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The last quarter of the twentieth
century has witnessed a dramatic rise in sales of "self-help" books:
between 1972 and 2000, the number of self-improvement books more than doubled.
Moreover, one-third to one-half of Americans has bought self-improvement books,
which constitute an influential portion of the publishing industry. What does
this say about American society? Our relations to our political economic
institutions? Our relations to ourselves? Do we want to live in a society in
which the values of the marketplace have been
transplanted to the personal world of intimate life? (e.g., the
permeation of the market into every corner of social life results in the "fusion
of psychological and financial counseling," p. 105).
In this incisive
survey of American self-help literature, Micki McGee historically
contextualizes the meaning of the "inward turn," showing persistent
continuities as well as divergences. She skillfully disentangles the complex
ideological tapestry of religious traditions, psychological ideas, and
medico-therapeutic approaches that, woven together, comprise our current
understandings of the self. She is particularly concerned with how the rapidly
changing political economic climate is cultivating this influential genre.
McGee explores how the allure of such literature is more recently tied to
economic insecurity, though in a hopeful manner she writes that such an
examination "might be mined for political opportunities" (p.12).
a critical stance vis-à-vis self-improvement literature, noting that "the
promise of self-help can lead workers into a new sort of enslavement: into a
cycle where the self is not improved but endlessly belabored" (p.12). The
"beleaguered and belabored self" is "perennially at work on
itself." Exploring the "cultural preoccupation with the self in
terms of labor" (p.16), McGee describes an incessant "labor on the
self" in the form of "immaterial labor," i.e., mental and
emotional work, whether on the job or for one's self-improvement, can be just
as alienating. The troubling aspect of self-help literature is that if one's
success results from one's own efforts, then the responsibility for failure is
also one's own. Moreover, she contends that by overly focusing on the self,
the individual is cut off from supportive collectivities, leading to an "increasingly
1, "From Calling to Vision: Spiritual, Secular, and Gendered Notions,"
McGee delineates the historical background. Specifically, she explores the
ethico-religious grounding of self-help by noting that the premodern idea of a "calling"
was a "dual concept, split between spiritual, otherworldly dimensions and
the material, workaday world" (p. 26). Later developments witnessed a
shift from calling to self-actualization. The latter was a Romantic notion
that regarded one's life as a creative, aesthetic enterprise. Expressive
individualism, something "joyful and playful," became
self-discovery. Eventually self-actualization became associated with a "therapeutic
turn" and a highly psychologized view of the person. As McGee phrases it,
spiritual values have been recast as "therapeutic theism." While
earlier ideas about work viewed it as service to the community and a source of
sustenance, it now became a matter of self-realization. Within this context
questions were asked about the meaning of work: what is its meaning?
Self-expression? Personal fulfillment? A source of identity? In any case,
work itself has become the sole source of self-fulfillment for many.
Chapter 2, "From Power! to Personal Power!
Survivalism and the Inward Turn," McGee notes how different models of the
human condition have shaped approaches to self-help. For example, the Weberian
distinction between rational and expressive dimensions affords a handy
conceptual map of the routes societies have taken on their journeys into
modernity. Rational definitions can be subdivided into "rational-ethic"
and rational-economic" man (sic), while "expressive' understandings
denote aesthetic or even antimodernist and mystical approaches to
self-improvement. In Chapter 3, "From Having It All to Simple
Abundance: Gender and the Logic of Diminished Expectations," McGee sensitively analyzes the gendered aspect of self-help
culture, especially the implicit notion that women, as caregivers, should
support men in their self-improvement projects. Labor on and for the
self has been a value and aspiration reserved for well-propertied males (here
we might also insert "white"). The "most striking
features of the 'unisex' literature of self-improvement is the poverty of the
solutions offered to women in their quests for self-made success" (p.
