Becoming Valuable Selves
Self-Promotion, Gender and Individuality in Late Capitalism
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1732

By Katariina Makinen
July 2012
Tampere University Press
ISBN: 9789514488108
321 pages
$87.50 Paper original

Self-promotion refers to marketing or promoting oneself with the aim of gaining recognition, advance or opportunities. Different forms of self-promotion have, in recent years, become increasingly recognisable and part of everyday life, particularly in the context of work, working life and the labour market.

This research situates and contextualises self-promotion within two different but powerful forms of social relations, namely capitalism and gender. These social relations are understood as mutually connected and constructive, yet with a logic and modus operandi of their own. Self-promotion is one of the instances in which their effect is lived and experienced, as well as produced and challenged. The objective of the research, then, is to examine self-promotion as a specific site of the intersection of capitalism and gender.

To meet this objective, the research approaches self-promotion from two different but interconnected perspectives. First, the aim is to map the terrain that renders self-promotion possible, to understand how self-promotion becomes meaningful and intelligible. Second, the focus is on the self that is placed in the centre of processes of promotion, and specifically on what kind of self is brought into being through such processes.

The empirical location of the research is the field of work-related coaching in Finland. Coaching is closely related to the processes of self-promotion, as different forms of coaching usually share a preoccupation with the self and with becoming a “right kind of a person”. Various coaching practices aim to empower the self in such a way that one gains recognition, advances or opportunities in the labour market as well as in personal life.

Employing the notion of frame the two research perspectives are formulated into two research questions by way of which the field of coaching is approached: How is self-promotion framed in coaching? How is the self framed in processes of promotion? The research material consists of coaches’ interviews and of different kinds of textual material related to coaching, such as newspaper articles, web sites and self-help literature. The methods employed to analyse this material were qualitative, for instance thematic analysis of textual content and of the interviews.

The empirical part of the research begins with discussing coaching as work and examining the practices of coaching. Coaching is found to exemplify processes of the subjectification of work and to relate to new forms of the commodification of “life”. It is also noted how notions of capacity, competence and potential are central to this kind of work – and how they connect to post-feminist tendencies. The research then continues by exploring the notions of change that are hardwired to the practices of coaching, particularly as coaching focuses on self-transformation – a transformation which paradoxically posits large scale changes beyond the reach of human agency, but simultaneously demands that the individual become the author of their own life. Hence coaching is a practice implicated in the process of individualisation that frames the self in a contradictory fashion.

The process of individualisation is then examined further by asking what kind of individual is brought into being in the processes of self-promotion as they take place in the practices of coaching. Even though the individual has a history of exclusion, what is important concerning the individual in coaching is a frame of inclusion – everyone must strive to become a self-promoting, self-transforming autonomous individual, the flipside of which is that anyone can also fail to achieve this status. This shift from exclusion to inclusion alerts to a shift not only in terms of the history of the individual, but also in terms of histories of gender and class.

The final empirical consideration of the research concerns the notion of potential and leads to the observation that promissory value is central to the operations of contemporary capitalism, and more specifically central to the forms of value at issue in coaching. In the practices of coaching, the production of promissory value becomes inseparable from practices of self-development and the production of individuality.

In conclusion, several significant processes or cultural tendencies are recognised as resonating with the articulations found in the field of coaching: individualisation, the subjectification of work, commodification and postfeminist tendencies. Of particular importance is individualisation, a process in which social relations and antagonisms, conflicts and other contradictions, as well as the inequalities inherent to them, are articulated as if they were within the individual self, problems of the free and autonomous individual. The intertwining of the other processes mentioned above with that of individualisation produces a situation where a subject who is placed in relations that increasingly commodify the self also increasingly strives to become the autonomous agent of individualism. As commodification is filtered through individuality, the value of a commodity-self has to be distinctively individual, with a coherent personal history and personal capacities and potentialities.

Self-promotion is thus the consolidation of an already commodified self, an attempt to become the agent of one’s own life while heavily involved in relations of exchange which produce experiences of worthlessness, marginalisation, dispensability, fear and frustration. In other words, it is an attempt to become a valuable self under conditions where the value of the self is increasingly defined in terms of exchange value, and achieving even that is increasingly precarious. These are found to be the frames in which self-promotion comes to make sense and in which promotional selves are brought into being.

Concerning gender, the research suggests that an analytical division can be made between gender as a social relation and as an individualised difference. The empirical findings of the research thoroughly demonstrate how gender as a social relation becomes articulated as a difference between individuals, and how it is precisely as a difference between individuals that gender can become an asset, a commodity or otherwise valuable possession in late capitalism. This means that gender as an individualised difference can be capitalised on in the processes of self-promotion, but simultaneously – and in line with the logic of individualisation – the injustices related to gender as a hierarchical relation become understood as individual problems, and hence a relation of power is both silenced and cemented. The shift from exclusion to inclusion in terms of individuality invites closer critical attention to the intertwining of the process of individualisation with both commodification and post-feminist tendencies, and it also invites critical interventions in the notions of choice, autonomy, agency and free will both in understanding the relations of gender and in feminist research.

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