Hanging on the walls of my office at work are several variations of Jasper Johns’s paintings of the American flag. Few people ever comment, but I’m always curious how my colleagues perceive the paintings Do they think they’re intended to be ironic, hyper-patriotic, merely decorative?
I also have no idea what Johns thought about the works or what he intended by the paintings. In fact, I’ve actively avoided finding out so that his artistic intent doesn’t interfere with my own personal, peculiar interpretation. For me, seeing the Flags helps me to better see the Flag.
Normally when I look at an American flag I see — an American flag. Although not consciously recognized, there is a certain semiotic understanding that the flag (a cloth with stars and stripes) is merely the signifier (the form the symbol takes) while the signified (the concept it represents) is America. Of course this leads to another level of recursion since “America” is also a sign that stands in for a variety of signified concepts, both tangible (our homeland) and intangible (our ideals).
When I look at Johns’s Flags, though, I see something different: an abstract representation of an abstract symbol that itself represents abstract concepts. In looking at the paintings I no longer see “American Flag” but see past the symbol to what it represents. The paintings help me to “see” the authenticity of the flag in a way that I often miss when I encounter it flying on a flagpole.
Without Johns’s painting to keep me focused, it would be easy for me to see the American Flag in a clichéd manner. This is why I was initially sympathetic to Barack Obama’s claim that he doesn’t wear the American flag lapel pin anymore because it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Someone noticed I wasn’t wearing a flag lapel pin but I am less concerned with what you are wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart… We have to lead on our values and our ideals.
He is absolutely right that the pins can be used as a substitute for a concept (patriotism) that has lost its meaning. But then I heard his explanation, and I realized there was something else going on. According to ABC News (via Marc Ambinder), Obama said:
“You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said Wednesday. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”
Obama isn’t just saying that the pins have become a cliché.* He is saying that he no longer wears the pins because they are no longer–at least for him–authentic symbols. In other words, the reason Obama won’t wear the pin on his chest is not that he isn’t patriotic, but because he is “post-authentic.”
Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. For instance, a WWII veteran might wear a flag label pin because he has an authentic love of country. His intention in wearing the symbol is to convey a sincere non-ironic expression of patriotism.
Someone who is post-authentic would wear (or not wear) the pin for a quite different reason. Although it is not intended to be ironic, it does share some characteristics of “hipster irony.” Hipster irony is a self-awareness of one’s behavior “insofar as that behavior is incongruent with what is expected and what actually occurs.” For the ironic hipster, wearing a flag pin would be communicating, “Isn’t it ironic that someone as cool as me would wear such a lame symbol?”
In contrast, the post-authentic person is also painfully self-aware of what they are communicating, but unlike the ironist, they wear the symbol to be congruent with the intended meaning. However, they are uncomfortable with the meanings of the signified concepts as commonly held. They do want the symbols to be authentic but only after the symbol has been recalibrated, returned to an original, pure, or redefined meaning of the concept signified.
For the post-authentic, the quest for authenticity also becomes a purpose unto itself. Take, for instance, the Emerging Church movement, an exemplar of post-authenticity. An example of this can be found in Scott McKnight’s post What is the Emerging Church?
There is much talk among the emerging folk about “authenticity” and sometimes one gets the impression that the Emerging Movement has a corner on authenticity: such a claim, if it is made, is inconsistent with its central affirmation that no one is completely authentic and no movement is completely authentic. But, striving for such transcends, so we believe, what is often on display in many churches in the world.
The prefix “post” (after) in post-authentic is this constant “striving” for a more genuine genuineness. The authentic is condition of truthfulness and sincerity. The post-authentic is a condition of truthfulness and sincerity…but with an asterisk. The WWII vet wears the flag pin as an authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country.” Obama chooses to not wear the pin as a post-authentic expression of “I’m a patriot. I love my country, but…”
Obama may very well be our first post-authentic candidate. But he certainly won’t be the last.
*As Eugene Volokh notes, “Wearing a flag pin is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument, just as “I love you” is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument. It’s supposed to be a traditional statement of affection, powerful because it’s cliché.”
Other posts in this series:
- The Rise of Polyamorous Advertising
- The Passion of the Rappers
- Gnostic Inoculation
- A New World of Blurs
- Whore and Pimp Chic
- An Inconvenient Truth About the Unchained Goddess
- Conservatism’s Most Influential Media
- Cat Macros as Communication