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Appeals to Authenticity: Discourses on the True Self and the Politics of Identity Construction


This dissertation examines how appealing to a “true self” may have social and political value, even if such a self does not exist. Across contemporary life, individuals invoke notions of an inner self that has been maimed by oppressive norms and practices, or that would be harmed if it assimilated, conformed, or otherwise departed from who it was. From transgender individuals seeking to become the gender they feel they truly are, to indigenous groups seeking exemptions from equality laws, a variety of groups today cast their political claims in terms of authenticity. However, in the past quarter century, such appeals have been criticized by scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, who fault authenticity for stipulating regulatory notions of group identity, stigmatizing those who fall outside its norms, and relying on untenable notions of selfhood and self-knowledge. Some have even called for abandoning the term.

The dissertation responds to these critiques and argues for a renewed appreciation of authenticity in political life. Through an engagement with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and writings from American social movements from the sixties and today, I formulate a framework for appealing to the term that departs its problematic ontological grounds and is attuned to its political risks. Each chapter responds to a particular challenge facing such appeals, from the status of the “self” they imply, to their claims of genuine self-knowledge, to the risks of exclusion, and to the ways they can blur the public/private line. In addressing these critiques, I show that there are good reasons to continue to value authenticity: appeals to the term may enable marginalized groups to counter oppressive representations of themselves, mobilize individuals around visions of selfhood and community, facilitate critiques of social norms, and animate practices of resistance.

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