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Optimizing the Self Social representations of self-help


In Happiness, Will Ferguson’s (2002) satire of the self-help industry, we meet the unassuming and disillusioned Edwin Vincent de Valu, who works as an assistant editor for the New York–based publisher Panderic Press. One of Edwin’s most important tasks consists in evaluating the endless piles of manuscripts submitted by hopeful, aspiring authors.

As a rule, their dreams run aground on Edwin’s desk, where they are met with a standard rejection along the lines of ‘Your project is unfortunately not suitable for our current needs, but we hope you will consider Panderic also in the future.’ One day, however, Edwin discovers an unusual manuscript entitled What I learned on the mountain – a typewritten, colossal, 1000-page-long draft of a self-help book signed under the pseudonym Rajee Tupak Soiree, which the publisher then decides to publish. The book will in the subsequent months not only change Edwin and his publishing company forever, but the entire American economy, as it turns out.

Ferguson’s satirical novel is based on the following hypothetical situation: what would happen if a self-help book actually proved to be 100% effective? What I learned on the mountain is therefore intended to represent the ultimate self-help book, which conveniently synthesizes the messages of all former well-considered attempts in the genre. The book gives the reader solutions for everything he or she might be seeking help with − from how to quit smoking, to weight loss, to becoming happy by accepting oneself for who one is. Edwin is the frst person to understand the fatal consequences of suddenly curing people of their vices and increasing the feeling of happiness in the population.

 According to Edwin, the problem with making people happy is that the entire economy is built around human weaknesses, bad habits and insecurities, which explain the current popularity of things like fashion, fast food, sports cars, techno-gadgets, sex toys, diet centres, hair clubs for men, personal ads, fringe religious sects, professional sports teams and so on. And if America goes, the rest of the Western world will soon follow in an end-of-the history cataclysm.

The consequences of the book’s release onto the market become quickly apparent and culminate in Edwin’s receiving a death threat from the local mafa, who have considerable interests invested in people’s depraved consumption of tobacco, alcohol and narcotics and who fear for their livelihood now that the consumption of everything that is bad for us drops dramatically. To escape this reverse fatwa

Edwin is obliged to try and stop the book’s continued dissemination in order to save his own life. Towards the end of the book Edwin fnally succeeds in tracking down the real author. He turns out to be a dying, cancer-stricken old grouch who has only written the book in order to leave his grandchild a substantial inheritance from the sales revenues. Luckily for Edwin, it turns out that the author shares his tragic view of the world – being human is in its profoundest sense about being chronically dissatisfed and unhappy – and the author therefore goes along with the publication of an anti-self-help book – How to be miserable – as an antidote to the happiness epidemic.

Happiness ends in what is virtually a religious conflict between the part of the population who continue to cling to the happiness formula of the frst book and those who have allowed themselves to be convinced by the pessimistic sequel. Happiness is frst and foremost entertaining to read, but it contains astute insights on the fundamental paradox of self-help literature. Or as Edwin tellingly puts it: ‘I mean, the entire reason we have so many damn self-help books is because they don’t work!’ (Ferguson, 2002, p. 131). Happiness is not, however, completely unambiguous on this point.

The true scandal that unfolds is that of a self-help book that actually makes the readers happy – it leads to nothing less than the gradual breakdown of civilization. As such, Ferguson opens indirectly for the question of whether the self-help industry as a social institution has perhaps never been intended to work, in the obvious sense, but all the same serves a purpose. In other words, that its role is to serve as a kind of opium of the people in a secular age, an opium which in addition to this provides sustenance for an entire industry.

The question of whether it works and for whom it works is thereby open to debate. It is certainly extremely doubtful whether the majority of self-help books actually result in non-smoking, thinner or happier readers. But if on the other hand one defnes ‘works’ here as meaning offering the reader a moral, spiritual, pseudo-scientifc or scientifc framework of guidance on how one is to manage oneself, one’s work and free time, then it does do this in a sense. Otherwise it could not have achieved the level of penetration that it has today, and one would have explained its dominant presence in Western culture as some type of hoax or conspiracy.

