On Sincerity and Authenticity

Last night in my Composition Pedagogy class we covered expressivist and rhetorical pedagogies.  I know, I know, try to contain your excitement.  Anyway, I was in charge of teaching the rhetorical section, and like many English majors in their late twenties, I am slightly obsessed with David Foster Wallace.  Because of this, I used his 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech, commonly titled “This is Water“, as part of my lesson.  My logic was that speeches are often analyzed in composition classes for their rhetorical content (Identify the Ethos, Logos, and Pathos that Martin Luther King Jr. uses in his “I Have a Dream Speech”, etc.), and that Foster Wallace often makes arguments about the rhetorical presentation/nature of writing (“Tense Present“) and other cultural phenomena (“E Unibus Pluram“).

I expected part of the class to not like it.  It’s a long speech, and we could only listen to the first 1/4 of it.  Much like his writing, some of the speech feels overwrought to the point of being tedious (which is the same thing that makes most of his fiction and some of his essays out of reach of my enjoyment).  However, I didn’t expect the majority of the class to disagree with both his content and his style, which is what happened.

Some context:  We spent the first half of the class discussing expressivist pedagogy, which came to power in the 1960s.  If composition itself is traditionally concerned with the writer, the reader, the text, and the reality/truth, expressivists are the ones who put the writer at the top of the chain.  Practices like freewriting or trying to find an “authentic” voice are closely associated with this theory.  In class, we spent a lot of time discussing what having an authentic voice meant, and whether or not it was the same as sincerity.  The general tone of the class agreed with the postmodern idea that there’s no such thing as having one voice, that we are comprised of many voices.

Now, when you start talking about David Foster Wallace, discussing whether his voice is authentic or sincere leads to some complex stuff.  On one hand, the man wrote frequently against the overuse of irony that permeates modern American culture and told Charlie Rose that his pushing the boundaries of text with his signature injections of footnotes are an attempt to portray the convoluted reality of thoughts.  On the other hand, it’s been reported that he made up pieces of his supposedly nonfiction essays to dramatize the story.  Now, whether or not that makes him inauthentic, insincere, or whatever negative adjective you choose to use is up for an engaging debate.

However, in class last night I was disappointed to hear those critical of his commencement address refer to it as being overly ironic, and even “hipster” (a reference to their interpretation that part of the style of the speech was an attempt to seem cool).  The biggest contributor to this attitude were the instances in the beginning of the address where he acknowledges the expectations (mostly negative) of what a commencement speech entails and then proceeds to work within those expectations while simultaneously seeming to mock them.  And, I think, interpreting that action as an attempt at irony is not illogical.  What I would argue, though, is that by acknowledging the social/cultural expectations and boundaries that he and the event are subject to, and then working within them, he is not being ironic.  In fact, I would argue he is being more authentic by making his audience cognizant of these factors.

But, I don’t know.  How do we walk the line between authentic, self-aware, and likable/readable in our writing?  Is there a point to looking for a voice, authentic or not, in your writing?

Your external content of the day looks at adding a new voice, literally, to poems.  Motionpoems takes poetry and adds video/audio to them.  Having met a couple of the poets who received the treatment, the dissonance between the voice used in the video and their real voice is highly entertaining.

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