection. Someone working on it had pulled up a similar site that a donor had mentioned to them, where the scans of the pages were presented in pairs, and there was an animation for page turns.

      Resources are key here, but the question still becomes a bit more about what is being preserved: the experience of revealing each page as you read, or the data that exists in those pages? Or perhaps a bit of both? This goes well beyond the scope of fixity, and more to the types of things that someone is trying to preserve.

      Other things, such as software or video games, are much more tricky. Bruner’s work is in the context of working with New Salem, which is being presented to a non-scholarly public, and to a certain extent, as a form of entertainment. Though in some aspects/cases, archives are meant to entertain as well, education and research are (perhaps?) more fundamental goals. So, while in some cases, making something look like an older version is best, in others, it’s better to capture key functions in other ways, and making decisions about that is based around what an archive’s overall goals are for a collection.

  2. Hi Alice,

    Thank you for your post! The music hook has caught me again! While reading your post, I began to think about the evolution and migration of “Scottish traditional music”. When hordes of Scottish peoples were forced out of Scotland in the 18th century during what is known as the Highland Clearances (to make room for more sheep – seriously), many moved ended up in Canada, in what they called Nova Scotia (New Scotland – see?). One island of Nova Scotia in particular was populated by displaced Scots, the island of Cape Breton; this island remained largely cut off from other cultures for centuries. My point here has to do with the music. The music that the Scottish brought over from Scotland would surely have been called “authentic” Scottish traditional music at the time. However, as time went on, the music played in Cape Breton did not change due to their relative isolation, whereas the “traditional” music styles in Scotland did change. Now, music from Cape Breton is called “Cape Breton style”, not Scottish. Some could argue that the music played in Cape Breton is more authentically Scottish, because it is the same style of music played in Scotland in the 18th century when many of the tunes were written, whereas these tunes sound very different in Scotland today. This is where we have to ask your question, “What makes it authentic?” A tune was created in Scotland in the 18th century, and carried to Cape Breton where it continued to be played the exact same way. This tune is genuine and has verisimilitude. The same tune that stayed in Scotland has been changed – the original environment is lost as ‘technologies’ advanced. It’s like the difference between a MS-DOS Word 1.0 document and the same document rendered and updated in Word 2010. The content is basically the same, but it looks very different, and the processes and interactions possible with its system are different. But, it has stayed in the same hands (Scotland), those of its creator, whereas the original file has been moved to a different repository. Which is authentic? Are they both authentic? Scotland certainly has a lot of authority to say, as the creators of the objects, that yes, this tune is authentic Scottish traditional music because it is mine and it has stayed here, albeit with some updates. Do I have any right to claim, as an American, an outside group, that the displaced file/tune is more authentic than the one held by the originating community? What about those in Cape Breton who play the tune? To them, it is now Cape Breton music; they have grown their own community and connect with their files in their own way, even though they were created elsewhere. I realize I have gone in a ridiculous tangent, but I think an important point could be that the same archives, physical and digital, can have meaning to multiple communities, and that “authenticity” depends on context and not always provenance.

    1. Thanks for your comment Rosemary! Folk music is such an interesting context for this discussion– Appalachian music often has the same reputation as being closer to the original tunes and practices than music found elsewhere, due to their relative isolation until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

      The interesting thing about isolation is that, while it doesn’t allow for outside change, it DOES allow for a small number of people to affect a practice. If the musicians who originally moved to Cape Breton played in a slightly peculiar way for Scottish musicians at the time, those differences could become emphasized in the resulting music and musical community. Similarly, it’s interesting to see how different musicians jump out of regional styles… for example, country blues musicians from the Mississippi delta often have a drone-like style to their guitar playing, but Mississippi John Hurt plays in a fingerpicking style more akin to the Piedmont blues musicians. How did he learn that? Perhaps more traveling musicians existed, but it’s hard to know with the lack of documentation that we have.

      I like that you point out here that all of these musics are in some way partial, if we are trying to represent and discuss Scottish folk music from the 18th century. In this case, I think (in many ways) it’s best to present the amalgamation: any documents from the 18th century, music from Cape Breton, and music from Scotland, including musics that deviate from the traditional sounds of folk music. Because you never know, while those deviations might be different from the sound of traditional instruments, they might highlight things about folk music that would be obscured to modern listeners otherwise.

      1. I didn’t know that about Mississippi John Hurt, very interesting! You’re right that those that traveled to Cape Breton could have played in a peculiar style – and we’ll never know! The example of Appalachian music is also interesting – I’d love to learn more about your ethnographic project.
        Your last point really struck me: that deviations might highlight things that would be obscured to modern audiences otherwise. In the case of digital objects, certain thinking says that the only way to truly preserve the authentic thing, especially if it is interactive, like a video game, is by emulation of the old technology on which it ran. (We of course know how many issues there are with this, but anyway.) However, “migrations” to new technology, while necessarily deviating from the original object, can preserve certain functions and characteristics of the objects that might be lost in an emulation environment, and would absolutely be lost if emulation wasn’t possible, and the file/object could not be rendered anymore!

        1. Right! And there’s an argument to be made that certain things are lost even in an emulation: both depending on the hardware at play, and the amount of background information understood by / provided for users. In the context of an archive, perhaps it would be assumed that researchers would understand the value or importance of a work– but that doesn’t mean that archivists cannot highlight that in finding aids, particularly with preservation intent statements.

