“I begin with what appears to be the most startling fact about postmodernism: its total acceptance of the emphemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire’s conception of modernity. But postmodernism responds to the fact of that in a very particular way. It does not try to transcend it, counteract it, or even to define the ‘eternal and immutable’ elements that might lie within it. Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is.”
— David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc.: 44.
“Postmodern politics may share the marxist critique of contemporary society—that it is increasingly dominated by capital, for example—but has refused to propose a systemic alternative…on the grounds that these are closed systems that inhibit creative thought and action.”
— Stanley Aronowitz, “The Retreat to Postmodern Politics,” Left Turn, Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers: 18.
When Good was Good
We will see the increasing use of radical sounding ideas for reactionary ends, as society fragments and increasingly fails to deliver the goods. This usage will become prevalent when intellectuals jump to defend the autonomy of individuals seeking profit, making art any way they want, and engaging various forms of entrepreneurialism—no matter what the larger cost. The limit to this view of subjective truth occurs when individual freedom is used to negate collective freedom and larger ideas of community involving mutual responsibility. Morality was designed to promote such collectivities, but now infringements on action via the moral become inconvenient for individualists who use critical sounding ideas to trump the pursuit of truth.
Once upon a time, many believed that truth was truth, and lies were lies. The job of critical muckrakers for example was to tell the truth, expose evils. If we purchased an organic apple, we liked to think it had no poison in it. If a war was fought in Vietnam for democracy, but it turns out it was really designed to thwart national liberation or help military firms’ profit margins and advance the careers of “defense intellectuals,” we got upset. If we went into a store expecting good service but got lousy service, we were annoyed. We liked to believe that we wouldn’t be saddled with a fake dollar bill. We took comfort in knowing the earth is round, not flat. These hierarchies of truth were important.
We have had myths, belief systems that support our version of truth, the authentic. We have had super-heroes who fought evil. We have thought that Ralph Nader was usually right and the big corporations he fights were usually wrong. We thought that when we were to meet the doctor for an appointment, she or he will be there when we arrive. We believed that if a student took a test, no one qouls cheat (or that cheating would be rare and non systemic). In sum, our societal notion was that a hierarchy of values existed even if this hierarchy could be misappropriated by those claiming to be right.
The Pomo Attack on Authenticity
Then, something hit us (or some of us) like a juggernaut. An intellectual tsunami. It was called Postmodernism and it had something to do with the holocaust, the abuse of truth, and the limits of certain truths. Encyclopedia Britannica defines the concept as follows: “in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” The Nazis pursuit of their truth led to the ultimate evil. It turns out that even Harvard students cheat. Food has poison. The theory of evolution is quackery (or so some claim). Perhaps what really hit us was a kind of Hollywood version of what some post-Modernists were thinking. Perhaps it was a diluted or recycled version, like Postmodernism for Beginners. The basic idea was this: Truth is boring, unattainable, beside the point. There is no hierarchy of values (any longer). Or, more charitably, if you try to pursue the truth you are often involved in a fool’s mission.
An article penned by Steven Poole, “Why are we so obsessed with authenticity?,” published in the New Statesman on March 7th, (see: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2013/03/why-are-we-so-obsessed-pursuit-authenticity) summarizes the latest incarnation of these ideas as follows: “Take your pick: indie café or Beyoncé’s lip-syncing? We’ve become obsessed with authenticity and differences between echt and ersatz—but why bother doing anything for real if no one believes that you did?” The article contains a photographic still from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, part of the caption reads: “It’s a movie!” The idea being that one should not expect a movie about the hunt for Bin Laden to tell the truth. This notion of course has been debunked by critics (see: https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/01/25/why-i-wont-be-voting-for-zero-dark-thirty-in-any-category/), who saw the film serving as a propaganda vehicle.
Poole’s analysis is more subtle than the idea that our desire for authenticity is misplaced. He suggests instead that these desires have been appropriated by large corporations who, for example, misbrand local coffee shops they own as “independent” and representing “artisan values.” Poole argues that this appropriation “is a symptom of our present predicament: there is no way out of simulation.” The so-called “authentic cultural product” turns out to be just “a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminated, wood-effect veneer is the real thing.” He continues, “authenticity is now yet another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.” In other words, the pursuit of the authentic has been hijacked, but perhaps there is no way out of hijacking as a way of life. Call this Marxism meets (and marries) McDonalds.
