Tomas Matza on his book, Shock Therapy

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki

Tomas Matza on his book,

Natalja Czarnecki: In your ethnography of the popular “psychotherapeutic turn” in post-Soviet Russia, you write, quoting Foucault, that “subjectivity … ‘is the way in which the subject experiences himself in a game of truth’” (121). What are game(s) of truth in Putin’s Russia?

Tomas Matza: What is truth? And why the metaphor of a game? And in what contexts do such games take place? Addressing these questions is a good starting place for making a connection between psychotherapy and the sociopolitical contexts in Russia at the time I did my research (intensively from 2005-6 and then periodically until 2014).

About “truth”: My reading of Foucault’s phrase is that it reframes what truth is from a matter of empirical validity to a “grid of intelligibility”—a way of seeing that conditions perspectives on what is valid and invalid not only in terms of observation but also in terms of what is desirable or undesirable, and what is allowed and prohibited. The game that unfolds is very similar to my own understanding of politics, meaning that “games,” here, refer to the terrain, practice, and nature of struggle around legibility. Political struggle often orbits around contestations about what is true or not true.

The reason that the psychotherapeutic has been a venue for power is that it has emerged as a set of knowledge and practices by which influential definitions of personhood, of normalcy, of healthy social relations, of the non-human, and of healing (or hopelessness) circulate. These definitions are organized by experts, are founded on research infrastructures, reimbursed conditionally, and so on. When I turn to particular therapies as a way to understand who I am, what my problems are, what is important, and what I can do about it, I am engaging in a game of truth—in this case, a game of truth about a putatively healthy personhood.

In my book, I focus a lot on this connection between power and therapy. I found several important forces shaping the emergent “games of truth” about the self in Russia. I saw an interesting tension between the drift of Putin’s politics of self—which were then (and continue to be) organized around heteropatriarchal gender relations and patriotism—and those associated with market capitalism, entrepreneurialism, and middle-class self-cultivation. That is, Putin, and through his affiliation with the Orthodox Church, was generally not supportive of the kinds of liberal individualism and loosely feminist orientations that one finds in many contemporary Western ethnopsychologies (see, for example, Lynn Layton’s work). For this reason, I saw a political tension between Putinism and what these psychologists working in Saint Petersburg in the first decade of the 2000s were espousing. While not necessarily feminist, they were certainly transgressing a traditional gendering around emotionality in Russia. Through the investment in a humanistic psychological self-inquiry, they were also developing, to build on Julia Lerner’s work, a postsocialist emotional style. So that would be one game of truth, whose touchstones were: nation; a binary sex-gender system; (de)pathologization of homosexuality; the pro-natalism; and the moral panic around children to stem the demographic crisis.

The conservative values of Putinism were also accompanied by the ongoing corruption of the ruling class (see Schimpfössl), and a diminution of social supports seen in many neoliberalizing contexts. In that sense, there was a close alliance between conservative values, social disinvestment, and capitalist accumulation.

Turning to the role of market society played in the games of truth: capitalist culture contains many ideas about selfhood: life is a career; time is money; invest in your future; be your best self; it’s up to you; change starts with yourself. Such phrases were circulating in Russia in the early 2000s with relative novelty. And they are not exactly homologous with the politics of self and the social under Putin. Crucially, as therapists looking to start their own services in commercial contexts tried to advertise services, they oriented towards what kinds of services they thought the client population would want, or what the client population in fact did want. As one of my most helpful research participants, Tatiana Georgievna, told a group of psychology graduate students, “We are creating a market [for services] where one does not exist.” It was really interesting to move ethnographically around these commercial contexts. The range of things many psychologists were doing were certainly articulated with forms of capitalist individualism. But—and here is the tension I mentioned above—they were also playing a range of other “games,” to extend Foucault’s metaphor—including thinking critically about what kind of society they wanted to live in, how to (re)build sociality and what kind of a society a future Russia would be.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your interlocutors’ idealization of democratic sociality and belonging, what are some of their models of success, if any? Are these models geopolitical in definition and scale? Secular? Otherwise imagined?

