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Book explores our makeover culture

by Michèle Nardelli

Prof Anthony Elliott’s book ReinventionIt is the stuff of programming for entire television channels – the notion that with the right exercise machine, the newest diet, the right night cream and a new attitude we can transform ourselves from what we were to something new and better.

In the 21st century we can be thinner. We can have whiter teeth, more hair, and younger looking skin. If we read the right books and download the right motivational mp3s we can grasp the brass ring and move into the corner office. We can move from rags to riches and – following three, five or six important steps – we can turn our lives around from unemployed and embittered to property magnate and guru.

It is this makeover culture that Director of UniSA’s Hawke Research Institute, Professor Anthony Elliott unpacks in his latest book, Reinvention.

Explored in sometimes excruciating but thought-provoking depth, Prof Elliott considers ‘makeover’ culture in its most public and private incarnations from extreme plastic surgery and weight loss television to company restructure and rebranded cities, all the while unravelling the ubiquity of reinvention culture and its consequences for society now and into the future.

“In Australia alone, the revolution that is reinvention will see us spend to the tune of $1.7 billion in 2013 on personal reinvention regimes – ranging across weight loss programs and gym memberships to cosmetic surgical procedures,” Prof Elliott says.

“And those figures rise hugely for the UK and the US.

“But while the profit churn can be seen as a core driver of the reinvention market, at a deeper, personal level people have embraced reinvention as a part of normal life.

“There are a range of social forces at play – an environment of instant change, the radical intensification of the speed of change and the purveyance of short-term thinking.

“When you consider the globalised economic environment, off-shoring, rapid changes in technology and communications technology and the prevalence of multiple careers, it is clear we are seeing a huge shift from the culture of previous generations.”

In his book Prof Elliott takes the reader from the personal and professional – so that we see how this revolution is expressing itself in our body image, our sense of health and well-being, our relationships, our notions of work and work practices and corporate culture – right through to the monolithic reinventions of cities.

He cites examples such as the European destination city of leisure, Gran Scala, located in the Spanish desert, a €17 billion entertainment project due to comprise 32 casinos, 232 restaurants, 70 hotels, five theme parks, a race track and a bullring. Similarly he says Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, which opened in 2010, is the world's most expensive casino resort, boasting a 2561 room hotel, a 1,300,000 ft² convention centre, a mega-mall, a museum, two floating crystal pavilions and an ice skating rink.

“At its most positive and exciting, this new cultural framework makes just about anything possible,” he says.

“It gives individuals and organisations an opportunity to turn a fresh page, to start anew and an unprecedented freedom to live life differently. If you have time and money there are literally no limits to reinvention.”

But he says the dark side of the reinvention phenomenon is the disruptive emotional consequences of all of this capacity for transformation.

“People can find themselves feeling inadequate and disposable,” he says.

“The pervasiveness of the culture is intense so that it is not only upper middle class westerners seeking transformation but also the poor and disenfranchised, some of whom borrow heavily to meet their aspirations to take part in the culture of reinvention.

“This can be their undoing and it has the wider potential to leave people feeling discarded, resulting in a range of consequences from neurosis and depression, through to greater tragedies such as suicide.”

Published by Routledge, this absorbing book takes a close look at some of the most bizarre excesses of our times and analyses them in the broader context of 21st century culture. It is an important volume for social commentators, students of sociology, writers and those who are simply keen observers of our society.The book is available from bookshops and from PalgraveMcMillen for $19.95 plus postage and handling.