Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 19

C U L T U R A L S T U D I E S 14(1) 2000, 61-78

Heidi Marie Rimke



This article explores contemporary self-help literature as a strategy for
enlisting subjects in the pursuit of self-improvement and autonomy. Appro-
priating democratic liberalism's and neo-liberalism's ways of seeing the
individual and the social world, self-help promotes the idea that a good
citizen cares for herself or himself best by evading or denying social rela-
tions. Yet a hyper-responsible self, the result of self-help practice, is intrin-
sically linked to the governmental management of populations, and so to
less individual autonomy rather than more.


citizenship; governmentality; liberalism; popular psychology; self-help

literature; technologies of the self

Men fsicy must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-
doing; and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they them-
selves must in the very nature oJthings be their own best helpers.
Samuel Smiles (1859)

. . .in the name oJ psychological science we seekjulfilment.

Michel Eoucault (1984)

O UR ERA HAS been described as one characterized by an unprecedented

preoccupation with the self (Giddens, 1991; Lasch, 1978, 1984; Lash and
Friedman, 1992; Taylor, 1989). A striking example of this preoccupation can be
witnessed by the proliferation of contemporary self-help books claiming to
provide answers to such questions as 'Who am I?' or 'How can I better myself?'
A stroll through the self-help section of Jiny bookshop attests to the growing

Cultural Studies ISSN 09S0-2386 print/ISSN 1466-4348 online Taylor & Francis Ltd

market for self-help's consumption.' There is no denying that self-help literature

has become an enduring, highly fashionable non-fiction genre, especially within
the last twenty-five years. ^ Why self-help literature? How has this package of acts
and beliefs become so appealing, and why has it sold so well?
In this article I bring together a selection of popular self-help texts, where
discussions of the self flourish, with recent social theories to offer an under-
standing of self-help literature as a contemporary form of governing citizens. In
order to understand more fully how self-help psychology books dominate the
subject of modernity, I will situate my analysis within a Foucauldian framework.
This perspective and approach does not seek to reveal falsity but to describe the
constitution of truths. It not only asks Why? but also How? ^
Self-help is an activity presumed to be voluntary and individualistic. Based
upon notions such as choice, autonomy and freedom, self-help relies upon the
principle of individuality and entails self-modification and 'improvement'. These
preoccupations with self-liberation and self-enlightenment are the social and
pohtical results of a hyper-individuality promoted by an extensive essentialist
psychologization ofthe self in everyday life. Rather than viewing individuals and
individualism as the historical product of intersecting social processes and cul-
tural discourses, proponents ofthe principle of individuality, which is crucial in
self-help rhetoric, assume the social world to be the sum aggregation of atom-
ized, autonomous and self-governing individual persons.
Popular psychology's unilateral focus on individuals contributes to a world-
view which erroneously postulates that people can exercise control and mastery
of themselves and their lives. Self-help literature, which exalts the individual over
the social (and negates the inherent sociality of being) is elaborately consistent
with the pohtical rationahties promoted in advanced liberal democracies. Self-
help literature aids in the production, organization, dissemination and implemen-
tation of particular liberal modes of truth about the social world. The discursive
production of'self-helping citizens' is an effect of discourse naturalizing itself and
thereby rendering psychological subjects as natural self-governing olajects in a
(pre)discursive world.
Self-help projects also require external forms of textual authority and expert
knowledge. Self-help entails the behef that professionals 'acting at a distance"*^
(Rose and Miller, 1992) can help in understanding and correcting the self. As
one self-help author states: 'You learn the tricks ofthe trade from someone who
knows them well' (Bentley, 1988: 196). Self-help is thus an an individualized
voluntary enterprise, an undertaking to alter, reform or transform the self, or
some 'intrinsic' aspect of it, which is contingent upon a person's seeking some
external form of authoritative assistance.
Self-help 'lessons' appear to teach a subject to rely exclusively on oneself,
simultaneously to rely exclusively on an expert other, and then also to become
an expert in some aspect of one's selfhood. The manuals and guides aspire to
assist subjects in arriving at their own diagnosis and treatment: a reader is told

