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The Strange Career of “Authenticity” in 20th-Century American Thought

November 11, 2019 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

black and white photograph image of a man and woman in 1950s dress standing in front of large single-tone painted canvases with their backs to the photographer
Image: Barnett Newman and an unidentified woman standing in front of “Cathedra” in his Front Street studio, New York, 1950, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0112534

Monday Seminar:

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

Senior Fellow (2019-2023)

History, UW-Madison


The language of “authenticity” to describe the self and the moral life is all around us today. From psychology to music, mindfulness to movies, academic scholarship to internet fodder, the use of “authenticity” to conceptualize a self shorn of masks and fictions, or to envision an experience unmediated by external illusions, is a defining feature of our intellectual culture. And it’s also one of surprisingly recent vintage. This talk will examine how and why a medley of mid-20th century intellectuals gravitated toward “authenticity” as a concept to describe the self and the world, how they enlisted it to critique modern society, and why this curious re-invention of “authenticity” still has implications for American thought today.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti and Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on 19th- and 20th-century U.S. thought and culture in transatlantic perspective. She is the author of The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History (Oxford, 2019) and the award-winning American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago, 2012), and is co-editor of Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Cultures of Dissent (Wisconsin, 2015), with James Danky and the late James Baughman, and The Worlds of American Intellectual History (Oxford, 2016) with Joel Isaac, James Kloppenberg, and the late Michael O’Brien. In addition to writing for a number of scholarly and disciplinary journals, she has written essays and reviews for New York TimesWashington PostTimeGuardianChronicle of Higher EducationDaedalus, Raritan, Wilson Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Dissent, and Aeon, among others.


November 11, 2019
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States