Dyssimulation: Reflexivity, Narrative, and the Quest for Authenticity in “Living History”

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

The present article develops three interpretive observations concerning living history. First, a dominant concern of all living-history practitioners whom we have studied is authenticity. Living historians explicitly define authenticity as isomorphism between a living-history activity or event, and that piece of the past it is meant to recreate. In other words, the natives consciously understand authenticity as perfect simulation. However, our analysis shows the relevance of a second conception of authenticity, one that permeates living history but is not consciously understood by practitioners as central to the task of historical simulation. This implicit conception of authenticity concerns the privileged reality of individual experience. An authentic experience, to be achieved in the practice of living history, is one in which individuals feel themselves to be in touch both with a 'real' world and with their 'real' selves.

Second, for living-history practitioners, as for many of us, everyday experience is 'unreal' or inauthentic, hence alienating. Practitioners seek to regain an authentic world, and to realize themselves in the process, through the simulation of historical worlds. Our analysis suggests that an outstanding feature of the historical worlds created by living history is that they have narrative coherence;that is, they are emplotted or constituted as stories. We will argue that the authenticity so ardently sought is implicitly understood as the coherence that storied lives exhibit, a coherence that our everyday, alienated lives lack. Ironically, however, despite the appeal that narrative coherence has for them, living historians explicitly devalue written history, history as it is found in books. Once again, then, we have a gap between the implicit and explicit ideology of living history.

Our third interpretive task is to focus systematically on this gap, on what we might call the limits of reflexive (or conscious) awareness. Participants are quite conscious of the work that goes into living history. They are, for example, reflexive about the research they carryout to construct the roles they will play, and about the impossibility of accurately simulating a historic individual. However, such reflexive awareness seems limited and transitory, and living historians have a remarkable capacity to overlook the present-day cultural routines that underpin the production of particular simulations. In other words, they do not see living history as a genuine aspect of present-day culture. But from our perspective, the authenticity of living history resides as much in its faithfulness to the culture of today as in its faithfulness to the past. (Handler and Saxton, 242-243)

About the Author

Dr. Richard Handler is a Professor and Director of Global Development Studies Program in teh Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia.

"I am a cultural anthropologist who studies modern western societies. My initial fieldwork was in Quebec (1976-1984) where I studied the Québécois nationalist movement. This has led to an enduring interest in nationalism, ethnicity, and the politics of culture. My second major field project was an ethnographic study of Colonial Williamsburg, which is both an outdoor museum and a mid-sized nonprofit corporation. This has led me to an interest in tourism and cultural development around the world. Finally, I have had an enduring interest in the work of anthropologists as critics of modernity and development. My most recent book is Critics Against Culture: Anthropological Observers of Mass Society. A different interest is the intersection of anthropology and literature. I have written on Jane Austen's novels, on the literary bent of such noted anthropologists as Ruth Benedict and Edward Sapir, and on the difficulties of writing the ethnography of nationalist movements. Finally, I have had an ongoing interest in the history of American anthropology - in particular, in anthropologists as critics of modernity, and the relationship of our discipline's critical discourse to other intellectual trends. I am the editor of the journal-series History of Anthropology. I am also completing a collection of essays entitled Critics Against Culture: Anthropological Visions of Mass Society. Specializations: Sociocultural anthropology; nationalism, ethnicity and multi-culturalism; museum studies; cultural criticism; symbolic anthropology; history of anthropology; anthropology and literature; culture theory; modern societies; contemporary North America."

William Saxton, is a Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University.  

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