You can’t judge a book by its neologisms, but the coinages appearing in the first chapter or two of Carl Cederström and André Spicer’s The Wellness Syndrome (Polity) serve as pretty reliable landmarks for the ground its argument covers. We might start with “orthorexia,” which spell-check regards with suspicion, unlike “anorexia,” its older and better-established cousin.
Where the anorexic person avoids food as much as possible, the orthorexic is fixated on eating correctly -- that is, in accord with a strict and punitive understanding of what’s healthy to eat, and in what quantities, as well as what must be avoided as the culinary equivalent of a toxic landfill. It is a sensible attitude turned pathological by anxiety. And in the authors’ interpretation, that anxiety is socially driven: the product of “biomorality,” meaning “the moral demand to be happy and healthy,” as expressed in countless ways in a culture that makes chefs celebrities while stigmatizing the poor for eating junk food.
But diet is only one bailiwick for “wantologists,” somewhat better known as “life coaches,” whose mission it is to “help you figure out what you really want” in life. Cederström is an assistant professor of organizational theory at Stockholm University, while Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at City University, London. I take it from their account that the wantological professions (there are certification programs) extend beyond one-on-one consulting to include the market in self-improvement and motivational goods and services such as books, workshops and so on. The goal in each case is the combination of physical fitness and positive mental attitude that amounts to an “ideal performance state” for the contemporary employee.
“A recent survey by RAND,” we learn, “found that just over half of U.S. employers with more than 50 staff offer some kind of workplace wellness program,” while 70 percent of companies in the Fortune 200 do so. “In total, U.S. employers spend about $6 billion a year on such programs,” which “are often tied up with employees’ health insurance.”
“Know Yourself, Control Yourself, Improve Yourself” reads one of the chapter subheads, as if to list the slogans from some Orwellian Ministry of Wellness. But where Big Brother ruled through the repression of desire and personal identity, the cultural regime defined by what the authors call “the wellness command” makes every possible concession to individuality and contentment. Indeed, it demands them. Every aspect of life becomes “an opportunity to optimize pleasure and become more productive,” and the experts warn that faking it won’t help: the satisfaction and self-realization must be authentic. We are all the captains of our fates and masters of our souls. Failure to stay healthy and happy -- and flexible enough to adapt to whatever circumstances the labor market may throw at you -- is ultimately a personal and moral failure. So you’d better get some life coaching if you know what’s good for you, and maybe especially if you don’t.
“What is crucial is not what you have achieved,” write Cederström and Spicer, “but what you can become. What counts is your potential self, not your actual self.” The titular syndrome refers to the cumulative strain of trying to respond to all the wellness commands, which are numerous, conflicting and changeable -- a perfect recipe for chronic anxiety, of which an obsession with eating correctly seems like an exemplary symptom. On first reading, I took “orthorexia” to be the authors’ own addition to the language (like “the insourcing of responsibility” and “authenticrat,” per the tendencies described a moment ago) but in fact it turns out to be an unofficial diagnosis in the running for future lists of psychiatric disorders.
The Wellness Syndrome offers, by turns, both a recognizable survey of recent cultural trends and a collage of insights drawn from more original works of social analysis and theory. Much of it will seem more than a little familiar to readers already acquainted with Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, Slavoj Zizek’s sundry discussions of the contemporary superego, or any given book by Zygmunt Bauman or Barbara Ehrenreich published in the past twenty years. These works are duly cited but the ideas not pushed in any new direction. The common principle subtending them all is that cynicism about institutions or the possibility of large-scale social change creates a privatized, moralistic ideology that traps people into punitive introspection or the fine-tuning of lifestyles. Unfortunately much of The Wellness Syndrome reads as if such trends began under the administrations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Alas, no. They were already visible 40 years ago as baby boomers began signing up for weekend explorations in self-discovery with unlicensed therapists who yelled insults at them and wouldn’t let them use the bathroom. Nothing in the new book points to any means or agency capable of changing things in any fundamental way, or even of imagining such a change. Social scientists aren't obliged to be prophets and, of course, they seldom do a very good job when they try; at best they describe and analyze change once it's discernable, not before. But after seven or eight years of shocks and aftershocks from a global financial crisis, it's time for books that do more than put new labels on decades-old problems.
In coining the word utopia, Thomas More was making a pun. The villain of Wolf Hall was, in real life, a learned man who wrote for people who could recognize a joke in Greek when he made one. The island republic of social perfection depicted in his most famous book was a good place (eu-topia), obviously. But it existed only in the imagination: it was also, literally, no place (ou-topia).
