The Politics of Authenticity

The New Yorker magazine seems to be fascinated these days by the politics of authenticity.  Three times in the last month, the magazine has published long inquiries into counterfeiting and impersonation:

The affair of Joyce Hatto, and “Joyce Hatto,” undiscovered pianist extraordinaire

When is olive oil really olive oil?

Jefferson’s wine.  Were these bottles really Tom’s?

All three pieces share a fascination with what might be called “chattel fraud,” the public representation of a thing as something other than what it truly “is.”  The recorded performances of “Joyce Hatto” (the persona) are not the performances of Joyce Hatto, the person.  Oil is not oil.  Wine of a specified provenance and ownership is not, in fact, that wine.

There remains the implicit question, not directly addressed:  Why should this matter, if the quality of the product (the sound, the taste) matches our expectation and our cost?  So long as we like the music and enjoy the wine, who cares?   But of course we do care; the provenance of things matters enormously both culturally and economically.
Equally interesting is that two of the three — the work on Hatto, and the work on wine — are equally fascinated by the performative character of the work of the accused fraudster.  For example:  “The alchemy that transformed Joyce Hatto into “Joyce Hatto” was, in its twisted way, a tour de force, a dazzling work of art, literally the performance of a lifetime.”
How far should we take the “romantic author” conceit?  And how far should it take us?  I like that sentence for its literary form; I’m not at all sure, however, that the author is correct.

One thought on “The Politics of Authenticity

  1. I love the varieties of authenticity listed by de Zengotita here:

    http://www.en.utexas.edu/Classes/Bremen/e316k/316kprivate/scans/numbing.html

    Real real: You fall down the stairs. Stuff in your life that’s so familiar you’ve forgotten the statement it makes.

    • Observed real: You drive by a car wreck. Stuff in your life in which the image-statement is as salient as the function.

    • Between real real and observed real: Stuff that oscillates between the first two categories. Like you’re wearing something you usually take for granted but then you meet someone attractive.

    • Edited real real: Shtick you have down so pat you don’t know it’s shtick anymore, but you definitely only use it in certain situations. Documentaries and videos in which people are unaware of the camera, though that’s not easy to detect, actually. Candid photographs.

    •Edited observed real: Other people’s down-pat shtick. Shtick you are still working on. Documentaries in which people are accommodating the camera, which is actually a lot of the time, probably.

    • Staged real: Formal events like weddings. Retail-clerk patter.

    •Edited staged real: Pictures of the above.

    • Staged observed real unique: Al kisses Tipper. Survivor.

    • Staged observed real repeated: Al kisses Tipper again and again. Anchor-desk and talk- show intros and segues. Weather Channel behavior.

    (In the interests of time, we can skip the subtler middle range of distinctions and go to the other end of the spectrum:)

    • Staged realistic: The English Patient and NYPD Blue.

    • Staged hyperreal: Oliver Stone movies and Malcolm in the Middle.

    • Overtly unreal realistic: S.U.V.’s climbing buildings. Digitized special effects in general, except when they are more or less undetectable.

    • Covertly unreal realistic: Hair in shampoo ads. More or less undetectable digital effects, of which there are more every day.

    • Between overtly and covertly unreal realistic: John Wayne in a beer ad (you have to know he’s dead to know he isn’t “really” in the ad).

    • Real unreal: Robo-pets.

    • Unreal real: Strawberries that won’t freeze because they have fish genes in them.

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