REL 320
"You Do You!" The Ethics and Politics of Personal Authenticity Fall 2023
Division II
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Class Details

From the breathtaking expansion of the “self-help” industry to corporate advertisement, from the fashion and entertainment industries to cultural politics around sexuality and race, the rhetoric and ideal of personal authenticity pervades our daily existence. From every corner we are told: “To thine own self be true!” This powerful moral ideal has arguably become an inescapable and hegemonic frame of U.S. cultural life in the 21st century (and more broadly middle-class life around the globe). The imperative of authentic self-realization — to discover and become your “true self,” in opposition to mere conformity to social conventions and independent of external expectations — is seen as essential if we are to live a healthy and fulfilling life, and to fully realize what it means to be human in the deepest sense. This course will interrogate this ideal and imperative of personal authenticity from several angles. We will begin by examining some contemporary manifestations of this ethos. We will then explore the historical roots and evolution of the emphasis on authentic selfhood in the modern West, as well as comparable notions of sincerity, selfhood, interiority, and introspection in other (non-liberal, non-Christian) cultural contexts and religious traditions. We will also consider the ideal of authenticity in light of contemporary social theory, as well as engage a variety of ethical-political critiques of authenticity. Through this, we will investigate a number of important questions: Is there such a thing as the “true self” that is autonomous and free of social influences and norms, and how does one discover this true self? What are the limits and social consequences of this aspiration towards authentic selfhood? What are the effects of the widespread commodification of authenticity, and how should we understand the relation between personal authenticity and the conditions of late-stage capitalism? Is the rhetoric of personal authenticity simply an expression of narcissistic individualism, or is there a higher moral value and ideal that it speaks to? Can community cohesion and shared collective purpose be sustained alongside the imperative of authenticity? How does the ideal of authentic selfhood interact with collective or socially-conferred identities (like race, heritage, or religion)? Is personal authenticity ultimately just a white secular value, or is it an available and achievable ideal for those who do not fit this hegemonic mold?
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 15
Expected: 10
Class#: 1762
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: In-class participation; Personal journaling; Semester-long research project with multiple stages and steps, culminating in a final 12-15 page paper; 3 reading response papers (that serve as steps towards research project)
Prerequisites: None
Enrollment Preferences: Religion majors; Juniors and seniors
Distributions: Division II

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