to 'let yourself become the 90-second therapist' (Bentley, 1988). In spite of

reading to rely on external authority, then, one is not explicitly coerced to engage
in projects of self-help; one does so because one wants to improve.^ The self-
help genre presents individual 'development' and 'personal growth' as a free
moral and ethical decision and as a 'natural' undertaking embraced by well-
meaning citizens.
Self-help is the logical extension of a psychologistically oriented culture in
which psychology enjoys cultural authority as a form of expert knowledge.^ As
a result, the Western world is understood and organized according to the 'psy
complex' (Ingleby, 1985; Rose, 1990, 1996). Convinced that we should under-
stand our selves in terms of psychological adjustment, fulfilment, good relation-
ships, self-actualization, personal growth and so on, we have 'voluntarily' tied
ourselves to the knowledge which 'psy' experts profess and to their promises to
assist us in quests for self-change that we 'freely' undertake (Rose, 1996: 77).
The popularity of psychological discourses depends upon a deeply held belief
that psychology in one way or another can make one happy or 'normal'. The
arguments presented here will demonstrate how the appropriation and appli-
cation of self-help psychological discourses holds a key position in advanced
liberal democratic society, and how these discourses and technologies contribute
to the invention and scripting of selves - citizens who are psychologically
'healthy' inasmuch as they are governable, predictable, calculable, classifiable,
self-conscious, responsible, self-regulating and self-determined. Constructed
and acted upon as such, individuals are rendered entirely responsible for their
failures as well as their successes, their despair as well as their happiness. Indeed,
this is the social subject of a liberal governance.
Self-help techniques operate not so much by way of negative prohibition but
by way of positive, productive apphcation: the self-helper must be skilled in his
or her own subjection, in organizing and sustaining some stable operative unity
among the multitudinous, divergent effects ofthe techniques that produce intel-
ligible selfhood. By marshalling the concept of responsibility, popular self-help
discourses provide an example of how the operations of power in everyday life
can incite governance of the self thanks to expert pronouncements about both
success and morality. Hamstra informs his readers that compromising one's
integrity and honesty results in relinquishing 'liberties such as self-determi-
nation, choice and expression' and in 'neglecting' one's essential responsibihties
as a 'good person' (Hamstra, 1996: 11). Doubtless, the many rewards promised
to those engaging in self-help projects are appealing. The benefits of helping one's
self, we are told, will result in 'maximizing opportunities' (Covey, 1989: 93), in
'good health, positive attitudes, friendships, love, happiness, prosperity, peace,
joy, faith and a sense of inner fulfilment' (Zonnya, 1996: 30). Those benefits will
'make our lives more manageable and rewarding' (Hamstra, 1996: 19). Every-
body is drawn in: some authors even 'tackle the paradox of helping people change
who don't intend to change' (Prochaska et al., 1994: 41).

In order to walk on 'a healthier and more responsible path' and to 'introduce
more and more moments of exquisiteness in your life and more joy, peace, and
abundance', one might consult Jeffers' self-help text. End the Struggle and Dance
with Life (1996: 59). Her advice focuses on leading the reader to begin 'releasing
the darkness and embracing the light' because, essentially, '[w]e are free to enjoy
the best that life has to offer' (Jeffers, 1996: 9, 15). Moore claims to provide a
'self-help manual' that offers a guiding 'philosophy of soulful living techniques
for dealing with everyday problems' (Moore, 1992: xii). His 'program for bring-
ing soul back to life' (Moore, 1992: xiv) will result in 'fulfilling work, reward-
ing relationships, personal power, and relief from symptoms' which are 'all gifts
from the soul' (Moore, 1992: xiii).
In self-help texts personal power is generally viewed as an inherent property
of being which is assumed to constitute the site of all self-control and movement
(See Beattie, 1989; Covey, 1987; Jeffers, 1996; Moore, 1992; Peck, 1978).
Beattie informs us that when 'we find our personal power [we] come to do the
possible live our lives' (Beattie, 1989: 28). Discussions such as these assume
that 'power' is an independent 'thing' internally located and available for posses-
sion. This asocial and zero-sum conceptualization of power means, for the self-
help experts, that the more power we have, the more strength we possess.
Conversely, to compromise one's personal power is to lose one's force, to
become weak and to permit others to have power over one's self. Moore asserts
that if 'we do not claim the soul's power on our own behalf, we become its
victims.' For example, if there is 'crime in our streets, it is due to the viewpoint
of the soul, not just to poverty and difficult living conditions, but to the failure
of the soul and its spirits to unveil themselves' (Moore, 1992: 135). Healthy
selves, according to self-help authors, are the result of a magic that can be
located, harnessed and exercised only once the self-changer acknowledges its
'divine' presence.
Self-help literature describes the self as a unified centre of personal agency
which can act upon itself, others and the world. This conception presents the
individual as the sole ontological pivot of experience. Further, the self is con-
ceived as possessing an inner reservoir of power that can be accessed. This sug-
gests an intense accountability, responsibility, and sense of obligation that can be
enlisted for choices and decisions. 'Empowerment techniques' represent a mode
of self-regulation which seeks to govern subjects in terms of their presumably
'personal' truths, such as their 'inner strength, inner power, inner love' (Jeffers,
Peck, another self-help guru, thinks that to discuss oppressive forces in
society rather than individuals is childish. According to this expert, reflecting
upon social problems such as 'racism, sexism, [and] the military-industrial
complex' averts the 'true' source of humeinity's problems. While Peck does
concede that 'oppressive forces [are] at work within the world', he claims that
we have 'the freedom to choose every step of the way the manner in whieh we
G O V E R N I N G CIT l ZE NS TH R O U G H S E L F - H E L P 65

are going to respond to and deal with these forces'. Rather than lament one's
lack of political and social impact, the reader is instructed to recognize, accept
and exult in her/his 'immense personal power' (Peck, 1978: 43). This means, in
self-help rhetoric, that power and mastery are matters of the self's free will (see
Knauss, 1994; Leonard, 1991). Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, Covey states: 'No
one can hurt you without your consent' (1989: 72). 'Expert' pronouncements
such as these render social relations of power invisible and non-negotiahle. They
cultivate the illusion that the subject can escape from the constraints and regu-
lations of social relations. The moral lesson in self-help texts is patent: psychical
and/or spiritual poverty results from a lack of self-governance. Claiming that a
deeper commitment to personal and private needs will provide the path to liber-
ation and self-realization, self-help literature at the same time announces the
rewards of self-regulation. This liberation/regulation paradox further operates
by counselling subjects to sculpt a meaningful life without addressing or ques-
tioning the horizon of social relations and the contexts of social power.

