Saturday, August 27, 2005

Steve and I

SHAM author Steve Salerno and I didn't set out to be the "his and hers" of self-help criticism, but here we are, partnered up in nearly a half-dozen reviews, seemingly destined to operate in an inadvertent point-counterpoint, the yin and yang (or I guess that would be yang and yin) critics of self-improvement culture.

Publishers Weekly praises Self-Help, Inc. for being "gracefully written" and "less caustic" than Salerno's Sham, while Psychology Today says Sham is more "fun to read" but that his "critique gives way to contempt."’s Laura Miller lauds Salerno's "solid shoe-leather reporting" but prefers my "tough-minded analysis" and "formidable grasp" of the philosophical underpinnings of self-help culture.

Steve and I have never met, but if you're out there reading this, Steve, I want to say, pleased to meet you, partner. Let’s dance.

• • •

One place where a little contact improvisation between our arguments might be helpful is on the question of victimization.

Salerno argues that self-help culture fosters a pervasive sense of powerlessness. He observes, as did Wendy Kaminer more than a decade ago, that Twelve-Step programs ask participants to focus on their powerlessness. Meanwhile other sorts of self-help programs promote an impossible sense of omnipotence—the idea that you are completely and personally responsible for every aspect of your life. This "either-or" world of abject impotence or absolute omnipotence, Salerno says, fosters helplessness.

Salerno has taken up the problem of what social theorists would call the limits of human "agency." Just how much of what you do in your life is up to you, and how much is a function of historical forces—social, economic, and other conditions that are well-beyond your control? The trouble is that he doesn’t know exactly where to take this problem of the pairs, so let’s pick up where he left off . . .

As a species we humans prefer the world of absolutes—the either-or, the black-white, good-evil, red states-blue states, or what a freshman writing instructor might call the unfortunate tendency to dichotomize. This preference for the binary started early on for us . . . back when as infants we had to figure out what was what, (m)other or me.

Most of us—with the exception of those mired in some sort of psychosis—sorted out that there was a difference between mom (or whoever was serving up breakfast and changing our diapers) and me. But the trouble is that, little ones that we were, we didn’t really have the capacity to understand that the distinction between self and other isn’t absolute. And to cope with the incredible frustration of being so dependent—so powerless—we came up with a fantasy that we were all-powerful and omnipotent. Seems as though this same fantasy is still rattling around in self-improvement culture.

One antidote to this yes-no, black-white thinking is to see that we are not fully bounded individuals, cut off from each other and the environment. Rather there are multiple overlaps and couplings: we come out of others, both figuratively and literally, culturally and corporeally.

Doesn't it seem that this sort of commonality is the real source of our power?