Therapeutic self-assembly and the politics of self-control

Deleuze (1995b: 179) wrote that whereas life in disciplinary societies is characterised by completions and new beginnings, like trajectories from families to schools, and from schools to work, ‘in control societies you never finish anything’. In this chapter, we have shown how self-tracking as a technology of the self often drives fragmentation rather than unity, and anticipation rather than knowledge. Selftracking enacts the self, through a focus on linear scales, as an ongoing process and potentiality rather than as something to be found as a whole and coherent. An important consequence is that self-tracking assemblages bring to everyday life a modality of being characterised by perpetual alteration. From the consumer perspective, the therapeutic ethos of holism and stability thus appears appealing and welcome as it promises control, yet it is ultimately futile within the assemblages that produce their raison d’etre through producing a metastable existence - an existence that is constantly subject to change. Acting to manage this metastability associates self-tracking as a therapeutic regime with the anticipatory control and regulation of potentiality in political regimes. In the last section of our chapter, we probe briefly this political aspect of self-tracking as control.

Our analysis of self-trackers’ narratives brought up struggles against ill health and laziness, both of which are identifiable as long-running trajectories of struggle in Western ethics. Considering these struggles further along with Deleuze's

Datafying therapeutic life management 119 ideas of control society we may connect them with sociotechnical visions and programmes of ‘perpetual education' and ‘personalised medicine' which rely on processes of dividualisation. If we consider self-tracking, on a general level, as perpetual education - resonant with what Fotopoulou and O’Riordan (2017) call ‘biopedagogy' - we can connect it with social programmes of activation. In critical social policy literature and in public discourse, ‘activation’ has typically referred to a variety of local and international policies, hugely influential across OECD countries, through which the unemployed or the ‘excluded’ have been made responsible for managing their labour power, working abilities and personal life in general (Eversberg, 2015: 173; Clarke, 2005: 448). Yet, as a programme or an assemblage, activation is itself contingent; it takes shape in relation to neoliberal market rationale and the logics of restmcniring of the welfare state, through which the state and public powers seemingly withdraw from securing individual lives and from interfering with them. Furthermore, ‘activation’ may work as an umbrella term that covers a variety of traits and qualities such as, for example, education, the utilisation of prior work experience, health, well-being, mental awareness or aesthetic appearance. All of these are closely intertwined with the ability to self-manage and maintain the social and economic utility -that is, labour capacity and productivity - of one’s own body. In this context, 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’ by themselves in order to reduce the ‘deadweight’ in the productive system (see Eversberg, 2015). Activation is thus a programme that is actualised through mundane technologies far beyond its rhetorical target population, that is, the unemployed, the precariat and the ‘excluded’ who are typically not the target group for self-tracking devices. We see how activation becomes actual with Aino, who worries about - and finds therapeutic functions in - managing her energies and capacities, that is, her labour power, through a struggle against laziness in a demanding and stressful work environment. In Virve Peteri's chapter in this book, we see spatial arrangements of the office space as a new mode of activation and mobilisation of workers and their labour power within organisations; in this chapter, we see parallel strategies of activation with self-tracking technologies in everyday life and outside organisational contexts.

Self-tracking as an assemblage of control also has an affinity, and perhaps a more concrete one, with a major imaginary of future healthcare envisaged as ‘personalised, predictive, preventive, and participatory’ (Hood & Friend, 2011). The advocates of ‘personalised medicine’ conceive of it as being embedded in advanced biomedicine like genomics and stem cell technology and claim that it will improve clinical care and shift the emphasis of health care to prevention with the help of more precise and patient-centred medical knowledge (for an overview, see Tutton, 2014). In addition, personalised medicine is expected to considerably reduce the costs of healthcare. Over the past few years, visions of personalised medicine have re-focused on the collection and appropriation of masses of health-related personal data (Prainsack, 2017; Ruckenstein & Schtill, 2017). According to the promoters, data-driven medicine would enable anticipatoryhealth monitoring and preventive interventions, as well as medication and other therapies, targeted far more precisely at specific risk groups or individuals (e.g. NAS, 2011; Hood & Friend, 2011).

Self-tracking works in congruence with the data-driven personalised medicine that is expected to revolutionise modern medicine, health policy and society (NAS, 2011; Hood & Friend, 2011; Mayer-Schonberger & Cukier, 2013; Pentland, 2013; Topol, 2015). This congruence builds through the logics of control and dividualisation, both of which are embedded in massive data sets and have a focus on individual parameters and malleable patterns (see Sharon, 2017). Personalised medicine is often seen as a frame for preventive lifestyle and proactive medical interventions, supported by perpetual self-monitoring and control. As seen in our examples, many companies promoting self-tracking - as well as self-trackers themselves, such as Sakari - focus on the measurement of health-related parameters of vital functions and behaviour and narrate self-optimisation by digital tracking devices in a manner similar to preventive healthcare.

Personalised medicine is expected to have effects across populations, societies and even globally. The dividualisation taking place in such practices also lays the ground for the pervasiveness of ‘therapy cultures’ as personal lives are perpetually in need of preventive interventions: for example, always rather potentially ill (metastable) than healthy organisms (stable). Personalised medicine is thus another political programme that lays the ground for the sociotechnical instantiations and alterations that are shaping current therapy cultures towards a focus on ongoing self-control and metastability rather than healing, wholeness and stability.


In this chapter, we argue that while self-tracking can be theorised in terms of its connections to the general therapeutic ethos of self-discovery and self-improvement, it is a data-driven practice of dividualisation. As such, it creates regimes of action that build on the idea of perpetual self-assembly and which thus fit uneasily with any overarching characterisation of‘therapeutic cultures’. Instead of holistic and reflexive self-inspection we often see the fragmentation of the individuals and their lives into ‘functions’ and ‘qualities’ presented by graphs and charts, and in ways that focus on the self as a process that should be worked upon consistently. So, in terms of how these technologies come to serve life, they serve not as holistic actualisation of the self but as a means of ongoing control and management of potential. As life-management techniques, these technologies have a tendency to actively produce the kinds of regimes of perpetual action that they promise to dissolve. Furthermore, self-tracking as a technology of the self exemplifies how current therapeutic assemblages can also intertwine with political programmes and discourses such as citizen activation and personalised medicine. We see selftracking as to some degree pertaining to the emergence of societies of control as sketched by Deleuze, especially through a focus on increasing complexity and persistent incompleteness, which both attract endless monitoring.


The authors wish to thank the Academy of Finland (grant number 292408, grant number 313703, grant number 289004) and Kone Foundation (Crossing Borders for Health and Well-being) for supporting this work.


  • 1 Mika Pantzar (2012: 133) has noted that when Finnish technology developers such as Polar Electro tried to introduce and sell heart rate monitors to American consumers at the end of the 20th century, they faced resistance as it was thought unclear why the average consumer should need one.
  • 2 and tracking?product_id=64271&category=faqs [accessed on March 23,2018].
  • 3 [accessed on March 28, 2018, italic as in original source].
  • 4 [accessed on March 28, 2018].
  • 5 For example, a measurement of sleep quality may be based on a simple parameter, such as movement, or it may be based on a combination of parameters, such as movement data, heart rate data and data on breathing rhythms.
  • 6 For example, these discourses now frame sitting as a public health threat (Peteri, 2017) and manifest themselves in various campaigns in workplaces encouraging people to be physically active during workdays.


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