Monday, January 30, 2006


The beginning of David Boyle's Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life (Harper Perennial, 2004), finds the author in Ocean Dome, a vast, fake, indoor beach in Japan. The weirdness of the set-up is accentuated by the fact that the real Pacific Ocean is on the other side of the road, only a few metres away.

Boyle, in his laid-back, British way, politely disagrees with the management’s line that “This is where we can feel that we are part of nature.” And he proceeds to demolish the glittery fakes and half-assed simulacra of the modern world, from Pot Noodle to A Year In Provence, from IMAX to the biggest baddy of them all, virtual reality.

But is the other beach ‘real’? What makes it ‘a beach’? What do we think of when we hear the word ‘beach’? Donkeys and candyfloss? David Hasselhoff? Do the Japanese think the same thing? And it’s ‘real’ in Boyle’s terms, because it’s ‘natural’. But the very fact that he’s flagging it up as ‘a beach’ rather than ‘a bit of land next to the sea’ suggests that it’s been colonised by humanity. The road that divides the two beaches (and, presumably leads people to each of them), well who in the hell put that there?

There’s actually a pretty good argument for a big, grown-up discussion about notions of authenticity, realness, truth and all that big stuff. From what I remember, Aristotle’s philosophy was based on the observation that A is A, and everything proceeds from that. When I challenged my Grade 13 history teacher that A might not be A (I think he was trying to lure us into the wicked, right-wing boudoir of Ayn Rand and enlightened self-interest) things all got a bit heated.

Having lived in Asia for – Jesus – getting on for three years now, I’ve come to realise that “A is A” is a profoundly Western way of looking at things. As Richard Nisbett points out in The Geography Of Thought, which I might get around to reviewing here one day, Asian and Occidental modes of perception are, if not genetically hardwired, fixed from the moment of birth by entirely different emphases in upbringing. They think differently, so their reality is different. Essentially, Cogito ergo sum, but East and West don’t agree what cogito means. Or, as a senior advisor to the Thai Prime Minister once asked me, “Why are you so obsessed with knowing the truth? Isn’t it more important to be liked?

Sadly, David Boyle doesn’t go here. Instead, he sits himself squarely within the Adbusters/No Logo/Slow Food movement, with its sceptical eye on capitalist notions of material progress, globalisation, branding and so forth. Which is good, or it was five years ago, when it really felt as if this kind of thinking could change the world. Boyle actually goes one better, by backing such practical manifestations of post-capitalist behaviour as local currencies, rather than just shaking his fist at Bush’s utter beastliness, the mode of discourse to which Naomi Klein seems to be reduced these days.

But (maybe because he’s essentially a down-to-earth, practical kinda guy), Boyle just has to play by the rules. His kinda people (pro-organic, anti-branding, but not hippies) are dubbed The New Realists, which he likes to see as being soulmates of Matt Thorne’s New Puritans or Paul Ray’s Cultural Creatives. But to me, it just sounds like another chunk of marketing speak, like Yuppies and Dinkies and Aspirers and C2DE's and Soccer Moms and White Van Men. It's as real or unreal, authentic or inauthentic as that big, fake son of a beach.

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