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Addicted to self-invention?



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Perspective

Wednesday 22 February 2006

Anthony Elliott, Director of Graduate Studies, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent at Canterbury, GB

 

Addicted to Self-Reinvention?  

 

The 21st century craze to constantly reinvent ourselves is fast becoming a dangerous addiction that can ruin lives. Today this is nowhere more evident than in the pressure consumerism puts on us to “transform” and “improve” every aspect of ourselves: not just our homes and gardens but our careers, our food, our clothes, our sex lives, our faces, minds and bodies. 

 

Consider, for example, Kelly - an attractive twenty-something, with good career prospects and regular boyfriend. Whilst seeming to have it all, Kelly has just spent in excess of 30,000 pounds on plastic surgery.  

 

Kelly’s decision to undergo the plastic surgeon’s knife - with a breast enlargement from 30B to 30DD - was driven, she says, by a desire for ‘personal improvement’.  

 

Kelly is one of a growing number of young women who are ‘experimenting’ with surgery - liposuction, botox injections, collagen fillers - as a means of self-reinvention. It’s estimated, for example, that more than a quarter of all women seeking plastic surgery in the UK are under twenty-five. For this new “plastic generation”, there’s an unfaltering belief that, no matter what the emotional costs, the body can be remoulded endlessly. 

 

Kelly’s is not an isolated story. Nor should it be dismissed as an unfortunate consequence of celebrity culture. She is rather an example, albeit extreme, of the cultural and economic pressures on us all to continually transform our lives. These pressures issue from the current phase of globalization. 

 

Clearly, globalization is a world of transformations, affecting every aspect not only of what we do but what we think about our lives. For better or worse, globalization has given rise to the 24/7 society, in which continual self-actualization and dramatic self-reinvention has become all the rage.  

 

The culture of globalization, as the American sociologist Richard Sennett puts it, is that of acute “short-termism”. Authors such as Sennett see the flexibility demanded of workers by multinational corporations as demonstrating the reality of globalization, promoting a dominant conception of individuals as dispensable and disposable. 

 

It is precisely this ambient fear of disposability - of not measuring up - that fuels the emergence of what we term “the new individualism”. This is a form of individualism based on a new cultural imperative for people to be more efficient, faster, leaner, inventive and self-actualizing than they were previously - not sporadically, but day-in day-out. 

 

We see this social trend all around us, not only in the rise of plastic surgery and the instant identity make-overs of reality TV but also in compulsive consumerism, speed dating and therapy culture. In a world that places a premium on instant gratification, the desire for immediate results has never been as pervasive or acute. We have become accustomed to emailing others across the planet in seconds, buying flashy consumer goods with the click of a mouse, and drifting in and out of relations with others without long-term commitments. Is it any wonder that we now have different expectations about life’s possibilities and the potential for change? 

 

What are the broader social forces sustaining this new individualism? We suggest three key institutional features impinging on people’s emotional experiences of globalization: consumerism, neo-liberalism and privatization. 

 

In conditions of advanced globalization, our language for expressing individualism is more and more fixed into the syntax of possession, ownership, control and market value. What we are suggesting is that people today increasingly suffer from an emotionally pathologizing version of neo-liberalism. 

 

In smashing apart traditional national boundaries, globalization, ironically, offers people a kind of “absolute freedom” to do whatever they like. The irony is that the world of “everything goes” has become crippling, as the anxiety of choice floats unhinged from both practical and ethical considerations as to what is worth pursuing. 

 

For those enticed and seduced by the new individualism, the danger of self-reinvention is a form of change so rapid and so complete that identity becomes disposable. Instead of finding ourselves, we lose ourselves.  

 

Guests on this program:

Anthony Elliott  

Professor of Sociology 

Director of Graduate Studies 

School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research 

University of Kent at Canterbury 

 

Chair-elect of Sociology at Flinders University, Adelaide