Andrew Potter's opening salvo at Wednesday night's This Is Not a Reading Series event sounded like a question for a preschooler. "Are rubber ducks as real as real ducks?" he asked.
The rubber duckie question is central the argument Potter makes in his latest book The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, which is all about what it means to be real in the digital age.
The answer, it turns out, is that rubber ducks are just as authentic as real ducks, they're just authentically fake. Or as Potter put it, pointing to one of the flock of yellow bath toys that had been scattered throughout the Gladstone in a astute piece of book branding by his publishers, "that's an authentic fake plastic duck."
Potter's book argues that authenticity has become the most sought-after virtue in our culture. We want it in our art, our politicians, and most of all in our daily lives. Authenticity "is a term you see everywhere," he said, part of our "moral slang" that has become synonymous with "good" and "desirable." But if everything is authentic in its own right, Potter demands that we ask the question "Authentic as opposed to what?"
Potter's point boils down to this: in the age of digital culture, when every work of art can be deconstructed, recreated, multiplied and beamed to all corners of the globe as fast as the bandwidth can carry it, the idea of what an original piece of art is quickly disappears.
In the "rip, mix, and burn society" that Potter describes, every idea, story, or song exists in thousands of forms in thousands of places. Suddenly, finding something authentic that stands alone becomes rare, and whatever's rare is valuable. "In the digital age," said Potter, "scarcity becomes our proxy for the authentic."
So in the era of "Culture 2.0", we want artisnal cheese from a local farm in rural Ontario, not that ubiquitous plastic-wrapped cheddar. We crave one-of-a-kind fashion from trendy small-scale designers, and prefer the personal spirituality that can only be achieved through exercise and meditation to the mass worship of the traditional church.
Potter, who co-authored the bestselling book The Rebel Sell with Joseph Heath in 2004, is currently a columnist for Maclean's, but he's also got a Ph.D in philosophy. So listening to him summarize his book last night was a bit like crash landing in a fourth year cultural studies seminar in the middle of term, complete with references to Fukuyama's The End of History and Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Photo by Chris Reed
You know that friend of yours who's posted 47 Facebook updates since 9 am this morning counting down her top 100 memories from her trip to Cancun? Her chronic oversharing isn't just incredibly self-involved (although it is that, too), it's part of her quest for authenticity. After all, only she can write about those memories, and making Facebook a transparent window into her psyche lets the whole wide virtual world know just how unique and authentic her experiences are.
And that's the catch. Does being authentic really mean being better?
Cut-up artist Girl Talk is the poster child for Potter's theory that, despite prevailing attitudes, authenticity does not equal superiority. The DJ has made a career of taking apart pop songs, mashing them up, and putting them back together. Even if you could convincingly argue that Girl Talk's remixes are less authentically original than the works he samples, that's no basis for deciding which one is more pleasing work of art.
Potter warns that the search for authenticity can distract us from issues that may be more important. Take politics for example. "The last American election was around competing versions of authenticity," said Potter, "Obama's versus McCain's versus Palin's." And once you make the authenticity of a politician's character more important than their policies, he cautions, "you're opening them up to attack ads, negative campaigning, and all the other things we're supposed to not like about the way our politics work."
Ironically, our obsession with autheniticity may only be skin deep. "We only think we want authenticity and truth until we see something we don't like," Potter said. He cites a recent crisis in the booming local food industry in Britain, where farmers began having trouble supplying enough meat to satisfy the demands of growing legions of locavores. While they could easily raise enough cattle to keep discerning consumers happy, inevitably there's only a limited amount of slaughterhouses within 100 miles of major population centres, and farmers began shipping the cows out of jurisdiction to be slaughtered and then shipped back to be marketed as "local food".
Revelations that the cattle were more well-traveled than advertised caused grumblings among local food advocates, but ultimately few took any action. And there's little cause to believe that anyone will, because while we all want authentic local food, we don't necessarily want authentic local abattoirs.[rssbreak]