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  Number 386 | Septiembre 2013
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How self-help has become part of our common sense

The presence of self-help ideas in contemporary societies is a quantitatively and qualitatively significant phenomenon. Its mass circulation has been evident for decades. Is it anything more than just a sales success? What conditions have encouraged its spread? Is it a passing phenomenon, just another craze? What does its presence tell us?

Vanina Papalini

Self-help ideas are a phenomenon peculiar to our times but have an extensive genealogy. Their present form incorporates the modulations of their history, always linked to the political and social conditions that emphasize the subject’s ability to rely on his or her own resources. It makes use of a therapeutic culture that invites people to understand and diagnose themselves and overcome their inner problems on their own. Even intellectuals are part of the self-help movement, many as consumers and others—journalists, essayists, sociologists and philosophers—find success and profit in contributing their services as authors.

Russian linguist Mijail Bejtin and his followers believe that examining the major discursive genres of each period provides an understanding of the period’s emotional tone, that the preponderance of certain literary styles in a specific historical time lets us capture the uniqueness at the time. Language and its variations provide special access to understanding transformations in social history. I thus propose a more detailed examination of writings on self-help—their genealogy, the conditions in which they emerged and expanded—as a way to understand our present time.

A technique with recipes and promises

Self-help books are not neatly classified. You can find them under “general interest,” “practical books,” “psychology,” “philosophy” and more. The discursive arena of self-help goes beyond the genre’s strict delimitation, which in any event is only theoretical, telling us that self-help is a genre of mass culture that offers a technique for resolving problems. There is a conditioned promise, i.e. if the reader follows the spelled-out path, he or she will find well-being. Self-help deals with the subjective dimension as the underpinning of vital individual change directed towards a specific goal: be it to overcome pain and suffering, influence people, develop certain abilities, lead groups of people, etc. With respect to their composition, the self-help texts are generally structured around the presentation of a problem.

The subject is typically presented using examples and testimonies. A classification follows this account that gives the described situation a specific name under a particular category or type. The specific case ceases to be individual, instead representing a composite of similar situations that can become very general. From this are finally derived certain universal prescriptions that propose solutions much like recipes or simple steps to follow. The texts provide a socially legitimate discourse through which the proposed self-help methods justify their effectiveness. This legitimizing discourse can have a distinct flavor: based on science, casuistry or a rather lax religiosity.

This is in theory. In daily practice, the classification is much more casual. Thus, for example, management books, allegorical novels (such as those of Paulo Coelho), parents’ manuals and meditation books can all be found on the shelves marked “self-help” even though they strictly are not. This spontaneous classification is not too far off base, however, given that it recognizes in this variety of books the same rhetoric we could call “self-help space” since they generally offer alternative methods for solving problems whether directly or with somewhat more amorphous suggestions.

Among the best sellers

Until 2012 one could identify one, two or even three books from the wide range of self-help books on the 10 best-seller lists in Latin American countries. Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, which stand out for the size of their publishing markets, serve as examples. If one looks at the best-seller lists in Argentina in 2012 and compares the monthly ranking with 2011, one finds at least one book by Gabriel Rolon, Encuentros (Encounters), published by Planeta—Los padecientes (The Sufferers), by the same author, was ranked as a best-seller in 2011—and at least one of Pilar Sordo’s two best sellers, Bienvenido dolor (Welcome to Pain) or Lecciones de seducción (Lessons of Seduction), also published by Planeta that same year.

In Mexico’s case, the Gandh chain’s 10 best sellers in 2012 include two self-help books: the parents’ manual ¡Renuncio! (I resign!) by Yordi Roasado (Aguilar, 2012) and El manuscrito encontrado en Accra (Manuscript found in Accra) by Paulo Coelho (Planeta, 2012). Among e-books there are three more titles: Generación de modelos de negocios (Generation of business models) by Yves Pigneur (Deusto, 2011), Pequeño cerdo capitalista. Finanzas personales para hippies, yuppies y bohemios Little capitalist pig. Personal finances for hippies, yuppies and bohemians), by Sofía Macías (Aguilar, 2012) and ¡Me vale madres! Y otros mantras mexicanos para la liberación del espíritu (I don’t give a shit! And other Mexican mantras for the liberation of the spirit), by Prem Dayal (Grijalbo, 2012). Of a total of 20 books, then, self-help ones make up about 25%.

