Call for Chapter Proposals: "Towards a Better Me: Self-Optimization in Modernist Culture"

Thorsten Carstensen's picture
Call for Publications
August 1, 2020
Indiana, United States
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies, French History / Studies, Literature, Women's & Gender History / Studies

Call for Contributions:

"Towards a Better Me: Self-Optimization in Modernist Culture"

Edited by Thorsten Carstensen (Indiana University) and Mattias Pirholt (Södertörns Högskola)


Deadline for submission: August 1, 2020

In his seminal essay “Technologies of the Self” (1988), Michel Foucault referred to strategies that “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.”

Contemporary society in the twenty-first century is obsessed with the idea of self-optimization, a concept that implies the need to constantly work on improving one’s professional performance, physical and emotional health, and social skills. Spurred on by bestselling books such as “Healthy Gut: Healthy You,” we strive to transform ourselves from inside out by finding the perfect diet, hoping that a more balanced digestive system will help us master stress. Even the way we conduct our everyday lives with regard to friendship, family, and leisure activities is arguably governed by the neoliberal doctrine of utmost efficiency. We willingly subject ourselves to self-monitoring, thanks to habit- and resolution-tracking apps.

Meanwhile, those who reject the idea of self-optimization and refuse to “tidy up” their lives are often dismissed as phlegmatic slackers guilty of wastefulness and inattention. As Deborah Lupton writes in The Quantified Self (2016), “[i]llness, emotional distress, lack of happiness or lack of productivity in the workplace come to be represented primarily as failures of self-control or efficiency on the part of individuals, and therefore as requiring greater or more effective individual efforts — including perhaps self-tracking regimens of increased intensity — to produce a ‘better self.’” According to the logic of self-optimization, this better self is one that is more marketable.  

As recent scholarship (Blum 2020) has shown, the roots of postmodern self-optimization can be traced back to the cultural industry of self-help that emerged during the late nineteenth century. Our book will take a slightly different approach by addressing strategies of self-optimization developed in the literature, art, and philosophy of the modernist period. Sparked by the massive overstimulation of the senses in new urban environments (Georg Simmel) and a general feeling of impotence caused by the acceleration of everyday life, the interest in self-optimization came to express itself in manifold ways in the first decades of the twentieth century.

With its equally profound and transitory interest in new forms of expression, new ways of life, and new technologies, modernism thoroughly and critically embraced the idea of the self as something that can be created and recreated, either in accordance with or in contradiction to social norms. Our book will trace the development of this idea in Western modernist culture, both in its canonized centers and neglected peripheries. Special attention will be paid to processes of self-optimization with regard to gender, ethnicity, the body, and language, as well as “alternative lifestyles” and the advent of mass culture. Our volume thus seeks to offer a panoramic view of an oft-overlooked theme of European and North American modernity that anticipates our current postmodern crisis of the self.

If you are interested in contributing to this collection, please submit an abstract of approximately 300-400 words and a brief CV to the editors ( and by August 1, 2020. Selected authors will be notified by August 15, 2020, and drafts of essays (6,000 words) will be due by May 1, 2021.

Possible topics include:

  • Self-Optimization and Conceptions of the Feminine
  • Unpunctuated: Dorothy Richardson’s Feminine Prose
  • How to Become a Man (Knut Hamsun, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, etc.)
  • Gender Identity and Constructions of Sexuality (Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, Claude Cahun)
  • Modernism and the Language of Fashion (Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Wharton, Vicki Baum)
  • Strategies of Self-Fashioning (Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, etc.)
  • Transforming the Modern Body (Diet, Athletics, Gymnastics, Nudity, etc.)
  • Literature and Medicine
  • Soldiering On: Discipline in the Writings of Thomas Mann and Ernst Jünger
  • Turning Our Eyes Inwards: Marcel Proust and the Idea of Self-Reform
  • Virginia Woolf and the Dark Places of Psychology
  • Transforming Hysterical Misery into Common Unhappiness: Sigmund Freud
  • Age of Anxiety: Neurasthenia in Modern Literature (Joris-Karl Huysmans, Karl Kraus, August Strindberg, etc.)
  • From Self-Care to Self-Optimization: The Origins of the Therapeutic Worldview
  • Embracing Failure: Rejecting the Idea of Personal Optimization (Franz Kafka, Robert Walser)
  • The Nietzschean Legacy of Self-Optimization
  • Perfecting Technologies of the Self (Foucault) / Techniques of the Body (Mauss)
  • Racial Implications of Self-Optimization
  • Self-Optimization and Religion
  • Self-Optimization in the Modern Bildungsroman
  • Guidebook Intertexts in the Modern Novel
  • Strategies of Self-Optimization in Guidebook Literature
  • Efficient Housewives: Modern Home Economics (Paulette Bernège, Christine Frederick)
  • Writing in the Sanatorium: Life Reform and Literature
  • The Literature of Educational Reform (Rudolf Steiner, etc.)
  • Better Buildings, Better People: Modernist Architecture
  • The Idea of Genius in Modern Culture
Contact Info: 

Thorsten Carstensen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of German
Department of World Languages and Cultures
Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI
Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
425 University Boulevard, CA 501B
Indianapolis, IN 46202
(317) 278-6349

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