Poole’s deconstruction of the coffee shop is very telling. He argues that the big chains, like Starbucks, actually paved the way for newer, small shops. He says that “thanks to them, you can now open an independent coffee shop and charge considerably more than a chain while decrying the rapacity of the giants that prepared the ground for you.” But, the independent should be careful because if it expands too much and does too well, it “will lose all independence, becoming a despicable corporation in turn.” Authenticity is based on the “patronizing condition that the little man shouldn’t get too big for his boots.” In explaining art, Poole writes: “Perhaps people become more worried about art’s authenticity once they understand that modern technology makes everything liquid and endlessly revisable.” He explains that “the fetish for authenticity…shows itself to be inherently anti-modern, always looking back to an imagined, prelapsarian idyll.” He refers to artist David Hockney’s iPad painting.
Is the problem the concept of authenticity or the pursuit of truth in themselves or the abuse, perversion or distortion of this concept (and the pursuit) that troubles Poole? He writes, “in our day…the quest for ‘authenticity’ often involves a crushing snobbery.” Here he condemns philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for berating waiters for playing the role of a servile employee, something that contradicts their true self. For Poole and those he cites (Gary Cox), the waiter simply is playing this role, faking it, to confront the reality of the hierarchical situation. More precisely, he cites Cox as follows, that the waiter “far from being deluded that he really is a waiter, is consciously acting ‘with ironical intent.’” Sartre’s alleged snobbery is contrasted with “the hysterical suspicion that a singer might not have been working hard enough to entertain us” (his Beyoncé example). Poole concludes that “the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power.”
Poole has hit upon a theme, strung together examples fitting his theme, but his arguments are not totally convincing. They are at best ambiguous. It might have helped the reader to know when the pursuit of authenticity is not a fetish, not mere snobbery, or whether some hierarchies are necessary in truth. If all art is reproducible, then what are we to make of the distinctions between what is and what is not reproduced? Or, what can and cannot be reproduced via technology? Without these clarifications, Poole’s essay reads like vitriol against authenticity and truth itself. Moreover, if his point was that authenticity was misappropriated, then the reader would like to know under what conditions such pursuits were not misappropriated. The reader might even like to know about the reconstruction of authentic authenticity, i.e. a basic notion of when truth is important and why such truth is not forthcoming. What we have at worst is a straw man argument or a non-falsifiable diatribe.
The Death of the Aura
Poole is probably aware of the work by German literary critic Walter Benjamin’s classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Poole’s analysis seems to miss the point of Benjamin’s argument, however. Benjamin looked at how art could now be reproduced in films and photographs versus the unique encounter in the original Rembrandt or a live performance unmediated by its reproduction. It is true that David Hockney can make a photographical representation or use photographs in his art. Some may condemn this as fake. Yet, the real question in the authentic is not that Hockney that uses and does not use photographs. Here, I concur with Poole that there is no real problem in using photographs in art. The real question rather is how the use of photographs and ability to reproduce art can take us away from some idea of the aura, the one in a kind work of art situated or fixed in a given place and time. The loss of the aura is what troubles many people and these troubles are not simply misguided or naïve. And sometimes mass produced art, consumer products, and ideas are junk.
Benjamin, if he were alive today, would point to the double-sided aspect of the internet. On the one hand, it makes information widely available to the public at large, spread over the world and to large numbers. On the other hand, what is spread can easily become propaganda partially because the information can be adjustable and is not fixed. For example, corporations have re-edited Wikipedia to service their interests (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/technology/19wikipedia.html). One might have to engage in a face-to-face investigation, based on principles of the aura (a unique occurrence being in a fixed place at a given time), to uncover what is true about something. This is the logic of investigative journalism, war correspondents exposing lies about the U.S. war in Vietnam after traveling there, and historians using archives (not all of which can be accessed electronically). Anthropologists uncovering the work of street gangs through participant observation, principles of ethnography, are based on such principles. One usually has a real life mentor who one exchanges ideas with over a prolonged period in closed conversations, not a cyborg variant who is all things to all people. Seeing Martin Luther King give a speech in person might mean more than watching that same speech on TV. There is a social psychological reality to the direct encounter. The ability to uncover things and build trust and direct knowledge from non-formalized (and thereby reproducible) learning is tied to this idea (what some have called “tacit knowledge”).
