Afterword: Life of psy

I call this afterword life of psy, partly to make a bad joke but more importantly, to highlight the way Assembling Therapeutics breathes new life into studies of therapeutics. In no insignificant way, this is because Assembling Therapeutics rigorously examines how the therapeutic lives are lived in different political, historical and national contexts, and professional and everyday lives. Reading the chapters in this ground-breaking book, Assembling Therapeutics made me excited as the authors in each chapter strip away the congealed taken-for-granteds about therapeutic culture, practitioners, participants and practices. As Ariel Yankellevich puts it in his chapter, citing Aubry and Travis, a ‘canonical critique of therapeutic culture' has emerged over the past 30 years, mostly from Anglo-American writers (2015: 10). In this view, therapeutic culture depoliticises, individualises, self-responsibilises and privatises. The effect of this proliferating critique has been to flatten differences across geographical and therapeutic contexts and approaches; erase the collectivism of therapeutic events; ignore the progressive potential of therapeutic politics; pathologise consumers and practitioners, most often women; denigrate culturally feminised practices; and evacuate people of any agency or critical insight.

This monolithic thinking arises because critiques rarely undertake ethnographic research and often neglect feminist studies of therapeutic culture. Research has tended to focus on the bird’s eye, macro view of therapy culture. As a result, the distinctiveness and contextual specificities of therapeutic practices get blurred, and newly emerging versions invisibilised. Thankfully, Assembling Therapeutics departs from these methodologies and offers a rich and stimulating collection of chapters which live up to the editors’ aim of decentring the US centric, deterministic and attenuated view of therapeutic culture and politics. A vital element in this insightful volume is the provision of close-ups of practitioners and participants, and their lived meanings, practices and motivations. Accordingly, many authors inhabit a position of what Steven Stanley and Ilmari Kortelainen in their chapter call the ‘sympathetic-critic’ in their analyses. Significantly too, chapters by Marjo Kolehmainen and Inna Perheentupa bring feminist perspectives, and histories to the fore, challenging the citational practices and taken-for-granted genealogies of therapeutic culture scholarship, and the assumed gender- and class-neutrality of therapeutics. Accordingly, the book

Assembling Therapeutics challenges what Tatiana Tiaynen-Qadir describes appositely as the ‘totalizing effects and normalizing power of a singular therapeutic culture’, and propels a fascinating and prescient study of therapeutic practices.

Epistemologies of the therapeutic

The book makes an urgent and significant contribution by developing practices of inquiry, methodologies and methods that go beyond the macro or the purely textual and provide new lines of empirical inquiry. To some extent, self-help books have become the poster-child for critiques of therapy culture, a gloss for the whole of therapy practices. In mobilising ethnographic, participant-observation and multi-method approaches, the book shifts the types of research questions being asked, moves forward empirical studies of geographical and therapeutic contexts, and lays out new research trajectories to the field. These methodological, empirical and theoretical developments matter as therapeutic approaches and power relations vary with histories, geographies, institutions and contexts, as Bondi and Fewell (2003) stressed over 15 years ago, and the introduction to this volume explains. Through these approaches, Assembling Therapeutics takes the field in genuinely new directions.

Tiaynen-Qadir notes in her chapter that ethnographic methods demand commitment, reflexivity and immersion, and we should note resources such as time and funding are not readily available in the accelerated university. But such engagement enables researchers to pay attention to verbal, emotional, affective and bodily reactions which underpin therapeutic events and experiences - what Tiaynen-Qadir calls an ‘ethnography of the tacit’. Accordingly, chapters deftly illustrate how the so-called ‘talking cure' relies on affects, emotions and bodies, and as Kolehmainen gives a vibrant sense of, the bodies are not always human nor fleshy (see Kolehmainen, Stanley and Kortelainen and Peteri in this book). All of which raises incisive questions about what kinds of data we will need to trace therapeutic assemblages across other geographical contexts not included in the collection and those which coerce affects, emotions and bodies.

