TRACKTHERA research project began in September this year and we are happy to introduce our work through this website. This project is a collective endeavor that seeks to understand the shifting relationships between self and society in contemporary world. More specifically, we address a host of therapeutic practices and systems of knowledge, which we call ‘therapeutic technologies’. Our aim is to understand the reasons for the growing popularity of these technologies and the role they play in producing wellbeing, maintaining or contesting inequality, and articulating political engagements. We also wish to shed light on the ways in which people live with therapeutic technologies and how these technologies shape their daily lives, forms of sociality and subjectivities.
My own interest in therapeutic technologies emerged at the beginning of the 2000s, when I was conducting fieldwork about social and political activism in provincial Russia. Two, apparently disconnected, things immediately caught my attention. First, local bookstores were filled with therapeutic self-help books advocating happiness, wealth and success. Some of the messages of these books, such as pampering oneself with aromatic bubble baths, expensive jewellery and exotic holidays, felt deeply out of place in a severe Russian winter in which people had to make do without heating and hot water. American-style positive thinking and the celebration of success and wealth seemed to sit uneasily with the crumbling infrastructure, depressed economy and endemic poverty.
Second, I quickly came to realise that my local interlocutors were deeply distrustful and suspicious of politics. They voiced a profound sense of political disempowerment and disillusionment (and judging from their stories, for good reason). For them, politics were dirty business characterized by selfish interests, disregard for the people’s needs and lack of accountability. Moreover, faced with constant resource shortages and few supporters, the local activists to whom I talked were struggling to keep their organizations running. One compared activism to ‘growing flowers in the frost’, implying that the social environment was unconducive to political involvement and making a difference.
This question between politics and therapeutics continued to exercise my mind long after my fieldwork finished. I subsequently returned to Russia to study the consumption of self-help books and a host of body-mind exercises, and to my surprise, political critique sat at the heart of therapeutic consumption. For many of my research participants, therapeutic practices served as a way to contest the dominating capitalist values and find alternative ways of perceiving and being in the world. The Russian political context is characterized by a strict regulation of political action and paucity of meaningful channels through which to express political critique. Thus critique may find alternative sites of expression such as therapeutic engagements.
More recently I have shifted my focus to Finland and have been conducting fieldwork among users and providers of therapeutic services in different parts of Finland. The link between therapeutics and politics has emerged as an equally intriguing question also in the Finnish context. I have discovered that the therapeutic field is extremely diverse and it includes many different strategies and conceptions of politics. One of the most interesting cases in this regard is the newly established political movement called the ‘Crystal Party’ which seeks to register as a political party in order to advocate issues rooted in positive psychology and alternative and complementary medicine. By looking at such forms of ‘therapeutic politics’ I think we can gain important insights into the modes of political engagements in contemporary world.