Arts and Humanities Colloquium Hosts Lecture on Demystifying the Cultural Logic of Wellness

On Tuesday, April 19, the Arts and Humanities Colloquium hosted Visiting Assistant Professor in Writing & Rhetoric Tyler Rife for a talk entitled “Simulated Nourishment: Demystifying a Cultural Logic of Wellness.” 

In the lecture, Rife critiqued the idea of “wellness” and our attitudes surrounding it. Rife’s critique was not against wellness itself, but rather the the dominant cultural interpretation of it.

The wellness journey does not involve rational, mobilized efforts to transform the material environment and social existence,” Rife said. He went on to explain that by treating us all as individual consumers rather than members of complex societies, distress is pathologized as something that is wrong with us personally rather than something with a social causation.

Rife investigated the Global Wellness Institute’s definitions and attitudes towards wellness, and found that wellness is framed as an individual consumer pursuit above all else. He argued that this consumerist approach was not sufficient to confront the issues that cause us to seek wellness in the first place.

The “wellness economy” is a $4.5 trillion market, and one that has largely been integrated into the dominant economic system rather than confronted head on. Rife discussed “transcendental meditation,” popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s, as an example of how wellness can be accepted into the social hierarchy. In fact, Maharishi advocated teaching “transcendental meditation” to business leaders to help guide employees, turning a wellness strategy into a corporate strategy. Transcendental meditation classes can now cost up to $2500, making this strategy of wellness something economically unattainable for much of the population.

Senior Djibril Diallo, a student in Rife’s public speaking course, reflected on his own interpretations of wellness.

“When I think of wellness I think of face masks and bath bombs, going somewhere and investing in healthy foods … and not everybody has access to that,” Diallo said. “There’s a lot of undoing and unlearning to do when it comes to thinking about wellness and what that is and how we pursue it.”

Rife makes a compelling argument that many of our modern discontents are a result of living in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which humanity has mastered nature. Some of the key features of this age are human-caused climate change, ecological disasters and plastic filling our oceans. The knowledge that we are slowly destroying our own planet creates a paradigm in which many of us willfully ignore the problem and seek to attain mental gratification by buying face masks, going on a yoga retreat or investing in any of the myriad products and activities of the wellness economy.

Rife calls for a more holistic idea of wellness, where individuals get together to enact social change by pursuing politics collectively and engaging with their communities. 

Professor Meg Worley, chair of the department of writing & rhetoric, who introduced Rife before the lecture, said: “I’m a natural skeptic, and that includes all the rhetoric surrounding wellness. But [the lecture] did get me thinking about how we can cultivate positive behaviors outside of the wellness/illness frame of reference.”

Rife said that if there is one thing people should take away from his work, it would be “that working with others to enact social change, rendering your community’s environment and social climate more conducive to wellness, is as instrumental to the wellness journey as the work that you do on yourself.”