Tomas Matza: The first thing that the phrase “models of success” prompts in my mind is that success for all the folks I got to know was not really very concretized. At least it would not rise to the level of a model. Let me use here a couple of examples of their seminars (which were being offered at the time of my research). One, which I talked a lot about in the book, was “managing [one’s own] emotions and behavior.” In this case, the model would be a specific kind of self-reflection and emotional awareness (or intelligence) that would manifest in a few ways. One, it would help young people to become more emotionally mature, to understand their reactions, and, in a kind of CBT sort of way, therefore learn how to mitigate their reactions to the world in supposedly more healthful ways. For example, a key selling point of ReGeneration was to tell parent/clients that they would be able to help their children to be “better”—along the same lines as, say, a Knowles course in the U.S. where, through character development, behavior is improved. If we think of models of success in socio-scalar terms, then the scale in this example is the person and the family. But they also had other programs that were a bit less family-centric and more focused on the child-client’s social milieu. Another camp was centered on friendship: how to make lasting, authentic friendships; and, again, what kinds of self-work might lead to better social relationships.

Your question is probing at something that I would say I was also really interested in—which is what broader sociopolitical significance might these kinds of programs have had? What sorts of visions of a good Russian society did these efforts, even if implicitly, indicate? Or, in your terms, what sorts of models did this “idealization of democratic sociality and belonging” imply? Perhaps I wasn’t asking (or listening) in the right ways, but I did not find this very clearly articulated. (Or, perhaps my wrong turn was to have expected my interlocutors to speak of their work in terms of a well-articulated political platform!) There may be something possibly specific to postsocialist Russia about this sort of “political indeterminacy” (see Yurchak), but there is also something that may be more generally true about people anywhere on the planet working in the mental health fields: their purview is more likely to be the personal and the inter-personal, not the political-economic.

Nonetheless, it is possible for anthropologists like me to draw out political implications of particular practices. One that I found pertained to the game of truth mentioned earlier. Even if only implicit, the work they were doing on selfhood and sociality were in some ways generatively critical of Putinist social tendencies such as heteropatriarchy, selfishness, corruption, intolerance. In that sense, I found in their work a kind of liberal-progressive kernel.

Natalja Czarnecki: Energiia (energy), dusha (soul), and garmoniia (harmony) are elements that your interlocutors invoke as “idioms of psychosociality.” You write that these idioms are politico-ethical in practice (194). In this politico-ethical work, did psychologists consider psychosociality a potential site of scalable norm-making or as something else?

Tomas Matza: I think this one depends on which person you asked. For instance, one psychotherapist whom I call Vitya Markov in the book would probably agree with the idea that psychosociality at least aspires to be a scalable form of norm-making. So, the more people you encounter as clients and help both with personal issues and with social relationships, the more people you reach. It also wasn’t just a one-person-at-a-time thing. Vitya’s organization had also set up a hotline (telefonnoe doverie) where anybody could call in and get confidential psychological advice. Others, like Tatiana, were towards the end of my fieldwork in negotiations with the federal government to organize trainings on tolerance. And staffers from ReGeneration went on to do trainings in team building for Russians working for multi-national corporations. Finally, probably the most visible site for “scalable norm-making” would have to be the psychologist and lawyer, Mikhail Labkovsky. At the time of my research, Labkovsky’s show, For Adults About Adults (Vzroslym o vzroslykh) on the radio station Echo of Moscow was being broadcast across the country. Labkovsky was especially interesting because of the creative and interesting ways that he articulated self-work with a wide range of social norms, ranging from the mundane (pick up the garbage in the dvor (shared courtyard); restore collective concern about shared spaces such as apartment entryways), to the more expansively political (participate as citizens in the political process; organize to cooperatively manage housing).

