This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 44: Counterfeit. View the full table of contents here.
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“The New Inquiry” was christened knowing exactly how much the title appropriated the sound of established literary magazines, despite being founded in opposition to their legacy. To our surprise, it worked—we sounded real enough to become as real as anything else. Like Sonique Saturday’s “You Fake Like This Birkin” or M.I.A’s bootleg Versace-inspired Versace collaboration, a product is counterfeit only up until it’s recognized on its own merits.
Authenticity is not a commodity, but it is a marker of value. Health emerges from “real” food, certified organic and tracked back to the local farmer, while happiness is to be found in urban centers full of “real” experiences and “real” community. When six month old gentro-cafés post “shop local” stickers in their windows, they’re not winking. Questions of authenticity and sincerity dominated cultural discussions for almost two decades. But those debates ended years ago. Authenticity is a moot point: more than what we’re knocking off, it matters who we’re fooling.
If counterfeits don’t challenge capital, being a simple outgrowth of competition, they certainly threaten particular capitalists, whose future profits have been staked on their ability to produce the real. Counterfeits, and the difficulty in distinguishing the difference, reveal the ultimately arbitrary nature of authenticity. The fraud of authenticity reflects the weakest part of value, which it so often amplifies and indicates. And besides, a version of something is still a thing in its own right.
All of which makes the designation of “counterfeit” far more interesting. The market is an elaborate sleight of hand, and production of fakery is no less skilled. The violence necessitated by our economies makes the cloaking of the process necessary to its sale, to the point where deceit under capitalism may just be tact. And the mission to sort the real from the fake, as opposed to unreal, is like any reality-building mission: subject to the missionary’s agenda. These are all relations of power. But unlike capital, the spoils of counterfeits flow both ways.
In this issue, the concern with upholding authenticity is abandoned in favor of the possibilities counterfeits offer. “Elena Greco” meditates on a nightmare of hers with the help of Didion and Foucault, finding the technologies of confession that undergird modern identity—the data about ourselves we deposit on social media, the brands we are expected to cultivate—to be a kind of fraud. “Our self isn’t just produced; it has become our product,” she writes.
Elizabeth Newton writes similarly of the work that the concept of audio fidelity asks sound to do. There is no such thing as an “authentic” reproduction of a sound; instead, connoisseurs use sound to grope at fidelity to past emotional states. And in his interview with Malcolm Harris, art crime expert Noah Charney explains that art forgers are better confidence men than they are painters, but the experts who are supposed to stop them are no more technically adept than the forgers, and the collectors would just rather not know if they’ve been duped. As one buyer said, “As long as I’m alive, it’s a van Gogh.”
In a photo essay by the artist Alex Auriema, members of the Senegalese community in Naples produce “fake fakes,” unique copies of branded luxury bags made from found materials and a single sewing machine. And in “Making Again, Making Against,” Paige Sweet writes of the artist Gerald Machona, whose medium is the famously inflationary Zimbabwean dollar (exchange rate $1 US to Z$35 quadrillion at the beginning of 2015). Southern African life is compelled to exist within a system of value that position it as always failing authenticity, but his work explores new “relations amid circuits of exchange made against the normal operations of value.”
In “The Shanzhai Lyric,” Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky read the malapropisms and IP workarounds on T-shirts made in bootleg Chinese factories as poetry on its own terms, discovering “an English which reads the contributions of a non-native body of text not as error-ridden and aspirational, but rather as its own rich mode of communication.” And in Fan Yang’s “Faked in China,” she sees the shanzhai—fake or no-brand—phones pumped out of the Pearl River Delta as both embodying and threatening China’s national brand ambitions on the world stage.
The system of nations is a counterfeit globe, ostensibly spherical but in practice skewed to one side. The international language of diplomacy works to keep smaller territories from their freedom, but some savvy liberationists have used its codes against it. Jason Dittmer, Fiona McConnell and Terri Moreau write of the attempts that various non-state actors have made to gain recognition in the channels of diplomatic relations. In “Wild Wild East,” Amira Jarmakani tells of a similar bait-and-switch story, the recent surge in popularity of sheikh-hero romance novels. She argues that it’s the reactivation of an erotic investment in settler colonialism transposed to another desert landscape after the closure of the frontier, with Osama bin Laden’s code name Geronimo sealing the deal.
Bin Laden may be associated with one of the most robust conspiracy theories running, but alluding to government duplicity in telling his story isn’t beyond the pale. Amongst conspiracy theorists, though, subscribing to “crisis actor” theory will get you ejected from discussions. In “Security Theater,” Emily Elizabeth Brown uncovers the worldview that makes these believers see actors everywhere. Animals can act, too. Elizabeth Johnson writes of her subterfuge-enabled time in university laboratories where biomemetic research was being done on cuttlefish and their remarkable ability to cloak themselves in their own skin. The military is curious about having such capacities for itself, remaining drawn to the impossible fantasy of appropriating nature to build a future without politics.
In the meantime, counterfeit offers us gleefully tacky artisanal goods. Tacky like glue, more stable and with staying power by confronting the pretense of branded authenticity, or casting it off entirely. Like most labors and loves, the object of the objects is temporary relief. The pieces in our September issue all seem to indicate that these fakes are just trying to keep it real.