Unproductive bodies, part 1: narcotisation of dependency

Unproductive bodies, part 1: narcotisation of dependency

A schematic look at positive psychology's deployment within the UK's workfare regime and the position of the substance-dependent body as a model in the production of subjectivity. This forms the first part of a short series on positive psychology, work, and the production of unproductive bodies.

We are all increasingly aware of the demand that we all perform a kind of affective labour on ourselves. Within late capitalism it is not enough that we get an education, develop skills that make us fit into the job market, we must also maintain positive affect. In the course of her talk Lynne highlighted how this demand is far more than implicit. Under workfare regimes unemployed people are compelled to undertake mandatory positive psychology classes in order to correct deficiency in various modes of affect. This post was inspired by a talk and discussion at the Centre for Human Ecology with Dr Lynne Freidli, whose paper got me thinking about the displacement of class by psyche, the discourse of struggle with that of wellbeing, and the position of the substance-dependent body in our subjective economy.

Positive psychology began with a radical idea: what if instead of studying the pathological mind psychologists were to study the happy and productive subject, the fulfilled and the vital, in order to extract from that techniques for the flourishing of all. One of the key figures in this movement from sickness to wellbeing was Abraham Maslow [1], known by most people via the diagrammatic representation of what a body a needs that most of us know as ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’. Maslow’s positive psychology begins at the top of the pyramid with the assumption that for the most part the material needs of bodies have been met and that all remains is the full development of the immaterial domain of self-actualisation. In Maslow’s model there are specific corporeal needs that must be met before any higher ideals can be chased after. At the very bottom of the hierarchy we find the physiological register that corresponds to the very basic corporeality of biophysical survival and, progressing through the various registers, we find that at the top are those things belonging to self-actualisation such as creativity and morality.

For Maslow it isn’t the case that we meet a deficit need and then progress to the next level like some linear videogame, but rather that there has to be some continuous minimal satisfaction of deficit needs before we can set our minds on higher things. This is easily understood when we consider that a starving body is unlikely to be a body engaged in philosophical discourse. Maslow would go on to theorise around quasi-mystical states of total immersion within experience that he dubbed ‘peak experiences’, and that correspond to meditative states as well as those experienced in any conditions under which self-consciousness seems to dissolve into action. Among the more obvious examples is orgasm, but also the zen that many people say they achieve in running and the loss of self-awareness in dancing.

It was Maslow’s belief- or hope- that everyone that lived under conditions of affluence could partake of these peak-experiences, at will, at almost any time or place. Positive psychology was thus part of an attempt to produce individual assemblages of heightened consciousness: we could all be ecstatic and awe struck bodies whenever and wherever we chose. This was an image of human experience that corresponds to the mysticism of getting high from a glass of water.

If Maslow’s image of self-actualisation seems like a utopianism then we have to reflect on its application today. Everything that Maslow placed under the heading of “self-actualisation” is now commodified, manipulated, and regulated by and for capitalism. Today to self-actualise is to actualise oneself within and for the market. Neoliberal capitalism actively seeks to promote self-actualisation and this is one of the points that the post-autonomia theories of immaterial labour had right: it isn’t enough to go to work, you must love your labour; it isn’t enough to make do, one must be happy. The kinds of affective labour that we are entrained into have been discussed in a number of places so I won’t dwell on them here, but suffice to say that we are all expected to manage our affectivity, our self-presentation, in such a way that we retain a positive outlook. The new entrepreneurial project of the worker-self that works on itself at all times, whether through continuous professional development, psychotherapy, diet, fashion or self-help, is first and foremost an enthusiastic self. If the spirit of capitalism was once the dour duty-orientation of the Protestant work-ethic then the new religion of work is a much more liberated and optimistic one. As Barbrara Ehrenreich argues,

if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more—cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds—and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained [2].