The codependency craze

One obstacle to a 'functional self that has been 'discovered' and 'identified' is
described as a disease which compels one to: (1) control others; (2) assume too
much responsibility for others; and (3) neglect the self. This newly invented 'dis-
ease' is 'codependency'. Since the 1980s, the 'codependency movement' has
become an increasingly significant and peculiar sociocultural phenomenon. Prior
to the 1980s, neither CoDependents Anonymous (CoDA) nor the popular
psychological category of codependent existed. One of the first indications of
'the codependency panic' was the extraordinary success of a series of self-help
texts published by Melody Beattie and other recovery experts working in the
field of addiction.
The conceptualization of codependency offered by self-help authors is the
by-product of intersecting and complementary discourses rooted in religious and
spiritual revivalism, in the medical profession's constructions of disease and epi-
demic, in the psychoanalytic tradition, and in the recovery-from-addiction field.
Presented and appropriated as the pinnacle of'dysfunctional' selves in contem-
porary society, codependency can be understood as an inverse formulation of
'narcissistic ego disorder'. Defined as a dysfunction (a disease and/or addiction,
depending on the author) codependency designates a person's extensive and
unhealthy focus on the other rather than on where the experts claim a person's
attention needs to be on one's self:

We can cherish ourselves and our lives. We can nurture ourselves and love
ourselves. We can accept our wonderful selves, with all our faults, foibles.

strong points, weak points, feelings, thoughts, and everything else. It's the
best thing we've got going for us. It's who we are, and who we were meant
to be. And it's not a mistake. We are the greatest thing that will ever happen
to us. Believe it. It makes life much easier.
(Beattie, 1987: 123)

Beattie devotes an entire chapter in Codependent No More (1987: 11927) to the

necessity for those with 'low self-esteem' to 'have a love affair' with themselves:

To honour the self is to be in love with our own life, in love with our possi-
bilities of growth and experiencing joy, in love with the process of discovery
and exploring our distinctively human potentialities. . . . Thus we can
begin to see that to honour the self is to practice selfishness in the highest,
noblest, and least understood sense of that word. And this I shall argue,
requires enormous independence, courage and integrity.
(Branden, quoted in Beattie, 1987: 126; emphasis in original)

Love of self, which historically has been viewed as pathological egoism or nar-
cissism, is no longer discouraged.^ Rather, 'self-fullness' is deemed necessary for
a healthy, normal and functional self to emerge and prosper. Self-love is pre-
sumably distinguished from self-absorption.
The emergence of the concept of codependency arose from the self-help
recovery experts' conviction that the essence of all addictions is an 'unhealthy
dependence' upon anj'pathological relationship', whether with persons, activi-
ties or substances. This self-help phenomenon provides an example of the
replacement of social grids of intelligibility by the hyper-responsibility of the
individual. Those who exhibit any 'over-reliance' and dependence upon any
external factor are viewed as suffering from codependency. For example, Beattie
defines a codependent as a person V/io has let another person's behaviour affect him
or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behaviour' (Beattie, 1987: 36;
emphasis in original).
Another codependency expert, Smalley, has defined codependency as 'a
pattern of learned behaviours, feelings and beliefs that make life painful'. This
pattern is found in a person who is 'human-relationship dependent [and who]
focuses her life/his life around an addictive agent . . . It is a dependence upon
people and things outside the self, along with the neglect of the self to the point
of having little self-identity' (Smalley, cited in Schaef, 1986: 6, 14-15). In light
of the traditional tendency to view dependency as a natural and/or socially
prescribed trait and/or role oi feminine behaviour, it is significant that codepen-
dency experts pathologize the codependent.^ Expert admonitions such as these
claim the impossible is possible, for it is scarcely possible to not let others affect
Trying to turn the tables on critics, Beattie notes: 'In desperation (or perhaps

enhghtenment), some therapists have proclaimed: "Codependency is anything,

and everyone is codependent'" (Beattie, 1987: 33; emphasis in original). It is
enlightened, from Beattie's standpoint, to believe that every facet of human
existence is capable of definition and classification as an addiction or disease.
Schaef (1987: 18) contends that 'an addiction is anything we are not willing to
give up', an opinion that could be supported by the following newly patholo-
gized identities, based on an ever-growing index of addictions: sex addicts, eating
addicts, shopping addicts, love addicts, drug addicts, work addicts, gambling
addicts, etc. These notions and statements have led Wendy Kaminer to remark
that the all-encompassing definition of codependency as 'bad and anyone can have
it . . . makes this disease look more like a marketing device' (1992: 10).
The sociopolitical mandates of self-help texts are clear: to be a responsible
citizen means to be responsible for oneself, not others. Concerned citizens are
thus urged to develop a new form of social responsibility, one that is not socially
oriented at all but, rather, is one that produces a hyper-individuality for which
an inherent, responsible relationality with others is actively discouraged and

