Seeking texts (books, movies, TV, articles, etc.) about authenticity
April 17, 2013 12:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm preparing to teach an honors-level college composition class themed around authenticity. What are some cool texts (in any media) that I can show my students to get them thinking about different aspects of authenticity?

In the fall, I'll be teaching an honors-level composition class for college freshmen, with an overarching class theme of authenticity. I have free rein over the texts I select for the class, and I want to provide my students with a variety of examples using different kinds of media - books/films/TV/articles/Youtube/podcasts/etc. I would really appreciate any help or advice that you could give me in figuring out a wide range of texts to show my students.

To give you an idea, some of the sources that my colleagues and I have discussed using are Cheryl Strayed's Wild (thinking about how Strayed is trying to access a more 'authentic' self), Catfish (the movie or the TV show), sources about the James Frey controversy (talking about whether fiction within nonfiction is acceptable, and to what extent). One of my particular interests is pop culture (I'm tempted to use Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, for example, to talk about how/whether the show is 'authentically' southern, and how real reality TV is anyway), so anything in that vein would be really cool.

The sources can be highbrow or lowbrow. They can be directly talking about authenticity, or just related in some way to the idea of what is 'real' and what isn't. I'm particularly looking for resources that are easily-accessed for free, though I'd also be open to cheaply-available sources that I can easily photocopy or otherwise distribute.

Thanks so much in advance for any ideas you may have!
posted by littlegreen to Education (45 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Norma Khouri story is fascinating, particularly the 2007 film about her, 'Forbidden Lies'.
posted by Salamander at 12:26 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Mark Hofman is another example of an extortionist forger caught in a web of bolder and bolder lies. Fascinating story.

Luke Tredinnick has a chapter on authenticity in Digital Information Culture. This was my info science masters paper topic so happy to memail my bibliography. Not all of it is for archives nerds.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:33 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Oh, also - google the TED talk by Joseph Pine, called 'What consumers want'. He talks about how businesses try to create what consumers really want, which is 'authentic experiences'. Very interesting stuff.

(Sorry for lack of links, I can't do the embedded link-y thing, DON'T MAKE ME TRY ;)
posted by Salamander at 12:35 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Try the This American Life episode Simulated Worlds. It's quite interesting and accessible, featuring
  • a trip to a wax museum
  • a talk with a scientist who explains that Americans' ideas of what dinosaurs were really like actually reflects the national mood (e.g. people perceived them as more aggressive in pre-war periods; in the mid-1990s when this show aired, the narrative reflected "family values")
  • a medieval scholar's trip to one of a chain of medieval restaurants complete with jousting tournament
  • an examination of how NPR's All Things Considered and The Morning Edition simulate reality
The episode makes reference to Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality, which you might also mine for material.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:50 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: If you're discussing reality TV and documentaries, check out "Prime-Time Fiction Theorizes the Docu-Real" by John Caldwell (chapter in Reality Squared: Televisual Discourse on the Real). It's on the highbrow/academic side but fits well with Catfish and Honey Boo Boo.
posted by thetortoise at 1:01 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: (I should add that the article is more about stunts in fictional shows and mockumentary-style filming than reality TV itself, but it would make a good supplement to discussion of what signals authenticity in pop culture.)
posted by thetortoise at 1:08 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Some selections from Sartre's Nausea or Keruoac's On The Road would seem apt.
posted by empath at 1:11 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Walter Benjamin - The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
posted by Alterscape at 1:44 AM on April 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: JK Rowling's recent novel A Casual Vacancy features a character nicknamed Fats who becomes increasingly obsessed with authenticity, and living the most "authentic" life possible. It's a recurring theme with [SPOILER ALERT] a tragic outcome that leaves you with a lot of interesting questions.

I highly recommend the book by the way, although it's not one to read whilst one is hormonal or otherwise emotionally vulnerable!
posted by greenish at 2:14 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is only free if it's accessible from the library, but Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor's Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music is really good on the myth and value of authenticity in music, from Leadbelly to the Monkees, Elvis to Ry Cooder. The Leadbelly and Elvis chapters might be particularly good in isolation – the former was my favourite.
posted by carbide at 2:24 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Susan Sontag's On Photography which is likely to be in any university library. It's a bit dated in the age of smartphone cameras but it's the kind of first-year uni mindblowing document that deserves more reading.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:45 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Maybe a bit of Baudrillard, if you'd like to introduce your students to critical theory. For instance, part of "The Precession of Simulacra" from Simulacra and Simulation. There was a "translation into American" of this text recently featured on the blue.

