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Sam Binkley – Happiness as Enterprise: A Meditation on Governmentality and Neoliberal Life

Event Date: 26 June 2012
Room B18
Birkbeck Main Building
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX

The Department of Psychosocial Studies presents:

The MA Psychosocial Studies Annual Lecture

Professor Sam Binkley (Associate Professor of Sociology, Emerson College, Boston):  Happiness as Enterprise:  A Meditation on Governmentality and Neoliberal Life

Recent decades have seen an explosion of interest in the phenomenon of happiness spanning a range of popular media from self help books, popular psychology, new therapeutic practices and talk shows, spiritual mentoring, business management, education and relationship counseling.  At the center of this development is an influential new field of “positive psychology”, whose scientific and medical credential has placed the concern with happiness in a new position of professional respectability while opening it to up a wide range of institutional applications.  In settings as diverse as college education, business, military training, family, financial planning and in all facets of private existence, happiness has appeared as the object of a new technology of emotional self-optimization.  As such, happiness has come to define a rationality of government that extends the logic of economic neoliberalism into the sphere of emotional self-management, and into the very temporalities of every conduct.  As neoliberal governmentality, happiness induces subjects to engage their emotional lives in a spirit of enterprise, entrepreneurial endeavor and self-interested agency, within the horizon of an unfolding emotional telos.  Happiness becomes a potential for individual wellbeing for which we take responsibility, but one which we must free from the constraining habits of dependence and passivity that are the inherited legacy of welfarism and social government.  Combining theoretical argumentation, cultural analysis and historical explanation, this meditation provides a critical engagement with the field of governmentality studies which, it is argued, suffers from a deductive, deterministic and top-down model of power.  The reading of happiness allows us to rethink governmentality research in a manner more sensitive to the mundane practices and everyday tasks of governmental conduct, and the unique and specific temporalities these practices imply.

Professor Binkley’s research considers the historical and social production of subjectivity in the context of contemporary lifestyle culture, employing theoretical frameworks derived from Pierre Bourdieu, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault and others.  He has undertaken varied inquiries into such phenomena as lifestyle movements of the 1970s, contemporary anti-consumerist movements, consumer cultures under Cuban socialism, the temporality of neo-liberalism and contemporary therapeutic culture, all with an eye toward the fashioning of reflexive subjectivity through lifestyle choice.  His recent monograph, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Duke University Press, 2007), examines the role of holistic discourse in the shaping of reflexive subjectivity, and its ultimate influence on lifestyle branding.  He serves as co-editor of the journal Foucault Studies, and his articles have appeared in the Journal of Consumer Culture, Time and Society, Cultural Studies, Rethinking Marxism, The European Journal of Cultural Studies and the Journal for Cultural Research.  He is currently working on a new book on neoliberalism, therapeutic culture, and the contemporary concern with subjective happiness.

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