- Paperback: 308 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 1, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195337263
- ISBN-13: 978-0195337266
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 0.7 x 6.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Self Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life 1st Edition
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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From Publishers Weekly
The huge success of self-help, according to McGee, rests on the fact that its practitioners seamlessly combine two conflicting goals, financial or outward success and religious or inner transcendence, claiming that you can eat your cake and have it, too. In a tone less caustic and more sociological than Steve Salerno's in SHAM (Reviews, May 30), McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at NYU, carefully demonstrates the fallacious underpinnings of this mindset, drawing from a deep well of quintessentially American resources ranging from Cotton Mather to Emerson and Max Weber. Self-help overemphasizes the individual's agency at the expense of the necessary reliance on or assistance of a network of others, and it can be sexist, too, says McGee. Women's rise in the workplace has revealed the "fault lines" in the image of the self-made man, who really depends on a wife to sustain his efforts. To McGee, it's such mendacity that lies at the core of the self-help project, for we cannot make ourselves. Fortunately, her gracefully written account is tinged with sympathy for the harried souls for whom "self-improvement is suggested as the only reliable insurance against economic insecurity" at a time when companies do not properly look after their workers. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Can reading Self-Help, Inc. make you rich, successful and perpetually happy? No, but it'll entertain you and make you a whole lot smarter about American popular culture and the economic forces that shape it."--Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed
"Elegantly written, brilliantly argued, and very important--a must read."--Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind and The Commercialization of Intimate Life
"McGee writes clearly and thoughtfully.... She moves seamlessly from high theory to pop psychobabble, using the former to illustrate the powers of the latter. Overall, she offers a compelling argument for resisting the self-improvement genre's worldview. what comes through most clearly to me is a Marxist critique of consumer capitalism--like Raymond Williams for the 21st century."--Wendy Simonds, American Journal of Sociology
"McGee has revealed the self-help industry as an obsessional treadmill far more than a path to a better life....Self-Help, Inc. offers a revealing look at the profound dissatisfactions that loiter beneath the topography of our consumer culture."--Stuart Ewen, author of PR!: A Social History of Spin
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Lose your job? Don't complain or be a "victim" but "buck-up" and talk nonsense about how it is the greatest thing that ever happened to you! Lose your marriage? Don't wallow in self-pity but think positive! Feel hopeless? Don't worry the "universe" has a plan for you if you can just focus on abundance. This is a splendid critique of one of the most vapid American phenomena- the idea that you "invent" yourself. People like Tom Peters should be clubbed unconscious with this book.
She states, "Self-help literature does not abandon its traditional terms of missions, paths, roads less traveled, and individual calling. Instead, the literature offers something for everyone. For those who subscribe to a traditional theistic framework, the idea of a general calling---the pursuit of salvation---continues to function as a powerful consolation when the possibility of a personal or particular calling is preempted by the vagaries of the labor market." (Pg. 47)
She suggests, "[M. Scott] Peck's The Road Less Traveled proposes a spiritual alternative in a world where the likelihood of material success became, for the average American, an increasingly elusive goal. His therapeutic theism served much the same anesthetizing role that had previously been the sole province of religion... The cultivation of a spiritual life and an orientation toward community provided a counterpoint to the unbridled self-interest of the prior decade." (Pg. 57-58)
She observes, "The social theorist John Steadman Rice argues that the concept of 'codependency' fused the divergent values of liberation psychotherapy ... and the Christian morality and small-group dynamics of the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition. The hybridization of these two worldviews constituted a compelling, if contradictory, new interpersonal paradigm: social institutions were suspect, yet recovery could only occur in the social context of the freely chosen group. The institution most maligned in the codependency literature was the already beleagured nuclear family. Dubbed 'dysfunctional,' the family was identified as the source of all interpersonal and social problems. The new self-constructed 'family' of the support group provided a substitute family and a self-selected social world." (Pg. 89)
She concludes, "Ironically, self-help culture, particularly Twelve-Step culture, has provided some of our most robust new language: recovery, dysfunctional families, and, of course, codependency are all concepts that emerge from this vital, if depoliticized, context. The difficulty with these formulations is that they ... are hybridizations of religious traditions of testimony and medical discourse... The literatures of self-improvement are... uninventive, liberally appropriating from prior inspirational literature. The developments we've seen have been not so much inventions but expansions and adaptations. The actually existing culture of self-improvement... does not yet offer much possibility for progressive social change. What would be required to tap into the unrest in self-improvement culture would be a politics commited to economic justice (redistribution) as well as to mutual recognition." (Pg. 188-189)
This is a thought-provoking analysis; for other critical treatments of self-help books and culture, you might also enjoy Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them,Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless,Women and Self-Help Culture: Reading Between the Lines,Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology,Self-Help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to the Snake-Oil Peddlers Who Are Sapping Our Nation's Soul, etc.