Another great text for this would be selections from Mythologies by Roland Barthes.
posted by redfishbluefish at 3:34 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Barton Fink.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:15 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: I just watched a great video by a business speaker named Joseph Pine on authentic experiences--how different organizations work with customer expectations to produce an authentic, valuable experience. It also talks about the paradox between how every experience IS inherently authentic, but no company can give you a truly authentic experience (as everything is thought out beforehand and "faked")

He does a better job explaining than me, and there's some questions I'd ask him but he does a good job making me think of authenticity as something EVERYONE craves, in every part of their lives.

Here's a link, unlike Salamander haha
posted by rhythm_queen at 5:10 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is, in fact, a book called The Ethics of Authenticity, which I remember being at least thought-provoking. It's also short, so you could vet it in a weekend, given that I'm not giving you any detail about this book. (A teacher told me to read it in high school for an independent study I was doing. It's definitely readable for college freshmen.)

Benjamin's Task of the Translator? It's probably too inaccessible.
posted by hoyland at 5:12 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Pretty much the entire series of Mad Men is about how things/people look versus what/who they really are. This goes for almost every character in the show.
posted by loveyallaround at 5:16 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Between the Dreaming and the Coming True is a series of essays about the search for authentic self and connection to God. It's very beautifully written with a number of essays built on striking metaphors.
posted by alms at 5:17 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: I think an essential text would be Daniel Boorstin's The Image. "no single book ... has so well framed how the American consciousness was reformed from one that seemed to value the genuine to one that preferred the fake."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:13 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: There's also Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin And The Lust For Real Life by David Boyle.
posted by escapepod at 6:22 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, wow - thanks so much for all the answers so far!

Just to clarify, if it's a book-length work, I'll probably limit myself to using extracts from it, so any texts that are particularly extract-able would be awesome.
posted by littlegreen at 6:35 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll is, ultimately, about how any search for authenticity in popular music is doomed to failure. The chapter on Ralph Peer and the Carter Family is especially telling: A P wrote down as many songs as he could (half) remember, as Peer would pay him for anything he could record.

Wald's website has some useful information, like the Timeline of Labor Issues in the U.S. Music Industry. Who knew how much of popular music was shaped by what the music industry could get away with?
posted by scruss at 6:49 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax
posted by ewiar at 6:50 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: I studied food and culture in grad school and authenticity was big, particularly because it's such a popular claim now. What is authentic food? Can there be new authentic foods? Is the term now meaningless? I know if you search JSTOR for food+authenticity or in Gastronomica you'll get a lot of articles.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 6:51 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was thinking about the food angle too - the book I thought of was Jennifer 8 Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which explores the creation of "Chinese" food in the US.

You might look through Commodify Your Dissent - a collection of essays from the Baffler in the 90s.
posted by yarrow at 7:02 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: I would talk about the movie "The Perfect Storm." The parts of the movie based on verifiable events, like a rescue by the Coast Guard (or whomever) are gripping and come across like real events that I have seen documented on the Weather channel's shows like "Storm Stories." The parts on the boat where there were no survivors and we don't know what happened come across like made up hollywoodized bullshit.

I might also talk about the movie "The Messenger." Like "Braveheart," some of the battle scenes are mashups of two or more different actual battles. But in "The Messenger" I think they made it less dramatic than it really was, possibly out of fear of losing the audience to what might look like hollywoodized bullshit but was actual historical fact. The scene in the movie where she is shot in the chest with an arrow and falls off the seige ladder seems to be a mashup of a battle where she was shot in the neck and a battle where she was hit on the head and fell from a seige ladder. I suspect they chose to make it the chest in part because it sounds like made up bs to show her handily recover from being shot in the neck but that's apparently what actually happened and is part of why she was accepted as a messenger from God.

