Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Svend Brinkmann, Stand Firm. Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Trans. Tam McTurk, Cambridge: Polity, 2017

Another book I will be reading through on this blog. This short and entertaining anti self-help book is an absolute gem. I will admit I am a bit of a self-help junkie, but prefer works that offer practical (and not too hyped) techniques rather than ones that put the emphasis on self-discovery. Brinkmann is Professor of Psychology at Aalborg University in Denmark and this book was a best seller in its orginal language and made the author a celebrity. Brinkmann’s departmental affiliation is misleading perhaps as this book is located squarely within the philosophical arena rather than the psychological one, with the author advocating an updated form of Stoicism for today. In this he would no doubt concur with Foucault’s remark in relation to Ancient Greek philosophy:

Among the cultural inventions of mankind there is a treasury of devices, techniques, ideas, procedures, and so on, that cannot exactly be reactivated, but at least constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as a tool for analyzing what’s going on now-and to change it.
Michel Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics : An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 349-50

In many ways Brinkmann’s project is quite foucauldian, and he does in fact refer to Foucault’s work, noting:

It may appear as if Foucault’s technologies of the self are equivalent to the the concept of self-development. And in one sense this is true. However, the significant difference is that while the self-developers of today typically posit the existence of an inner self to be discovered and realised, Foucault thought of the self as an illusion, something that is created, like an artist painting a portrait. It does not exist prior to its creation, and it does not come about by itself. Another difference is that the concept of self-technology is closely associated with an understanding of ethics. The concept of ethics plays an important role in Foucault’s later work, as it represents the ongoing relation to the self to itself. (p. 94)

Brinkmann in a gentle lampooning of Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the industry it spawned, proposes a seven-step series of techniques for resisting the cult of the self. He provides a nice short paragraph summary of each of these techniques in this article in Psychology Today. His proposed techniques are summarised in the entertaining chapter titles:

  1. Cut out the navel-gazing
  2. Focus on the negative in your life
  3. Put on the No hat
  4. Suppress your feelings
  5. Sack your coach
  6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography
  7. Dwell on the past

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