The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Reinvent, Reinventing, Reinvention

John P. Hewitt

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

The words reinvent, reinventing, and reinvention have been swimming in the linguistic sea for centuries, but it was only in the late twentieth century that they found an ecology in which they could thrive, evolve, and spread. Beginning in the late 1960s and accelerating during the next three decades, use of the words reached a peak in the mid-2000s. The combined frequencies of reinvent, reinventing, and reinvention in books published in English in the United States increased nearly five-fold from 1950 to 2009, with most of this proliferation occurring during the 1990s. People continued to “refashion,” “reconstruct,” and “rethink,” but increasingly chose to speak of “reinventing” governments, corporations, careers, themselves, and anything else within reach of their imagination.

Behind the surging popularity of reinvention and its variants is a distinctive conceptual enterprise that has flourished in America since at least the late nineteenth century, one that provides a constant supply of words and images that both explain and construct our ideas about human nature, organizations, institutions, and even politics. This enterprise is itself shaped by values—and, indeed, certain crucial value conflicts—that make up the fabric of American culture. Reinvention, for instance, engages two core value conflicts. On the one hand, Americans famously believe in the possibility of “change,” and regard “freedom” as one of their most cherished (if generally undefined) possessions. On the other hand, they crave “stability” in their communities and personal lives, and value “authority” and rue its decline. Reinvention not only derives its meaning from these polarities; it expresses, symbolizes, and even reproduces the tensions inherent in them.

The conceptual enterprise that led to reinvention is not difficult to trace, at least in broad outline. In 1985, the futurist and advice guru John Naisbitt published the best-selling Reinventing the Corporation: Transforming Your Job and Your Company for the New Information Society. The book was followed by a flood of both scholarly and popular interest in and discourse about corporate reinvention. In 1993, at the beginning of his first administration, President Bill Clinton created the National Performance Review, which was led by Vice President Al Gore. The initiative later became the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, an interagency group tasked with finding ways to streamline and otherwise improve the federal government. Frequency of appearance of the phrase reinventing government, which emerged circa 1980, increased five-fold during the 1990s. Reinventing the self and related phrases also increased nearly five-fold in frequency during the 1990s, with most of the increase coming after 1995. Interest in self-reinvention appears to have been initiated by several titles published in 1993, including Reinventing Yourself: A Control Theory Approach to Becoming the Kind of Person You Want to Be, by D. Boffrey Barnes, and Reinventing Your Life: How to Break Free from Negative Life Patterns, by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko. Reinvention had become ubiquitous: Corporations would become more successful and more responsive to their stakeholders; government would become leaner and better able to do the things people wanted it to do; people would become adaptable to changing economic and social circumstances.

The rapidly multiplying discourse of reinvention endowed the word with a set of associations that would be useful both for visualizing the nature of change and celebrating the freedom to seek it. These associations far overshadowed the negative ones that were once frequently made with the word. Reinventing government or reinventing the corporation had nothing to do with the sense of useless effort implied in the familiar phrase reinventing the wheel. The reinvented reinvention was ameliorative. It spoke to the need for drastic, perhaps even revolutionary changes in the organization and management of corporations. It spoke to an American belief in the capacity of people to make the future better than the past. It spoke to a cultural faith in the plasticity of people themselves. Not only had the American Revolution brought forth upon the continent a new nation, but a “new Adam,” a new and improved version of the human being, capable of remaking himself as he wished or as circumstances demanded.

Although on the surface reinvention seems to have much to do with freedom and change and little to do with authority and stability, matters are more complex than they seem. The discourse of reinvention brings out those underlying value conflicts that animate Americans’ discussions and worries about the self. Does each of us possess a “true self,” and if so, does it emerge spontaneously in our actions or only in a self-conscious and experimental quest? Is it revealed in our sincere adherence to external standards of conduct, even when we are tempted to rebel against them, or in the authentic expression of inner wants and needs? Is it a mask presented to others or a genuine expression of one’s being? Is it fixed, or can it be changed at will? Can we, or do we, invent and reinvent ourselves? And is that good, bad, or merely necessary?

The idea of “self-reinvention” speaks to both sides of this important cultural divide. On the one hand, it recognizes individuals’ practical need to respond to new challenges and changing circumstances by adjusting, modifying, or rethinking their values, beliefs, and position in the social world. Indeed, it legitimates and valorizes the independent, mutable self that is free to remake itself in whatever way it desires. The experienced or presented self of today may of necessity or by choice differ from that of tomorrow, or next week, or a decade hence. On the other hand, whatever form the reinvented self may take, it will be just as subject to tests of authenticity and sincerity as the version that preceded it. Hence, the reinvented self is sometimes spoken of with reverence and hope and sometimes with derision and contempt. In either case, far from being merely a recent response to the forces of globalization, the perceived need to worry about the self, to change it, and simultaneously to resist and enthusiastically pursue a revised self, is endemic to American culture.

Reinvention, moreover, has broad but by no means universal appeal. “Reinventing the corporation” no doubt has great positive resonance among those who are occupationally successful, financially well off, or technologically skilled. Whether they are aware of it or not, it also performs an important ideological function in justifying and preserving existing arrangements of power and wealth. For a corporation seeking to move its manufacturing offshore in order to cut costs and improve profits, “reinventing the corporation” provides useful ideological cover. And the idea of “reinventing the self” or “reinventing one’s career” also appeals to political and social conservatives for whom blame for individual failure always rests squarely with the individual and never with discrimination, limited access to education, or high rates of unemployment. Unemployed? Get a job. Reinvent yourself if you have to. Or as presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged, ask father for a loan so you can acquire the skills or capital you need.

But the concept strikes a different chord among, say, people who have been struggling since a “reinvented” corporation laid off much of its work force. The change that is so valued and sought after in some quarters is a bitter pill for those whose expectations of a lifetime job in a stable community have been disappointed, and who live, amid shuttered storefronts and decaying streets, with a persistent sense of loss. And those whose views of self and society are anchored in one or another version of theological certainty will rue the triumph of unfettered freedom and the loss of clear cultural authority entailed by many reinventions.

The salad days of reinvention may have passed, but we have not seen the last of it. Buzzwords tend to stick around, adding to the volume and sometimes the richness of the language, even as they are pushed into smaller niches to make way for new words: words that themselves will help reinvent the world—or perhaps reboot or relaunch it—even as they promise a fresh look at it.

John P. Hewitt, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, lives in Columbus Ohio. His principle interest is in the history and sociology of the self. He is the author of Dilemmas of the American Self (1989) and The Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Happiness and Solving Problems in America (1998).

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