Materiality: spaces, affects and bodies

As the previous section highlighted, materiality is important for understanding therapeutics as an assemblage. Much of the social scientific literature on therapeutic culture has tended to overlook material culture and embodiment as crucial building blocks for the therapeutic to function in everyday contexts. However, therapeutic culture is not just out there, but functions and is mediated through the mundane material contexts with which human and non-human beings interact. Chapters in this book examine how our mundane material surroundings - objects, gadgets, spaces and bodies - put forward or ‘prescribe’ (Latour, 1992) the therapeutic in people’s everyday lives, and how the therapeutic is embodied in and through the physical realm. They analyse the emergence and transformation of therapeutic practices in complex networks of human and non-human actors and

From culture to assemblages 13 highlight the centrality of affective attachments to how therapeutic practices work in and through bodies.

Both Julia Lerner and Tatiana Tiaynen-Qadir explore the embodied relationship between religion and the therapeutic in a transnational context. Underlining the importance of embodied and material practices of religion, Tiaynen-Qadir underscores how therapeutic engagements are deeply embodied and irreducible to cognition and reason. She examines Orthodox Christian practitioners’ embodied and sensory experiences of religion and healing. In response to the ‘therapeutic turn' in society, Finnish Orthodoxy has emphasised the therapeutic effects of its practices, although this has been done mainly by reviving the notion of therapeia - the ancient Orthodox cure of soul and body - rather than by secularising psychological narratives of the self. Tiaynen-Qadir shows how, in religious practices, glocal therapeutic assemblages are produced in complex and historically situated interactions between human and non-human actors, and how divine intervention is channelled through materiality of sound, archaic texts, iconic art and holy objects. Lerner, for her part, explores how women who were raised in the Soviet Union and migrated to Israel and Europe narrate their religious experiences in therapeutic terms. They emphasise the role of religion in overcoming personal difficulty, gaining control, embodying responsibility and discovering the ‘true self in new and challenging life situations. The women’s narratives, imbued with powerful embodied and emotional registers, reveal how religion operates in their eveiyday lives, and how it has transformed the ways in which they perceive themselves, their personal histories and their social relations.

Embodiment and material culture are also discussed by Bergroth and Helen. They theorise how, through digital-tracking practices, the human body is divided into and presented in the form of ever-extending trajectories based on the body’s own movements and beats. Self-tracking prescribes conceptions of selves as ‘data derivatives’ (Amoore, 2011) that focus not on what the self is, but on what it could (and should) be, producing affective and sustaining engagement with the act and technology of self-tracking. Andell, Bergroth and Honkasalo, for their part, show how uncanny beings and sensations become ‘real’ actants by participating in people’s therapeutic knowledge production. Uncanny experiences are often made sense of through the concrete effects and emotions that they induce in the world. The authors thus approach uncanny phenomena as active agents, and uncanny experiences as social practices and ‘therapeutic events’ that shape and actualise one’s relationship with oneself and with the surrounding world. The uncanny also intertwines with materialities. For example, people’s narratives on uncanny encounters shed light on how personal relationships and care relations (are made to) transgress the apparently impenetrable boundary between life and death, by and through everyday technologies such as lamps and candles. Furthermore, embodiment and the emotional sphere are narrated in many ways as crucial to actualising knowledge of - and care for - either the self or, for example, a person who is no longer visibly present in this world. Overall, the authors build an argument that uncanny experiences should not be understood as therapy-in-a-time-of-crisis, in a functionalist sense, but rather as part of active assemblages of knowledge production.

Marjo Kolehmainen prepares new ground for theorising therapeutics by delving into atmospheres as affective assemblages. She proposes that atmospheres offer a novel lens through which to interrogate therapeutic engagements, as they enable a move away from human-centred notions of the therapeutic and the self, and foreground how situational and material therapeutic practices operate in and through both human and non-human bodies. Her chapter traces how ‘different objects and bodies come together in situated experiences of registering, engineering or sustaining an atmosphere' in relationship and sex-counselling events. She suggests that part of the appeal of therapeutic engagements is likely to be connected specifically with affective atmospheres rather than with the actual content or advice delivered in counselling. She also makes an important observation regarding the affective dynamics of inclusion and exclusion: ‘To register an atmosphere is to sense a connection, which may feel therapeutic in itself; and to fail to catch it may intensify feelings of non-belonging, rendering one more vulnerable’.

Continuing the discussion on affect, the chapter by Stanley and Kortelainen draws on Wetherell’s (2013) seminal work on affective practices. This allows a study of meaning-making that does not draw sharp divisions between bodies, discourses, affects and emotions. Stanley and Kortelainen analyse how mindful bodies are assembled in a professional mindfulness training event. They focus on the practical conduct of mindfulness as an assemblage of affective practices, looking into the production of mindfulness meditation, the space, and the practitioners’ bodies. The assemblage perspective allows them to foreground mindfulness as a situated and embodied practice that is not ‘the same thing’ in different settings. Their analysis also shows how mindfulness may be experienced as a ‘post-secular’ sacralising space.

Freigang explores the affective intensities of a mood-tracking app. In dialogue with Lupton (2014), he suggests that mood-tracking apps can be viewed as sociocultural artefacts into which different aspirations, circuits of societal discourses, economic interests and meanings are inscribed. He coins the concept of ‘therapeutic companion’ to capture ways in which mood-tracking apps operate in users’ everyday lives. The chapter shows how mood-tracking apps may become both empowering and contested, engendering both excitement and disappointment.

Virve Peteri’s chapter foregrounds the need to appreciate space as an active agent in shaping and transforming experiences, emotions and subjectivities. She shows how ‘fun culture’ in organisations can be viewed as an assemblage of bodies, materials and spaces that aim to generate happier, more playful, creative, agile and mobile worker subjectivities. This has profoundly gendered implications, as the ideal subject inhabiting the new playful office space appears to be a young man interested in PlayStation games and relaxing on a beanbag.

Perheentupa adopts another angle on discussions of space and emotion. She shows how feminism in Russia is understood and produced as a therapeutic space, a ‘shelter’ in which activists can momentarily shield themselves from a society in which they feel unsafe. Moreover, she shows how feminist activism revolving around cultural trauma translates experiences of psychic injury and painful memories into collective action that provides a shared forum for healing.

Conclusion: reassembling the therapeutic

This and subsequent chapters underline the need to understand and appreciate therapeutic practices as part of our everyday symbolic and material landscape. In a similar vein to critical scholarship, which has problematised the idea of neoliberalism as ‘an economic tsunami that is gathering force across the planet, pummelling each country in its path and sweeping away old structures of power’ (Ong, 2007: 3), this book calls attention to the therapeutic not as a ‘tsunami’, but as situated and contingent assemblages without predetermined outcomes and effects. Indeed, the chapters in this book challenge the notion of a singular therapeutic culture and testify that therapeutic engagements camiot be tamed under any one narrative, whether it be neoliberal governmentality, depoliticisation or individualisation (see also Illouz, 2008). Combining a bottom-up ethnographic approach with assemblage thinking may, we hope, advance critical understanding of how we live with and assemble our ‘therapeutic companions’.


This book has been supported by two research projects: Tracking the Therapeutic: Ethnographies of Wellbeing, Politics and Inequality, funded by the Academy of Finland (grant number 289004) and The Puzzle of the Psyche, funded by Kone Foundation (grant number 46-8917). We would like to thank Daniel Nehring and the contributors to this book for helpfill comments on this Introduction.

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