A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Authenticity of What's Next

Timothy Richardson, University of Texas at Arlington

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/authenticity (Published: April 8, 2014)

An inexpensive brand of tortilla chips happened to have the slogan “Authentic Mexican Style” emblazoned on the bag, and through it I encountered a specific instance of an old postcolonial trope: “Authentic Mexican Style” only makes sense outside of (perhaps a mythic) Mexico, where there presumably wouldn’t be a question of authenticity. Of course, if we happen to be in Mexico, we might go smaller, regional, and say “authentic Veracruz style,” but only if we aren’t in that city or its surrounding area (or if we are in the city but trying to appeal to tourists who don’t know any better). Thus, authenticity may be a way of marking a lack or absence here with the presence of some (poorer or simply displaced) representative. And in this same way, parts of major cities devoted primarily to one ethnicity—Little Italy, Chinatown, etc—are likewise homely for some people precisely because they are not home. The claim of authenticity depends on there being a distance and, frequently, a move to cover that distance.

This distance needn’t be spatial; it could also be temporal. The fantastically precise set-and-costume design of the 1960s in the AMC television show Mad Men demonstrates that the je ne sais quoi of authenticity comes from poring over old design magazines and advertisements and overloading the viewers with precision. Even those of us (especially those of us?) who weren’t alive for most of that decade feel that something “true” is being performed. The useful past comes from the present stagecraft. A performance is authentic because we believe its accuracy from this distance: “It just couldn’t be closer to the truth” also means it’s not the truth. Closing the distance is a useful fantasy: “It just draws you in.”

But the past isn’t the only time we like to imagine and perform. There is also the future. The inventor Charles F. Kettering, in perhaps the greatest display of deliberative rhetoric ever, famously argued, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”

One of the points Bruce Sterling has made about the atemporality of the present is that we don’t seem to have a future any more. Many of us can remember when the future was the year 2000. It kind of stayed there (thus, Conan O’Brien’s bit kept the same year even after the date). So Sterling points out that versions of the future now often start from the past—steam-punk, diesel-punk, whatever (he calls them “lost futures”).

Artist and New Aesthetic guru James Bridle’s sketch of steampunk is “the retrofitting of today’s potentialities onto the technologies of an arbitrary point in the past” (“Starpunk”). He is bothered, along with Michael Moorcock and Charlie Stross, that the retro-punk often sacrifices intellect and politics for period imagery, aesthetics, for (quoting Stross) “nothing more than what happens when Goths discover brown” (“Starpunk”).

Given its attention to today’s potentialities, Bridle posits, can whatever-punk “belong to the future, or is it predicated on past knowns? Cyberpunk did and wasn’t” (“Starpunk”). Cyberpunk takes up today’s potentialities but, instead of adding brass and some steam power, perhaps the cyber-kind draws more directly from a “hacking” ethic. Those others look back to dead-ish technologies and fancy them up, whereas hacking seems about reuse and—more importantly—repurposing.

In “Hacking Cyberspace,” David Gunkel argues:

The activities that comprise what is called hacking are delimited not by strict methodological specification and rigorous conceptual formulation, but by particular practices and movements that only become manifest through specific performances. One becomes a hacker not by ascribing to certain tenets, methods, and doctrines, but by yielding to what Steven Levy calls the “Hands-On Imperative”—that is, engaging in and learning to perform “hacks.” (799)

What interests me here most is the insistence on performance over philosophy or doctrine. Hacking is an engagement (perhaps, per Ian Bogost, a carpentry). And as Jacques Lacan might put it, “What is it that we must read therein? Nothing but the effects of those instances of saying” (46).