Of course, the misplaced criticism of Beyoncé is not the same thing as exposing atrocities in Vietnam. Yet, exposing Zero Dark Thirty as an objective propaganda piece –for which the authors and producers have responsibility–certainly is. Poole reproduces the notion that artists don’t have to have any kind of social responsibility for what they dish out to the public. The right of artists to do stupid and misleading things that bolster propaganda systems is something artists can be held accountable for. And (as we will see) in Poole’s world alienated employees apparently don’t have any responsibility to envision an alternative to their predicament. By extension, audiences shouldn’t have the expectation that Broadway musicals use live musicians, even though the unions representing such musicians have fought for it. In other words, the pursuit of the aura can be a form of empowerment tied to systems of accountability, not simply a paternalistic fantasy of self-satisfied yuppies as Poole suggests.
The Deconstruction or Reconstruction of Truth?
Poole believes people searching for the real thing are snobs, but this claim itself seems snobbish. Contemporary bureaucracies have often made those searching for truth the underdogs, not philosopher kings. Consider the essay by political philosopher Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics.” She writes:
“Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. Whoever reflects on these matters can only be surprised by how little attention has been paid, in our tradition of philosophical and political thought to their significance, on the one hand for the nature of action and, on the other, for the nature of our ability to deny in thought and word whatever happens to be the case.”
One reason we got into the Iraq War was based on lies (or truth abortions if you will), and various politicians, journalists and intellectuals supported this lie. The Internet, mass media, and reproducibility extended the lie and did not create or sanction it—that was done by responsible human beings. Yet, the international relations field barely considers lying as an analytical category, although some talk about “social construction” (which is not quite the same thing).
Poole’s analysis of Sartre begs the question, i.e. how does the servility of the waiter relate to the alienation or powerlessness of the waiter? For Poole, the waiter manages by being servile, not by managing (his own work relations in the future). He apparently condemns Sartre’s larger idea that the waiter could do or feel something different, by mocking Sartre’s idea that the waiter has a choice to not be servile. Identification with the mode of servility is what troubles Sartre. Poole finds empowerment in servility, something Sartre acknowledges in his deconstruction of the feminine but he goes beyond this.
Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, seems to support Sartre in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Foucault writes: “The question…is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible.” Sartre’s concerns relate to this gap, between what the waiter thinks and does. Of course, many a waiter engages in the servility of being a waiter to get a paycheck or so that they can be an actor, displacing their authenticity into another sphere. Just like many think they can win the lottery, which leads many to not question their work conditions. It’s the totality that matters. If every work of art is apolitical and every worker is servile, we never get change. But postmodernists don’t acknowledge such totalities or view them as dystopias.
Making a virtue out of servility is nothing new, however. Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem condemned some leaders in the European Jewish community for complicity with the Nazis and was condemned in turn by various persons in the liberal establishment for doing so. The Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis in Poland and Lithuania revealed freedom from the servile. Arendt’s point was the potential for freedom, contingency and choice, the ability to do things differently for a higher cause, just as Sartre suggested. But now the Pomo world makes a virtue out of vice, assuming that we have no choice. Poole might object that he just thinks that Sartre is a snob. But his failure to appreciate the larger intent behind Sartre’s ideas suggests a kind of misplaced political correctness, where we now absolve surplus hierarchies as inevitabilities.
The Road to Somewhere
Poole is correct in his comments about the misplaced attacks on scale (or bigness) and photographic reproduction in art. Yet, the larger problem is that he does not understand or appreciate the relationship among core concepts: truth, authenticity, scale, and technology. He does not have a very deep grasp of what these terms might mean nor does he appreciate how they could fit together. This is not on his agenda of course, but the result is intellectually confusing.
