Morten Nissen

Attempt at a Hegelian-Marxist Completion of Mørch's Completion of Critical Psychology (…nah, I'm only joking)

In Bechmann, T.B. (ed.) The European Villager. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 89-105


This text is a reflection of social work in three layers. The intention is to reach up from a piece of momentary interaction (reproduced as narrative and as conversational transcript data) through its objectification into a discussion in social theory of the kind presently referred to as critical psychology, in order to question, finally, Sven Mørch's notion of task.

The hunch that set this in motion was that such a wild juxtaposing of debates between contestants in communities who know nothing of each other and whose sole overlapping figure is myself may illuminate each, precisely because it is so far-fetched. The challenge is not, as one might suppose, connecting the situated and concrete with the structural and abstract – and thus finally to integrate a die-hard sociologist into a community of at least equally stubborn psychologists – but, much sooner, to substantiate the abstractnesses of both interaction and theories of social order by their concretization in terms of the current tasks of welfare state social integration.

First Level. The Battle of User Service

Let us plunge into Copenhagen one afternoon in the spring of 1992. In the course of my collaboration with the social work development project "User service" we have devised an activity that is supposed to realize a psychological as well as methodological self-reflection directly as part of an intrinsically meaningful activity rather than beside it. A series of weekly meetings are held in a civic canteen project that is at the same time a "work-fare" rehabilitation measure. The meetings are meant to coordinate ongoing practical business and integrate conflict resolution and personal rehabilitation counseling in the same process. The aim is to avoid the stigmatizing and personalizing effects of the specialized context for "therapy", "counseling" etc., yet still to move on from the point where "psychological problems" are simply tabooed; it is hypothesized that some "local cultural" kinds of meaningfulness might provide a "mandate" to deal with psychological problems without stigmatizing.

One fundamental contradiction is that while the "User Service" idea is to substitute socially useful activities for stigmatizing "pedagogical" or "therapeutic" measures to beat the social problem of marginalization (a problem that appears as individual malfunction but socially boils down to unemployment), the clients, called "assistants", are still referred individually to the project as a rehabilitation measure in a limited time financed by their welfare office case manager, and that this remains the overall most important financial source of the project. The ability of "User Service" to actually design and develop activities that are recognized by all parties as useful in their local community, and in which "clients" can actually be recruited as equal "participants", is very variable. Thus, when participants treat each other not as "clients" and "social workers", but simply as community "participants", we often do not know whether this is because the project has succeeded, or whether it is a case of what we came to call "the paradox of the horny hooker": the tendency to deny the foundation of the interaction which is sometimes necessary in order to realize it.

In the general spirit of action research, this series of meetings are meant to both study and attempt to overcome the prevailing dichotomy between stigma and taboo. Towards the end it is increasingly clear that the attempt is failing. Elsewhere, I have written one account of the reasons, causes, conditions etc. for this failure (Nissen, 1997), and this general story will not be our concern here. But the fact is that at this point, the meetings have become – besides data that document that overall development – a mixture of: 1) a sort of group counseling where the responsible leader of the civic canteen, the social worker, Michael, tries to influence the group and work with "the individual in the group"; 2) a kind of uncommitted cooperation meeting where no important decisions are taken, but where some mock discussions can be performed to test reactions; c) a ritual to confirm community and participation ideologically committed to "talking about things" as well as to "democratic leadership".

At the 16th meeting, on April 9th, we are 6 "assistants", a social worker, a researcher (myself) and a student of psychology. We sit around a table in a big room, smoking. One of the assistants, Zakis, is Greek; he speaks no Danish and a very poor English, but he is important to the group because he is a qualified cook and the project (that is, mostly, Michael) is trying to move toward more professional ways of working. Zakis takes part in the meetings by just sitting there, and occasionally bits and pieces are translated to him or from him. Another assistant, Nina, has brought her 4-year-old daughter who crawls around under the table and often disturbs, in particular her mother, with loud talk (I get the impression that she is most disturbing when her mother is talking or being addressed or talked about). And Nina is very much in the hot seat.

The agenda requested by one assistant, Lisa, is that we talk about the "tone" between members. Michael introduces the example of Nina having abused Zakis verbally the other day. Zakis had told Nina to just "go away" when she reproached him for just crudely throwing dirty pots and pans on her table while he was cooking, and Nina had reacted very strongly to that. Nina's strong reaction, including threats to literally leave the project for good, is the issue.