Positive psychology colonises consumers, workers and businesses alike. Ehrenreich’s arguments come out of her experiences after being diagnosed with cancer, a time during which she was bombarded with demands to retain a positive affect. For Ehrenreich this positivity is not an authentic mode of self-actualisation but is rather a form of compulsion, a technique of subjectivation. Arlie Hochschild’s concept of emotional labour refers to the facial, verbal and gestural work that one performs we perform on our own bodies to ensure that we transmit all the correct semiosomatic signs of positivity, of optimism and happiness at work, but she also theorises these same processes as they take place outside the workplace as emotional work. One of the most compelling forms of emotional labour that Hochschild analysis is that of the air hostess:

Display is what is sold, but over the long run display comes to assume a certain relation to feeling. As enlightened management realizes, a separation of display and feeling is hard to keep up over long periods. A principle of emotive dissonance, analogous to the principle of cognitive dissonance, is at work. Maintaining a difference between feeling and feigning over the long run leads to strain. We try to reduce this strain by pulling the two closer together, either by changing what we feel or by changing what we feign. When display is required by the job, it is usually feeling that has to change; and when conditions estrange us from our face, they sometimes estrange us from feeling as well.
Take the case of the flight attendant. Corporate logic in the airline industry creates a series of links between competition, market expansion, advertising, heightened passenger expectations about rights to display, and company demands for acting. When conditions allow this logic to work, the result is a successful transmutation of the private emotional system we have described. The old elements of emotional exchange – feeling rules, surface acting, and deep acting – are now arranged in a different way. Stanislavski’s if moves from stage to airline cabin (”act as if the cabin were your own living room”) as does the actor’s use of emotion memory. Private use gives way to corporate use [3].

Part of this problem is the inability to separate out authentic and inauthentic feels, affects and displays. As authenticity is never spontaneous and always belongs to a shared history of learning how to feel, dwelling within affects, and being brought into the semiology of display, it produces the distinction and subsequent confusion around authenticity and inauthenticity [4].

Being enthusiastic is also being motivated. Maslow thought that the satisfaction of need was enough to engender motivation. In my place of work there are groupwork sessions largely designed around the positive psychology of motivational interviewing (MI). MI is about highlighting people’s ambivalence towards their problem substance use through the use of collaborative conversational techniques. The central methodology of the MI strategy is to draw out the subject’s own values and beliefs around their substance misuse in order to bring discrepancies to their attention. In the last instance the therapist wants to elicit “change talk” from their client in order to bolster their likelihood of changing their behaviour. By eliciting change talk the therapist reinforces the motivation for changing the problem behaviour. All the while the therapist’s role is to get the client to speak about the positives of changing and to get the client to set achievable goals. By increasing the client’s awareness of their problems, the disconnect between their behaviours and their values, and by reinforcing change-talk and positive thinking the idea is that is that MI is a non-coercive strategy because it doesn’t impose from without or command the client.

This is a form of cognitive behaviouralism I’ll deal with more in my slow moving CBT series, so for now I’ll just note the upshot: the client is induced into a certain style of thought, a certain way of thinking and speaking, so as to reprogram their thoughts and behaviours from herself, from within, in effect inventing a depth interior that wasn't there before, in such a way that it is the client themselves who undertake this labour. In my own workplace I undertake aspects of MI, especially in the form of the readiness to change questionnaire, and I’ve seen that it can have useful effects for people I work with. This is a kind of psychocolonialism.

The questionnaire is a psychometric tool to used to measure motivation in individuals. There is very little dispute about the structural problems that lead to substance misuse but MI and readiness to change eschew those problems in order to shift the burden onto the individual. MI does this in a particularly non-confrontational style. This helps develop the therapeutic alliance but it does so by reducing the client's "resistance". This is important not only because it eases the inducement of self-government but also because it neutralises working class subjects ahead of time. Its for this reason that psychometrics like these are used with those exploited via workfare [5].

The problem is less with the technique than with its application. In my working world they function as tools for the depolitisation of the causes and experience of substance misuse. They are techniques of responsibilisation: the transfer of responsibility from collective agencies and institutions to individual subjects. The substance-dependent body must be recodified as an irresponsible body that has failed to understand itself, its own resources, and its own responsibilities. The substance-dependent body is thus codified ambivalently as both diseased or sick (“addict”) and as a moral failure. At essence, MI embodies the same kind of power that Foucault described as the pastoral power of the confessional: it seeks its subject to produce itself via the production of verbal signs that described its essence.

The construct of motivation operates to displace the learned hopelessness of concrete situations determined by structural relationships into types of minds. At this point we're not far away from phrenology and claims that the poor are poor by biological degeneracy. The state determines this with a liberatory spin: the poor can be redeemed by psychological training and motivation enhancement, with the right pharmacological help. Savage cuts are welfare are the detox is to heroin, workfare the methadone substitute prescription, complete with its own group therapy program.

