KOSMOS Workshop “Body & Mind”

“Body & Mind: Self-Help in 1920s/30s U.S. Mass Cultures”

November 15-17, 2018, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, American Studies Division

This international KOSMOS workshop, organized in the context of our research project Mobilizing the Self―Self-Help and U.S. Mass Cultures in the 1920s and 30s assembles scholars specializing in questions of interwar U.S. mass cultures, US self-help cultures, cultures of mobility―bodily and mental, and constructions of selves in the age of eugenics and during the economic, political and social transformations of the modern era.

The objective of the workshop is to gain a better understanding of how 1920s’ and 30s’ mass-mediated cultures (dance, movies, newspapers & psychological advice columns, adolescent literatures, self-help books etc.) circulated ideas on self-development and self-esteem, bodily and mental health and the relation of self and other – and how these ideas shaped individual identity formations (life designs).

Our fundamental assumptions are the following: Commercialized mass cultures in the U.S. continued (or even institutionalized) traditional cultures of self-help (from the Junta Club through the Lyceum movement to Chautauquas, from close-knit communities of enslaved African-Americans to Tuskegee) fired by industrialization, urbanization, (im)migration, secularization, the Gilded Age, and Progressivism.

Features of traditional self-help cultures were among others:

  • stipulation of mobility (physical, social, mental)
  • self-formation through self-optimization
  • specific reproducible techniques of self-advancement
  • means of differentiation in regard to class, gender/sexuality, race, ability, age…
  • a concomitant narrative of transformation (and increase in power/control)
  • a principle of seriality
  • a method of converting thoughts into action
  • (varying) relations of community-orientation to rugged individualism

Towards the 1920s and 30s, these features developed to include:

  • postulations of scientific methods and popularization of new sciences
  • instrumentalization of quantification (e.g. polls, scales, tests)
  • therapeutic rhetoric and teaching of psychological introspection
  • focus on adjustment to emerging corporate consumer capitalism
  • naturalization/normalization of consumer desires
  • acknowledgements of social and cultural capital
  • nation building in times of economic crisis (coining of term ‘American Dream’)

We believe that a majority of these features can be found in 1920’/30’s self-help, among them dance and music culture, advice columns and manuals, detective literature for young adults, and urban consumer practices.

There will be four major fields of interest around which the workshop is organized:

  • Dance cultures: the body in leisure and labor/discipline and escape:
    How can dancing bodies be understood as agents of the self in the ways that they are racialized, gendered, classed, sexualized, and becoming dis/abled? What role did dancing as a social practice play in the constitution of self-help cultures which were built around notions of community, solidarity, and political agency? How were Black and white dancing bodies represented in early 1930s’ African American cinema and Hollywood movies?
  • Therapeutic advice and psychological adjustment:
    What psychological/therapeutic tools are deployed by various forms of self-help addressed to different audiences (e.g. mental hygiene; relationship counseling; narrative psychology)? How do they instruct introspection? How is (popularized) psychology used to shape constructions of self in line with urbanized, industrialized, secularized consumer society? What are the promises of psychological adjustment? How do psychological/therapeutic discourses of self-help confirm and/or trouble power structures along the lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, ability and age?
  • The Stroll: self-help, “uplift,” consumerism and new/old residents on Chicago’s South Side:
    How did African-American self-help cultures transform in the development of a consumerist and mass-cultural Chicago South Side? How did the Defender as the most significant Black newspaper integrate community-oriented/political and individualistic/capitalist notions of self-formation and life design?
  • Stratemeyer: self-help, mobility and the young, white sleuth:
    Which role do self-help cultures play in Stratemeyer’s detective series such as Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys or The Bobbsey Twins? How is the self-improvement aspect in the books related to notions of racial purity, class mobility and class containment, the transformation of gender roles and the conservation of patriarchy, as well as questions of age/generation and ability? How does mobility function as a trope in the series?

Invited Speakers:

Davarian L. Baldwin (Trinity College, Hartford), Lisa Blackman (Goldsmiths, University of London), Michell Chresfield (University of Birmingham), Sue Currell (University of Sussex), Thomas C. Leonard (Princeton University), Miriam J. Petty (Northwestern University, Evanston)