In Colombia the list of best-sellers from 2010 includes in fifth place Las valquirias (The Valkyries) by Paulo Coelho (Random House); in seventh place, Desintoxícate (Detox yourself) by Santiago Rojas (Norma), and in eighth Terapia Gerson, cura contra el cancer (Gerson Therapy, a cancer cure) by Gerson/Bishop (Alan Furmansky). On the 2011 list is ¿Por qué le pasan cosas malas a la gente buena? (Why do bad things happen to good people?) by Iván Gutiérrez (Planeta) and those that stand out in 2012 are El toque de Midas (Midas’ Touch) by Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki (Aguilar) and Increíblemente simple (Incredibly Simple) by Ken Segall (Gestión 2000).

Ideas already absorbed as common sense

These examples only have an indicative value because self-help doesn’t just refer to a repertory of books but also to a set of practices that are socially circulated and celebrated by the mass media. Neither the ideas nor the practices nor the type of books labeled “self-help” are new. What stands out is their cogency in contemporary society and their ability to cross borders and be adopted by various social sectors and in diverse national cultures. Their ability to blend with the thinking of our time is such that many of the applications and subtleties in understanding the world have been accepted as common sense without leaving traces of their origin. I propose several central vectors to help think about this phenomenon:

• The growth of the self-help discourse is a transnational process whose expansion coincides with the worldwide growth in global capitalism.
• Although as a literary genre it has a history of about 80 years, its expansion responds to recent sociocultural changes.
• Putting aside just written material, it has become a pattern for how to reorient one’s life, especially in times of crisis. It’s a heterogeneous set of ideas that feed the common sense of the period and is a model for attitudes, actions and beliefs of a great many people.
• Its principles and fundamental notions arise from the popularization of expert knowledge of human and social sciences and of psychoanalysis, as well as from the thinking of the countercultural movements of the sixties.
• Devoid of all challenges to its content, self-help is a fundamental key for a social and labor system that relies on the ability of its subjects to be resilient and adjust to changing requirements.

Three books that were precursors

Samuel Miles titled his 1859 book “self-help,” which he opened saying “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” The book provides “models of character and conduct” that exemplify the good English gentleman, based on individual effort and liberty, qualities that forge reliable and successful men and are also beneficial for the nation.

The uniqueness of this work lies exactly there: i.e. the idea that character attributes lead to social progress. The common good and self-interest are entwined in a set of attitudes that are not the patrimony of one social sector but can be expressed by workers and inventors, artists and industry leaders alike. Smiles bases and develops his concepts on biographies and examples of the lives of famous men. This attempt to model behavior is one of the traits used by the self-help genre; it appears in all the literature from antiquity right up to our day.

Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is another relevant antecedent in this protohistory of self-help. Edited posthumously under the title Mémoires de la vie privée de Benjamin Franklin (1791), this book is firmly based in developing character. It inspired one of the oldest and most widely read books—perhaps the first to clearly express the characteristics of the genre: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936). The crucial difference between this book and its predecessors lies in the fact that the cultivation of virtues in Carnegie’s book was applied to achieving a specific goal i.e. professional success.

They tell us we can
act on our deepest self

In his book Carnegie explicitly lays out a set of prescriptions or “recipes” that operate as a synthesis of the content. This trait is fundamental in differentiating self-help texts from any other kind, such as allegorical novels like El alquimista (The Alchemist) by Paulo Coelho), religious books or those dealing with psychology. Another element that is part of modern self-help books is a legitimizing discourse based on some theory of subjectivity that might come from a variety of psychological or psychoanalytic theories or from neuroscience.

Unlike Smiles or Franklin, the material these books deal with is the psyche—no longer the soul—understood as a key factor for how we act and live over which we have control. The 19th century notion of character was associated with attaining virtue, with acting in accordance with moral principles and that guided one to adopt a set of habits and behaviors during a lifetime. The 20th century notion of personality, on the other hand, refers to inherited traits and the environment to which are added, in the Freudian definitions, the existence of an unconscious dimension.

