Authentic Bullsh*t

There are some words that, when I hear them, instantly raise red flags around the communication. One of these is the word “authentic”. I hate this word with a passion. What is “authentic”? Google says “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.” So how on earth do people get to describe anything as authentic EXCEPT the actual original incidence?

The reason I have this reaction is because I once did Medieval Re-enactment. I got into it in 1985, at least in part because I did fantasy role-playing and I wanted to know what it really felt like, to fight with a sword. I learnt that two-handed swords are NOT slow, and that a lot of the rules in RP games did not actually reflect the reality of the weapons, armour or combat. Not really surprising – I can’t imagine a lot of fantasy nerds getting up to wave steel around and risk the pain and sweat – but I was disappointed at the time. Re-enactment standards were low, in those days: I made myself a cheesecake warrior princess outfit.

Over time we got exposed to a higher standard of re-enactment, when we started associating with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). They dressed up in far more period looking clothes, did Medieval feasts with food that they actually researched to ensure it would be on a Medieval table, and did period dancing, singing and other activities. Their combat was different to ours – they wore heavy armour and did full contact hits, including to the helmet, with 3cm thick rattan canes dressed up as swords. We fought with steel, to the touch, unarmoured except for gloves, and strictly no head shots. We each thought the other group was crazy, but we were happy to share fun times.

The association with the SCA rubbed off, so when we started doing public performances we had Medieval-esque garb, armour, and a repertoire of singing and dancing to add to the stage combat, which we learnt when we determined real combat is just over too quickly for audience appeal. I’m not sure when I started making chainmail, but I’m good at it. I’m also good at fighting with any non-flexible Medieval weapon, costuming, dancing, singing and playing instruments, and teaching all these things, cooking feasts, presenting weapons and armour to kids, and playing games with adults, and filking (a wicked game of taking a piece of Medieval music and changing the words to make a new and usually very off-colour song). I bought many people into the hobby. Knowing I could never be 100% “authentic” (it’s just not possible) I set my level to be no obvious inaccuracies at a casual glance – no zips, watches, obviously synthetic materials and so on. Some were strict about it, like hand-stitching their clothes or making their own links or researching a specific time and place: I knew people who met those standards were out there, and all the more glory to them, if they cared. There was once a time when the scene was happy to include people with a variety of interests, passions and talents…

And then came creeping onto the scene a type of hater, who determined that their own focus was the way that all re-enactment should be, and that anyone who didn’t meet their singular standards of “authenticity” was a lesser being. We called them Authenticity Nazis, and the division grew from there. I wrote a filk about them, and their appalling double standards. I honestly believed at the time that the Sargasso Sea was a place of legend (I had read about it in Sinbad, I think), and “De Silva” is a concatenation of Silver and De Grassi, which showed how much I cared about pedigree…

Sargasso Sea (sung to the tune of High Barbary)

You say you are authentic and that I am fantasy
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
I say that you should get a life, authenticity nazi
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

I know the tunes to music from the fourteenth century
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
But my boots don’t match your reference so you will not play with me
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

An authentic reference tells me what the men all wore to war
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
It also graphically describes the dragons that they saw
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

You learn your sword play from a book, you should read between the lines
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
If de Silva didn’t innovate he wouldn’t have survived
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

When you started you thought dressing-up was an inconvenience
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
Now you dis the newbies who haven’t learnt dress-sense
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

You can’t fight for sh*t, can’t sing a song, and you watch the ladies dance
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
But still at least your ugly garb will earn a second glance
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

You disapprove of female fighters and potatoes in the stew
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
Thank god that modern hygiene is acceptable to you
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

So nice that you can finally say you have an expertise
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
So get up off your high horse of inconsistent snobberies
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

As you can imagine, this went over like a lead balloon with the Authenticity Nazis ☺

But it really was the beginning of the end of my love of re-enactment. These haters impressed the more suggestible of us with their holier-than-thou attitudes, power of contempt and disdain over others who did not accept their standards, and vicious political attacks. They undermined the national organisation we had constructed to have a single set of rules we could all train to so we could fight together without too much risk. They convinced festival organisers to include heavy headblow combat competitions (with steel swords), on the grounds that it was more “authentic”. The injuries certainly were. The stupid thing is, in that case they were right: real Medieval tournies also didn’t care about the welfare of the participants, and brute force was easier to find than skill. They scared off newbies with more romantic and/or fantasy interests, and women (who, funnily enough, do not want the choice of cooking in cauldrons over fires or being thrown across the battlefield by a shield barge), and anyone who did not buy into their fanatical exclusive small-minded rhetoric. They were a part of why I left the scene in 2009. I think there was only one person still active who had been in the NZ scene longer.

So what is “authentic”? What is “authentic Indian food”? Is it food cooked by an Indian, in which case fish and chips cooked by an Indian is authentic and madras cooked by me is not? Is it food cooked with Indian ingredients? In which case there is not such food in NZ, since they use NZ lamb and veges. Is it a particular recipe, from a particular time and place in India? In which case all variation or reproduction is NOT authentic. Like the definition above says – not a copy.

I find people use the term “authentic” to say that their version of a thing has higher quality (without defining the quality), is exclusive and infused with an intrinsic value that makes it immune to sanction and judgement, so that it cannot be reasonably disputed, questioned or denied, like a form of cultural relativism. It is all authentic bullshit: where something is a copy / reproduction / recreation / re-enactment / version / simulation or any other kind of imitation it is either NOT authentic, and is in no way sacred, or it is ALL authentic, in all its variation, and therefore no more special than any other version.

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