7 March 2013

Even better than the real thing

From artisan coffee to road-worn guitars, Beyoncé to Sartre — what does authenticity really mean?

Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, North London, earlier this year. The patrons of Harris + Hoole, a local coffee-shop, had just learned to their horror that supermarket chain Tesco owned a 49% stake in the company. Tearful caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset”, since they thought it was an “independent” coffee-shop. A rival coffee-hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values”, though presumably he was too. Most charmingly, the manager of the controversial café confided that head office “had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible”. “We try to be independent,” she said. “We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.”

She’s right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris + Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is just one symptom of our current predicament: there is no way out of the simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still just a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminate, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now just another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.