Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer

Throughout this book we have documented how the wellness command seeps into all aspects of our lives, at all times. It transforms every conceivable activity, including eating, meditating and even sleeping, into an opportunity to optimize pleasure and become more productive.

And yet, as we have demonstrated in the course of this book, the more we concentrate on maximizing our wellness, the more alienated and frustrated we often seem to become. The frantic search for the perfect diet; the paranoid pursuit of happiness; the forced workplace work-out; the endless life coaching sessions; the detailed tracking of our bodily functions; turning your entire day into a game – these desperate attempts to increase productivity through wellness create their own problems. The encourage an infectious narcissism which pushes us to take the great turn inwards, making our body into our first and last concern. They generate a creeping sense of anxiety that comes with the ever present responsibility of monitoring every lifestyle choice. They feed a sense of guilt that comes from the inevitable slip-ups when we don’t follow our diet or fail to live up to our life goals. People whose life have been seized by wellness are not just healthier, happier and more productive. They are also narcissistic, anxious and guilty. They are the victims of the wellness syndrome.

Biomorality does not just inflict its enthusiasts with personal pathologies; it reshaped how they engage with others. Those who don’t live up to the high standards of wellness are looked at with disgust. And as this vitriolic language becomes common in the public sphere, the possibility of reasoned debate fades. As authorities lose faith in structural reforms, they become more interested in small-scale behavioral interventions. In place of politics, we are left with corporeal babble and increasingly invasive lifestyle tweaks. As a result, we abandon political demands. The just redistribution of material resources (through ‘social welfare’), the recognition of previously maligned identities ( through ‘identity politics’) and the representation of political voices ( through ‘democratization’) have now become replaced by a new ambition: personal rehabilitation. Here, the unemployed are not provided an income; they get life coaching. Discriminated groups don’t get opportunities to celebrate their identities; they get an exercise plan. Citizens don’t get an opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives; they get a mindfulness session. Meanwhile, inequality, discrimination and authoritarianism become seen as questions to grand to tackle head-on. Instead, political ambitions become myopically focused on boosting our wellbeing.

This concern with rehabilitating our health and happiness has not gone unchallenged. It has sparked new forms of what Peter Fleming calls ‘post-recognitional politics’.* These are political movements that challenge authority by checking out. The ill take to their bed, fat acceptors get rid of their bathroom scales and barebackers avoid testing their HIV status. Each try to create a new way of experiencing the world unencumbered by the wellness command. This mighty open up new spaces of respite, but in doing so these anti-biomoral militants are often becoming even more tightly tied to their bodily obsessions.

The fate of these escape attempts remind us that finding a way out of the wellness syndrome is not easy. But a start would be to stop obsessively listening to our bodies, to give up fixations with our own health and happiness and to abandon the illusion of limitless human potential. Instead we could forget about our bodies for a moment, stop chasing after happiness and realize that, as human beings, we are not just defined by our potential to be healthy and happy. Wellness is not always our lot.

To escape the clutches of wellness, we might recognizer that as human beings, we are not defined exclusively by our potentials, but also by our impotence. And this to be ashamed of. Accepting our impotence allows us to see that we will always come up short in one way or another. What makes most important things in life worthwhile is the inevitable failures and pain they entail. Truth often makes us miserable. Political action may involve direct threats and danger. Beauty is often soaked in sorrow. Love usually tears us apart. They may hurt, but not more than they are worthy….

Instead of forever dwelling on our own health or sickness, we might do better to look at and act upon the sickness of the world.

Peter Fleming, Resisting Work: The Corporatization of Life and It’s Discontents, (Temple University Press, 2014)

1 comment:

  1. The authors dissect an obvious problem albeit with rather blunt instruments. A lot of what they say replays, with acknowledgement, Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminished Expectations (1979) I can envision a much more thorough- going analysis but some points about the politics of wellness as a kind of neo-liberal passification program, particularly when he discusses UK PM David Cameron are well made. I would quote epidemiologist Ichiro Kawachi : "We still labor under the myth that somehow we're each on our own and as individuals we can make these choices to prevent heart disease. If society or government really wanted to drive down the rates of heart cardiovascular disease, they would be tackling it at macro levels. Policies that appear to have little to do with health, like macroeconomic policies to reduce the level of income inequality, can have a major impact on driving down rates of illness in socety"

    His research shows that death and sickness rates from cancer, heart disease, and other major illnesses in the U.S are higher in states where participation in civic life is low, racial prejudice is high, or a large gap exists between the incomes of the rich and poor and of women and men.

    Animal studies support their conclusions. In experiments where rabbits and minkeys are placed in isolation or in subordinate positions, or they are put under stress, their blood pressures and levels of "bad" cholestoral tend to increase.") in "Social Epidemiology" Oxford Univ. Press, 2000,