This is, indeed, what to a large extent occurs in Happiness, in that the foremost duty of self-help literature appears to be to represent a recruitment institution for the American consumer society’s dependence on restless souls who willingly allow themselves to be led to purchase new lifestyle products, experiences and identity markers in the name of self-realization. The reading of self-help from the perspective of ideological criticism, as I hope to demonstrate through this book, is increasingly relevant, but as I will return to in later chapters, we must perhaps put self-help into a broader cultural, religious and scientifc context in order to fully understand its ambiguous role in contemporary society.

The status of self-help literature in 2015
If you should drop by any bookstore in the Western world, almost independent of its size you will almost always be able to fnd a section devoted to self-help

literature. In my home country, Norway, even the university bookstores are now accessorized with self-help books. This was not the case at the end of the 1990s when I was a student. This reflects how university bookstores are struggling to hold their own in the increasing competition with E-commerce and are therefore obliged to carry popular best sellers. It can also be an indication that self-help books have achieved broader penetration than they had previously and are now read by the entire spectrum of the population, including students.

The bookstores’ shelves labelled ‘personal development’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘health’ are literally overflowing with more or less seductive promises of how you can get your life in order or fnd happiness. The phenomenon of self-help books is not new in any sense, but in recent years the scope of self-help has apparently grown larger than before, and self-help is apparently acquiring an ever stronger penetration within the context of professional treatment, in Great Britain, for example (Berge & Repål, 2012).

A trend in the 2000s that supports this is the increasing number of well-known professionals doing research in the felds of medicine, psychology and nutrition who write self-help books tailor-made for the commercial market (Cherry, 2011; Madsen, 2014). Three more recent examples of this tendency in Norway are professor of medicine Ingvard Wilhelmsen’s (2011) popular book Stop feeling sorry for yourself, professor of psychology Espen Røysamb’s (2013) book Be happier and professor of nutrition Birger Svihus’s (2008) book Slim with the obesity factor.

The common feature is how to take care of oneself. As former Minister of Health Jonas Gahr Støre allegedly stated in connection with the launch of the new campaign for the Directorate of Health in the autumn of 2012: ‘We are all our own ministers of health’ (as cited in Amundsen, 2012, p. 14). In spite of these possible displacements of the boundaries between popular science and serious science, and low culture and high culture in recent times, there is, relatively speaking, still a lack of systematic and critical analyses of self-help as a feld of knowledge.

Between the one-sided exaltation of self-help literature on the part of authors with books to sell and the blasé rejection on the part of the intellectual elite, there is a vacuum (Gauntlett, 2008; Kruse, 2012). A small niche of cultural studies done on self-help literature does exist internationally, but these often appear in scientifc journals that are not written for the general public. I have failed to fnd a single Norwegian non-fction book published between 1990 and today that addresses the theme.

You will likewise be searching in vain if you should look up ‘self-help’ in a comprehensive reference work such as Aschehoug and Gyldendal’s encyclopedia Store norske leksikon, including their updated online edition. This is odd, given self-help’s ever more invasive character. Perhaps this is now in the process of changing, in step with self-help literature’s penetration into the core of Western culture. In the Norwegian media there has been an increase in the critical awareness of the phenomenon in the last two years, and author Agnes Ravatn (2012a, 2012b, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c),

among others, has written about self-help classics in a series for the Norwegian national daily Dagbladet, and the writer Bjørn Stærk (2013) has addressed the phenomenon in his column on the online daily Aftenposten.no. This book is therefore meant as a contribution in the form of a cultural analysis that aims to illuminate the phenomenon of self-help. My approach can be defned as critical and investigatory. I will neither a priori accept that, generally speaking, self-help actually helps, nor reject out of hand the idea that self-help can be viewed as carrying out an important function in the increasingly introspective life of the late modern individual.

It is fundamental to our existence in a so-called post-traditional society that we must create ourselves, as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991, p. 70) pointed out already two decades ago: ‘What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity – and ones which, on some level or another, all of us answer, either discursively or through day-to-day social behaviour.’ Hence, the demand for sources of authority offering moral, religious or scientifc guidelines for the ever more pressing task of being oneself is considerable.




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