Ain't I authentic?

On Saturday I attended The Shape of the I, a conference sponsored by ELN, Colorado University’s journal of literary studies. I missed out on the Friday panels, but fortunately Timothy Morton recorded some of the discussion. In fact, the impetus for my attending the conference was to meet Professor Morton, shake his hand, and thank him for his pedagogy; I’ve been listening to his recorded lectures (via iTunesU) for a couple of years.


I enjoy panels and discussions such as these but always feel anxious and out of place at academic events. Actually, I feel anxious at all events (and non-events), but talk of literature and art is delectable and motivates me to confront my social anxiety. Despite the nervousness, I went. Even a small moment of bravery generates serendipity; another teacher of mine, Bhanu Kapil, happened to sit next to me in the afternoon. Instantly, I felt at home, as if I were back in a class at Paramita or an impromptu conference on the sidewalk outside Sycamore; even a brief moment with Bhanu generates confidence.


All the talks on Saturday seemed to concern themselves with the concept of authenticity (or perhaps my own feelings of insecurity inflected my note taking–but no, the anxiety is not my own; it isn’t personal but social, as Julie Carr writes at Harriet the Blog).


During the first panel on memoir and personal essay, Lawrence Hergott spoke about why he writes, specifically referring to a personal essay on his grief after losing his son. Hergott is a medical doctor. The essay was published in JAMA, and by his request it was in an issue that went out around the holidays when people “might be at home with their families.” During his talk he described the selflessness that a doctor exhibits when diagnosing a patient. I was reminded of Donald Preziosi’s talks at Naropa, where he likened the concept of authenticity in art to the process of diagnosis, finding its roots in the Renaissance, when market demands for Hellenic artifacts meant collectors needed to determine authentic relics from counterfeits.


When a patient meets a doctor (or her proxy in the person of an RN or PA), the patient tells the story she thinks appropriate for the doctor. The patient, healthy or sick, forges her experience. This complicates the encounter described by Hergott. No matter how selfless the doctor tries to be, the terms of engagement have been dictated for all participants. Likewise, the writer tells the story she thinks appropriate for the reader. Following Robin Hemley’s talk praising the fake memoir, the panelists discussed ethics for both writers and readers. The reader may desire an authentic account of the writer’s experience, but words prevaricate.


The second panel juxtaposed an antiwar novel, Sozaboy, and several documentary photographers. Erina Duganne and Karen Jacobs discussed different approaches to documentary photography, but what I noticed was that each photographer grappled with the same concern, namely what Roland Barthes identifies as the certification of presence, recalling Timothy Morton’s comments during Friday’s panel (which I’m listening to several days later):

“… if you’re going to have an ecology without nature you have to have a metaphysics without presence.”


A photograph exacts authentication from the viewer. The form of the novel, on the other hand, forecloses authenticity. The photographers seemed, each in her own way, to be using words to leverage distance from this exacting authenticity; while the writer of Sozaboy, by including an introduction and a glossary, pushes (as Sisyphus) toward authentication.


After lunch, Marcia Douglas spoke of I&I and Rastafari, how the community can extend or withhold authenticity. Adam Bradley responded, pointing out the influence of slave narrative on literature of African Americans and the African diaspora. The authors of slave narratives were in earnest to establish authenticity in order to compel readers into political action. Bradley cited Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, and I would add the narrative of William Wells Brown, which he begins:

I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose.

These are the first lines of Brown’s narrative but not his book. As with many slave narratives, letters introduce the text and attest to its (and the narrator’s) authenticity. This imperative for authentication is not engendered by the form of memoir or personal narrative. Brown is also the author of the first African American novel, Clotell; or The President’s Daughter, and his fiction too includes a biographical account of his own escape from slavery and letters of support attesting to Brown’s authenticity. Writing, regardless of categories such as fiction or non-fiction, can never have enough authentication; or in other words, writing is towards authenticity. This assessment is only valid for writing that wants to do something–another way of writing isn’t trying.


The final panel opened with a talk by a self identified performance artist, Petra Kuppers. She enriched the doctor-patient and reader-writer metaphor by turning the tables and instructing the audience in appropriate ways to listen. First, she encouraged audience members to sit on the floor instead of chairs or to move around. She read poetry and asked for audience participation. Mary Klages made reference to Hellen Keller to demonstrate how restrictions put on disabled writers can limit their narrative concerns. Out of this came my favorite quote of the conference:

“Anywhere you could touch her, you could talk to her.”


I was reminded of Agamben’s distinctions between poiesis and praxis, and I tried to correlate them with categories such as body and performance and discourse and artifact. I came away with a hierarchy possibly not intended by the speakers (my own misreading); performance, considered a live communal experience, is privileged over (more authentic than) the text, considered a solitary and perhaps moribund experience. Certainly, after the panelists concluded I felt uplifted and happily inspired, but I was inspired to go sit somewhere quiet and write fake fiction about a deathbed conversion, exercise 77 from 3 A.M. Epiphany.

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