The Origin of Authenticity in the Breakdown of the Illusion of the Real

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.

Authenticity Tourism

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Provenance

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.

Dril says:

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.
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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Comments

  1. Romeo Stevens says:

    This is going to seem tangential. Indeed, I myself am unsure how exactly the resonance between this piece and my response functions.

    Enough hedging: This piece inspired a feeling of breathlessness in me and also highlighted hypotheses about what is going on with it. By breathlessness I refer to the phenomena that differentiates the days when we calmly tackle our tasks for the day despite them being chaotic, too numerous, and ambiguous, with other days where we feel overwhelmed despite our tasks seeming to be structured, tractable, and concrete.

    One framing is that breathlessness comes about when we have tasks (and more importantly, nebulous intentions that we have attempted to distill into tasks) that don’t quite fit the systems we have in place for passing information and actions between our various selves. Thus, we are forced to try to maintain it (or usually, several) in a mental queue. This prevents focusing on any given task at hand and induces a felt sense of juggling, stumbling to keep up, imminent failure, i.e. breathlessness.

    Intentions and tasks have their own innate ontologies, and when we try to force fit them into one of our existing systems/buckets (think email, to do lists, GTD, self-help schema, and also the way we pass and receive tasks from others) some part of us notices the bad fit and prevents us from actually removing the task/intention from our mental queue (GTD is big on this phenomena, they focus heavily on a felt sense of system reliability), thus the breathlessness persists.

    The prevalence of breathlessness implies that bad fit/simply not having an appropriate bucket is common. I think this is because intention ontology is ideosyncratic and changing over time.

    Some hopefully testable ideas about what this means:
    1. We should pay a lot more attention to psychological similarity when evaluating productivity/organizational/communication systems.

    2. We should update in the direction of significant trial and error being unavoidable.

    3. We should cultivate acceptance that akrasia will be managed but never completely eliminated because the representation/matching between intentions/tasks and buckets to put them in will always be imperfect (encounter corner cases) and change over time as the sorts of intentions we wish to transfer between selves slowly shifts as we develop and mature.

    (There may be other obvious possible implications I’m missing)

    This initially seems a bit disheartening but accepting that our organizational schemes are in perpetual beta feels freeing. Winning looks less like a final climactic battle between your competing desires (or an uneasy truce, which is really just a temporary ceasefire) and more like an experimental framework that is low friction and thus gets you curious/excited about yourself.

    After writing that, it feels merely like a mashup of some older Venkat stuff (tempo), GTD core principles, and somehow related to the last 3 pieces Sarah wrote for ribbonfarm, but I’m still not sure how on that last bit. I’ll post it anyway because I value possible criticism that leads to additional insight more than I value the embarrassment of being inauthentic and unoriginal. :p

    • Romeo Stevens says:

      A small piece of the resonance is something like: Become an anthropologist of your own rituals.

  2. Hey! What does “Order of Symbols” mean ??

  3. I suppose I can’t think of a more worthy or interesting topic to explore than authenticity. IMHO, something that is authentic is true to itself. Simple as that. That is, the source of authenticity comes from within; without regard for value to anyone or anything else. Perhaps ironically, these expressions can have value that people are willing to pay for (art) that sometimes spills over into the absurd (Lennon’s toothbrush).

    In a weirding world, we’re often told something is authentic, and because we’re all so confused and hungry to believe it, we do. But it’s often hard to separate true authentic expressions from products that ultimately disappoint, to viral marketing campaigns, to quotes from our heroes that are facebooked-about that Snopes tells us they never said at all.

  4. Is that blackberry heirloom?

    I think you set up the question and proposition but didn’t actually demonstrate how it works. The restorative process definition makes sense. In a way authenticity the way you’re proposing it is something created via a process of relating. When you mark a thing, it acquires an identity that is unique and alienated both from its past state and in a way where its authenticity in relation to YOU can never be doubted. So not just stolen objects. Even things you buy, you have to “make it your own.”

    Turns wabi-sabi into an active thing, ownership as a for of active agency, and authenticity as a history of true relationships to a thing.

    This gives us a bit of a sense of why a commodity mass-market thing is not “authentic” until human hands first touch it and make it their own. But rather than being inauthentic, they are pre-authentic. Between the release of the design and the first dent, the thing travels through a path of becoming that strives for interchangeability/uniformity, a manufacturing process. Any ‘authenticity’ conferred on it in this phase is actually a bug rather than a feature. You do NOT want your brand new car to have unique fingerprints in the form of manufacturing defects. You want the wabi-sabi-ing to begin with you.

  5. I think that you’re missing out on the most important part of the whole authenticity cult, which is not so much that the opposite aesthetic, which one might call the tourist aesthetic, is about affectation but that the way in which it is about affectation actively works against true engagment with an alien culture.

    Consider, for example, the vessel in which we store water in at home — a round-bottomed clay pot. It has a great advantage, in that it insulates against the outside heat very effectively, and you get below room temperature water in Chennai summers with no energy expenditure. It is also unwieldy to keep — we have a metal thing just to balance it on — and constantly develops leaks — the one at home has over time grown a cement belly, and rough to touch.
    It is inconvenient enough that, absent cultural factors, people who usually use it are people for whom it *effectively solves a problem* that outweighs the cons.
    Now, you can find smooth-finish terracotta cups online that cost ten times as much and promise high durability, marketing itself mostly to the type of person who stores zir water in plastic bottles, either the huge mineral water cans or in smaller bottles in a fridge.
    The original (20-30 litre) pots solved the problem of cheap water storage, and the new (200-500 ml) cups solve the problem of making young rich people feel like they’re connected to their pasts. And, because the problem being solved is much less real and everyday, cons matter a lot more and there’s no point unless you buy really expensive well-finished ones.