Through very different paths from that of volition—more tied to character than to personality—self-help works to shape the part of one’s self that operates “behind” our attitudes and actions. Whether called “unconscious” or “subconscious” it talks about “programmed behavior” or “family mandates.” From the outset, this particularity of self-help announces that it is drawing on the popularization of expert ideas.

For economic success
and for times of crisis

At the same time that Carnegie’s book appeared, two books by Napoleon Hill were published with a very similar tone. The Law of Success, published in 1928, was followed by Think and Become Rich in 1937. These books were based on interviews with great US millionaires and systematized their “recipes” so anyone could follow their path to success. In this sense, the presence of a legitimizing discourse regarding subjectivity was very weak, which in both authors shows up as a substratum of Darwinian behavioral psychology.

Both Carnegie and Hill were responding to the inveterate interest in social mobility expressed by the US population and the pressing need to move away from the economic adversities of the Great Depression.

The bestsellers by Josef Ajram, Todo Ajram, ¿dónde está el límite? (Totally Ajram, where’s the limit?) published by Plataforma, Barcelona, in 2010, La solución: El método Ajram (The solution: The Ajram method), also by Plataforma the following year, and No sé dónde está el límite, pero sí sé dónde no está (I don’t know where the limit is, but I do know where it isn’t), published by Alienta, Barcelona, in 2012, have enjoyed huge sales in Spain, whose financial and real estate predicament is widely discussed. They illustrate the value placed on such books during times of crisis, when people turn to them in search of individual solutions to a difficult national contingency.

Both Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill are considered the fathers of the self-help genre and their books keep being republished even though they are anachronistic with respect to current times. Carnegie’s widow and daughter updated the book to make it attractive and appropriate for the eighties’ audience.

This stage in the arising of self-help ideas (1930-1950) was marked by its focus on the steps to take to reach a lofty economic position. Hill and Carnegie are precursors to the “managerial” self-help literature, which, under new rules of marketing and human resource management, continues to this day. Having passed through this pioneer stage, the type of expert advice in the texts now deals with public relations and human resource management, marketing, sociology of organizations and social psychology. Its most popularized topics are treatment of stress, effective time management, increasing productivity, influencing others, efficiency and leadership.

The birth of “positive thinking”

By 1955 a change was occurring in vocabulary and topics: the US culture was beginning to experience transformations that crystallized in the form of a counterculture critical of the materialistic values that dominated the previous two decades. The personal transformations advocated in that stage had a spiritual inspiration and the worn-out term “happiness”—one of the classic topics of self-help—took on the meaning of internal well-being and harmony with the environment as well as self-realization. The well-established notion in our common sense, that of positive thinking, comes from that period.

Although later appropriated by the New Age trends, the theory of positive thinking grew out of a series of precepts and ideas developed by Pastor Norman Vincent Peale in The Power of Positive Thinking, published for the first time in 1952. Although the previous managerially inspired books didn’t disappear, works that offered another approach to life were published.

The relationship between the development of self-help and critical scholarship took on some very strange characteristics at that stage. The New Age aspect of self-help revolted against the hitherto hegemonic ideological discourses and took as their sources the reflections of Herbert Marcuse, Carl Jung, James Allen, Wallace Wattles and Florence Scovel Shinn, among others. I have called this stage one of rebellion (1950-1970).

A new twist: Be happy
without changing the world

In 1975 a text emblematic of the new twist in self-help thought appeared—The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra—that merged together Eastern religious thought and quantum physics. The self-help movement, which has the capacity to assimilate very dissimilar ideological currents and translate them into practical techniques to achieve a happy life, established ties during that period with systems theories, converging together technological optimism and cybernetic thought which added to the idea of parallels between the brain and the computer. Although their initial aims were reformist, these new visions tended to conciliate with the prevailing discourses of the day.

General systems theory and cybernetics are compatible with New Age holistic theories and provide a scientific basis. The less radical New Age positions considered society and its institutions compatible with spiritual progress. Learning the techniques of personal development can help one better achieve well-being and harmony in daily life without the necessity of changing the world. The stage between 1970 and 1990 has to do with “rechanneling.”

