The belabored self and the end(s) of self -improvement.

Micki McGee, City University of New York, Graduate Center


This dissertation pursues the idea that if Max Weber's thesis (1904) linking the rise of the Protestant sects to the development of entrepreneurial and industrial capitalism was correct, then it stands to reason that at the outset of the twenty-first century, when we are arguably facing dramatic changes in the nature of capitalism, that some new ethos would be emerging. If the eighteenth-century Protestant was expected to labor at one true calling, serving God and community while observing a frugal and modest style of life, late twentieth-century notions of the self, as represented in much of the literature of self-improvement, are characterized by the imperative that one create a vision for one's life, or invent one's self. The emergence of the notion that one ought to invent one's self has been accompanied by a shift from an acoustic, dialogical notion of pursuing a "calling" to a visual metaphor in which one's life is imagined as one's own work of art.;The argument advanced here is that the emergence of the metaphor of one's life as a work of art (in contrast to earlier metaphors of one's life as, for example, a battle or a journey) is consistent with a social and economic context marked by increased female participation in the paid labor force. Moreover, increased competition among workers for fewer and less stable positions has encouraged the pursuit of creative satisfaction or self-fulfillment (often in lieu of compensation), tendencies that have been incorporated into a new model of the artist as the ideal worker for the post-industrial context.;Contemporaneous with the emergence of the idea of the artist as an ideal worker, there has been a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Protestant ethic in the notion that one's life is best understood as a business in which each individual serves as "the CEO of Me, Inc." With the demand (or promise, depending on one's point of view) that one "be all one can be," human capital, as with any other natural resource, is to be developed, and it is incumbent on the individual to realize this development. With the self thus split against itself, career advice literature advises workers to imagine themselves as executives, as CEOs, while prescribing endless labor at a series of tasks designed to enhance themselves as "human capital.";Through a content analysis of American self-improvement and career advice literature during the period of 1973--1997, this dissertation suggests that the classic American trope of the self-made man has been supplanted by an enterprising self, whether artist, entrepreneur, or both, that has, as its Janus-face, an overworked and overwrought, beleaguered and belabored self.