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Review of "Saving the Modern Soul"

By Eva Illouz
University of California Press, 2008
Review by Brian J. McVeigh on Sep 2nd 2008
Saving the Modern Soul

Alienation characterizes modernity.  Or at least its secularized, psychologized, and self-obsessed version does (premodern versions meant being separated from God or one's immediate community).  The late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of a discourse of personal disaffection, but it was not until the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries that its treatment became institutionalized in counseling, religious centers, clinics, and the medical establishment.  Alienation has many causes and manifestations: narcissism, constructing a false self, collapse of moral hierarchies, intense privatization of life caused by capitalist anomic organization, the emotional emptiness of being severed from communal relationships, surveillance and state control, and atomistic individuality.  Terms such as "therapeutic self-absorption," "therapeutic ethos," the older "talking cure," as well as practices such as commercial self-help books, support groups, assertiveness training programs, and television programs providing "one-show" counseling testify to attempts to treat alienation (in this regard, see my review of Micki McGee's Self Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life on Metapsychology, November 28, 2006). 

In this well-researched and lucid book, Eva Illouz investigates the therapeutic discourse, a "formidably powerful and quintessentially modern way to institutionalize the self" (p. 6) and, I would contend, treat alienation.  This topic is not new, and well-known theorists (Lionel Trilling, Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch) as well as lesser known researchers, have interpreted the rise of the therapeutic worldview (see Martin L. Gross' The Psychological Society: A Critical Analysis of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and the Psychological Revolution).  It is a truism that modern economics has encouraged two complementary processes: the "emotionalization of economic conduct" and the "rationalization of intimate relations" (p. 239).  Illouz's methodological approach is eclectic: she utilized 237 magazines from the 1930s through 1990s; the work of psychoanalysts; numerous interviews; and ethnographic analyses of two workshops in Israel. 

The therapeutic practices Illouz investigates are charged with a long list of tasks: to build coherent selves, procure intimacy, provide a feeling of competence in the work world, and facilitate social relations.  This discourse has thoroughly penetrated every nook and cranny of daily life and possesses a strong institutional basis in university departments, research institutes, journals, and an army of psychologists.  Consequently, the therapeutic ethos has "has come to constitute one of the major codes with which to express shape, and guide self-hood" (p. 6).  Significantly, the "new middle class," especially among women in this group, is particularly receptive to this ethos. 

Significantly, Illouz stresses how we should be sensitive to the context in which therapeutic discourses occur (corporation, marriage, support group, etc.).  And she rightfully criticizes Foucault and like-minded thinkers who do not take the "critical capacities of actors seriously" (p. 4).  The self, as the "prime site of the management of the contradictions of modernity," requires techniques--modern psychology--to manage those contradictions.  "In other words, psychology is less about 'surveillance' or 'bio-power' than it is about containing and managing the contradictions of modern selfhood" (p. 243).  Illouz makes another important point: a basic tenet of the therapeutic persuasion is that "what one feels" needs to be revealed, dissected, and discussed.  The role of a therapist is to expose, correctly name, and transform emotions.  However, because affective experience is fluid and contextually generated, there is no emotional substance necessarily waiting to be revealed.  Moreover, a "competent emotional response does not necessarily entail a self-conscious awareness of one's emotional responses" (p. 206). 

Related to the social constructedness of affections is Illouz's contention that one's class configures one's world of feelings (Chapter 6, "A New Emotional Stratification?").  Society's "emotional fault lines" are more salient between the working and middle class, rather than between men and women.  The self in need of therapy, then, implicates property and wealth. 

Illouz also discusses the psycho-dynamics of victimization in a chapter called "Triumphant Suffering."  The therapeutic persuasion is based on the premise that moral problems are diseases to be cured.  Consequently, a therapeutic culture has emerged whose mission is to heal the sting of "thwarted opportunities for self-development."  Suffering and victimhood come to define the self, and "performing the self through therapy" turns private experiences into a narrative to be publicly consumed.  Such a development, arguably, has demeaned and cheapened personal life.  Therapeutic narratives, then, should be criticized for "making too much sense of one's life" (p. 196; emphasis in original). 

