Ehrenreich’s observations deserve to be understood and appreciated. Unfortunately, there’s a huge commercial market in positive thinking, so her insights face an uphill battle. Judging by the comments left on YouTube (e.g., “This seems like an incredibly shallow and nonsensical analysis”), the hill is quite steep. Read more
I was just reading the introduction to the 2006 (fortieth-anniversary) edition of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. 2006 – as it happens — was the year that Rieff died (at age 83). The introduction was written by social/cultural/intellectual historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and contained some passages I thought worth quoting.
Capitalism and the self
Rieff’s book is about the cultural transformation of the twentieth-century — from widely held religious/communal values to the prominence of psychology as supreme arbiter of interests and values. According to Lasch-Quinn, Rieff sees a connection between this transformation and the “advances and excesses of capitalism, with its radically destructive gospel of greed.”
[H]e makes a clear link between modern wealth accumulation and the “symbolic impoverishment” of the therapeutic age. The wealthy attempt to compensate for the shortfall with money and its accoutrements, making both art and science into forms of self-analysis and self-worship.
Self-interest becomes “the only principle of action or judgment.”
The book’s implicit connection between consumerism and the cult of impulse release, the nihilism of which Rieff captures so persuasively, represents a searing indictment of the status quo, a clear condemnation of a society “technologically loaded with bribes.”
Nice phrase, nice insight that last bit, and so much more characteristic of society 47 years later. And “gospel of greed” turns out to be even more descriptive of the 1980s (“greed is good”) than the 1960s. In a preface to the 20th anniversary edition of his book (1987), Rieff remarks: “This book stands as it first appeared. To change the text of a ‘prophetic’ character would be to write another book.” Read more
When I decided to write some introductory posts that explained my personal interest in the subject matter of this blog, I didn’t anticipate that I would write 24 of them and not post them until I’d finished the last one. But once I started down that path, I decided to follow it to the end. This is the end.
So now I ask: What have I learned by writing these posts?
One thing I was a bit surprised to find was that, when I reread what I’d written over 30 years ago, I still identified strongly with that author. I still have the same questions, the same aspirations, the same intellectual and emotional responses to a certain set of ideas. Given that I lack a ‘motive force’ that tells me what to do next — which means I find myself moving on from one thing to the next without any obvious theme or reason — I would have expected more change in my life than continuity. It seems I’m still attracted to what the sociology of knowledge/social construction can tell me about everyday life and the taken-for-granted, which may mean I’m still trying to understand whay they can tell me about my own life.
Critical psychology and the social determinants of health
I also hadn’t anticipated that I would find a strong connection between the social determinants of health – which I’d been writing about at The Health Culture — and critical psychology. Why is it so difficult to get the medical profession and public policy makers to acknowledge the importance of the social determinants of health and take appropriate action? I know that fundamentally there’s an economic explanation, but I don’t find that sufficient to explain why we care so little about inequality and social disparities. Read more
I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
I’ve wanted to read more about the history of self-help for years now. I’ve started Micki McGee’s Self-Help Inc. several times and always been distracted by something that seemed more pressing. I knew that if I read about self-help I would want to write about it, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do that at The Health Culture.
I have written there about happiness and the positive psychology movement. I wrote several posts on a book I really enjoyed: Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. Although I never got around to writing about it, I’ve repeatedly recommended a great article by William Davies called The Political Economy of Unhappiness. It’s about the responsibility of Britain’s National Health Service to keep workers happy, not for the benefit of employees, but to improve corporate efficiency. While these were not directly on the history of self-help, they were on the fringes.
Below I’ve compiled a list of books that I’ve either read, want to read, or want to refer to (even if they’re not worth a close reading). I’ve divided them into two parts. This first group contains books I feel confident recommending. Read more
The quotation at the start of the last post — “[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world” — is from an excellent article in New York Magazine. Boris Kachka describes what self-help has become. Though he writes mainly about how self-help has changed the publishing industry, his analysis of how this relates to cultural history — the shift from pragmatism and self-reliance to being personally responsible for self-regulation — is spot on.
Kachka refers to a “new kind of self-help,” by which he means: “These days, self-help is unembarrassed, out of the bedside drawer and up on the coffee table, wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way.”