Truth: The pursuit of truth is not misguided even if truth is subjective and facts objective. Some truths will always be better than others, even if some moral framing is historically specific or relative. There is a tension between using and abusing truth as the historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein argues. This tension does not mean we relegate the pursuit of truth to the waste bin as Poole seems to do.
Authenticity: The big issue today is not that citizens falsely pursue the idea of what is authentic, but rather that they are alienated from what is true and often lack the power to do much about it. The aura (that unique encounter with a fixed and unique reality) is not automated into oblivion. Someone who participates in a protest movement recognizes its representation as a divergence from what the mass media frames often make of it. False pursuits of the truth are derivative of a system that makes it harder to access the truth, i.e. the concentration of mass media, the isolation of dissidents. Poole never shows why the aura is important.
Scale: That a small coffee shop might get big by piggybacking upon the space created by Starbucks tells us one thing. It is also quite true that a small firm might create more alienating hierarchical workplaces as it comes to scale, growing larger. We know that smaller firms can also produce such alienating, hierarchical workplaces. Yet, a useful goal is to change the conditions in the workplaces and promote the scale that solidifies these alternatives. Bigger firms can share resources and become stronger. The pursuit of non-hierarchy in small scale is useful, but condemning big dystopian realities is similarly useful. Making big good is the real struggle, although local sourcing can have employment and sustainability advantages. Poole point about not condemning bigness misses the point about the quality of the big or small firm. He does this by going after those concerned about big, bad firms and neglecting other variables.
Technology: Technology in theory can promote scale, as we see in the ability of the internet and other communication or transportation technologies to facilitate standardization, franchising, and economies of scale. So what many people have longed for in smaller stores is a way to achieve products that service their needs without the traditional baggage of the large, socially irresponsible corporation. Technology does not do things. People do things. For Paul Goodman, technology was embedded in philosophical choices made by real persons. Technologies reflect designs of engineers who have a social responsibility, just like food processing, art or technological art involves responsibility. Poole suggests that technological developments are inevitable, but does not assign agency to human beings for the culture of technology (how engineers function) or the technology of culture (how an artist makes photographs).
The Gestalt of Truth, Authenticity, Scale and Technology: This requires intellectuals who strive for truth and that we attempt to access it via direct encounter (best) or technological mediation (which can be less desirable). We want to link critical intellectuals (having truth) to power (potentially the larger public) argued the sociologist C. Wright Mills. Creating scaled up platforms through technology is one means to achieve this objective argued the playwright Bertolt Brecht. Walter Benjamin saw aesthetic reproduction via technology as producing either fascism or liberation, with the choice more important than the idea of inevitable outcomes, i.e. he valued contingency over determinism.
This gestalt creates the foundation for utopia. Poole picks up on the misplacing of the utopian vision, i.e. the naïve attack on scale per se. Yet, we learn nothing from Poole about how the impetus for this vision is based on something important that can nevertheless be realized in scaled up virtuous firms. Thus, we could have franchise cooperatives, mutually supportive networks of cooperative firms. We get a version of this in the Occupy movement which reproduces like a franchise (political) services, achieves media (technological) economies of scale, but does so with some measure of local accountability and democracy (useful qualities).
The repression (either physically or ideologically via social amnesia) of utopians by the Palmer Raids, McCarthyism, and now (certain varieties of) Post-Modernism has led us to a situation in which some search for authenticity in the wrong places. Yet, the duty of any intellectual today should be to link these authentic ambitions for authenticity to a political vehicle which can realize the best of these ambitions. The misplaced search for authenticity can easily be criticized in a paternalistic fashion by those seeing snobbery in this search. Yet, the larger problem is the need to restore a broader understanding of the truth. The gap between virtuous and misplaced authenticity is a symptom of repression, the loss of some deeper truths about solutions be they cooperatives, political mobilization, or honest journalism.
Jonathan Michael Feldman works at Stockholm University. He can be reached on Twitter via @globalteachin.