This chapter investigates how the conjunction of socio-economic, cultural and
political contexts made the midlife crisis – as both concept and experience
– possible. By juxtaposing advice literature on healthy ageing in America,
the work of marriage guidance counsellors in Britain, as well as cinematic
and literary representations of the ‘emotional typhoon’ experienced during
midlife transitions, it argues that the popularity of the term ‘midlife
crisis’ lay in its resonance with growing concerns about the collapse of the
American dream and post-Second World War anxieties about threats to the
stability of the nuclear family. In both cases, notions of emotional balance
were reconfigured by obsessions with the autonomous individual and the
gospel of consumption. The belief that life could begin again at 40 was used
to restabilise a seemingly unbalanced Western capitalist economy that could
only be sustained by prolonging productivity and encouraging spending across
the whole life course.
Concepts of ‘balance’ have been central to modern politics, medicine and society.
Yet, while many health, environmental and social challenges are discussed
globally in terms of imbalances in biological, social and ecological systems,
strategies for addressing modern excesses and deficiencies have focused almost
exclusively on the agency of the individual. Balancing the Self explores the
diverse ways in which balanced and unbalanced selfhoods have been subject to
construction, intervention and challenge across the long twentieth century.
Through original chapters on subjects as varied as obesity control, fatigue and
the regulation of work, and the physiology of exploration in extreme conditions,
the volume analyses how concepts of balance and rhetorics of empowerment and
responsibility have historically been used for a variety of purposes, by a
diversity of political and social agencies. Historicising present-day concerns,
as well as uncovering the previously hidden interests of the past, this volume’s
wide-ranging discussions of health governance, subjectivity and balance will be
of interest to historians of medicine, sociologists, social policy analysts, and
social and political historians alike.
This chapter introduces the volume’s major arguments and themes. It provides
a critical account of prominent theorisations of balance and selfhood, and
surveys and frames each contribution to the volume. In doing so, the chapter
outlines what has been at stake in projects for achieving balanced selves in
the twentieth century. It not only makes plain how historical investigations
into balanced selfhood complicate assumptions about the links between
individualised balance and forms of production or political regimes, but
also highlights the malleability and multi-valence of balance as a concept.
It argues, therefore, that the volume not only contributes to the cultural
history of an everyday concept, but also generates insights into the history
of health governance and subjectivity, and into the close connections
between medicine, politics and the regulation of social life.