    Another way to say it is that the tourist aesthetic packs culture in a veil of manufactured abnormalcy — here’s something that looks and feels like clay but has exactly the same functions and operatic procedures as the glass that you’re used to — which limits psychological friction.

    And it is exactly this effortful reduction of friction that authenticists object to; it funges on the experience of real abnormalcy.

    A veil of manufactured abnormalcy is present any time something niche is marketed to a wider audience, whether it be comic book movies, book adaptations in general, minority rights (see for example the women who protested bus discrimination before Rosa Parks, or the fact that movements go in waves with more radical elements gaining power only after a sizable portion of the mandate of the previous wave has been achieved (in India the feminist movement is widely believed to be out of touch with reality because the vanguard is keeping up with their American counterparts whereas the majority still needs activism that happened decades ago in the developed world)), or local artisanry.
    And, since flavour is pretty much by definition the thing that makes things different, this veil destroys a lot of the original flavour, making it feel bland to those blighted with this sort of sensitivity. https://meaningness.com/metablog/geeks-mops-sociopaths details how this loss of flavour can be disastrous when the culture it’s from isn’t well-insulated from the invading culture.

    This veil, by the way, isn’t an innocent bystander in history, or a new invention.
    Let me point out a couple of places where it’s played a role in shaping the world.
    a) India has two groups of languages, the Aryan ones and the Dravidian ones, which are different enough that the whole idea that there are two ethnicities in India came from linguists. The Dravidian scripts, however, have pretty much the same scripts as the Aryan ones.
    b) The British people, coming from a written scholastic tradition, launched a project to write down orally transmitted Indian texts, completely ignoring the rich local history encoded in regional variations. And i altered the cultural landscape so much that pointing out that these variations existed is threatening to the narrative of the “golden past” Hindu fundamentalist (see for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Hundred_Ramayanas:_Five_Examples_and_Three_Thoughts_on_Translation).

    I think that, like much of postmodernism, the authenticity cult grew out of a cutting discomfort with the harms caused by the failures of the wolrdview previously thought of as ‘rational,’ in particular the cultural processing of the sort that’s embodied in the veil of manufactured abnormalcy.
    Also, like much of postmodernism, we now have a generation that grew up with it and splits into the part that believes it but doesn’t understand what it was a reaction to and therefore doesn’t understand its boundaries and now buys terracotta cups because they’re so authentic and the part that reacts against the failures of the normal and regards the insights that the movement was instrumental in spreading as obvious.
    Also like postmodernism, this level-climbing has mostly left the majority of people behind, and they mostly continue going to places as tourists without worrying much about authenticity.

    • Just to be clear, I don’t think you don’t know the above so much as you underestimate its importance. I think you’re of the “the part that reacts against the failures of the normal and regards the insights that the movement was instrumental in spreading as obvious.”

  6. “Finding out what there are is a great little corner of idea space” -Second to last sentence, should “there” be “they” instead?

    -your friendly neighborhood semantic check. Feel free to delete comment after corrected/confirmed.

  7. Víctor Marín says:

    If normalcy feels phony, and bullshit function is to refactor it, is bullshit authentic (or is authenticity bullshit?

    Is bullshit a legitimate commercial strategy, as you’re not cheating on customers, just selling a narrative as far away from reality than any other?

    What is bullshit and what isn’t (what is authentic and what isn’t)?

  8. Garrick Peschke says:

    This was interesting, but I’m pretty sure I came up with a different “map”, than the author.

    Everything that’s been made exists in an ecosystem. In a market that it’s been crafted for.
    Things can only gain ‘authenticity’, when viewed from/experienced outside that market.
    So that makes ‘authenticity’ is a repeated pattern of additional value items gain outside their home context.

    The first of which is fitness. Authentic things actually are better(most of the time). This is because of darwin. The fit between the current context, and the home isn’t perfect. Those items which didn’t perform, were discarded.

    Value/tribal affiliation signalling is another. It’s a link to the home context. Authenticity of this type is called Nostalgia.

    And of course novelty (though, as the article points out, llama rides are more easily produced without such hassle).

    There are some interesting gradients between Home Contexts and Foreign Contexts. And not just the obvious ones of Time, & Culture. Socioeconomic power, and stage of life, come to mind, but there are probably others( items prevalence comes to mind.). All varying independently.

    Would be interesting to try to map out examples of all of the combinations.
    For example: Same time, culture, and stage of life but different socioeconomic power -> housemates within different job tiers.

    A factory worker and a stock broker. The wrench that the stock broker borrows, is different(more robust, more functional- ‘Authentic’) than the wrench the stock broker buys(Of course, that goes both ways).

    I think that’s enough for now. Back to work.

  9. Even “authentic” cultures have zones or rituals that are “more authentic”. Vision quests, coming of age rituals, etc.

  10. A rolling stone is worth two in the bush, thanks to this arlitce.