Date of Award

Spring 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Asif Agha

Second Advisor

Rebecca Huss-Ashmore


Speaking and Sensing the Self in Authentic Movement

The Search for Authenticity in a

21st Century White Urban Middle-Class Community

Seran Endrigian Schug

Asif Agha and Rebecca Huss-Ashmore

This ethnography is about Authentic Movement, a ritual form of dance and self-narrative in which a participant performs free association through trancelike movement in the presence of a “compassionate” witness as a means toward the discovery of an authentic self. Rooted in anti-modernist social movements in late 19th century urban middle- and upper-class communities in the United States, Authentic Movement brings to light a central paradox of modern life—though it is through liberal social institutions of modernity that individuals are purportedly able to achieve the freedom to be who they aspire to be, it is to an imagined non-modern past that many look toward to know and define the authentic self. The dissertation shows how cultural icons of authenticity come to be interpreted as both universal symbols and personal experiences of an authentic self.

Performances of authenticity embodied in highly stylized modes of introspection and narration, enhanced by intense alterations in the bodily experiences of space and time, explicitly call participants’ attention to the sensorial experience of movement as the source of the authentic self. In fact, it is the high degree of poetic patterning of performances that is the key to Authentic Movement’s power to evoke emotionally powerful experiences of authenticity. However, this study shows that the search for the authentic self as an imagined private, internal, radically subjective self is not, in actuality, a journey into a private enclosed world. The experience of authenticity is, rather, a public performance. Subjectivity, even when centered in one’s own experience of the body, is intelligible as authentic only insofar as privately felt sensations point to socially circulating discourses of authenticity. The integration of cultural historical research and a multidimensional performance analysis within a reflexive ethnographic project represents a unique approach toward resolving contradictions between older romanticizing and newer constructivist anthropological perspectives on authenticity. Ultimately my analysis reveals how participants, through performance, come to authentically experience and, thus, bring into being the socially constructed ideologies of authenticity they envision.