October 29, 2011

Authenticity, continued: Holding existential uncanniness at bay

Warhol's "Flowers"

Synchronicity strikes!

I was so busy writing my earlier post about the lure of ersatz authenticity (see "Authenticity and the 'pumpkins' next door") that I failed to notice the New York Times had run an interesting article on exactly that subject in its Home & Design section the day before. 

The ostensible thrust of the Times piece was that people are getting tired of the "authentic" or "vintage" look. Apparently it's no fun being authentic if everybody's doing it. The article devoted at least as much attention, however, to the efforts of home design conglomerates to cash in on authenticity.

Pottery Barn, a division of Williams and Sonoma, has a division called "Found," for example, while CB2, a division of Crate and Barrel, has a sub-brand it calls "One of a Finds" and another called "Hand-Touched." The suggestion that a line of products could be considered authentic because they've actually been touched by human hands is an indication of how far we've come.

The Times article generated quite a few interesting comments from readers, but only one or two mentioned what to me is the most salient point about the authenticity craze, and that's how alienated so many people feel – consciously and subconsciously – by the technological society.

It's not surprising that when almost everything we touch or encounter is mass-produced, a deep longing exists to find something real – something "organic" – to hold onto. At the same time many of us have become so distanced from the real and so conditioned by the artificial that we're willing to accept ersatz authenticity as a substitute for authentic authenticity.

One laughable comment in the Times article came from an interior designer who said our hunger for authenticity was triggered by the trauma of 9/11 and exacerbated by the recession that followed. In truth our longing for authenticity goes back a lot further than 9/11. Nostalgia for earlier, more settled times has always been with us, I suspect, but it emerged as a significant social phenomenon during the Industrial Revolution, when the upending of the familiar became an increasingly disruptive and increasingly consistent fact of life. 

A Victorian retreat from the Industrial Revolution

No accident that during the Gilded Age those who could afford it indulged in what Lewis Mumford called "a cult of antiquarianism," celebrating medieval chivalry and piety while lounging in Victorian drawing rooms that excluded, as Mumford put it, “every hint of the machine.” The Arts and Crafts movement spearheaded by William Morris and John Ruskin reflected a conviction that there was value in authenticity and that it was being crushed by mechanization. “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things," Morris said, "the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

Our efforts to counteract the loss of authenticity with made-to-order authenticity constitute one of the great ironies of the technological era. Henry Ford spent millions of dollars and years of his life creating Greenfield Village, a life-sized facsimile of the small town he remembered from his youth, the kind of place his automobiles had done so much to destroy. The biographer Robert Lacey quotes Ford's personal public relations man as explaining that his boss's goal with Greenfield Village was to recall "the real world of folks…that honest time when America was in the making." The implication being that "the real world of folks" had already passed us by, and would now exist only as a tourist attraction.

Greenfield Village

Several readers who commented on the Times article noted that they take pains to surround themselves with objects that don't just look authentic but actually are authentic. It's clear that what accounts for the distinction is accrued meaning – personal meaning – through investment of experience and association over time. "I have been collecting Christmas tree ornaments since my childhood," wrote Pamela from Los Gatos, California. "My family's Christmas tree is unique because I only buy the items that tell a story – represent my travels, life events or speaks to me."

This resonates with a point I spend some time on in my book: To a greater degree than we're usually aware of, we are in relation to the objects around us, and for that reason they effect us, profoundly. Their influence is so pervasive that we tend to take it for granted, and so overlook it, as we make our way in the world – a world that is now overwhelmingly technological. 

Family heirlooms

In their book, The Meaning of Things, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rocheberg-Halton explore the sorts of relationships people develop with objects in their homes. An exchange of "psychic energy" occurs, they say, between individuals and the things they possess. That exchange can either be uplifting, if the feedback we get is affirming in some way, or enervating, if the feedback is unpleasant. I think it's fair to say that objects we describe as "authentic" are objects that reassure us. They help us feel anchored in a tumultuous world.

The point I make in my book, and that comes across loud and clear in the Times article, is that we feel the need to build a wall of authenticity or pseudo-authenticity around us at home to fend off the inauthenticity that assaults us outside the home.

Hopper's "Nighthawks"
The theologian Paul Tillich wrote powerfully on this theme. Technology, he said, is a means by which we can hold off the "uncanniness" of the human condition by constructing a world that is safe and predictable, a world we think we can control. Like so many palliatives, however, the technological barrier against existential uncanniness turns out to be false, because technology produces its own sense of uncanniness – one that cannot be relieved by more technology. 

“The stronger and more complicated the technical structures are,” Tillich said,
the more they take on a life of their own, independent of human beings, the more difficult it becomes to control them, the more threatening they become…As the technical structures develop an independent existence, a new element of uncanniness emerges in the midst of what is most well known. And this uncanny shadow of technology will grow to the same extent that the whole earth becomes the “technical city” and the technical house. Who can still control it?
The answer to that, of course, is that we can control it, simply by choosing appropriately authentic home accessories, available from scores of friendly retailers, online or at the mall!       


©Doug Hill, 2012

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