On the municipal side of things, other colleagues were working to establish a holistic care system comprised of in-school psychologists along with a central organizing institution (the PPMS network). So here PPMS staff would make rounds around the municipality to hold trainings for teachers on psychological counseling/diagnostics, as well as to collect information about children who were really struggling at school or at home and needed the extra attention of PPMS’ psychology staff. The idea of “scalable norm-making” in municipal services isn’t quite the right phrase, but it isn’t wrong either. I say this because, like a lot of clinical social workers in places like the US, the effort is reparative more so than prospective. Put in other terms, these professionals are largely playing defense in the face of the wide range of suffering that is produced by economic inequity, discrimination, domestic abuse, and other sorts of issues that, in the case of my fieldwork, young people in X region were encountering. I remember a phrase that Olya, a social worker in a psychoneurological clinic (PND) told me. She said that she and others at the PND were working with those “needed by nobody” (nikomu ne nuzhnyi). Olya was referring to the clientele of the PND, many of whom were experiencing severe kinds of mental illness. But the phrase is also apt for describing the many small tragedies of those living on the margins of gentrification. What is the scalable norm-making here? I suppose the restoration of a kind of basic humanity to young people neglected or caught up in the public housing cycle of the Dedski dom, as well as the provision of some basic level of care and concern.

Natalja Czarnecki: Callers to Labkovsky’s radio show ask him, for help with problems related to family life and/or personal issues. You write that there is something distinctly post-Soviet about these mass-mediated personal disclosures (198). Can you say more about the post-Soviet nature of this desire for publicized self-help? What might the post-Soviet turn to psychotherapeutic expertise tell us about democratic be(long)ing and authority in an age of authoritarian politics and precarious care in neoliberal states?

Tomas Matza: I think, first, about a person I call Inna, who described to me the feeling of being in the first psychological training in the 1990s. She talked about switching from the formal you when addressing non-intimates in the training to the informal you. And she described a feeling that sounded, to me, almost like intoxication that related to experiencing that kind of intense, fast-tracked stranger intimacy. Having myself participated in a lot of group therapy contexts, I could really identify with what Inna told me. It is exciting to find that level of authenticity in a social milieu when otherwise often we are going through our days, making chit-chat, and just getting by under a mask. There is something that is certainly beyond just Russia with this “desire for publicized ‘self-help.’” So I am speculating that many participants in the therapeutic process share a desire for self-work in the company of others. And in the U.S., too, we find lots of examples of mass mediated expressions of self-work in the company of (many) others. Think about all the radio and TV shows devoted to self-help, the giant Tony Robbins seminars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Drawing on a bit of Durkheim here, this kind of collective effervescence is an extremely powerful social force that certainly exists all around the world.

Historical context matters, too, though. What I tried to listen closely to in my research is how people having these early therapeutic encounters in the company of others described the significance of the experience. For Inna it was the shift from formality to informality, and the possibility to speak about herself in intimate terms with people she didn’t know well—things that she felt were not available to her in the late-Soviet period. For Vitya it was the problem of late-Soviet surveillance of therapeutic settings. For Tatiana it meant the creation of a context in which psychological work with children could happen in non-governmental contexts. What I detected in these statements were expressions of frustration with the constraints of the Soviet past when it came to practicing or consuming psychology. So I would explain the desire for stranger sociality, for self-help in the company of others (at least among particular groups), in very distinctly historical terms as well as a more general desire for collective effervescence. As I try to write in the book, this is what makes this form of care postsocialist.

I am currently struggling through a longer meditation on what I am calling “care in the gap” and in that piece I am making the case that there is also a politics to my interpretive move. I would say that it reflects my ambivalent embrace of liberal progressivism, as well as an interest in figuring out how people “make do” politically in their daily lives; how they work to do something beneficial, but don’t always succeed; how they work to balance livelihood and self-interest with care for others. I say ambivalent because I think that the liberal progressive politics of incrementalism is also often the politics of stasis, or worse, a sly reproduction of social inequities. I see that. But I also see the way that the hermeneutics of suspicion as articulated in a lot of critical anthropology risks committing forms of analytic violence against interlocutors; proposes textually a kind of political purity that is probably inconsistent with the way that most people live; and ultimately produces a kind of future pessimism. In the context of Russian sociality and the process of personal growth, I always come back to the psychologists I got to know. They strove to care for others in less-than-ideal circumstances. They worked to, and in many cases, did provide people looking to survive and thrive in a changing society some measure of support. If we are thinking about the problems of authoritarianism and precarity under austerity, then these efforts of mutuality are certainly an important counterforce, and worth taking seriously in our work.

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