Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.
The electric candle and faux fur, coffee substitutes and meat analogues, Obama impersonators, prosthetics. Imitation this, false that. Humans have been replacing and improving upon the real thing for millennia – from wooden toes found on Egyptian mummies to the Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas. So why do people have such disdain for so-called “fakes”?
Kati Stevens's Fake discusses the strange history of imitations, as well as our ever-changing psychological and socioeconomic relationships with them. After all, fakes aren't going anywhere; they seem to be going everywhere.
Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.
About the Author
Kati Stevens is a public affairs specialist based in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in The Hairpin and The Billfold.
Read an Excerpt
THE START OF SOMETHING FAKE
I am sick of the word. Noun, adjective, and verb, overused and misused, in recent years fake's rap has gone from bad to downright malignant. All those members of the synonym posse that, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, have taken up some of the slack of the fake's burden are now in hiding, afraid of similar slander and blasphemy.
So close to meaning everything/nothing, the slur "fake" is now, ironically, the great, false equalizer. It is not another word for "fraud," but a meaning- stripped catchall epithet for the bad, the cheap, and the despised.
I want to give fake its clothes back. I want to take back the language around the fake, around what this word and its friends have meant historically, socioeconomically and psychologically, and what they mean today. The bottom has fallen out for fake, but it has been a long time coming. For too long humans have given copies, imitations, substitutes, faux this and false that, short shrift. By putting the ersatz and the proxy in their proper places in the story of human invention and progress, perhaps people can finally separate these things from true "fakes" and understand the nature and power of such words and the objects they name.
Who's a Phony?
Let's start with phony, the slur of choice for man among bildungsromen, The Catcher in the Rye's young Holden Caulfield. With the exception of his sister Phoebe, his dead younger brother Allie, and Jane Gallagher, the girl who got away, just about everyone and everything Holden encounters is deemed to be phony — his headmaster, his preparatory school, his ex-girlfriend, his favorite teacher, his screenwriter brother, his roommate, the prostitute he pays, the Edmont Hotel, the Seattle girls, Lillian Simmons, and, above all, himself.
Of all these characters and places, only the prostitute is trying to cheat Holden. With everyone else, the issue at hand is neither hypocrisy nor fraud, but what Holden — who knows little to nothing of their lives when they are not with him, of their relationships with their families and friends, and of their own internal narratives — perceives as inconsistency of logic or character. People and places do not measure up to an arbitrary standard Holden holds for the endlessly disappointing world around him, and he iconically and carelessly articulates that with the comforting insult "phony" in much the same way teenagers of the early twentieth century have thrown around "whatever." Haunted by the inability to be the person he wishes he was, Holden doesn't have the generosity of spirit to grant others ghosts because he is neither introspective nor forgiving with himself first. These people are not complex and flawed: they are simply phony.
Dating from the early 1900s, the word "phony" is believed to be an alteration of the British "fawney," the word for a gilded brass ring used in a confidence game called the "fawney rig." In this game, the trickster drops a ring (or a purse with some seeming valuables in it) and runs to pick the item up at the same time as the poor sap who notices it on the ground. The trickster suggests the found treasure should be split between him and the aforementioned sap. Said sap, now convinced of the item's value, chooses instead to give the con artist some money in order to keep this object, that is, the fawney, all to himself. The object, of course, does not possess the value its new owner imagined — it's a phony.
As such, "phony" is actually the perfect word for Holden to glom onto because it is as much about his opinion of himself as it is of others. From the start, the nature of the phony has inspired no sympathy for the victim. The cheater, preying on that most human of weaknesses, greed, is not hustling a mark so much as finding a partner in mutual avarice. The cheater is simply more in tune with his venality, using his understanding of human psychology to acquire the cash his sharper intellect so richly deserves. Even if Holden didn't refer to himself as a phony as well, he'd still be damning himself by calling everyone around him the word. Subconsciously he believes that phonies can smell the failings on him, that he deserves the terrible people he attracts.
Though the word "phony" came later, I imagine many contemporary readers of Thomas Bowdler, the nineteenth-century non-practicing British physician whose mission it was to produce volumes of Shakespeare fit "to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies, felt similarly swindled." But Bowdler did not see anything deceptive in himself or The Family Shakspeare, which altered or eliminated any language or plot point in Shakespeare's plays Bowdler deemed unwholesome — aka, all the fun bits. In fact, in his preface, Bowdler wrote,
If a presumptuous artist should undertake to remove a supposed defect in the Transfiguration of Raphael, or in the Belvidere Apollo, and in making the attempt should injure one of those invaluable productions of art and genius, I should consider his name as deserving never to be mentioned, or mentioned only with him who set fire to the Temple of Diana.
because he knew that neither paintings nor sculptures are in kind to books. To deface, or to so fail at restoration as to mar, Raphael's actual Transfiguration, a painting which currently resides in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Vatican City or the Apollo Belvedere, a marble sculpture of the Greek god housed at the nearby Pio-Clementine Museum, would be definitively terrible; not burning a temple down bad, but horrific.
