1. The Complicated Signifier
We’ve all seen pickles layered in Mason jars. Or perhaps, we’ve walked past people in pavement cafés sipping their skinny Iced Matcha Green Tea Lattes from them. Mason jars still signal a certain brand of authenticity – a laid back, checkered-shirt-wearing, down-to-earth ‘realness’. But as someone who grew up in North America, this whole Mason jar thing shouts: homesteader. For a European, this word is most likely benign, conjuring images of pioneers in covered wagons, staking out their land and living off raccoons and whatever food they can grow à la Little House on the Prairie. But for those us born on that continent, the idea of the homesteader is not so simple. The arrival of Europeans in North America brought with it disease, the attempted annihilation of entire tribes of Native Americans, the decimation of the buffalo and the beginnings of the logging and mining industries which to this day are still causing environmental devastation. To someone like me, sitting in a café in Hackney drinking a latte out of a Mason jar is complicated.
2. A Potted History of Mason Jars
Mason jars were patented in 1858 by the New Jersey tinsmith John Landis Mason. This son of a Scottish farmer came upon a perfect design consisting of a ribbed neck and a screw-on cap. When the jars are heated to a high enough temperature, filled with produce, and then cooled, the lid creates a hermetic seal preventing the growth of bacteria. Food can last for months – or years – if the canning has been done properly. You’d think with the popularity of home preserving, that Mr Mason would have become rich. Sadly his patent expired in 1879 and Mason died a pauper in a New York City tenement leaving a wife and six daughters. The brilliant functionality of Mason jars, the fact they have allowed us to store food safely for 160 years, and have probably saved millions of lives in the process, is completely lost when a hipster sips a cocktail from one in a bar in Hackney or Brooklyn. And don’t get me started on the ones with handles!
3. Our Craving for Authenticity
Where has all this need for homespun authenticity come from? Why have we chosen the era of nineteenth-century American homesteading as our current golden age upon which to model our lives? There seems to be a direct correlation between the loss of something and its perceived value. When something we value has disappeared, the period when this lost thing flourished then becomes not only desired, but ‘authentic’ to us. Our view of the past as simpler, slower and more human, feeds our need for these qualities in our complex, sped-up, mediated world.
An ‘organic’ – or natural – lifestyle we so desire is now being sold to us in the form of distressed paint, shabby-chic furnishings and hand-crafted beer
According to the social scientist Rebecca Erickson, ‘The transition from industrial to post-industrial society and from modern to postmodern culture has led to increased interest in authenticity.’ The period when we made our clothes by hand, lived in houses we’d built ourselves and grew our own food now feels like a golden age to which we are longing to return as a counter narrative to our harried, consumer-led, technologically driven lives. Lionel Trilling writes in his seminal 1972 book, Sincerity and Authenticity: ‘The belief that the organic is the chief criterion of what is authentic in art and life continues, it need hardly be said, to have great force with us, the more as we become alarmed by the deterioration of the organic environment.’
Fifty years on, this desire for a past simplicity seems to have taken firmer root. This ‘organic’ – or natural – lifestyle we so desire is now being sold to us in the form of distressed paint, shabby-chic furnishings and hand-crafted beer. You can buy superficial authenticity at Primark for £1.50 in the shape of cut-out rustic wooden hearts hanging from a string of hemp or you can splash out $250 for a hand-forged egg spoon from chef Alice Waters’s daughter’s website. An egg spoon, for those who don’t know, is a 21-inch metal spoon used to cook one egg perfectly over an open fire. It is all the rage among New Yorkers who want the authentic experience of cooking over open flames, who have the time to slowly cook one egg at a time, and more crucially have open fireplaces in their apartments. Authenticity has officially been commodified and it’s moved on from the homely Mason jar.
4. Extreme Authenticity
Trilling makes a very prescient point about the relationship between technology and what we consider authentic: ‘In an increasingly urban and technological society, the natural processes of human existence have acquired a moral status in the degree that they are thwarted. It is the common feeling that some inhuman force has possessed our ground and our air, our men and women and our thought, a machine more terrible than any Emerson imagined.’ In this passage lie the seeds of the belief that technology is poisoning us, that mass-produced food will kill us, that the further we go from what is ‘natural’, the further we move away from being ‘human’.
An extreme manifestation of this way of thinking can be seen in the writings of Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber), the math prodigy-cum-domestic terrorist. In 1978, Kaczynski started his letter bombing campaign targeting universities and places where industrial society, in his view, flourished. His bombs killed three people and injured twenty-three others. In 1995, he made a bargain with the New York Times: if they published his manifesto, ‘Industrial Society and its Future’, he would cease posting his letter bombs. The New York Times agreed.
