PhD defended at:
In this dissertation I explore the role of affect in practices of self-improvement in contemporary urban China. I conducted participant observation in workshops for young adults in the city of Jinan, focusing on interpersonal ‘soft’ skills, such as ‘communication,’ ‘emotional expression,’ and public speaking. These highly interactive workshops urged participants to express themselves as emotional, assertive, inspirational, and above all – autonomous – individuals. This ideal of personhood is inspired by state-promoted reforms in the education system and the rise of psychotherapy across China, highlighting new moral imperatives of self-reliance and emotional well-being in the expanding Chinese market economy.
My analysis focuses on the discrepancy between participants’ ideals of self-improvement, as practiced in workshops, and their wider social engagements. While participants conceived of soft skills as capacities that could potentially be employed anywhere, they nevertheless experienced and emphasised impediments to extending their practices outside workshops. They saw their everyday social circles as prioritising hierarchical relations, social roles, and financial stability, all suppressing the ideals of individual autonomy prominent in workshops.
Drawing on theories of affect, hope, and the concept of ‘heterotopia,’ I describe how workshops dislocated participants from their existing social realities to produce momentary experiences of self-overcoming. Through affectively intensive exercises, participants identified with their ideal person, imagined themselves mastering social relations, and envisioned a future society governed by the virtues of soft skills. I consider affect, in these practices, not as a means for subjects’ comprehensive self-transformations, but rather as an experience that charges individuals with ephemeral optimism amidst socioeconomic uncertainties. In contemporary market-driven China, I argue, such deployment of affect is increasingly evident in educational activities, entertainment media, and state campaigns. These practices respond to and reinforce an existing schism between the expansion of new ideals of personhood and individuals’ limited capacities to realise them.