There are additional issues at stake known to at least some participants. Michael wants to establish that what Zakis did with the pots and pans is what "real cooks" do, implying that getting used to that is precisely the "job training" here which Nina must accept rather than reject (or object to in a way so that she can be informed that it is she who is wrong). But – the Morten of 1992 as of 2004 would object – it is not at all certain that such "real commercial" standards should apply here. That very uncertainty has been a vital social work resource that has allowed "assistants" to continuously reconstruct standards in inclusive ways in "ideological" opposition to a society that works to exclude some people [note1]. Further, as we all learn later, Zakis and Nina are often rude toward each other in unacceptably sexist and racist/xenophobic ways, respectively; while Nina's attempts to recruit support for racist attacks on Zakis run into trouble both because of the organization's overall ideology and because Michael is black, Zakis' sexism is being left unnoticed by Michael in spite of repeated complaints not just from Nina, to the point where all the assistants finally go on strike and use one of our last meetings to demand action taken.

But at this point, the assumption is that the "tone" among participants can be improved by "taking up the issue" at our meeting. Michael first tries to engage Zakis, but Zakis simply states that it won’t do any good to discuss things like that. Then Michael – as he often does – turns to Ann, who seems to be his favorite assistant, for support.

But Ann says that she does not think there is any problem [note2];

1 Ann We were all so hard pressed. The meat hadn’t arrived, we had no potatos, God knew when Michael would show up, and whether he brought potatos, and what did he bring, you know, and then we had to-- OK, by 9 we go down and buy potatos, and the meat has to be there, and then we start. And then this came up, and who should go get those potatos, you know? That’s all it was, really, it’s all just about a tiny flea (~ a very small and insignificant thing)
2 Nina That flea has really grown--
3 Ann --it really grows big, yeah
4 Morten Well, OK, so that’s one idea about it – that you say it’s all over then, after that half hour, and then it’s over and done with. But that wasn’t what you said, Michael, your opinion is different, then?
5 Michael Yes
6 Ann So what’s your opinion then?
7 Morten You say it’s an expression of a general problem, and it’s about different ways to approve and to object?
8 Ann And we need to get to know each other more than we do
9 Lisa Definitely, that we have to do
10 Michael But did you know Zakis before?
11 Ann No. I didn’t know Nina, either, but I’ve seen through her. I’ve seen through him, too, I have--
12   (General laughter. Child asks and Nina answers something inaudible)
13 Morten But Ann, it sounds as if you think it’s wrong to be discussing things like these, like it’s somehow--
14 Ann --I think-- I don’t know, really, I think we’ve got it pretty much under control over there (in the kitchen), we take our turns once in a while, and I suppose it’s our right to do that--
15 Morten --Well, but, Nina said something just before that might be a reason to do it, it was that Nina,--
16 Ann --and Michael gets his, too!
17 Morten --that Nina was about to leave, that she’s been about to leave a few times, and just now (to Nina) you said that the next time someone tells you to go away, you will, and you won’t come back. I think that’s a good reason, ‘cause that’s a risk, then, that you’re all facing, it might happen next week, suddenly, and then Nina just isn’t here any more
18 Ann Oh but in that case we’d surely run after her, wouldn’t we, we’d be missing someone to peal the potatos and the carrots, don’t you see, and take part in washing the dishes, you know, that’s evident, isn’t it. It wasn’t meant like that at all, was it, we’ve got to get to know each other
19 Nina Well, what I meant when I, this Monday, that I said that I’m going now and won’t come back, that was just in my fury
20 Morten You said it today as well, didn’t you?
21 Nina Yes, that’s right, the next time someone says that to me, I’m gone!
22 Michael So it isn’t in a rage, really
23 Morten No
24 Nina It isn’t in a rage
25 Michael That’s something which to think about, then, that I’ve got clearly on my mind, that I do that [note3]
26 Nina Yes
27 Ann It’s the same, like, when I’m furious and freak out over something….I get the hell out, I walk out and don’t come back!
28 Morten But it wasn’t something that Nina said in a rage just now. It was a quiet discussion, so it’s…I think it sounds like you’re somehow saying that now you’ve more or less got one foot outside or something (the child is very noicy here). At least now you’re concerned whether you’ll stay here, or-- and I think that’s a good reason to talk about it, also, when I think about how it-- in the time since October when we’ve had these meetings, or November, or whatever. And there are some persons who have disappeared one way or the other. And where there’s been a problem, but we haven’t really been able to get into discussing them, and those persons have then gone. I mean, it’s not that,-- one can’t be sure that they can be solved, those problems, by talking about them, as Zakis says, that’s true by the way. But it might be a good reason for talking about them now.
29 Ann Well, we’ll have to do it, then! Get a hold of those problems, shut down the kitchen and the food and everything. Gotta sit down among the pots and pans and say "now’s the time", won’t we
30   (General laughter)
31 Lisa Is it the sun that does it, or what is it, Ann?
32 Michael Or the spring?
33 Lisa I’m deeply shocked!
34   (Laughter; the child speaks loudly but still incomprehensively)
35 Ann Yeah but we will have to, won’t we
36 Morten But, I mean, the most important person to judge whether we ought to bring it up must be you, Nina, at least I think it should be--
37 Nina -Oh I don’t bleedin’ know, really--
38 Morten --‘cause it might well be, as Ann says, that there is something about getting wise about each other, and there might be some parts of each other that you don’t understand so well, and that might be a reason why some things can be worked out by talking about it and getting some things out to the surface, but, it’s--
39 Nina --I don’t bleedin’ know, I haven’t got a damn thing to say, to be frank!
40 Morten But do you feel that now all it takes is the straw and the camel’s back will break?
41 Nina No, I mean, no I wouldn’t say that--
42 Morten --‘cause if it happened three times in one week that someone said ‘go away' to someone else--
43 Lisa Oh, but now I’m just completely at a loss here! What if one of us gets mad and tells you to go away?
44 Nina Then I’ll quit!
45 Lisa But, quite honestly, I mean, the rest of us-- I don’t think we should accept that, that if we say something, then you might, if you have a bad day, and you might answer in some way, and you give the- the eye, like if glances could kill, we have to just put up with that, if I tell you to go away--
46 Nina --I never said you should do that, --
47   --then you just leave?
48 Nina Yeah!
49 Lisa And the rest of us, we just-
50 Nina Yeah, but I don’t take it the same way you take it, see
51 Lisa I think we’ve been through all this before!
52 Morten What does this remind you of?
53 Lisa Of Susan! I mean, Susan, she just couldn’t take, - she couldn’t take it if you said something wrong, whereas she could really abuse you, and the rest of us just had to listen to that. And she would—if someone talked to her like that she would quit, and she actually did