Venkatesh Rao defines hacking as “the term we reach for when trying to describe an intelligent, but rough-handed and expedient behavior aimed at manipulating a complicated reality locally for immediate gain”. So something in that “complicated reality” is exploitable here and now. Both Gunkel and Rao go on to liken the hack to parasitical behavior (and Gunkel talks about it as blasphemy) such that the hack depends completely on the local condition being hacked. Everything needed is provided, especially “necessary but problematic lacunae” (Gunkel 801) in which the hack can nestle. “Hacking works parasitically: it takes place in and by occupying and feeding off a host that always and already has made a place for it to take place” (Gunkel 803). This is what Jacques-Alain Miller describes as extimacy: “Extimacy says that the intimate is Otherlike a foreign body, a parasite.” The hack is a working of and with the extimate, the foreignness internal to the system.

We might think of that foreign space as the future. What can we do with and to the future? In Shivering Sands, novelist and comics writer Warren Ellis explains:

The body modification crowd interest me…because they’re attempting to make a new physical future out of what they’ve got. Their only available canvas on which to paint the future is their own bodies and whatever tools are laying around right now. . . .
We have become entrained to step outside of the stated rules of a device’s operation in order to get it to do what we want. Put another way: we’re all hackers now. That’s exactly what bodymod people are doing—hacking the properties of the device they’re born with. (47)

Of course, this raises the whole cyborg, transhuman thing. I don’t want to go over the critiques of that right now (Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism does that well). But I’m wondering if this idea of difference between the design of a device (even the body) and its potential properties isn’t something like the foreign space, the extimate? And if so, isn’t this space the same as the distance or gap we have considered a hallmark of the authentic?

Walter Benjamin complains that the aura of authenticity “withers” in the age of mechanical reproduction such that

the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. (1235)

Benjamin is invested in making authenticity as much about the place of the object as possible. The object reactivated is presumably not the same as the original for a couple of reasons. The first is obvious: the object has lost its context, its unique place in space and time, its physical history, which has been replaced by distance.

But if authenticity depends on distance, as we’ve seen, it also depends to some degree on effacing or ignoring that distance. This is what “Authentic Mexican Style” means. An instance of the authentic might therefore depend on fantasy inasmuch as fantasy is a collapsing of two things into one, an effacing of difference. Slavoj Žižek describes how this might work:

[F]antasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality—that is to say, it provides a “schema” according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. (7)

The point here is that the structure we are born into constitutes our desires. It isn’t that I want something I am being deprived of. I don’t know what I want until I have been deprived of it. Fantasy covers over a gap and a gap is a distance, however small. Žižek rightly directs his discussion of fantasy to Lacan’s famous il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel such that fantasy is the subject’s specific formula for dealing with that particular lack of complementarity. Still, we need to remember that “Authentic Mexican Style” only works if I’m trying to experience flavors from (1) somewhere I’ve never been (a geographical gap) or (2) a place I’ve left and maybe miss (a temporal gap). In this sense, fantasy only ever works at the level of good enough right now and is never equal to the original. So, Benjamin complains about

the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent towards overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. (1236)

The copy is more portable, is ubiquitous, is cheaper than the original. So the photograph supplants painting and films replace novels in terms of mass appeal and adoption. Jean-Francois Lyotard, following Benjamin, writes:

Industrial photography and cinema will be superior to painting and the novel whenever the objective is to stabilize the referent, to arrange it according to a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, to reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to decipher images and sequences quickly, and so to arrive easily at the consciousness of his own identity as well as the approval which he thereby receives from others since such structures of images and sequences constitute a communication code among all of them. This is the way the effects of reality, or if one prefers, the fantasies of realism, multiply. (74)

Fantasy again. Lyotard goes on to warn that

[t]hose who refuse to reexamine the rules of art pursue successful careers in mass conformism by communicating, by means of the “correct rules,” the endemic desire for reality with objects and situations capable of gratifying it. Pornography is the use of photography and film to such an end. It is becoming a general model for the visual or narrative arts which have not met the challenge of the mass media. (75)

But there’s a second sense in which the reactivated object is different. Benjamin claims that the “presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity”—though really, isn’t it true that there’s no question of the original until there is a copy? Until there are differences against which to measure (carbon dating, brush strokes, whatever)? The copy is what instantiates the original as original. The copy injects authenticity, or even invents it through differences.