Self-help technologies

According to self-help rhetoric, serious and committed self-helpers first need to

exercise honesty with themselves. Only once this honesty has been attained can
one begin to initiate real self-transformation (See Covey, 1989: 37; Peck, 1978:
56; Prochaska et al., 1994: 92). Such admonitions highlight the normalizing and
regulatory mechanisms of self-discipline, which are abetted by techniques based
on self-monitoring.
The requirement to confess the truth about one's self is typically presented
as an integral practice for self-diagnosis. Confession, in this context, can be dis-
tinguisbed in three primary forms: (1) priestly confessions (i.e. to some form of
absolving and learned authority); (2) peer confessions, which are based princi-
pally on mutual understanding and experiential similarity (e.g. twelve-step
groups); and (3) self-confessions, which assume the form of'private' self-interro-
gation. The confessional practices demonstrate a forceful cultural belief that one
can, albeit with the help of experts, or peer support, tell the 'real' and 'final'
truth about oneself. Presumably, selves possess dark secrets that must be brought
to the surface. Self-assessment scales, questionnaires and surveys located in self-
help texts are meant to be scored in such a way that the 'good' (conscientious)
person will/must present her/himself honestly. The conjecture is that the
'originary' truth can be uncovered and revealed with the proper techniques and
strategies of decipherment.
Techniques and practices of self-formation are inextricably bound up with
prescriptions, rules, codes and other normative mechanisms. Latour has pointed

out that in order for an object or domain to be governable one not only needs
the terms to speak and think about it, one also needs to be able to assess its con-
ditions (1986: 6). In the domain of the self, one needs knowledge or information
about the self for purposes of assessment and judgement. This information is pro-
vided for self-help in the form of writing activities, questionnaires, sentence
completions, surveys and so on. 'Character-istics' and 'features' of the self that
are accorded relevance are represented in a calculable form (e.g. self-esteem,
fears, susceptibility to alcoholism, confidence, etc.). Readers are encouraged to
engage in a variety of required self-administered exercises (Beattie, 1990), inven-
tories (Zonnya, 1995), assessments (Prochaska et al., 1994), scoring keys (Young
and Klosko, 1994), checklists (Beattie, 1987), questionnaires (Young and Klosko,
1994), rating scales and surveys (Whitfield, 1987). Young and Klosko's (1994:
10) book provides readers with 'homework assignments to keep track'. These
calculative practices are meant to inform the decisions one makes about one's
problematic behaviour and the direction one takes in reconstituting self-under-
standing. In this process, the self becomes an object of knowledge and a
subject/object of governance, not simply under the gaze of an expert acting at a
distance but, most importantly, under the ever-present gaze of one's self.
Popular cultural discourses contribute to the idea that individuals are calcu-
lable and uniform entities, capable of being held responsible for their social
conduct and experience in the world. Discipline is the key to responsibility. For
Peck, for example, self-discipline necessarily entails enduring the pain and suffer-
ing required in achieving psychological (mental and spiritual) health. He refers
to discipline as one of the'techniques of suffering' (1978: 1822). Discipline pro-
vides the 'means by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way to
work them through and solve them successfully. . . When we teach ourselves and
our children discipline, we are teaching them and ourselves how to suffer and
also how to grow' (Peck, 1978: 17-18).
The underpinning of this framework presumes that psychologically healthy
people, especially 'good parents', will confront and accept the pain of self-
discipline and will thus create a sense of self-worth in themselves and their
children. 'This feeling of being valuable is a cornerstone of self-discipline because
when one considers oneself valuable one will take care of oneself in all ways that
arc necessary. Self-discipline is self-caring' (Peck, 1978: 24). Bradshaw also dis-
cusses the paramount value of discipline and individual responsibility. A 'revised
notion of discipline should include a primary emphasis on developing a sense of
responsibility . . . on the ancient virtues of temperance, justice, fortitude and
prudence' (Bradshaw, 1996: 279).
A basic tenet pronounced by most self-help authors is the following asser-
tion: 'Without knowledge of our strengths, weaknesses, and other aspects of our
personality, we're doomed to repeat our mistakes' (Hamstra, 1996: 200). Moore
(1992: xvii) claims that 'self-knowledge' constitutes the very foundation of the
soul while another group of authors assert that: 'The first step in fostering

intentional change is to become conscious of the self-defeating defenses that get

in our way. Knowledge is power' (Prochaska et al., 1994: 89). Covey (1989: 52)
goes so far as to provide his audience with a 'complimentary' 1800 number in
order to evaluate the self-helper's current level of effectiveness. '[T]he process
of constant self-examination and contemplation is essential for ultimate survival'
(Peck, 1978: 52). For each stage of change, Prochaska et al. provide the reader
with 'brief self-assessments, checkpoints' and other 'powerful tools for infor-
mation and self-correction' (1994: 92). 'Techniques without awareness', we are
told, 'don't have any chance to make a real impact on inner selves' (1994: 115).
Self-examination is one ofthe goals which 'good' selves naturally strive towards:

Evil has no desire for self-examination, change, or growth. In fact, those

are all seen as threats to the determined idealized version of the self. To
maintain that inner and external guise evil types will do anything, without
motivation to be good or do right. Evil is never self-critical, only other-
critical, and does not have or admit to any guilt.
(Schlessinger, 1997:59)

