Fakery Julia Moritz
This entry on “fakery” has to be anecdotal. How can it be otherwise? Fakery is the hilarious would-be history of man, our benign self-betrayal, a phantasm of free will. It derides us between every line of the lexicon of life. So here is a little story.
“A small gravel pit at Barkham Manor in the village Piltdown, not far from Uckfield in Sussex, once revealed the true nature of the human species. The gravel was an ancient river deposit, 80 feet above the present river level. It held a secret that was waiting to be discovered for a very long time; from the frosty past of the Ice Age to a sunny morning in the summer of 1912. It was Charles, the youngest of the three sons of the Dawson family, who made the spectacular discovery of the two skulls, a jaw, and a molar; the remains of an unfortunate creature, slumbering away the hasty history of the planet. When he handed his fossil discovery over to the British Museum it was soon discovered to be an unknown form of early human, the missing link between man and the ape that an army of archeologists, paleontologists, geologists, and anthropologists had been desperately hunting for at the turn of the century. They fondly named it Eoanthropus Dawsoni and over the next 40 years produced more than 500 scientific articles about it. One of the last mysteries in the realm of science was solved.”
Of course this is not true. In 1953 the Piltdown Man was proven to be a fake. The bones had been painted brown, patched with bubble gum, and scattered around the gravel pit on purpose, to be “discovered” later as evidence for evolution. Yet it still has something to say about the true nature of the human species:
“The story of the Piltdown Man acts as a warning to all of us. We must investigate any and all data very carefully. We are contending not only against the obscurity of the past, but against the hidden intentions of ambitious men.”1
It is these hidden intentions, the ambitious denial of the given, a criminal creativity, that lie at the heart of fakery. It is the obscurity of the past—the fact that the “find” was not investigated properly until 40 years after it was unearthed, due to the flawless reputation of the experts involved—that makes fraud’s persistent challenge to all data possible.
The speculative residue in a prehistoric specimen is only a small glimpse into the realm of the cryptic identity politics of scientific discourse. A fictional activity that firmly rejects a positivist destiny lurks in the shadow of the coherent production of facts. Fakery adapts and imitates; it stages its pseudouniverse in order to pretend, manipulate, and mislead the dominant order of reality. Its phony objects, data, events, and images redirect the stock of material, knowledge, actions, and perceptions which constitute the particular economies (monetary, discursive, political, or symbolic) of our society.
These economies are not up for grabs—they are property. Questions of production, distribution, and consumption arise. The ownership of authenticity enables the delivery of truth to human beings demanding validity. Fortunately evolution knows a way to trick the mammal’s stabilizing cocoon: The Sex Life of Flowers unveils the story of the orchid that has developed a blossom to resemble a female bee. While trying to flirt with the flower, the male bee unwittingly collects and spreads the orchid’s pollen.2 This efficient mockery of identity performed by our floral fellows seems familiar not only in regard to mating habits. Mimicry as a concept that blurs the difference between the original and its imitation entered sociological and cultural studies long ago.
My favorite case is the work of Michael Taussig. Equipped with a medical degree he entered the field of anthropology and critical cultural analysis via the Marxian theory of commodity fetishism. He opens his Mimesis and Alterity with Kafka:
“[ … ] Your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike.”3
“I call it the mimetic faculty, the nature that culture uses to create second nature, the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore differences, yield into and become Other.”4
He ingeniously dissolves the literary riddle. The illusive crafting of the Piltdown Man certainly passed all examinations of the mimetic faculty. Nature became discourse straightaway, and the archeological academia failed on a grandiose scale. Those 40 years of blindfolded examination illuminate the coercive temperament of knowledge: the hoax could not be discovered because the scholar’s counterpart is always voiceless. The Piltdown puppet was silenced by the triumphant roar of the great ape. This is the political issue of fakery: what kind of agency has the mimetic faculty to offer? Is there a disruptive power in the freedom of the forger’s anonymous opacity? Or does any imitation of the official only give in to the established authorities, depriving the moment of a sincere alternative and ultimately doubling the dominance of the ruling powers?
An intriguing answer is given in Gayatri Spivak’s concept of strategic essentialism. It can loosely be termed the temporary use of essentialist operations by heterogeneous groups in order to achieve self-representation and thus a political voice. It is to be read in close connection with Spivak’s critical response to the historical work of the collective called the Subaltern Studies Group. Interestingly, Spivak disavowed the term when displeased with its employment.5 Does that make the current circulation of strategic essentialism a fake itself? Spivak’s concept of political potentiality entails both, the creativity of epistemological opacity, even obscurity (as sometimes evident in her own style of writing), and the necessity of a stable subject position in order to articulate the aspired distortion of the colonizing power effectively:
“The goal of essentialist critique is not the exposure of error, but the interrogation of the essentialist terms. Uncritical deployment is dangerous. Critique is simply reading the instructions for use. Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive.”6
The deconstructivist agenda implied here situates the moment of agency precisely in the process of stripping down and reassembling the hegemonic structure—mirroring a warped image that serves the orchid rather than the bee. The effort to negotiate the artifice of certain “essential attributes” in a fraudulent manner precedes the possibility of actually setting the terms themselves of collective identity. Joint deconstruction of essentialism makes the strategic ends of oppressed identities meet; that this liaison can only be a temporary pleasure is the thorny fate of resistance. Internal differences can be simplified only momentarily; contradiction of the collective is the lifeblood of criticality.
But reality is heavily armed with security engineering, a juridical apparatus designed to hit hard whenever the stability of the system is in danger; the false promises of justice simulating a protective shield. The apparatus punishes fakery’s divulging lies draconically. Yet it cannot be stopped. The epistemological criticism of the hoax keeps on challenging essentialism’s brute generalizations. It does not give a damn about intellectual property and all the other dubious doctrines. Instead, it makes a case for the particular, the situated parasitical agency and the significant niches of oppositional activity.
You Have Been Misinformed
was the title of the collaborative installation by Stephan Dillemuth and Nils Norman at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York’s Lower Eastside, September 2008.7 It was militant fakery at its best, presented in the penumbra of a fictional “gallerist.” A cannibalistic misrepresentation of art market mutations and the mutilations of public space, the piece assaulted the credibility of an information-aged system of valorization. It revealed the placebo appeal of neoliberal cultural production precisely by dismantling and restaging its imaginary belongings in a weird way. The fakery of the already faked seemed the fabulous intention and forceful idea of the show. I call it tenacious tomb-raiding of Institutional Critique; the Piltdown Men striking back from their display cases.
1 / Piltdown Man, American Scientist (October 1955), ed. Kenneth F. Oakley, J. S. Weiner, in the General History Surveys, www.clarku.edu/~PILTDOWN/map_ge_hist_surveys/piltman_oaklywiener.html, (accessed February 3, 2009).
2 / Bastiaan Meeuse, Sean Morris, The Sex Life of Flowers, Faber, London 1984.
3 / Franz Kafka, “A Report to An Academy,” Mimesis and Alterity, ed. Michael Taussig, Routledge, London 1993, p. xiii.
4 / Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, Routledge, London 1993.
5 / Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture, 20(2), (1993), p. 24–50.
6 / Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, ed. Ranajit Guha, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 1985, p. 330–363.
7 / Reena Spaulings Fine Art in New York’s Lower Eastside, “You Have Been Misinformed” Reena Spaulings Fine Arts News, http://www.reenaspaulings.com/about2.htm (accessed February 2, 2009).