16-17 april 2009
Sacrosanct Culture. The Authentication of Cultural Form
Plaats: Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam
|Conference Organized by the NWO research program Heritage Dynamics: Politics of Authentication and Aesthetics of Persuasion in Ghana, South Africa, Brazil and the Netherlands
Convenors: Marleen de Witte, Birgit Meyer, Herman Roodenburg, Mattijs van de Port (Social and Cultural Anthropology/VU Institute for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society, Meertens Institute)
The ubiquitous presence of discussions on authenticity in contemporary societies is hard to miss. In the West, millions have embraced the discovery of their ‘authentic Self ’ as the fundamental goal in life. By now a whole industry caters to this ideal – from wellness centers to confessional talk-shows and from new therapeutic forms to religious organizations. Inextricably tied up with the ideal of the ‘authentic Self ’ are cultural formulations and reformulations of ‘authenticity ’. These formulations are particularly prominent in arenas such as the art world, religion (regarding a broad array of new and old religious traditions geared toward generating experience), (roots)tourism, the media (with their search for ever more real ‘reality formats ’ and their unrelenting interest in the back-stage), amateur genealogy, ‘craft consumption ’, culinary ideals such as ‘slow food ’ or ‘raw food ’, debates about child delivery at home, spirituality on the work floor, and last but not least heritage politics. What this seems to indicate is that, more and more, ‘authenticity ’ has become a value attributed to people, objects, and performances, rather than an inherent quality that might be revealed in them. A perspective which considers the attribution of authenticity – and which thus highlights ‘the politics of authentication ’, distinguishing authenticators and authenticees in a field structured by power — typifies an anthropological take on authenticity. Wherever and whenever people claim authenticity, the anthropological incentive is to lay bare the man-made, historical and ultimately contingent character of such claims. For example, anthropologists tend to get excited about such findings that politicians are media-trained so as to appear ‘authentic ’ on screen, or that the ‘authentic ritual ’ staged by indigenous peoples are probably not grounded in a living tradition, but reinventions relying on historical-ethnographic sources. As Charles Lindholm stated: whereas anthropologists have long been ‘scavenging for the vestiges of a vanishing authenticity ’ they now generally take up the more lofty position of ‘floating above local claims for transcendence or truth ’ and have made it their main business to ‘demonstrate again and again that these claims are political and ideological representations supplied by selfinterestedparties pursuing domination ’ (2002:334). While stressing the value of a deconstructivist take on authenticity claims, and taking up a critical stance towards the essentialism such claims promote, our conference nonetheless seeks to offer a forum for exploring possibilities to move beyond this position. We call attention to the gap that exists between, on the one hand, anthropologists unveiling the ‘madeup-ness ’ of authenticity claims, and on the other hand, people ’s own search for authenticity, as well as their finding it – subjectively, experientially, false-consciously perhaps, but sufficiently persuasive so as to lend a felt grounding to cultural identities. Questions to be discussed are: How is it that people manage to transcend the constructedness of their life worlds? How is it that, against all philosophical considerations and anthropological findings, people seem to be quite capable to convince themselves that they are in possession of authentic Selves and live authentic lives? Which role do religious and cultural institutions play in this process, and what are the power relations involved? What are the dominant tropes of authenticity, and what are the subjectivities that come into being through these tropes? How is the body implicated in producing a felt authentic grounding to cultural form? How does memory authenticate history? In what ways are authenticity claims rooted in – or animated by – the primordial realms of bios and psyche? Pursuing these questions might get us closer to an understanding how cultural form becomes sacrosanct.
Day 1: Thursday 16 April 2008
Day 2: Friday 17 April 2008