Picture the tragic scenes in Crouch End, north London, early this year. The patrons of Harris Hoole, a local coffee shop, had just learned to their horror that the supermarket chain Tesco owns a 49 per cent stake in the company. Shaken caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt “duped” and “upset” because they’d thought it was an “independent” coffee shop. A rival coffee hawker sneered that Tesco was “trying to make money” out of “artisan values” – although, presumably, so was he. Most charmingly, the manager of the café confided that head office had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible. “We try to be independent,” she said. “We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.”
She is right: we all want to have that feel. But the appropriation by Tesco and Harris Hoole of the consumer allure of “independence” and “artisan values” is a symptom of our present predicament: there is no way out of simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminated, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now yet another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.
Why are we so obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity? This is a good essay, but it would have been better if the author had known and profited from Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity.