Books

The Precarity of Anticipation

In Shock Therapy: Psychology, Precarity, and Well-being in Postsocialist Russia, Tomas Matza describes a fleeting encounter where he waits for one of his interlocutors whom he mistakes for an American tourist; meanwhile his collaborator assumes Matza, toting a Russian paper, is Russian. In this scene, Matza slows down an everyday encounter, a “commonplace misrecognition,” which effectively captures a seemingly insignificant moment of anticipation. For readers, it provides a clue regarding a significant contribution of his ethnography: the crucial role of anticipation in the “psychotherapeutic turn” in Saint Petersburg, Russia (233).  For example, the Psycho-pedagogical Medico-social Center (PPMS), part of a trend towards adopting psychotherapeutic strategies and, more broadly, taking part in the “hypercommercialization of child development,” coaches parents on how to promote “success” towards a “future perfect” (6, 92, 98). The PPMS is part of the Ministry of Education, which was created from the Soviet Academy of Pedagogical Sciences (APN). To Matza, these “regimes of anticipation” distinguished children by both value and developmental difference (99). In turn, he shows us, this psychosocial infrastructure creates a “defensive mode of parenting based on an anxiety-ridden future” where parents must preemptively regulate today in the hope of securing their families’ stronger tomorrow (132). The parents’ coaching both produced and treated anxiety, as each present-day action was framed with not only as increasingly significant for the child’s future potential and identity, but also as tethered to a more collective vision of Russia’s future and success (70, 98, 126).

In the world of psychotherapeutic training and centers Matza shows us, many eyes were cast on the future. Nanny services advertised with “We care about your future!” (91). One private business school advertised that promising young adolescents might become “future bankers, top managers, and bigwigs of show business” (92). At ReGeneration, a private organization offering “self-management” and other psychological training courses, one psychologist explained to Matza that psychological education would be a “necessary technology to succeed in the Russia to come” (105). This kind of “future-oriented anxiety” appears diffuse and comes from informants like Nikolai, who worries about random acts of violence (177).  One of Matza’s informants, a psychologist at PPMS, defined anxiety as “directed to the future, a concern that situations are undefined,” thus distinguishing anxiety as a kind of object-less uncertainty (177). Matza makes clear that the temporality and affect are like interlocking gears.

The “ethico-political” care work Matza witnesses and theorizes amounts to what he terms “precarious care,” which is produced in and through these regimes of anticipation (11). Care is uncertain in that it may or may not be commensurable with biopolitical aims of the state, it may or may not alleviate suffering, and it may or may not—or may not fully—create new political subjectivities (132, 137, 238, 27). But what is especially valuable about his conception of precarious care is its temporality: the profound significance of the affective and imagined future self and society. In my own work analyzing how neoliberal economic reform shaped the Italian workplace, I argued that subjects were not “subjects of neoliberalism” but rather “subjects formed in anticipation of neoliberalism,” precisely because economic change worked as a distinct discourse of arrival (Molé 2010). Like neoliberal change in post-Socialist Russia, the arrival of democratic and capitalist change is a political discourse and ontological set of ideas in their own right. Thus, Matza’s interlocutors navigated a set of societal transformations with a meta-discursive awareness, and it may be this awareness that enables and intensifies this affective mode of apprehension and anticipation, or at least might account for the probable emergence of “regimes of anticipation.”

In a broader sense, we know that some forms of psychotherapy, such as psychoanalysis, focus on the past, and root the core of personhood in past trauma and conflict. Certainly, the future orientation does not erase the past, as psychological practices might frame their work as an implicit past corrective, and emerge from a series of historical shifts, “continuities and ruptures” (25, 34). Yet here we find the core temporal modality of Russia’s psychotherapeutic turn to be future-oriented, looking beyond and forward in order to attend to and perform care in the present. Just as Matza pauses the clock on that moment of anticipation before being identified or misidentified, so too does Shock Therapy expose the inner mechanisms of Russia’s psychotherapeutic minutes, days, and tomorrows.

Works Cited

Molé, Noelle. “Precarious Subjects: Anticipating Neoliberalism in Northern Italy’s Workplace.” American Anthropologist 112(1):38-53.


Noelle Molé Liston is a Senior Language Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Rutgers University. Liston’s first book, Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy, received the Society for the Anthropology of Work Book Award in 2013. She has received the Teaching Excellence Award at NYU and the 2011 Quin Morton ’36 Teaching Award from Princeton University. She is completing her second book, The Truth Society: Science and the Pseudo in Italy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *