An End to Authenticity
“Are you going to experience Resort Cuba or the Real Cuba?” my friend asked me as I prepared to leave Canada for Havana. “Or the Actual Cuba?” she added, neatly encapsulating the traveller vs tourist debate. “I’m a traveller, not a tourist” indicates that you are not tacky, that you have accrued enough cultural capital to be able to say that you don’t merely gawk at manufactured tourist traps. “I’m a traveller, not a tourist” hints that you really engage with the culture in which you have allegedly been immersed. But it’s an impossible notion. The trend for going to Cuba – Real Cuba, which usually means Havana – is telling of how much we crave “authentic” experiences. Cubans have limited internet, many drive cars that are from the 1950s and their pastel-coloured buildings appear frozen in time. Look! How real and authentic! But who is this “authenticity” good for?
Cuban tourism has been rife since the early 1990s when former leader Fidel Castro claimed it as a “necessary evil” to combat the hardship of the Special Period – an extended economic crisis instigated by the fall of the Soviet Union, a major trading partner. During this time, austerity measures and food rations were enacted, resulting in widespread shortages, with some hungry Cubans driven to eating domestic and even, reportedly, zoo animals. Since diplomatic relations were re-established between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2014, trade restrictions have eased, and Americans have gained the freedom to travel to Cuba via the 12 categories of explicitly permissible travel purposes implemented in January 2015. This reason alone has led many to believe that Cuba will now “change”, which is easy to interpret as “Cuba will no longer be authentic.”
When I told people I was going to Cuba, their immediate response was invariably an encouraging “This is a good time to go, things are going to change soon,” type of statement. But instead of being reassuring, these utterances drained my excitement. The discomfort stemming from my belief that a fetishisation of Cuba is occurring. Cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo called this phenomenon “imperialist nostalgia”, where we long for a past we imagine we once had. A past we killed, mutilated and gutted, for in globalised world politics we are complicit in how our leaders enact foreign policies, such as letting a trade embargo exist that damaged the Cuban economy. Apathy does not make us less involved with any suffering that has occurred.
In Havana, I glare at the 1950s Chevys, powered by the sweet fumes of diesel that pervade the city's atmosphere. I look at its urban decay, at the architecture that is in such disrepair that it’s a Sisyphean task to preserve it. And I hate myself every time I find it beautiful. For what I'm really doing is romanticising repairs that constitute a significant chunk of Cuban household income.
Sociologist Lara Week writes that “travellers’ pursuit of authenticity determines which countries they travel to and the places they visit within those countries. Travel is a process of exploration, with travellers preferring to ‘be off the beaten’ path discovering new things.” Yet this process of discovery is often intertwined with a colonising impulse, where low-income areas – and its residents – are seen as terra nullius, unoccupied land that is ripe for cultural cultivation.
The packaged authenticity that lures travellers to places such as Cuba is also a reflection of the economist and social scientist Richard Florida’s notion of the “creative class.” Whether we’re travelling from country to country, city to city or settling in neighbourhoods that are being “revitalised”, there’s a colonising impact that relies on commodifying authenticity. Those who fall under this designation tend to move into areas once populated by working-class immigrants, and in the case of Toronto’s Parkdale and Queen West area, by residents affected by the deinstitutionalisation era during which inhabitants of asylums were displaced into new community-based dwellings. Just one example of how seeking poverty-chic can encroach on vulnerable demographics; in this case, those who have relied on communities of fellow survivors, not only for empowerment through socialising, but to simply have a home to sleep in.
This desire for the “authentic” can also partially explain the popularity of packaged “dive bars”, such as a certain chain in Toronto and Ottawa in Ontario that advertises itself as a “premium dive bar”. Yet as every branch is full of TVs playing early 2000s R&B and pop music videos, the term dive bar hardly seems appropriate. “Nostalgia bar” would be a better moniker, but we tend to associate those with theme parks and staff members who can barely disguise their hatred of their jobs. The words: “Welcome to Medieval Times. I am your slave,” are telling of my experience at a Medieval Times in Florida – our server was black. Or what about those 1950s diners where the servers are (understandably) tired of rubbing your shoulder while calling you “hun”? But while these are examples of the more explicit attempts at commodified authenticity, “dive bars” aim to sell an experience without anyone realising what they’re buying.
