Anyone who has read Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality will be familiar with the post-modern idea that simulations can seem even more real than the real thing itself. David Chidester builds much upon the ground established by Eco, and dares to go even further, questioning whether something can truly be termed "fake" when it has an observable impact in the world of experience. He does this by focusing on an America that is "poised between the extremes of possibility and authenticity", existing both as global symbol and geographical centre, whose message is contained not in holy books, but in content-rich products spread with missionary zeal to the furthest corners of the earth, thanks to the force of international consumerism.
Beginning by establishing a broadened definition of religion as a system that helps the individual negotiate its own humanity, allows the author to consider many human activities that would not normally be considered as particularly concerned with theological concepts. But when baseball, for example, can inspire reverence bordering on the mystical, who is to say that it is "just a sport?" Isn't the collective human experience that occurs at a game, just exactly what religious worship is supposed to be about?
Chidester is a gifted writer with an impressive flair for communicating expansive ideas with clarity and wit. His mapping of the tangled interconnections between the religious impulse and American-led pop culture is so entertaining that it is easy to forget the immense work of scholarship that went into this book. One is soon reminded of it as he whizzes through an exhilaratingly broad range of sociological phenomena and speculative ideologies to support his thesis. These include: cultural sub-genres, crowd psychology, haptics (the study of touch and manipulating objects), hero worship, sacrificial redemption, gift economics, advertising semiotics, cyber-community, fetishism, sports fans, spoof religions, and phoney shamanism.
One gripping cross-analysis reveals surprising correlations in the extreme rhetoric of messianic president Ronald Reagan, visioning America as promised land with evil enemies, and that of the Reverend Jim Jones who led hundreds into suicide rather than give in to the sell-out of American society that he saw. A later chapter investigates the devotional loyalties inspired by cultish commercial brands such as Coca-Cola, the "most successful useless product" ever created, whose slogan "it's the real thing" is a masterpiece of unintentional irony. Inevitably, Chidester also examines the multi-national corporate identity of the McDonalds fast-food franchise, with its assembly line of smiles and fries. Beloved as familiar or despised as plastic, what's undeniable is the plastic malleability which enables McDonalds to masquerade as local and familiar, while adapting to cultural norms and culinary taboos, whether in Bombay, Norway, or Main Street, USA. Which brings us to Disneyland, a subject long favoured by culture critics, and here discussed as a discrete universe where shopping is disguised as play (another idea originating with Eco), and where the lines between human, animal, and animatronic are deliberately blurred. The word plastic is itself shrewdly analysed, beginning with the sense meant by Edward Alsworth Ross's phrase "plastic religion", meaning non-rigid, Chidester shows how the term later morphed into a synonym for artificial.
Chidester is a professor at the University of Capetown in South Africa and his inclusion of material specifically focusing on the way America has been imagined by Africa, and vice versa, constitutes one of the most original and fascinating threads running through Authentic Fakes. He devotes much space to debunking Credo Mutwa, celebrated in the USA (and Europe) as "Keeper of Zulu Knowledge" and here exposed as a known charlatan and cultural opportunist who uses his powerful imagination to create "secret" traditions that are authenticated, paradoxically, by their lack of historical substantiation. Although he is a "fake", Mutwa has successfully assumed an aura of indigenous authenticity, particularly in countries that have no knowledge of real Zulu practices and beliefs, and has been used by people wishing to stamp their projects with the seal of the genuine. Thus, in a strange symbiosis, while expanding his visibility with each symposium appearance to which he lends his authenticating presence on behalf of others, Mutwa thereby also authenticates his own claim to authority.
The breadth of Chidester's references is charming, but alarming as well: for it's a difficult task to be both comprehensive and have depth. I admire a book that draws connections between the Church of the Sub-Genius, Tupperware Parties and Fidel Castro, but I also have to wonder how selectively the source material was chosen so as to always support the thesis. The danger of taking only one or two quotes or factoids as articulating essential truths about complex social phenomena, (which Chidester does on occasion) is that one runs the risk of being the sociological equivalent of a name-dropper, who has met everyone but doesn't know them well. In terms of contemporary significance and relevance to the discussion, surely Burning Man festival rates more than a paragraph while the Discordians perhaps deserve fewer pages than they were allotted. But if one is going to delve deeply into the Discordians, how can one not even mention the best-selling Illuminatus Trilogy, which was responsible for bringing them into popular awareness?
I would also argue that Chidester makes a few missteps in his choice of illustrations: his description of the "sacred gift" of rock song as a "hierophany of incoherence" is engaging but surely 1963's "Louie, Louie" is a rather mouldy specimen to exhibit—and at such length, too! A larger quibble is whether or not it is really accurate, in the global hall of mirrors that the world is today, to identify the popular culture of the title as "American"—a better title for the book might have been Authentic Fakes: Religion, America and Popular Culture. This would have been less binding and allowed Chidester to include significant individuals and ideas from Europe, that were glaringly absent. Mutwa, for example, is best known in the West for his collaborations with David Icke (he of the amusing reptilian conspiracy theories). Icke barely gets a mention in this book, presumably because he's an Englishman.
But these quibbles are just that, minor complaints about a work of overall outstanding quality that has the added benefit of being great mental fun.