Some thoughts I don’t have yet

[What follows is my very first blog post ever and represents some first thoughts on a new project I might take up once I’ve done some real reading and thinking. For these reasons, please be charitable.]

Recently, some colleagues and I proposed a panel for the Identification-themed 2012 RSA conference. It begins:

What is authenticity? How does the authentic register in the strange? How might the authentic be performed or marketed? In what ways does the authentic conjure or deny identification? This panel takes up the call of the authentic as a mode for and against identification and considers ways in which authenticity is-or-can-be an argument for what is foreign and familiar to an audience. Just as the phrase “Authentic Mexican Food” makes sense only outside of Mexico, the panel contends that any invocation of authenticity depends on a kind of spatial or temporal distance and that the use of “authentic” is an attempt to either elide or reify that distance for an audience, to make the exotic and strange seem homely or to maintain a comfortable strangeness in order to allow for identification.

What I’ve come to suspect is that any claim about the authentic relies on a certain distance from the object in question. For example, my own personal realization of a standard post-colonial trope happened during the last Democratic Presidential primary. During one of the debates, when the field was still large, one pundit commented that the choice of a nominee would come down to which candidate seemed most authentic to the voter. At that exact moment, I reached for a bag of tortilla chips that was emblazoned with the slogan “Authentic Mexican Taste” and, with that coincidence, realized the problem. “Authentic Mexican Taste” only makes sense outside of (a mythic) Mexico. (Of course, you can see that referenced in the proposal, but this distance may be very much like the distance insisted on by medieval courtly love narratives, too).

Anyway, I’d like to follow up on these ideas. I’ve made some headway already, in an article that appeared last year in Popular Culture Review on the show Mad Men and in a talk on RealDolls and Reborns I gave at the 2009 RSA. Since I’ve tackled the “past” in the former and the “present” in the latter, I’m looking to the “future” now! And the stuff I’ve been reading/watching/listening to (mostly coincidentally) has been Bruce Sterling’s discussions of atemporality, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, some of Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism and Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, along with my usual psychoanalytic stuff. But what’s really been exciting me is the comic/graphic novel work of Warren Ellis (to whom I’ve come late, I know), especially the unfinished Doktor Sleepless series:

It’s 1991.

Richey Manic is carving something into his arm because Steve Lamacq has suggested the Manic Street Preachers lack an essential authenticity.

What’s echoing in this backstage room is the voice of Ian Brown, still say “cos it’s 1989. To to get real.”

In 1999, godspeed you! Black Emperor start releasing CDs sleeved in untreated cardboard. Intended or not, it denotes authenticity. Keeping it real.

[…]

Godspeed’s brand was authenticity. That’s what they had to sell. And if they didn’t sell records and gig tickets, then they were just twelve guys in Montreal eating Ramen until they died.

Richey Edwards couldn’t be Richey Manic, that Richey, unless he sold you on the concept that he was 4 real.

Ian Brown and the Stone Roses couldn’t be that band, the band of the moment with the authentic voice that turned out to be the band in the right place at the right time and raised everyone up–unless they were more real than you.

Around the turn of the century, Justin Timberlake began to carry around with him a group of black vocalists, whose job it apparently was, in live performances, to declare how “real” Justin Timberlake was before he began to sing.

[…]

Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today. We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

I’ve cut out a lot from this speech the eponymous Doktor Sleepless gives, but you can see the point. Except that this is a guy who dresses like an Old Hollywood Mad Scientist and is, well, likely the bad guy. And he’s addressing in part a problem he’s seen in reactions to a movement he helped start. Called Grinders, these are mostly young people who practice extreme body modification (this book is set in the “future”):

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society. Free speech does not extend to our own bodies.

[…]

Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention. Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.

