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Doctoral conference on "Authenticity and Heritage" - British Association for American Studies


Doctoral conference on "Authenticity and Heritage" at Bordeaux Montaigne University (France) 7th and 8th March, 2024

International Conference for PhD students and young doctors — “Authenticity and Heritage”
March 7-8, 2024. Université Bordeaux Montaigne, UR CLIMAS 4196

The COVID and climate change crises have recently given rise to the desire to go back to a slower and more responsible way of life that is deemed more authentic. In Le Sacre de l’authenticité, Gilles Lipovetsky analyzes the “fetishism of authenticity” which characterizes our modern Western societies. Sometimes synonymous with transparency, sobriety, or integrity, authenticity is presented as an ideal to be reached or rediscovered. This ideal is then used or exploited in the marketing or tourism industries for instance. The appeal that historical and memorial sites hold on tourists—what is called “heritage tourism”—questions our relationship to heritage and its relatively artificial display. Similarly, the genre of “heritage films” has sometimes been criticized for its idealistic representations of some historical periods, which hide the complexity of reality and thus lack authenticity. This conference aims at examining the links between authenticity and heritage, the latter being understood as a material, or an immaterial legacy transmitted from one generation to the next. Studying the multiple interrelations between these two notions offers a chance to examine our relationships to identity, memory, and transmission from social, political, aesthetic, and ethical perspectives.

Before being displayed and celebrated in museums, cultural and artistic legacies necessarily go through a process of selection and authentication. The value of the object—here taken in a broad sense—is negotiated after its authenticity has been assessed. In his work Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling highlights this question of authenticity by placing it within the symbolic location of the museum, a place of memory where the link to the past and to heritage is decisive as it determines the value and the price of the artifacts and objects exhibited there. The issue of authenticity is as important for archeological items as it is for works of art: to replicate or to plagiarize these objects robs them of their value, even in the case of a genuine facsimile of the original work. It follows that the value of an object does not hinge on purely aesthetic considerations since its replica, contrary to the original, is not credited with the same sacred character, precisely because of the absence of a link with a specific heritage, be it literary, artistic, or cultural. Questions related to museography are thus central to the examination of the two notions under study. How do museums shape artistic or cultural legacies which they want to be as authentic as possible? How to put on display a cultural heritage without transforming or betraying it?

The cultivation of a collective identity with a specific heritage may be a necessity for some communities, especially for marginalized groups. The transmission of a linguistic, religious, or cultural heritage that is deemed authentic becomes therefore a deeply political act. When the heritage of some cultures cannot be passed on from one generation to the next, the consequences may turn out to be disastrous for these populations. Since one may prove their affiliation to a cultural group by carrying on practices deemed authentic, some people look to revive or reconnect with traditions that were sometimes long forgotten, as a form of self-affirmation. The transmission of an authentic heritage thus brings up ethical and practical questions: Who has the responsibility of passing on cultural legacy? How to pass it on? Orally or in writing? Is there a duty to preserve that legacy? Who may receive or claim that legacy?

This legacy is strengthened, protected, sometimes even sanctified by communities. However, some traditions that are presented as descending from an authentic past are comprised of elements that were recently invented, as was proven by Éric Hobsbawm et Terence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition. At the national level, or on a smaller scale, to invent new traditions appears to be a means to overcome moments of crises. In this case, authenticity is not what is inherited but what is collectively created. Authenticity is not as fixed as it may seem, it oscillates between preservation and creation, continuity and change. Moreover, cultural practices that truly originate in the distant past are often distorted and modified as time passes by. This is the case for languages and dialects for instance. More than a passively transmitted object, authenticity is a force with ever-changing features, continually redefined through the process of transmission. But then, to what extent can a cultural object change through time while remaining authentic? The temporal and memorial weight of the authentic object is at the heart of the matter.

