‘Living on a razor blade’: Work and alienation in the narratives of therapeutic engagements

[T]he contemporary psychological discourse summons the individual to a highly autonomous task of psychological self-optimization within a distinctively individualistic therapeutic regime. In short, this is a vision of psychological life as enterprise, one centred on the individual pursuit of well-being as one of calculating self-interest, and a project of repudiation centered on the inherited dependencies of social government.

(Binkley, 2011: 94)

The available cultural scripts, such as ‘self-help’ discourse, reinforce the messages of self-reliance and personal responsibility that are deeply rooted in the trials of individual experience, and hence serve as a therapeutic ethos that hides real economic and social failure and disappointment behind a projected fantasy of individual self-reliance through careful emotional self-management.

(Foster, 2016: 112)

As in the quotations above, much of the literature on therapeutic culture and neoliberalism suggests that therapeutic knowledges and practices have been successfully harnessed to serve neoliberal projects seeking to cultivate self-governing, enterprising and self-reliant subjects (Cloud, 1998; Madsen, 2014; Ouellette & Hay, 2008; Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015). Therapeutic techniques are argued to operate as powerful instruments to manage subjectivity across social domains, casting structural issues of power as individual psychopathologies, and thus masking and legitimising capitalist exploitation (Foster, 2015). While this interpretation undoubtedly captures important dimensions of therapeutics in neoliberalism, this chapter suggests that the relationship between the two may be more complex. Drawing on fieldwork among practitioners of alternative therapeutic practices in Finland, we argue that rather than being directed merely towards strategic selfoptimisation and entrepreneurial self-management, therapeutic practices may also be mobilised to critique, contest and disengage from the destructive and exploitative effects of neoliberalism. Thus, they are neither inevitably nor necessarily allied with neoliberalism, but may have different effects and functions depending on the assemblage they become part of. They can be assembled both to reinforce regulation of subjectivity for the capitalist production of value (Davies, 2015; Makinen, 2014; Ehrenreich, 2009; Peteri in this book) and to foster resistance to alienating and dehumanising aspects of neoliberal work.

Working life was not initially at the core of our research, but in the course of fieldwork we were alerted to its centrality in narratives of therapeutic engagements. Although we did come across a number of therapeutic training activities and practitioners preaching strategic self-management as a prerequisite for success, these were overshadowed by countless stories of work-related exhaustion, depression, burnout, disillusionment and disappointment. These stories articulated a deeply felt and embodied sense of contradiction between ideological interpellations and the lived realities of work. They invited us to delve more deeply into relationships between work, therapeutics and neoliberalism in our research materials. Accordingly, in this chapter we trace how working life is experienced and made sense of by therapeutic practitioners, and the meanings and functions acquired by therapeutic forms of knowledge and practice in this context. We suggest that the interview narratives convey a profound experience of alienation, articulated through the tropes of Toss of the self and ‘refusal of subjectivity’. In dialogue with assemblage thinking, we show how the practitioners seek to contest and alleviate this alienation by assembling a package of therapeutic self-care practices with which to distance and disengage themselves from the ethic of constant performance and efficiency and the valorisation of waged work. We approach such therapeutic assemblages as a generative force (Newman, 2017: 89) and a form of everyday resistance (Scott, 1989), organised not as publicly visible contestation, but rather as individualised and small-scale acts of non-compliance and subversion in the everyday.

Whereas much previous research has focused on tracing dominant interpellations of therapeutic discourse and how it operates as an oppressive ideology or a form of governmentality (Furedi, 2004; Madsen, 2014; Cloud, 1998; Ouellette & Hay, 2008), this chapter zooms in on the lived experience of therapeutic practices. Echoing Illouz’s (2008: 18) call for studies of ‘what people actually do with certain forms of knowledge’ and what these knowledges are ‘good for’, we explore how therapeutic practices are assembled and mobilised to tackle the experience of alienation. Our analysis draws on materials gathered from an ethnographic study among practitioners of popular self-help psychology, complementary and alternative medicine and new spiritualities in various parts of Finland, conducted by the first author, Suvi, between 2015 and 2017. The fieldwork was informed by a multi-sited fieldwork methodology, with the central principle of ‘following’ as a mode for defining the objects of study (Marcus, 1998: 84). The research circulated across diverse sites of the therapeutic field, following the participants and the types of practices they were engaged in, as well as metaphors and storylines, such as belief in the power of thought and interconnections between body, mind and spirit.

In this chapter, we draw on interviews with 32 research participants who were professional healers or practised therapeutic activities as part of their everyday

‘Living on a razor blade ’ 157 lives, as well as materials from participant observations of therapeutic events (fairs, training sessions, workshops, lectures, etc.). The interviews mapped practitioners' life stories, as well as their experiences of therapeutic engagements and the meanings attached to them. The overwhelming majority of the research participants (29) were women. This reflects the overall gender profile of the therapeutic field, which continues to be femininely marked and utilised by women more than men (Swan, 2008; Sointu, 2013). The participants ranged in age from their early thirties to their seventies. Only six had a university education, while the others had intermediate or little formal education. Sixteen worked either fiill-time or part-time as professional healers or therapists. The rest worked in some form of care work or office work, or as teachers, HR managers, salespeople, bookkeepers, entrepreneurs or school assistants, or were unemployed, on pensions or studying. In our analysis, we focus on the interview narratives, with ethnographic observations providing crucial contextual sensitivity for the interpretative work.

In what follows, we first discuss the connections between therapeutics and neoliberalism and the role of therapeutic practices in the workplace. We then explore experiences of alienation in the workplace, followed by an examination of how therapeutic assemblages may be mobilised to contest the destructive effects of work. The concluding section suggests that therapeutic assemblages open up a horizon of hope by creating a space to voice the hidden injuries of neoliberal capitalism and envisage alternative ways of being in and connecting with the world.

