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“Eva Illouz is a great scholar, and her book has been hailed by many as an important contribution to the field of therapeutic discourse.”
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About the Author:
Eva Illouz is Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
To be sure, the concept of enlightenment must not be too restricted methodologically, for, as I understand it, it embraces more than just logical deduction and empirical verification, but rather, beyond these two, the will and the ability to speculate phenomenologically, to empathize, to approach the limits of reason.... Emotions? For all I care, yes. Where is it decreed that enlightenment must be free of emotion? To me the opposite seems to be true.
Enlightenment can properly fulfill its task only if it sets to work with passion. -Jean Amery
By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys his knowledge to his pupils. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. -Sigmund Freud
Studies and critiques of therapy have steadily accumulated for the past three decades. Although differing in method and outlook, they agree that the therapeutic persuasion is quintessentially modern and that it is modern in what is most disquieting about modernity: bureaucratization, narcissism, the construction of a false self, the control of modern lives by the state, the collapse of cultural and moral hierarchies, the intense privatization of life caused by capitalist social organization, the emptiness of the modern self severed from communal relationships, large-scale surveillance, the expansion of state power and state legitimation, and "risk society" and the cultivation of the self's vulnerability. Studies of the therapeutic discourse alone could provide us with a compendium of the various themes that make up the sociology (and critique) of modernity.
The communitarian critique of modernity argues that psychology expresses an atomistic individualism that creates or at least encourages the very ills it claims to heal. Thus, while psychology supposedly addresses and helps resolve our increasing difficulty in entering or remaining in social relations, it actually encourages us to put our needs and preferences above our commitments to others. Under the aegis of the therapeutic discourse, social relations are dissolved by a pernicious utilitarianism that condones a lack of commitment to social institutions and legitimizes a narcissistic and shallow identity.
Commentators such as Lionel Trilling, Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch, and Philip Cushman have interpreted the rise of the therapeutic worldview as marking the decline of an autonomous realm of culture and values. Thanks to consumption and therapeutic practice, the self has been smoothly integrated into the institutions of modernity, causing culture to lose its power of transcendence and opposition to society. The very seductiveness of consumption and therapeutic self-absorption marks the decline of any serious opposition to society and the general cultural exhaustion of Western civilization. No longer capable of creating heroes, binding values, and cultural ideals, the self has withdrawn inside its own empty shell. In calling on us to withdraw into ourselves, the therapeutic persuasion has made us abandon the great realms of citizenship and politics and cannot provide us with an intelligible way of linking the private self to the public sphere because it has emptied the self of its communal and political content, replacing this content with a narcissistic self-concern.
The most radical and probably the most influential critique of the therapeutic discourse has been inspired by Michel Foucault's historicization of systems of knowledge. Foucault's approach to the therapeutic discourse is less interested in restoring communities of meaning than in exposing the ways that power is woven into the social fabric vertically and horizontally. Foucault notoriously unleashed a fatal blow to psychoanalysis by revealing its glorious project of self-liberation as a form of discipline and subjection to institutional power "by other means." He has suggested that the scientific "discovery" of sexuality at the heart of the psychoanalytical project continues a long tradition in which, through confession, subjects are made to search and speak the truth about themselves. The therapeutic is a site within which we invent ourselves as individuals, with wants, needs, and desires to be known, categorized, and controlled for the sake of freedom. Through the twin categories of "sex" and "the psyche," psychoanalytical practice makes us look for the truth about ourselves and is thus defined in terms of discovering that truth and finding emancipation in the search for it. What makes "psy discourses" particularly effective in the modern era is that they make the practice of self-knowledge a simultaneously epistemological and moral act. Far from showing the stern face of the censor, modern power takes on the benevolent face of our psychoanalyst, who turns out to be nothing but a node in a vast network of power, a network that is pervasive, diffuse, and total in its anonymity and immanence. The discourse of psychoanalysis is thus a "political technology of the self," an instrument used and developed in the general framework of the political rationality of the state; its very aim of emancipating the self is what makes the individual manageable and disciplined. Where communitarian sociologists view the therapeutic discourse as driving a wedge between self and society, Foucault suggests, on the contrary, that through therapy the self is made to work seamlessly for and within a system of power.