By accepting the 'questions' one is to ask oneself, the reader is led to imagine the
better person he or she could finally become, given enough steadfastness and self-
determination. Of course, one must not look, act or talk like persons who are
socially marginalized or abnormal. The demarcations between normal and
abnormal, healthy and sick, responsible and delinquent are all easily located in
self-help books.
Self-knowledge, then, is not solely a matter concerned with the details of
everyday life it is also a concern with governing one's self in culturally pre-
scribed ways. Self-help experts claim an ability to know how and why one's inner
life affects one's social condition, and consequently they offer the keys, the habits,
the tools and secrets of how one can become autonomous enough to 'remedy'
the psychological causes of one's failures, disappointments and frustrations.
Knowing oneself entails a kind of rule-governed conduct which advances the care
ofthe self and which is intimately connected to the search for the 'good life'. In
the self-help tradition the examination of one's self paves the way to self-know-
ledge by 'superimposing truth about self through memory, that is by memoriz-
ing the rules' of self-regulation (Foucault, 1988: 43). Indeed, self-help literature
illustrates one ofthe ways in which discourse creates, invents or makes up people
and their characters (cf. Hacking, 1986; Rose, 1996; Ward, 1996). A currently
characteristic invention of self-help manuals are subjects who are deemed to
suffer from 'ethical incompleteness' or a lack of ethical substance (Miller and
McHoul, 1998).
The confessional genre has formed a central component in the expanding
gover mental technology ofthe self in modern society (Foucault, 1990a). The
self-helping confession's promise to reveal our deepest truest selves becomes so

appealing that it is difficult for the self-helper to see or to break from the web of
power relations in which the promise is rooted. For, after all, even the most
private self-examination is tied to myriad systems of external regulation: sciences
and pseudo-sciences, religious and moral doctrines:

in confession after confession to oneself and to others, this mi.se en discours

has placed the individual in a network of relations of power with those who
claim to be able to extract the truth of these confessions through their pos-
session ofthe keys to interpretation.
(Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982: 174)

The view that truth can be discovered through self-examination and the act of
confessing one's thoughts and acts appears so normal and natural, so compelling,
that it has become untenable to posit that such self-examination is integral to
strategies of power by agencies external to the self. The multifaceted and hetero-
geneous social experiences of inter-subjective selves are the result of many essential
interdependencies which influence and shape our embeddedness in the world;
nevertheless, self-help 'expertise' serves to undermine collective formations and
the essential interdependencies of selves. By proclaiming what types of self-
change are deemed 'healthy' and 'best', the self-help experts themselves are pro-
viding social, not psychological, rules of conduct. Yet their rules fetishize and
glorify the liberalized and psychologized 'individual'.

Governmentality and self-help

The idea of knowing oneself as a direct way to constitute the self has dominated
Western history. Modern self-help texts give priority to the problem of knowing
the self . Knowledge about the self derived from self-help techniques is assumed
to be foremost a matter of discovering who and what one is. But while the advice
dicta and techniques in self-help books appear to assist in the discovery of the
'real' self, what actually occurs is an artificial discursive and extra-discursive
construction of the self. The idea of knowing oneself entails a kind of self-

fashioning based upon expert convictions of what is 'best' to know. Paradoxically,

self-help's confessional technique is not one that entails the disclosure of an
essential or pre-existent identity. Rather, self-disclosure actually becomes a con-
structed and tailored narrativization ofthe self. In the process of'discovering who
one really is', the techniques do the work of self-invention.
Rather than discovering their 'real selves', self-helpers create and constitute
their identities by the very practices and techniques prescribed for knowing and
uncovering. Thus, self-knowledge is not, as is commonly assumed, a product of
truths unveiled through an in-depth probing of inner recesses of the psyche or
soul. Rather, the self is a project and a product of a mastery of a discourse a

form of'knowing how' rather than 'knowing that'. In this sense, neither the self
nor help is achieved. Instead, the self becomes reinvented by its dependence on
a novel system of'popular' expert truth. Self-definition is actually negated, and
a paradoxically 'new and improved' pathologized identity comes to life.
The rise of self-help psychology should not be dismissed as a transitory
cultural fad. It should be seen as a complementary correlative of practices and
techniques based on 'governmentality', a particularly modern mode of rule.
Following Foucault (1978, 1984), I use the term 'government' to encompass
tactics, strategies, calculations, reflections and programmes that have sought to
'conduct the conduct' of human beings in advanced liberal democracies
(although not only there) (Dean, 1994, 199S; Gordon, 1987; Rose, 1990). From
this position it is understood that not only governments govern; government can
also be seen as 'the conduct of conduct', a generalized, widely dispersed activity
that shapes, guides or affects the total lives of individuals. Thus, governmental-
ity designates all strategies and regimes which attempt to direct the practices of
'free' subjects in their relations to each other (Foucault, 1988: 19-20). Govern-
ance refers to a perspective from which:

one might make intelligible the diversity of attempts by authorities of

different sorts to act upon the actions of others in relation to objectives of
national prosperity, harmony, virtue, productivity, social order, discipline,
emancipation, self-realization, and so forth.
(Rose, 1996:29)

