The emotional logic of Authenticity

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.

The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”


No such luck. On your bike, sunshine.

Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?


It’s foreign, so how do you know if it is real?

I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.


That roof tile general is only 5.

The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.

The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.


So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.


The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.


Tiruchirapali, 1986. They explained that he was wearing sunglasses because he was a movie star running for office. Like Reagan.

And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.



Humboldt Park boathouse, 1989

Humboldt Park boathouse, 2006

My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.


Phyllis’ Musical Inn mural, painted 1987-88.

So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.


These are the traditional Bai costumes of Dali. These are not Bai children.

This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.


Took us an hour to find it – TOTALLY worth it.

It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.

Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.

When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.

The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?


Kampang Chnang, Cambodia, 2012

Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.


Sa Dec, Vietnam, 2012

Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.


What is the commodity? What is the exchange?

But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.

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4 Responses to “The emotional logic of Authenticity”

  1. Amy Clarke Says:

    Fantastic piece. It reminds me very much of a similar discussion about authenticity we had in my office recently (2 historians, 1 engineer and the rest architects) – when I suggested that the notion of authenticity could perhaps be viewed on a spectrum with Disney World at one end at an extremely scientific (but perhaps somewhat lifeless) remote heritage site on the other, a colleague responded with “But that’s unfair, it’s appalling to even compare the two – of course the Disney World end of the spectrum is more authentic!”

    Yes, it got a few laughs, but he made an interesting point, and a similar one runs throughout your own article. I agree, authenticity is absolutely a perception, and to think that there might be a single approach to authenticity is ignoring the very essence of what makes us human and capable of seeking out such things – emotion. Bravo!

  2. Wendy Says:

    Excellent and insightful. Your observation is wonderful about historians tending to base authenticity on accuracy and documentation, but that authenticity probably is more of a human perception – an emotional resonance.

    This idea of authenticity is a central one at Ashland, The Henry Clay estate in Lexington, Kentucky: we interepreted Clay’s legacy within the mansion that Clay’s son rebuilt after his death. Was it “really” Henry Clay’s home? Some insisted that he never set foot in this house, thus it is not authentically Clay’s.

    But I – and others – believe that authenticity comes from more than just the actual physical walls: Ashland today in its rebuilt form is still on the exact location of Clay’s original house and even more important: the son’s memorializing motivation to rebuild it was in itself a way to authentically represent his father’s legacy for generations of public visitors to come.

    The place may not be the authentic physical building, but it continues to pack an authentic emotional punch.

    Thank you for this!

  3. Jamie Baker (@_JamieBaker) Says:

    A thought provoking post, thanks.

    I’ve recently done some work on a C13th church that was partially rebuilt in the 1860s. At the time the work was much lamented in some quarters as destroying the authenticity of the original building.

    This had implications for the way it was subsequently treated, now being considered a reconstruction it was treated as if it were ‘merely’ a Victorian Pastiche. Historians and conservationists discounted it as unimportant and inauthentic.

    Our analysis of the building suggests up to 50% of the original church is still there, that it retains the same plan, and many of the important burials. Now those who have an interest in the building believe that there is this ‘authentic’ fabric in the building much more notice is being taken of it.

    The Church still looks exactly the same and is still used in the same way, but now that some of the stones and mortar are likely to be older that they thought, it suddenly looks more important.

    Contrast this with a paper I’ve written on Saddam’s rebuilding of Babylon. The Ba’thists approach to their heritage completely discounted any value in the fabric of the city. The value of the site was almost entirely in the associations, the tradition, the history. No Iraqi would have visited the sand-washed ruins of the site, but they flocked to visit Saddam’s pastiche.

  4. Dishonest Architecture « Stitching Cities Says:

    […] duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” Vince recently wrote about the emotional logic of authenticity, which is connected to this discussion but talks more about how our subjectiveness and sentiments […]

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