A faux-poverty aesthetic is what my friend and I called it once as we discussed the ubiquity of exposed ceilings and mason jars in the trendiest bars of every town – a global phenomenon in developed countries. He, from Australia, and me, a Canadian, staying in a hostel in Banff, Alberta, both of us in dirty hiking clothes and not wearing underwear. We represented the problem perfectly as we pretended that we couldn’t just wash our underwear in the sink, attempting to embody the commodified authenticity of Banff, a National Park that makes the wilderness accessible for non-hikers.
What packaged wilderness, faux-poverty aesthetics, gentrification and Cuba’s contemporary reality have in common is the pursuit of authenticity as capital. It’s not cool to be rich, especially if you identify as socially adjacent to the arts or embody progressive politics. When I responded to a friend’s mention of her trip to Hawaii with, “You went to Hawaii?” as if she told me she ate a kilo of caviar, she quickly said, “It’s just because I live in Vancouver, right? We’re close to Hawaii.” But Vancouver has some of the highest abject poverty in the country, and so we are ashamed to flaunt money or any signifier of excessive capital.
And we exhibit this in our aesthetics; in our social media curations, the restaurants we suggest to our Tinder dates and the vacations we choose. But we’re not on vacation, we’re travelling. We are interacting with the locals. We are eating ethnic food. These statements make me feel embarrassed. Maybe it’s my white guilt coming out, which is just as problematic as blatant racism, or racism that arises out of ignorance, but there is one thing I am adamant about – that socioeconomic class and racism are inexorably tied.
Obviously, profiting from looking poor, whether for cultural capital or monetary gain, is nothing new, but it reveals a lot about the failure of postmodernity, the intellectual and aesthetic movement (among other descriptors) that sought to challenge dominant ideas of what can be considered normal and abnormal. Postmodernity is seen as a temporal state wherein we want to reject totalising narratives, for example that there are only two categories of gender, or that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexual orientation. Postmodernity acknowledges that there are categories that we create, but that they exist in a collage, or pastiche, whereas our current practice of commodifying authenticity is a one-way avenue back into a totalising narrative – there is only one way of being authentic. And it is making everything the same, while pushing out those who need the most help, and continuing ways of being, thinking and living that are making our planet look like the precursor to the plot of a dystopian novel.
The literary critic Fredric Jameson argued that postmodernism is reliant on the logic of capitalism, which goes some way to explain why historically low-income neighbourhoods have now been monetised to satisfy the needs of social and cultural capital or image. Think Parkdale in Toronto, Williamsburg in New York City, Hackney in London and so on. Gentrification is endless thinkpiece fodder, but what is it about the nuances of living in a deprived area of a “Western” city that is being “revitalised” by real estate developers that draws the “creative classes”? For there’s a caveat to the social and cultural capital that is generated from where you live – your neighbourhood can’t be too poor, or that’s just “ghetto.” It has to be the right kind of poor. Are we really packaging a fantasy of poverty as authenticity?
Renato Rosaldo’s previously mentioned imperialist nostalgia is flagrant in these geographic movements, too. “Imperialist nostalgia revolves around a paradox: a person kills somebody, and then mourns the victim,” he wrote. “In more attenuated form, someone deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. At one more remove, people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature. In any of its versions, imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ both to capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination.”
I saw this in Havana. Havana is becoming a space that travellers want to dominate. Even civil servants are complicit in the domination of vulnerable geographic spaces. Police have been known to harass Cubans, especially black Cubans, when they are seen talking to visibly “Western” tourists. But many more people see this in Toronto, New York, Austin, London; the list goes on. And postmodernity, which sought to dismantle capitalist rationales, has reached an impasse. We have come to package experiences of authenticity, fetishising them and denigrating those who don’t know what makes something “authentic” at any given moment. And so, people of colour and the working class are excised from their spaces and aesthetics as they are re-packaged as fodder for our authenticity-seeking. But since authenticity has been divorced from its seemingly innocent intentions and taken over by capitalist desires, authenticity is noticeably ending. Or maybe it never existed.
Photograph by Erin Elizabeth Hynes