In any case, there may not even need to be an original object for the authentic to register. This is how I read Ellis’s recent description of what he calls the “science fiction condition,” how “we can measure the contemporary day by the things that have become absent. Things we perhaps only notice peripherally” (“On Futurism”). I like this idea of measuring change by the removal or absence or invisibility of things. And maybe these things never even have to exist to register as absent? Nostalgia works that way by suggesting we’re missing something now we likely never had then. And maybe the best way to sell an authentic future is to remove something we don’t notice now, so that an authentic-seeming future wouldn’t be drawn as us with the addition of jet packs, but as us with the subtraction of a commute to work. The best way to show a future would maybe then be to open a space in the present and point to that vacancy as different from now.

The opposite of authenticity might be skeumorphism. Briefly and generally, skeumorphic design tries to capture qualities of the physical or analog in the digital. Apple’s iOS is notorious for its “leather stitching” and more. Great, appalling examples can be found here.

The benefit of skeumorphism is that it makes apparent very quickly, via something like metaphor, how to perform certain actions or engage with certain technologies. To help my parents figure out how to use their iPad (“It looks like a bookshelf, so that’s where my books are!”). Or, per Lyotard, “the objective is to stabilize the referent, to arrange it according to a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, to reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to decipher images and sequences quickly” (74).

This is to say that the skeumorphic has begun to feel—in Lyotard’s terms—pornographic. There’s something politically off about looking at reproductions of the leather stitching in the seats of Steve Jobs’ private jet when checking your calendar. I suppose it may be aspirational, too. But Žižek describes how the impossible anamorphic contortions of the camera-eye in pornographic film is what “effectively crystallizes its enjoyment” (178). It’s the tortured work that goes into reproducing the “fantasies of realism” that both creates the condition (summoning the analog) and demonstrates the lie (reproducing it digitally). The goal is to elide difference, to collapse differences via a fantasy of completeness.

The alternative is what’s being called native or authentically digital. At its best, going digitally native means removing any noise in order to focus on just those elements that are necessary. Often, though, going authentically digital means moving back in time, involves the nostalgia of amber monitors and command-line interactions. Cyberpunk has become this. Increasingly, it means a celebration of the 8-bit and the glitch. We’ve lived with the digital long enough for it to have its own tropes. This is one danger of Bridle’s New Aesthetic. When Ellis suggests “we are already in a world where the digital is erupting into the physical, and we just didn’t really notice it,” when Bridle argues that “[e]verything wants to be, and being is a hybrid, digital state now” (“Digital”), it may mean that the authentically digital is both the reverse and realization of skeumorphism. It is the subtraction of the analog, a distancing of ourselves from meat-space in order to collapse the difference, thus repeating the skeumorphic problem on the other end. We’ve grown bored with watching people have sex and now want to see how machines do it.

Before claiming that the digital is erupting into the physical, Ellis writes in Sands, “For as long as I can remember, the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future.” An outbreak is often a localized occurrence or symptom of something already in the system more widely. To force an outbreak is to exploit a potential that’s already there. A hack is an outbreak.

In The Lost Cause of Rhetoric, David Metzger points out that when Aristotle defines rhetoric, he calls it a dunamis or “faculty” “for discovering the available means of persuasion” (1355b.27). This means (among other things) that rhetoric is not a specific act or performance, but is primarily the condition for any such act (Metzger 30). It is potential. I wonder if it’s possible to talk about hacking in these terms. What seems to differentiate the hack from the prosthetic is that the latter is a replacement in kind, a surrogate that may or may not live up to the standards or utility of the original (and may or may not appear authentic). The hack, though, is all about new functionality. So it might be that all hacks are prosthetic, but not all prosthetics are hacks? Where the prosthetic addresses a loss, the hack would address the lack of consistency, of wholeness, and would exploit the extimacy that defines the subject. And a hack would be an argument, I suppose.

