Discovering Bright-sided

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Well of Insight

I first learned about Barbara Ehrenreich when I stumbled upon an interview with Catherine Liu for Jacobin, where the notion of the PMC or Professional Managerial Class is discussed and developed.

The interview centered on the development of this notion of the PMC as formulated by Barbara and John Ehrenreich published in the Radical Magazine for the March-April edition 1977.

This is where the Ehrenreichs assert:

We will argue that the “middle class” category of workers which has concerned Marxist analysts for the last two decades- the technical workers, managerial workers, “culture” producers, etc. must be understood as comprising a distinct class in monopoly capitalist society.  The Professional-Managerial Class  (“PMC”), as we will define it, cannot be considered a stratum of a broader “class” of “workers” because it exists in an objectively  antago­nistic relationship to another class of  wage  earners  (whom  we shall simply  call  the  “working  class”). (p. 11)

Barbara herself develops the power of the concept of the PMC in her classic study Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class where the “class betrayal” of the PMC is meticulously described.

For someone who has had his eye on the spiritual bubble of the American identity, discovering Brightsided—and Barbara Ehrenreich’s well of insight—has been a tremendously delightful experience. When I picked upBrightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, I couldn’t put it down. I re-read it immediately after the first run—enjoying it even more the second time. Nothing makes me “happier” than the deconstruction of mass-delusion. 

For me, personally, the book didn’t add anything which was previously unknown to me. The pleasure of reading her consisted in the way her personal journey allowed her to encounter this powerful ideology with the freshness of the contemporary American experience.

One of the reasons I’ve developed a certain allergy to social media is this relentless exposure to the ideological waves of the happiness cult, which has become a new kind of opium for the people, which is by no means confined to the United States. Just like the capitalist system itself, its notion of “the pursuit of happiness” has been globalized and exported to all the corners of the earth. It is just as Ehrenreich writes: “Like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle, the injunction to be positive is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to identify a single source” (47). Then she goes on to expand with illustrations drawn from our immediate media landscape:

Oprah routinely trumpets the triumph of attitude over circumstance. A Google search for “positive thinking” turns up 1.92 million entries. At the Learning Annex, which offers how-to classes in cities like New York and Los Angeles, you’ll find a smorgasbord of workshops on how to succeed in life by overcoming pessimism, accessing your inner powers, and harnessing the power of thought. A whole coaching industry has grown up since the mid-1990s, heavily marketed on the Internet, to help people improve their attitudes and hence, supposedly, their lives. For a fee on a par with what a therapist might receive, an unlicensed career or life coach can help you defeat the “negative self-talk”—that is, pessimistic thoughts—that impedes your progress.

(Brightsided 47)

It does feel like a “perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle,” that the exhortation to be “positive” so as to “manifest” your wishes and desires is everywhere met with. At the same time, it is an injunction to remain completely self-centered, to open up the floodgates of self-gratification, radiating from the entire commercial social media, and on TV, not only confined to the commercial breaks. It is in virtually all media content, in every song, movie or video, most clearly when aimed at children and teens, through which this quintessence of the status quo—a new kind of Kool-Aid for an ailing generation—is showered upon the “hearts and minds” of the people. 

Looking at the collective dimension of the positive thinking, we are not dealing with some nebulous gas hanging over the city, nor some spontaneous phenomenon of ‘human nature.’  As Barbara’s writes, “positive thinking is not just a diffuse cultural consensus, spread by contagion. It has its ideologues, spokespeople, preachers, and salespersons—authors of self-help books, motivational speakers, coaches, and trainers” (48). 

With the sprawling self-help industry alone, not to mention its pervasiveness in all media content, positive thinking acquires the status of a ‘state ideological apparatus.’ 

But this is how Barbara Ehrenreich sets up her whole adventure through the self-help industry, which includes attending one of the most prestigious conferences of its “thought-leaders,” gurus, and pseudo-scientific sycophants. It’s hard not to imagine this event which Barbara attended at the National Speakers Association as a veritable ComicCon of the positive thinking movement. I will leave you here to enjoy her narration at length:

