What Is The Real-Real Thing?

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”—Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist”

An old friend once told me a story about her son Edison and this other kid he grew up with, Brendan. It seems that when they were really little, like six or so, the boys were on a soccer team, they were playing soccer and Edison fell and was hurt. And everybody clustered round and was all ooh, ahh, to make sure he was okay. Straightaway, Brendan totally faked an injury of his own, thumped to earth and started wailing, so that he, too, could get in on some of the solicitude. Now, this is the kind of thing that goes on among little kids all the time, and though it’s highly tempting to become sore at the Brendans of the world, their strategies are only understandable, because people will try to get the things they want, however they can. Little kids do stuff like this just blindly. They are not thinking about how their fakery might in the event be seen as wrong or bad. In this sense, the Fall of Brendan is not fake but genuine: spontaneous, instinctive, unfeigned.

But Edison had paid for all that attention and alarm in the painful coin of a wrenched ankle, and Brendan experienced no such pain. That’s the annoying part: it was also false, and wrong, for Brendan to go keeling over like that. This kind of fakery causes a very particular kind of outrage, something like the kind you might experience when you recall the smiling, soft-focus Family Values photographs of John Edwards, or Ted Haggard, or Jimmy Swaggart (or any of the many others) with their smiling wives beside them.

All this came to mind when I heard about a book the other day (in this really good blog post) called Power Friending: Demystifying Social Media to Grow Your Business, by one Amber Mac, who is way older than six, and who is some kind of Internet marketing guru. Her shtick is explaining to people how to be authentic.

A is for Authenticity

The first rule about authenticity is that you don’t talk about authenticity. Well, at least not publicly. [Oh, Amber.] The people who achieve success on the Web, whether it’s a twenty-year-old student who started a multimillion-follower fashion blog on Tumblr or an eighty-year-old grandmother who launched the number-one video blog on YouTube, represent real passion to their audiences. They don’t harp on about authenticity, but they do present themselves in an authentic way.

Hell’s bells, if that isn’t the most eye-crossing thing I’ve seen since I learned that Newt Gingrich’s current wife Callista plays the French horn. So I couldn’t resist poking around, and it turns out that there are a whole lot of books purporting to teach you how to be “authentic” in your attempts at Growing Your Market or whatever, my favorite being Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want by James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II.

As you can imagine, any such book is liable to be a laff riot, because if someone is trying to explain how to be authentic, things are bound to veer into The Onion territory p.d.q. But it’s sad, too, because what these writers are advising, basically, is that you fall like Brendan.

Gilmore and B. Joseph have lost the plot even more irretrievably than Amber did, because they go to such lengths to justify the super crazy. At one point, for example, they ask the reader to think of Venice, the ancient Italian city, as an artificial tourist paradise in the same way that the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas is an artifical tourist paradise. Because the latter is “artificially kept above the Adriatic” and the casino is “artificially in Las Vegas.” See? Then these poor boobs get all lost in the morass of demented categories they’ve concocted: “Real-Real” and “Fake-Real” and “Fake-Fake,” such a mess you would not believe. (Some examples of “Real-Real” in the B. Joseph Pine II universe, in case you were wondering, are Coca-Cola, Apple, Tiffany and Whole Foods.)

Clearly, “authenticity” has become a commodity that all kinds of people are trying to fake, as Michael Raisanen observed last month in Fast Company (“The Current Rage in Branding: Fake Authenticity Is Now A-Okay“).

[...] a refined, woolly, arts-and-craftsy, anachronistic Americana feeling. Think taxidermy, hand-cobbled brogues, and cocktails made with rye. The common denominator in this trend seems to be a yearning for the “authentic.” Interestingly, things don’t need to actually be authentic as long as they feel authentic. In fact, they can be completely fake. Take Hipstamatic [...]

There’s obviously such a thing as an honest or authentic commercial or cultural transaction, e.g., you willingly sell me a thing I want for a fair amount that I pay you, or I take an ordinary photo with an ordinary camera.

