‘The neoliberal subject, reality TV and free association: A Freudian audience study of Embarrassing Bodies’

A Research Paper by Jacob Johanssen, published by Participations

This article presents particular themes from an audience study with viewers of the British reality show Embarrassing Bodies (Channel 4). A methodology based on the Freudian technique of free association was used to research viewers’ narratives about the programme. I focus on two participants who spoke about the show in terms that make use of internalised neoliberal discourses about the limits to entitlement to public healthcare as well as self-responsibility for staying healthy. They also discussed aspects which contradicted those themes. The narratives were of an ambiguous nature and shifting views were outlined in the course of each interview. I theorise such shifting with Sigmund Freud’s concept of ‘negation’ whereby an idea is rejected in order to avoid further engagement with it. Rather than accusing the viewers of lying or having false consciousness, psychoanalysis opens up nuanced ways of interpreting the data. It helps us to understand how individuals are (un)consciously positioned in contemporary austerity and crisis discourses around healthcare. Given the ambivalent interview narratives, I conclude that the current economic climate in the UK has resulted in the formation of subjectivities who struggle to make sense of it as they simultaneously resist and embrace it.

Keywords: Reality TV Audiences, Free Association, Psychoanalysis, Negation, NHS


Jacob Johanssen

About Jacob Johanssen

Jacob Johanssen's work revolves mainly around two themes: exploring Freudian psychoanalysis as a theory and method for media audience research with a particular focus on psychoanalytic conceptualisations of affect, as well as using psychoanalysis to think critically about contemporary digital culture more broadly.

His research interests include audience research, social media, digital labour, psychoanalysis and the media, affect theory, psychosocial studies, critical theory, as well as digital culture. His work has appeared in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, International Communication Gazette, and Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture.


Jacob Johanssen
5 December 2018
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