The question of why a thought that was born under the sign of rebellious challenge can, twenty years later, still serve society has many possible answers. One is connected with the superficial congruence in relationship to the prefix “self.” It would seem that the autonomy advocated by the countercultural movement may be equivalent to nothing more than a flexible framework with fewer regulations and that “creativity” and self-realization are expressions of both a singular, liberated individuality and of the working conditions offered by neocapitalism.

The individual on the throne

The nineties saw a new paradigm shift in the currents of social discourse that strengthened the enthronement of the individual. The proliferation of first-person stories, narratives of everyday life, persistent use of personal testimony and the increase in biographies of personalities with no notable attributes beyond having been turned into a spectacle by the media expressed a social need for quick identification and emotional stimulation.

There is a common root between self-help and the mass media genre of intimate biographies. Both cases deal with fragmentary everyday testimonial narratives about common people with strong emotional expressions. They presuppose a community of experiences that produce compassion, empathy and a strong sense of truth.

This exhibition of subjectivity seems to provide emotional support for the subjects who need support of some kind in the face of their own weak and inward-turned social story. The different modulations in the self-help discourses have given rise to the coexistence of different books and practices in a society where subjective malaise is handled with individual treatment even when caused by recognizable objective circumstances.

Thus, for example, an apparently innocuous book like Who Took My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson (1998) offers a set of basic axioms applicable to being fired or losing one’s job. There’s no mention of who is responsible or of demanding for restitution; this “change” is rather presented as an “opportunity” to find a better position. In terms of social action, collective mobilization or union demands, this type of text has a disempowering effect.

The therapeutic culture:
A network of practices for well-being

The nineties were a time for consolidating the self-help rhetoric and for generalizing a therapeutic culture that is a necessary condition for a “neo-prudential” sociopolitical model that delegates to the individual the obligation to control and maintain oneself.

The therapeutic or “psi” culture, as it is known, is the extension and popularization of the know-how, techniques and resources of subjective support that are immediately available in society and to which people can avail themselves without the intervention of an expert. The therapeutic culture is based on popularized notions from different types of psychology and neuroscience, including a wide variety of various types of alternative therapies, traditional knowledge and New Age beliefs and assumptions aimed at self care. This includes the scientific information put at the service of the advertising strategies.

The adjective “therapeutic” does not refer just to the treatment of pain—either psychic or physical—but rather to a complete network of practices geared to integrated well-being that includes diet and continual psychophysical prophylaxis. The fact that someone eats chocolate because the endorphins it releases produce a “chemical high” that raises one’s spirits, or announces that he or she is “depressed,” or chooses a yoghurt not for taste but because it raises the defenses to bodily disease are tangible manifestations of expert knowledge that has been simplified and is slowly becoming part of the common heritage. In any magazine or newspaper supplement we find simple tests that let us diagnose ourselves and delineate our personality profiles.

Numerous articles and journalistic programs are about phobias, panic attacks and other compulsions. Radio and television are full of testimonies and examples of people recovering from obesity or drug use. Those interviewed by a roving journalist after an accident or court ruling express their feelings more than their opinions about the event. Even the movies and the arts speak of a turn inward, a thorough scrutiny of the subjective.

The proliferation of personal stories put forward by today’s culture—one shaped by the presence of the culture industries and an impersonal web-based informative and socialization social grid—buttresses the extension of the therapeutic culture.

Self-help doesn’t look for the
why or the what but only the how

Beyond some “side effects” that can be examined with more or less sympathy, such as the desacralizing of the expert medical or educational voice or the rise of self-management solutions to daily problems on a scale not previously experienced in the institutional bureaucracies and hierarchies, it is true that the therapeutic culture pursues the objective of self-correction rather than self-knowledge. In fact, the introspective phase is only necessary insofar as it leads to rectification or the exit from a “bad situation” whose identification involves adhering to the same normal-abnormal standards present in the culture itself.

Said by way of example, one is only considered normal if one is optimistic and extroverted. Pessimistic realism and shyness are considered detriments. The therapeutic culture requires us to all agree on what is good and bad, what constitutes a success or failure and what is normal or pathological. Unlike the ways of exploring our inner selves that grow out of a concern about oneself, these techniques and practices make a quick and strongly guided passage through the introspective stage with an eye to achieving a specific goal.