But so much of what is written and talked about has parted company with the underlying transaction, and centers instead on how we might deceive. An assumption of deceit (or “strategy” or “branding” or “positioning”) has become a matter of course in the public part of U.S. culture. In business, where the product need only seem like what people want—”organic,” “natural,” “vintage”—and the company need only pretend to wear a friendly “personal” face; in politics, where reality long ago ceased to matter to anybody (Bush v. Gore, fake social-conservative posturing, our president who promised whistleblower protections and then went after every whistleblower); and in advertising, too (vide Todd Gitlin and Mark Crispin Miller.) The deranged infomercials, the campaign shenanigans. For ordinary citizens, the attempt at a fakeout or a ripoff is merely assumed. Culminating in the absurdity of “be more authentic,” the snake of deceit eating the tail of reality.

It seems silly to have to say so, but nothing the marketing juggernaut is selling us is real, or even “Real-Real.” These attempts at imitating and commodifying whatever it is we like, whether that thing is Authenticity or Coolness or thrift-shop t-shirts or 70s audio gear, are generally easy to spot, ineffective, promptly mocked.

***

There’s a whole wing of philosophy dedicated to investigating the complications of “authenticity”: Heidegger and Sartre wrote about it; Lionel Trilling, too. In The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), Adorno went bonkers with rage, and took off after Heidegger and the existentialists with a buzz saw, loudly condemning that sloppy word that these dumb existentialists sloppily use to brag about how they know what is real and what isn’t; to signal their membership in a privileged group that understands these things. Much later, Rorty came along and in his amiable, avuncular way, likewise jettisoned the whole idea of “an authority trumping that of reason.” He told The Believer (in an old interview well worth rereading), “What unites Plato and the bad kind of Romantic is the notion of your ideas having authority because of some privileged source, while the pragmatists say, ‘the hell with what the source is, let’s look at the consequences.'”

David Foster Wallace is on record as having asked a student to “strive to be more authentic.” Wallace’s dad is a philosopher; I am very sure he knew his Heidegger, and his Adorno too. It’s a paraphrase, but here, again, is a moderately absurd paradox.

A young writer is liable to be affected and derivative, to try things on for the sake of effect, okay. Maybe what Wallace was advising this kid was to be on watch within himself to not perform the Fall of Brendan, to refuse to strategize in order to take anything one hasn’t paid for. Which would be a question not of naivety or naturalness at all, but of self-policing against falseness. An ethical matter. But the ethics of this business turn out to be more complicated than they looked at first.

***

Charles Baudelaire wrote La reine des facultés in 1859, just two years after getting in such hot water for publishing Les Fleurs du mal. In this essay, Baudelaire argues that “the Queen of Faculties” is Imagination.

In recent years we have heard it said a thousand different ways: “Copy nature; copy only nature. There is no greater joy, no more beautiful triumph than an excellent copy from nature.” [...] To these doctrinaires who are so satisfied with Nature, a man of imagination should certainly have the right to respond: “I find it useless and annoying to represent that which is, because nothing that is is satisfactory to me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my imagination to positive trivialities.”

Many still share this view, that with the aid of imagination life is better, more true, and more human, than “reality” alone and unadorned.

Here is the crux of all difficulties with respect to our eternal contretemps regarding truth, lies, authorship and authenticity. The role of imagination, desire, fear—emotion, we might say—on our concept of reality affects not just artists, but all of us, or at least, everyone who thinks, feels and uses language. Language spreads an overlay of thought and feeling over all our raw perceptions.

So there is a legitimate aspect to the created effect; a legitimate reason to pose. Wilde was all over that idea, and wrote and spoke about it all the time, most famously in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is one of his central paradoxes.

