Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Authentically Self Fashioned

Over to the Crooked Timber there is a longish post on Mitt Romney and the fallacy of authenticity. The general idea is that authenticity isn't a real thing and that Romney doesn't have it in spades. Or so I read it. I think the mistake here is to conflate the well-fashioned self with some notion of a naturally occurring self.  The idea of self fashioning comes from Stephen Greenblatt and the democratization of the idea lies at the heart of Natalie Zemon Davis' Return of Martin Guerre.

As I understand self fashioning, it is a process of creating and recreating one's self in one's ideal likeness and image. Any individual can become what he or she wants to be through a process of polishing. There are, it seems to me, limits to this process. But the limits are broad. For all of us the problem inherent to self fashioning is to not transcend our limits. We all know someone, and it might be us, who tried to become someone they weren't and how foolish they looked.

Romney's self fashioning fails because he isn't. Not that he isn't a Tea Party Republican or secretly a George Romney Republican yearning to be free but rather because he has no idea what he is, how he should be, or what the limits to his becoming are. He is a mirror in search of a gaze.

One reason that people have such a hard time with the idea of Romney as balloon or ungazed mirror is that his Father was so clearly a man who created him self as a principled defender of core American values. The fact that the Romney the elder was also a filthy rich man whose various careers all revolved around improving the lot of business and industry is eclipsed, so it seems, by his refusal to become part of the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party. At leas Romney the elder latched on a set of principles and used them to polish his political concerns and, even better, the values he selected weren't the deranged neoliberal values of ruining life for the rest of us.

Romney the younger's failure at self fashioning is the reason he speaks in that staccato rambling style. He is in a constant state of panic because he has no idea how to behave or what to say. His whole life has been lived in tightly controlled circumstances in which institutions and expectations created his image. He used to be like well-directed actor working from a brilliantly written screen play whose privilege assured him of success. Now the script is missing, the context is the free flowing world of argument in front of multiple and multifarious audiences and the expectations are unclear.  To succeed as a politician Romney needs to produce something that people want; somehthing he has no idea how accomplish. He needs to be told what to do.

A slightly different version of the argument:

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