Therein lies the difference with forms of meditation or processes of self-transformation, including psychoanalysis, that go deeply into questions. Self-help, as part of this therapeutic layperson system, is not about the search for “why” or “for what”; rather it proposes a “how” to reach some previously defined standards. The parameters of what is good, desirable and beneficial follow the hegemonic societal standards. This doesn’t mean that the numerous participants in the therapeutic and self-help cultures couldn’t use other regulated but not closed or uniform entities to find other avenues, inspirations, answers and even questions that go beyond the methods they are using.

The assessment that self-help leads to is that both the problem and the solution lie completely and exclusively in the subjects. The skills required of them (in work, social relationships, in marriage, in any relationship or situation) aren’t their physical or mental abilities. Fundamentally, it’s about a “being,” a set of attributes of individual subjectivity. Something similar occurs in both the social and personal realm, i.e. the question that makes one autonomous at the same time makes one responsible.

To make the person
“his own CEO”

Neoprudentialism becomes a new form of how to govern that masks the imposed conditions at the same time that it emphasizes people’s ability to use their own personal resources to resolve the many contingencies that arise from the objective overall conditions presented to them. This requirement also, however, entails the offer of resources to sustain the self-driven and overtaxed subject.

The spread of the therapeutic forms is a condition that makes possible a form of capitalism that relies on personal resources. First it remakes the subjects into “their own CEOs.” Second it provides a language and concepts that let the subjects both identify their goals and assess the situations they are going through and resources they need. Third it offers a set of techniques for improving their performance. And finally it puts a series of resources at their disposal. These resources range from interpersonal cooperative methods such as mutual-help—wrongly called self-help—groups to manuals, books and mass media products; and from therapies and physical, psychological and spiritual practices to plant therapy with nutritional complements and legal or illegal psychotropic substances.

The cult of individualism
and the counterculture

The idea of “common sense” is a genre of cultural expressions, of practical wisdom. It involves a semantic domain that presents “quasi-qualities” as attributes of reality. It’s not a system of thought but rather a nonsystematic and contradictory set of ideas with the ability to naturalize the events by making reality transparent so it is revealed as it is. It’s “common” because it’s the ordinary thinking that with a great economy of reflection indicates how a person should act. It’s “common” because it’s shared by and available to anyone who simply lives in the culture. The idea of common sense is basically anti-expert. It represents the world as something familiar that anyone can recognize.

The apparent obviousness of its sentences reveals a certain acriticalness and in its political aspect it allows subordinates to become part of the dominant ideology. In Antonio Gramsci’s definition, common sense is a diverse and multiple precipitate of the historical processes. When we say something is part of our common sense, we’re saying that it is unquestioned, integrated and made invisible, a representation of “normal.”

The present significance of self-help that forms part of our common sense comes from two different strains but both tend to blend with a reassuring world view. The first is the cult of individualism as the maximum expression of autonomy and liberty. As we have seen in the first stage of self-help, this variable coincides with the idea of the entrepreneurial self-made man, whose major success is fundamentally economic and associated with the world of work as defined by Calvinist morality.

The second strain comes both from the counterculture of the sixties and from the French May of 1968. These movements feed a rich imagination capable of thinking that other worlds are possible, providing a new language and circulating unusual worldviews.

A common sense that works
well with capitalist ideology

Outlining and reducing the variety of discourses that make up each one of these moments of rupture and intense social creation, we can identify two ideological offshoots that are different and yet converge.
First: the demand for more autonomy and creativity that had its political and cultural high point in May 1968 and is the inheritor of modern enlightenment thought. Certain highly valued attributes like individuality, creativity, imagination or liberty not only are not opposed to but rather perfectly blend with capitalist ideology.

If the problem is the Ford-style production line, the routine repetition of actions, the rigid regulatory framework and vertically authoritarian institutions, then a new flexible management model such as can be found within neocapitalism—the Toyota management style is an example—is the answer to society’s demands. It is a model without schedules and not tied to the work place but rather to specific task objectives that emphasize teamwork and dilutes the top-down organization through ownership communities with an “identity” and a “culture” (of business) that appeal to the workers’ autonomy to the point of leaving them to the uncertainly of precarious contracts.