Although this book cannot fail to have implications for the critique of modernity, I would like to skirt that critique altogether. Whether the therapeutic discourse threatens moral communities of meaning, undermines the family, oppresses women, diminishes the relevance of the political sphere, corrodes moral virtue and character, exerts a general process of surveillance, reinforces the empty shell of narcissism, and weakens the self does not preoccupy me-although some of these questions cannot fail to haunt some of the discussion to follow. My purpose is neither to document the pernicious effects of the therapeutic discourse nor to discuss its emancipatory potential, tasks that have been masterfully accomplished by many others. My intent here is rather to move the field of cultural studies away from the "epistemology of suspicion" on which it has too heavily relied. Or, to say this differently, I wish to analyze culture without presuming to know in advance what social relations should look like. Using Bruno Latour's and Michel Callon's sociological approach to scientific objects, I call on students of culture to adopt two principles: the principle of "agnosticism" (taking an amoral stance toward social actors) and the principle of symmetry (explaining different phenomena in a similar or symmetrical way). The point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they "accomplish things" for people. Thus, despite its brilliance, a Foucauldian approach will not do because Foucault used sweeping concepts-"surveillance," "biopower," "governmentality"-that have some fatal flaws: they do not take the critical capacities of actors seriously; they do not ask why actors are often deeply engaged by and engrossed with meanings; and they do not differentiate between social spheres, collapsing them together under what the French sociologist Philippe Corcuff calls "bulldozer" concepts, concepts so all-encompassing that they end up flattening the complexity of the social (e.g., "bio-power" or "surveillance"). As I hope to show, it is crucial to make such differentiations. A thick and contextual analysis of the uses and effects of therapy reveals that there is no single overall effect (of "surveillance" or "bio-power"). On the contrary, these uses and effects significantly differ according to whether they take place in the realm of the corporation, marriage, or the support group (respectively chapters 3, 4, and 5).
If all the critics of the psychological discourse agree that it has "triumphed" and if some remarkable studies now detail what in the therapeutic has "triumphed," we still do not know much about how and why it has triumphed. In addressing this question, I part company with the critical approaches to culture that rely on the epistemology of suspicion in their systematic exposure of how a cultural practice accomplishes (or fails to accomplish) a specific political practice. Instead, I argue that a critique of culture cannot be adequately waged before we understand the mechanism of culture: how meanings are produced, how they are woven into the social fabric, how they are used in daily life to shape relationships and cope with an uncertain social world, and why they come to organize our interpretation of self and others. As I hope to show, both the analysis and the critique of the therapeutic ethos take a new aspect when they are not predicated on a priori political assumptions about what social relations should look like. Instead, my analysis subscribes to the pragmatic insight that meanings and ideas should be viewed as useful tools, that is, as tools enabling us to accomplish certain things in daily life.
My study of the therapeutic discourse is thus waged first and foremost from the vantage point of the sociology of culture. Perhaps more so than for most other topics, the exploration of the therapeutic ethos is an ideal site for examining "how culture works." This is true for several reasons.
First, for the student of culture, therapeutic language has the rare virtue of being a qualitatively new language of the self. Although it relies upon an age-old view of the psyche, this language has virtually no antecedent in American or European culture. In that respect, it represents a uniquely pristine possibility to understand how new cultural forms emerge and how new languages transform the self-understandings that infuse social relations and action. Recalling Robert Bellah's insight regarding the Protestant Reformation, we may say that the therapeutic discourse has "reformulated the deepest level of identity symbols." Such reformulation is of particular interest to the cultural sociologist, for it occurred simultaneously through the specialized and formal channels of scientific knowledge and through the culture industries (movies, popular press, publishing industry, television). To the extent that the therapeutic discourse represents a qualitatively new language of the self, it enables us to throw in sharp relief the question of the emergence of new cultural codes and meanings and to inquire into the conditions that make possible their diffusion and impact throughout society. This book can be read as a fragment in the broader cultural history of introspection, that is, the history of the language and techniques we use to address and examine ourselves (through such categories as "desires," "memory," and "emotions").