I am certainly Lacanian enough not to believe in an authentic self and I frankly find a lot to be afraid of in this kind of call for authenticity. But there’s this great hope-in-hopelessness thing here I like. One of the points Bruce Sterling has been making about the atemporality of the present is that we don’t seem to have a future any more. Many of us can remember when the future was the year 2000. It kind of stayed there (Conan O’Brien’s bit kept the same year even after, right?). So Sterling points out that versions of the future now start from the past – steam-punk, diesel-punk, whatever. Of course, cyber-punk started a few decades (give or take) earlier, but the gesture is kind of the same. Except that maybe the cyber-kind was most directly drawing from a “hacking” aesthetic. Those others look back to dead-ish technologies and fancy them up, whereas hacking seems about reuse and – more importantly – repurposing. So, William Gibson’s famous “the street finds its own uses for things.” In Shivering Sands, Ellis argues:

We have become entrained to step outside of the stated rules of a device’s operation in order to get it to do what we want. Put another way: we’re all hackers now. That’s exactly what bodymod people [the Grinders of Sleepless, for example] are doing – hacking the properties of the device they’re born with.

I know, this raises the whole cyborg thing. I’ don’t want to go over the critiques of that right now (What Is Posthumanism mentioned above does that well). But I’m wondering if this idea of difference between the design of a device (even the body) and its potential properties isn’t something like the distance or gap I described far above as a hallmark of the authentic? And maybe this gap is the bar of the Lacanian split subject? Which may be all to say that the missing cause, the wholly assumed or posited object of authenticity can be rendered (maybe in fantasy) as the future? Ellis writes in Sands, “For as long as I can remember, the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future.” And these outbreaks can be fictions, right? Colette Soler argued for literature as symptom, and literature is sometime fiction. But Ellis warns, “Don’t let fictions out into the world. You don’t know what’s in them.”

Anyway. My first thoughts on something new (for me) and my first blog post ever. Maybe there’ll be another sometime.

7 comments

  1. You really should build on that last question: the idea that authenticity has something to do with an object’s design and it’s qualities. There seems to be a claim of authentic substance here, but at the same time a claim that opposes authenticity (for can authenticity be “designed” or “built?”). Overall, though, good first post.

  2. Thanks, Nate. That’s kind of what I ended up writing to. My takeaway is that authenticity takes at least two and a distance.

    I think I’m thinking (how’s that for qualifying?) that authenticity isn’t in the design or the use, but in the difference between design and use. So (and I’m just spit balling here), the question of authenticity re: a work of art matters only in terms of both design and value? Maybe not. But I think Benjamin is on to something when he talks about the aura of the original along with cult value.

    Maybe the theory-way at it is via the capuut mortem, that foreign element (at the center; 3 licks to get to it) that is both within and external to the subject. ‘S’why I invoked the bar above.

    In any case, it seems to me that authenticity comes in via a gap in design. An imperfection that allows for identification (as the physical “imperfections” of movie stars make them relate-able, authentic) is a kind of gap. The ability to hack something to use it Other-wise may be this gap, too. At least when it’s registered as resistance against design; I know that we’ve both jailbroken i-devices because we thought we should, even though we both reverted back because we saw no real benefit.

    But then again, maybe you can design FOR authenticity. The 10,000 clock the Long Now folks are building in the Texas desert might be a stab at that. It has to be in a dry and fairly geologically stable place for obvious reasons, but since the beginning of designing the thing back in the 1990s, they’ve also had in mind that it needed to be sufficiently remote enough to inspire pilgrimages to it. It can’t be too easy to visit or it wouldn’t feel authentic.

    How’s that? I’m still thinking through the past/future relationship in these terms, too. Sterling and Gibson wrote a steampunk book together, of course, but Gibson’s recent work seems steeped in that atemporality that evokes a only sometimes-recognizable present. And we’ve both discussed how Ellis’s work makes the future present by assuming the differences instead of pointing them out. And Fringe gets some authenticity-mileage from the 1980s….

  3. “Authentic Mexican Taste” only makes sense outside of (a mythic) Mexico.

    I have always been puzzled by a coffee shop in Manhattan that’s called Brooklyn Bagel. It seems to me that would be OK in Brooklyn, if a bit boring. It might also be fine in Fort Worth. But in Manhattan it bothers me. (A), what could possibly be the difference between bagels in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and (B), if there is some difference, Brooklyn is 15 minutes by subway, you can get bagels there.

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