“The Oaks and I” – Walt Whitman

Sept. 5, ’77.—I WRITE this, 11 A. M., shelter’d under a dense oak by the bank, where I have taken refuge from a sudden rain. I came down here, (we had sulky drizzles all the morning, but an hour ago a lull,) for the before-mention’d daily and simple exercise I am fond of—to pull on that young hickory sapling out there—to sway and yield to its tough-limber upright stem—haply to get into my old sinews some of its elastic fibre and clear sap. I stand on the turf and take these health-pulls moderately and at intervals for nearly an hour, inhaling great draughts of fresh air. Wandering by the creek, I have three or four naturally favorable spots where I rest—besides a chair I lug with me and use for more deliberate occasions. At other spots convenient I have selected, besides the hickory just named, strong and limber boughs of beech or holly, in easy-reaching distance, for my natural gymnasia, for arms, chest, trunk-muscles. I can soon feel the sap and sinew rising through me, like mercury to heat. I hold on boughs or slender trees caressingly there in the sun and shade, wrestle with their innocent stalwartness—and know the virtue thereof passes from them into me. (Or may-be we interchange—may-be the trees are more aware of it all than I ever thought.) But now pleasantly imprison’d here under the big oak—the rain dripping, and the sky cover’d with leaden clouds—nothing but the pond on one side, and the other a spread of grass, spotted with the milky blossoms of the wild carrot—the sound of an axe wielded at some distant wood-pile—yet in this dull scene, (as most folks would call it,) why am I so (almost) happy here and alone? Why would any intrusion, even from people I like, spoil the charm? But am I alone? Doubtless there comes a time—perhaps it has come to me—when one feels through his whole being, and pronouncedly the emotional part, that identity between himself subjectively and Nature objectively which Schelling and Fichte are so fond of pressing. How it is I know not, but I often realize a presence here—in clear moods I am certain of it, and neither chemistry nor reasoning nor esthetics will give the least explanation. All the past two summers it has been strengthening and nourishing my sick body and soul, as never before. Thanks, invisible physician, for thy silent delicious medicine, thy day and night, thy waters and thy airs, the banks, the grass, the trees, and e’en the weeds!


From Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, 1882.

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The university as an infinite game: Revitalising activism in the academy

Using the ‘infinite game’ metaphor to think about radical inclusion in the University:

Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel

An article by Niki Harré, Barbara M Grant, Kirsten Locke and myself on academic activism in the Australian Universities’ Review (September 2017):

We offer here a metaphor of the university as an ‘infinite game’ in which we bring to life insight, imagination, and radical inclusion; and resist the ‘finite games’ that can lead us astray. We suggest that keeping the infinite game alive within universities is a much-needed form of academic activism. We offer four vignettes that explore this further: our responsibility to be ‘critic and conscience of society’ and how that responsibility must also turn inwards onto our own institution, the dilemmas of being a woman with leadership responsibilities in an institution that proudly shows off its ‘top girls’, the opportunities we have as teachers to ‘teach the university’ and be taught by our students, and the contradictions we face as activist scholars in our relentlessly audited research personas. We…

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Full Access: “Imagining Foucault. On the digital subject and ‘visual citizenship'”

One of the most exciting features in Foucault’s work is his analytics of power in terms of forms of visibility. It allows for a reflection on the conditions of seeing and thinking, thus triggering a seemingly paradoxical move: locating the limits of our perspectives entails simultaneously transgressing these limits. In a way, we decipher our own blind spot. Approaching Discipline and Punish through this perspective brings us to identify the digital subject as a characteristic figure of our time. In contrast to its disciplinarian counterpart, it appears to be an active, though not necessarily political subject. The notion of visual citizenship will help us to go a step further and figure out what it could mean to challenge today’s surveilling gaze.

Link: Imagining Foucault. On the digital subject and “visual citizenship”

New book: The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts

Forthcoming book from Phoebe Moore:

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My next book is about to come out. Published by Routledge, this is the summation of about four years of work I have been doing on the quantified self at work. The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts is the state of the art text on how technology and the use of technology for management and self-management changes the ‘quantified’, precarious workplace today.

