The new spirit of depression: Imperatives of self-realization and their collapses in late modernity

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The article puts forward a sociological interpretation of the supposed “pandemics of depression” that assails the contemporary world. It approaches the modes of psychic suffering commonly described as depressive experiences in the light of an analysis of the forms of subjectivity produced or, at least, encouraged by late modernity. Based on the social-historical diagnosis of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ formulated by Boltanski and Chiapello, the text defends that the attributes of initiative, entrepreneurship and adaptability have become normative imperatives for contemporary individuality, not only in the world of labor but in various other existential domains, such as the care of one’s body and erotic-affective relationships. Without neglecting the inflation of psychiatric diagnoses as part of the causes behind the alleged pandemics of depression nowadays, the paper sustains that the very real forms of psychological suffering portrayed in such terms are the reverse coin, as it were, of contemporary demands for individual self-realization: the depressive collapse of initiative and the absence of “projects” replace the “entrepreneurship of the self”; the interruption of movement overwhelms the flexible adaptability of the self to a society of accelerated changes; and the experience of existential isolation replaces the expected communicability of the contemporary self as a restless networker. The text concludes with a reflection of the limits that contemporary civilization places on individuals’ “psychic ecology” and the “energetic economy”.




Peters, G. (2021). The new spirit of depression: Imperatives of self-realization and their collapses in late modernity. Civitas, 21(1), 71–83.

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