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The Contemporary Self in German History


The history of the subject, or, in a different parlance, genealogies of the self, has received increased attention in recent years. Numerous scholars, historians and cultural sociologists alike have inquired about the practices and discourses that shape the (post-)modern self. And while this is by no means an exclusively German debate – indeed, major influences come from French, British and Israeli scholarship –, it is a debate that is particularly thriving within German-speaking scholarship on recent (West) German history, perhaps in part due to how graduate training and networking function in German academia. Somewhat remarkably, East German subjectivities are barely ever addressed in this debate, which speaks to the fact that historiographies of East and West Germany are still rather separated, despite repeated calls to overcome this division. A possible historical (rather than historiographical) reason for this lack of interest that would deserve further inquiry might be that the self became important for historical actors in the Federal Republic during the 1970s, but not in East Germany. It would be equally interesting to know to what extent similar or different regimes of subjectivity emerged across the Iron Curtain and what happened to them after the end of communism – that is, if and how the ‘neoliberal’ regime of subjectivity that scholars have described for Western Germany spread to the East. Yet, these are open questions.

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1 Other works include Alkemeyer, Thomas, Budde, Gunilla and Freist, Dagmar, eds., Selbst-Bildungen: Soziale und kulturelle Praktiken der Subjektivierung (Bielefeld: transcript, 2013); Bührmann, Andrea, Das authentische Geschlecht. Die Sexualitätsdebatte der neuen Frauenbewegung und die Foucaultsche Machtanalyse (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1995); Duttweiler, Stefanie, Sein Glück machen: Arbeit am Glück als neoliberale Regierungstechnologie (Konstanz: UVK, 2007); Eichler, Lutz, System und Selbst: Arbeit und Subjektivität im Zeitalter ihrer strategischen Anerkennung (Bielefeld: transcript, 2013); Donauer, Sabine, Faktor Freude: Wie die Wirtschaft Arbeitsgefühle erzeugt (Hamburg: edition Körber Stiftung, 2015); Lemke, Thomas, Krasmann, Susanne and Bröckling, Ulrich, eds., Gouvernementalität der Gegenwart: Studien zur Ökonomisierung des Sozialen (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2000); Reichardt, Sven, Authentizität und Gemeinschaft: Linksalternatives Leben in den siebziger und frühen achtziger Jahren (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014).

2 See Rose, Nikolas N., Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London: Free Association Books, 1989); Illouz, Eva, Saving the Modern Soul. Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-help (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Ehrenberg, Alain, The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2009); Eghigian, Greg, Killen, Andreas and Leuenberger, Christine, ‘Introduction: The Self as Project: Politics and the Human Sciences in the Twentieth Century’, in the special issue ‘The Self as Project: Politics and the Human Sciences’, Osiris 22 (2007).

3 See, for example, the DFG funded interdisciplinary graduate school at the University of Oldenburg, ‘Self-Making: Practices of Subjectivation in Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspective’,, and the book series Praktiken der Subjektivierung, edited by members of the school, at transcript Verlag,

4 Philipp Ther's recent work on the neoliberal order of post-1989 Easter Europe does not address questions of subjectivity at all, see Ther, Philipp, Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte des neoliberalen Europa (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014).

5 This is not to say that Anglophone scholars of German history have not addressed subjectivities. See Föllmer, Moritz, Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Fritzsche, Peter, The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011); Eghigian, Greg, ‘The Psycholization of the Socialist Self: East German Forensic Psychology and its Deviants, 1945–1975’, German History, 22 (2004); Matysik, Tracie, ‘Beyond Freedom: A Return to Subjectivity in the History of Sexuality’, in Spector, Scott, Puff, Helmut and Herzog, Dagmar, eds., After the History of Sexuality: German Genealogies With and Beyond Freud (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012). German and Anglophone literatures are, however, surprisingly little in conversation with each other, and while Foucault is a ubiquitous presence, the theoretical framing is markedly different. The article thus limits itself to the German debate.

6 The phrase was coined by Anselm Doering-Manteuffel and Lutz Raphael. See Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm and Raphael, Lutz, Nach dem Boom: Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, 2 ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008). See also the recent edited volume by Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm, Raphael, Lutz and Schlemmer, Thomas, eds., Vorgeschichte der Gegenwart: Dimensionen des Strukturbruchs nach dem Boom (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

7 It is perhaps telling that most contributors to the edited volumes discussed here are working in Germany, with the exception of schön normal, which includes several American contributors.

8 See, for example, Fulbrook, Mary, ‘Structures and Subjectivities in GDR History’, in Port, Andrew I. and Fulbrooke, Mary, eds., Becoming East German: Socialist Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler (New York: Berghahn, 2013). Given how thoroughly scholars have theorised subjectivities, it is unfortunate that she ignores these debates. Thus, her discussion of subjectivities feels stunningly undertheorised.