Humans are accustomed to being tool bearers, but what happens when machines become tool bearers, where the tool is seemingly ever more precise in its calculation about human labour via the use of big data and people analytics by managements? Data, as quantified output, is treated as a neutral arbiter and judge, and is being prioritised over qualitative judgements in ‘agile’ key performance indicator management systems and digitalised client based relationships. From insecure ‘gig’ work to workplace health and wellness initiatives in office work…

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Sloterdijk on autonomous fantasies

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“As soon as one concedes the self-immunizing, individual-space-creating purpose of ‘originality,’ or rather of micromanic competency (extending to kitsch and delirium), the constitutive avoidance of reality evident in most human utterances, even a certain degree of hallucination, can be taken as indicating the successful installation of individuals and small groups in their own self-will. Those who are original wear self-woven garments.” (emphasis mine)

– Sloterdijk, Foams. Spheres III. p. 240

Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism

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I’ve been taking my time wading through the different sections of the recently published Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. This collection is excellent for getting an overview of where the scholarship is on Stoicism is right now, from Ancient Greek and Roman sources to the contemporary Stoic revival.

It goes without saying that, as a non-specialist, I was initially drawn to this publication because there has been a popular revival of Stoic philosophy, especially in the past few years. I’ve covered some of this trend in earlier posts. My entry on Tim Ferriss and Tara Brach focused on how Eastern meditation was being blended along with Stoic philosophy in order to produce a version of Mindfulness ready-made for Bay Area entrepreneurs. The Ferriss-Brach hybrid (blending Buddhist meditation techniques with Stoic techniques drawn from Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius) has the goal of redefining success in a post-Jobsian era. the-tao-of-senecaWhereas Steve Jobs expressed the era of complete devotion to the perfect product at the expense of healthy relationships and fulfillment in life more generally, the new Silicon Success strategies emphasize a centered frame of mind that balances personal productivity and group work in order to maximize one’s influence on potential followers. Stoic Mindfulness is good for business because its emphasis on self-control and happiness mitigates awry emotions, producing an entrepreneur who is now free to hack themselves to perfection while simultaneously establishing a carefully constructed bond with potential followers. “Always Hinged” could be their slogan.

This mindful approach to success has seen some push-back recently, which I’m going to briefly summarize. I should probably clarify here that I don’t necessarily subscribe to any of the critiques below. In fact I personally practice a form of meditation that combines elements from a variety of traditions, including mindfulness training. Yet I find the critiques below to be a helpful reminder that there’s more than one way to understand this self-hacking trend.

The Will Davies critique: My entry on Ferriss and Brach brought in Will Davies’ The Happiness Industry in order to summarize the gist of most Foucault-inspired critiques of Mindfulness. Basically, the complaint against our culture’s obsession with Mindfulness (whether in the form of CBT, Stoicism, Buddhist, or Transcendental meditation) is that it epitomizes “neoliberal ethics,” a phrase that refers to the expected mode of living in a world that has been completely taken over by free market ideology. In such a world, the risk has been transferred from governments and corporations over to individuals. As individuals become more exposed to risk, we become sicker creatures, and yet it’s also our responsibility to dig ourselves out–to pull ourselves up by our own psychological bootstraps. Davies’ critique is quasi-Marxist inspired. His proposed alternative to individual mindful techniques is a communitarian ethos, one that doesn’t get much play in popular media.

