Self-Optimization – Between Aspiration and Pressure


‘BE A BETTER BEING!’, as a request made particularly of oneself, describes the striving for self-optimization in terms of career, personal health, or ethically-grounded action, which seems to be becoming increasingly relevant and widespread. Concrete examples of such efforts can be seen in consumers’ growing willingness to pay higher prices for environmentally sustainable and fair-trade products, or in their efforts to overcome mental or physical weaknesses. This is all ‘self-optimization’ in terms of socially desirable behavior, attitudes that earn social respect, and intellectual and physical capacities.


New technologies for a new form of self-development


New self-optimization practices and technologies are increasingly influential in people’s daily lives. They ostensibly serve the purpose of allowing us to lead a better life: to handle ourselves in a friendlier manner in social situations, to be more relaxed in accepting the weaknesses of others, and to take care of ourselves through physical or intellectual exercise. The market share of functional foods, sustainable and/or highly technological products, and spiritual self-searching is increasing, and what was once reserved for professional athletes has turned into daily life for trend-savvy hobby runners: self-tracking apps to measure diet, fitness and self-reflection as well as one’s blood pressure and personal happiness.


The academic perspective on self-optimization


Academic discussions have also turned to the topic of self-optimization and its techniques in various and sometimes very critical ways. The social scientist Paula-Irene Villa used the lens of power relationships to analyze the phenomenon of the treatment of the body as a moldable machine that one can “tune”, restructure with surgical intervention, permanently measure and optimally control. In his book The Corrosion of Character, the American sociologist Richard Sennett showed how the modern individual is shaped by social pressure regarding career development and develops a “neoliberal subjectivity” in the Foucauldian sense. The German cultural sociologist Andreas Reckwitz has written of a state of permanent self-optimization and the process by which the individual is shaped by the market. Eva Illouz has taken a similarly critical stance in regard to the commandment of “being better” in our family, our relationships, and in our love life. No matter how far one decides to pursue these interpretations, it becomes obvious that the boundaries between free decision-making by an individual and the pressure exerted by society or the media to copy or conform are becoming ever more blurred.


Looking at self-optimization as a social challenge


So do all of these new technological possibilities for self-optimization and self-surveillance really bring us close to a “better future”? Or is this social phenomenon rather a facet of the striving for a certain type of social status? Is self-optimization possibly just a strategy in the competition for a “free” market, in which only those who are better or the best can win? And what exactly is a “better being”? What should characterize such a being? A one-sided look at individual self-optimization in the sense of a better appearance or increased performance capability would certainly come up short. But what about the social component of “being better”, about a “better society”, a “better way of living together” of people, of social groups and of nations? This question arises against the backdrop of increasing egoisms in Europe, whose cohesion seems to be crumbling in an alarming fashion.


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