Conference Interrogates Notions of the "Self"

By Tory Brykalski - On February 8, 2016, the Jewish Studies program at UC Davis hosted a conference entitled "Culture and the Self in Global Therapeutic Encounters." Eight UC scholars working in a range of academic fields explored how different cultural processes—from public health interventions in Trinidad to spirit possessions in northern Italy—contribute to varying notions of the "self."

Thomas Csordas, a professor of anthropology at UC San Diego, began the conference’s morning session (entitled “Religious and Secular Logics of Selfhood”) with a presentation on spirit possession and Catholic exorcism. For Csordas, incidents of spirit possession expose the integrity of the self as a fragile concept. Spirit possession—which occurs when spirits “enter” a person and inhabit them—represents one example of how a particular community constructs and defends that integrity.

Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in northern Italy, Csordas outlined a particular case of possession and exorcism, reflecting that the Catholic Church creates the very demons that possess people while simultaneously tasking (and crediting) itself with defeating them.

Making the right “choice”

In “Loving Yourself as the (Neo)Liberal Subject: Therapeutics of the Protestant Secular,” Ian Whitmarsh, director of UC San Francisco's Medical Anthropology Ph.D. program, called for a new approach to understanding the “secular and liberal” self. Drawing on fieldwork conducted on chronic disease interventions in Trinidad, his talk examined government and public health efforts to implement “healthy choices” campaigns. Such campaigns articulate healthiness as a simple choice that Trinidadians can make, promoting the idea that if they could simply discover the healthy desires within themselves and “make the right choice,” they could be healthy.

Dependent on liberal ideals of autonomy and individual choice, this notion is also, Whitmarsh argued, rooted in Protestant ethics. Though hardly “secular,” such ethics end up clashing with other faith traditions in Trinidad—especially those that rely on God or spirits for healing. As a result, public health practitioners (“protestant secular healers,” as Whitmarsh termed them) will often denounce these traditions, claiming that they keep the subject from proper inner volition and logical discipline.

For Whitmarsh, the sense of a healthy self on which this denunciation is based is neither secular nor entirely biomedical. Rather, it is fundamentally Protestant. Unpacking the Protestant roots of secular and liberal positions on healing—and faith healing in particular—reveals secular thinking to be closer to religion than we might think.

Struggle of the self

Omnia El Shakry, an associate professor of history at UC Davis, presented a section from her forthcoming book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt. El Shakry explored the ways in which Egyptian thinkers have translated key European psychoanalytic texts and blended them with classical Islamic concepts. Elaborating on the resonances between these different traditions, these thinkers would produce and develop a theory of the self at once in concert with and heterogeneous to European analytic thought. “What does it mean,” El Shakry asked, “to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together—not as a problem, but as a creative endeavor of ethical engagement?”

Focusing on the Egyptian Sufi thinker Abu al-Wafa al-Ghunaymi al-Taftazani, El Shakry illustrated the ways in which both Sufism and psychology regard self-knowledge as the cornerstone of practice. For Sufism, however, this knowledge is not individualistic. Rather, it is a path that leads directly to God. One achieves it, El Shakry explained, with the help of a Sufi master (or sheikh) who, much like the psychoanalyst, helps the Sufi novice to explore their unconscious and empty their self of its base instincts.

This process—sometimes called the struggle of the self (jihad al-nfs)—is akin to Freud’s notion of “sublimation.” In this case, however, the self is not (as it is sometimes understood in the European analytic tradition) an object of research or intervention, but rather an ethical means of attaining moral perfection and knowledge of God. According to El Shakry, this elaboration of Sufi selfhood shows that the notion of the self can contain both autonomous and heteronomous features, and can be discovered through ostensibly opposed discursive traditions.

Strange situation

Eric Taggart, a psychoanalyst and graduate student in Performance Studies at UC Davis, concluded the conference’s morning session. Taggart revealed the aesthetics of developmental attachment research to be instrumental in helping us to understand how particular kinds of selves emerge in a world of material and immaterial objects. In particular, Taggart presented his work on the “strange situation experiment,” a procedure devised in the 1970s to observe the relationships between a caregiver and their young children. Captured on video, this procedure examines the secure or insecure nature of a child’s attachment to their caregiver by staging a series of separations and reunions between the two.

For Taggart, this experiment—which shows children gaining (or failing to gain) mastery over maternal absence—has itself become an interesting form of cultural attachment. Researchers’ compulsive replication of the procedure, as well as their strict control of the separations and reunions, parallels, in many ways, the child’s struggle to cope with the absence of its caregiver. We are all organized by our objects, Taggart argued, whether they are our mothers, our reading lists, or our conferences. What kinds of self, he asked, emerge from these forms of organization?

Self care in crisis

The afternoon session, entitled “Self Care in Crisis Under Neoliberalism,” featured the following presentations:

  • The Goal is Not to Cheer You Up: Empathetic Care in Israeli Life Coaching

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit (Anthropology and Jewish Studies, UC Davis)


  • Cultivating the Therapeutic Self in Postsocialist China

Li Zhang (Anthropology, UC Davis)


  • Tragic Translations: Care, Cure, and the Stumbling Temporalities of a Crisis

Cristiana Giordano (Anthropology, UC Davis)


  •  The Wandering Patient: Spirit, Symptom, and the Psychogeography of Dublin, Ireland

Michael D’Arcy (Medical Anthropology, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco)


Concluding remarks, under the heading “Future Directions in Exploring Selfhood,” were offered by Joe Dumit, director of the Institute for Social Sciences.

This event was co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Social Sciences.