The politics of therapeutic assemblages

The assemblage perspective is a potent theoretical lens through which to deepen our understanding of two themes that run through this book as key analytical threads: politics and materiality. Although these themes are enmeshed in complex ways - politics being material, and materiality being political - we elaborate on each in the remainder of this Introduction.

We begin by exploring the politics of therapeutic engagements and, more specifically, the types of political imaginaries and actions that these engagements may enable or foreclose. Historically, therapeutic knowledges and practices have been intimately intertwined with social movements, including the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the women's liberation, New Age and alternative health movements and radical community therapy groups (see Aubry & Travis, 2015; Staub, 2015; Saks, 2003; Bondi & Burman, 2001). The rise of humanistic psychology, which challenges behaviourist models and champions the concepts of ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘inner potential’, found particularly strong resonance in countercultural movements that criticised the prevailing capitalist, authoritarian and patriarchal social order. The popularisation of therapeutic discourse, with its focus on trauma and healing, also helped open up new discursive spaces for ‘speaking out’ about forms of injustice and suffering that have long been silenced in public, such as child abuse and violence against women, and has empowered groups and individuals who were previously marginalised (Stein, 2011; Illouz, 2008).

Despite this deep historical interconnection, the predominant interpretation in therapeutic culture scholarship conceives therapeutic practices as a tool for political domination, diverting attention from structural forms of injustice to empowering the psychologised self. It has been argued that the social critique embodied in countercultural movements has been commodified and merged to reinforce a neoliberal agenda (Hollinger, 2004; Redden, 2002), leading to the dissipation of radical collective action against social injustice (Cloud, 1998). By rendering structural relations of power as personal psychopathologies to be solved by ethical work on the self, the therapeutic ethos has been seen as legitimising middle-class norms, targeting the transformative energy towards the self rather than social structures, and cultivating autonomous, self-sufficient and enterprising subjects capable of and willing to engage in constant self-invention and selfgovernance (MacNevin, 2003; Skeggs & Wood, 2012; Nehring et al., 2016; Cloud, 1998; Makinen, 2014; Madsen, 2015; Foster, 2016).

However, the chapters in this book tell a more complicated story. Therapeutic practices may certainly oppress, depoliticise, manufacture political quietism and cement symbolic and material hierarchies of power, but they may also serve as vehicles for social change and animate political critique (see Salmenniemi, 2019). While proponents of the depoliticisation thesis often conceive politics as ‘contentious politics’ (e.g. Cloud, 1998), this book adopts a broader stance on politics by delving into the terrain of micropolitics and everyday resistance, which is often overshadowed by the focus on organised forms of political action (Scott, 1989; Bayat, 1997; Lilja & Vinthagen, 2014). Indeed, this book underlines the need to acknowledge the multidimensional nature of political contestation, ranging from confrontational to circumventing, productive to hindering, individual to collective, accommodating to enforcing, and materialistic to virtual (Baaz et al., 2018: 4). Broadening the notion of politics and revealing often individualised, covert and small-scale acts of resistance allows us to appreciate the complexity of powerrelations within the therapeutic field, and reminds us that political subjectivity should always be analysed in relation to local and ethical conditions that dictate how political agency takes shape (Mahmood, 2005: 9).

In this spirit, Ariel Yankellevich’s chapter in this book addresses the popularisation of life coaching among the Israeli (mostly Ashkenazi) middle class. He argues that the field of coaching cannot be adequately grasped by a single logic of individualisation or depoliticisation, but should rather be understood as a particular moral and ethical assemblage that combines individual self-development with collectivist dispositions towards the common good of the nation. Coaching entails not withdrawal from, but a reconfiguration of, social responsibility and political engagement. The chapter shows how coaching’s neoliberal therapeutic rationality is assembled with local discourses of the self and the nation, which enable coaches to negotiate their social positions and find new sources of legitimation in the context of shifting social and cultural hierarchies. Julia Lerner’s chapter on Russian-speaking migrant women's religious experiences also interrogates the relationship between the therapeutic and neoliberalism. Lerner shows how neoliberal, religious and therapeutic elements intertwine in the narratives of

From culture to assemblages 11 these women, and how, rather than emptying the self of its communal content, this assemblage potentially augments communal attachments. Both chapters highlight the importance of analysing therapeutic engagements through the intersecting categories of class, gender, ethnicity and generation.

