Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Toward a New Politics of Authenticity: Ethno-Cultural Representation in Theory and Practice

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Toward a New Politics of Authenticity: Ethno-Cultural Representation in Theory and Practice

Article excerpt

That [authenticity] has become part of the moral slang of out day points to the peculiar nature of out fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence, and of individual existences. (Trilling 1972, 93)

"I contradict myself: very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Walt Whitman, "Songs of Myself," in Leaves of Grass.


This paper is both theoretical and practical in nature. Theoretically, I illustrate some of the problems associated with the notion of cultural authenticity per se. On a more practical level, my interest in this concept lies in its centrality in a variety of public and academic discussions related to ethno-cultural festivals in Canada (and elsewhere). Many Canadians within the cultural and intellectual elite argue that these festivals perpetuate ethnic stereotypes and promote superficial, commercialized, and inauthentic versions of the cultures they are ostensibly intended to represent. I argue that while there is considerable merit in these criticisms, commentators often neglect some of the cote insights contained in a new approach to authenticity that emphasizes the discursive and social generation of authenticity claims. I use my recent fieldwork in Winnipeg's Folklorama and Toronto's Caravan to elucidate the shortcomings of what one might call the "traditional" discourse of authenticity, and to outline a new mode of thinking, writing, and speaking about both authenticity and public representations of ethnic identity in Canada.

Le present article est a la fois de nature theorique et pratique. Sur le plan theorique, j'illustrerai ici certains des problemes lies a la notion d'authenticite culturelle en soi. Sur un plan plus pratique, mon interet pour ce concept reside dans son role central dans un eventail de debats publiques et academiques lies aux festivals ethnoculturels se deroulant au Canada (et ailleurs). De nombreux Canadiens appartenant a l'elite culturelle et intellectuelle arguent que ces festivals font perdurer des stereotypes ethniques et encouragent des versions superficielles, commerciales et fabriquees des cultures qu'ils sont soi-disant censes representer. Je soutiens que bien que ces critiques recelent un merite considerable, leurs auteurs negligent souvent certaines perspectives fondamentales relatives a une nouvelle approche de l'authenticite qui met l'accent sur les facteurs discursifs et sociaux qui sont a la source des revendications a l'authenticite. Je mettrai a profit mes recentes recherches dans le cadre du Folklorama de Winnipeg et du festival de la Caravan de Toronto pour degager la faiblesse de ce que l'on pourrait nommer le discours "traditionnel" sur l'authenticite, mais aussi pour esquisser une nouvelle facon de penser, d'ecrire, et de parler sur l'authenticite et les representations publiques de l'identite culturelle au Canada.


One of the easiest ways to assert one's membership in the intellectual and social elite is to disparage the forms of "lowbrow" entertainment and recreation pursued by "ordinary" people. Sometimes this disdain for mass, pop, or folk culture is blunt and sarcastic; sometimes it is subtle. Nonetheless, some sort of indication that one does not engage in some putatively debased, kitschy, or common form of social activity is, for many of us, a means of claiming to support more edifying and "authentic" forms of cultural expression. They like Las Vegas shows, we prefer opera; they like Disneyland, we prefer the Museum of Civilization; they like the Olive Garden, we prefer Italian bistros; they like ethnic festivals, we prefer to experience unfamiliar cultures by traveling, reading, or immersing ourselves in relationships with members of these communities.

Underlying these familiar binary oppositions is the seemingly self-evident notion that the second term or concept of each of these pairs is somehow more culturally "authentic" than the first. …

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