Authenticity and the Commons

One of the abiding dramas that we moderns are fated to endure is the nagging sense that something more real, more authentic is happening elsewhere, that we do not really inhabit our own skin and have sovereign experiences.  Why is this?  Former magazine editor and essayist Richard Todd explore this vague, uneasy phenomenon in a series of beautifully written, amusing and often profound chapters in his book, The Thing Itself:  On the Search for Authenticity (Riverhead Books, 2008).  I've been reading it lately and finding much nourishment.

Todd writes:  "This book began with a simple feeling, the sense that my life and much of the life around me was not ‘real.’” What does it mean to be “real,” and why do we care about it so much?  The twenty-one essays are sparkling, humane meditations on “authenticity” and the false and simulated.  Why do we prize an object that has a documented historical provenance over an identical facsimile?  Why are the the hyper-real, personal lives of celebrities so compelling to so many people even though the details are so palpably artificial?  Why is irony often as revealing and truthful as professions of unvarnished “sincerity”?

Apart from being tremendously literate without being the least bit stuffy, The Thing Itself struck me as a valuable guidebook for commoners because it explores a disaffection with market culture in its everyday guises.  Much of this disaffection stems from an intuition that meaning and purpose in market contexts are so ephemeral, insubstantial or phony, and that the commons offers a way of life and production paradigm that is more “real” and meaningful.  It is precisely the in-your-face ubiquity of the market that has impelled so many people to seek refuge in modes of personal and community engagement that bypass market norms and assert more enduring personal ideals.  Hence the interest in free software, free culture, re-localization projects, slow food, community-supported agriculture, and so on.

What is it about the market that makes us so convinced that something more authentic and pure lies just beyond the next ridge or around the next corner, or outside of the market entirely?  I think a lot has to do with the market premise that everything has a price and that the price system can conjure anything out of nothingness. 

A price means that something is fungible and substitutable, and so by this reckoning, anything with a price of $1,000 has essentially the same value.  At a human level, of course, we know this isn’t true.  Yet we mostly honor this fiction – or at least, in our public lives, market criteria generally prevail in assigning value to things.  "Money talks, and bullshit walks."  (Yes, anything without a protective carapace of money is regarded as bullshit.)

When trafficking in cash value is the dominant principle for organizing our society and managing resources, then it is no surprise that “the authentic” is so elusive!  It is why we chew up farmland for new subdivisions, disperse an artist's collection in order to garner the highest auction bids, and enact new laws and administer justice in ways that favor the wealthy. 

The authentic ends up being anything that cannot be bought.  At least provisionally.  The inalienable, the history-laden, the spiritually inflected, the deeply intimate mysteries of human presence:  in our market culture, these are perceived as the most real and meaningful shreds of reality.  In his famous line from Das Kapital, Karl Marx described the dismaying influence of market culture on our sense of the authentic:  “All that is solid melts into air.”  (Which reminds me of the great Marshall Berman 1988 book that takes that line as its title.   Its subtitle is “The Experience of Modernity.”  Recommended reading!)

Richard Todd tells the story of buying a little wooden box at an antique fair for $200.  He was enchanted by its timeworn look and the sense that the box was around in the 1800s.  Imagine his shock when a friend, an antiques dealer, confirmed that the box is a fake – a modern-day construction made to look like an old wooden box. 

The episode leads Todd to reflect on why he had bought the box for so much money, and what it “meant” to him.  It is one thing to buy a reproduction that does not purport to be old.  But to buy something that claims to be old -- but isn't in fact -- seems like a betrayal of authenticity.  The object acquires a very different meaning for us. 

Why?  Eventually Todd comes across a wonderful quotation by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who writes that people’s affection for antiques derives from “the mythical evocation of birth which the antique object constitutes in its temporal closure….Obviously, beating a path back to the origins means regression to the mother; the older the object, the closer it brings us to an earlier age…. Now, the search for the traces of creation, from the actual impression of the hand to the signature, is also a search for a line of descent and for paternal transcendence.”

Throughout The Thing Itself, Todd offers up a variety of scenarios that make us contemplate what authenticity means and why it is so important to us.  He notes, for example, that our idea of the “country” is deliberately constructed as an antithesis to “the city,” where commerce is pervasive and social stratification is the norm.  This is partly why “the suburbs” seem so intrinsically inauthentic; it seems like a fake countryside.  It is also why a rural area, as a repository of the authentic, seems violated when a fast-food franchise or a Wal-Mart is abruptly imposed on the landscape.  

We cherish the countryside because everything is contextualized geographically; it is not a  jumbled urban scene that is rife with social cues about our societal judgments and divisions.  “[The countryside] provides a sense of wholeness, an organic environment that accords with our deepest sense of the order of the world,” Todd writes.  “There is something else:  its patterns stand apart from conventional social hierarchies. In fact, a well-order countryside embodies a species of egalitarianism….Only in the country can one cling to the dream of a classless landscape.  It is something worth saving, it seems to me.  But try to save it at your peril.”

In another essay, Todd reflects on our the role that nature places in our search for the authentic.  Again, some nutritious fodder for commoners:

“Until now American culture has been characterized by two opposing attitudes toward nature, rapacity and romance, and both keep us from the respectful intimacy that is needed.  It is only through our efforts that we can repair the damage done not only to the world but to ourselves.  We want a whole nature because we want whole selves, and we are scarcely unreasonable in this desire.  We feel dislocated in nature because we have not come to terms with our role, with engineering and with artifice, nor with our utter dependence on the given world.  We may long for something pure, instinctive, organic, when we must instead face the truth that everything we touch is thereby ‘artificial.’  And not just face it but celebrate it, because to live out a close relationship with nature may be to restore the reverence that makes us feel complete.”

There is much more wisdom and quotable material in Todd’s wonderful book.  To me, much of the book seems quite germane to our various quests to build and sustain commons.  For many of us, the commons is a means for building and recovering a sense of wholeness and wholesomeness in a real-world context.  It is an arena of authenticity in a political economy that is now terribly corrupted, in a society that has allowed the market ethic to run amok.  The commons aspires to establish a different ethic, a different kind of political and economic order, and new modes of personal authenticity.  This is not a bad quest to be on, however uncertain its prospects for now.