Saturday, September 4, 2010

Authenticity Revisited

My last post was entitled "Authenticity," yet the word authenticity was nowhere to be found within the message itself. Jonathan called my vagueness to attention and asked for clarification, asking, "Is your complaint here authenticity, or is it quality?"

Indeed, my use of the word begs a definition. I omitted one previously because I could not articulate what I meant, and I hoped that it would be demonstrated by the examples I mentioned. Fortunately, a 17-hour drive to Chicago with Jonathan gave me plenty of time to hash it out.

One observation I had was that before lower-quality versions of the commodities I mentioned existed, no qualifying adjective was needed to describe them. For example, before factory farming methods, eggs did not need to be designated as "pastured" because all eggs were what we now call pastured. The very proliferation of words designating levels of quality betrayed to me a confusion about authenticity resulting from whatever "consumer choice" and "freedom" were won in the process.

Another aspect which puzzled me was the artisan's pursuit of consistency versus the factory's guarantee of standardization. To explain, I will first allow Jeffrey Hamelman from my wonderful bread book to define what I mean by an artisan:
"These days artisan and baker are often combined into one term, as if the unadorned noun baker needs further enhancement...The skilled baker, working with his hands, doing the same work each day, takes his place with the artisans of history...The baker, each day, tries to perfect something that was worked out hundreds of years ago. Mastering the art of fermentation is the ultimate aspiration of the bread baker...When it all goes just right (which it rarely does), and the day's breads have attained more than just good taste, but are, for that day, memorable and charismatic, then the baker knows again why he sets his alarm for that challenging hour."
Bread, Jeffrey Hamelman, John Wiley & Sons 2004.
So an artisan pursues every day the same objective, unchanging standards of perfection, while usually falling short. The best bakers are those who most consistently navigate all of the vagaries of humidity, flour quality, and dough temperature et al (the list is quite long) to produce results close to the standards of their craft.

Here my conundrum presents itself. If consistency is the only value, factories are much better than artisans. With a combination of standardized and interchangeable human and machine labor, they are able to produce nearly identical output. For example, if you have had one Oreo, you have had them all, because they are all the same to an impressive degree. If the best artisans are the most consistent, then are not machines far better than the best artisans?

Intuitively I knew this proposition was false. I realized the crucial difference is uniqueness. Because an Oreo is an Oreo is an Oreo, there is actually no such thing as an Oreo. There is only Oreo, an abstract concept with no particular incarnation. Oreo carries no attachment to anything real, actual, or particular, but only to Nabisco, itself a faceless, rootless, and soulless subsidiary of a multinational corporation.

By contrast, the work of an artisan contains within it something of the artisan himself. I know when I cook that I like very strong flavors with lots of heat. This preference is in accordance with my personality, and so when you eat my food you come to know me in it. Hamelman speaks of a particular day's bread being memorable and charismatic, two things which could never be said of one instance of a standardized product compared to another.

I posit then that authenticity bespeaks two derivative qualities. The first is adherence to objective standards of quality, the same for all instances of the thing produced. The second is specificity, both in that each instance may be distinguished from other instances and thus has its own identity, and that each instance represents the identity of its author.

Factory-produced items may in principle be high quality, but they cannot be authentic. For one, when many contribute to the process, such as when a baking operation is carried out by men who mix separate from men who shape separate from men who bake, the result contains not all of their identities but none of them. For two, factory processes depend on the standardization of every task, depending on no particular man to accomplish them and so by design carry no specificity.

In this way authentic work is like humanity itself. Humans all meet the objective standard of the image of God, yet each is a completely unique work which individually displays the characteristics of his or her creator. It only makes sense that when humans represent the best of their God-given and God-like nature, they create in the same manner as he does.

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