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Therapy Culture and its Discontents: On the Ethos of Distance in Emotional Culture Critiques

Marie Kolkenbrock, King’s College London

In his eminent study The Fall of the Public Man (1977), the sociologist Richard Sennett expressed his concern about a problematically increasing preoccupation with individual personhood. These ‘tyrannies of intimacy’, Sennett claimed, disintegrate the modern public sphere and lead to political withdrawal. In this talk, I analyse a specific ethos of emotional and interpersonal distance in the sociological critique of modern therapeutic culture, paradigmatically through the work of Sennett and Frank Furedi. I propose that both authors re-actualise intellectual debates around the regulation of emotional exposure and individual vulnerability reminiscent of the ‘codes of cool conduct’ in the culture of Weimar Germany, which Helmut Lethen has famously conceptualised based on the philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985). Drawing upon Sara Ahmed’s work, I argue that the Plessnerian ethos of distance in Sennett and Furedi, while ostensibly designed to guarantee just and pluralistic societies, nevertheless reproduces social hierarchies of political emotions and in this way prioritises the stability of the current system and social cohesion over justice.

There and Not Here

Timothy Mathews, University College London

I’ll be reading from There and Not Here: Chronicles of Art and Loss. The book is a collection of poetic essays which I wrote in response to works of art - films, novels and installations. The essays began to accumulate in what were long moments of loss, and trauma. They explore strength of feeling, especially grief, as a path to understanding what unites and divides. I was looking for a place that didn’t seem to emerge, or only slowly: a meeting of something made, someone writing, someone listening. I thought I would find ways to breathe again within those distances; and I began to wonder whether loss, and grief, by being addressed, can fashion a community without imposing it. Maybe.

Links to the book and a related site.

This seminar is free to attend. Booking not required. 

About the speakers

Marie Kolkenbrock holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge (2014) and is a Branco Weiss Fellow in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at KCL. Her current project is concerned with ideals of cultivated interpersonal and emotional distance in twentieth and twenty-first centuries conceptualisations of the public sphere. Her first monograph Stereotype and Destiny in Arthur Schnitzler’s Prose was published with Bloomsbury in 2018. She also is the co-editor of the Special Number of German Life & Letters: ‘Primary Rejections: On the Politics and Poetics of Refusal’, which was published in January 2021.

Timothy Mathews is Emeritus Professor of French and Comparative Criticism, University College London. He is fascinated by what engaging with art can tell us about engaging with people, and writes about it in a variety of forms.

At this event

Marie Kolkenbrock

Branco Weiss Fellow

Event details

Virginia Woolf Building
22 Kingsway, London, WC2B 6NR