With the departure of Scott Forstall from Apple – a skeumorphic kick-me sign taped to his back – maybe it’s timely to say something about authenticity and the digital. I’m still working through my categories and such, am out of practice, but the useful criteria from my previous thinking still seems, well, useful.
Authenticity depends on a distance. (Not a new idea. One of the primary concerns of post-colonial theory is authenticity played out through displaced culture and trade)
1) This distance could be spatial; tortilla chips boasting “Authentic Mexican Taste” only make sense outside of Mexico. Parts of major cities devoted primarily to one ethnicity (Little Italy, Chinatown, etc.) are homely for some precisely because they are not home.
2) The distance could also be temporal; the fantastically precise set-and-costume design of the 1960s in the tv show Mad Men demonstrates that the je ne sais quoi of authenticity comes from poring over old design magazines and advertisements. Even those of us (especially those of us?) who weren’t alive for most of that decade feel that something “true” is being staged. The useful past comes from the future. It’s the performance that is authentic.
Walter Benjamin talks about the authentic in somewhat similar terms when he 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. (“Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” The Critical Tradition 1235)
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first is obvious: the object has lost its context, its unique place in space and time, its physical history, which has been replaced by distance.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, it also depends to some degree on effacing or ignoring that distance. An instance of the authentic might therefore depend on fantasy in as much as fantasy is a collapsing of two things into one. There’s some work here to do that will have to wait, but the gist is that the Lacanian flavor I’m thinking through is fantasy-of-completeness, fantasy as that which covers over a gap. A gap is a distance, however small. 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. (The Postmodern Condition 74)
Fantasy again. Lyotard goes on to warn that:
Those 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,” but 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.
(Put another way, you can’t have a first without a second. After my son was born, well-meaning strangers at the grocery store would awww at him and then ask “Is he your first?” This used to bother me, since I inferred from it that we didn’t have all we needed. I complained to my wife once and she didn’t see the problem, didn’t think that first implied a sequence. So now I introduce her as my first wife.)
In any case, there may not even need to be an original object for the authentic to register. This is how I read Warren 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.” 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 us with the subtraction of commuting.
Which finally brings me to skeumorphism. Briefly and generally, skeumorphic design tries to capture the physical or analog in the digital. Apple’s iOS is notorious for it’s “leather stitching” (Steve Job’s idea, apparently) and more (Scott Forstall’s fault, apparently). 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, we might say with 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.”
This is to say that the skeumorphic has begun to feel – in Lyotard’s terms – pornographic. Sure, there’s something off about looking at reproductions of the leather stitching in the seats of Steve Job’s private jet when checking your calendar. I suppose it aspirational, too. But Slavjo Zizek describes how the impossible anamorphic contortions of the camera-eye in pornographic film is what “effectively crystallizes its enjoyment” (The Plague of Fantasies 178). It’s the tortured work that goes into reproducing the “fantasies of realism” that both create the condition (summoning the analog) and demonstrate the lie (reproducing it digitally).
The alternative is what’s being called native or authentically digital. At its best, digitally native means removing any noise in order to focus on just those elements that are necessary. Often, though, authentically digital means moving back in time, involves the nostalgia of amber monitors and command-line interactions. Increasingly, it means a celebration of the 8-bit and the glitch. We’ve lived with the digital long enough for it to have it’s own tropes. This is the idea behind James Bridle’s New Aesthetic. When Warren Ellis suggests “we are already in a world where the digital is erupting into the physical, and we just didn’t really notice it,” it may mean that the authentically digital is precisely a reversal of skeumorphism, the subtraction of the analog, a distancing of ourselves from meat-space in order to collapse the difference. We’ve grown bored with watching people have sex and now want to see how machines do it.