(Ruhr-University Bochum)

„Oppositional Lifestyles, Self-Help and Complicity“

Taking its cue from Mark Sander’s observation that opposing something entails being complicit with the language and parameters of what you oppose (1), this project explores the ways in which lifestyles that oppose hegemonic structures of American neoliberal capitalist society are rooted in and folded back into the socio-cultural hegemony that they seek to resist, at the same time that they may still envision ways of being and living that open up ‘other’ relations to oneself and others. Specifically, I focus on two prominent phenomena of twenty-first century American popular culture, minimalism and body positivity, to investigate how ‘oppositional’ lifestyles, social activism, and neoliberal ideologies converge, clash and fold into one another in a twenty-first century American cultural context, in which critical debates about social discrimination, wokeness, environmentalism, and anti-capitalism, have become increasingly visible and part of mainstream media culture.

As forms of ‘oppositional being/living’ minimalism and body positivity have both been promoted via discourses of self-help, including self-help books and their related social media. Historically, self-help cannot only be linked to specifically American notions of self-hood (e.g. ideas of the ‘self-made man’), but notions of selfhelp have also been central to American activist movements such as the feminist movement of the 1960s/70s and the black emancipation movement of the same time (cf. e.g. McGee 2). The contemporary self-help industry has, however, primarily been linked to a neoliberal rationality, where ‘happiness’ – promoted as key goal (cf. e.g. Ahmed 3) – equals ‘self-improvement’ and hegemonic social relations are solidified rather than contested (cf. e.g. Riley et. al. 4). Self-help literature functions as a technology of governmentality (Foucault 5, cf. Rimke 6) that instructs people in how to live – most often in ways that are in accordance with hegemonic, culturally and historically specific, ideals of subjectivity. Significantly, the past years have witnessed the increase and increasing visibility of social movements and forms of ‘oppositional’ living in American popular culture that challenge dominant social structures promoted through neoliberal self-help narratives also in and through self-help media like books and blogs. Two forms of ‘oppositional’ or ‘alternative’ living that have emerged in this context and that have been increasingly incorporated into mainstream media culture are minimalism and body positivity.

Minimalism as a western lifestyle is based on the idea of ‘reduction.’ In order to live a simple life that rejects the capitalist impulses of consumer culture, minimalists eliminate ‘excess’ and focus on ‘essentials’. As a movement or lifestyle trend minimalism has been associated with decluttering, tiny houses, self-sustainable and environmentally friendly living, as well as a ‘simplistic’ aesthetics and design. While seeking to address the problems of consumer culture and offering alternative ways of living, minimalism has been critiqued as an individual(ist) lifestyle choice that does not function as social movement nor escape its entanglement in capitalism and global inequalities (cf. Rodriguez 7). Body positivity has become particularly visible as a social media movement that challenges normative notions of beauty and promotes self-love and bodily acceptance no matter one’s size, race, ethnicity, age, ability, gender or sexuality. It is rooted in fat activism and feminist criticisms of patriarchal beauty culture, yet like minimalism, it has been criticized as an ultimately individualist discourse that reproduces predominantly white and heteronormative structures of (in)visbility that it seeks to counter (cf. Sastre 8).

As social activism, ‘oppositional lifestyle,’ or alternative ways of being, minimalism and body positivity have transformed and simultaneously been engulfed in American mainstream culture and its hegemonic structures, not least due to their popularization through popular media like self-help books and blogs. With very few exceptions (cf. Sastre and Rodriguez), both have, however, received little academic attention nor have they been critically discussed from the perspective of complicity critique. In this project I seek to explore how minimalism and body positivity framed as self-help are complicit with the ideological, generic and affective structures of the genres and media platforms in which they are framed, at the same time that this complicity does not preclude them from the possibility to chart ‘different’ ways of living.

1 Sanders, Mark. 2002. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Durham.

2 McGee, Micki. 2005. Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. Oxford.

3 Ahmed, Sarah. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC.

4 Riley, Sarah, et.al. 2019. “The Gendered Nature of Self-Help”. In Feminism and Psychology 29.1, pp. 3–18.

5 Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Technologies of the Self”. In The Essential Foucault: Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, ed. by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas S. Rose, New York, pp. 145-169.

6 Rimke, Heidi Marie. 2000. “Governing Citizens Through Self-Help Literature”. In Cultural Studies 14.1., pp. 61-78.

7 Rodriguez, Jason. 2018. “The US Minimalist Movement: Radical Political Practice?“ In Review of Radical Political Economics 50.2, pp. 286–296.

8 Sastre, Alexandra. 2014. “Towards a Radical Body Positive: Reading the Online ‘Body Positive Movement’”. In Feminist Media Studies 14.6, pp. 929–943.

Relevant Publications

Steinhoff, Heike. 2015. Transforming Bodies: Makeovers and Monstrosities in American Culture. Basingstoke / New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

―. “Beyond Hashtags: Popular Feminisms, Body Positivity and Self-Help Books.” American Culture as Popular Culture. Ed. Astrid Böger und Florian Sedlmeier, Winter, accepted / forthcoming.

―. “Hipster Culture: A Definition.” Hipster Culture: Transnational and Intersectional Perspectives. Ed. Heike Steinhoff, Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2021.