Book Review: Wellbeing Machine

Wellbeing Machine: How Health Emerges from the Assemblages of Everyday Life by Kim McLeod, Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2017, 234 pages, $39.00.

Violeta Ruiz, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


Kim McLeod’s Wellbeing Machine will probably be a difficult book to follow for any reader who is not familiar with Deleuzian and posthumanist ideas. I study the history of emotions, focusing on the experience of neurasthenic patients at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe. My topic is often discussed in terms that McLeod openly challenges: in Western, capitalist countries, wellbeing is a property of the individual inner experience, for which the individual is somehow responsible.  Correlatively, depression (McLeod’s subject) is a distortion of this experience caused by a chemical imbalance that the individual should be able to counter by making the correct treatment and life choices. McLeod’s book “is impelled to rethink wellbeing in ways that do not blame individuals if they are not able to act, plan and make the correct choices” (5).

In order to do so, McLeod draws on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and, in different degrees, on a number of posthumanist anthropologies, such as the work of Karen Barad. In Section One, titled “’Orientating to Assembling’: To Reconceptualise Wellbeing”, McLeod proposes a new perspective: instead of looking at individuals as having agency that is based on beliefs and desires, as most social scientists do, McLeod focuses on assemblages: the connections formed between human and non-human entities, from which individual agency emerges. These connections presuppose collaborative immaterial labour, as developed by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, where bodily and cognitive energies combine to form the assemblage. Unfortunately, McLeod does not spend much time explaining these concepts, making them difficult to grasp for a non-expert reader. Chapter Three, entitled “Mobilising Assemblages throughout Empirical Research Processes”, discusses the methods McLeod applied in her research, but does not clarify how she uses the concepts in her work. Her work was based on a series of interviews with seven individuals suffering from depression who take medication for their illness. She prepares for the interaction with her interviewees with training in “yoga, meditation, dance and Fendelkreis” (29), together with vocal improvisation, to prepare her body for the “research encounters”. In these encounters, the participants had to draw a wellbeing chart of a chosen period of their lives. They also had to produce photographs that visually communicated what was happening to them at some point in the chart, together with a narrative of what the image represented. Drawing on these charts, photograph and texts, McLeod presents four different assemblages in Section Two, “The Wellbeing Machine”.

McLeod describes four kinds of assemblages: Becoming-Depressed; Becoming-Authentic; Becoming-Indeterminate; and Becoming-Destratified. The Becoming-Depressed Assemblage (Chapter Four) brings together the individual’s account of his/her wellbeing during the period of time that they choose to discuss, the treatments they receive (and how they become part of their daily life), and the communities they form. The Becoming-Authentic assemblage (Chapter Five) draws on the photographs they produce and their commentary about them, with the aim of focussing on those daily activities or objects that make her interviewees feel good. McLeod then interprets these testimonies in a heavily philosophical jargon. For example, the interviewee presented as Rayna comments on a picture of a bridge over a river, saying: “this scene always gives me a feeling of peace and ‘enchantment’” (76), and explains how the river reminds her of an aqueduct. McLeod comments: “As a line of flight, or a process of deterritorialisation, connections are being made between known or familiar entities in the realm of the abstract (as opposed to the virtual) order of things, a delimitative transformative process Deleuze calls relative deterritorialisation” (77).

The Becoming-Indeterminate Assemblage (Chapter Six) then deals with the transformative experiences of some of her research participants, who leave depression behind and try to change their lives with radically new experiences. This is potentially the most difficult assemblage to understand; in McLeod’s own terms: “the movement to this assemblage can be seen to reverse the ‘depressed’ and ‘authentic’ subject forms –the unified subject forms that help to prevent the risk of unsustainable affective transactions– that emerged from the Becoming-Depressed and the Becoming-Authentic Assemblages” (p.123). The Becoming-Destratified Assemblage (Chapter Seven) discusses the relapse to depression, which McLeod explains as a decomposition of previous assemblages. It is in this chapter that the reader explicitly finds the central claim of the book:

[B]odily practices are not just a matter of the individual executing the practice using volitional control and motivation. The capacity to undertake these practices is coextensive with the material and affective conditions of the assemblages they are associated with. (141)

In other words, if depression is understood as the breaking up of an assemblage, beyond anyone’s control, there is no room for blaming the individual. The self is part of a composition of forces for which there is no unified responsibility. In order to illustrate this argument, McLeod uses photographs produced by the same participant in two different assemblages (141), with different affective ranges in which depression is more or less difficult to overcome.

Identifying assemblages is, then, a highly interpretative task. The author provides several features that should help us grasp them: the way memory and attention operate in each of them; the range of emotions experienced; and the way the interviewer should interact with the interviewees. McLeod acknowledges that her bodily and emotional displays make her become part of each assemblage in turn, and she is affected by her research participants, their words and actions. This methodology was particularly interesting, as it framed the experience of wellbeing in a collective encounter, but the chapters did not offer much information about McLeod’s behaviour in each research encounter.

The book preaches indeed to the converted. In Chapter Eight, “The Architecture of the Wellbeing Machine”, McLeod explains how the four assemblages form the conceptual wellbeing machine – a series of co-extensive collective bodies. The Deleuzean reader will probably have no trouble in grasping the many political implications that the author infers from the concept. Reading Spinoza via Deleuze via Braidotti, McLeod takes the sustainability of a mode of being as her central normative target:  sad passions like depression threaten the stability of a “unified subject form” (172-4). The Marxian element deals with the extraction of surplus from the collaborative connective labour that is mobilized in an assemblage (174-5). Following this line of argument, the neoliberal self would just be a misinterpretation of the Becoming-Authentic Assemblage, where agency is attributed to the individual alone. Resisting ‘capital’ would occur in the Becoming-Indeterminate and Becoming-Destratified assemblages, since they do not sustain the capitalist institutions exploiting depression – such as the pharmaceutical industry, about which so little is said in this book (177).

As the conclusion shows, if the reader adopts the Deleuzean worldview articulated by McLeod, many central questions about wellbeing can be suitably reworded. As the author herself proposes, illbeing should not be appraised directly as a pathological issue, but instead we should ask ourselves “what might support a person to have an exploratory process to ascertain the kinds of collaborative connective labour that are required, given the specificity of their situation?” (181). Taking the assemblage processes into account, and giving importance to other non-human elements, the ill individual can have an account of wellbeing that does not involve blame and individual responsibility.

McLeod concludes by presenting one of the most pressing challenges she finds: “communicating [the] knowledge developed by drawing on the Deleuzean lexicon to non-theoretical audiences” (184). I agree with the author, except that I would also include those theoretical audiences who are not familiar with the Deleuzean tradition. Ultimately, the book speaks to those who use this tradition to frame their research, but does not offer significant reasons for others to adopt this line of interpretation.

I have tried my best to capture the central ideas of this book, although I am sure that any competent Deleuzean will find flaws in my summary. Although McLeod addresses an important issue that transcends the field of humanities and affects real individuals and healthcare policies, I have not been convinced that adopting the Deleuzean approach is the best way to address it.  Rather than proposing an alternative way to engage with issues of blame and responsibility that affect ill individuals, McLeod’s idea of a wellbeing machine seems principally to offer a new vocabulary with which to address them. As such, I believe its implications for further research remain somewhat limited for anyone who is not an expert in the terminology she uses. This book is probably best suited to an audience who already work in the field of depression studies using Deleuzean ideas.

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