From culture to assemblages: An introduction
Therapeutic life management is a billion-dollar business worldwide, woven into the fabric of our daily lives through media culture, workplace activities, technology, healthcare and politics. Reality TV propagates self-improvement through countless makeover shows; schools and kindergartens offer training in emotion management; workers are encouraged to cope with structural stress factors with the help of mindfulness sessions and motivational seminars; and bookstore shelves groan under the weight of popular psychology books promising to unleash one’s inner potential and deliver happiness, love and harmony. Therapeutic discourses are also intertwined with processes of digitalisation, which are opening up new avenues for everyday therapeutic engagement through wearable, near-body computing and mobile health applications. The therapeutic, referring to psychological, spiritual and holistic discourses and practices that encourage cultivation, care and transformation of the self, is so ubiquitous in the codes and conduct of contemporary everyday lives that its normalising power often goes unnoticed. However, as a variant of a longstanding cultural-historical injunction to ‘know thyself, it significantly shapes the everyday lifeworlds we inhabit.
The seminal role and increasingly global reach of therapeutic discourses and practices in contemporary social formations have been taken up and intensively debated in the social sciences and humanities. Scholars have critically discussed ‘the psychologisation of everything’; that is, the dominating role of emotions and psychological vocabularies in making sense of and regulating human life (Rose, 1990; Illouz, 2008). This phenomenon has been captured in the concept of therapeutic culture, which suggests that therapeutic discourses thoroughly permeate the cultures and institutions of the Global North and crucially shape how we understand and relate to ourselves and the social world (Aubry & Travis, 2015; Foster, 2015). Therapeutic culture rests on a particular understanding of selfhood, revolving around ideas of psychic inferiority, autonomy, authenticity, self-respon-sibility and continuous self-invention (Rose, 1998; McGee, 2005).
This book arises from a need to advance our understanding and theorisation of therapeutic cultures in our current political conjuncture. It makes novel empirical and theoretical contributions to existing scholarship in three ways. First, while there is now a wide body of literature on therapeutic discourses and techniques and their role in the government of populations, there is a notable lacuna in
2 Suvi Salmenniemi, Harley Bergroth, Johanna Nurmi and Inna Perheentupa understanding of how people engage with these discourses and practices. This book addresses this lacuna and taps into ways in which people incorporate therapeutic practices into their daily lives. It explores how people live with, appropriate, produce, negotiate and transform therapeutic practices, and how these practices shape and are shaped by subjectivities. In zooming into lived experiences through ethnographically informed case studies, this book elucidates the diverse forms, meanings and embodied effects of therapeutic engagements in different settings, as well as their potential for both oppressive and subversive social change.
Second, while the overwhelming majority of previous research on therapeutic cultures has focused on Anglo-American societies (see e.g. Aubry & Travis, 2015; McGee, 2005; Ouellette & Hay, 2008; Furedi, 2004; Cloud, 1998; Foster, 2015, 2016), this book brings in case studies from other countries, including Germany, Russia, Finland and Israel. In this way, it contributes to a growing body of research on therapeutic cultures beyond the Anglo-American purview (see e.g. Matza, 2012; Nehring et al., 2016; Madsen, 2014; Makinen, 2014; Hendriks, 2017). Globally, therapeutic practices share many central elements; yet, as this book shows, they also become invested with different meanings and constitutions as they travel to and are adopted and practised within different historical, cultural and geographical contexts.
Third, this book makes a theoretical contribution by introducing the notion of assemblage into discussion of the therapeutic, and by investigating how human and non-human actors, systems of thought and practice are assembled and interwoven in therapeutic engagements. We suggest that, rather than as ‘culture', therapeutic practices and discourses can be productively conceptualised as diverse, situated and context-specific ‘assemblages’ that may be politicising or depoliticising, individualising or collectively oriented, commonly welcomed or shunned by the public imaginary - and, of course, many of these things simultaneously. By engaging with assemblage thinking, the book seeks to decentre the somewhat totalising narratives of therapeutic culture, which tend to depict it as a coherent and unified entity producing similar effects regardless of time and place. The analytical lens of assemblage allows us to bring to the fore the multiplicity of therapeutic configurations in different contexts, and to underscore their material and political dimensions, which have not been studied enough in previous literature.
The chapters of this book thus dive into the complexity of therapeutic assemblages across various areas, including mindfulness and life coaching (Stanley and Kortelainen; Yankellevich), relationship and sex counselling (Kolehmainen), religious and spiritual self-care practices (Lerner; Tiaynen-Qadir), extraordinary experiences as instantiations of care and healing (Andell et al.), complementary and alternative health practices (Salmenniemi et al.), feminist politics (Perheentupa), organisational fun culture (Peteri) and data-driven digital life management (Bergroth and Helén; Freigang). They examine how the ‘therapeutic’ works in diverse symbolic and material contexts, and ask what makes people’s self-cultivation practices ‘therapeutic’, and how therapeutic assemblages relate to power, politics and the production of social reality. We argue that, rather than
From culture to assemblages 3 ‘therapeutic culture’ imposing itself on lives anywhere in the world, ‘therapeutic’ is always assembled into being from a variety of resources, not only by the masses ‘out there’, but also by the very people who attempt to study it. We thus join scholars who are calling for acknowledgement of the complexity of therapeutic cultures and their capacity to serve many, seemingly incongruous ends (Aubry & Travis, 2015), and for investigation of their diverse manifestations, without a priori assumptions about their effects (Illouz, 2008).