9 For a perspective from the history of emotions that highlights the doing of emotions and thus contributes to the debate about the practicing of subjectivities, see the important article by Scheer, Monique, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuan Approach to Understanding Emotion’, History and Theory, 51 (2012). It is noteworthy that both Pascal Eitler, who has co-edited two of the volumes under review, and Magdalena Beljan, author of another book reviewed here, have worked at the Centre for the History of Emotions in Berlin, indicating the close ties between the historical study of emotions and the study of the self.

10 On practice theory, see Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Presse, 1977). Andreas Reckwitz has been at the forefront of theorizing the self in terms of practices, see Reckwitz, Andreas, ‘Auf dem Weg zu einer praxeologischen Analyse des Selbst’, in Eitler, Pascal and Elberfeld, Jens, eds., Zeitgeschichte des Selbst: Therapeutisierung – Politisierung – Emotionalisierung (Bielefeld: transcript, 2015).

11 Foucault, Michel, ‘Technologies of the Self’, in Martin, Luther H., Gutman, Huck and Hutton, Patrick H., eds., Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (London: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

12 See only ———, History of Madness (New York: Routledge, 2006), Rose, Governing. For a fascinating left-wing contemporary polemic against the power of psychologists, see Initiative Sozialistisches Forum, ed., Diktatur der Freundlichkeit: Über Bhagwan, die kommende Psychokratie und Lieferanteneingänge zum wohltätigen Wahnsinn (Freiburg: Ça-Ira-Verlag, 1984).

13 See Foucault, Michel, ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry 8 (1982); Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993); ———, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). For a German discussion of Foucault's work, see Lemke, Thomas, Eine Kritik der politischen Vernunft: Foucaults Analyse der modernen Gouvernementalität (Berlin: Argument, 1997).

14 According to Bröckling, the 1970s were a specific moment when the self became a problem in the Western world. It would be interesting to ask if (and when) something similar happened in Eastern Europe, or elsewhere in the world.

15 On diaries and the self, see Hellbeck, Jochen, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006). Yet, whereas Hellbeck analyses actual diaries to study the shaping of the self under Stalin, Reckwitz is not interested in the specific content of a diary and it might reveal about the creation of a self but in the practice of writing diaries per se.

16 On bodies and bodily practices, see Körper, Netzwerk, ed., What Can a Body Do? Praktiken und Figurationen des Körpers in den Kulturwissenschaften (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, 2012).

17 See, for example, Andritzky, Michael and Rautenberg, Thomas, eds., ‘Wir sind nackt und nennen uns Du’: Von Lichtfreunden und Sonnenkämpfern. Eine Geschichte der Freikörperkultur (Giessen: Anabas, 1989).

18 The vibrant German literature on contemporary history since the 1970s mostly ignores debates about subjectivities. See in addition to the work by Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm and Raphael, Lutz cited above, Reitmayer, Morten and Schlemmer, Thomas, eds., Die Anfänge der Gegenwart: Umbrüche in Westeuropa nach dem Boom (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2014); Jarausch, Konrad H., ed., Das Ende der Zuversicht? Die siebziger Jahre als Geschichte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008). For a critical perspective informed by cultural history approaches, see Möhring, Maren, ‘Rezension von: Anselm Doering-Manteuffel / Lutz Raphael: Nach dem Boom. Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2008’, sehepunkte 9 (2009).

19 Tändler, Maik, ‘Erziehung der Erzieher: Lehrer als problematische Subjekte zwischen Bildungsreform und antiautoritärer Pädagogik’, in Eitler, Pascal and Elberfeld, Jens, eds., Zeitgeschichte des Selbst: Therapeutisierung – Politisierung – Emotionalisierung (Bielefeld: transcript, 2015), 107–8.

20 See also Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005).

21 See the discussion in Reichardt, Authentizität. For contemporary left-wing texts, see, for example, Bopp, Jörg, ‘Der linke Psychodrom’, in Kursbuch 55 (March 1977), 7394; and Forum, ed., Diktatur der Freundlichkeit.

22 On the West German alternative left's reception of Foucault, see Felsch, Philipp, Der lange Sommer der Theorie: Geschichte einer Revolte (Munich: Beck, 2015).

23 Möhring quotes Foucault, Michel, ‘What is Critique’, in Lotringer, Sylvère, ed., The Politics of Truth: Michel Foucault (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1997), 45.

24 For some preliminary reflections on the construction of authentic subjectivities in Eastern European alternative movements, see my ‘Conclusion: Dropping out of Socialism? A Western Perspective.’ in Fürst, Juliane and McLellan, Josie, eds., Dropping out of Socialism: The Creation of Alternative Spheres in the Soviet Bloc (Lanham: Lexington, 2017).

25 For such an argument, see Tändler, Maik and Jensen, Uffa, ‘Psychowissen, Politik und das Selbst: Eine neue Forschungsperspektive auf die Geschichte des Politischen im 20. Jahrhundert’, in Jensen, Uffa and Tändler, Maik, eds., Das Selbst zwischen Anpassung und Befreiung: Psychowissen und Politik im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012).

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Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
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