"Braveheart" and "Titanic" are both neat for how they smooth over the fact they took dramatic license with historical events. They leave room for "well, it could have happened." I don't know if that is relevant to what you want to do.
posted by Michele in California at 7:27 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Authenticity is a favored theme of Dorothy Gambrell's Cat and Girl:
Authenticity is…
On The Good Ship Authenticity
Who's Real
posted by zamboni at 7:54 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bruce Lee interview (transcript)

So what I'm saying, actually,you see, it's a combination of both. I mean here is natural instinct and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony. Not...if you have one to the extreme, you'll be very unscientific. If you have another to the extreme, all of a sudden, a mechanical longer a human being. So it is a successful combination of both, so therefore, it's not pure naturalness, or unnaturalness. The ideal is unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness.

There's an interview (I think not this one) where he discusses the paradox that to be fully "natural" (fully oneself, expressing oneself authentically) is not something that comes naturally to a human being. So what he's striving for is unnatural naturalness, a naturalness that has to be skilfully trained and developed.
posted by philipy at 7:59 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Further to the recommendation above for Commodify Your Dissent, you might want to set an extract from Thomas Frank's 1997 Conquest of Cool, which describes in lucid detail how the concept of accruing "personal authenticity" through the attainment of "cool" was created by the advertising industry in the '60s. Here's an extract:
This book is a study of co-optation rather than counterculture, an analysis of the forces and logic that made rebel youth cultures so attractive to corporate decision-makers rather than a study of those cultures themselves. In doing so, it risks running afoul of what I will call the co-optation theory: faith in the revolutionary potential of "authentic" counterculture combined with the notion that business mimics and mass-produces fake counterculture in order to cash in on a particular demographic and to subvert the great threat that "real" counterculture represents. Who Built America?, the textbook produced by the American Social History project, includes a reproduction of the now-infamous "Man Can't Bust Our Music" ad and this caption summary of co-optation theory: "If you can't beat 'em, absorb 'em." The text below explains the phenomenon as a question of demographics and savvy marketing, as a marker of the moment when "Record companies, clothing manufacturers, and other purveyors of consumer goods quickly recognized a new market." The ill-fated ad is also reproduced as an object of mockery in underground journalist Abe Peck's book on the decade and mentioned in countless other sixties narratives. Unfortunately, though, the weaknesses of this historical faith are many and critical, and the argument made in these pages tends more to stress these inadequacies than to uphold the myths of authenticity and co-optation. Apart from certain obvious exceptions at either end of the spectrum of commodification (represented, say, by the MC-5 at one end and the Monkees at the other) it was and remains difficult to distinguish precisely between authentic counterculture and fake: by almost every account, the counterculture, as a mass movement distinct from the bohemias that preceded it, was triggered at least as much by developments in mass culture (particularly the arrival of The Beatles in 1964) as changes at the grass roots. Its heroes were rock stars and rebel celebrities, millionaire performers and employees of the culture industry; its greatest moments occurred on television, on the radio, at rock concerts, and in movies. From a distance of thirty years, its language and music seem anything but the authentic populist culture they yearned so desperately to be: from contrived cursing to saintly communalism to the embarrassingly faked Woody Guthrie accents of Bob Dylan and to the astoundingly pretentious works of groups like Iron Butterfly and The Doors, the relics of the counterculture reek of affectation and phoniness, the leisure-dreams of white suburban children like those who made up so much of the Grateful Dead's audience throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
There's plenty more along these lines in the book itself.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:23 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time

truly mind blowing and meta as hell... what is the copy is as good or better than the "authentic" original?
posted by bobdow at 8:30 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: F is for Fake! Here's the whole thing on Youtube.
posted by stinker at 9:21 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Ooh, oh, I get to promote a book I worked on! it's called "The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity" and is a collection of essays, so it would be easy to just use one or two. Very enjoyable and accessible, thoughtful, and a bit funny. Might be a good place to start discussion about what makes something authentic.
posted by chowflap at 10:47 AM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Chuck Klosterman's essay "T is for True" from his book Eating the Dinosaur is a brief, entertaining piece about irony vs. earnestness (or more specifically, how honest authenticity is misunderstood in an ironic culture), using Ralph Nader and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer as examples.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 11:10 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ps. Please, please consider totally inauthentic regions like Dubai--a fake oasis built on a desert and fully utilizing slave labour of Bangladeshis, has a huge environmental footprint because of it.

