The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Notes And Comments

The Necessity of Self-Help Lit

Joseph E. Davis

The self-help message comes close to encouraging the project of radical self-creation that its critics find so objectionable.

They have a “reputation for nonsense,” these “bumper-sticker books.” Dashed off in “pop-culture” prose without “analytical rigor,” they offer up “useless platitudes” and “false promises.” Their “portentous pronouncements” convey a “neoliberal” message of “radical privatization,” built on an image of persons as “autonomous monads.” Their authors are “snake-oil peddlers” and “self-appointed gurus,” ringing up tidy profits by “preying on an unwary public.” People’s openness to their message signals a “trend toward authoritarianism,” while the effect of their “misleading quackery” has been to foster “relational detachment” and an “inward retreat” to “self-absorption.” Against an older ethic of “individualists in a common struggle,” they have promoted an “apolitical movement” and growing “social disengagement.” Their “new age sophistries” are “sapping our nation’s soul.”

Such characterizations of self-help literature, drawn from journalists and intellectuals, give a sense of the “healthy contempt” that flows from their pens, at least on those occasions when they give the genre any attention at all. It should be noted that most of the books, especially in the areas of medicine, psychology, and popular science, are written by people with advanced degrees (they display them on the cover), and many of the works in business and management are written by seasoned professionals in these two fields. In fact, one of the fastest-growing sub-categories of self-help lit consists of books of neuroscience and positive psychology that are peppered with scientific theories, experimental findings, and brain images. Many of the readers, and there are millions, are well educated. Nonetheless, intellectuals tend to dismiss the whole class of such books for promoting a new and fanatical project of self-creation, itself sustained by the illusion of self-sufficiency and self-mastery.

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