A Nietzschean critique: That brings me back to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition, because Michael Ure’s “Stoicism in nineteenth-century German philosophy” offers a fascinating critique of contemporary Stoicism by way of Nietzsche. Since a flurry of recent self-help books have re-packaged Stoicism as Western mindfulness, Nietzsche’s commentary feels strangely relevant.nietzsche1882

In order to appreciate Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism (and, by extension, a Nietzschean critique of Western mindfulness more generally), it should be noted that during his middle period he actually embraced Stoic elements. Ure points out that Nietzsche was especially drawn to the Stoic ethic of eudaimonism (living in such a way as to maximize personal fulfillment) as a counterpoint to the “communitarian ethos” of modern political philosophy. A crude way to put this would be that Nietzsche saw Stoicism as offering a strong individualism in contrast to herd morality.

In ancient Stoic philosophy Nietzsche believed he had found a salutary reminder of an ancient ethic based on pride in oneself and love of fate that stood in sharp opposition to the self-contempt and hatred of this world that he saw as the basis of Christian and secularized versions of Christian ethics. (583)

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is probably outdated. As Sloterdijk suggests in Rage and Time, 20th-century Christianity pivoted away from a life-denying “otherwordly” emphasis and more or less embraced a “thiswordly” ethic. But Nietzsche’s vision of Christianity is beside the point right now. What matters is the basic opposition he draws between Stoic eudaimonia and modernity’s collective ethic. The result is that Nietzsche “pinpoints and affirms the general Stoic ideal of rational self-sufficiency through independence of all externals” (583). Furthermore, for Nietzsche, this quasi-detached ethic of “going negative” is what aligns Western Stoic philosophy with Eastern Buddhist meditative techniques.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In the 1880s, according to Ure, Nietzsche re-evaluated Stoicism as he developed his own philosophy of the will to power. As he increasingly pressed for an embrace of risk, chance, and periodic self-transformation in dynamic response to those elements, Nietzsche began to criticize Stoicism’s “extirpation of the passions and idealization of tranquil self-control”. He came to dislike the entire Western project of rationalism, which he saw as less an expression of strength than one of “fear of chance and risk”. The alternative, for Nietzsche, is to intensify the passions and ride the rollercoaster of pain and pleasure to a higher form of joy–an experience of life more intense than balanced happiness. This higher joy, Ure explains, “hinges on maintaining our vulnerability to chance”.

One way of reading Nietzsche’s later rejection of Stoicism is that he criticizes what the self-help industry now calls mindful techniques (esp. negative visualization) because such practices ultimately provide a buffer of indifference rather than intensifying exposure to chance. The mindfulness industry is based on integration and balance, and the “untimely” message of Nietzsche is that we might need to occasionally interrogate those virtues.

However, it’s also true that, in a sense, Nietzsche advocates an “integration” of sorts with his will to power. But Nietzsche’s integration works through active differentiation and selection rather than suspending judgment. The main target of his critique is how integration is achieved.

Knausgaard signed books ebay auction, mask included

 

I was searching for an English translation of a Karl Ove Knausgaard novel last week when I stumbled across this auction for a set of his My Struggle autobiographical series, Books 1-5, signed no less.

My Struggle Books 1-5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Signed)

It also includes a “life-sized” image of his head. It’s basically a picture of him cut out and glued on a popsicle stick:

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The seller states:”The winner will receive a life-size ‘Karl Ove Knausgaard’ mask provided at the pre-publication [of Book 5] event in London – a great collector’s item!”

Then: “I am happy to provide pictures of the signing to the winning bidder.”

The whole thing sounds kind of bizarre to me, especially because Knausgaard is a famous introvert.

I’m tempted to bid.

 

 

Why I might start eating rocks: A review of Jeffrey Nealon’s Plant Theory

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When I was a kid I remember reading through Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night and stumbling on Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Sound Machine”. The plot follows Klausner, a man obsessed with sound, who invents a sound machine that can pick up the screams of plants. As a budding rationalist I experienced disbelief but was nonetheless affected when Klausner snipped a flower and his machine recorded a distinct shriek arising from the plant.

I would later discover in graduate school that Dahl’s story was most likely a playful innovation within a long tradition of imagining objects as subjects that hearkened back to the 18th-century “cult of sensibility”. In fact imagining that flowers have pain is much less ambitious than these earlier precedents–some depicting circulating commodities such as British coins as having secret inner lives that only a novelist could capture.