Read this! Fantastic analysis of what's under Dubai's shiny exterior.
posted by rhythm_queen at 12:16 PM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: How about a little bit of levity? The French movie Jean de Florette has a scene where the new young outsider is talking to the old-timer about his ideas for the farm - what crops to grow, how many rabbits will be needed, etc. and he passionately and repeatedly refers to a scientific manual with quotes about authentic all his plans are. (Use the French pronunciation of "authentique" in your mind, here) The old-timer nods along, then goes off and laughs with his uncle to make fun of how the new guy wants to plant "Otenteeks" and other unknown vegetables from a book.
posted by CathyG at 2:11 PM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: What could be very interesting would be to take subjects for whom there are both biographies and autobiographies - even better: an autobiography, a flattering biography, and a tell-all biography. Contrast and compare.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:07 PM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing is about authenticity in so many different ways, and raises some questions about art and human nature that I think would go very well with the curriculum you are developing.
posted by tzikeh at 9:42 PM on April 17, 2013

Best answer: Seeking authenticity of life through adventure/isolation:

Walden, Chapter 2. Where I Lived, and What I Lived for
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Into the Wild, 163
“Two years he walks the earth, no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure, the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. – Alexander Supertramp, May 1992.”

Authenticity of research:

Why Most Published Research Findings Are False - John P. A. Ioannidis, PLOS 2005
There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field. In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true when the studies conducted in a field are smaller; when effect sizes are smaller; when there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships; where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes; when there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice; and when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.

Authenticity of identity on the Internet:

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
I am Scott Adams
posted by clearly at 11:04 PM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's a fantastic article from John Jeremiah Sullivan called The Violence of the Lambs. Available in full online or in his excellent book Pulphead, it tells a fairly gripping story about increasing rates of animal attacks on humans, and then calls into question the trust we have in the authenticity of such stories.
posted by escapepod at 7:11 AM on April 18, 2013

Best answer: Exit Through the Gift Shop

You're going to have to have to include a bit of Holden Caulfield ranting about the phonies, of course.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:31 AM on April 18, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so, so much for all these incredible suggestions! Best answers all round! I'll keep checking back in case anyone else wants to offer ideas, but for now, thank you thank you.
posted by littlegreen at 11:02 AM on April 18, 2013

Best answer: Performativity might be really interesting to study - how it obscures authenticity, or reveals it. The musician Jack White is UNBELIEVABLY performative - down to the color-themed shows and the low-fi recording studio/record label/shop where all the employees wear matching outfits. He's the only person i know who wears the same clothes for a normal day and and a photoshoot. He and Meg convinced everyone that they were a brother and sister rock star team when they were actually married. Yet he's also deeply focused on authenticity in music and art, and does a lot of thinking and talking about it. I suggest you start with the long sit-down interview he did with Conan O'Brian last year. [sorry, no links - I'm on my phone]

Also maybe watch his bit with Stephen Colbert, who's extraordinarily performative and interesting in his own right, but in a much more deliniated way (for Colbert, I STRONGLY suggest his Playboy interview from a few years back).

Sounds like a really cool class!
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:58 PM on April 22, 2013

Best answer: Follow-up.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:29 PM on April 22, 2013

Best answer: I'm late to this discussion, but will gently point out the preponderance of white people in your list and in the thread so far, and suggest that it's worth looking at "authenticity" as a somewhat problematic construction as it plays out in cultural narrative.
posted by judith at 6:49 AM on April 25, 2013

Best answer: Following judith's observation, I'd like to suggest Susan Marcia Stan's Picturing American Indians: Image vs. Authenticity, about representations of indigenous North Americans in children's books.

A documentary that would complement this article nicely is Reel Injun (available streaming online here); it examines portrayals of indigenous North Americans "through a century of cinema."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:04 PM on April 25, 2013

Response by poster: judith: thanks so much for your observation! I will hold my hands up and admit that I hadn't been thinking nearly enough about the diversity of my sources, and that's definitely something I need to work on. When I compile my texts for the class syllabus, I'll definitely take that into account, and I'd appreciate any POC-relevant works that spring to mind from future commenters (though, of course, I'll research some more diverse sources myself as well!)
posted by littlegreen at 9:47 PM on April 25, 2013

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