Modes of Self-Alteration Anthropology Workshop 2021

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipating in a conference, workshop or event series


The Department of Anthropological Sciences, Faculty of Arts, University of Malta in conjunction with Macquarie University, Sydney, are organizing a workshop entitled Modes of Self-Alteration in December 2021. The workshop will take place via ZOOM. The seminar contributions will take place on Wednesday 08 and Thursday 09 December. Friday 10 December will be devoted to a Master / Postgraduate students' panel.

Contemporary life across the globe is awash with activities, enterprises, programmes, and practices that purport to foster self-alteration. Young and not so young alike are inveigled and mobilized to take-up or buy into myriad projects of self-change, through education, training, mastery of new skills, spiritual-development, crafting of new self-narratives, therapy, voluntarism. Stories of success after failure or triumph after trauma dominate media, along with advertising for programs and life-coaching that claims to facilitate self-care, self-help, resilience, productivity, ambiguity tolerance, agility, and leadership.

The ubiquity of such sentiments suggests that these proposals are part of a global common sense. Yet is the desire for self-modification existentially universal? Or is it by contrast historically particular? What relationship do the appeals for self-improvement, self-development, and personal maximization have with the policy regime of neo-liberal capitalism? And how might these appeals relate to older ‘demands’ initiated by the conditions of modernity to shape one’s self and to make sense of one’s life as the object of a quest? (Taylor 1989).

Moreover, can we be whatever we want? How easy is it to alter one’s self? Co-created through the intersubjective relations our ‘minimal’ self enters into from birth (and before), to what extent is self-transformation pursuable or attainable on our own? Does society – its gender expectations, its sexual practices, its educational and class inequities, its racial history, its ways of generating bodies and emotions – have to alter before its members can really change?

At the same time, who amongst us today does not at least sometimes feel a pressing desire to be different, to be an-other self? Who does not wish occasionally to alter themselves, to change our relationships, or to transform the person we are in those relationships? Not only a philosophical question examining how we should live, this is also a practical care: can I change, and how?

It is with these apparently universal hopes and particular existential dilemmas that this workshop begins. In it we hope to investigate the rich panoply of modalities, methods, and mechanisms through which people, individually or communally, seek to alter or to re-vitalize themselves. In doing so, we seek to explore a number of profound issues and questions, concerning the [im]possibility and [un]limited scope of self-alteration, its embroiling within and part-enabling by beyond-the-individual social traditions, practices, movements, institutions, and powers, as well as the significance of people’s experiences of, and testimonies to, self-transformation. Equally importantly, in studying these modes of alteration, we notice how alongside those that target the psychological transforming of a big-S ‘Self’, self-alteration may also be instigated by a modifying of behaviour or practise; by a changed (embodied) experience of the ‘world’; by a new knowledge of reality; by an expanding or diminishing of relationships [i.e. becoming an atheist by losing one’s relationship with God]; by being gripped by a new truth; or by a different sense of identity.

At the same time, self-alteration also requires the individual’s accomplishment of a modus vivendi or reconciliation with efficacious external and internal forces, or a creative self-reckoning with changes wrought upon the self. In it there is a taking ownership or an overcoming of others’ alteration of us. How has anthropology and its interlocutors related (or distinguished between) consciousness of self-alteration or self-production, and consciousness of the producing or altering of our ‘selves’ by other beings or by other things – by a new environment; an illness; the action of divinities or meta-humans; historical events; the trauma of violence or migration; death of a loved one; parental rejection, etc.? In brief, compound experiences of agency, passivity, and reflection are usefully revealed in the ambiguity and double meaning of the phrase ‘self-alteration.’ Studying it means analyzing alteration of the self by both the ‘world’ and the ‘self’: the work of the self and the work of the world in the self’s re-formation over time.

For more information and to register to participate, please contact the workshop coordinators Jean-Paul Baldacchino (University of Malta) and Christopher Houston (Macquarie University, Sydney).
Period8 Dec 202110 Dec 2021
Event typeWorkshop
LocationMsida, Malta
Degree of RecognitionInternational