Second Level. Humor and Social Order

The original occasion for translating these data into English was when in the fall of 2003 I had the privilege of visiting the "Discourse and Rhetoric Group" (DARG) at Loughborough University [note4]. The format of this renowned group's weekly meetings is that a small piece of "discourse" (meaning transcribed conversational interaction) is presented and analyzed in detail. Much of the following analysis shows my humble attempts at acquiring some of the impressive analytical skills which those meetings never failed to demonstrate; it is also to a large extent directly informed by useful suggestions from members of the DARG. But just as Michael had a reason for taking up precisely the example of Nina's telling Zakis off, I had, and have, a point in seeking out just this material, clumsily transcribed and outdated by more than a decade (as well as somewhat embarassing to my reputation both as a researcher and as a counsellor) though it was.

My idea was to challenge Michael Billig's "critique of positive humor", presented at the conference on Critical Psychology in Bath, UK, August 2003 (and see (Billig, 2001). Billig was and is one of my "heroes"; in particular, his theory of ideology (Billig, 1991; Billig, 1997) has been highly influential to my own attempts to grapple with the issue (Nissen, 1998b). Regarding humor, Billig wishes to dispute "nice-guy" theories of social life that view empathy as a natural reaction to other's embarassment and humor as unambiguously benevolent, healthy and conducive to social bonds. He points to the ridicule-embarassment sequence as fundamentally disciplinary reactions to breaches of social order. The pain of embarassment is the punishment for (relatively minor) gaffes and the aggressive pleasure of laughing at others is a kind of reward for guarding order. In addition, however, humor is seen in a more critical Freudian mode as an outlet of the pleasure of subversion which at the same time affirms the more basic social order; especially in Modernity, where social order is itself a relentless breaking-down of values and universals, and thus everything can be ridiculed at a surface level while everything stays the same beneath.