In science as in art, one’s contribution is always based on one’s cultural and scientific inheritance. Instead of embracing one’s heritage, one’s quest for authenticity may translate into a rejection of one’s legacy—the relationship between the two notions here turns out to be one of conflict and opposition. The adjective “authentic” can qualify something that is perceived as true, pure, original, or even in keeping with reality. Therefore, to refuse one’s heritage would be a means for artists and others to remain true to the spirit of their time by looking to reach a deeper, more substantial level, like Virginia Woolf who criticized the literary heritage of her predecessors in her essay “Modern Fiction.” She regrets the incapacity of the fossilized forms of fiction to allow for the expression of “an essential thing” that would be real—life or authenticity: “Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide.” Woolf’s criticism of her literary heritage leads to a reflection on genres, forms, styles, and types of narration that would be more capable of capturing reality. How can one present or represent authenticity in literature? Does this necessarily entail distancing oneself from one’s literary heritage? To repudiate one’s heritage can be akin to liberating oneself when this heritage was built on social and political structures of oppression. The choice of the authentic seen as true and original can be interpreted as an act of political or artistic emancipation. On the contrary, proponents of some artistic or literary movements have openly presented themselves as the heirs of previous artists, as though authenticity necessarily dwelt in a past that is sometimes idealized. As such, can authenticity be rooted solely in the present, or is it intrinsically inseparable from our heritage?

Selective bibliography:

AYNÈS Laurent. L’Authenticité : Droit, Histoire, Philosophie. 2e édition. Paris (France) : La Documentation Française, 2013.

BRENNA Brita, Hans Dam Christensen et Olav Hamran, ed. Museum as Cultures of Copies: The Crafting of Artefacts and Authenticity. Londres : Routledge, 2019.

CASSELY Jean-Laurent. No fake©, Paris (France), Arkhê, 2019.

GUICHARD Charlotte. De L’authenticité : Une Histoire Des Valeurs De L’art (XVIe-XXe Siècle). Paris (France): Publications De La Sorbonne, 2014.

HOBSBAWN Eric et RANGER Terence, dir. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

JONES Siân et Thomas Yarrow. The Object of Conservation: an Ethnography of Heritage Practice. Londres : Routledge, 2022.

LIPOVETSKY Gilles. Le Sacre de l’authenticité. Gallimard, Bibliothèque des sciences humaines, 2021.

LOVELL Jane et Chris Bull. Authentic and Inauthentic Places in Tourism, From Heritage Sites to Theme Parks, Londres : Routledge, 2017.

MONK Claire et Amy Sargeant. British Historical Cinema the History, Heritage and Costume Film. Londres :  Routledge, 2002.

MELOT Michel. « Qu’est-ce qu’un objet patrimonial ? », Bulletin des bibliothèques de France (BBF), 2004, n°5, p. 5-10.

ORVELL Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

PHILLIPS Ruth B. et Christopher B. Steiner, ed. Unpacking culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. University of California Press, 1999.

TRILLING Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Harvard UP, 1971.

ZHU Yujie. Heritage Tourism: From Problems to Possibilities. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Submission process

We invite proposals for 20-minute presentations in French or in English. Although this conference is primarily for PhD students and young doctors specializing in the English-speaking world, it is open to all.

Proposals may address, without being limited to, the following themes:

–          The role of literature and the arts in the transmission and/or creation of an authentic heritage, be it individual and/or collective.

–          The forms, genres, and styles used to pass on an authentic heritage; the writing of the self.

–          Identity, ideological, and political uses made of heritage and authenticity, for instance in colonial and post-colonial contexts.

–          Heritage, authenticity and time: schism, continuity, variations.

–          The inauthentic, the fake, the false.

A 250-word abstract and a short biographical note (150 words) should be sent by October 31, 2023 to:

Fees and accommodation: No participation fee is asked. Traveling and housing expenses are not covered by the organizing committee. Lunch will be offered to the participants.

Organizing committee: Jeanne Barangé, Yanis Ben Hammouda, Rose Borel.