Selfhoods

The chapters contest another shibboleth of studies of therapy culture: selfhood. As the authors in the collection argue, therapeutic practices foreground notions of subjectivity and personhood and provide resources for self-formation. For critics, the focus on the self leads to narcissism and atomistic individualism. The project in many of the chapters is to reconfigure how we understand therapeutic selfhood by foregrounding how non-humans live in therapeutic relations and de-centre the human self. The non-humans brought to our attention throughout the book vary in kind, order and capacity. In their chapter, Bergroth and Helén reveal how selftracking takes shape through congeries of non-human and human bodies, digital and quantitative data, technological objects and the ideas of self-care. Deploying Deleuze’s concept of ‘dividualisation’, they argue that self-tracking devices complicate traditional notions of holistic therapeutic selfhood in what they call ‘fragmentary holism’. In this way, the self becomes a data assemblage and process. Their rigorous analyses add to debates about how psychological interiorities are being reconfigured from notions of depth and past memories to futures and anticipation. Freigang shows us how the non-human mobile and mood-tracking app he researched became a ‘therapeutic companion' for people with mental illnesses and depression, physically living with his respondents to bus-stops, restaurants and waiting rooms. Indeed, marketers portray the app as a ‘pocket therapist’. Its non-human affordance of portability means that it becomes an embodied part of the self, easily assimilated into everyday habits and spaces. But it is not just the app that makes up the therapeutic assemblage but also the diverse elements of the hardware of the mobile, the software programme, the data, social networks, media outlets and startup entrepreneurs.

Other chapters focus on the importance of affect and space. For instance, Kolehmainen describes how therapeutic practices of relationship counselling work through non-human bodies and impersonal flows of affect. As she writes, reconfiguring understandings of the therapeutic, ‘a non-human-centred concept of atmosphere ... does not start with an T but invites us to pay attention to the transpersonal, the intercorporeal and the more-than-only-human’. In their chapter on mindfulness, Stanley and Kortelainen foreground the concatenation of the body-mind of the mindfulness practitioner, lighting, seating and the space of meditation practice. Peteri underlines the significance of space in her discussion of corporate fun culture in designing so-called positive emotions through the set-up of office spaces, their décor and the provision of toys, bean-bags, slogans and TV references.

The book encourages us to think of the lives of non-humans, objects, spaces, representations and ideas and how they make therapeutics? How might access to such non-humans be unevenly distributed and with what effects? When might atmospheres not just mm sour but be unwelcoming or violent and for whom? How might spaces, seating and lighting assemble inequalities and oppression in enforced therapeutics for minoritised groups in prisons, hospitals, courtrooms and schools?

Assembling the therapeutic assemblage

This brings us to the exciting conceptual contribution of the book: its analytical lens of assemblage. Although, Rose (1998) mentions assemblages in his influential book, Inventing Our Selves on the ‘psy-complex’, few scholars have taken up the cudgel until now (also see Tiaynen-Qadir and Salmenniemi, 2017). In the introduction the editors explain that assemblage thinking means understanding the therapeutic as a multifaceted collection of ‘ideas, practices, spaces, objects and bodies yielding multiple, contextually specific and sometimes contradictory effects’, which work processually, relationally and emergently to challenge universalistic, monolithic, static understandings of therapy culture. The chapters attend to these elements in different ways. It’s refreshing that authors are not doctrinaire Deleuze and Guattarian assemblage thinkers but mobilise different understandings of assemblage theorising from geographers, feminists and anthropologists, albeit influenced by Deleuze and Guttari’s notion of agencenient, and put these in dialogue with other concepts such as affect. Through their detailed analyses, authors reveal different scales of assembling, and some show the linkages and exchanges between and across broader assemblages.

In conceiving of therapeutics as an assemblage of atmospheres, Kolehmainen highlights ‘connectivities’ and blockages between situational and material practices, affects, objects and bodies - non-human, non-organic, imaginary. She draws on assemblage thinking to underline how therapeutic events are not just ‘top down governance’ but ‘lived, networked, relational and embodied experiences' that generate collective connections. Felling a number of taken-for-grant-eds, she informs us that this shifts the focus from ‘the self to the collective, from advice-giving to experience, and from governmentality to lived experience’ and in so doing, challenges many of the shibboleths in the canonical critique.

Freigang reminds us that assemblages demand the active labour of humans and non-humans and several chapters focus on this, including that of Stanley and Kortelainen who reveal that mindfulness practitioners pull on various resources to make mindful-bodies and spaces. Suvi Salmenniemi, Johanna Nurmi and Joni Jaakola also attend to practitioners but about how they assemble what the authors call ‘personalised self-care packages’, a bricolage from elements from the New Age movement, alternative medicine, self-help, lifestyle, alternative health and new spirituality. These personalised assemblages help them to mediate the injuries of contemporary neoliberal work. Andell, Bergroth and Honkasalo focus on individual therapeutic assembling, not that of practitioners but of people who have experienced uncanny events, the narrations of which comingle uncanny and other actants as ‘ways of “assembling” one’s life’. Lerner reveals how new migrants mobilise a ‘therapeutic-religious assemblage’ as a salve against their immigrant experience in the post-Soviet cultural context. Importantly, she stresses that they do this in situated, flexible constellations alongside neoliberalism.