With this "critical theory" of humor, we would be inclined to regard the jokes in the excerpt as either disciplinary or rebellious – or both, if they challenge authority without really getting at the important and contentious issues. As we shall see, these are indeed viable interpretations. But they are not the only ones. The suggestion here is to view humor, also, as creative objectification. This could be a way to oppose the idea of reproduction with, not just the negative idea of critique itself, but a positive critique: rather than seeing "social order" as being either reproduced or broken down, or both, we might see a plurality of social orders being produced in a proces of objectification.

Fundamentally, humor is a way of establishing something which is not literal, a doubling of reality, a creation of the merely abstract, a level of "play". Thus, in line with discursive psychology, humor and laughter can be seen as actions that achieve interactional ends. We can apply Goffman's notion of "upkeying" (Goffman, 1986): "making fun" is the creation of a double frame, an extra lamination in the shared understanding of what is going on. The "playfulness frame" serves to regulate social interaction, as the doubling allows for manipulating the countless relations between participants, "play", and "real life". Laughter, in turn, does not merely constitute a reaction to something that is "in itself funny" – it is an interactional move that can suggest, establish, or confirm something socially as "funny".

Viewing humor as objectification, however, is an idea developed from cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and can be established by contrasting pre-human with human forms. Already in mammals, play behavior is an "upkeying" that signals abstraction, meta-reality. Play (viewed functionally) primarily facilitates certain kinds of learning, including the learning of social interaction, but the existence of play is then usable as a routinized social signal. Communicating "this is only play" serves to disarm retaliation, sanctioning, by securing absense of aggressive intentions. Displaying play behavior both presupposes and provides "friendliness", or secure base. But even if the keying of play contributes to constituting "friendly" communities, that in no way rules out power or aggression. Some are part of "our community", some are not. Chimp A can grin at chimp B, who has just killed chimp C, to make sure that B knows that A is prepared to make friends with B rather than challenge him after the violent restructuring of the group. The grin is the burial of A's attachment to C. Or C could have grinned to avoid being killed, thus "upkeying" his previous challenging behavior, in effect disciplining himself as participant of a community that mocks his previous challenging self.

The "keying", in humans, may develop into "ideal objects" (Ilyenkov, 1977a; Ilyenkov, 1977b), cultural forms that mediate and shape subjective action. Produced in material form, externalized and objectified, they are stable across time, place and social position, yet can be endlessly and cumulatively complicated and developed. If we look at those in their capacity to constitute communities and participants-as-subjects, we look at ideology: discourse produced and mobilized to constitute subjects (Billig, 1991; Billig, 1997). Contrary to the primate keyings, the inherent creativity of producing ideological forms can be dominant because they are materially objectified. This implies that they are inherently open to interpretation, paradoxically, even if they are made to constitute subjects. The "cunning of reason" is that no social order is ever just reproduced; in its reproduction, cultural forms are objectified that will change the social order itself.

At the micro, situational level, this can be identified as the way in which the transformations achieved in/with, e.g., humor, can recast participants in new cultural forms. Its double realities do not necessarily dissolve, but can be kept and cumulated. This, however, is never a given, and we should expect a whole range – as well as a close-knit network – of forms from simple situational "upkeyings", across a wide variety of "small objectifications", above all in the shape of linguistic utterances, and on to larger, pervasive cultural forms [note5].

Further, objectification, of course, rules out power no more than the simple keyings do. In fact, the trope of objectifying participants while simultaneously reconstituting a community that either does or does not include the persons objectified seems a fundamental power mechanism, of which ridicule may be a proto-form. Discipline is very much about exclusion or contingent inclusion mediated by objectified ideological forms. Ideological interpellation establishes inclusion, the image of an identity between participant and community, in the same instant as exclusion, that of the proto-participant subjected to the community's actions as an alien object. In this regard, the externality, openness and reinterpretability of the object serves to mediate and tranform the dichotomy between identification and alienation. This widens the range considerably for ideology, for power mediated by discourse to subjectify. Humor, as "upkeying", can be directed either at exclusion or inclusion of a particular participant, or even sometimes at an unstable ambivalent turning point; as objectification, however, it can not only stabilize that ambivalence, but also transform it into a cumulative self-consciousness. In other words, when I laugh at myself together with others, I am not simply disciplined into a given social order, but co-developing and appropriating cultural forms, and disciplining myself and others in the process.


