Joseph Grim Feinberg is today’s guest blogger and author of The Paradox of Authenticity. The book is to be published this week as part of the series Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World. All photos included in this post were taken by the author.
I live in Prague. My office is above the stuccoed arcades of a baroque building wedged between two winding, cobbled streets about 200 meters from the famous medieval astronomical clock on Old Town Square. At the end of another winding street, about 300 meters away, is Charles Bridge, whose saintly statues seem to bless the admiring throngs of tourists that amble across on their way to what’s billed as “the largest castle in the world.”
But when I have to cross the bridge myself, to get to a bookstore or an occasional meeting on the other side of the river, or when I have to go through Old Town Square to visit my colleagues at the Institute for Czech Literature, I don’t feel so blessed. If I’m lucky, rain has chased the crowds away, but most of the time I can barely squeeze through the gaps between the selfie sticks and the caricature portraitists and the headsetted tour guides and the aimless admirers of romantic views.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the tourists as such. I’ve sometimes been one of them myself. Even in Prague, after hours, I’ve been known to turn my eyes up from my books and toward the towers and ramparts and the surrounding hills. It’s not the people’s desire for beautiful sights that troubles me.
When I’m in the right mood, it’s not even the crowds. It’s the hundreds of shops that cater to them, all lined with the same souvenirs promising to everyone the same unique mementos of the city. It’s the “Czech Food” sold for prices few Czechs can afford, prepared at a quality few Czechs can stomach. It’s the pushers of playbills for concerts of grandiose classics performed and re-performed, note for note, every day of the year. It’s the lack of grocery stores and barber shops and tailors, signs of people going about their everyday lives. I want something real.
Not that I know what “real” is. But I can’t help wanting it. And the tourists can’t seem to either. What else do they come for but the authentic experience of Prague—precisely what their desire makes disappear? I could take them to my neighborhood, just off the beaten track, with cobblestones and pretty towers, but not a souvenir in sight. But I might make even that experience inauthentic simply by proclaiming it to be authentic and thinking about its authenticity, showing it off to other people and perhaps expecting some reward or recognition, rather than just being there for the sake of being there? Once we begin to wonder whether something is authentic, authenticity itself seems to melt away. Is there any way out?
A few years back and a couple hundred kilometers to the east, I met some musicians and dancers in Slovakia who were troubled by a different inauthenticity but dealt with the same basic problem. It wasn’t tourism and consumerism but mass politics and mass performance that were to blame for influencing Slovak folklore performances and making them seem fake. These young enthusiasts had uncovered old recordings where folklore looked and sounded so different, and so much more real, where they caught some glimpse of how people sang and danced for the simple pleasure of it, instead of performing for others on stage. They decided they needed to share their discovery with the public.
As I describe in my new book The Paradox of Authenticity: Folklore Performance in Post-Communist Slovakia , bringing authentic folklore to the public was easier said than done. Because no matter how carefully the young folklore enthusiasts reconstructed the folklore of the past, they couldn’t publicize it without bringing it out of its earlier context, where people did it for their own pleasure, and not for the public. The seekers of authenticity realized that what they put on stage was never quite what they really longed for, that really authentic folklore was always out of reach. Some of them, exposed to contemporary social theory, even began to wonder whether their image of the authentic past was more than a construct of their own contemporary desires.
But still they pressed on, looking for some way of bringing some semblance of authenticity into modern life—or at least trying to dampen the blow of inauthenticity. And in this I admired them and felt I understood them. Because even if social theory can tell me that authenticity is an impossible goal, it can’t make me stop wanting it.
is a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague. He has published numerous articles and opinion pieces in academic and popular media.