Martin Buber and American Pop Culture
You may be wondering how a nice German philosopher like Martin Buber can be responsible for such things as
, Rap Music, Reality T.V. shows and hip-hop culture. Believe it or not, he is. To understand how this came to be, we need to go back and examine the historical context. South Park
The event that probably defines modern American life more than any other is the Great Depression. Millions of people grew up in times of great economic distress. They knew what it was like not to know where there next meal was coming from. These same people then fought World War II. When the war was over, they were able to go to school on the G.I. Bill, they received special mortgage rates allowing them to buy homes, and other assorted benefits. They also found themselves participating in the strongest economy the world has ever known. During the 1950’s the
was generated over 50% of the world’s industrial output and over half the amount of consumer goods manufactured worldwide. United States
So how did a generation of people raised during the depression react to their new found affluence? Their mantra became, “my kids are going to have all the things I never had when I was growing up”. As a result they raised the largest collection of “spoiled brats” the world has ever known.
During the fifties, we had a collection of white, affluent, suburban teenagers who were bored out of their skulls. And along comes a book by Martin Buber called, “I, Thou”. Contrary to popular opinion a book does not have to be widely read in order to be influential. (How many “Marxists” have ever waded through “Das Kapital”?) All it takes is for a few of the hipper members of the crowd to read it and explain it to their friends. Thus the concept of “Authenticity” entered American discourse.
Believe it or not, this concept had a galvanizing effect on intellectual teenagers during the fifties. Suddenly these bored, rich kids went from being alienated drones to knight’s errant on a quest for the holy grail of “Authenticity”. So how to tell what is authentic and what isn’t?
Obviously, bored, suburban teenagers couldn’t be authentic. Their parents and neighbors who had jobs, families, and lived up to their responsibilities and took care of them couldn’t possibly be authentic. So if authenticity couldn’t be found in suburbia, just where could you find it? Obviously, in the city.
So where in the city do you find authentic people. Certainly, not in the high-rent districts which were just like suburbia. It must be in the slums and ghettoes. So if you were a junkie or prostitute, or jazz musician, or derelict etc, than you must be authentic.
Now lets look at how “Authenticity” came to be defined:
Immediate Gratification Delayed Gratification
Lack of emotional self-control Control over one’s emotions
Sexually Uninhibited Sexually inhibited
Anti-intellectual Intellectually oriented
“Natural and unaffected” Socially conventional
Unwilling to abide by mainstream rules Law Abiding
Concerned only with the present Future Oriented
As a cursory inspection of the list reveals, authenticity came to be defined as the opposite of what they were. White, affluent suburban teenagers came to equate authenticity with being poor, black and living on the fringes of society. (It is also psychologically revealing that they defined themselves as inauthentic and their polar opposites as being authentic) Later on in life, when these kids became writers, T.V and film producers, and song writers, they literally made their living by bringing the fringes of society into the mainstream. In the past, it was always known that there were people living on the fringes and outside the mainstream of middle-class life. The difference is, this was the first generation to romanticize and celebrate the fringe characters as if they were something to emulate. Thus began the process of “defining deviance down”.
Once the process got started, each generation had to go further out on the fringes in order to find their “authentic” characters. So now we have homosexuals, lesbians, trans-gendered persons, S&M fans, pedophiles, and God knows what else all being brought into the tent of “mainstream
When Martin Buber introduced the concept of “authenticity” I doubt very much that he foresaw that it would be used to justify soaring divorce rates, the degradation of American culture, and the glorification of people who are far from worthy of admiration.
I think what we have is an example of the “Law of unintended consequences”. The reason the search for “authenticity” has been such a long and fruitless process is because like the holy grail, it simply doesn’t exist.