April 10th, 2005


Copyleft authenticity

I want to draft this idea as clearly and concisely as I would a patent application. My idea is to apply the Copyleft idea to authenticity as it plays out, for instance, in popular music. Copyleft, simply stated, is the idea that we make our intellectual products open-source and communal. Anyone can have free access to them and change them, on condition that the changed version itself stays open source; that it, in turn, can be modified by anyone and remains free to all. You can't take code from a copyleft program free and then make something with it which you charge money for.

Now, let's apply this principle to authenticity. Let's say I'm a middle-class Jewish student from Minneapolis. I become fascinated by Woody Guthrie, mainly because of his authenticity. Now, it's fine for me to become a sort of fake Woody Guthrie, to copy Woody Guthrie, make changes to his style, go electric, whatever. But I mustn't then make my actions the basis for a new claim to authenticity (by, for instance, publishing an autobiography that portrays me as some sort of wandering visionary hobo who never quite mastered conventional English prose style). Just as copyleft asks me to keep my coding activity always in the realm of the non-commercial, so copyleft authenticity demands that I keep my musical activity always in the realm of the fake. And just as copyleft demands that software remain open to all programmers, so copyleft authenticity demands that anyone can become a fake version of me the same way I became a fake version of someone else. I cannot kick away the ladder of fakery. I cannot disapprove of fakery, having used it to climb to where I am today. I cannot close the gate and make this space private property.

There are two problems with the copyleft model of authenticity, though. The first involves "the dark star phenomenon". (I came up with this idea during a conversation with Stephin Merrit.) "The dark star phenomenon" states that authenticity is relative. It's possible that for every star we believe to be the epitome of authenticity there's a hidden model, a "dark star", who served as his inspiration. Woody Guthrie himself, for instance, "just ripped off Dark Star X". All Woody's authenticity cred then rushes, like matter into a black hole, towards the "dark star". But then some music snob tells us that Dark Star X ripped everything off from Dark Star Z. And so on.

The second problem is that authenticity claims may not be what they seem. They may in fact be the best way of establishing one's fakeness. Like Sherlock Holmes in one of his infernal disguises, the best faker is one who can pass as the real thing. The artist most dedicated to inauthenticity is not the one claiming to be fake, but the one claiming to be real. No wonder Bob Dylan's songs are full of card sharps and poker faces.

"Hello, Patent Office? I want to register an authentic new idea. Oh, wait, never mind..."