Thursday, 11 October 2012

Directions for Living: Self Help Books, Lifestyle Magazines & Role Models as 'technologies of the self'

In his Media Gender & Identity Gauntlett outlines Foucault's idea of ‘technologies of the self’:

Michel Foucault became interested in 'techniques of the self' and 'the care of the self' – questions of lifestyle which today are tackled by self-help books. In the introduction to The History of Sexuality Volume Two, The Use of Pleasure, Foucault helpfully proposes a methodology for this kind of study: 
“A history of the way individuals are urged to constitute themselves as subjects of moral conduct would be concerned with the models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for the decipherment of the self by oneself, for the transformations that one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object. This last is what might be called a history of 'ethics' and 'ascetics,'understood as a history of the forms of moral subjectivation and of the practices of the self that are meant to ensure it.” 
Foucault, then, lends support to the idea that we can learn about our culture by looking at its self-help books; he was interested in the ways in which a society enabled or encouraged individuals to perceive or modify their self-identity.

As part of what Gauntlett describes as 'the knowing construction of identity':

Not only is there more room for a greater variety of identities to emerge; it is also the case that the construction of identity has become a known requirement. Modern Western societies do not leave individuals in any doubt that they need to make choices of identity and lifestyle – even if their preferred options are rather obvious and conventional ones, or are limited due to lack of financial (or cultural) resources. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck has noted, in late modern societies everyone wants to 'live their own life', but this is, at the same time, 'an experimental life' (2002:26). Since the social world is no longer confident in its traditions, every approach to life, whether seemingly radical or conventional, is somewhat risky and needs to be worked upon – nurtured, considered and maintained, or amended. Because 'inherited recipes for living and role stereotypes fail to function' (ibid.), we have to make our own new patterns of being, and – although this is not one of Beck's emphases – it seems clear that the media plays an important role here. Magazines, bought on one level for a quick fix of glossy entertainment, promote self-confidence (even if they partly undermine it, for some readers, at the same time) and provide information about sex, relationships and lifestyles which can be put to a variety of uses. Television programmes, pop songs, adverts, movies and the Internet all also provide numerous kinds of 'guidance' – not necessarily in the obvious form of advice-giving, but in the myriad suggestions of ways of living which they imply. We lap up this material because the social construction of identity today is the knowing social construction of identity. Your life is your project – there is no escape. The media provides some of the tools which can be used in this work. Like many toolkits, however, it contains some good utensils and some useless ones; some that might give beauty to the project, and some that might spoil it. (People find different uses for different materials, too, so one person's 'bad' tool might be a gift to another.).

We must realise that this knowing is yet another technology-of-the-self. We have arrived at a point in which society requires us to ironically and archly construct an understood presentation of ourselves in everyday life and our use of this ‘knowing’ is not  free flowing.  It is rather a matter of power and our relations-of-power to the different technologies of the self available to us in the society we inhabit.

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