Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Subjectivity and the Self

Who are we? And how do we shape who we are? For a long time, such questions would have been discussed in terms of identities – national, gendered, or class identities. In the wake of Michel Foucault’s influential work, however, scholars have started to ask questions about subjectivities and the shaping of the modern self, inquiring about what Foucault famously described as ‘technologies of the self’, that is, practices ‘which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.’ Scholars have explored how various experts of the soul – such as therapists, councillors, and coaches – have sought to convey a knowledge of what to do in order to shape the self (and, often in conjunction, the body) and thus created historically specific forms of subjectivity – ‘neoliberal’ or ‘therapeutic’ selves, to mention just two conceptions. In this seminar, we will turn to the foundational text by Michel Foucault as well as an influential book by a British sociologist that discuss the ‘government of the soul.’

Core Readings:
  • Rose, Nikolas N. Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Free Association Books, 1999. Read the introduction, and parts II and IV.
  • Foucault, Michel. "The Subject and Power." Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 777-795.
  • Foucault, Michel. "Technologies of the Self." In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton, 16-49. London: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Seminar Questions:

  • What are ‘technologies of the self’?
  • What is the relation between power and subjectivity? 
  • How could we study a history of subjectivities?
  • What is critical about studying the history of subjectivities? 
  • How is a study of regimes of subjectivity relevant for our understanding of modernity and the contemporary world?

Further Readings:

  • Bröckling, Ulrich. The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject. Los Angeles: Sage, 2016.
  • Eghigian, Greg, Andreas Killen, and Christine Leuenberger. "Introduction: The Self as Project: Politics and the Human Sciences in the Twentieth Century." Osiris 22, no. The Self as Project: Politics and the Human Sciences (2007): 1-25.
  • Eghigian, Greg. "The Psycholization of the Socialist Self: East German Forensic Psychology and its Deviants, 1945-1975." German History 22 (2004): 181-215.
  • Ehrenberg, Alain. The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2009.
  • Föllmer, Moritz. Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Fulbrook, Mary. "Structures and Subjectivities in GDR History." In Becoming East German: Socialist Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler, edited by Andrew I. Port and Mary Fulbrook, 277-290. New York: Berghahn, 2013.
  • Grogan, Jessica. Encountering America. Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, & the Shaping of the Modern Self. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013.
  • Häberlen, Joachim C. "The Contemporary Self in German History (Review Article)." Contemporary European History 28 (2018).
  • Illouz, Eva. Saving the Modern Soul. Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-help. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Reckwitz, Andreas. The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New. Translated by Steven Black. Malden, MA: Polity, 2017.
  • Thomson, Mathew. Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture, and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Essay Questions

  • How does thinking about questions of subjectivity change our understanding of power in history?
  • 'The emergence of psycho-therapy established a new regime of subjectivity.' Discuss.