The Authenticity Fetish

by Rob Horning

8 December 2009

Image via BoingBoing

Image via BoingBoing

A study by MIT professor Renee Richardson Gosline (via BoingBoing and others) shows that people who buy “fake” handbags—those branded without authorization—sometimes go on to later buy “authentic” ones.

Gosline interviewed hundreds of consumers who knowingly bought fake luxury apparel, many at “purse parties” where such goods are sold. Gosline found that within two years, 46 percent of these buyers subsequently purchased the authentic version of the same product — even though other people could not necessarily tell the difference. Such behavior is another twist on Veblen’s thesis: For some status-seeking people, at least, the social power of luxury goods means that consumption must not just be conspicuous, but real.

That seems somewhat incredible (Felix Salmon calls it “astonishing”), but it fits well with NYT Magazine Consumed columnist Rob Walker’s contention that we are own primary audience for our consumption displays. We can’t fool ourselves with a fake.
But then, when we do buy fakes? Are we hoping that our own assessment of ourselves can matter less than that of those around us? Is it an attempt to silence the internal critic? Is a ploy to be postauthentic? Obviously it’s similar to the dynamic behind pirating MP3s instead of buying them—what does it matter if the source of the file is authentic if it is a copy that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable for an authenticated one? In a world where it is so easy to copy things, authenticity becomes a kind of fetish, a value for its own sake that doesn’t speak to any actual physical quality in the objects themselves. The power of the fetish derives from our simultaneous awareness that we should be skeptical of everything, that everything can be faked, including personal identity, which is more provisional than ever, being reinscribed on a moment by moment basis online in some instances. The more I keep telling myself who I am, how I want to see myself, the more I need to manifest that materially through gestures. If I want to believe I am authentic, I need to gesture authenticity. Voila: We seek objects with the aura of authenticity (expensive, distinctive, rare things mainly) so that we can try to feel more authentic ourselves.

Baudrillard literally wrote the book on this sort of thing back in the early 1970s—For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, which compiles several of his essays about how use value is mistaken for an authentic transcendental truth. He argues that we tend to refer to our needs, and to an object’s “real” usefulness as the basis for what should be true, particularly in critiquing consumerism. If we could only stop consuming objects as symbols of other things and just use them in a natural, unmediated way, we would escape the ways in which consumerism constricts and constructs us. (I fall prey to that line of thinking a lot—I just want to wear a shirt, not signify I am the sort of person who wants to wear this sort of shirt.) But there is no such escape, as concepts like use and need are socially constructed along with identity as part of the same totalizing cultural system. “Just as exchange value is not a substantial aspect of the product, but a form that expresses a social relation, so use value can no longer be viewed as an innate function of the object but as a social determination.” One can’t pursue authenticity through that route—by using only generic objects that we “need”—anymore than one can by acquiring authentic luxury items. What is “real” about a given object’s provenance is open to constant reevaluation; the emphasis can be shifted to suit the needs of those questioning reality at various junctures.

Luxury items are expensive not because they are intrinsically valuable (what is gold “really” worth, anyway? Seems pretty useless as a metal) but because of the social capital embodied in them. In fact, as other research of Gosline’s suggests, people authenticate goods in terms of who is using them:

Consumers, Gosline observes, struggle to distinguish the intrinsic qualities of real luxury goods from fakes; instead, they rely heavily on social cues to make those judgments. Indeed, when some consumers are shown pictures of people wearing luxury apparel, they are twice as confident in their ability to judge those products, and willing to pay twice as much for the apparel, as when those consumers are shown pictures of the goods alone.

Social capital is a gestalt, then, an assemblage of goods, gestures, behaviors, etc., that convey a rank in the class hierarchy. If the goal is to climb in that hierarchy, goods—fake or real—are not enough. (Incidentally, Gosline’s work also offers support for the immaterial labor idea I have been going on and on about lately: “Gosline has quantified Veblen’s famous observation: Consumers are willing to pay twice as much for luxury apparel when they can use those products to send or receive social signals.” There is a relation between what goods can mean—product of our using them—and what they can be sold for.)

But why not use fake luxury goods for other reasons? They function as a kind of social sabotage, a direct attack on distinction that forces those invested in positional goods to become uncomfortable and shift their ground. In the world of simulacrums of simulacrums, authenticity is a constructed pose, a disguised power play. When the owner of a fake buys the real thing, it is a small triumph for luxury goods makers and the powers that be generally—their definition of authentic is still holding enough sway to shape behavior. I guess I prefer the possibility that authenticity is worthless.

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