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Oxford, Warsaw and Mock Tudor

Try this thought experiment.  Imagine three cities.

  1. A medieval city (something like Oxford).
  2. A city heavily bombed in World War II and completely rebuilt, with original materials etc. (e.g. the centre of Warsaw).
  3. A city constructed in 2012 to look just like the medieval city (e.g. .Poundbury the ‘traditional’ village Prince Charles has created in Dorset).

Now imagine that these three cities look identical.  And let’s stipulate that the experience of living in them is pretty much the same (the houses are no more likely to suffer from dry rot in the first than the third).   Here’s the question: where would you rather live?

My guess is that most people would prefer 1 over 2 and, 2 (strongly) over 3.  This is the intuition of most of the people that I’ve tried it out on.

But why?  The thought experiment might partially be corrupted by the suspicion that they would not seem alike in practice.  In practice, we would surely be able to spot the difference, different smells, and sounds and colours.  But I don’t believe that accounts for the intuition in its entirety.

When people try to explain their intuition they use words like ‘real, ‘genuine’ ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ to describe 1.  And ‘fake’, ‘phony’ and ‘fraudulent’ to describe 3.   Although the lived experience in the cities is the same, and they are aesthetically the same, people care about origins – they want the back-story.

To what extent people should care about origins is an interesting question.   We do seem to care a heck of a lot.   We care a lot about whether something is a real Van Gogh or a fake one, even if we can’t tell the difference (and this is not merely because the real is worth more in money terms than the fake).

We care a lot about our biological origins.  There’s a perfectly rational reason why we should care: knowing the genetic make-up and medical history of our parents and grandparents is obviously helpful in assessing our own health risks and shaping our choices.   But again, that seems like only a partial explanation of our curiosity.   It doesn’t seem to be enough to explain why, say, people tracing their roots on TV programmes, break down and weep upon discovering that their great-great-great grandfather starved to death in the potato famine.   The fact that millions of people died in the potato famine had, to that point, failed to move them.

There has long been a debate about whether adopted children should have the right to know about their biological parents.  And in recent years a similar debate has been stimulated by the revolution in fertility treatment.  A law now gives children born from sperm donors the right to discover the identities of their father when they reach eighteen: many people objected to this piece of legislation, predicting (I think correctly?) that it would lead to a drop in sperm donation.  But given the yearning people have for knowledge of their origins, one can at least understand why the law-makers did it.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. What about authenticity in relationships? If you artificially reproduce romantic feelings from long ago with your partner (e.g. using love drugs to give a dying relationship a boost), is this authentic? (As discussed in today's seminar, led by Brian Earp.) Is this similar to reproducing old buildings with new building methods?

    Would people rather have a good relationship with a clone of their partner, or a bad one with the original?

  2. I think the intuition may be explained by the fact that, as a general principle, imitations tend to be tacky and to attract inauthentic people. Presumably people's memories and attachments are inevitably different in these different places.

    Beyond that, I'd say the yearning for knowledge about origins is not an end in itself, but rather a generally useful means to an end. If the thought-experiment requires it not to be a means to an end, I'd suggest the intution is a relic from the instances where it is useful to know origins (which is doubtful in the case of adopted children.).

    Food for thought though. Thanks for the interesting article.

  3. Have you seen the film Certified Copy? (Copie conforme)

    It takes on a lot of the issues discussed on your post. It's not a terribly traditional film, not so much "kiss kiss, bang bang;" more "talk talk, talk talk."

    Ostensibly it's a film about an antiques dealer spending the day with a visiting scholar who has written a book arguing that authenticity in art is irrelevant. Over the course of the day together the relationship between the characters changes quite drastically and with little warning. It's almost as if while the characters are talking the history between them changes, thus affecting their current relationship.

  4. Over here in the States, we have a number of places that were planned from the bottom up to replicate "old-fashioned Main Street"-style towns. They're almost universally strange and off-putting in practice, and not because of abstract concerns about authenticity. The combination of top-down planning, uniformity of material (or weirdly regular variation in material), and the obvious newness of everything makes them seem more like movie sets than places where real people live. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people here would recoil from the thought of Village 3 in your example, just because they have an unpleasant mental image of hyperplanned communities.

  5. The Law Quad at the University of Michigan is faux medieval, with stone and gargoyles. Growing up in Ann Arbor I just loved that place. It's not consistently ancient looking, there's a huge glass ceiling for the library's basement, for instance. But it doesn't feel fake to me, it's great, very nicely done, I went out of my way to spend time there. Oxford would be much more impressive I'm sure. But I do think the notion that a copy would be poorly done or would try to pass itself off as something it's not (cutesy fake tours, ugh) is a larger part of the objection than you might think.

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