Authenticity is real. It is a repair process within the order of symbols, within the hyperreal, in which efforts to destroy the order of symbols are channeled into acts that strengthen and expand it.
What is authenticity? Once upon a time things seemed pretty real. Then, gradually, things started seeming totally phony. People asked “how are you,” but they didn’t really care what the answer was. People said, in a professional capacity, “I’m sorry for your loss.” People wore t-shirts made in factories with the word “AUTHENTIC” printed on them.
Some people were more sensitive to the phoniness than others. It was a lonely time for a special snowflake. The good news is that now, you, you yourself, the only one who sees through the facade, must go and find the real. It’s probably far away, in another place, if not in another time. It’s exotic and bizarre. It demands a great deal from you. There won’t be a Starbucks there.
Authenticity is the object of the quest defined above. It may be an illusion, like the Fountain of Youth or pirate’s gold, but the search for authenticity has real effects upon the world.
The above is my summary of the tale told by Jean Baudrillard: a golden age of reality, recently corrupted by the hyperreal, the order of symbols that no longer has any connection with reality and masks its absence.
Authenticity and Money
The mundane senses of authenticity are relevant. Counterfeit money and forged paintings are not authentic (unless some coincidence of history gives particular value to a bill from D. B. Cooper’s haul or a forgery owned by Alfred Hitchcock). In the case of money, indications of authority (even skeuomorphisms) lend the physical objects cues of authenticity; Nick Szabo says:
Initial forms of innovative artifacts, of a kind the value of which was based at least in part on their authority, often borrowed authority from what they were replacing by physical resemblance. Mimicry of or semblance to pre-existing authoritative forms in a new medium was and is a very common feature of innovations: examples range from Gutenberg’s printing press mimicking scribal script to the private overnight parcel service Federal Express alluding by name and color scheme to the United States Postal Service. The ritualistic airstrips, offices, military drills, etc. of cargo cults were an extreme example of authority resemblance, and it predominates in the design of national flags and many other symbols (such as commercial brands) that invoke reputation or authority. Where not tabooed or banned as counterfeiting or trademark violation, authority resemblance was and is a common feature of innovative collectibles, their form invoking a traditional authoritative form while pioneering a new media.
The histories of art and architecture in religion, politics, finance, and business are replete with examples of authority resemblance. The designs of many of the very earliest coins, which differ greatly from the standard and presumably optimal form they soon converged on and have retained ever since, highlights what existing objects they were inspired by and suggests a similarity in intended role and function between the novel object and the old object whose form it has taken on…the earliest coins borrowed their form from shells, beads, and the metal blades of tools.
Money and authenticity are inextricably linked, as we will see, even as one of the most common forms of authenticity-seeking is an attempted flight from the contamination of money.
The Order of the Symbol
Behavior can be authentic, or not. It can be a genuine expression of emotion within a context of paying a lot of attention, or it can be a phony routine. It can be a reliable signal of what it purports to mean, or it can be a fake gesture or a fraud. Jean Baudrillard (in Simulation and Simulacrum, 1981) is tired of the phoniness is California:
Disneyland: a space of the regeneration of the imaginary as waste-treatment plants are elsewhere, and even here. Everywhere today one must recycle waste, and the dreams, the phantasms, the historical, fairylike, legendary imaginary of children and adults is a waste product, the first great toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization. On a mental level, Disneyland is the prototype of this new function. But all the sexual, psychic, somatic recycling institutes, which proliferate in California, belong to the same order. People no longer look at each other, but there are institutes for that. They no longer touch each other, but there is contactotherapy. They no longer walk, but they go jogging, etc. Everywhere one recycles lost faculties, or lost bodies, or lost sociality, or the lost taste for food. One reinvents penury, asceticism, vanished savage naturalness: natural food, health food, yoga.
People are just signaling to each other. Food isn’t about food. Health care isn’t about health. You have to wear particular clothes that have particular meanings, and there are all these societal conventions that inhibit naturalness. You can’t poop on the sidewalk.
He is pretty sure that there used to be a base reality, and that not being attached to it is very dangerous:
Nevertheless, maybe a mental catastrophe, a mental implosion and involution without precedent lies in wait for a system of this kind, whose visible signs would be those of this strange obesity, or the incredible coexistence of the most bizarre theories and practices, which correspond to the improbable coalition of luxury, heaven, and money, to the improbable luxurious materialization of life and to undiscoverable contradictions.
Money, luxury, and heaven make an “improbable coalition” – in Baudrillard’s view, they don’t belong together.
Then there is authenticity in the sense of tourism. Is the food, the culture, the puppet you bought, authentic? Do tourism markets corrupt their destination cultures and make them less authentic?
Erik Cohen (Authenticity and Commodification in Tourism, 1988) notes that not all travelers are the same. Some travelers care a lot about authenticity; they are generally the most “alienated” travelers, seeking a lost reality centered on people in alien cultures. Other travelers are just there to hang out, and don’t care if the tequila shots and llama rides are not part of some ancient and uncorrupted order. Not every traveler seeks authenticity.
Authenticity travelers are pickier about the objects they acquire. Cohen provides two definitions (from authoritative museum sources) of “authentic” items:
- Any piece made from traditional materials by a native craftsman for acquisition and use by members of local society (though not necessarily by members of his own group) that is made and used with no thought that it ultimately may be disposed of for gain to Europeans or other aliens
- Any object created for a traditional purpose and by a traditional artist, but only if it conforms to traditional form. [I]n order to be acceptable as authentic, the product should not be manufactured specifically for the market.
