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4 Act as If and Useful Fictions A Technology of the Self In a letter to the editor of the black newspaper the Weekly Louisianian , on 8 November 1879, a correspondent identified as “a Republican Scout” with the pen name Irrepressible proposes a strategy for achieving electoral victory in the precinct of Orleans.1­ After advising the party to put aside favoritism and nominate the most qualified leaders, or­ ga­ nize canvassing committees that include as many white men as pos­si­ble, register all Republican voters, and get them to the ballot box on voting day, the scout turns to address voters directly. “­ Unless each man ­ will regard this fight as his own,” the letter warns, “a campaign is useless.” Voters must “act as if” the Republican ticket “would have no votes but your own. Act, as if your candidates ­ will have a majority of but one vote, and as if each man thought that one would be his vote.” In a democracy of any size, the vote of a single citizen is highly unlikely to determine the final outcome. No doubt this was especially true for citizens who had only been emancipated from slavery a de­ cade and a half earlier; who had, for purposes of repre­ sen­ ta­ tion, been counted as three-­ fifths of a person before emancipation; and who ­ were, in 1879, witnessing the early stages of disenfranchisement strategies that continue to the pres­ ent day. Yet the letter counsels the paper’s readers to set aside this discouraging real­ity and instead act according to a self-­conscious fiction in which one vote—­ the reader’s own—­ would make the crucial difference. This chapter contends that the counsel offered by the “Republican Scout” is part of a long tradition that threads its way through the works of Seneca, 99 Act as If Saint Paul, Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant, William James, and Hans Vaihinger, among other notable figures, but ends, in a period of flourishing , with the self-­ help and pop-­ psychology industries of the twentieth and twenty-­ first centuries. Dr. Reverend Gary Brodsky sells Act as if books and CDs on his website with the promise that to “­ free yourself from the root cause of diseases, loneliness, poverty and powerlessness . . . ​ all you need is to learn to ACT AS IF.”2 Holly Boyd, a self-­ described “Christian Professional Or­ ga­ nizer,” calls the title of her book, Act as If, the “key to happiness ” and “one of the oldest formulas in the world.” (As we ­ will see, this last claim is not wholly inaccurate.)3 In Reallionaire: Nine Steps to Becoming Rich from the Inside Out, Farrah Gray advises readers to “act as if someone is watching you—­because someone always is.”4 Alcoholics Anonymous frequently pairs act as if with another popu­ lar slogan, “fake it till you make it.”5 The following lines may strike dismay into the hearts of poets and poetry lovers, but in the last two de­cades few verses have been circulated so widely, appearing (in sundry variations) on greeting cards and house­ warming gifts, in graduation speeches, country-­ music lyr­ ics, and positive-­ psychology handbooks.­ You’ve gotta dance like ­ there’s nobody watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt, Sing like ­ there’s nobody listening, And live like it’s heaven on earth, And speak from the heart to be heard.6 Act as if has become a nearly ubiquitous slogan in motivational speeches, sales and management seminars, twelve-­ step programs, prosperity Bible sermons, and half-­ time pep talks. For all ­ those who promise to make us fitter , happier, more productive, comfortable, at ease, calm, confident, prosperous , or­ ga­ nized, and successful—­ all ­those professional purveyors of what Michel Foucault called “technologies of the self”—­ act as if is both a central piece of intellectual machinery and a well-­ worn calling card.7 How and why did act as if become a pervasive linguistic resource for self-­ fashioning? This chapter attempts to recover the history, not of a fixed phrase, but rather of practical counsel of the form X as if Y, in which X is a verb (often, though not always, imperative) and Y is a sentence expressing a false or hy­po­thet­i­cal proposition.8 Behave as though and do it like function Studies 100 in much the same way, as do the Greek hōs, hōs ei (hōsei), and hōs ei te; the Latin quasi, sicut, ac...


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