Here are some passages from the article that I particularly enjoyed (emphasis added):
This new kind of self-help could never thrive in a vacuum. Or rather, it thrives in a particular vacuum—the one left behind by the disappearance of certain public values that once fulfilled our lives. Strains of self-help culture — entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-reliance, gauzy spirituality — have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack. But in the past there was always a countervailing force, an American stew of shame and pride and citizenship that kept these impulses walled off, sublimating private anxiety to the demands of an optimistic meritocracy. That force has gradually been weakened by the erosion of all sorts of structures, from the corporate career track to the extended family and the social safety net. Instead of regulation, we have that new buzzword, self-regulation; instead of an ambivalence over “selling out,” we have the millennial drive to “monetize”; and instead of seeking to build better institutions, we mine them in order to build better selves. Read more
[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. (Boris Kachka)
I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)
Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate. Read more
Anthropology, sociology and history – disciplines that consider a variety of cultures, social conventions, and historical times – make a valuable contribution to understanding the self (along with the many other valuable contributions they make, of course). They force us to acknowledge that what is true for one specific culture, society, or historical time is not universally true.
Because psychology considers itself a science, with theories based on empirically validated findings, it lacks the benefit of the self-reflective qualities intrinsic to humanist disciplines. This leaves psychology open to criticism.
For example, there’s the charge that psychology has been guilty of assuming that what it observes in Western (North American and European) cultures must be true for other cultures, as well as for our ancestors. In an excellent article on this point, The Weirdest People in the World (PDF), the authors point out that those who live in Western societies not only differ psychologically from people in the rest of the world. WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people are in fact quite exceptional compared to other cultures and to their ancestors. Americans, in particular, are so unusual that they stand out as “outliers among outliers.” (See also on this: Ethan Watters, We Aren’t the World.) Read more
One of my graduate school professors, Derek J. de Solla Price (Little Science, Big Science), used to say that if you start with the references in the bibliography of one journal article, look up each of those references and follow their bibliographies to yet another set of articles, and so on – like the branches of a tree – you would eventually locate all the important publications in a given field.
Bibliographies are often the first thing I read in a book. If an academic book has only footnotes and no bibliography, I’m disappointed. It’s so much easier to scan a bibliography for interesting titles than to ferret them out from wordy footnotes. An annotated bibliography is rare, but ideal.
On the Internet, Amazon has a feature called “Customers who viewed this item also viewed,” which is somewhat useful. Not that long ago Amazon used to have something much better: Titles that reference this book. It’s now gone, but you can accomplish the same thing these days using Google Books.
Mark Leary and the psychology of the self
It was a bibliography that recently started me reading about the psychology (as opposed to the history, philosophy, sociology or anthropology) of the self. A few months ago I saw a full page magazine ad by The Teaching Company for a lecture series called Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. The DVD version was available in my local library and, since I had some free time, I ended up watching all 24 of the half-hour lectures. Read more
Psychology is a relatively recent discipline (late 19th century). With a few notable exceptions (William James, neo-Freudians, humanists), psychologists largely ignored the self until the late 20th century. Only with the decline of behaviorism and psychoanalysis did the self emerge as a topic worthy of consideration.
Philosophy, on the other hand, has a long history of examining the self. In the East we have the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, and the teachings of Gautama Buddha. In the West, we have Plato, followed by pre-Enlightenment religious philosophers who were concerned with the sinful qualities of the self (egotism, pride, selfishness). During the Enlightenment, various philosophers — Descartes, Locke, Hume, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Kant — weighed in on the subject. Ever since that time, philosophers have continually disagreed on the nature of the self.
Philosophers refer to “the problem of the self.” This “problem” includes such questions as: Is there a self? Can we know it? What is the nature of self-awareness? How does the self relate to the mind and the body? What (if anything) does the self have to do with the brain? Read more
Although psychologists and sociologists often have had difficulty agreeing how to define and conceptualize their constructs, “self” has been particularly troublesome. Not only have we lacked a single, universally accepted definition of “self,” but also many definitions clearly refer to distinctly different phenomena, and some uses of the term are difficult to grasp no matter what definition one applies.
They go on to distinguish five different and common uses of the word “self.”
Self as the total person
This is the everyday language use of self, no different from saying herself or himself. When we say “self-defeating,” the self refers to the person who is defeated. Leary and Tangney advise psychologists to avoid this usage, since it is not the “psychological entity that is actually of interest to self researchers.”
Self as personality
An example of this usage is Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization, where what is actualized is a person’s personality. Leary and Tangney suggest that when referring to “a collection of abilities, temperament, goals, values, and preferences,” use the word personality, not self. Read more
As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.
I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.
The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.
Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more