These definitions are concerned with money and corruption. Markets, especially markets with European or “alien” buyers, are seen as corrupting of authenticity. Cohen quotes a crankypants on the level of Baudrillard: “The ritual has become a performance for money. The meaning is gone.”
While money is constructed as corrupting by the alienated seekers after authenticity, those refugees from the ubiquitous order of symbol and signal, money is itself ubiquitous beyond the realm of European and other “alien” cultures. The meaning of many undeniably authentic objects (blankets, baskets) is in its native culture a form of money.
Local markets are exempt from pollution in these definitions, but markets with ritually impure buyers are contaminated. A basket is authentic if it was made to sell to the village over the mountain, but if it was made to sell to Europeans, it is fake.
The logic of authenticity works to ensure value by limiting supply, as with every form of money. Authentic goods must be hard to forge and limited in supply, exactly the factors that make money a store of value. But sharing the logic of money does not diminish authenticity as a source of sacred value, except by its own logic.
All decisions on the authenticity of objects (money, baskets, food, paintings) are centered around deciding how they fit within the order of symbols. Rather than establishing a place in the solid order of the real, authenticity in the sense of provenance establishes the social meaning of the object. John Lennon’s toothbrush is indistinguishable from other toothbrushes on the level of the physical and real; it is only special on the level of signal and representation. It has magical energy from proximity to a famous person (a common form of human magical thinking), and in establishing this proximity through documents and testimony, the toothbrush acquires authenticity.
The obsession with provenance appears to be a recent western innovation; Gail Feigenbaum (Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, 2012) dates it to the 1970s. While Feigenbaum attributes this to the necessity of dealing with Nazi hoards and other conflict art, there was also a demand shock: 1973 marked a watershed in art auction prices, immediately following a monetary policy change (in 1971) that made “hard money” harder to find. Oil absorbed some of the demand for money-like investments, and so, to some degree, did art. In its new role as money, it is stored in climate-controlled warehouses rather than displayed on walls. As art became money, the institutions that supplied it developed rituals for establishing its money-like properties: alienability, authenticity.
Provenance in objects refers not only to their origin, but to their history of ownership. Conflict diamonds are ritually polluted; perhaps more importantly, a stolen painting cannot be sold. Authenticity here means that the object is an alienable asset, the center of a bundle of property rights established by document and ritual. Again, authenticity and the market are best friends.
Authenticity Is Real
We all know that authenticity is fake. But what my essay presupposes is, what if it isn’t? In seeking out the authentic, fleeing from their native symbolic order, the authenticity travelers have tended not to stay fled. They come back, they send back their paintings and words (think of Gaugin and Thoreau), and they open up new symbolic territories. A few hundred years ago, nobody climbed up a mountain for fun, beauty, and spiritual edification; it took an authenticity traveler to discover mountains as social objects. These travelers go in search of the authentic, and they sometimes come back with successful, satisfying symbols to repair the previous order. Cohen (1988) even rehabilitates Disneyland as emergent authentic:
In principle it is possible for any new-fangled gimmick, which at one point appeared to be nothing but a staged “tourist trap,” to become over time, and under appropriate conditions, widely recognized as an “authentic” manifestation of local culture. One can learn about this process of gradual “authentication” from the manner in which the American Disneylands, once seen as the supreme example of contrived popular entertainment, became over time a vital component of contemporary American culture.
Authenticity travelers need not be literal travelers. Their belief in the real sometimes draws them to science. Sometimes they search for authenticity on Mars or Proxima Centauri. Some authenticity travelers seek the real in the future, in fiction, or in drugs. Sometimes they come up with actually new things that nobody has ever heard of. That is pretty authentic.
Robert Hass spins in the emptiness outside the symbolic order, and brings back Meditation at Lagunitas:
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I.
boy oh boy do i love purchasing large amounnts of Fool's Gold. wait a minute… fools gold fucking sucks. this stuff is no good..!! Fuck !!!
— wint (@dril) September 1, 2016
The Authenticity of Ideas
The modern obsession with provenance has extended to ideas – did Shakespeare really write the plays? did Darwin really innovate the theory of natural selection? This is one kind of search for authenticity in idea space. Another is rejecting existing categories and attempting to break down orders of abstraction. Yet another is creating new orders of abstraction and signal.
Authenticity tourists in idea space attempt to see reality as it really is, uncontaminated by failings of human cognition, bias, and sensory limitations. It is not so bad to imagine that there is really such a reality. The search for authenticity motivates the exploration of new territory, bringing new frontiers and points of contact. The result may not be beautiful; just as coins bear the markers of authority of past regimes, the new authentic is often bizarre and self-consciously exotic. But we know that 90% of everything is crap. Only 90% of authenticity travelers are smug dickwads.
While there is no “real” golden age of pure authenticity, it is worthwhile to look at differences between cultures that determine whether everything feels real. Rituals, objects, and architecture that work to create a satisfying sense of reality might have secret characteristics that don’t show up in unsatisfying cultures. Finding out what there are is a great little corner of idea space; you probably haven’t heard of it. You have to take a donkey train and eat scorpions.