“Voices and Selves”


Mitchell Aboulafia



It is frequently assumed that in order to be authentic, in order to be truly oneself, one must find one’s voice.  Artists in particular often speak in this fashion.  But the notion of the singular voice, whether it is defined in terms of the individual or in terms of different cultures, has been challenged from many quarters.  In a recent discussion of Obama, politics, and literature, Zadie Smith has argued that “[t]he tale he [Obama] tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural.  For Obama, having more than one voice in your ear is not a burden, or not solely a burden—it is also a gift….” Smith links this ability to a certain type of artistic temperament, but she also joins it to Obama’s (philosophical) pragmatism, which she views positively.  In this talk I suggest that older expressivist notions of the self fail to do justice to transformations in self-understanding that are accelerating in the U.S., and which in all likelihood helped make Obama’s election possible.  In my view, these transformations are allied to pragmatism and to a particular way of understanding cosmopolitanism, in light of which I talk about the culture(s) of The Juilliard School.