Alienation results when we are asked to perform contradictory roles: we should be self-reliant, yet attuned to the needs of others; "conduct relationships in a highly rational way, yet be highly focused on our own and others' emotions; be a unique individual, yet constantly cooperate with others" (p. 243).  The therapeutic persuasion advocates a disengaged self that should be busy with self-mastery and control as well as a sociable self that brackets "emotions for the sake of entering into relations with others," and while the individual "dwells excessively on his or her emotions, he or she is simultaneously required not to be moved by them" (pp. 103, 104).  To a large degree such incongruities can be traced to tensions caused by emotional control for the sake of organizational efficiency and the "commodification of emotion" (see Chapter 3: "From Homo economicus to Homo communicans"). 

As counterintuitive as it is for many of us, more intimacy leads to alienation.  This is the point of a chapter entitled "The Tyranny of Intimacy."  The "ideology of pure emotion," and its concomitant values of openness, authenticity, and informality, becomes a social burden (and as someone who lived for sixteen years in an Asian society that does not see the benefits of uninhibited directness, I have concluded that casualness is an overrated virtue).  For Victorians, intimacy involved finding the appropriate person to reveal one's "true self" to; revelation itself was not a problem.  However, with so much confusion about what constitutes "authenticity," the act of uncovering one's self has become difficult.  

Illouz devotes an entire chapter to Freud.  It never ceases to amaze this reviewer how many still feel compelled to employ him as a theoretical linchpin.  Yes, Freud certainly tapped into key concerns of modernity, e.g., sexuality, the nature of parenthood, and the passage from childhood to adulthood.  However, I am unconvinced that Freud "almost single-handedly created a new language to describe, discuss, and manage the psyche" (p. 35), and Illouz could have a made more novel contribution by not attributing so much attention and credit to Freud.  Freudianism, after all, was as much a product as a response to modernity's therapeutic turn. 

Illouz's focus on Freud is part, I think, of a tendency to ignore longue-duré processes.  She notes that though inspired by nineteenth-century notions of selfhood, a new "therapeutic emotional style" emerged between World War I to World War II and solidified by the 1960s.  Different researchers have different agendas and preferences, and my comments are not necessarily a criticism per se.  However, while at one level the interwar periodization is undeniable, a longer historical perspective that illustrates a deeper shift in psycho-sociological processes is called for.  To understand these dynamics, we need more than just a list of the usual suspects of "isms," -- industrialism, capitalism, rationalism.  Being nineteenth century ideologies, the timeframe of these master narratives is historically limited, so that a long-term approach (cf. Elias Norbert's "civilizing process") would illuminate even larger sociopolitical changes that have configured the meaning of personhood and how we relate to others.  One suitable example might be found in political economics.  Illouz notes a global trend: an increasing number of societies are adopting the same economic and political models, as well as definitions of human nature, and psychology is one of the "main cores" of globalization.  Despite their local cultural inflections, different societies are using similar systems to "establish the essence of modern actorhood."  But what is this essence?  I suggest it is "self-consumption."  If both the self and consumption are central to our lives, the self becomes something to be savored.  When we trade in on our feelings of victimization to engage in gratuitous sentimentalization for the sake of sheer experience, others become mere mirrors for our daily dramatizations.  The purpose of genuine feeling is forgotten.  Alienation results. 


Martin L. Gross 1978.  The Psychological Society: A Critical Analysis of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and the Psychological Revolution.  New York: Simon and Schuster. 

© 2008 Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh teaches in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Arizona.  An anthropologist and Japan specialist, his latest book is The State Bearing Gifts: Deception and Disaffection in Japanese Higher Education.  He is currently writing a book entitled The Propertied Self: Politics, Psychology, and Ownership in Global Perspective