The Impossibility of Aura


That we “first-worlders” of the twenty-first century have an insatiable desire for ‘authenticity’ seems to be a given (or at least an argument for another blog post). But what exactly is the authentic? We know we want it but how do we recognize it?

In their book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, Gilmore and Pine make a list of qualities that circumscribe the kinds of things we think of as authentic —  local, handcrafted, customized, organic, and so on. But for Glimore and Pine, the intent in corralling these qualities is that they can be created (or at least harvested) with an eye to selling the authentic thing/experience that people want. But what if we take a step backward and try to reduce this cluster of characteristics to first principles. What, if any thing, do they all have in common?

We might work to define what is authentic by its opposite; things or experiences that are inauthentic or fake. I am also (of course) particularly interested in how these opposing poles of authentic/inauthentic map onto theatrical performance.

In many ways, theatre is an ‘authentic’ experience. It is local, catering to a relatively small number of people in a limited geographical area. It is handcrafted, not mass-produced in a factory. Although performances repeat from night to night, we still have a sense of each night as a unique ephemeral experience. I think this is true to a large extent for all live arts events like music and dance.

However, the point where theatre parts ways with say a string quartet arises directly out of theatre’s relationship to fictionality. In the case of theatre (and other broadly ‘representative’ arts), real is contrasted, not exactly with unreal, but with the constructed fiction and all its rehearsed and illusory trappings. The key is in the ‘transposition’ in the making of one thing into a different kind of thing. Not A becomes A. (Not Hamlet becomes Hamlet). In the case of a real thing, it is already what it is and so does not need this kind of remaking. A is always already A.  Autobiographical performer Carmen Aguirre is Carmen Aguirre. (Although as I have argued elsewhere this is not a fully equivalent mapping. So perhaps we say A is A’.) Performances in the Theatre of the Real genre – autobiography, site-specific, verbatim – try to skip the essential audience theatricalizing process whereby not A becomes A, suggesting that this is not necessary. [Can this process really be skipped? Or is it just being suppressed or disguised?]

Authenticity, then, lies in a sense of the event/persona not being manufactured. Not manufactured in the sense of not being composed or rehearsed — something raw as it were. The calculated artifice of constructedness is opposed to a thing which springs forth innocent of intention or structure, something that just happened, spontaneous. But also not manufactured in the sense that the presented event/persona is the same in worldb as in worlda. The object or person being presented is consistent in its being with what it seems to be, containing a unique and consistent experience. What Walter Benjamin calls the ‘aura’ of the thing.

We are seeking contact with the authentic in performance through exposure to this unified aura where things are and have always been what they seem to be.  Something, I think, that the theatre, by definition, can never give us.  Even beyond the stage, neither the authentic nor the real actually exist – or at least not in an unmediated, unqualified way. In the pursuit of the authentic in the theatrical ‘real,’ we are chasing phantoms. And we are doing this chasing in full self-conscious awareness that we are chasing phantoms. Nevertheless we continue to run.


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