This course revolves around the study of various kinds of false appearances (such as counterfeits, forgeries, hoaxes, and imposters), together with attempts to expose them.
By examining what makes an object, claim, practice or person a ‘fake’, and how the world reacts, judges, gets fooled by or tries to guard against such fakery, we hone our capacity to think critically and relationally about the significance, role and threat of fakery.
Not only that: we also engage with the flipside of fakes and fakery, that is, how deep-seated human desires for ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ come to the fore.
At Tembusu College, National University of Singapore, I taught this course regularly between 2011 and 2017. I also taught it once, in 2014, as a summer course at the University of Maine Honors College.
I found ‘fakes’ to be a great topic, due to:
- fakery’s ‘dark’ and subversive nature (hiding, cheating, pretending)
- the fact that it applies to so many domains of life
- the potential it provides for analysis and questioning - inviting both precision and breadth.
My teaching of this course has changed over the years. I used to have a fixed syllabus with topics (see examples from 2013 and 2014). In its most recent incarnations, I introduced a framework for analysing fakes and fakery, and then let my students decide the topics.
The framework is based on the following two pedagogical investments:
Making students cross the invisible lines between technical/scientific and social science/humanities subject matter.
I use a paired-down version of Actor-Network Theory for this. The key is to consider how ‘content’ of a fake and its ‘context’ mutually shape each other, how they evolve together. This provides an immediate way in to studying topics as diverse as fake vaccines in Indonesia, fake rhino horn as a controversial solution to poaching, or fake antiquities sold on eBay.
Have student approach the question ‘What is a fake?’ with rigour and empirical precision.
'What is a fake?' We consider some candidate-answers (including Denis Dutton's specification of art forgery as a 'misrepresentation of achievement'). Then I invite my students into a social-science approach to this question by combining it with the question ‘... and who cares?’. The key here is to appreciate the distinctions people make (fake-real; fake-authentic; fake-genuine; fake-original, etc.), and the circumstances in which these matter.
I have a browsing archive students can access to find inspiration for their student-led classes. It contains readings and audiovisual materials on:
Most student groups decide on a topic beyond the browsing archive, or source additional materials for topics already in the browsing archive. The browsing archive thus evolves with every iteration of the class. Some of the materials from the 2014 edition can be accessed through the course blog.
A selection of topics students have brought in recent years: fakery in music; Ponzi schemes; mimicry; Munchausen syndrome; reality TV; passing for straight; and of course… fake news!
The assignments support students in practising the ‘fakes’ lens provided by the framework in multiple ways, through the empirical analysis of examples that interest them.
The close-reading assignment trains the ability to pick up important distinctions and relations at play in a case of fakery through the close analysis of a particular short text.
The student-led classes train the same ability, but in a broader and more interactive way, namely by having students become relative experts on a particular type of fakery, so as to lead peers in a joint exploration of important distinctions and relations.
The final project of ‘designing a fake’ puts the same analytical skills in the service of creating something new.