What Bowdler is doing, however, is not taking a chisel to someone else's sculpture, but building a replica with some tweaks of his own. He is not robbing the world of the original sculpture or changing the original to his own liking so that it is no longer the artist's work but his own, but rather iterating the work and providing a PG version of it for those with delicate sensibilities. Censorship disenfranchises artists when their names are placed on mauled versions of their work and the originals burnt, and it disenfranchises audiences deprived of context for different versions of a work, but The Family Shakspeare is guilty of neither. Without the preface or introduction, the bowdlerized Shakespeare would indeed be a fraud, a crime, because in that way it would be trying to pass itself off as unadulterated when it is not. Situationally, a bowdlerized copy (note that in the modern days a unit of a book is called a "copy") is not "real," per se, but neither is it a "phony" intending to trick unsuspecting readers — it's just lame.
And yet the English language does not look kindly on those who would dare "fub" with Shakespeare. Bowdler's name has travelled ignominiously down through the centuries as the verb "bowdlerize," meaning to excise material that is considered improper or offensive from media — usually books — resulting in the diminishment of the work. Ironically, the word is often used to describe acts of distortion and abridgement with which Bowdler would likely be uncomfortable having his name attached. While Bowdler's intent was never to maim Shakespeare or defraud his readers, he made of himself a model that others could willfully or accidentally misunderstand to serve their own interests. Surely Shakespeare, a neologist and dispenser of unkind but fitting fates, would have enjoyed Bowdler's comeuppance.
* * *
Once during a graduate school poetry class, I found myself arguing in defense of sincerity and honesty; exasperatingly, no one was on my side. While I actually championed naked candor, I think my fellow students and professor thought I was on the side of sentimentalism, the poetry of self-indulgence that tries "too hard" and thus can't be real. The truth of poetry, I learned, needs cover to survive the dash from one bombed-out stanza to the other. Otherwise it would be shot where it stands and left to bleed out behind a forgotten pile of rubble.
Art and literature, after all, are dependent upon metaphor, which is a cozy word for substitution, for proxy, for not the genuine article. A flower stands in for a vagina, a flower represents a vagina, but a flower is not a vagina. The fake vagina is art, profane and profound. The real vagina is biology, mere fact.
Facts too, expensive and unworked by human hands, make way for their metaphors. Cars replace horses, tofurkey replaces turkey, and texting replaces talking. Inventions steal the function and form of their forebears while making them more palatable to the needs and wants of progressive man. The ideas of real things are often more attractive than the actuality of them, so instead of animal skins we wear faux fur, plug in electric fireplaces, go to Epcot instead of Europe, and so on, for the most part without blinking an eye. Until we get confused and are no longer able to verbalize (to ourselves or to others) the difference between a real eye, a glass eye, glasses, contacts, and artificial visual stimuli, at which point we blink vigorously. At which point we tear our eyes out. At which point we stop seeing at all.
Language, like culture, is not the human species' bitch. They grow together, lichenous. What a person says, or writes, can rob another of her livelihood, tank an economy, start a war, end a war, cleave spouses together, rend them apart, render comfort, engender fear, establish law, commit fraud, form belief systems, encourage the taking up of arms, create, alter, destroy, rebuild. And this is what must be remembered about the dictionary, what must be remembered about so many historical documents that men turn into gospel, and what must be remembered about our own stupid, history-ignoring, history-repeating, history-worshipping, history-blaspheming selves: records set precedent because they are what have been done and what can be done, possibly what should be done, but are not one-way, one-lane paths with no on or off ramps. Context, circumstance, and situation — not only is no man an island, but neither are events, objects, or even words.
Failure of communication and acknowledgment of context are at the heart of much of the story of fakes and their ilk. So consider this little book a plea for care and precision in how we think, talk, and write about this idea we have of what is inauthentic, proxy, substitute, unreal, and fake. We are taught that certain qualities are interchangeable, that these qualities mean certain things about product, places, and people, and we do not question the illogic that permeates this conversation. We don't want to think that all these times we called something we didn't like bad, and something bad fake, we have been making syllogistic errors that have taken over our worldview to such a degree that logical conversations are no longer possible and that our problems are no longer solvable because — real talk — all this time we have been perceiving them from a loaded angle and ascribing to them inaccurate basic elements.
If we aren't clear in our own minds about the nature of the so-called "fakes" of our past, present, and possible future, then we cannot be clear about truth and about reality, and we cannot choose our battles. We won't even know which side we're on.CHAPTER 2
THAT WHICH IS FAKE MAY NEVER DIE
If you would like to see a paradox in person, I highly recommend visiting your local Pottery Barn. Once inside you are bound to find yourself surrounded by flameless candles, their LED flickering powered by two AA batteries, standing safely inside hurricane lanterns.
