Working on the self under neoliberal capitalism : Experiences from the seminar Affective and Psychic Life of Capitalism (May 23-24, University of Tampere)

In May 23-24, 2017 the seminar and workshop Affective and Psychic Life of Capitalism was held at the University of Tampere. It addressed the affective and psychic aspects of capitalism. During the two-day seminar, we heard two inspiring keynote talks from Dr Christina Scharff (King’s College London) and Professor Rosalind Gill (University of London). After these, the participants discussed the emerged themes and their own texts. The seminar was organized by three Academy of Finland funded research projects: Just the two of Us? Affective Inequalities in Intimate Relationships, led by Tuula Juvonen (UTA), Tracking the Therapeutic: Ethnographies of Wellbeing, Politics and Inequality, led by Suvi Salmenniemi (UTU) and Social Science for the 21st Century led by Lisa Adkins (UTA and UTU). In particular, Marjo Kolehmainen, Suvi Salmenniemi and Hanna Ylöstalo were responsible for the arrangements for the seminar.

The first keynote talk of the seminar was Christina Scharff’s presentation “The psychic life of neoliberalism”. It discussed the theme of neoliberal entrepreneurial subjectivity, which refers to a situation where the subjects relate to themselves as if they were a business to run. The keynote talk was based on Scharff’s own research work with the classical musicians. She presented her empirical research about the competition in neoliberalism as not only other-directed, but also as self-directed. Scharff addressed the psychic aspect of neoliberalism and demonstrated the performative, entrepreneurial subjectivity in an intriguing and interesting way. For example, for the musicians interviewed, injuries, lack of time or frustration were seen to be their own fault. At the same time, subjectivity appears to be constantly constructed and reshaped from the outside but also from the inside. Those musicians who were privileged, due to their wealthy family backgrounds for instance, did not identify themselves as being privileged. Instead, they addressed the positive things in their lives and careers as ‘luck’ or ‘being lucky’.

The second keynote talk of the seminar was Rosalind Gill’s presentation “The affective life of neoliberal capitalism”. She discussed the various aspects of affects and emotions in neoliberalism. The theme was explored for example through media images built around self-confidence. In her speech, she brought up how the persistence of neoliberalism has to do with the way it has penetrated our emotional lives and reshaped our subjectivity. For example, happiness, confidence and positive thinking can be seen as both the marketing tools and the objects of marketing. Gill pointed out how they are presented as solutions to many problems from eating disorders to inequality in the workplaces without questioning the circumstances or conditions behind these problems.  The speech that highlights the importance of confidence and positive thinking is especially addressed to women. Gill emphasized how it is not reasonable to be just resisting the idea of confidence boosting, yet the way how it is marketed as the only solution to problems should be problematized. Working on the self and developing self-confidence are not going to solve the structural problems in the society. The promotion of the female self-confidence also trivializes women’s problems and presents them as superficial attitude issues.


Veera Hauhia

The writer is doing her Master’s Degree in Gender Studies and she is currently working as a research assistant at the University of Tampere. She acted as a conference assistant in the seminar.