Comments on Tomas Matza’s Shock Therapy

Of the many vivid and beautifully recounted scenes in Shock Therapy, one made an immediate and lasting impression on me. Matza has found himself at a group training session that features “body-oriented therapy,” sitting across from his friend Vera. Their joint task—silent, eyes closed, only hands touching—is to make “hand sculptures” that illustrate emotions proffered by their instructor Olya: gratitude, jealousy, woe, and others. Their sculptures, some effortless and others fumbling, elicit commentary and probing questions from Olya and, later, reflection, doubt, and puzzlement in Matza (and presumably in Vera as well). For Matza, as author, this scene illustrates the “epistemic murk” of the clinical encounter, showing how the intimacy and indeterminacy of therapeutic interventions are fruitful ethnographic sites to explore the uneasy and generative relationships between care and biopolitics in contemporary Russia.

The first reason I was drawn to this scene is that it is a key point at which Matza elaborates his use of the concepts of commensurability and incommensurability. In the clinical encounter, Matza argues, there is space—often affective and sometimes dangerous—for therapists to shrink or expand the distance between care and biopolitics. By placing his analytical emphasis on commensurability and incommensurability, Matza offers readers some fascinating paths out of his own ethnographic locations and into other domains of post-Soviet life, where questions of what lines up with what, and what can be transformed into what, have been so often at stake. I think immediately of questions of exchange, from the demonetization and barter of the 1990s to the circulation of oil wealth in the aughts to the still more recent Russian fascination with alternative and cryptocurrencies. Questions of political life open up here as well, beginning but, I think, not ending with Matza’s Part III, “In Search of the Political.” Matza is persuasive in these chapters about the ways in which the psychotherapeutic turn created important new psychosocial idioms and imaginations of politics. But his research to date enables him only to provide concluding pointers as to how these idioms and languages were—or were not—brought into commensurability with other idioms and languages beyond the clinical encounter and the mass publics of call-in shows. This is, of course, an old and vexing question, in Russia and elsewhere. Matza’s clear and careful analysis and concluding pointers have given the rest of us a new route by which to take it up.

The second reason that Matza’s “body-oriented therapy” scene jumped out at me is that it runs so intriguingly parallel to many of the moments described and theorized in Alaina Lemon’s Technologies for Intuition: Cold War Circles and Telepathic Rays (California, 2018). For Lemon, a central setting in which bodies and minds attempt to make “contact” are not therapy sessions but theater school activities, including those in which student actors go through partnered and group activities aimed training them to, among other things, harness psychic energies and inhabit emotions. A key example in Lemon’s introduction, for instance, and one that occupies a structurally similar point in her book to Matza’s hand sculptures in Shock Therapy, focuses on a student’s attempt to intuit that the rest of the class has agreed (in his absence) to think silently about closing a small window in the room. Less important than whether the attempt succeeds, as in Matza’s training, is the commentary of the theater class instructor. To be sure, there are differences between Matza’s focus on psychology and Lemon’s on psychics, and between the clinic and the stage, but I wonder: What is it about the decade in which these two talented fieldworkers researched and wrote these terrific books that led them to find such similar interpersonal mind-body encounters in Russia so illustrative, so generative?

Douglas Rogers is Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Yale University. His research and teaching interests in political and economic anthropology; natural resources (especially oil) and energy; corporations; the anthropology of religion and ethics; historical anthropology; and socialist societies and their postsocialist trajectories. His archival and ethnographic research in Russia has led to two award-winning books: The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals (Cornell, 2009) and The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture After Socialism (Cornell, 2015). Rogers is currently working on two projects. The first, Eating Oil: Energy and Life in and after the Cold War, is about the history and present-day reverberations of petroleum science in the Soviet Union, the United States, and Europe. The second is a study of the history, theory, and practice of the Russian and Soviet corporation.