Is it wrong to maybe think this is a way of reading Ellis’s goal of forcing “outbreaks of the future”? Does the future mean potential? Is this what Steven Shaviro, Bruce Sterling, etc. mean when they talk about the futurity that is already upon us as the technology we take for granted, that we’re even bored with, that has fundamentally changed the way we work and live?

An Authentic Future could depend upon an amplification of certain traits of the present that would be more real that what we know, that would be hyper-real, super-real, or surreal. Ellis describes it in precisely these terms when discussing “the central problem” of science fiction, which “stands in a speculative zone from which to consider aspects of the present condition…. It needs…a piece of the future, of novelty, of something as yet unseen…. Faced with a line like ‘the door dilated,’ the brain has to do a little extra work to make it make contextual sense…. you accept the experience of processing strangeness and applying it to the world you know” (48). “Dilated” is a great and surprising word, but what renders the phrase strange is that the door didn’t “open.” Dilated is one of any number of words that could be placed over the absence of opened.

Bridle offers the term “*punk” (starpunk), which he defines as

a hollowing out of conceptual spaces based on only slightly varied worldlines. It may be subsumed by aesthetics, as is the problem with most bad steampunk (“stick some brass cogs on it”), but it may also uncover previously hidden possibilities. (“Starpunk”)

As Shaviro and others have pointed out, we can’t seem to escape the cyberpunk future of the 1980s. The Regan-era dystopia of Blade Runner is still with us almost 20 years later in The Matrix. And steampunk, dieselpunk, etc. Against this aestheticization, Bridle offers a more general project that exploits the gap in direct ways (like slash fiction, a kind of pornpunk), “retrofitting different desires onto existing characters and situations” (“Starpunk”):

These works inhabit a space of imminent possibility imagined by the writers as a way of calling such spaces into being, collapsing the quantum society of the time, full of hypocrisies and hidden allowances. If designers are concerned with the recently possible, writers should be concerned with the imminent. (“Starpunk”)

The point is not that we need to forget the past (we can’t; it’s always with us), but that we may need to quit repeatedly performing the past in order to get a different outcome. And while the past and the future may both be locatable in the present, they are not the same thing. As Rachel Armstrong has recently argued, “the ‘future’—as we have previously imagined it—does not exist as a ‘thing’ but can be a ‘tool’ for dealing with the unknown. In other words a ‘flying car’ is not a product with a sell-by date, but a conversation that we need to hold.”

The simplest piece of powerful deliberative rhetoric I have ever encountered was on the Long Now Foundation website almost two decades ago. And it was that the year was written as 01996. It seems to me that that “0” registers as potential in all the right ways. It’s completely forward-looking. No one would write the date of a thousand years prior as 0996. Actually, that “0” would be pretty horrifying, since that “0” is us.

Against the whatever-punk that depends on a kind of nostalgia for an old-fashioned, comfortable future that is never going to happen, perhaps we could place the kind of future argued for by the Long Now, James Bridle, and indicated by Warren Ellis. Insofar as that 0 indicates promise or potential, an incipient futurity that can be recognized now, perhaps one option is to live in the gap between what we know and what we have, to embrace the hack ontologically as well as rhetorically.

Authenticity is a performance, and so we have at least two options:

  1. one nested in the past in order to maintain a fantasy of completeness by imagining a future that has already happened, or
  2.  as Shaviro argues, “a stealth future, very different from the one of jet packs and flying cars, but in a way much more radical – precisely because it happens before we are fully able to take notice” (“You Will Never Own”).

This last is an insistence that we live in the future now in terms of what we don't notice, even in terms of what uses us (see Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants). And we can only respond with what we have and hack it.

The first option, allegiance to a whatever-punk, is prosthetic as it functions as a replacement for what was “lost,” while the Long Now version might be hack, as it insists on a futurity that doesn't exist/can't ever exist but, at the level of authentic fictions (to quote Lacan), “stops not being written” (145). A zero is a writing.

Works Cited

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