Against authenticity

by Sam Kriss

I’m starting to lose sympathy for Baudrillard and Debord and Eco and other theorists of the simulacrum. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too long in Los Angeles; maybe it’s because I am a child of the spectacle and have been duped into ‘forget[ting] that it has only just arrived’ – but it seems as if the idea of simulacrum itself is predicated on an entirely false binary, with the opposite principle being that of authenticity. Was the period before the emergence of late capitalism and its cultural logic in any way more ‘authentic’? Was the misery of a medieval serf in any way more ‘real’ than the misery of a modern wage-labourer? Was the sacred sublimity of ancient Egyptian religion or the false consciousness generated by Roman panis et circenses any different, any less artificial, any less of a usurpation of ‘reality’ than contemporary spectacular society? During the age of high Romanticism, long before the mechanical reproduction of mass culture, wealthy landowners would alter the landscapes of their estates to bring them more into line with the picturesque paintings of artists such as Lorrain; they would with Speerian insanity build pre-ruined classical follies on their grounds; they would view sublime scenery through a tinted mirror, facing away from it, so that the object of their enjoyment would more closely resemble an oil painting. It’s not hyperreality that’s a recent invention, it’s reality itself. Authenticity is not something we’ve lost, it’s a recent conceptual manifestation of the guilt and neurosis that attends an alienated society. The insistence on a lost authentic past of which our world is a degenerated imitation seems to be little more than a rehash of tired old Platonist dogmas. A far more helpful and productive concept is Deleuzian virtuality: the virtual object is not one that lacks reality, but one that lacks actuality; in its movement towards actuality the virtual has enormous creative potential.

I’m not consistent in this, of course. I still can’t stand the fucking Kindle.