In 1996, Katherine Verdery’s book What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? set the marching orders that would define the anthropology of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for the next two decades. Verdery quite aptly observed that the history of the Soviet Union was still under construction, even as contemporary societies in newly independent post-Soviet states were being remade. The anthropological branch of post-Soviet studies has, as a consequence, remained fundamentally bifocal in its attention to the post-Soviet habitus: one eye firmly trained on where Eastern European society is going, the other keeping close watch on where that society claims to have come from.
This positioning of the ethnographer in between the malleable “then” and the uncertain “now” has long made “transition” the dominant trope of anthropological analysis of the former Soviet sphere. I find this sort of transition ethnography fascinating; indeed, a chronic incommensurability between institutions and the people operating within them is what drew me to conduct my own fieldwork in Eastern European medical clinics in the first place. However, it also bears mentioning that many anthropologists of this region (myself included) have been guilty from time to time of taking this characteristic incommensurability of the post-Soviet world for granted, leaving the mechanisms through which individuals create, resist, and fold into new hegemonic or biopolitical standards unattended to and undertheorized.
Shock Therapy, Tomas Matza’s ethnography of psychotherapeutic care in St. Petersburg, Russia, speaks directly to this trend. In his introduction, Matza observes that the social forces and institutions ostensibly designed to create neoliberal subjects out of Russian citizens (schools, clinics, bureaucracies, etc.) are only able to tell part of the transition story. Seeking to build on existing anthropological theories, yet feeling those theories offer at best a partial map for the data he collected, Matza claims to have “struggled under the weight of assumptions” (p. 4) about how neoliberal transitions take place. In response, Matza’s analytical move is to challenge what we know about how social and ideological incommensurability is resolved during periods of rapid social change. Specifically, he argues that psychotherapy itself is “a medium through which [Russians] came to terms with this experience [of] … the ending of a way of life and the start of something new and unknown” (p. 4). Psychotherapeutic care is, therefore, a discursive tool that can make the political world commensurate with lived experience, emerging as uniquely useful in “[the] moment before a radical word becomes domesticated, that is, made commensurate with hegemonic norms” (p. 9). Put another way, psychotherapists can effectively do the work of “black boxing” new social realities, for better or for worse.
In the first major ethnographic section of the book, Matza focuses on two psychotherapeutic institutions for children: one a commercial enterprise designed to help children of the new Russian elite tap their full potential as individuals, the other a state-run clinic that provides services to children (most of them impoverished) displaying cognitive or behavioral aberrations in school. The discourses engaged by these two economically segregated industries speak to a latent tension between two sets of polar characteristics in the Russian theory of mind: one that contrasts thinking with doing, and another that contrasts reason with passion. These views of human affect are neither perfectly interchangeable nor completely orthogonal. Rather, they seem to collide with each other in therapeutic spaces—sometimes in isomorphic ways, sometimes in contradictory ways. This is the process that Matza calls “therapeutic enunciation”—“where phenomena [are] converted from one media into another” (p. 118). In this case, the thing being enunciated by psychotherapeutic care is social and economic difference. In U.S. settings, one child’s “obstinance defiance disorder” can be another, more privileged child’s independent spirit. In Russia, the precarities of life manifest in the children of families of means as signs of entrepreneurial spirit waiting to be coaxed out through emotional education, while the child who lives in poverty, remanded to local psychological support institutions, is labeled psychologically disfunctional because therapeutic interventions targeting cognition (rather than emotion) are all these under-resourced centers can make available.
Shock Therapy also takes readers into the world of adult psychotherapeutic care (e.g., self-help workshops) and pop-culture interventions (e.g., popular self-help talk shows). Chapter 5, which I found especially compelling, explores how commercial psychotherapists who work with adult populations encode the process of making lived experience commensurate with emerging social norms into a new metaphysical vocabulary. Practitioners teach clients about energiia (spiritual energy), a semiotic stand-in for social connection and family history; about garmoniia (harmony) between an individual’s potential and self-acceptance of that degree of potential, which links the individual with the social; and about dusha (soul), the seat of one’s individual will and personality, which counterintuitively provides effective language for articulating the link between the value of a person and an economy of commodities. However, Matza observes, “in helping clients to accept who they are without interrogating the cultural patterns, forms of knowledge, and relationships that may have led them there, psychotherapy may reproduce relations of inequality” (p. 194).
My one critique is that I would have liked to see Matza’s analysis in conversation with the work of Galina Lindquist, which Matza does not mention. Lindquist’s 2005 book, Conjuring Hope, explored the work of magical healers (magus) in contemporary Russia who helped clients achieve semiotic re-arrangements of their lived experiences (think Leví-Strauss’s The Effectiveness of Symbols ) to make the relationships between self, society, and politics feel more settled during uncertain times. The magus in Galina’s ethnography survive in an industry quite parallel to the psychotherapeutic ventures that take center stage in Shock Therapy. As these are the only two full-length ethnographies I am aware of that take on not simply the enforcement of biopolitical shifts in post-Soviet Russia but the matter of how individual Russians generate new discourse to make sense of those shifts, Matza’s choice not to engage with Lindquist in Shock Therapy feels like a missed opportunity. In saying this, however, I am very guilty of projecting my own pet interests onto Matza’s work. Let the fact that I finished Shock Therapy and felt nowhere near ready to disengage from the rich and thoughtful material inside be a more telling indicator of the book’s merit.
Shock Therapy is invigorating reading. Matza’s writing is fluid not only in terms of the flow of the prose but also in the way that he relishes in the challengingly abstract, clearly finding his Zen treading the waters of higher-order ideas about human thought and consciousness. My enjoyment of this book was increased further still by the way Matza punctuates his analytical chapters with an assortment of case studies, or “interludes,” that add grounding and richness to his argument. Those interludes are typical of the kind of delightful weirdness that seems to flourish at Duke’s academic press.
All told, Shock Therapy is an insightful, careful, and methodologically pristine engagement with mental health services in a rapidly changing society. It is essential reading for scholars working in clinical spaces where practitioners intervene on human behavior, desire, agency and will, interpretation of experience, or any other aspect of the individual’s inscrutable mental interior. I am thinking here of ethnographers working adjacent to therapeutic counseling, motivational interviewing, treatments for substance use disorders, severe mental illness, and many other therapeutic domains where sense is made of non-sense through professional intervention.
Leví-Strauss, C. 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.
Lindquist, G. 2005. Conjuring Hope. New York: Berghahn Books.
Verdery, K. 1996. What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.