79). Chapter 4, "The Self at Work: From Job-Hunters to Artist-Entrepreneurs,"
elaborates some of the earlier themes: how a psychotherapeutic ethos permeates
our society, how self-realization through work has come to signify personal
salvation, and "the idea of the artist as an example for the
postindustrial worker" (p. 128). However, so much work on the self,
whether spiritually or aesthetically understood, constitutes uncompensated
labor. Chapter 5, "At Work on the Self: The
Making of the Belabored Self" also expands upon the book's themes, noting,
for example, that the "self-authoring self," as active, autonomous,
and independent, should not passively rely on others. Such a sentiment,
however, leads us to ignore the contribution, support, and sacrifices of
One theme that emerges is how "an
inward turn or focus ... has been underway since the early eighteenth century"
(pp. 47-8). This "move toward a greater sense of interiority and a focus
on the self has been a tendency of modernity" (pp. 76-7). Makeover
culture, then, as an aspect of consumerist capitalism's tendency to position
the individual center stage, is by no means a uniquely American phenomenon but
part of larger global trends toward psychological interiorization.
The final chapter, "All You Can Be, or Some
Conclusions," rounds out the book, and here it is worth addressing McGee's
sociopolitical commentary. Self-help culture, with its imperative to "be
all one can be," is double-edged. The belabored self is "caught in a
cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic,
and political in origin" (p. 177). However, McGee optimistically
opines that self-help culture may be used for "cultivating social change"
and that it "might
be tapped for a progressive, even a radical, agenda" (p. 24). So far, so
good. But McGee, who sets up a dichotomization between "capitalist"
and "democratic" demands (predictability the former is a term of
censure), runs aground when she writes that a "social safety net
with a guaranteed minimum living allowance would be a necessary component of a
politics of self-realization" (p. 183). Such thinking, inspired by economic reductionism, leads to an ideological
default mode premised on a naïve notion that social ills can be explained by
material inequities; therefore, redistributive programs will fix society.
Certainly the vagaries of postmodern capitalism
demand safety-net and stepping-stone welfare. However, overgenerous welfarism
fails not because it inadequately redistributes resources, but because its
recipients see little reason to "invest their selves" into property
for which they did not work. Self-ownership, a species of self-realization,
comes from self-directed accumulation of material security, not handouts.
Social stability arises not from dividing the pie up more equally, but from
encouraging individuals to self-justify their linkages to whatever size of the
pie they obtain. The twentieth century demonstrates the pitfalls of equalizing
property relations (hard social engineering). Political economic regimes
should foster an environment of opportunity by market-regulation and
dismantling obstacles to genuine self-ownership (soft social engineering).
Moderate social engineering, as seen in social and liberal democratic welfare
attempts, are less ambitious than socialist social engineering and their
shortcomings not as glaring, but their results are decidedly mixed. In any
case, economic measurements are objective, whereas how much wealth makes an
individual content and how willing one is to pursue property accumulation are not.
McGee also suggests
that an "effective politics ... would necessarily embrace the demise of
the pubic-private split ... rather than mourning its passing" (p. 185). I
wonder. Arguably in certain contexts, this proposition seems reasonable, but
at the same time, it might let in a Trojan horse of the "public"
(which, incidentally, must be clarified as designating either official state or
unofficial civil society). With so many private sites now needing protection
from public intervention, McGee's proposition must be entertained with extreme
caution. Indeed, McGee asks "why the growth of self-improvement groups
and culture have far outpaced the growth of either progressive or radical
political movements throughout the last part of the twentieth century" (p.
189). Probably because many sense that, while self-help culture (private
endeavors) and the political economic regime (public concerns) are certainly
linked, they do not necessarily align.
these reservations, McGee's book is highly recommended for both the general
reader and university classroom, linking as it does an overwhelmingly popular
genre found in any bookstore to crucial political and economic debates. Her
main contention that self-(re)invention can be profoundly alienating and that we
must interrogate the larger political economic forces encouraging us to "belabor"
ourselves is well taken. Self-improvement, as presented in the realm of
self-help culture, can be specious, and should not be confused with
self-determination or an authentic psycho-spiritual self-fulfillment.
© 2006 Brian J. McVeigh
Brian J. McVeigh teaches in the
East Asian Studies Department at the University of Arizona. An anthropologist
and Japan specialist, his latest book is The State Bearing Gifts: Deception
and Disaffection in Japanese Higher Education. He is currently writing a
book entitled The Propertied Self: Politics, Psychology, and Ownership in