The Ethics of Theatricality: Kant, Kierkegaard, and Levinas on the Limits of Sincerity & Authenticity

Pickett, Howard Young, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Bouchard, Larry, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Ferreira, Jamie, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Childress, James, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

Modernity bears the marks of a singular obsession with self-congruence – i.e., with the agreement between what I seem to be and what I actually am. What remains all but ignored, however, is the way that obsession, whether for "sincerity" or "authenticity," might render ethics itself impossible. "The Ethics of Theatricality" examines the ethical problems generated by an unqualified exaltation of self-congruence. Just as importantly, it also examines more-or-less theatrical – arguably hypocritical – solutions to those problems as they appear, albeit surprisingly, in the writings of some of self-congruence's own most outspoken advocates: Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Emmanuel Levinas. Specifically, thinking alongside Kant, Kierkegaard, and Levinas respectively, one realizes that the idealization of sincerity tends to forget: (1) that the self may not be worthy of expression; (2) that the self may not be amenable to expression; and (3) that the self may become unethically narcissistic in the act of self-expression. By highlighting modernity's ambivalence towards the pretense and role-playing sometimes necessary for the development of moral character, "The Ethics of Theatricality" offers a new appraisal not only of the ethics of theatricality, but also of the theatricality of ethics. In the end, I conclude that the only self-congruence worthy of pursuit – in fact, the only one worthy of the name "self-congruence" – is a fundamentally ironic and relational one that lies well beyond either the expressivism of sincerity or the individualism of authenticity.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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