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Abstract

This dissertation describes young adults in China who pursue self-definition through self-help psychology, focusing especially on people studying public speaking and social skills. The dissertation engages with academic theories of autonomy and identity by showing how young adults in China discuss, practice, and promote self-definition. It also contributes to a growing social science literature on the therapeutic, cultural, and political effects of the psychological disciplines as they spread worldwide. Anthropologists have demonstrated that a range of psychological interventions aim to create autonomous, self-managing subjects; they have critiqued these interventions as depoliticizing and economically exploitative. However, autonomy is not only a political logic or a cultural ideal, but also a condition of life in mobile mass societies. This dissertation demonstrates that young college graduates in China draw on self-help psychology as a set of resources for adapting to the possibilities, dangers, and psychosocial demands of life outside of interpersonal networks. It shows that self-help psychology is teaching people in China ways to define who they are in relation to two elements of a liberal society: among strangers, and before an impersonal law. Young adults studying social skills are learning to derive a social identity by being humorous and confident, and also by asserting individual interests and ideals. However, while young adults in China are studying self-presentation skills, the dissertation argues the way in which they bind themselves to their visible personality is deeply shaped by Chinese historical, cultural, and social logics.,The dissertation draws on a year and half of participation in personal growth groups in Beijing; interviews with psychotherapists and psychology writers; collaborations with cultural activists; and a survey of self-help texts. By shifting between the perspectives of professional and self-help psychology, the chapters show how the concepts of autonomy and identity are translated between Western psychological expertise and Chinese social discourse. As young adults learn to construct an identity through voluntary association, on stage before a distant audience, and in relation to the image of a perfected self, they develop a liberal sense of being individuals in tension with a reified society. In China, psychologists who are promoting autonomy are continuing a long tradition of modernist reforms that aim to create a civil society of responsible individuals; these efforts now gain strength from experiences of mobility and fragmentation that make stranger relations normal and personal projects vital. But while social changes are teaching young people in China the power of actively crafting an identity, even exposure to Western technologies of self-definition does not make for a Western subjectivity.,Drawing on critical strands of Western and comparative philosophy, the dissertation suggests that the autonomous individual is defined by antagonism, and is subject to a temporality that stakes identity on an eternal moment. Since young adults in China are now worrying about job interviews and dates, they are anxious about fleeting social interactions; they are working to acquire confident self-presentation skills that may help them to secure a social identity. But the self is most tightly bound to its social image not by the eyes of strangers but by the gaze of a transcendent judge, by a trial that finds one either guilty or righteous. Under this gaze, which has been comparatively less central to Chinese people’s psychic economy, the individual becomes a self-justifying political actor. The psychological doctrines now entering China imply a distant law. Self-help concepts including communication, will power, positivity, intimacy, and self-esteem all invoke legalistic and confessional understandings of discourse, and a heroic, antagonistic view of personal efficacy. These terms change their meaning as they are translated into Chinese contexts.,The most revolutionary aspect of the psychological disciplines that are proliferating in China is the way in which they reinforce emerging connections between personal identity, public image, and social performance. For young adults in urban China, self-help psychology offers a set of techniques for defining oneself among strangers, for acquiring confidence and establishing an identity. As young adults in China learn to define who they are by their interests and ideals, they are beginning to develop a transcendent sense of identity, binding the self to the object in the eyes of strangers. The mask of social performance becomes a mirror, in which people hope to find themselves.

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