Other chapters emphasise how therapeutics are assembled across cultural and social institutions, histories and transnational geographies. As a result, studies are grounded in specificities at the level of the therapeutic practices, national contexts and histories in ways which de-centre US theories and practices. Tiaynen-Qadir conceives of a ‘glocalized therapeutic assemblage’, bringing analytic attention to how the global and the local merge in embedded, historically situated interactions of human and non-human actors, which in her chapter includes the specificities of religion and psychology in Russia. In so doing, she vividly challenges the repeated motif in the canonical critique of the relationship between US Protestantism and therapeutics. Stanley and Kortelainen argue that it is the ‘sheer multiplicity of the assemblage of mindfulness' that accounts for its proliferation across so many social and cultural domains. Importantly, they remind us of the importance of histories to therapeutic assemblages highlighting how both early twentieth century British colonial expansion in Southeast Asia and the 1960s counter-cultural movement influenced the transnational appropriations of mindfulness ideas and practices. They ask us to think about the situated and the broader milieu.

Lerner coins the term ‘emotional socialism’ in direct opposition to Illouz' (2007) EuroAmerican theorisation of emotional capitalism. She does this to underscore a different historical relation to psychology in Russia and the Soviet Union and foreground what she calls the Russian emotional style and its socialist inflecting. Central to her project is showing how ‘the global therapeutic language’ works alongside local discourses and ideals to shape newly emerging post-Soviet Russian versions of selfhood, emotions and personal relations. The chapter by Yankellevich asks us to reflect on how therapeutic practices are not just about assembling lives but about assembling a nation, asking us to reflect on the scales of assemblages. Writing specifically about coaching in Israel, he tells us that selfimprovement discourses and practices play a critical part in the construction of national identities in the aftermath of neoliberalist reform.

Emergence and relational connectivity are two characteristics of assemblages which chapters bring out in their discussion. Freigang shows how affective intensities help the socio-material elements of mood-tracking apps assemble or disassemble as people invest hope in them. At the same time, this hope intensifies the affective flows that form part of an app’s assemblage. Peteri argues that the assemblages of corporate fun culture construct contradictions are always productive of new behaviours, expressions, actors and realities. Bergroth and Helen show that ‘the self, the ‘therapeutic’ and the practice of‘self-tracking' are constantly being assembled from diverse elements. Rather than understanding self-tracking as therapeutic, they use assemblage thinking to show how self-tracking ‘becomes’ therapeutic in relation to the sociotechnical and political context in which it is practised. Importantly, Bergroth and Helén’s chapter underlines how therapeutic assemblages are related to other assemblages, in their example, personalised health care but provoking researchers of therapeutic to map other interconnected assemblages. For example, how does the state assemble therapeutics and through which other assemblages, institutions, representations and objects?

Therapeutic assemblage politics

How then to think about the politics of therapeutics? If we want to move away from the idea that therapeutics stop people from having critical thoughts, nuanced reflexivities and political inclinations, then how might we need to rethink therapeutics and politics? A popular vein of thinking insists that therapeutic practices deplete social critique, collectivism, critical capacities and possibilities for social change. The book roundly challenges this view. This is not to say that authors are cheer-leaders for all aspects of therapeutic culture but rather that they plumb the nuances, contradictions and multiplicities of people’s engagement with therapeutic ideas and practices. Moreover, if non-humans have agency then what does this mean for understanding the political? How do policies, reports, powerpoints, social media, psychological tests, therapeutic exercises, games, chairs, rooms and flipcharts capacitate and inhibit? How do bodily encounters make race, heteronormativity, class and gender? And as chapters deftly illuminate, through their stimulating analyses of self-care, embodied care, collective care, care for others, how can we reflect on the politics of care, when care and the labours of care are unevenly distributed by race, class and gender.

Some chapters offer clearer possibilities for more progressive politics than is often imagined in popular and theroetical critiques of therapy culture. Not all though. For instance, in the chapters on digital devices, and workplace fun cultures, authors point to oppressive effects. Although, as Freigang shows in his example of people with depression using social media to speak out against the structural constraints of psychotherapeutic care, these are not cut and dried. Indeed, all of the chapters stress the significance of contradiction and ambivalence.

A common critique of the depoliticising capacities of therapeutics is that they encourage people to take on a neoliberal subjectivity but Sahnenniemi, Nurmi and Jaakola disrupt this view. After speaking with practitioners who mobilise therapeutic practices against alienation from work, the authors insist that they ‘may also be mobilized to critique, contest and disengage from the destructive and exploitative effects of neoliberalism'. Their interviewees curate ‘a package’ of self-care practices, not simply to self-optimise, but to critique work and imagine alternatives. An important tool in their analytics is their holding onto contradiction and the possibilities of both and, as they make clear, therapeutic practices can reinforce neoliberal subjectivities and enable resistance, and this depends on how practices are assembled.

While Sahnenniemi, Nurmi and Jaakola’s chapter examines the politics of individual self-care and resistance, others question whether therapeutic practices generate social change. Thus, Yankellevich challenges ‘the dichotomous view’ that opposes ‘the therapeutic ethos to a model of civic virtue or political engagement' (Illouz, 2008). He argues that the coaching enacted by middle-class Ashkenazim Jews does not always lead to a lack of political disengagement. His interviewees see individual self-development and social engagement as mutually reinforcing. He insists that coaching can promote a collectivist ethos to act for the common good when therapeutic neoliberal rationality works dialectically with local discourses of the self.

Feminist activism can be supported by therapeutic practices as Perheentupa shows in her chapter on trauma culture. Mobilising the term ‘therapeutic politics’ to challenge head on the idea that therapeutic practices are always politically denuded, she argues that it is the feminist agenda that promotes collective and societal responsibility and makes trauma therapy a collective radical politics. Indeed, her respondents see psychology as a useful form of knowledge to help them with experiences of violence and to initiate social change.

These chapters and others point to the collective experiencing and sociality of therapeutic events. Indeed, several chapters underline how collectivism and sociality are important to therapeutic practices, in contrast to the idea that therapy culture encourages an emotional detachment from others (Hochschild, 1994; Rimke, 2000). Even when individualistic discourses are mobilised, as Kolehmainen argues, therapeutic events can facilitate collective experience and connections.

 
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