Given that imagination and artifice can be pressed into service to communicate reality more effectively, our true difficulty is revealed to be concentrated in the matter of intention. Either I mean to deceive you, or I don’t, but that’s just the beginning. Do I mean to deceive you for your own good, or for mine? Am I deceived myself? Can there even be such a thing as guilelessness, once we bring language into it?

These are problems as fresh and new as on that first pre-Socratic day when Thales of Miletus or whoever it was figured out that “reality” and “truth” were actually very slippery concepts. Their very slipperiness begins to absolve the fakers. Throws us back on Rorty’s pragmatism: on understanding that our ideas of reality and authenticity are provisional, but we can choose to rely on them, because they’re the best we can (and must) do.

***

Sartre thought that Baudelaire was a man “without immediacy,” because, he said, Baudelaire was too much in his own head: stuck on himself, “like Narcissus.” Obsessed with self-observation. If Baudelaire hated “the natural,” according to Sartre, that’s because he was so reflective that he was no longer capable of a single spontaneous thought or reaction.

Mais oui, Baudelaire was very self-conscious. Not for nothing is he often called the first modern. Or, the first modern poet.

But it is pretty rich to hear the snarky, sandpaper-dry Sartre complaining about anybody else’s lack of “immediacy,” let alone Baudelaire’s. Which of these two was capable of the rich, heady, delicious poetry, of scenes of dark gothy passion, of delicate wordplay, of exhortations to be always getting drunk (on poetry, or wine, or virtue, just as you like)? Who was the immediate one? Who understood reality better; who was more authentic?

Everything that exists, exists, and that would necessarily include exaggeration, lies, crazy ideas, all vagaries and great imaginings, dreams, fantasies and poetry, sad stories, tricks of all kinds. So, “authenticity,” then. The concept of what “is” is needs to expand very far in order to begin to describe even our little storm-tossed fleck of foam on the illimitable ocean of the universe.

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Thomas Frank’s 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism explains how The Man co-opted the values of “hip” and “rebellion” in order to sell you things. It’s still my favorite book of his.

[T]he products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation. […] Our televisual marketplace is a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and inversion of values, of humiliated patriarchs and shocked puritans, […] of cars that violate convention and shoes that let us be us. A host of self-designated “corporate revolutionaries,” outlining the accelerated new capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company, gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatize their own insurgent vision.

This is the same landscape we have today. But Frank does far more than illuminate this familiar tableau, meticulously revealing (a) the complicity of the so-called squares in this process, and (b) the 1960s as the utterly contradictory and uncertain times that they really were.

The questions raised in The Conquest of Cool are even more pressing today, when the corpocratic hold on our collective throat has grown tighter still. Why and how can Americans be fooled into feeling rebellious, intelligent, individualistic or real, by buying a particular soda, shoes or telephone? What purpose has the “counterculture” come to serve in the modern world?

Where the 1980s and 90s saw the co-optation of “cool” and “rebellion” into the broader culture, our own times are seeing the Man attempting to take ownership of “authenticity.” Anxiety over this is the wellspring of the recent nonstop discussion of the TV show “Girls.” It fascinates people and creeps them out, how the proposal of the show is that these faux-poor prep-school girls with fabulous artist parents have been made to resemble real people whom one knows. Gives me a bit of a chill myself, I must say. There’s a fear that reality itself is not safe, that there are fakers moving into your own skin, somehow.

However. It’s reasonably clear that nobody ever stopped being elegant, cool or hip, or real, just because they once played “Lust for Life” in a Carnival Cruises commercial. And few, if any, ever believed that rebellion was a distressed leather jacket from J. Crew (I’ve always loved that word, “distressed,” evoking as it does an inconsolable pair of jeans.) Elegance and coolness did not disappear, and their simulacra were either adopted or not, sometimes “ironically” and sometimes for real, by people who genuinely liked things, or didn’t like them, or really didn’t care because it was just a jacket. Nobody ever stopped knowing the difference—at least, nobody who ever knew it in the first place.


Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman. Photo by Uriel 1998.