King, V., Gerisch, B., Rosa, H. (2019), Lost in Perfection, Classical and Contemporary Social Theory, Oxford/New York: Routledge.
What we see as perfection and as the gold standard for improvement is part of the given culture, of the explicit and implicit notions of a good, a successful, a better life, an ideal design for communal living or human endeavour. These notions are always linked to social, economic and technological changes. We see notions of perfection in art and ethics, in language and in normative guidelines emanating from politics, science and technology, or education, in cultural notions of truth, goodness and morality. They are also reflected in the experiences we have and in our beliefs about what is socially desirable or individually necessary to maximize prestige or to avoid losses and social decline.
The authors see an increasing influence of optimization constraints, where an absolute standard has to be met, which then has to be immediately and repeatedly exceeded. There is external social pressure, but also an intrinsically personal (or apparently personal) motivation. In our age of acceleration, an age in which we have to be as flexible as humanly possible, tuning our activity to permanent, unlimited overperformance is gaining significance. An important driver is the growing competitive dynamics resulting from the intrinsic logic of the global economy, its modes of production and reproduction, in combination with the rapidly changing forms of communication, information and mobility. Competition and rivalry are gaining importance in all kinds of sectors, such as physicality and psyche, intimacy, family matters, care and love relationships. In short, optimization pressures are being exerted on areas of life that resist such instrumental treatment because of the way they are. Social relationships cannot simply be judged in terms of (increased) efficiency. Body and soul or education and care, psychological growth and coping processes can hardly be optimized in an instrumental sense without incurring major damage.
If the standard becomes stricter step by step, and the meaning of pathology and normality shifts further, what will this do to people? Many things: they get into conflict and have to face ambivalence and dissatisfaction. The claims of perfectionism of the "entrepreneurial self" get into conflict, because of the impossibility of actually achieving perfection. No employee can ignore the optimization pressure. We should all regard our professional activity as meaningful, and therefore we cannot help but concern ourselves with the demands placed on us by the organization or service environment.
While the early days of the Quantified Self movement focused on chronic health management, the commodification of self-tracking in the form of fitness trackers and smartwatches now obscures the initial logic of containment. Users know that their data travels and is being evaluated and reviewed by others. This tacit knowledge makes self-optimization a moral issue. How fit do I have to be to be fit enough? It is at this point that private insurance companies step in and propose a deal. “You know your data is up for grabs, so why not give it to us directly? In return, we will tell you exactly what to do and how fit you should be.”
The ideal invariably arises from the projection of an image of perfection that no one can live up to. As an object of desire, the ideal introduces a constant shift and thus a tension that is positive in itself, but can also lead to the devaluation of reality implied by the so-called idealistic attitude. The individual can either try to escape reality in the name of utopian ideals or reject any possibility of personal achievement, which will always be seen as imperfect in comparison to the original project.
Body optimization practices deal with social demands as well as individual biographical dispositions. Plastic surgery and body-tuning are becoming hypes, as seductive ways of self-optimization. Wanting to rejuvenate oneself stems from a desire to live forever, to be an autonomous person and to be without flaws. The desire for perfection can serve narcissistic purposes, represent the demands of a rigid super-ego, deny the experience of time, or obscure a fragile sense of identity. The ideal of perfection in its various pathological forms hinders psychic development and distorts human creativity.
The pursuit of self-improvement and self-control, specific to capitalist and nationalist ideas, bears similarities to psychopathological disorders such as obsessive-compulsive personalities. Extreme attempts at control ultimately lead to the exact opposite: loss of control, unleashed violence and self-destruction.