He was tracked down via this manifesto to a cabin in Lincoln, Montana where he had been living off-grid since 1971, with no electricity or running water, feeding himself from hunting, foraging and whatever food he could grow. He supplemented his diet with very little from the ‘civ’ world. Despite some people claiming Kaczynski was crazy, his manifesto today reads as extremely sane – indeed prophetic. He foresaw the destabilising effect technology would have on society and democracy and also the negative psychological effects of widespread use of technological devices. He advocated that for humans to feel connected to their humanity and the earth under our feet, we would need to unplug and return to our ‘wild nature’. Freedom, in Kaczynski’s eyes, could not exist alongside rampant technological progress. The New Yorker compared his writing to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine and Karl Marx. And more recently, the author and founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth, wrote in Orion Magazine that Kaczynski’s arguments may have indeed changed his life.
5. Artificial Authenticity
At the less extreme end of our desire for authenticity lie the upcylced bathroom cabinets on Pinterest, the embroidered tea cosies on Etsy and the armies of sun-dappled jam jars on Instagram. Kaczynski would be appalled at the success of corporate interests selling us the Mason jar life via the internet.
Images of authenticity, however, are in themselves artificial constructs. As the cultural anthropologist Richard Handler, writes, ‘Our search for authentic cultural experience – for the unspoiled, pristine, genuine, untouched and traditional – says more about us than about others.’ What we consider to be authentic is an accurate barometer of our desires and how we seek to satisfy them – in other words: what we see as authentic is how we want to be.
6. A Story of Inauthentic Authenticity
In 2012 an artisanal-looking coffee shop appeared in London’s leafy Crouch End. It was called Harris + Hoole. The logo looked like something designed in Shoreditch and the interior was custom-built for Mac-users who survive on wi-fi and avocado toast. The wooden counters heaved under a simulacrum of handmade goods and the list on the blackboard appeared to be hand-written. The only problem was Harris + Hoole had been started with investment money from Tesco and four years after opening, the café was fully owned by the supermarket chain. In 2016 there were forty-three outlets of Harris + Hoole which Tesco then sold on to Caffè Nero.
What is interesting about this story is that the people behind the supposed artisan coffee shop packaged our view of authenticity so well that nobody questioned it. Despite customers believing this was a small indie shop selling, most likely, Fairtrade products, it was in fact the front for a hugely rapacious corporation. The independent not-for-profit organisation the Ethical Consumer gave Harris + Hoole the lowest ranking in their assessment of social and environmental impacts. All that simulated reclaimed wood and those mismatched lampshades were really just a cover-up for tax dodging, factory-farmed meat and workers paid less than a living wage. The café was in effect a Baudrillardian simulacrum or the made-in-China Mason jar of cafés.
Unlike sincerity, authenticity does not need to be moral in order to exist – it simply needs to be ‘real’. Thus Donald Trump . . . is seen as the ‘most authentic president in history’ simply because he is deeply himself
7. The Commodification of Authenticity
Every era and every society has its version of what is considered authentic. Around me in fast-moving, plugged-in East London, shops that once sold tangible, useful things like shoe laces and spools of thread have been replaced by curated retail environments and earthy-looking cafés selling a side-order of ‘image’ alongside their coffee. People flock to one café or shop over another because they feel it best represents them. Now that so much of what we do and say, so much of what we read and write is mediated by a screen, by algorithms, by apps, artificial intelligence and programmes, we are endowing objects made by hand with extra meaning and purpose. We hold a special place in our imaginations for a time when we touched food before buying it, when we spun fibres before weaving them, wove the fabric before stitching it and when we lived a ‘simpler’ life. The joys of the analogue are now being sold back to us so we can surround ourselves with it while we stare into our screens.
There is a deep irony at the heart of the Mason jar brand of authenticity. This brand of authenticity has been beautifully and successfully commodified. In Sincerity and Authenticity, Trilling makes the point that money is something that has the ability to render things inauthentic. He notes that Shakespeare, Goethe and Marx all support the idea that ‘money inverts moral values and even perception itself.’ Marx cited Timon’s speech in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as the perfect expression of this. Timon states that money has the power to ‘black, white; foul, fair; / Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant.’ Trilling goes on to add that, ‘Money, in short, is the principle of the inauthentic in human existence.’ Drinking out of a Mason jar supports this. We are too poor to buy glasses for our craft beer, so we are drinking out of our canning gear.
