“Mobilizing the Self” is a project funded by the German Research Foundation. It is located at the Department of English and American Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
The concept of mobility has a crucial function in the United States, both as a mythopoetic device and as central element of the national metanarratives. Its physical, social, and economic threads of meaning contribute to discourses such as the Frontier narrative or the American Dream. Another, related significant narrative that relies on mobility is the idea of self-improvement, which addresses individual practices on the road to success. Products of commercially organized popular culture/mass culture in the 1930s utilize concepts of mobility in various different forms in terms of content, form, and production. Mobilizing the self suggests that the commercialized popular cultures of the 1930s (of the Great Depression) together with their specific concepts of mobility have to be understood as part and parcel of the cultures of self-improvement which supply their participants with patterns of reflections and projection for their own life designs and biographies. To support this thesis we start with some of the seminal authors of self-improvement literature in the 1930s (and their predecessors of the New Thought Movement and Theosophy in the 19th century). Subsequently we aim to analyze four very different formations within popular culture/mass culture in terms of homologies between their projected life designs and practices of a self-reliant, goal-oriented, instrumental mind-set. These formations consist of adolescent detective fictions, pulp magazines, the junior pages within the African American weekly Chicago Defender and the dance and music culture of swing and lindy hop. We aim to show that these formations develop completely different, yet related concepts of mobility, self-improvement and life design. As a further step we shall explore the question whether these products function as “biography generators” according to Alois Hahn’s concept. This would open the possibility of redefining commercialized popular culture as one of the central biography generators in the 20th century.