We will discuss each of these three contributions in more detail. However, before doing that, we first offer a brief overview of existing research on therapeutic culture.
Mapping therapeutic culture
Self-care and self-betterment are longstanding phenomena dating back to antiquity (Foucault, 1988), and have been part and parcel of many different political, religious and cultural formations (Madsen, 2015; Kelly, 2001; see also Tiaynen-Qadir, and Stanley and Kortelainen in this book). The rise of modern-style therapeutic self-help discourse traces back to American father figure, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) who, apart from the Declaration of Independence (US, 1776), produced texts providing simple guidance on how to become wealthy and how to lead a virtuous and happy life, and kept charts monitoring his own virtuousness (Madsen, 2015: 5; Schaupp, 2016: 251). A century later, British publisher and author, Samuel Smiles published Self-Help (1859), a pioneering book in the modern self-help genre that popularised rational and utilitarian ideas of selfimprovement (Kelly, 2001: 201). Later that century, the New Thought movement gained momentum in the United States, merging psychological and religious discourses in the propagation of positive thinking (Woodstock, 2005). Thus, since its inception, the modern-style therapeutic discourse has been a complex assemblage drawing on religion, spirituality, medicine, psychology, natural science, business management and so on. However, while the phenomenon of self-betterment is old, new to our current moment are its thoroughly naturalised, individual-centred and psychologically infused ontology, and its intensive commodification, digitalisation and global circulation. These aspects are addressed in this book.
Existing scholarship on therapeutic culture can be roughly divided into three strands. The first is a longstanding strand of cultural critique addressing the therapeutic ethos as an emblematic element of late modern ‘cultural decline'. On the one hand, the therapeutic ethos is seen as threatening to undermine public morality and political and communal life, promote individualism and narcissism, and deflect political critique by offering psychological solutions to complex structural problems (see e.g. Furedi, 2004; Lasch, 1979; Rieff, 1966; for a comprehensive and critical review, see Lichterman, 1992; Illouz, 2008; Madsen, 2015). This scholarship has tended, to paraphrase Aubry and Travis (2015: 4), to ‘excoriate rather than analyze’ the therapeutic ethos. On the other hand, proponents of reflexive modernisation (e.g. Giddens, 1992) suggest that proliferation of the
4 Suvi Salmenniemi, Harley Bergroth, Johanna Nurmi and Inna Perheentupa therapeutic discourse is connected with the individualisation process and the erosion of the role of traditions and traditional authorities in late modern societies. In this context, therapeutic practices may have a potentially empowering role by providing individuals with cultural resources with which to reflect on and assemble their identities and biographies.
The second approach is grounded in the (post-)Foucauldian governmentality tradition, which links the rise of ‘psy’ to historically shifting forms of government (Rose, 1990,1998). Rooted in a genealogical approach, this body of scholarship argues that ‘advanced liberal' or ‘neoliberal' government is characterised by governing through freedom, choice and responsibility; ‘at a distance' rather than through repression and control. Therapeutic knowledges and techniques are seen as crucial ingredients of this art of government, giving rise to self-managing and enterprising subjects (Rose, 1990, 1998; Binkley, 2011; Foster, 2015). In promising liberation of the self, psy governmentalities make the self ‘work seamlessly for and within a system of power’ (Illouz, 2008: 3). Subjects are obliged to be free and to make life meaningful by searching for happiness and self-realisation (Rose, 1998: 151). Through attachment to various therapeutic technologies of the self, ‘we are governed by our active engagement in the search for a form of existence that is at once personally fulfilling and beneficial to our families, our communities and the collective well-being of the nation’ (ibid.: 78).
Third, a vast body of empirical analyses on therapeutic discourses and techniques draws on diverse theoretical resources and focuses particularly on popular media culture as an influential transmitter of the therapeutic ethos. These studies have examined, for example, reality TV, makeover shows and talk shows (Ouellette & Hay, 2008; Ringrose & Walkerdine, 2008; Harvey & Gill, 2011; Lerner & Zbenovich, 2013), women’s magazines (Gill, 2009; Madsen & Ytre-Arne, 2012) and self-help literature (McGee, 2005; Woodstock, 2005; Hazleden, 2003; Rimke, 2000; Nehring et al., 2016; Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015; Tiaynen-Qadir & Salmenniemi, 2017). They have identified key ideas, generic conventions and strategies of persuasion in the therapeutic discourse, as well as analysed representations of gender, sexuality and class and how they produce and sustain relationships of power and privilege. In addition to examining media culture, the therapeutic discourse has also been critically interrogated in the context of education, detailing how therapeutic and neoliberal discourses coalesce to construct normative ideas about autonomous, enterprising and competitive students (Ecclestone & Hayes, 2008; Brunila, 2011; Brunila & Siivonen, 2016), and has been applied to management and corporate culture, highlighting the mobilisation of therapeutic practices in managing worker subjectivities (Swan, 2010; Davies, 2015).
As this review elucidates, a lot of important work has been done to interrogate how therapeutic discourses subjectivate and interpellate, and operate as an oppressive ideology or form of governmentality. However, there is still a paucity of research on the lived experience of therapeutic practices, especially outside the Anglo-American context (see, however, Lichterman, 1992; Illouz, 2008; Matza, 2012; Sointu, 2013; Nehring & Kerrigan, 2019; Salmenniemi & Vorona, 2014; Pagis, 2016).
This book addresses this gap thr ough an ethnogr aphic investigation of what inspires people to engage with therapeutic practices and what makes these practices meaningful to them. In the next sections, we flesh out what this entails.