Capitalism is “learning” from its critics and absorbing the demands by rotating its axis so that the result is even more useful. The tangible consequences are work conditions that demand not only a segment of the work time but also a total commitment, not just specific labor or services but also the capacity for creation invested in the work. The wear and tear and the emotional and intellectual energy demands on the worker are much greater.

The new situation, perceivable since the eighties, is more unstable, more costly in personal terms, less defined, more competitive and more productive. Since capitalism’s new conditions affect all human work in all its forms, this devastating scheme causes symptoms for both the worker and the employer. To call those symptoms “stress” is a delicate euphemism, but where the problem lies is also where the solution arises. The nineties were inundated with self-help books and practices that claimed to be the answer.

One must be optimistic
and not grow old

The second ideological offshoot is that the US counterculture of the sixties, besides being anti-materialist, anti-consumer, championing life and artistic experience, was optimistic and youth-oriented. It opposed industrialization and the assigning of fixed identities such as gender, ethnicity and political beliefs. It was marked by fluidity and its credo was that a new society would arrive without violence through the ascent of human consciousness. A certain religiosity gave sustenance to this vital redefinition. Zen, in its modern and western appropriation of the ancestral religion, permeated the cultural atmosphere of that decade. The search, however, did not stop there but re-examined Hinduism, Taoism, the cosmovisions of the original peoples of North America and various other beliefs that came together in the New Age melting pot.

Along with this ideology we have inherited some poor substitutes: mass consumer products were replaced with customized products, art became part of the objects we use daily while music accompanies us incessantly. Recreation based on one’s identity and exposure to “extreme”—though controlled—risks are organized by tourist and sports agents. These are less subversive examples of the experimentation that aroused the counterculture generation.

Optimism is mandatory and youthfulness in personality and body image is the imposed model. One cannot get old. One can’t not be ready, energetic or enthusiastic. One mustn’t ever get tired or give up. As recited in the creed of the sixties, change begins with oneself. This is how structural social conditions, rules and obligations became completely invisible. The practice of integration and harmony makes conflict seem like a derailing. The beliefs are defined in a menu of possibilities—a la carte religiosity—that don’t adjust to any institution.

We’re responsible for our
own happiness and misfortunes

In both paths, autonomy appears as just one more mystification. The insistence of self-help on empowerment and creativity enables processes of control and self-control to happen without demanding much from the State, institutions and businesses.

The cleverness doesn’t lie in the incorporation of this vigorously ascending term but rather in the way it’s used. The idea of autonomy—with its libertarian evocations—legitimizes piecework, precarious employment, flexible work hours that impinge on private life, the proliferation of tasks this involves, adaptation to change, the absence of regulatory frameworks and a total commitment that is not limited by the strength or ability to work. It demands subjective qualities such as imagination to solve problems and the personal ability to develop a “friendly” personality that fits the business requirements. Alienation becomes greater and creativity becomes a production necessity.

In this framework, “autonomy” means carrying the weight of failure individually without having any control over the structures in which the game is played or the power even to discuss the rules. True learning isn’t about knowing “how to do” but rather about knowing “how to be.” And this “how to be” means adapting to the prevailing order. This new code, which has an almost Orwellian tone, paradoxically determines that autonomy means the absolute surrendering of oneself and the fact that we are responsible for both our happiness and our unhappiness and must deal with it completely on our own.

And the intellectuals?

If anyone thinks that intellectuals keep a critical distance from the self-help movement they’re wrong. Some serve as authors—recognized journalists, essay writers, psychologists, sociologists and philosophers find a profitable and successful path here. Others use the services like anyone else—to find a way to make the children sleep, to deal with burn-out or clear the mind, to relax… Not a negligible number experiment with alternative therapies with flowers or energy, meditate or subscribe to a very personal New Age-type credo that allows them to live according to spiritual axioms.

This is not a criticism. It’s just a reminder that we are immersed in our time and are learning to resolve our problems the way our culture teaches us.

Vanini Papalini is a professor of sociology and communications at the University of Cordoba and researcher for the National Council of Scientific and Technological Studies (CONICET) in Argentina. This text appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of Nueva Sociedad” under the title “Recetas para sobrevivir a lasexigencias del neocapitalism” (Prescriptions for surviving the demands of neocapitalism). Subtitles and English translation by envío.

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