Minson (1985) argues that modern categories of person are in part the historical
products and instruments of liberal political ideology. The political rationalities
of liberalism especially contributed to the formation and exaltation of self-deter-
mined individuals and the pubhc/private divisions of daily life. Of course, liberal-
ism is classically a byword for less government, not more. But according to
Burchell et al. (1991), advanced liberalism is not simply a philosophical doctrine
based on setting limits to government, it is also an 'art', a set of techniques used
to govern. The relation between theories and practices of government and self-
formation cannot be subsumed under one single schema, typology or causality,
but needs to be understood in terms of the forms of self-relation they presup-
pose and enact. It is thus necessary to discuss the interconnection between mul-
tiple domains of government and self-formation in which authorities seek to
direct the conduct of individuals and individuals seek to act on themselves (Dean,
1994: 159-60). As a form of governing conduct, liberal governance presupposes
the possibility of a self-determinig, self-governing individual who fuses ethical
and political domains (Dean, 1995: 562-3). Governmental-ethical practices
underline the way in which what might loosely be called 'practices of govern-
ment' come to depend upon, and operate through, 'practices ofthe self', such
those in popular self-help texts.

To a large extent, liberal modes of governance render the lives of individuals

as private matters free from state intervention by offering citizens the oppor-
tunity for 'choice', for 'autonomous' life plans and the 'freedom' to be the
persons they want to be. This model assumes that 'good' government is a repub-
lic of autonomous self-governors (Minson, 1993: 61-3). Modes of regulating the
person, then, are connected to the deliberations, strategies and obligations of
liberal political rule and are encoded in its apparatuses of citizen formation. The
liberal government of a polity becomes intrinsically linked to the regulation of
self-governing 'responsible' citizens.
Practices of self-help are thus connected to the management and govern-
ment of populations. Governing psychologized subjectivities through liberal
political choice, freedom and autonomy ensures that norms of obligation,
accountability and responsibility continually turn the subject back on itself. This
form of political rule shifts the necessity for social responsibilities to the domain
of hyper-individual responsibility. Through these norms, self-helpers are induced
to assume the ultimate politics of personal self-rule. Within this process of
governmentalized self-constitution, individuals 'naturally' choose to fashion a
unique, better, more productive or spiritual self. As Nikolas Rose writes:

Incorporating, shaping, channelling, and enhancing subjectivity have been

intrinsic to the operations of government. But while governing society has
come to require governing subjectivity, this has not been achieved through
the growth of an omnipotent and omniscient central state whose agents
institute a perpetual surveillance and control over all its subjects. Rather,
the government of subjectivity has taken shape through the proliferation of
a complex and heterogenous assemblage of technologies. These have acted
as relays, bringing the varied ambitions of . . . authorities into alignment
with the ideals and aspirations of individuals, with the selves each of us want
to be.
(Rose, 1990:213)

Rose captures the double movement or double force of modern power in liberal
states that both produces individual selves and constrains individuality and differ-
ence. Modern power in liberal forms fuses the production of individual selves
(government of and by individualization) while constraining alternative forms of
human being. It is a matter of'making up' citizens capable of bearing a regulated
freedom (Rose and Miller, 1992: 174).
The first step in reconstructing a healthy citizenship, according to self-help
texts, is to realize that the only one responsible for how you feel is yourself
(Beattie, 1987, 1989). 'Good citizens' should undertake to govern their own
conduct for their own benefits and rewards. And the rest the social benefits
will follow, as the night the day. The rhetoric of self-help is directly linked to the
'self-steering capacities' and the regulated freedom of autonomous selves.

Governing in a liberal democratic way means governing through the freedom and
aspirations of subjects rather than in spite of them' (Rose, 1996: 155; emphasis
in original). According to popular self-help texts, with some determination and
tenacity, everyone is or can be free. But self-helpers are not simply just 'free to
choose', they are obliged to hefree. The link between the spheres of government
and the 'free' individual is not just an external imposition but also an internal one
(Foucault, 1982a; Rose, 1990, 1996), The therapeutic governance ofthe self-
helper centres on 'healthy subjectivities', which are designated as the wellsprings
of freedom, responsibihty and choice. In order to help us reahze our potential
and our dreams, self-help authors especially fetishize the role played by liberty
of choice in individual attempts to reshape the conduct of secular hfe. Above all,
we are told, individuals possess the ability to choose happiness over unhappiness,
success over failure, and even health over illness.

In everyday life we accept the use of such terms as 'the psyche' or 'the soul' or
'mind' (as in 'mind over matter'). It is a characteristic current assumption that all
human conflicts are, to a significant degree, psychological problems and that they
can, with enough reading, guidance, determination and industriousness, be set
right at the level of psychical individual self-discipline. Our era's preoccupation
with mental and emotional hygiene for the soul and the mind encourages indi-
viduals to think of all behaviour as psychologically explicable in origin and effect.
Self-help techniques are an apparatus of governance through which external
'psy' authorities are able to prescribe ever more avenues for individual self-
management. They encourage some ways of life and living over others. Self-help
reading, from a historical perspective, constitutes one of the latest additions to a
long and erratic psychocentric history of concerns surrounding the care of the
self, wherein the self is simultaneously presented as a problem to be combated
and as a potential paradise to be realized. Most significantly, the technologies of
the self offered in self-help work appear to be remarkably congruous with the
political programmes of liberal democratic society. By structuring personal
truths and capacities in such a way that they are understood and effected as indi-
vidual desires, the Uberal government of populations neatly translates into the
ways in which individuals are encouraged to fashion a 'self via the medium of
psychology. By means of that self-fashioning, it is claimed, model citizens can be
produced. But it also is arguable that, by means of that self-fashioning, citizenship
itself disappears. The public sphere and the public responsibility to which citizen-
ship refers, the interidendfied subjectivites to which citizenship has obligations,
and on which it depends, are negated by a life of self-help.