Second, no other cultural framework, with the exception of political liberalism and the market-based language of economic efficiency, has exerted such a decisive influence on twentieth-century models of selfhood. Not only has almost half of the entire population consulted a mental health practitioner, but even more critically the therapeutic outlook has been institutionalized in various social spheres of contemporary societies (e.g., in economic organizations; mass media; patterns of child rearing; intimate and sexual relationships; schools; the army; the welfare state; prison rehabilitation programs; and international conflicts). Therapy under many forms has been diffused worldwide on a scale that is comparable (and perhaps even superior) to that of American popular culture. Whether it has assumed the form of introspective psychoanalysis, a New Age "mind-body" workshop, or an "assertiveness training" program, it has mustered a rare level of cultural legitimacy across a wide variety of social groups, organizations, institutions, and cultural settings. The therapeutic discourse has crossed and blurred the compartmentalized spheres of modernity and has come to constitute one of the major codes with which to express, shape, and guide selfhood. Moreover, through the standardization of academic curricula and the standardization of psychological professions, the therapeutic discourse transcends national boundaries and constitutes a "transnational" language of selfhood. If, as S. N. Eisenstadt put it, civilizations have centers that diffuse and embody ontological visions, the therapeutic outlook has become one of the centers of that amorphous and vague entity known as Western civilization.
Third, perhaps more than any other cultural formation, the therapeutic discourse illustrates the ways in which culture and knowledge have become inextricably imbricated in contemporary societies. As Karin Knorr-Cetina put it:
Aknowledge society is not simply a society of more experts, of technological infra- and information structures and of specialist rather than participant interpretations. It means that knowledge cultures have spilled and woven their tissue into society, the whole set of processes, experiences and relationships that wait on knowledge and unfold with its articulation. This "dehiscence" of knowledge, the discharge of knowledge relations into society, is what needs to be rendered as a problem to be solved in a sociological (rather than economic) account of knowledge societies.... We need to trace the ways in which knowledge has become constitutive of social relations.
Psychology is undoubtedly a body of texts and theories produced in formal organizations by experts certified to produce and use it. But it is perhaps primarily also a body of knowledge diffused worldwide through a wide variety of culture industries; self-help books, workshops, television talk shows, radio call-in programs, movies, television series, novels, and magazines have all been essential cultural platforms for the diffusion of therapy throughout U.S. society and culture. All of the above have been and continue to be central sites of diffusion of therapeutic knowledge, making that knowledge an essential part of the cultural and moral universe of contemporary middle-class Americans. This dual status of psychology as simultaneously professional and popular is what makes it so interesting for the student of contemporary culture; it offers an opportunity to understand how high and popular culture are saturated through and through by knowledge formations. Indeed, inasmuch as "knowledges have become decisive forces themselves in our economic and technological development," they constitute an important aspect of cultural action in contemporary societies. The diffusion of this knowledge took place through mass media and multiple institutional arenas, in which psychological knowledge became a way of performing the self, which in turn explains why it took hold of definitions of the self in such a long-lasting and gripping way. Knowledge and symbolic systems have come to shape who we are because they are enacted within social institutions that bestow authority on certain ways of knowing and speaking and routinize them so that they may become the invisible semiotic codes that organize ordinary conduct and structure the interaction rituals of the self. This assumption informs the main strategy of this book as it examines how the therapeutic discourse has been incorporated into different institutional settings such as the corporation, the family, and ordinary practices of self-help (examined respectively in chapters 3, 4, and 5) and how it organizes social relations in each one of these spheres.
Finally, the therapeutic discourse is such a good site for cultural analysis because it has traversed the entire twentieth century, only gaining in strength and scope. How did the cultural structure of therapy survive and become reinforced throughout the American twentieth century? What is the process by which a cultural structure persists and endures? As Orlando Patterson argues, cultural continuity needs to be explained, not simply assumed. The extraordinary resilience of the therapeutic discourse can be explained not only by its incorporation into central institutions of American society but also by the fact that it has been able to recruit a vast number of social actors and cultural industries (chapter 5).
Excerpted from Saving the Modern Soul by EVA ILLOUZ Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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