Discipline is what we are witnessing here in the "User-Service" kitchen group. Nina is in the process of being excluded or excluding herself from this group. Part of this process is that she refuses to take part in what is recognized as a quiet, rational, open etc. discussion, she refuses to be logical and reasonable as part of the group meetings that are ideologically emblematic of the way the civic canteen believes itself to work (the hegemony Michael has established) [note6]. Part of it are her problems with aligning family life with work life (e.g. getting boyfriend to babysit), so vividly expressed by her daughter's presence; other parts remain obscure (at this point).

Far from mitigating this sort of problems, the meetings seem to accentuate and highlight them. This becomes clear towards the end of the excerpt (turn 43 ff.). In the final analysis, a round-table discussion coordinating kitchen work and on top of that discussing individual members' affairs is not drawing on and does not provide the "mandate" to address psycho-social problems that are otherwise marginalized or tabooed.

Michael's project of alignment of professional kitchen work with social counseling becomes instead highly normative and hegemonic. In the excerpt, we can see him "usurping" the collective concern for each assistant's well-being into the traditional "responsible-considerations-of-staff" that are fundamentally hidden to clients, but can be revealed at certain points (25); and we get a glimpse of how he uses Ann as a model of good behavior (10). In effect, Michael is working to "return" the group into a more traditional social work format. But he meets resistance, from me, who haven't quite learnt the lesson yet, and from some of the assistants, who seem to have, but who draw a different conclusion (i.e. as little of that counseling stuff as possible).

In this particular excerpt, Ann tries in several ways to oppose our discussing the issue. But she cannot say as much, directly, (when asked, 13), for that would constitute her as irrational or outside of this local rational community, just like Nina (whereas Zakis can, since he enjoys the privilege of being a qualified, non-Danish-speaking cook [note7]). Instead, she tries inconsequential / "harmless" explanations (1,8,14, 18), and statements of "right of privacy" (14: that everything is under control, and we have a right to "take turns"). She even (27) attempts to return to the "rage" explanation just after it has been explicitly refuted by all speakers, including Nina herself (24), thus trying to establish that even "going and not coming back" should not be understood too literally.

But her primary tactics is humor. In (11), Ann wards off Michael's counterargument (10) against the "getting to know each other" idea which at the same time states that Ann acts morally superior to Nina. The transformation of "knowing" into "seeing through" exaggerates the point and thus playfully diminishes it and at the same time communicates that we can all trust Ann to benevolently understand and mediate. Turning to playfulness itself establishes that here is nothing, really, to worry about, we can all joke about it. And we can joke together: casting herself as the one to be ridiculed, here, helps establish that we are all part of this (so it is not about mocking Nina or Zakis).

In (18), too, the humor is a diminutive: the positive need for Nina as potato-pealer and the idea of running after her is playfully performed before returning to the "getting to know" explanation. The playfulness takes the sting out of my recapitulation of Nina's threat and relays it to the level of style and communication (: there are different ways to "take" things) that makes the ensuing explanation seem feasible. Even when feigned, the message carries inclusion: this is the way one speaks to / about a dear child, avoiding heavy issues but still expressing sympathy or love (rather like: "Oh, we can't have you drowning, dear, who would then paint nice drawings to me?").

These two jokes seek to accomplish a reconstitution of our little community in at least two ways:

1) Forestalling the confrontation in (43 ff) by establishing a closure by what Paul Willis calls "the laff" (Willis, 1977), or later "taking the piss" (Willis, 2001) [note8]. According to Willis, such humorous forms do not easily lend themelves to reductive-explanatory interpretation, but remain intrinsically ambivalent or open. Recruiting the group into laughter may serve to pit them against returning to a "serious" level where things are spelled out. Thus, the move reconstitutes the group to objectify itself in the (working class culture) format of such piss-take rather than academic or therapeutic scrutiny; this alternative is marked almost explicitly in (29), where talking itself is ridiculed and directly opposed to running the kitchen. Yet it is still done in an open way which allows for the withdrawal in (35) – illustrating nicely Willis' (and Billig's) point that "piss-take" typically works defensively or half-heartedly facing power relations [note9].

2) Reconstituting the group in a way inclusive toward Nina – perhaps the only way she can relate to the problem without either capitulating or seeking confrontation. This reconstitution includes a "mocking" of Nina herself (who must accept to see herself as a child), at the same time illustrating how self-mockery can be a way of relating (since Ann mocks herself as well). This implies an interpellation of Nina through a doubling of herself: the "laughing" Nina is invited to distance herself from the ridiculed "runaway" Nina and to participate in the ridicule [note10]. And, most importantly, this "invitation to self-mockery" is performed in the same moment as a reconstitution of the community is (although somewhat faintly) attempted, thus realizing the mutuality which is in principle inherent to interpellation (participant and community are reconstituted in the same moment).

Lisa's counter-joke (31-33), immediately secunded by Michael (32), is a kind of counter-reconstitution that works in a way very different from my attempts to argue rationally for the need to talk. Lisa ridicules Ann directly (as someone who is shockingly crazy from the first appearance of the pale Danish spring sun), but in a way that continues Ann's own "style". This move seems to turn Ann around, finally, making sure that (29) is interpreted and counts as in (35). It directly argues against Ann's implication that kitchen work and (academic-therapeutic) talk are opposites and exclusives; but it does so humorously: again, it defies interpretation, remains open, and invites to self-mockery.

The two jokes in (29) ands (31) are, thus, contrary moves in a power struggle. They can be identified as "aggressive" and "disciplinary" humor. Yet they both contain, also, the vital element of interpellation. They show how interpellation, the constitution of subjects-as-participants, works through the exercise of power through discourse, through the recruitment of discourse with which the participant is objectified and subjected while at the same time co-objectifying and co-subjecting. Further, in their very opposition, they testify how ordinary "ideological humor" can be much more differentiated than the contrasting of "disciplinary" with "rebellious" humor seems to imply. There is always more than one "social order", more than one "society / community" at stake, and these dynamics are not adequately grasped with the "critical" opposition of status quo with its transgression.

Thus, finally, they demonstrate the inherent productive creativity of humorous objectification: each move is an attempt to reconstitute the community in a new way. The "funny" images of the group sitting idly among pots and pans or of Ann crazed by the spring sun are, even if small-scale, lasting objectifications with which to constitute lasting communities / social orders, crafted to be used and included in the local folklore as klichées and reference points to elicit a confirmatory, constitutive laughter – or to be further elaborated.

Third Level. Templates, Tasks, and Teleologies

Having thus worked through an "illustrated critique", as it were, of critical psychology – with the generous assistance of those same "criticized critical psychologists" – the gradual reconstruction of the specific contribution of CHAT, and the kind of critical psychology derived from it, emerged curiously accompagnied by an uneasy feeling about the abstractness of the whole enterprise.

First of all, the pervasive undecidedness about what is going on, what we are doing, may be a benevolent flexibility, openness, or even responsiveness, but it just might also be connected with a problematic alignment of the level of scientific abstraction with an intrinsically unclear activity, aptly illustrated with an excerpt where we only discuss whether and what – and perhaps fight over how – we should discuss an incident of a way of talking at all.

As some DARG members commented, it looks as if I am the only actor in the excerpt who really has a concern. And even that is far from simple, since one main point in this kind of practice research is precisely a deliberate attempt at crossing the boundaries between activities rather than creating special contexts for research. What makes the activity so extremely hard to grasp, then, is that it is – methodologically meant to be, i.e. framed as – real life interaction! The confusing agenda is an important feature of these meeetings which clearly shines through the oft-repeated weak self-reassurances of our purpose. It is a feature of the interaction that "what is going on" can be broken down into non-validatable interpretations about who is using it for which hidden purposes. Thus, my nice methodological point can be reduced to my seeking to validate a hypothesis by directly making things appear to happen that I hope to be true. Lisa, who requested the theme, can be seen, also, to "use" Michael and me for her purposes, and Michael's attempt to join in on her joke in (32) is his attempts to use her use of him. Or Ann might, as suggested in note 9 above, be pulling both Lisa's, Michael's, and my strings from under her clown disguise. Etc. ad lib.

Even if this to some extent derives from the "boundary" nature of the activity, this does not mean it is not, or at least could not be, built on a template. Goffman observed that the frame of counseling is established by its very time-space bracketing, the "therapeutic space", and what goes on in it is secondary. The logic is that "since this is psychotherapy, we should interpret everything here as indicative of you – your problem, personality etc." This implies that a therapist can be allowed, or even, paradoxically, supposed, to break or change the frame, e.g. by commenting on the client's slips of tongue or emotional tension or other "private matters" or events normally disattended in a conversation, thus producing "negative" experience (Goffman, 1986). A further implication is precisely that what Goffman calls the "directional track", the ongoing communication about the ongoing communication, can acquire a life of its own, to the point of breaking down interaction. It does not worry the therapist that we keep talking about talking and never get down to business, since the actions, reactions, experienced or observed emotions etc. of individual participants, even towards that very risk of interaction breakdown, can always be re-modelled. And, in so far as this re-modelling of events keeps directing attention to individual participants, away from the joint enterprise, endless meta-reflections seem to coexist with a persistent self-denial of the collective itself as collective.

Thus, the simple structural fact that the client is at the same time talked about, talking, and contingently co-constituting the collective of talkers and the activity of talking, at least potentially requires and produces a certain openness as well as opaqueness of the interaction frame. This, however, does not apply exclusively to counseling. Johanna Motzkau, another DARG member, suggested that this was an apparent issue in some of the research groups that she had experienced in the tradition of critical psychology in Germany [note11]. If we replace the term "client" with "participant" or even "subject", while attending closely to any changes that appear to take place, we can notice two facts about the idea of "critique" here. For one thing, important aspects of the structure of the interaction remain the same. For another, the abstractness of the terms substituted for those that belong to "traditional" practices suggests a utopian (or perhaps "heterotopian", (Foucault, 1986)) ordering, a starting from scratch in a cleared space (Nissen, 2000) that is perhaps not altogether unlike what was characteristic of those same "traditional" practices in their day.

This is precisely the point where the vicinity of any, however critical, psychological analysis with the idea and the practice of a universalizing science of human interaction or activity becomes apparent. Being critical of counseling or of disciplinary or even rebellious humor does not in itself amount to a change of framework. The obvious remedy is a socio-cultural contextualization beyond micro-sociological interaction frames and small-scale objectifications. That requires an interdisciplinary theory of current social practices, a theory which traces their historical and macro-structural conditions of possibility and provides the content and the objectivity that they organize around. That "completion", I believe, has been a core theoretical contribution and legacy of Sven Mørch to the community of critical psychology in Denmark which forms the perspective of the present text.

With this in mind, we might approach the User Service kitchen group meeting with the question of its task and the tasks of those involved.

The idea of a task introduces objectivity to social action and seeks to avoid either determinism or voluntarism, in a "theory of practice" very akin to CHAT. The task is given, but it may or may not be accepted. It is given by agents to agents, but it is objectively given. Yet the problem of dualism or duality of structure that it purports to solve seems to me to reappear just round the next corner. In one version, tasks can be derived from a functionalistic analysis of social reproduction or an evolutionistic modernity theory, and the subjects' choice reduced to one between social integration and pathology; in effect, a social psychology of the Parsons-Erikson-Giddens lineage. In an opposite version, tasks, precisely as aspects of practice, can be reduced to absolutely contingent discursive formations, in a poststructuralist relativism such as that of Rose, Dean and others. The task of qualified self-formation and self-determination, for instance, is either absolutely compulsory in late modernity or an accidental contemporary discursive element. While the latter calls for some cynical irony, the former is completely self-absorbed and dead serious. But neither, I think, resembles what Mørch really intended with his idea of task.

