October 27, 2011

Authenticity and the "pumpkins" next door

Our next door neighbor has pulled out her annual fall/Halloween yard decorations, which include several fake pumpkins that she scatters about in the ivy. We gave up on pumpkins a couple of years ago because the squirrels made a mess of them; our neighbor will not have that problem.
What's interesting about these fake pumpkins is that they are meant to convey an atmosphere of organic authenticity, that is, to evoke a homier, simpler time when we all lived in the country and were surrounded by a variety of living things that came and went with the seasons, with or without our attention. Our neighbor has other authenticity-affirming artifacts on display as well, among them a weathered old Ryder wagon that she fills with mums, and a folksy "Welcome" sign. (She is not, in my experience at least, a welcoming person at all.)

In her wonderful book "How We Became Posthuman," N. Katherine Hayles mentions the idea of a "skeuomorph," which she describes as "a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time." She gives the example of the vinyl dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is molded to look as if it is actually stitched fabric. In "The Technological Society" Jacques Ellul notes earlier examples of the same phenomenon, among them the cast-iron flowers decorating the stands of nineteenth-century sewing machines. 

Ellul predicted that such flourishes would soon disappear for the sake of efficiency, but he underestimated the power of nostalgia. In an era when the authentic has all but disappeared, ersatz authenticity generates sales, and that's the sort of efficiency that matters most. To my neighbor and lots of other people, the ability to evoke the memory of authenticity without having to bother with the mess that authenticity so often entails is an effect worth paying for. As U2 put it, it's the real thing, baby -- even better than the real thing! 

Ellul, however, was certainly correct in identifying the more fundamental dynamic: technique's inherent, implacable opposition to nature. "The world that is being created by the accumulation of technical means is an artificial world and hence radically different from the natural world," he wrote. "It destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, and does not allow this world to restore itself or even to enter into a symbiotic relation with it.”

By the way, for a lovely meditation on our longing for the real thing, or a serviceable facsimile thereof, I highly recommend Richard Todd's "The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity." 

©Doug Hill, October 27, 2011

Photo credit: Set of 3 Orange and White Decorative Foam Pumpkins, QVC

No comments:

Post a Comment