Love Yourself: The Relationship of the Self with Itself in Popular Self-Help Texts

Article excerpt


Our age is often characterized as being preoccupied with self-referential systems (Giddens, 1992; Weeks, 1995) and in particular with the examination and reformation of the self which may take the form of a reflexive project of self (Bauman, 1982; Featherstone, 1991; Lash and Urry, 1994) in which 'we are not what we are, but what we make of ourselves' (Giddens, 1991: 68). Therapeutic discourses have played a significant role in this process (Bellah et al., 1996 inter alia) and it is through psychological explanations that we are now accustomed to making sense of increasingly diverse phenomena (Moskovitz, 2001). Many critics have asserted that the rise of psychology has had depoliticizing effects. Rieff (1987), for example, claims that we have witnessed the birth of a new epoch--that of 'psychological man', who is privatized and individualized. Lasch (1979) states that there has been a turn to the self in recent decades, a tendency to live only in the present day, and a retreat into narcissism fuelled by therapy. Sennett (1986) claims that, because public life has become increasingly subject to the values of private life, we are weakened in our ability to cope with public and political life. Cloud (1998) argues that the depoliticizing effects of therapy and self-help are used as a political strategy by contemporary capitalism to serve the purposes of powerful economic interests.

In contrast, Giddens believes that therapy is 'emancipatory', being both a product and a cause of increased reflexivity, and he claims self-help books are part of the 'democratization of daily life' (Giddens, 1992: 64, 156). However, while the increasing influence of the 'psy' (1) disciplines has been the subject of significant academic enquiry (Rose, 1999), the self-help text, one of the most popular and visible manifestations of the widespread influence of therapeutic discourse, has received comparatively little attention. Existing studies tend to focus on their history (Starker, 1989) or the ways in which they are used by their readers (Simonds, 1992). Some have attempted to ascertain the 'efficacy' of self-help books, with varying results (Delin and Delin, 1994; Scholz and Forest, 1997).

Lichterman states that the self-help readers in his study read 'believingly but loosely', sometimes experiencing problems trying to remember particular messages, but showing a willingness to entertain psychological interpretations of personal troubles and assuming that within self-help books, 'the categories and analyses themselves are legitimate' (Lichterman, 1992: 427, 432). Hochschild's (1994) article analyses the content of self-help manuals, and finds them to be part of the 'hijacking' of the women's movement by capitalist and instrumentalist values, and Rimke (2000) demonstrates that self-help books can be seen as a technique of governmentality, or 'the conduct of conduct' (Foucault, 1982: 220-1)--a process involving a multitude of governing agencies and authorities, attempting to govern different kinds of behaviours, for different purposes and with different consequences (Burchell et al., 1991; Dean, 1999; Foucault, 1991; Rose, 1996, 1999). I am in broad agreement with Rimke's approach, but this article differs from her approach and those above as it seeks to provide a technical examination of the ethical valorizations and teleologies in relationship manuals. In particular, it asks: what prescriptions and proscriptions are provided with regard to specific emotional involvements? What kinds of ethical self-understanding are being promoted? What sorts of identities are being provided? What kinds of emotion are lauded or promoted as being 'healthy', and what kinds are considered undesirable or unhealthy?

This article forms part of a wider study, for which ! selected for analysis 14 best-selling therapeutic relationship manuals (2) from 1973 to 2001. The term 'best-selling' is somewhat ill-defined, with different agencies and publications producing different results and different lists. …


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