Authenticity: Reclaiming a sense of proportion in a mess
No Bears (Jafar Panahi 2022) & Alice Sherwood Authenticity: Reclaiming Reality in a Counterfeit Culture, Mudlark, London 2022
the theory — no matter how bonkers — could be just three clicks away
And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
Alan Alexander (A. A.) Milne
It’s not easy to pigeonhole Alice Sherwood’s Authenticity. Through this sequence of opinion pieces runs Sherwood’s journalist turned essayist’s gab. There is no denying it. Her prose sparkles with precision language — argot, fedora, mea culpas, and noisome. She floats on a higher plane, projecting a god-like grasp of all things, one-moment economicsy and evolutionary, arty the next. However, the book is not quite the philosophy and sociology it pretends to be. It is more like a quiz. The answers seem straightforward, then, gotcha!, they trip you up.
Erudition typically casts shadows where personal views can unobtrusively lurk. More like a minister of religious doctrine than an actual deity, Sherwood takes her opinions as unquestionable, the authority of authenticity. And finally, expressions of power and prejudice come to light. Into a typical well-researched soup with a hint of celebrity, Sherwood sprinkles more serious seasoning. With Andy Warhol, a little quotation from Tim Wu. But it’s not a straightforward remark. It is Wu quoting a quote. The quote is William James. He reflects that people, and so people’s minds, are less authentic than they imagine. Sherwood marshals this circuit of references, actual facts, drifting towards anecdotes, as if, left to their own devices, readers would miss so much. Her examples are eclectic. However, her choices are insidious, flattering those with the luxury of insight, the opportunity to dip into many fields and be invested in hegemonic order.
Jafar Panahi’s movie, No Bears, parodies such hegemony. The dusty setting, a village in Iran close to the border with Turkey, is crumbling. After years of drought, farmers have turned to other occupations, including smuggling people and contraband. The protagonist is Panahi himself. Banned from directing by the authorities, he has rented a place and directs illicitly, at a distance, with a computer, instructing collaborators on the other side of the frontier. The film opens with a sequence similar to Sherwood’s embedded quotation. A waitress takes a moment off to talk to her lover. He has got her a fake passport. His accompanying passport is not yet ready, and he urges her to leave, promising to follow. An argument ensues. The camera pulls back all the way from the viewfinder to Panahi’s desktop. As he critiques the overacting and insists on another take, the internet connection drops. On-screen, the familiar wheel of doom and he moves around, going outside attempting to get a connection while the spectator is introduced to the village and a few of its characters.
It’s a tight-knit community. On this day, they are celebrating a betrothal. The villagers are excited and rally behind the match. Then, there is this other guy. He is in love with the bride and wants to elope and start a new life over the border. These lovers parallel the couple in the movie. In a tiny village, illicit love must stay well hidden. In a twist of fate, Panahi snaps the lovers together. His photograph becomes desired evidence to prove the woman’s infidelity. Ultimately, despite their dreams, lovers, both on screen and in village life, in the dance of power relations, are destined not to get away. Panahi, the director in his tower, withholding his trump card, overlooks tensions among the villagers torn between showing their visitor respect and mistrust. The filmed drama is also out of control, similarly racked between the strict decorum of cinematography and dissolving interpersonal relationships. The actors’ anxieties threaten to overspill from screen to life. Panahi controls what is seen in the viewfinder but not the situation in front of the camera. Empowerment traps him between inhospitable foreign freedom and restrictive local hospitality.
Panahi is obliged to swear an oath confirming that he doesn’t have the photograph. On his way to the appointed place, he is taken to one side by a village elder. The man warns him not to go there because wild bears are on the road. He offers advice — even a false oath will restore harmony. Satisfied that Panahi is now primed for his encounter with the village council, the man sends him on his way, saying, ‘people say there are bears, but there are no bears.’
Initially, it seems Sherwood echoes a villager’s genial approach to reconciliation. She slams down, but never hard, on opportunist swindlers, be it birds with lookalike eggs or people flouting copywrites and trademarks. It’s fair game. Aside from a Darwinian view of nature, Sherwood champions a benign idea of democracy, one that appears to offer freedom and equality. She won’t acknowledge that such a social order privileges elites. They buy their good health, their soundly stitched clothing and accessories, and are enriched by art collecting.
Later in the book, Sherwood’s curiosity yields to her indignation. As a preamble, she displays vulnerability, her soft spot for the odd deceptive psychopath. Then comes Snapple. And Sherwood gets into an invective stride against everyday subterfuge. She is affronted that the drink’s label doesn’t disclose the source of its natural flavour. Previous stories of esoteric curiosities, the undisclosed touch of an artist’s assistant, or Elizabeth Holmes’ fake blood tests, endorsed by then vice-president Biden—they exist as fun illustrations of the inauthentic, but now it seems Sherwood cares personally about authenticity. The missing apple in the apple fizz goes far beyond the distresses brought by a con artist, a maternal surrogate, or a high-value forgery. Snapple is another register of despicableness.
The drink’s evil deception sets the scene for a brief chapter about the fight against malaria. Previously Sherwood’s research seemed meticulous, bristling with footnotes, but this section feels like publicity sponsored by big pharma. You follow the footnote for the assession that “The majority of the world’s Bad Phama’ comes from China.” It leads to the line, “Although India is a major player too.” It sounds like a tirade, racist rubbish. In one breath, she is espousing the efficacy of a combination of Western and vernacular Chinese medicine that leads to a new malarial drug. In the next, she discredits Mao’s drive for medical unification, the best of both clinical worlds. Sharing a cure doesn’t fit with a litigious mindset of patents, protecting future profits. The malarial drug is gifted to the world. For Sherwood, it’s an anomaly. What captures her imagination is profiteering, trade secrets, hoarding medical discoveries, and caring for power elites. Her critique is vague, stabbing at the Chinese as ‘morally culpable’ because they allow their discovery to be free. In Sherwood’s narrative, the discovery’s democratisation shortens the effective life of the drug.
With even the most cursory scrutiny, this version of the truth is spurious. Previously, Chloroquine was the drug used to control malaria. It was first synthesised by the Bayer laboratories in Germany in 1934. It wasn’t deployed as a malarial medication until ten years later. Chloroquine’s formulation was stolen by the US, who first used it as a treatment in 1947. Resistance to Chloroquine was noted in the late 50s. It was endemic by the 1970s, probably partly because of an aggressive eradication campaign launched by the World Health Authority in 1955. So, a mere 12 years of reliability. By contrast, the Chinese chemist Tu Youyou discovered Artemisinin in 1972, and no resistance was reported for 36 years. Artemisinin remains the primary drug used to control malaria. Sherwood’s subjective anti-China rhetoric confounds her crusade to root out inauthenticity.
Sherwood’s subtitle, Reclaiming Reality in a Counterfeit Culture, implies that hers is a fightback against current conditions. For all her brio, insight, and powers of persuasion, Sherwood overlooks the most important thing, that, at any time, authentic truth belongs to the dominant power. Authenticity is the best-promoted version of reality. The accurate picture of the world is the one you are reading, the one that succeeds in suppressing other counterfeit perspectives. The problem of contemporary authenticity is that it is part of a “torrent of mis- and disinformation.”
Misinformation is the stuff of Panahi’s movie. Authenticity is not a thing but the strata of fiction.