The book is enriched by the ways in which authors take the time to listen to and learn from practitioners of and participants in therapeutic practices. This is an important counter to the field because in spite of various calls to find out about practitioners' meanings, motivations and methods, we still know very little as noted by the editors (see also Swan, 2008). But the sensibility in Assembling Therapeutics means we meet a panoply of practitioners: coaches, employed counselling professionals, psychotherapists, couple counsellors, mindfulness practitioners, and alternative medicine and new age practitioners working across different national and institutional contexts. In a similar vein, participants in therapeutic practices are often ignored, painted with a condescending broad brush, or represented by self-help book readers but one of the strengths of this book is that authors introduce us to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of choir attendees, feminist trauma activists, migrant Christians, people suffering from depression and even academics!

An oft-trotted out aphorism is that the therapeutic industry is proliferating, but rarely do studies research the events, spaces and organising practices, through which the industry is proliferating. In contrast, Assembling Therapeutics gives a deep insight into therapeutic industry events such as seminars, lectures, training courses, conferences and workshops taking place in libraries, fairs, hotels and workplaces. Moreover, the authors’ openness to what constitutes the therapeutic means we learn about new therapeutic spaces, such as churches, feminist trauma activism and uncanny experiences, which produce therapeutic effects less by design and more as ‘by-products’ (Tiaynen-Qadir, this book). In doing so, the book offers a rich and stimulating glimpse of ‘actually-existing’ therapeutic practices and leads the way in suggesting future therapeutic event ethnographies.

This book makes a welcome contribution to studies of mediated and textual therapeutics and how they produce investment, affect and identification. A most surprising textual archive comes in the chapter by Kia Andell, Harley Bergroth and Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, which analyses unsolicited letters about uncanny experiences sent to the researchers. Their rich chapter reminds us to consider the unexpected in our empirical work. Thus, Harley Bergroth and Ilpo Helén and Felix Freigang vividly trace ‘therapeutic imaginaries’ through promotional materials for digital therapeutic devices. In their auspicious chapters, Bergroth and Helén, Freigang and Perheentupa bring a much-needed analysis of digital and social media, underlining how technological affordances mediate therapeutic experiences. All of the chapters in the book profile the contradictions that undergird the therapeutic assemblages they analyse and in his analysis of social media, Freigang shows how a commercial digital device company produced social media through which unexpected therapeutic activism took place as consumers challenged mental health stereotypes and lack of funding of support services. Through these approaches, the chapters go beyond current studies of mediated therapeutics, often dominated by analyses of US television programmes, to highlight how new media promulgate cultural imaginaries, politics and versions of self-care. Such analyses offer a springboard for developing research on the technological affordances and mediated specificities of digital therapeutics.

Another contribution of the book is the presentation of data. Thus, many authors present fulsome verbatim quotations from their respondents and vivid, detailed field notes so that we can see the light and shade in people’s meanings and practices in ways which break open rigid categories often found in critiques. Thus, in her chapter on the rise of corporate fun initiatives, Virve Peteri provides rich excerpts representing people’s mixed experiences of fun spaces and practices. Kolehmainen underlines embodied knowledge production in her writing up regarding her ambivalence participating in relationship counselling events, in what she wonderfully describes as her ‘sour’ field notes. Drawing on interviews, Julia Lerner gives space in her chapter to let her respondents speak in some depth about their experiences of well-being and religion. In a similar vein, Andell, Bergroth and Honkasalo purposefully present one interviewee at a time in their chapter to illuminate their individual stories and experiences of uncanny processes. Through these analytical practices, the book shows what is at stake in how we represent those who participate in therapy practices and how we can illuminate the processual and emergent in our studies.

The book raises timely insights about how to study therapeutic events, and raises fundamental questions about organising practices and who organises what type of events for which audiences through what kinds of practices and under what conditions. This is central to understanding the politics of therapeutics and hiérarchisations of authority, expertise, resources and in the language of the book, assemblages of gender, race and class.