  In 2007, I ventured into one of their great annual gatherings, a convention of the National Speakers Association, where members of the latter occupational groups came together for four days to share techniques, boast of their successes, and troll for new business opportunities. The setting, a waterfront hotel in downtown San Diego, was pleasantly touristic, the internal ambience engineered for a maximally positive effect. A plenary session in the main ballroom began with a ten-minute slide show of calendar-style photos—waterfalls, mountains, and wildflowers—accompanied by soothing music. Then a middle-aged blond woman in an Indian-type tunic came out and led the 1,700-member audience in “vocal toning.” “Aaaah,” she said, “aaah, aaah, aaah,” inviting us to stand and chant along with her. Everyone joined in, obediently but not enthusiastically, suggesting some prior experience with this sort of exercise. It was New Age meets middle-American business culture. You could pick up some crystals at the exhibition booths or attend a session on how to market your Web site. You could hone your meditation skills or get tips on finding a speakers agency. You could delve into “ancient wisdom”—the Upanishads, the Kabala, Freemasonry, and so on—or you could purchase a wheeled suitcase personalized with your name and Web site in large letters, the better to market yourself while strolling through airports. There was nothing remotely cultlike about the crowd, no visible signs of fanaticism or inner derangement. Business casual prevailed and, among the men, shaved heads greatly outnumbered ponytails.

The irrational exuberance, such as it was, all came from the podium. First up, among the keynote speakers, was the slender, energetic Sue Morter, described in the program as the head of a “multi-disciplined wellness center in Indianapolis.” When the initial applause she receives “doesn’t do it” for her, she orders the audience to stand and engage in a few minutes of rhythmic clapping to music. Thus primed, we are treated to a fifty-minute discourse, delivered without notes, on the “infinite power” we can achieve by resonating in tune with the universe, which turns out to have a frequency of ten cycles per second. When we are out of resonance, “we tend to overanalyze, plan, and have negative thoughts.” The alternative to all this thinking and planning is to “be in the Yes!” When she comes to the end, Morter has the audience stand again. “Squeeze your hands together, think the thought Yes. Put your feet firmly on the planet. Think the thought Yes.” 

Best known among the keynoters was Joe (“Mr. Fire”) Vitale, introduced as “the guru himself,” who claims doctorates in both metaphysical science and marketing. Vitale, who looks like a slightly elongated Danny DeVito, offers the theme of “inspired marketing,” and also love. “You are just incredible,” he begins. “I love all of you. You are fantastic.” He admits to being a “disciple of P. T. Barnum” and recounts some of the pranks he has used to gain attention—like a tongue-in-cheek press release accusing Britney Spears of plagiarizing his “hypnotic marketing” techniques. Love seems to be among these techniques, since he recommends increasing one’s business by looking over one’s mailing list and “loving each name.” He plugs his most recent book, Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Power, and More, which explains how a doctor cured inmates in an asylum for the criminally insane without even seeing them, by simply studying their records and working to overcome his negative thoughts about them. Again, there is a jubilant finale: “Say ‘I love you’ in your head at all times so that we can heal all that needs to be healed.”

The audience absorbs all this soberly, taking notes, nodding occasionally, laughing at the expected points. As far as I can judge, most of the attendees have not published books or ever addressed an audience as large as the National Speakers Association provides. Random conversations suggest that the majority are only wannabe speakers—coaches or trainers who aspire to larger audiences and fees. Many come from health-related fields, especially of the “holistic” or alternative variety; some are coaches for businesspeople, like the ones I had encountered instructing laid-off white-collar workers; a few are members of the clergy, seeking to expand their careers. Hence the predominance of workshops on nuts-and-bolts themes: how to work with speakers bureaus, acquire bookings, organize your office, market your “products” (DVDs and inspirational tapes). Not everyone will make it, as one workshop leader warns in her PowerPoint presentation, with a kind of realism that seems sorely out of place. Some, she says, will go into a “death spiral,” spending more and more to market their Web sites and their products, and “then—nothing.” But clearly there is money to be made. In one workshop, Chris Widener, a forty-one-year-old motivational speaker who began as a minister, tells the story of his unpromising youth—he had been “out of control” at the age of thirteen—culminating in his present affluence: “Three and a half years ago, I bought my dream house in the Cascade Mountains. It has a weight-lifting room, a wine cellar, and a steam bath. . . . My life is what I would consider the definition of success.”

(Brightsided 48-51)

Norland Téllez is an artist and teacher with over two decades of experience in the entertainment industry. As a scholar of myth and history, he remains committed to critical thinking through the power of the mythic image.

Discovering Bright-sided

WORKS CITED

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

Works Cited

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

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