Alexander Hesse & Stefan Hirsch


"A Genealogy of Self-Governing. On the Historicity of Technologies of the Self in 20th Century Self-Help Literature" (Working Title)

Self-help literature provides instructions for self-governing. These texts offer techniques which aim at changing the reader´s life as a whole. This includes the transformation of personality as well as a rearrangement of work, relationships and social status. For that purpose, mental, social and material resources are unlocked and utilized for various goals of life, which are often described quite expressively. The modern, enlightened imperative at the heart of these texts, i.e. not to be determined by others, is transferred – in historically alternating ways – into an imperative of life-planning, life-enhancement and a re-utilization of the self.

The research project “A Genealogy of Self-Governing” is designed to contribute to the Studies of Governmentality. It focusses on the question how a subject is generated by means of instructions, manuals and techniques within 20th century German self-help literature: a subject for whom the governing of its self and others becomes an irrefutable task. While classical investigations in the field of Studies of Governmentality deal with modern institutions (psychiatry, military, school, prison and so on), our project investigates the concept of self-governing outside of such institutional arrangements. The Studies of Governmentality show that an individual's very liberties and possibilities can form the starting point for practices of self-enhancement and self-governing. Due to the non-committal way in which the formations of knowledge, counselling and problematization are put into writing, self-help literature provides a promising field for the investigation of the changing shapes of self-governing. Moreover, the texts analysed function as “seismographic indicators” for various social images and constructions of happiness, success, and their pursuit.

The question, how these practices of self-governing are changing during the 20th century is of particular interest. Only by focusing on these discontinuities within this process, we are able to gain insights into the specific conditions of modern subjectivity's constitution.

At the basis of our historical-sociological research, a representative corpus of texts (restricted to those in German language) is selected and then analysed in terms of their representations of self-governing. In this process we will systematically disclose many historical sources of the early 1920s and 1960s for the first time.

Our main goal is to analyse the strategies, techniques and calls for action enclosed in these texts in their historical forms. Thus, we aim at a genealogy that provides an overview of changes in the 20th century's self-governing models within German-speaking countries.

(Changed: 20 Apr 2022)