          So, for example, listeners today hear folk songs in the context of everything they have ever heard, which is a LOT of music. Folk songs, in that context, can sound very tonal… but that’s placing a lot of internalized assumptions on the material, because people in the 18th century wouldn’t have heard nearly as much music. We cannot replicate that experience for users, so are we obligated to describe it to them at some level so they’re aware of that “inauthentic” characteristic of our presentation?

    2. Loving this conversation!

      Rosemary, your exploration of authenticity in the context of Scottish culture reminds me of some really fantastic work in Anthony Gidden’s book Runaway World (for some context on it see https://revisesociology.com/2016/08/21/anthony-giddens-runaway-world-summary/) that I think is very relevant to the conversation Alice has kicked off here

      Gidden (a really big deal sociologist in the UK) focuses a good bit on how movements to recover “traditions” are (in large part) part of a reactionary move in the globalization game between cosmopolitans who are embracing an increasingly multicultural society and fundamentalists who are retreating from it.

      What I find so compelling about this sociological lens is that it focuses our attention on how appeals to authenticity are generally grounded in very contemporary concerns about how to best mobilize the past for use in the present and that our present is very much a world struggling with different visions of a global market based society.

      1. Wow, ‘detraditionalisation’, what a word! Thank you for this article (and book)! I think that this statement by Giddens’ can especially relate to this conversation: “For someone following a traditional practice, questions don’t have to be asked about alternatives. Tradition provides a framework for action that can go largely unquestioned.” As a traditional music session-goer (I play various styles of “traditional” fiddle music), I have seen first-hand this gung-ho traditionalism, as well as its clash with globalisation and the conflicts between the two. At many sessions that I have been to in the States, traditionalism reigns: if it is an “Irish” session, there will be no American tunes, and if it is a Scottish session, don’t you dare try to play something Irish. I have always felt that this unquestioning traditionalism hinders progress, stifles creativity, and most importantly, is untrue to the “authentic” roots and meaning of the tradition itself! In sharp contrast, the sessions that I have been to in Scotland itself – the provenance of this tradition, the creator of these records – have embraced globalisation, and accept and encourage the evolution of tradition that is so natural in today’s global world.

        And this goes along with what both Alice and I have talked about in our posts: how the definition of authenticity is determined by intent, both creation and preservation intent. The traditional music tradition has always been changing and evolving, and this was the point from the beginning – interpretation and personalization are key parts of the tradition. Therefore, those who have taken this tradition and are now trying to keep it in one fixed position are like those who accept Sociality Barbie or a cryogenically frozen person as an authentic representation of that person. It has aspects or characteristics of the original object, but is missing the intent, the meaning.

        On the one hand, as Alice has just said, we cannot replicate the experience of the object exactly as it was when it was created. However, if we capture the intent and the meaning, if we can achieve the same effect on the user as the original object was intended to produce, even in a different technology or environment or format, isn’t it authentic?

        1. I really enjoyed Giddens’ Consequences of Modernity so I will have to give this a look! I like the idea of detraditionalisation in general, and it reminds me of rhetoric around cultural grey-out (I know Alan Lomax used this term but I’m not entirely sure if he was the one to first use it). There is a fear of a global culture taking over local ones, and for the multi-cultural nature of the world to slowly disappear in favor of increasingly similar practices from place to place.

          I think there’s some interesting elements at play here about the roles of musicians or “culture creators” and the roles of archivists in dealing with the idea of tradition (and in turn, authenticity). Musicians practice a tradition, researchers document the tradition, and archivists preserve that documentation… but who is maintaining that tradition? In a less global society, probably just the musicians, but today, it is 100% all three groups: musicians, looking to find older or more “authentic” music will visit archives, they will read old research, they will find old songbooks.

          I think archivists need to keep this feedback loop in mind, particularly when thinking about selection of “authentic” music and materials to preserve, because the rhetoric and political decisions made by archivists and researchers might have an effect on the ways in which musicians conceptualize and ultimately make their music.

    3. Rosemary, I think this brings up a really good point about authenticity as it relates to specific locations and time periods. I think art like music or fine art are great examples of the strange nature of authenticity.

      For instance, one of the most famous female impressionists of the nineteenth century, Mary Cassatt, was born in Pennsylvania but spent most of her adult life in France. In the art world, she is considered an American painter, but her training and style were heavily influenced by the French schools of painting. However, because of where she was born, her pieces are grouped in with the American art genre. In this case, which authenticity is more important? The nationality of the artist, or the style of the painting? Does one matter more?

      Especially with older pieces, authenticity is so often tied to geography and national culture. The points at which cultures cross in a whole art form, such as your example with Cape Breton music, or in a single creator, such as with Mary Cassatt, authenticity becomes a matter of value placed on the piece by the viewer/researcher/archivist. Is it the style that is important? The nationality of origin? The time at which it was created, or where it was created?

      We’ve been talking a lot in this class about how new media and digital media challenges our ideas of what preservation is meant to be, to learn to adapt our methods of preservation to the medium and what is being preserved. Could we not also say the same thing about authenticity? Maybe authenticity means different things for different mediums or individual cases.

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