8. The Headlines
Unlike sincerity, authenticity does not need to be moral in order to exist – it simply needs to be ‘real’. For something to be authentic, there is no distinction between it and its essence. In other words, it cannot be separated from its self, and this, in our contemporary society, is what has value. Thus Donald Trump, despite his profound immorality, is seen as the ‘most authentic president in history’, simply because he is deeply himself. Here are a few headlines from the months after he was elected as the forty-fifth president of the United States:
‘Is Donald Trump A Role Model For Authenticity?’ (Forbes),
‘Trump the Authentic’ (American Interest),
‘Trump’s Plain Speaking Fuels the Leadership Cult of Authenticity’ (Financial Times),
‘Who is the “Authenticity” Candidate of 2016? Yup: It’s Donald Trump’ (Washington Post),
‘Donald Trump Is Not “Authentic” Just Because He Says Things’ (Time),
and finally, ‘How Can Donald Trump Lie so Much and be “Authentic” at the Same Time’ (CNN).
In fact one of the most popular words to describe this man is ‘authentic’. He is the Mason jar stuffed with made-in-China-marine-life-killing-plastic-fairy-lights of presidents.
However, there is also a history of connecting authenticity with transcendence. Outsider artists who are self-taught, who emerged from psychiatric wards and live on the margins of society creating often spiritually guided work are regularly described as more authentic than artists working in the mainstream. The same could be said of the blues. Lead Belly singing ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’ with its rhythmic building like an oncoming train is authentic, whereas Lonnie Donegan’s upbeat cover is anything but.
Authenticity now allows us to forgive any act because in our strange, messed up world, it’s better to be open about our hatred, bigotry and callousness than keep it under wraps
Trilling also discusses the relationship between madness and authenticity. Writing in the 1970s at the tail end of the hippie explosion, when R. D. Laing was positing that madness was perhaps the one sane response to a mad world, when the United States was in the grip of the Vietnam war, when people had justified reasons to declare that ‘America had gone crazy’, Trilling simply called for a deeper ‘public sense’. However, in a review of Sincerity and Authenticity, the author and critic John Vernon questions whether Trilling had ‘ever driven along the restaurant-gasoline-motel-McDonald’s strips that interlace most of our cities and suburbs? Has he watched television very much, or listened to any of our politicians? Does he know about Hitler, Stalin, or Vietnam? Has he heard of strip-mining, snow-mobiles, overcrowding, poverty, chemical warfare? Does he know that Lake Erie is dead, or that a murder occurs in America every half hour? . . . Trilling not only doesn’t analyse, but doesn’t even recognise the enormous amount of evidence that itself authenticates the judgment that society today as it exists is insane.’ This was written in 1974 but how apt it is for today.
11. Honesty over Authenticity
Perhaps we should be focusing our attention less on authenticity. Maybe we should spend more time looking at actions rather than decoding them for what they ‘really mean’. If a president sells off chunks of public land to be mined and does so brazenly and ‘authentically’ this should worry us. If a leader of a country validates racism and bigotry, but does so authentically, this does not lessen their egregiousness. Wouldn’t it be better if people in power made decisions based on what was right and what might improve the common good, rather than acting out what is in their nature authentically. Today, the word ‘authentic’ is shorthand for a kind of unswerving mindset that represents ‘real’ people. It allows those in power to justify the separation of babies from their breastfeeding mothers, the removal of regulations around clean air and clean water, the overturning of healthcare reforms out of spite for a previous administration, the shredding of laws they don’t like and creation of new ones to further line their pockets.
This is the New Authenticity. It is a weapon and it is one we are told ‘real’ people like. Authenticity now allows us to forgive any act because in our strange, messed-up world, it’s better to be open about our hatred, bigotry and callousness than keep it under wraps. I’m over this word now as much as I am over drinking out of a glass canning jar. We need to move away from authenticity and embrace honesty. We need to remind ourselves that they are not the same thing.
Another hidden peril in ascribing value to someone’s authenticity is that it puts the importance onto the person, rather than their actions they cannot fail being themselves, therefore authenticity creates an infallible being. It can lead to a cult of personality. Sincerity is weak and authenticity is strong – or so we seem to think. This shift also echoes society’s transition from valuing the a disparate and often struggling collective to the power embodied in one loud, bullying individual. We need to watch out for this New Authenticity. It is capable of doing a lot of damage – much more damage than drinking a silly overpriced cocktail from a Mason jar made in China that will never see the inside of a pantry.
Want more great Boundless essays in your inbox every Sunday? Sign up to the free, weekly newsletter, here.