While Yankellevich’s and Lerner’s chapters underline ways in which neoliberal and therapeutic discourses intertwine to support each other, Salmenniemi, Nurmi and Jaakola highlight instead how therapeutic assemblages need not necessarily align with neoliberal governing projects, but may also be mobilised to critique and contest them. Drawing on Critical Theory and analysing therapeutic practitioners’ narratives of contemporary working life, they show how therapeutic assemblages operate as forms of everyday resistance to the destructive effects of the neoliberal ethic of work. They highlight how practitioners seek to deal with their deeply embodied sense of alienation by assembling personalised therapeutic packages consisting of diverse practices, objects and forms of knowledge. Rather than optimising and accruing value to themselves, they mobilise therapeutic techniques to pull themselves back to life from the murky waters of burnout and depression. In this sense, these techniques allow them to craft hope and a sense of agency in difficult life circumstances.

In their chapter, Stanley and Kortelainen also critically engage with interpretations of mindfulness as a thoroughly commodified, neoliberal and individualising technology of the self. They suggest that, rather than assuming particular a priori effects, one should rather regard them as objects of empirical inquiry, and thus approach mindfulness as a contextually specific practice assembled from different and sometimes contradictory elements.

Virve Peteri’s chapter continues the discussion of everyday resistance by analysing the production of playfulness in the workplace. She approaches activity-based office designs as ‘therapeutic spaces' seeking to elicit creativity and positive emotions and traces ways in which employees seek to challenge and subvert the new patterns of emotion control introduced by office design. Although the organisation’s leadership encourages workers to invest in fleeting sensations and moods as a source of inspiration, and to ignore historically constituted social bonds between them, the workers continue to maintain and invest in long-term friendships and solidarities. Moreover, although they are no longer allowed to have personal spaces, many continue to attach themselves to particular desks and thus refuse to comply with the new culture of mobility and flexibility. In this way, the chapter highlights the centrality of material and spatial arrangements for domination and subversion.

The chapters by Inna Perheentupa and Felix Freigang examine therapeutic practices in the context of collective mobilisation and ‘speaking out'. Perheentupa conceptualises feminist activism in Russia as therapeutic politics. She shows how activists come together to deal publicly with their traumatic experiences connected with gendered violence. Holding onto their political agency serves a therapeutic function for the activists in the context of repressive political conditions and a trauma culture. Freigang, for his part, discusses the proliferation of digital mood-tracking applications as a response to inadequate mental health services in

Germany. He shows how the mood-tracking app can facilitate the politicisation of mental health, such as contesting victimisation and stigmatisation relating to mental health problems and inadequate psychotherapeutic care, thus echoing the long tradition of social health movements and patient activism.

As Freigang's chapter elucidates, some chapters in this book engage in readings of politics inspired by new materialism and actor-network theory. Viewed from these perspectives, politics is neither exclusively, nor even primarily, a human domain of action and decision making, but is heavily influenced and directed by the material world (Latour, 2005; Bennett, 2010). This sensitises us to exploring the contingencies and specificities of power and resistance in particular arrangements of human and non-human actors (Law & Singleton, 2013). In this spirit, some chapters empirically explore how human and non-human actors come together to create and restrict avenues of political, socially transformative action. For example, Bergroth and Helen delve into the data-driven, digital milieu of contemporary body-tracking. They show how the sociotechnical domain of tracking one’s bodily functions brings together bodies, therapeutic discourses of holistic health, political discourses of ‘personalised medicine’ and citizen activation policies, and the dividualising, fragmentary logic of algorithmic self-monitoring technologies. This creates regimes of perpetual self-control within which ‘the point of self-tracking is to educate people not on their daily step counts or heart rates during sleep per se, but mainly on caring for and managing personal “vitality” The chapter highlights how self-tracking becomes an everyday political and therapeutic regime for both managing and performing activeness and good health.

Drawing on a unique set of autobiographical narratives on uncanny (i.e. ‘supernatural’) experiences, Andell, Bergroth and Honkasalo elaborate how experiences of being in touch with mysterious beings, voices, visions and other extraordinary things often interact with pervasive technoscientific-rationalist discourses that reduce such experiences to mental ‘errors’ or ‘disturbances’. As such, these experiences may be both ‘sickening’ and healing, but are nevertheless crucial actants in people’s therapeutic and political assemblages, as they prescribe care for the self, care for others and desires to work on the world.

 
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