I also like the premise of the book. Why has self-help become so popular -- not just in the US, but world-wide? But I had some concerns about the way the question was answered.
First, self-help is a very broad genre. If you think about it, any how-to book can be considered self-help, even "how to plant a greener lawn" or "how to de-clutter your home." So why not have books like "How to cope with difficult people" or "How to find a job you want.
Second, McGee chose an archeological method to evaluate self-help. She chose a collection of texts and analyzed the contents. This method makes sense if say, you turn up a collection of documents on a dig. It's the way many scholars evaluate documents associated with the founding of world religions.
But, as religious scholarship demonstrates, these methods can lead to distorted interpretations. Many scholars emphasize that contemporary readers of the current Bible would have recognized stories as myths and legends, not as absolute truth. \
Since many readers of self-help are alive and accessible, why not ask them how they read and apply self-help to their lives? I believe many readers of self-help read selectively and skeptically. I think readers embark on affirmations and create treasure maps in a playful sense of fun. I don't think most readers study these books with the author's intensity.
And I think most readers (and certainly publishers) recognize the importance of packaging. These days, we've been conditioned by advertising to apply the puffery discount as we make choices and as we read. My own ebook "9 Steps to a new career" sells many more copies with a new title promising a 21-day "extreme career makeover."
Third, some of the author's examples seem misleading. For instance, McGee criticizes Sinetar's definition of "right livelihood" in her best-selling book, Do What You Love: The Money Will Follow.
Actually, Sinetar is one of the most grounded, down-to-earth writers around. She does refer to spirituality and vocation. But that's not woo-woo. In other books and tapes, she's very open about her commitment to Catholicism. An earlier book was about being a monk or mystic in the world.
If you read Do What You Love with care, her message really is, "Do what you love: the money will follow, but not very much or very fast." I've recommended her tapes of To Build the Life You Want, Create the Work You Love and The Mentor's Spirit.
McGee also criticizes Cheryl Richardson's appearance on Oprah. Cheryl's coach-y solutions don't seem to help an overworked, underpaid mom who holds dowon two jobs. True! But I find many coaches have trouble explaining that their approaches are targeted to a specific readership segment.
As I tell my own clients, you need to be at a certain comfort level before you can begin to consider a career change. When you're a few months away from welfare, you need to get back to basics. The harried mother won't benefit from Richardson's techniques...but she also won't benefit from fashion makeovers, power yoga classes or psychoanalysis.
And that brings me to another point: I've been critical of some self-help but I would also ask, "What's the alternative? And what's the harm?" People do face problems that their parents and grandparents never confronted. Mainstream psychology has offered good solutions but also perpetuates ideas that are not backed by research. Carol Tavris has written that popular theories of anger ("let it out") are not accurate. Others have criticized popular mainstream trauma practices ("relive the experience"). Read Annie Paul's book, The Cult of Personality, to learn how psychologists, corporations and courts use tests that have no more validity than horoscopes.
Finally, McGee associates current interest in self-help with economic downturns. But in my experience, most self-help readers come from upscale, educated backgrounds. I believe it was Pascal Boyer who suggested that New Age is the first religion to be created in an era of prosperity. Readers, coaching clients and Tony Robbins followers want to know how to make good lives better (although they may not use those phrases consciously).
Bottom line: We need a solid analytical discussion of self-help. McGee offers a starting point. I'll be interested to see more.