Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Quest for Authenticity

By now, we've all heard Jessica Simpson utter what arguably is becoming her most famous line: "I totally don't understand it, but I want it." That's the way most consumers feel about authenticity. Don't know exactly how to define it, but will expend large amounts of energy and juice to own it.

So what is really authentic, anyway? That's a big, burning question. In William Gibson's riveting novel, Pattern Recognition, the protagonist Cayce Pollard's vocation is "coolhunter," an authenticity seeker with a keen eye for trends. In a global marketplace, early identification of the authentic is a profound competitive edge.

I backed into my personal analysis of the issue by looking at what authenticity isn't. It is most assuredly not a constant, at least mass perceptions of what is authentic are fluid - changing direction in unexpected and unpredictable ways. But the notion of authenticity is a constant. That which is genuine.

Authenticity is also not spin or affectation, it is not designed by committee, manufactured from focus group data or influenced by polls. Authenticity is not bestowed from external sources, it radiates from a perfect set of internal markers. Over the years, we've charted some of those markers, including: the obvious pride of craftsmanship; quality components; measured, thoughtful construction; and, meaningful impact, to name a few.

Authenticity is also reflected in proper naming and categorization. A tree farm is not an authentic forest. Knock-offs are knock-offs, no matter how you cut it. Categorizing a primitive, but mass-produced piece as "folk art" doesn't make it so.

The perception of authenticity would seem to require some Limbic System activity. That's the region of the human brain that ascribes meaning to situations, symbols, interactions and is the source of emotions. I could be overstating the issue, but for me, authenticity has a "feel," a sense of rightness, value and meaning that makes the moment and all of its attendant associations genuine. After all, one of the dictionary definitions of authenticity is: correctness. I believe that correctness can be perceived and measured, in all its shades of gray. I use those benchmarks in my choices of music, fashion, art and even politics.
I have a former friend who has spent his adult life building an authentic gentleman's estate. A complete eccentric with the taste of a Scottish Earl, he spent several years and some 40,000 paintbrush strokes re-creating a hand-painted highlands clan motif on the ceiling of his small kitchen.

I have other friends and acquaintances that take the quest for authenticity into serious role-playing and re-enactment spaces. Two serious techie friends of mine are members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of medieval history fanatics that get together in the country with their horses, drink a lot of highly alcoholic Meade and tilt with wooden lances in full body armour. Don't laugh, they're a very serious and dedicated bunch. A physician friend is a prominent member of a national "mountain man" organization that stages an annual backwoods rendezvous attended by unshaven individuals in buckskin with muzzle-loaders in tow. They are all looking to re-create an authentic experience.

Authenticity is inexorably intertwined with history and nostalgia. If it's old, it must be authentic. But, of course, every generation has had its knock-offs. Still, it is accurate to assert that basic traditional products, well-made for everyday people with regular jobs, are quite likely to viewed as the real deal, genuine goods - authentic. Like Filson luggage; Carhart, Pendleton and Daspu fashion; Ebbets Field Flannels sports apparel, African Trader Beads and Irish woolens.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, specialty items made in small numbers for select purchasers have an aura of authenticity. Like handmade bamboo fly-fishing rods; fine Ghanian Kinte cloth; late 60s psychedelic posters, hand-blown glass and single-estate Assam tea.

Cost is not necessarily an issue, value and creativity are. An utterly authentic "look" can consist entirely of thrift-store purchases. The goal is to avoid sameness, formulaic uniformity, mind-numbing mediocrity -- all the sense-stifling emanations of uninspired, mass produced goods.

1 comment:

roberto said...

Your discussion of authenticity is a tasty side dish to Pirsig's hearty, stick-to-the-ribs main course -- the metaphysics of Quality.

I sense there may be a relationship between the two that may well be worthy of further investigation and expansion.