22 July 2013

Experiencing Authenticity:

Authenticity – (n): The quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

When I recently visited Baltimore for a conference, I stayed an extra day to roam about by myself.  My wandering brought me to the water along the Inner Harbor, where I encountered the famous masted ship Constellation.  As a ball cannot avoid rolling downhill, I’m unable to avoid historical markers; I learned about Constellation’s 1854 construction, but also read that it dates to the late 1790s – six pieces of wood from the original Constellation were used in the ship currently resting in Baltimore’s harbor (the exact location of these pieces is unknown). 

Historic Ships of Baltimore.
USS Constellation

The sloop is a real ship, and it’s pretty old.  But how old is it?  Is it a mid-19th century ship, or a late 18th century?  I think most would agree that it’s a mid-19th century vessel with older elements.  This sort of reuse of older components is common, particularly to large antiques.  More than once I’ve toured a historic house only to discover that the foundation dates to one year, and the rafters to another, with architectural elements brought in from all over.   
How many mediaeval builders got lazy and took stones from nearby Roman roads to place in their defensive walls?  If Romans originally quarried and shaped the stones, can we say they date to the Roman period?  Not likely, since the intent of the creators was a road, not a wall.   

Restored cars and paintings often contain new pieces intended to mimic the original.  Skilled craftsmen painstakingly recreate the damaged or missing sections to improve the appearance or function of the historic object.  
 Are those restored objects still the genuine article, that is to say – are they authentic? 

Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, before and after restoration.

One of my favorite examples of questionable authenticity is located in my favorite town.  The Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida, is located near the beautiful intercostal waterway.  A tourist trap for decades, the Fountain of Youth implies Juan Ponce de Leon landed in that location in search of his fable. (He probably didn’t.) 

Moreover, they feature a coquina cross on their tour that they claim was left there in 1513 to mark the spot. (It wasn’t.)  In the context of its own name, it is not the genuine article.  In its favor, however, many in heritage tourism argue that the Fountain is better experienced from the viewpoint of the recent archaeological finds, and as an example of a historic roadside attraction, not unlike the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.  If intent has changed over the years, the struggle for its authenticity has changed too.  

If Authenticity is difficult to pin down in an object- or place-centered discussion, how can we describe an authentic experience for ourselves?  Each of us is comprised of our past experiences, and we encounter external influence daily, from the media telling us how to dress and act, to cultural expectations.  All these seek to crush the person we might otherwise become.  The existentialist Sartre argues that living an authentic life means being true to our nature, whatever that may be.  Rather than aiming to be a specific type of person, one needs to ignore external influence and follow one’s heart, as the cliché goes.   As difficult as it is to ignore external influence, it is not surprising most of us are living an inauthentic life.

That can't be comfortable.

Yet this inauthenticity may not be pervasive.  Scratch the surface!  An antique car is no longer original, and though it looks like it rolled off the showroom floor, the upholstery was resewn in the 1970s, the fender has been re-chromed, the hoses recently replaced.  But it is not an inauthentic vehicle, as it remains what it was designed to be.  Perhaps in occidental culture we act more like these restored buildings and antique automobiles – we appear and behave as society expects on the outside, but upon closer examination, different components, histories, experiences and influences become apparent.  

We may follow society’s imposed norms, but express our individuality and “real-ness” through piercings, a certain style of clothing, or a wild modern art scheme in our apartment.  Sartre would probably roll his eyes at this, but he can’t tell us what our authentic life should be without forcing the paradox of being the external influence describing how we ought to live.  Socrates said it best: The unexamined life is not worth living.  As long as we look at ourselves with a refreshing frankness and truly embrace who we actually are, flaws and all, then we may live authentically.

A building may be constructed from the rubble of other, older structures, but it still exists as a genuine building.  

The ship sitting in Maryland’s harbor carries bits of an older vessel – that doesn’t mean it’s a fake ship.

We carry our own baggage, which means most of us will end up being less than perfect.  This doesn’t bother me a great deal.  If I endeavor to live my life as a good person, I won’t have a good excuse to drink.


  1. The first issue you address is often referred to as the Ship of Theseus paradox. That is, at what point to repairs and changes to components constitute a different entity? Of course, it is a false paradox in some sense as the entity never was that entity- it is simple a label of myriad sub atomic components constantly in flux that we label for our own purposes. And the implications for self and perception get very interesting when you consider our cells are constantly dying and being replaced by genetic duplicates and neural activity is directly influenced by sensory perception. That is you literally are not the person you were even a second ago.

    Society is largely illusory and simply consists of a set of behavioral norms that a group of humans more or less abides by. Indeed, when you realize that all experience is subjective as filtered through a human's limited sensory set and processed through brains evolved long ago to help keep a physically frail primate species alive it helps shine a light on what being human is. We are a flicker in the vast scope of reality, not even a bump in the timescale of our own planet. We seek meaning and truth as if we could actually comprehend it and are lucky if we can buck the instincts of our destructive, borderline psychotic, species for a while. I would counter that Socrates had it all wrong- an unexamined life is the only one most are capable of living because we are all trapped in our own little heads.

  2. The sloop is a real ship, and it’s pretty old.


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