In these conditions the addict produced by the illicit drug market gains a strange position as both abject excluded materiality and hegemonic mode of subjectivation. Dependent bodies are those that can't/don't/won't self-actualise within the licit market and so the substance-dependent body becomes the model for all dependent bodies [6].

References & notes

[1] Maslow, AH. 1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological review 50[4] pp.370-396. Here.

[2] Ehrenreich, B. 2009. Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world. London: Granta Books.

[3] Hochschild, AR. The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling. London: University of California Press. p.90.

[4] I think that it is interesting to note here that sex-workers, as members of one of the hegemonic form of semiosomatic labour, are among those who are most likely to be able to maintain the distinction between genuine and false displays- they are among those who know when they are faking it. In fact, this is part of what makes sex-work among the more advanced form of labour, far more so than those creative industries that proponents of immaterial labour theories champion. The sex-worker performs affective labour in such a way as to produce emotional states- both via display but also via the direct material manipulation of cocks and cunts so as to get people to cum and, in cumming, be flooded with endorphins and other endocrinological and neurological molecules of happiness. This is also why sex work must be disavowed as a form of labour: in the open secret that it is material performance coupled to the consumer’s phantasies, it tells the truth about work.

[5] See Skwarkbox for link to one of these tests. Also on the post is a discussion of the lack of validity these tools. At the same time, it is important that we keep in mind that scientific validity and fakeness isn't the real problem with psychometrics, which is the tendency to produce its own kinds of beings such that representations- "motivation"- produced are taken as natural kinds occurring in the world. In turn these become part of the abstract machines for inducing & regulating behaviour.

[6] This connects the substance-dependent body to all kinds of other bodies: the pleasuring body of the sex worker; the displaced body of the refugee; etc.


Apr 26 2014 08:04

its difficult.......the heartbreak that compassion can be viewed as conditioning and that identifying and liberating potential can seem a dastardly deed is a minute by minute struggle.
I enjoy your articles.

Arianna Introna
Apr 27 2014 12:54

I really enjoyed this - so informative and thought-provoking, thanks so much..

sometimes explode
Apr 27 2014 20:48

Cheers, both of you.

As a kind of evidencing for the idea that substance-dependent bodies are becoming a model, see tomorrow's Independent front page with a story on JSA claimants having to sign-on on a daily basis. To me this is very similar to the practice of having people prescribed methadone attend a chemist or clinic to have their methadone dispensed on a daily basis. All the same reasoning is there: it is an inducement that functions as both a benefit (provides structure, routine and establishes some level of commitment), whilst at the same time being a sanction (you have to attend at more-or-less the same time, the same place, every day; you must queue outside; you are in full view of the public gaze). Its also has the same structure as the "work exists" argument with JSA; motivation exists if you are forced into it for the sake of survival. Its even got the implicit idea that claimants are abusing their benefit payments; with methadone users part of the reason for daily dispensing is the real risk that some people sell their methadone on in order to buy heroin.

The drug-dependent body is one of the more abject bodies in our societies: they have the compounded stigmas of drug abuse, mental illness, the assumption, whether true or false, of careerist petty criminality and violence. More and more this body stands as a template- a modelising body- for whoever the state decides it must destroy.

Apr 28 2014 19:26

I enjoyed your blog too - it's inspired me to think about writing something on Maslow's hierarchy of need, which I've always felt was completely wrong. In the meantime, here's a link to the paper that Robert Stearn and I wrote about psychology and workfare, that we hoped would contribute to a wider debate on these issues. http://tinyurl.com/pqyuvz9

Seems timely today, as the Westminster government launches yet another forced unpaid labour scheme.

thanks again for the blog

sometimes explode
May 26 2014 19:47

Sorry for delay in replying, not been on here for a bit. I've not thought about whether Maslow's heirarchy is wrong so I'd be interested in seeing what you come up with. As a first impression though, I think you could be right- at least insofar as Maslow thinks that the needs he places at the bottom of the pyramid are separable from those at the top. Coming from the perspective of embodiment, it seems impossible to remove questions of subjectivity (wrongly coded as "self-actualisation") from those of physiology as they are intimately connected to the point of being co-constituent. So I definitely agree that the heirarchisation of need is based on a dubious ontology. Further, its not unimaginable that you could link that ontology to a masculinist ideology that places cognition as separable from and normatively above emotion and thereby link it to the operations of patriarchal power.

I read your piece while I was writing this and the second part that I'm putting up today.