“You must change your life”

[In this latest iteration of my composition seminar, I adopted an innovative capstone writing exercise from Daniel Jump: students each wrote an academic review of a classmate’s research essay, and had their own essay reviewed in turn. I bundled the essays and reviews into a single PDF — an e-book of essays and responses — for which I contributed a short preface, reproduced here.]

Preface

The essays collected here were composed in spring 2015 for a Yale College writing seminar. The seminar’s title – “You Must Change Your Life” – derives from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (d. 1926), where these words figure as an enigmatic command emanating from the fragmentary torso of an ancient Greek statue. Our seminar took Rilke’s words as emblematic of human efforts to shape, govern, cultivate, and train human life. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk terms such efforts “anthropotechnics”; we confronted them with a series of questions:

  • who are the people told to change their lives? What are their distinguishing qualities?
  • who delivers this message and guides the process of reform? How is this role imagined and what qualifies someone for it?
  • what specific techniques are used?
  • what part or aspect of a person is targeted for reform, discipline, cultivation, etc.?
  • what is the goal?

In the first part of our seminar, we read a triplet of emphatically “anthropotechnical” texts and analyzed them with reference to the questions above: the Socratic dialogue Alcibiades, the Rule of St. Benedict, and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Letters. Following these readings and analyses, students each identified and undertook research on one further program, scene, or practice of life-direction.

Students were invited to interpret this charge broadly. The result is a rich and impressive range of studies, expressive of a certain tension between the two elements yoked together in the title to this collection. On the one hand, there is the piercingly singular imperative to “change your life.” On the other, there are a multitude of life-shaping routines—routines that may, perhaps, promise to implement this command, but which also reduce the command to machine-like regularity. This, at least, is what seminar participants heard in the title we adopted.

The collection begins with an essay that raises difficult questions about a celebrated utopian experiment of the nineteenth century. The next two studies situate the present moment within an expansive historical sweep; they also initiate a cluster of essays that explore enduring problems of gender stereotype and gender inequality. This cluster is completed by a third essay, in which the comparative frame is diatopic rather than diachronic. The two final essays examine the cycling of persons into and out of recent and ongoing wars. Each essay is followed by a review that contextualizes the primary study, offers critical comment, and proposes directions for future work.

4 May 2015

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