Sep 29, 2011

'Buying it':
The possible usefulness of commodified authenticity

There are something like a million ways that authenticity has been commodified. From Johnny Cash and Che Guevara to ethnic fiction, from jeans to skateboards to tours of historic recreations, from craft fairs to Christmas tree farms to photographs to concerts, there's the selling and buying of constructions of "the real thing."

Even some of the most artificially constructed things in America -- the most fake fakes out there -- are marketed as authentic. And consumed as authentic. As "real." This has been noted by more than one cultural critic and by many, many college students with an introduction to postmodern theory on their transcripts.

Think Disney's Main Street, vacations in national parks, the news, suburban lawns.

It's almost as if every cultural product was just this packaging of an experience of something real.

Critics of packaged authenticity almost always focus on how the packaging is inauthentic. The proof is evidence of infidelities, misrepresentations, etc., arguments that that which is constructed really is constructed, that which is mediated, mediated, and so on.

In the process, there's an implication that consumers are idiots.

There's the idea that though those who purchase packaged "authenticity" apparently long after this realness, wanting it more than anything else, they are just too stupid to know they're not buying the real thing when they buy "the real thing."

Is it just credulity though?

David Weaver-Zercher, looking at the ways the Amish have been marketed and sold in his really great book The Amish in the American Imagination, says the criticism of the selling of Amish authenticity went like this:
First, critics complained that by turning a quiet people into a commodity, merchandisers violated the spirit of the Amish culture. Second, the alleged that, in the process of creating and selling Amish-related products, merchants misrepresented Amish and/or Pennsylvania Dutch culture to a credulous public.
Both of the arguments about the inherent contradiction in packaged authenticity seem valid to me. I wonder, though, about this idea of what the public is doing.

Though in a literal way they're "buying it," are they "buying it" in the sense of accepting as authentic or real that which is being sold that way? Do they just not see the contradictions?

Part of what's great about Weaver-Zercher's book is he's really careful not to impugn all consumers of the packaged "Amish." Even when they're buying the most kitschy of nick-knacks -- Amish figurines of dolls advertised as "AUTHENTIC Amish Dolls!" "Designed from life in the home of the Amish" -- he wants to think about how the consumers make use of those objects to their own ends.

The consumers had desires "that, by all indications, were multivalent." Contradictory, perhaps, but also just complicated.

They might, for example, want those dolls to remind them of certain values they hold, e.g. simplicity, leveraging the object essentially to critique their own lives and the world around them, but only in a limited way, as they didn't want a personal revolution that would reorient everything around that one value. The kitsch could serve such a function for the owner, beyond just the assumed one of fetish object for "authenticity."

Maybe there's been a mistake, too, in how we think about what consumers do when they decide to buy the authenticity.

Talking about the earliest "Amish Country" tours, Weaver-Zercher writes that they
"operated on the assumption that tour merchants could mediate authentic Amish experiences to willing customers. Of course, critics of mass tourism have frequently challenged the notion that authentic experiences can be had for the taking, let alone mediated for a price .... While the notion of tourist gullibility should not be entirely dismissed, sociologist Erik Cohen offers an alternative that better explains the rise of Amish Country tourism in the 1950s and its lasting popularity to the present. According to Cohen, authenticity is not merely a philosophical concept but a socially constructed one, and in this latter regard is eminently negotiable .... Cohen argues the tourists contain looser conceptions of authenticity than those maintained by intellectuals. According to Cohen, most tourists are willing to participate 'in a game of "as if."'"
The suggestion is the tourist consumers didn't "but it" in the sense of adopting in toto the guise of authenticity, but chose to engage it as a guise, a game, an imaginative, performative staging, where the tourists wear the costumes of "experiencing authenticity."

They suspended disbelief, as they might have with a play, or in playing.

They suspend disbelief not because they suddenly unquestioningly believe, but because there can be some personal benefit from acting like one believes.

We often think of consumers of authenticity as drawing a conclusion that something is authentic, but that maybe that's not the case. Maybe it's not rational, as cultural critics might imagine it to be, a matter of proof-proof-conclusion, but imaginative.

Perhaps what happens is that, as the Amish Country tour guide says things about "saints in homespun clothing," and "understand[ing] the meaning of 'Plain' living, its peace and satisfaction," and how the Amish "life is 'wonderful good,' close to the soil and close to God," the tourist don't evaluate and conclude as much as imitate and see if the repeated phrases are useful. Perhaps what they're doing is mimetic, picking up these phrases, repeating them for themselves, in a kind of provisional employment.

It seems possible that there's a "trying on" going on. Rather than "buying it," credulously, the consumers are putting on a costume, choosing that kind of suspension of incredulity.

This is tentative, obviously, but it seems the assumption has been it's all gullibility, and idiocy. That the buyers of authenticity are always just P.T. Barnum's born fools being snookered. Where, actually, the consumers of commodified authenticity might well be doing something a lot more complicated (despite their lack of an ability to articulate what it is they're doing).

It is possible they are just ignorant of their own contradictions, but another way to read the consumption of packaged realness is that the contradictions are held in such a way as to be useful. The cliches of the tour or the kitsch one buys could work as a reminder of an ideal, a restraining critique, a tool to empower one to imagine life different than it is. And consistency be damned.

It's possible the "authentic" isn't held to be authentic in the sense of evidenced fidelity to "the real thing," but is "authentic" in the sense of having a real kind of critical power. The Amish figurine and the Che Guevara shirt are still complicit in the system supposedly being critiqued, but that doesn't mean that, even in that contradiction, push-back is made possible.