Category of the therapeutic

Another major contribution of the collection is that it expands our understanding of the category of the therapeutic, its ideals and teloi because authors unpack what therapeutic means to the people they interviewed, and processes, people and objects they observed rather than deciding a priori. As the chapters in the book detail, the canonical critique characterises the therapeutic as emotivist and confessional, typically viewed as degraded ways to perform the self; Foucauldian commentators differentiate the therapeutic through its discourses of autonomy, independence, detachment and self-improvement; feminists focus on its rhetoric of healing and coping; and many theorists posit self-transformation as a central leitmotif; while studies of mediated therapy see catharsis as the opus operandi (see Swan, 2010 for more discussion on definitions of the therapeutic). Some chapters in the collection build on these definitions as a point of departure from which they extend our understandings, while others directly challenge such depictions. A guiding premise of the collection, as the editors note in their introduction, is that it insists on the ‘multiplicity of the therapeutic, and how “the meaning of ‘the therapeutic” itself shifts with shifting assemblages’.

In this regard, one of the strengths of the book is the analysis of how therapeutics emerge from non-secular practices (Stanley and Kortelainen, Lerner and Tiaynen-Qadir). In her chapter, Lerner defines the therapeutic through psychoanalytically informed leitmotifs: ‘the narrative of identifying problems, probing the unconscious, making connections with past events or even one's childhood, and summoning the self onto a path of healing and the elimination of suffering’. But she shows that her interviewees co-mingle these ways of thinking with their religious commitments. Thus, in the context of their immigration to Israel, her Russian speaking interviewees merge what she refers to as a contradictory but meaningful, neoliberal religious-therapeutic subjectivity. The data in Tiaynen-Qadir’s chapter also shows how the therapeutic draws on the religious. In this case, research participants interlace religion, contemporary therapeutics and therapeia - old traditions of health of the soul and body in Finnish Orthodox Christianity. As part of her analysis, Tiaynen-Qadir insists on multiplicity - ‘various cultural therapeutics’ - some of which ‘challenge secular psychological narratives of the self and ‘reach out to the divine, within and beyond the self rather than reproducing notions of self-optimisation. Her respondents are not simply assimilating psychology into Orthodox theology, but re-vivifying therapeia, which has resonances with self-help and New Age. Insightfully, she stresses that the term •therapeutic’ means distinct things to her respondents, some use it to refer to a secular sense of emotional well-being, while others, the effect of ‘sacred’ singing.

Life management practices become the focus of other fascinating chapters in the collection. Andell, Bergroth and Honkasalo understand the uncanny experiences of their letter-writers as therapeutic events because they form part of people’s existential repertoire, and are shot thr ough with what they see as therapeutic ideas of comfort, care and healing. The uncanny experiences and their narration provide people with resources to make sense of human existence, and work as forms of self-care and care for others. Moving towards a very different kind of existential project, Bergroth and Helen’s chapter incisively shows how the therapeutic becomes a data-driven practice in digital self-tracking devices. Our therapeutic practices of knowing, transforming and improving oneself are re-shaped through metrics and quantification-based haptic and visual data. In this way, datafied life management conjoins somewhat contradictorily with a therapeutic ethos. They stress that the data devices are not just epistemic but ontological tools, inflecting relations of the self to the self, and enacting the self through self-tracking.

Freigang shows how DepressApp, a mood-tracking app for people suffering from depression in Germany, reinvents self-disclosure, a classic practice of therapy culture. The app replaces the traditional pen and paper therapeutic tools with digital journals - as he puts it, ‘swiping instead of writing’- and reconfigures emotion management as people monitor, quantify, and visualise their mood shifts. The quantification of emotion has been part of the history of therapy culture but these chapters underscore how the digital transforms what constitutes emotion management (Shackhak, 2017). But a vital point made by Freigang is that the digital device produces its own affects, which place its user in a hopeful relation with the device but also in a wider economy of emotions and digital quantifications and images.

In a very different context, Perheentupa shows how feminist trauma activism against violence in Russia, at a time of regressive policies, combines therapeutic and political ideas. Charting the complex history of feminism and popular psychology in Russia, she underscores the importance of psychology as an epistemic resource for women who have survived violence and trauma and find it difficult to get professional therapy or support elsewhere. Furthermore, the feminists incorporate therapeutic elements such as testimony, witnessing and proactivity in their performances, bringing feminist principles in dialogue with therapeutic practices, in what she describes as ‘collective therapy’.

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