The therapeutic spirit of capitalism

Previous research has highlighted the seminal role played by the therapeutic discourse in the historical development and transformation of capitalism (Rose, 1990; McGee, 2005; Madsen, 2014; Illouz, 2008). It has been suggested that the therapeutic discourse has served as an instrument of class power by legitimating capitalist oppression, inhibiting political dissent and turning structural issues into individual psychopathologies to be remedied by commodified self-improvement regimes (MacNevin, 2003; Cloud, 1998). In particular, therapeutic knowledges and practices have been seen as being intimately entangled with neoliberal governing projects promoting a politics of self, whereby work on the self is normalised and posited as an ethical duty (Rimke, 2000; Ouellette & Hay, 2008; Foster, 2016; Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015). According to Foster (2015), therapeutic and neoliberal discourses converge around the key categories of autonomy, personal growth, self-reliance and self-regulation, hailing individuals to understand themselves as objects of investment and repositories of capital geared to maximising material success and personal happiness (Salmenniemi, 2017). Neoliberalism emphasises the capacity to make enterprising choices and maximise one’s interests as a condition of self-rale, and commodified regimes of self-improvement, selfhelp and life management have emerged to respond to this demand in the context of diminishing state provision of social protection (Ouellette & Hay, 2008: 476). Here, the self becomes a project that is permanently ‘under construction',

entangled in a never-ending project of optimising bodily and psychic dispositions (see also Bergroth and Helén in this book).

Boltanski and Chiapello’s (2005) historical study tracing ideological changes in capitalism is an important theoretical contribution for making sense of this fusion of the therapeutic with neoliberalism. They argue that the legitimation narrative underpinning the capitalist system was forcefully questioned during the 1960s and 1970s, not only through traditional social critique of the labour movement, but also through what they call ‘artistic’ critique. This critique targets the dehumanising aspects of capitalism and criticises it for conformism, hierarchy, and the destruction of creativity, individuality and authenticity. The linking of work with self-realisation channelled the countercultural value of self-fulfilment into the workplace (McGee, 2005: 112); as Boltanski and Chiapello (2005) argue, the capitalist system assimilated the artistic and countercultural critique and turned it into a key ingredient of its new legitimation narrative. Thus, critique of capitalism was harnessed to engender a ‘new spirit of capitalism’, centred around the idea of work as a source of pleasure and self-realisation. According to Foster (2015), this new spirit was then imbued with intrinsically individualistic categories of psychology, offering instruments for an ever-deeper colonisation of subjectivity for the capitalist production of value. This new spirit of capitalism was accompanied by a profound reorganisation of work structures, giving rise to the process of précarisation and more flexible and insecure work (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005).

Although ‘psy’ technologies have long been instrumental in the organisation of work (see Illouz, 2008), the new spirit of capitalism has paved the way for their increasing utilisation in regulating worker subjectivities (see Peteri in this book). Therapeutic practices are mobilised to make workers more productive, committed and ‘resilient’ (Swan, 2010), and to incite them to learn to draw pleasure from this. Workers are invited to apprehend all work as fulfilling and enjoyable and develop a positive attitude towards work. This is connected with a broader trend towards individualisation and subjectification of work, where the focus has shifted from structural conditions to individual capacities to manage work, and where subjectivity as a whole is harnessed for the production of value (Julkunen, 2008; Mâkinen, 2014). At the intersection of the individualisation of work and therapeutic culture, problems and conflicts in work tend to morph from structural problems relating to work organisation and resources into individual psychological issues to be remedied by ethical work on the self. Thus, therapeutic practices such as meditation, mindfulness, motivational seminars and yoga have been introduced into workplaces as a way to foster enthusiasm for work, improve workers’ performance and help them deal with the pressures of work (Davies, 2015; Peteri in this book).

Neoliberal capitalism, with its new therapeutic spirit, has also given rise to new modalities of alienation. Rosa (2015a: 93) has called for the revival of the concept of alienation in sociology as a ’general term describing subjects’ dysfunctional relation to the world'. He identifies self-estrangement from one’s body, desires or personal beliefs as an important dimension of alienation. In a similar vein, Browne (2017) has developed the concept of alienation to capture the dynamics in which subjective involvement and self-realisation are promoted, yet at the same time refused and turned into instruments of normalising and disciplining power. According to Browne, alienation involves:

...the thwarted participation of individuals and experiences that are destructive of subjectivity. Individuals’ experiences and interpretations of compelled, but limited, action expose the contradiction between institutions’ normative representations and the structural conditions of their reproduction.

(Browne, 2017: 61)

We suggest that the experiences of work-related suffering articulated in our research material can be productively interpreted through the concept of alienation. As Browne (2017: 80) and Rosa (2015a, b) suggest, central to the concept of alienation is damage to subjectivity, which finds expression in affective states such as dissatisfaction, frustration, burnout and depression. This resonates with Rikala’s (2016) argument that increasing individualisation of the structural contradictions of work results in individual bodies and minds being turned into crucial battlefields in which the contradictions of capitalism are confronted and felt. The concept of alienation is also helpful since it underscores the centrality of the ‘hidden injuries’ of capitalism: the hidden weights, anxieties and feelings of inadequate control (Sennett & Cobb, 1972: 33). Our analysis foregrounds how therapeutic practices may provide a space and language through which to voice and make sense of these injuries. However, it is important to note that alienation engenders not only suffering and frustration, but also forms of resistance (Browne, 2017). Among our research participants, this resistance manifested itself in attempts to cultivate forms of life that were not entirely conducive to or subsumed to neoliberal capitalist logic (Lilja & Vinthagen, 2014).

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