Tomas Matza’s Shock Therapy

In Shock Therapy, Tomas Matza explores the terrain of psychosocial care and the ways in which people forge “psychosociality” in conditions not of their own choosing. Perhaps the most powerful contribution in this rich text is the question of how postsocialist contexts are shaped by the “accumulation of conditionality—maybe, could, would,” (p.5). Matza does an excellent job of showing the contours and affective experience of this conditionality as it appears in psychotherapeutically-tinged talk-therapies across a diverse range of settings in Saint Petersburg. Shock Therapy is rooted in an extensive ethnography of two organizations—one commercial and one state-run—that offer psychological care to children. Through extensive ethnographic and media analysis, Matza shows that these psy-sciences have emerged as a wayward anchor, rooting their practitioners amidst the shifting conditions of life in Russia since 1991. This process is captured in the ethical challenge of balancing human connections and professional commitments within political and economic constraints. Therapists thus participate in generating inequality at the very sites in which they are most committed to challenging it.

Particularly exciting are the ways that Matza shifts the terrain of biopolitics from the body to “the mind (broadly conceived).” He elaborates the ways that biopolitics-as-talk is a novel formation: a crucial new terrain for modes of governance, even as the finite body becomes an exhausted object of governance. His attention to the way institutional and ethical-medical expertise shape what people see as healthy, pathological, empowering or stigmatizing are excellent examples. Matza articulates the inconsistencies baked into the practice of psy-talk in this postsocialist space through a deep consideration of his own position, acting as an intermediary between political-economic ideologies largely formed in contradistinction across a Russia-west border. This hyper-attention to position allows Matza to see the complexity and incongruence between ethics and politics within the psychotherapeutic turn in Russia. Eschewing an easy strawman of neoliberalism, Matza explores a perpetually unfinalized postsocialism that emerges intersubjectively, even as it is overdetermined by institutional pathways and practices.

In this sense, Matza’s text is exemplary of the ways that postsocialist anthropology has defined an analytics of uncertainty.  This book, taken in the context of a larger scholarship on postsocialism, raises a critical comparative question: what is it about both the emic and etic analysis of postsocialist Eastern Europe that returns us and our interlocutors time and again to the experience of pain and disappointment? Under what conditions— social, economic, political, semiotic, affective (the list goes on)—do people experience uncertainty as a problem? It is important to think about the ways that inconsistency, contradiction, and even the commensurability-incommensurability nexus are not inherently problematic. They emerge as problems when materialized through political-economic relations and semiotic infrastructures and ideologies through which people name and recognize them as such.

Reading Matza’s book, in the context of the comparative perspective of human contradiction, we wonder: why has this social fact been so analytically powerful in postsocialist anthropology? What does it tell us not only about our mode of inquiry in the region where many of us work, but about the wages of contradiction of the subjects and objects of the postsocialist episteme? And how, reflecting on Matza’s nuanced, humane and trenchant analysis of social inequality and psychosocial stigma, we might also ask whose uncertainty is a problem, and when? And, perhaps most critically for the emergent politics of new publics, new intimacies, and new possibilities that Matza highlights: how might we organize to render uncertainty politically powerful and ethically productive, even at the sites in which it has defined lives in an anxious conditional tense?

Ben Krupp is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. His current research focuses on the politics of fitness in Russia, specifically the corporation Nike and their increasing familiarity with the Russian State.

Jessica Greenberg is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Her first book, After the Revolution: Youth Democracy, and the Politics of Disappointment in Serbia (Stanford 2014) examined youth activism and the temporalities of postrevolutionary, postsocialist democracy. Her new research focuses on the ethics and affects of judicialized politics at the European Court of Human Rights.

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