I would like to thank the following: Alan Hunt, Bruce Curtis, Valerie de
Courville Nicol, Wade Deisman, Joseph Hermer, Steve Meszlenyi, and an anony-
mous reviewer for helpful comments and suggestions. The preparation of this
article was made possible by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada.

Undoubtedly, the relatively low cost of these books, their relevance to every-
day problems, their accessibility and general availability, are also factors in their
remarkable popularity.
Throughout this discussion I focus on self-help books that emphasize personal
or psycho-spiritual development and enlightenment of the self, rather than
those texts which can be considered as practical guides to living. I have chosen
not to focus on specific 'how-to' books which emphasize particular activities
and/or projects. For a useful discussion of 'how-to' manuals (general eti-
quette, sex education or child-rearing, and lifestyle books) see Miller and
McHoul (1998). Neither does my examination focus on 'life crises' manage-
ment texts such as those written for persons dealing with the trauma and diffi-
culties of natural disasters, death, divorce, terminal illness and the like.
Valverde notes that with an emphasis on the how of ruling, a Foucauldian analy-
sis 'brackets' traditional theoretical questions about the causes and functions
of rule, and thus lays to rest 'the old and unfruitful division of labour between
social researchers describing the "how" and the theorists explaining the "why" '
(1996: 3S8).
Rose and Miller (1992) and Rose (1990; 1996) derive this concept from
The obvious exception are those instances in which individuals convicted of
criminal charges, such as alcohol-related assaults, for example, may be judi-
cially ordered to attend 'anger-management courses' or AA meetings as a con-
dition of a probationary sentence.
For example, consumer culture has witnessed a growth of psychocentric
self-help media towards the end of the twentieth century. Internet communi-
ties, magazines spouting advice and television chat-shows are just some ofthe
cultural vehicles through which counselling on self-improvement is offered.
Mutual-help/twelve-step groups modelled after Alcoholics Anonymous have
also grown considerably in number. For discussions on self-help and Alcoholics
Anonymous see Kurtz (1979), Room (1993) and Makela et al. (1996). On tele-
vision chat-shows and self-help see Shattuc (1997). Rather than addressing the
extensive field of self-help media as a single regime of governance, and thus
misleadingly homogenizing it as a monolithic unity, and rather than conducting
G O V E R N I N G C IT I Z E N S T H RO U G H S E L F - H E L P 75

a comparative analysis of the varieties which self-help advice assumes, the

present investigation concentrates exclusively on a particular kind of self-help
literature: one that emphasizes and examines the variegated constraining/con-
stituting self-help technologies in which the chief focus is on reforming the
subject's 'relation of self to self, or what Foucault (1982b) has called the
rapport a soi.
This tendency has been described by some as selfism, self-worship, narcissism
and sclf-centredness (Kaminer, 1992; Lasch, 1979, 1984; Vitz, 1994). In one
sense these positions echo religion's long-standing prohibitions against selfish-
ness and self-love, in which pride is considered a cardinal sin.
Some critics have focused exclusively on providing a feminist challenge and
analysis of popular self-help literature and the notion of'codependency'. See
especially Simonds (1992) and Babcock and McKay (199S).

Babcock, M. and McKay, C. (199S) Challenging Co-Dependency: Feminist Critiques,
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Beattie, Melody (1987) Codependent No More, New York: Harper & Row.
(1989) Beyond Codependency (And Getting Better All the Time), New York: Harper
(1990) Codependent's Guide to the 12 Steps, Princeton, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Blumberg, Leonard (1977) 'The ideology ofa therapeutic social movement: Alco-
holics Anonymous',yourna/ of Studies in Alcohol, 38(1 1): 2122-43.
Bradshaw, John (1988) Healing the Shame that Binds You, Deerfield Beach: Health
Communications Inc.
(1996) Bradshaw On: The Family, Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, Inc.
Covey, Stephen (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon &
Dean, Mitchell (1994) 'A social structure of many souls: moral regulation, govern-
ment and self-formation', in Mariana Valverde (ed.) Studies in Moral Regulation,
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
(199S) 'Governing the unemployed self in an active society'. Economy and
Society, 24(4) (November): SS9-83.
Dreyfus, H. and Rabinow, P (1982) Michel Foucault:Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneu-
tics, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Dyer, Wayne W. (199S) Your Sacred Self: Making the Decision to be Free, New York:
Poucault, Michel (1978) 'Governmentality', in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and
Peter Miller (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Hampstead:
(1979) Discipline and Punish: The Birth ofthe Prison, New York: Vintage Books.

(1980) Tower/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977,

Brighton: Harvester Press.
(1981) 'Omnes et singulatim', in S. M. McMurrin (ed.) The Tanner Lectures in
Hutnan Values Volume 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(1982a) 'The subject and power', in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (eds)
Michel Foucault: Bejond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago, IL: Chicago Uni-
versity Press.
(1982b) 'On the genealogy of ethics', in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow
(eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago, IL:
Chicago University Press.
(1984) 'The repressive hypothesis', in Paul Rabinow (ed.) The Foucault Reader,
New York: Pantheon.
(1988) 'Technologies of the self, in Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and
Patrick H. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the Self, Amherst: University of Massa-
chusetts Press.
(1990a) The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Volume 1, New York: Vintage
(1990b) The History of Sexuality: The Care of the Self Volume 3, New York: Vintage
Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern
Age, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gordon, Colin (1987) 'The soul of the citizen: Max Weber and Michel Foucault on
rationality and government', in S. Lash and S. Whimster (eds) Max Weber,
Rationality and Modernity, London: Allen & Unwin.
Hacking, Ian (1986) 'Making up people', in T. Heller, M. Sosna and D. Wellbery (eds)
Reconstructing Individualism, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hamstra, Bruce (1996) Why Good People Do Bad Things, New York: Carol Publishing
Ingleby, D. (198S) 'Professionals as socializers: the "psy complex"'. Research in Law,
Deviance and Social Control, 7: 79109.
Jeffers, Susan (1996) End the Struggle and Dance with Life: How to Build Yourself Up When
the World Gets You Down, New York: St Martin's Griffin.
Kaminer, Wendy (1992) I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement
and Other Self-Help Fashions, New York: Addison-Wesley Company Inc.
Knaus, William J. (1994) Change Your Life Now, New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Kurtz, Ernest (1979) Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Centre City, MN:
Hazelden Educational Services.
Lasch, Christopher (1979) The Culture of Narcissism, New York: Warner Books.
(1984) The Minima] Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, New York: W.W
Norton & Co.
Lash, Scott and Eriedman, Jonathan (eds) (1992) Modernity and Identity, Oxford:
Latour, Bruno (1986) 'Visual cognition: thinking with hands and eyes', in H. Kulick
(ed.) Knowledge and Society Volume 6, Houston, TX: Rice University Press.

Lears, T.J, Jackson (1983) 'From salvation to self-realization: advertising and the
therapeutic roots of consumer culture, 1880-1930', in The Culture of Con-
sumption, New York: Pantheon Books,
Leonard, George (1991) Mastery, New York: Dutton,
Lichterman, Paul (1992) 'Self-help reading as thin cukure , Media, Culture and Society,
Makela, Klaus, Arminen, Ilkka, Bloomfield, Kim, Eisenbach-Stengl, Irmgard,
Helmerrson Bergmark, Karen, Kurube, Noriko, Marlini, Nicoletta, Olafs-
dottir, Hildigunner, Peterson, John H., Phillips, Mary, Rehm, Jurgen, Room,
Robin, Rosenqvist, Pia, Rosovsky, Haydee, Stenius, Kirsten, Swiatkiewicz,
Grazyna, Woronowizc, Bohdan, and Zielinski, Antoni (1996) Alcoholics
Anonymous as A Mutual-Help Movement, Madison: University of Wisconsin
Miller, Peter and Rose, Nikolas (1994) 'On therapeutic authority: psychoanalytic
expertise under advanced liberalism'. History ofthe Human Sciences, 7(30):
Miller, Toby and McHoul, Alec (1998) 'Helping the self. Social Text, 57(4): 127-55.
Minson, Jeffrey (1985) Genealogies of Morals: Nietzsche, Foucault, Donzelot and the Eccen-
tricity of Ethics, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Moore, Thomas (1992) Care ofthe Soul: A Guidefor Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in
Everyday Life, New York: Harper Perennial.
Peck, Scott (1978) The Road Less Travelled, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Prochaska, J.O., Norcross, J.C, and Clemente, C,C, (1994) Changingfor Good, New
York: Avon Books.
Rieff, David (1991) 'Victims all?: recovery, codependency, and the art of blaming
somebody else'. Harper's Magazine (October): 4956,
Room, Robin (1993) 'Alcohohcs Anonymous as a social movement', in Barbara S,
McCrady and William R. Miller (eds) Research on Alcoholics Anonymous, New
Brunswick: Rutgers Centre of Alcohol Studies,
Rose, Nikolas (1990) Governing the Soul: The Shaping ofthe Private Self. London: Rout-
(1996) Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power and Personhood, Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press,
Rose, Nikolas and Miller, Peter (1992) 'Political power beyond the state: problem-
atics of government', British Journal of Sociology, 43(2): 173-205.
Schlessinger, Laura (1997) How Could You Do That? The Abdication of Character, Courage
and Conscience, New York: Harper Perrenial,
Shattuc, Jane (1997) The Talking Cure: TV Talk Shows and Women, New York: Rout-
Smiles, Samuel (1859) Self-Help, London: Murray.
Valverde, Mariana (1996)' "Despotism"and ethical liberal governance'. Economy and
Society, 25(\3): 357-72.
Vitz, Paul (1994) Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self- Worship, Michigan: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing.

Ward, Peter (1996) 'Eilling the world with self-esteem: a social history of truth-
making', Canadian Journal of Sociology, 21(1): 123.
Whitfield, Charles (1987) Healing the Child Within, Deerbeach: Health Communi-
cations, Inc.
Young, Jeffrey E. and Klosko, Janet S. (1994) Reinventing Your Life, New York: Plume.