The struggle for authenticity : blues, race, and rhetoric
The concept of authenticity has been central to the human capacity to communicate for over two millennia, and it continues to enjoy wide usage throughout popular culture today. “Authenticity” typically conveys a sense that one has reached solid bedrock, the unchanging foundation of an object or inner-self that transcends the context of the moment. In this sense, the search or struggle for authenticity is a quest for VIP access to the ineffable “real” that language can only inadequately gesture toward. This study investigates the contemporary struggle for authenticity, or what can be described as the “rhetoric of authenticity,” by exploring the way authenticity is negotiated, constructed, and contested through various symbolic resources. More specifically, it focuses on how authenticity is negotiated in the U.S. blues community, a complex cultural site where the struggle over authenticity is especially salient and materializes in a variety of complex ways. Drawing on a number of philosophical perspectives and critical theories, the study employs the methods of rhetorical criticism and oral history as it seeks to answer three central questions: First, what are the major rhetorical dimensions of authenticity? Second, what does rhetorical analysis reveal about the relationship between authenticity and its various signifiers? And third, what does our desire for authenticity teach us about ourselves as symbol-using creatures? The study employs a case study approach that moves inductively in order to discover the larger rhetorical dimensions of authenticity. The case studies examine the relationship between authenticity and the blues’ larger historical trajectory; between aesthetics and authenticity in the oral history narratives of professional blues musicians in Austin, Texas, especially as they converge along a style/substance binary; between identity and authenticity in the editorial policy of Living Blues magazine; and finally, between imitation and authenticity in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. The study concludes by exploring how authenticity is contextual, aesthetic, ideological, and political, and frames a rhetorical theory of authenticity that can be applied widely throughout popular culture.