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Posts Tagged ‘authenticity’

Americans have in the last few generations increasingly sought “authenticity”–authenticity in things such as food and music, but most especially authenticity in others and in themselves. Twentieth-century philosophers and scholars of popular culture have noticed this growing pursuit of the authentic. We can even put numbers on it. Phrases like true me, real self, and authentic self appeared much more often in American prose at the end of the twentieth century than they did a century earlier. In contrast, the phrases better me and better self became scarcer–a comparison to which I will return.[1]

The O.E.D. presents many definitions of authentic, but states that its “usual sense” these days is “genuine,” and particularly, with respect to people, “truly reflect[ing] one’s inner feelings; not affected, unfeigned,” or more generally, “the condition of being true to oneself.” This definition assumes that there actually is a stable, core, distinctive “oneself” to which one could be true.

Such an assumption is novel and strange in human history (even if mouthed c. 1600 by the buffoonish Polonius in Hamlet, which at that time likely meant “look out for number one” rather than “find your true self.” Globally, people have typically understood most individuals to be parts of the social organism rather than as unique and autonomous agents. (See this earlier post.)

Nonetheless, Americans, long heavily engaged in self-perfection, have been lately searching more and more for this elusive true self–a pursuit that has affected our politics up to and including the 45th president.

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Dressing Down

Two scenes from twenty-first-century America.

Mid-20th C. America (source)

Young friends cycle to church for Sunday services. They stash their bicycles by the side of the building, walk in sporting their aerodynamic spandex, and take their places in the pews.

Later that day a waitress at a nearby restaurant approaches a silver-haired couple squinting at their menus. “So, what can I get you guys?” she asks the pair.

Across a range of behaviors, from dress to forms of address, Americans have become strikingly informal: we deviate from convention more than we used to, and the conventions we do observe entail less deference to institutions such as churches and statuses such as advanced age.

Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.

Update (Nov. 19, 2017):

For a much fuller discussion (and criticism of) changes in men’s fashions, see this essay by G. Bruce Boyer.

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