My conclusion is that the overall epistemology of a "duality of structure" is insufficient to overcome the impending dichotomy, first of all because it does not face the radical challenge of "reflexivity" – i.e. that social theory is a part of its own subject matter, not only as "knowledge" or "expertise", but as practice. Thus, I opt for a completion of Mørch's completion of critical psychology with a Hegelian-Marxist "epistemology of practice" (Bernstein, 1971; Jensen, 1999). This involves the reembracing of a political rather than merely social or sociological teleology. By that I mean that the idea of objective necessity should be thought of as more or less viable political projects, that is, transformations and thus reconstitutions of large-scale communities such as welfare states (Nissen, 2003b) (Højrup, 2003; Nissen, 2004a&b).

This way, the objectivity of the task of social integration – in the shape of e.g. work-fare autonomy – can be reformulated in terms of the wider political conditions and implications of communities and activities such as our kitchen group discussion and of interventions and objectifications such as the jokes that were made. The templates of group counseling or of working-class-style piss-take are resources employed in a struggle which, at the end of the day, is political, and their realizations are the kind of creations that build the future Danish and / or European (post-?) welfare state.

Thus, as I see it, the participants in the discussion faced important tasks far beyond what could be deemed conducive to each individual's adaptation to a globalized post-industrial labor market or what happened to characterize a fashionable work-fare discourse. Significantly, that of reconstituting a welfare state of our substantial-universalist Nordic kind in a way that remained reponsive to the needs, competences, and cultural resources of an ideologically devasted working class, while interpellating outcasts and resisting the temptations of medicalization / psychologization as well as of critical utopianism.

A truly daunting task that called for some serious creative joking indeed.



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1. Much later, I have elaborated the idea of ideological interpellation as social work, see (Nissen, 2003a; Nissen, 1999)

2. The excerpt was originally printed in my PhD thesis (Nissen, 1998a). Translated from the Danish by me. The translation is pretty close, so that (I believe) syntactic or grammatical errors etc. represent similar errors in Danish. Regrettably I did not at the time use any specific transcription conventions such as those of Conversation Analysis.

3. Michael is American and his Danish is sometimes a little inadequate (after more than 20 years in Denmark) to the effect that at certain points his utterances are a bit opaque

4. See

5. I would suggest that Goffman, in his frame analysis, includes this whole human range, but does not distinguish the pre-human form from the human sufficiently to open to a systematic study of objectifications.

6. It is possible that Nina attempts to present herself as not provocatively inconsistent, but in the canonical form of shifting from a polite evasive response to a frank confrontational. If so, however, she does not appear to have been successful.

7. Zakis challenges the talk directly. Yet we go on to talk about that which Zakis directly stated he wouldn't talk about. This way it is treated as a general problem, rather than something Zakis has special rights over, and we can go on irrespective of Zakis' objection, even though he is present. This appears to be rude toward Zakis; but behind this lies the fact that this very turn allows Zakis to be silent, implying that it is all really about Nina.

8. In his 1977 cultural study, Willis emphasizes the aggressive aspect, the ridicule, where the "laff" is seen as a form of resistance that middle-class teachers can't grasp, whereas in the 2000 piece, Willis primarily understands "piss-take" as a shop-floor mutual learning resource that distances workers from taking authority as well as their own suffering too literally. In both cases, it is seen as important that it is a kind of humor that forms part of a working class culture and which is in itself an irreducible cultural form, parallel to, among other things, Willis' own ethnographic writings (see also (Willis, 2000)).

9. As suggested by Mick Billig at the DARG meeting, Ann's joking can even be seen as a feigned opposition to Michael and me. As long as the opposition can be kept in the humorous version, the non-confrontational line, it is attempted, but when that no longer works, she withdraws. She (implies that she) can only do so much. In fact, then, what she does is that she etablishes the groundwork for discussing the issue to veil the fact that everybody is in the process of getting rid of Nina. If that is so, the function of humor should be seen in conjunction with the function of the seriousness that follows, when Ann is silent and lets Lisa, who seems less concerned with mitigating and covering-up, take over.

10. This kind of "hardening", as Willis' piss-taking informant calls it, when pressed hard to explain what it's for (Willis, 2001), works contrary, perhaps, to the transference in psychotherapy where it is the therapist's caring identification with the client's "inner child" that leads the client from his erroneous self-conception as mature into the transference relationship (he is interpellated as childish) that he must go through analysis to overcome…

11. As one might read about in, e.g., (Dreier, 1993; Fahl & Markard, 1999; Haug, 2002; Haug, 2003; Markard, 1984; Osterkamp, 1990