When I started the Health Culture blog in 2008, I was interested in the question Why was there such an increase in health consciousness (healthism) in the last quarter of the 20th century? I had a personal interest in that question because, in retrospect, I could see that healthism had had an impact on my own life.
I ended up writing mainly about external influences on attitudes towards health: an increased emphasis on risk that proved an irresistibly lucrative opportunity for pharma and other financial interests; neoliberal ideas in the 1980s that created an economic and political climate conducive to holding individuals personally responsible for their health.
I doubt, however, that healthism happened solely in response to external influences. We don’t all of a sudden turn into a herd of sheep just because direct-to-consumer ads proliferate or neoliberal policies prevail (you may respectfully disagree, of course). Those of us in advanced Western countries must have been ready and willing to believe we were personally responsible for our health and therefore obligated to adopt healthy lifestyles.
Cultivating a vulnerable self
It appears individuals were indeed ready and willing. Why was that? The success of healthism as a lifestyle can be explained (at least in part) by a change in our self-concept – our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about ourselves. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, Philip Rieff describes how modernity’s therapeutic culture shifted priorities from the communal goods of society to the personal well-being of individuals. In Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood, Nikolas Rose explains how the 20th century’s “psy” discourses – the language and assumptions of psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis – changed our self-concept. This change, he argues, accounts for the ability of the powers that be to convince us we are personally responsible for our lives – that would include not just our health, but our wealth, success, and personal well-being.
In Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, Eva Illouz lists some of the more “disquieting” attributes of modernity:
bureaucratization, narcissism, the construction of a false self, the control of modern lives by the state, the collapse of cultural and moral hierarchies, the intense privatization of life caused by capitalist social organization, the emptiness of the modern self severed from communal relationships, large-scale surveillance, the expansion of state power and state legitimation, and “risk society” and the cultivation of the self’s vulnerability.
While all of these characteristics may have contributed to changes in self-perception, an increase in the self’s vulnerability seems especially implicated when it comes to matters of health.
Radical individualism, changes in self-perception, including vulnerability – these psychological developments in the 20th century conveniently, and surely not coincidentally, meshed perfectly with the goals of neoliberal economics. How and why did this happen?
The history of the self
I’ve been thinking of starting this particular new blog for a long time – more like years than months. I’d like – among many other things — to understand how our self-concept became increasingly vulnerable. To do this, I need to broaden my inquiry to include what happened to our self-understanding in modern and postmodern times.
I’ve always been interested in how the experience of the self – our self-reflective capacity – has developed and changed throughout history. I don’t want to confine my research to the most recent centuries. I want to learn about the social and cultural history of the self going back to ancient Greece. I want to include insights from philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and their intersections, as well as any other areas I may not yet fully appreciate. (I can see this is going to take a while.)
Anyway, partly because the subject matter seems more narrowly focused than what I’ve been writing about in my other blog, I’m starting a new one. I’m not looking to make an original contribution to the subject matter. I just want to read and then summarize here the most interesting bits that I come across. That’s how I learn new things, where “learn” means converting miscellaneous information into usable knowledge. So here goes.
Image source: Wikipedia: The Century of the Self
Nikolas Rose, Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood