Thursday, August 17, 2006

The authenticity ceiling

I've ranted on this subject before, but on a higher level. This time, I'll mellow out a bit with a discussion about what is the line between acceptable material authenticity and personal satisfaction.

What started me off on this line of thought was the research on the Stony Brook Company, and some other things that I've read on the various messageboards. To set the stage for this post, Chris Sullivan makes no bones that his material has some synthetic content. But he also explains what he's looking for is appropriate weave, color and weight. Since you can't see or even feel the synthetic content, then it satisfies most of the "qualifications" for acceptable authenticity. Chris also has a nice following of happy customers who are willing to talk him up on the boards. But when the subject of "synthetic content" arose, the naysayers came out of the woodwork to blast the simple fact that the material Chris used had a small amount of modern non-wool fiber.

So a question popped up in my mind: where's the boundary of what's acceptable and what's personal satisfaction? Where's the acceptable authenticity ceiling?

One could easily argue that this or any hobby is all about self-satisfaction in a general sense. But we're talking in more detail, most generalities aside. This post is pushing toward the campaigner end of the spectrum where all-around authenticity is everything. But where is that demarcation line between material authenticity and self-satisfaction in a campaigner sense?

Looking at Chris' work, he makes his trowsers exact. The museum-grade trowsers are hand-sewn. Stacked against originals, they're ringers. The material is dead-on as far as weight, weave and color. Does it matter that they're not 100% wool? In my opinion, no. I say this from a couple of recent posts that helped shape my current thought on the matter.

A post I read recently helped put the issue of authenticity in perspective. It seems that the event at Rich Mountain was a bit difficult, and of course, some of the guys there started talking and said this:

Someone remarked that he would have a hard time ever convincing anyone that we were doing this for fun. I responded that this wasn't 'fun', we're not doing this for fun, but for satisfaction.

I thought this was a true statement, but I took it a little bit differently than probably intended. It made me think that there's a point where authenticity becomes a point of personal satisfaction, which some reenactors seem to confuse with absolute authenticity. Sure, you can buy a cartridge box that is precisely sewn with the absolutely right type of leather and stamps, but what does that extra $50 or so buy you? Personal satisfaction, but not necessarily absolute authenticity, which is in my mind a reenacting holy grail. Face it, no one is really going to inspect your kit so closely as to give you crap about how and with what materials its made. You (and possibly your mess-mates) are probably the only one that knows and cares. Someone may put you on the spot about general construction of an item they can see, but not about the number of stitches and grade of leather. If that ever happened to me, I'd ask, "who cares, and why?"

Someone may say "OK, if you're going to settle, what makes your impression so different from a mainstream reenactor?" You have to look at what basically defines a "mainstreamer" and a "campaigner" impression. A handy analogy for reenacting is likening it to using binoculars. When you see something aways off with the naked eye, you see basic shapes and colors, but little discernible detail. Same way with mainstream reenacting - if your kit and uniform look OK from a distance, then you're usually passable. The very basic authenticity goal of a mainstream impression is what looks accurate from a reasonable distance. When you use binoculars, then you see more detail, and things not seen with the naked eye suddenly comes into focus. Colors and detail are much sharper, you see nuances that you've not seen before. What looked OK from a distance could be a distraction or not look as good through binoculars. That's the basic essense of authentic reenacting - what looks accurate up close.

But there are limits. Even if you have powerful set of binoculars, you're only going to see all detail on the outside. I believe that is the ceiling of acceptable authenticity. Past that, you cross into the realm of personal satisfaction. Not that personal satisfaction as far as material authenticity is a bad thing, either. I personally have items that are completely hand-stitched, but that is what gets me into the groove of an event. I simply don't feel as authentic without those details, but like I said, that's my personal feeling. Obviously, no one is going to notice what they can't see. The unseen details are for you alone.

Going back to Chris Sullivan - does it really matter to other reenactors that his material isn't 100% wool? Not really. Unless something is seen, it really doesn't matter to anyone but you.

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