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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-QC-PP16: “Why would you choose this life?” Spirituality, suffering in modern workplace and the question of autonomy. A Lacanian perspective

Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 1 July 14.00pm-15.15 SAST - VENUE 1
This presentation is STREAMED: a live broadcast from the venue with no online interaction. Moderators may announce zoom 'chat' questions can be submitted. Please 'mute' your microphone in consideration of other online participants and the audio recording.

“Why would you choose this life?” Spirituality, suffering in modern workplace and the question of autonomy. A Lacanian perspective

Presenter: Dr Joanna Trela


Psychoanalysis and spirituality are different paths toward the same outcome, namely the alleviation of human suffering
- Pruett, 1987

This paper looks at investigative journalists’ autonomous relation to work from the psychoanalytical perspective of Jacques Lacan and his theory of the subject. It is based on the doctoral thesis dissertation. I developed a framework of alienation-separation to explain the relation of passionate, committed, and connected with larger purpose professionals have to the work.

Organisation spirituality has been described as ‘the feeling individuals have about the fundamental meaning of who they are, what they are doing, the contributions they are making’ (Vaill, 1996: 218). The qualities investigative journalists share (Krause, 2011; Reese, 2001, Russo, 1998). Albeit having an ambiguous relation to spirituality, investigative journalists demand autonomy to enable them the quest for nevertheless sacred meaning and existential purpose at work (Krause, 2011; Tepper, 2003). Therefore, to live in accordance with ‘deeply held personal values [such as] truth, right-conduct (Neck and Milliman, 1994: 10) for themselves and for the society (Russo, 1998; Van Zoonen, 1998). Also, a Lacanian theory of the subject has been already used to support reconceptualization of spirituality in organisations (Driver, 2005) as well as other key organisational issues (Arnaud, 2002; 2012; Arnaud, and Vanheule, 2007, 2013; Arnaud and Vidaillet, 2018; Boxer, 2016; Fotaki, Long, and Schwartz (2012).

Two case studies were examined and juxtaposed. First, an innovative investigative start-up lavishly founded by a benefactor to change the investigative journalism landscape. Second, investigative team from a large corporate media broadcast, which produced a longstanding flagship investigative program. While both teams enjoyed numerous privileges granting them substantial discretion over work duties, which can indicate a considerable degree of work autonomy (Langfred, 2004), first team experience was drained with anxiety and inhibition, which I explain using the psychoanalytical concepts of desire, Imago, and alienation (Lacan, 1998) to coin the term barred autonomy. While second team experience was fueled with contradictory affects, such as elation and exhaustion, determination to keep going and to stop it all, which I illuminate using the psychoanalytical concepts of jouissance, lack and separation (1976, 1998, 2014) to progress an understanding of an autonomous relation to work.

Notwithstanding, all reporters experience was entrenched with suffering. I argue that the colour of suffering depended on their place in the symbolic structure of the workplace. Moreover, the work-life boundaries were questioned by the journalists themselves, organisational controls and exploitations were lurking, casting a shadow on the concepts of work autonomy and organisational spirituality value under certain circumstances (Boxer, 2014, Gabriel, 2008, Rose, 1999; Salecl, 2008, 2012). As the critical view suggests organizational autonomy (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992, 2002) and spirituality discourses are ‘a potentially repressive project(s)’ (Bell and Taylor, 2004: 439) in which workers hope for liberation but find themselves more firmly entrapped by organizational systems vested with sacred power and exerted controls (Bell and Taylor, 2003; Harley, 1999). The present article seeks to integrate but also extend these seemingly irreconcilable positions.

This work contributes to a more nuanced understanding of worker’s quest for autonomy, passion, and spirituality at work. The paper demonstrates the usefulness of the concepts of desire and jouissance in understanding work autonomy and suffering interplay.

Specifically, I shed light on how the reporters’ Desire is organising their work via the struggle against the insistence of jouissance. I argue the operation shall be regarded as the relation of subjects’ being to the subject itself as lack at work – an idiosyncratic, autonomous relation. Likewise, in spirituality, especially the Buddhist tradition (Pruett, 1987), consequently it shall bring individuals closer to their authentic selves, with the proviso that, it is empty, lacking.

Additionally, I offer propositions for organisational interventions (Arnaud & Vidaillet, 2018; Fotaki, Long, and Schwartz, 2012). which can support enabling workers’ being as subjects rather than as objects at work and how an organization can develop a supporting platform for such a symbolic identification, which qualify a limited degree of freedom at work, potentially opening an avenue for their relation to their soul (Berardi, 2010).

Learning Objectives

Participants will be able to:

  1. Distinguish between the concepts of Desire and jouissance in their applicability to understanding the interplay between work autonomy and suffering.
  2. Identify propositions for organizational interventions that promote (or not) workers' being as subjects rather than objects in the workplace.
  3. Apply their knowledge to assess how organizations can create a supportive platform that facilitates symbolic identification and grants a limited degree of freedom at work.

Biographical Summary

Dr. Trela is a psychologist and Lacanian psychoanalyst by training, holding a Ph.D. from The University of Melbourne. With 15 years of experience working with businesses, NGOs, and academia, she brings a diverse background to her practice. Her current interests revolve around the exploration of an interdisciplinary approach to mental health and wellbeing, particularly by forging connections between the fields of psychoanalysis and neuroscience.


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