Alternating currents of optimism and skepticism crackle in the space between syllables. The ambivalence vanishes with “dystopia,” which, like dysentery (“bad bowels”), has nothing to recommend it. But there is more to dystopia than has been encoded in its etymology. The word usually implies utopia’s evil twin: a social order of perfect oppression, designed to bring the greatest misery to the greatest number.
The places Kate Brown writes about in Dispatches From Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press) are not all examples of hell on earth, by any means, but each bears the scars of some catastrophe that the visitor is bound to know about before arriving: the ghost town of Chernobyl, for example, or the basement of a hotel in Seattle full of the belongings of Japanese-American residents relocated to internment camps during World War II. The author introduces herself as “a professional disaster tourist,” though her day job is as a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her two previous books grew out of research on Russia and Ukraine during the Soviet era. Dispatches From Dystopia pursues many of the same interests while also working reflexively to consider the genres available for writing about place and memory: professional historiography, of course, but also personal narrative and travel writing.
“Many writers presume that the site of action is a given,” she notes, “as if places were neutral containers of human interaction rather than dynamic places in their own right.” At the same time, scholarly prose is often written from the vantage point of the proverbial “man from nowhere.” Make that “person from nowhere,” rather -- anyway, a voice that, while not omniscient, remains as rigorous and impersonal as possible.
“In their quest to explore the human condition,” Brown writes, “historians can hide behind their subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project their own sentiments and feelings. Let me put that another way: in my quest to explore the human condition, I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim on which to project my own sentiments and feelings. The third-person voice is a very comfortable one in which to reside. Permanently. The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between the author and the subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession that is situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”
Such intimacy brings the potential for extreme embarrassment. Brown prefaces the lines just quoted by saying that her hands are sweating as writes them. Her early ventures into first-person scholarship met with resistance, expressed in well-meant warnings such as, “You won't get a job with that dissertation” and “Other scholars will assign you, but not cite you.” Which is understandable, because other risks besides personal and professional awkwardness can follow from experimentation of the kind Brown undertakes. The existence of “borders between the author and the subject” at least reduce the dangers of twee memoir -- and also of prolonged metaepistemic inquiry (how can the knower know the knower, much less the known?) that scorches the earth with tedium.
So for the first several pages of Dispatches From Dystopia I braced myself, only to find that Brown is the rare case of someone who can incorporate a number of registers of narrative and reflection within the same piece of writing, shifting among them with grace and quiet confidence. Her essays might be called position papers: topographical surveys of historical sites, with the mapmaker’s own itinerary sketched in.
The trips to erstwhile Soviet republics are not, she makes clear, a search for roots. A product of “the industrial heartland of the United States at a time when it was the world’s most prosperous and powerful country,” she is unaware of any German, Jewish or Slavic branches to her family tree: “I could hardly have been born farther from rural, famished, collectivized, heavily politicized, bombed and terrorized Right Bank Ukraine” -- the subject of her first book -- “a place that stands in my mind as the epicenter of 20th-century misery.”
But another essay suggests the advantages of this presumed naïveté. People she met granted the author a place in post-Soviet society “as an honorary child…. If I accepted this role passively, relinquishing my status as an autonomous adult and the critical rationality of a researcher, they often let me in, if fleetingly, for a closer look. By becoming childlike -- susceptible, disabled and dependent -- I became a temporary member of their community, which in the Soviet Union was defined by an understanding of biological vulnerability, mutual interdependence and obligation.”
Other expeditions require different personae. Her trip to what’s left of the city of Chernobyl elicits another kind of identification with people who have been there. Expecting a scene from opening days of the Gorbachev era -- irradiated but frozen in time -- she finds that everything that can be sold has been hauled off to market: “Even the knobs on the kitchen cabinets were gone. Even the time capsule schoolchildren buried in the 1970s had been looted. (I know because I was hoping to dig it up and loot it myself.)”
Brown’s first-person reflections are embedded in narratives and place descriptions that are more intricate and varied than a reviewer can even begin to suggest, and certain issues and motifs link the essays in ways that would probably reward a second reading. Each piece, like the volume as a whole, is an example of nonfiction that uses the first person, rather than just indulges it. The learned essay and the personal essay are different creatures and attempts to create a hybrid are often problematic at best. But Dispatches From Dystopia proves it can be done.