Now the whole rationale of the hurricane rests in its name. When hard winds are a-blowing, a candle's flame is apt to be blown out or, worse, knocked over and light one's home on fire. High-sided glass hurricanes prevent everything, small breezes and violent tempests alike, from getting to the candle. But if a candle is electric and, therefore, does not possess a flame and can neither burn, melt, be extinguished by winds, nor set a building alight, why on Earth would someone put such a candle in a hurricane?
One could argue that this is done purely for display purposes — Pottery Barn and company can't very well be burning through all their candles with these demonstrations — which is a great argument until one realizes: both hurricanes AND their flameless candles are for sale at Pottery Barn. In fact, the different types of flameless candles you can buy at Pottery Barn far outnumber real wax candles. So why are there so many hurricanes and lanterns for sale if they have been rendered purposeless?
Consumers don't need the real thing, but they do need authenticity from the scenarios in which they place themselves. So-called fake things demand support systems. Fake flowers get real clay pots and vases; fake fruit real bowls. When imitation objects are coupled with their real counterparts, their natural settings, it is not out of a need to fool guests or even the hosts. Rather, people are:
1 Telling the thing that is not quite the thing, "Welcome. You are equal to what you ape. I do not consider you less than."
2 Telling themselves that the material substance may not be organic, but domestication started that process millennia ago, and there's just no turning back now. The settings in which natural things are placed are just as unnatural as the manufacturing of electric or plastic replicas — and yet far more accepted.
For millennia mankind has been incrementally improving upon what nature can provide in order to make itself safer, warmer, and healthier. The house was likely not the first artificial thing, but it certainly has been the most important. Dissatisfied by the less-than-optimal shelters of trees and caves, man took the skins and bones of a mammoth and made tents, rejecting the limits of nature no less definitively than Adam and Eve. Later, man improved upon tents with mud brick houses. Log cabins, stone manors, and split-level ranches with fiberglass insulation between the plaster walls and vinyl siding have followed, offering greater space and protection from heat and predators that naturally-occurring shelters could not.
The human species brought the outside inside and transformed it to fit. She* who had brought heat from the sun down to earth in the form of fire now cast it into a hearth, controlled its size with torches and candles, and at last converted it into electric light. She brought the forest and the rivers inside. She brought the animals in. None of it looked the same as it did out there, but it suited her better. And when she dared leave her home, she still carried shelter with her. She had her clothes.
Many, many years ago, long before you or I or anyone we have met was born, a Neanderthal hunter brought home a bison for his daughter to skin and throw on the fire. And this young woman, upon finishing her duties, instead of tossing the hide as all had done before, dared her younger sister to put on the hide and pretend to be a bison. The younger sister, like younger sisters everywhere, wanted to impress her sibling and so donned the fur. Yes, it smelled terrible, and, yes, she was covered with fluids, but, boy, if she wasn't warm.
And so was born the custom of wearing clothing made out of animals' skins and, more specifically, furs. No one knows exactly when this fashion choice began, but the Armenians had leather shoes 3,500 years before Jesus was walking around barefoot for no good reason. We do know, however, when man started to leave his furry friends alone and don petroleum-based imitations instead: the early twentieth century, courtesy of two World Wars.
While people had been wearing flax and hemp, cotton and silk as well in the interim, it was the minute prehistoric man "discarded the pelt of skins" for woven wool that the textile industry began. Problem is people didn't actually "discard" them so much as expand their wardrobes for reasons ranging from fashion to cost, and somewhere along the way, probably sometime after man decimated a great number of the world's biggest fur providers, fur became rare, expensive, and so a status symbol, and so fashionable, desirable.
If human ingenuity weren't what it is, this could have remained the case, but when something in America becomes fashionable and desirable, companies rise to meet the demand and, often enough, kill the status symbol that teed off the FOMO in the first place.
Fakes in the fur industry had been mentioned in US newspapers as early as 1904. In the Cecil Whig, reports out of Russia claimed that the fur business was in jeopardy because "[a] common hare skin can be manufactured to represent a valuable dark brown fox, and to such perfection that only an expert may discover the difference," and as a result the rare and more valuable animals were now being priced out.
From 1919 to 1928, however, the American government imposed a 10 percent tax on all fur as one of several new taxes to fund the war effort. From that point on fur, regardless of the animal it came from, was just too expensive for the common woman, and the fashion started to reflect the times by employing fur only in trims or not at all. A writer for the Evening Star in 1920 wrote that the truly great furs of the past, such as mink and seal, were now spoken of as being as covetable and out of reach as "diamond tiaras and private yachts."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fake"
Copyright © 2019 Kara Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The start of something fake, 1,
2 That which is fake may never die, 9,
3 Quorn for lunch; Oreos for dessert, 21,
4 What was never real can(not) be faked, 43,
5 Hippopotamus teeth, 67,
6 Davids, 91,
7 Ovid and the real girl, 109,
8 The start of something fake, part 2, 123,