The difference between a shrieking plant and an adventurous coin, however, is that there’s an emerging consensus within the scientific community that Roald Dahl’s Klausner wasn’t too far from the mark, that plants might indeed experience pain that we’re just now figuring out how to record.

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Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life attempts to do justice to this development in the biological sciences by updating biopolitical theory–the same theory that currently underpins animal studies. Where animal studies rocked the world of “identity theory,” showing that various forms of disability studies, queer studies, feminism, etc., took it for granted that human rights were the only form of life deserving serious consideration, Nealon shows that Peter Singer and his disciples didn’t push their critique far enough; that perhaps the real “abjected other,” the loneliest minority, might be plant communities.

Plant Theory opens by gesturing towards advances in modern science in an attempt to convince the reader that our theorization of “life” is outdated. Nealon suggests that, since “recent research has uncovered that plants evidence active, purposeful, future-oriented movement and exhibit both competitive and defensive behavior … [and] also have a certain kind of language” (12), and these are the same characteristics that embolden animal studies to advocate for certain rights, it would seem that they should also be concerned about the health of plants. But Nealon doesn’t push his case that far. He does tease the reader with provocative questions such as, “if plants become recognized as an ethically compelling figure for life … what’s left for us to choose if we decide no longer to kill plants for humans to survive? … What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent, if the salad bar can no longer function as an ethical refuge from the rest of the menu at the steakhouse?” (27). Yet towards the end of Plant Theory he backs away from the language of rights altogether and simply suggests that his goal is to simply to problematize the field, to raise questions about our assumptions concerning what constitutes “life” and “health”.

The remaining arc of the book (somewhat sporadically) follows Western civilization’s assumptions regarding “vegetable souls” from Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Parts of Animals to 20th-Century Continental Philosophy. For me, the standout chapter here was Nealon’s reading of Aristotle in the section, “The Power of Soul”. He shows that Aristotle’s hierarchy of life, from the passive vegetable souls to active humans as rational animals, is sutured by the latter’s “stomachal sac” as a higher substitute for soil. Our digestive system suggests that we remain tied to the lowest rung of life; it’s as though we carry the earth within us; and in that sense humans can be considered “walking plants” (36). This ancient kernel of the human-as-vegetal provides a key concept for Nealon. He returns to this Aristotelian figure of the “walking plant” in his penultimate chapter on Deleuzeguattarian rhizomatics.

Even though Nealon strings together Aristotle and Heidegger in the way he organizes the book, the focus more or less shifts from ancient Aristotelian conceptions of what “life” entails to Heideggerian-Derridean constructions. Heidegger and Derrida are a pair for Nealon because they both assume (with some subtle qualification) that the main badge of a “living being” is that it has a distinct “world”. His critique here is that, even though Derrida replaces classical identity with event-emergence, he remains faithful to the way that Heidegger’s reserves life for organisms that have a “world”. Hagglünd’s commentary on Derrida helps clarify the case for Nealon: “everything in time is surviving, but not everything is alive … [and] only a living being cares about maintaining itself across an interval of time” (qtd. on p.57).

In the final sections of Plant Theory, Nealon moves forward by suggesting that this reservation fails to do justice to the Deleuzeguattarian rhizomatic “swarms of molecular emergence,” which force us to think beyond individuated worlds and distinct organisms. The main take-away from Nealon’s reading of Deleuze/Guattari is that, if boundary of life extends beyond the human-animal dyad of earlier assumptions, then in some cases it might make sense to speak of plants as actually having lives.

Some plants (as distinct organisms or as molecular swarms) do maintain themselves “across an interval of time,” as well as show other evidence of life such as pain and language, and thus should not be discounted from political discourse. But that’s not Nealon’s main concern. Rather than extending the language of rights to (some) plants, which would probably set up an untenable ethical situation for modern consumers, he wants to shift the conversation from principles and rights to “what doing does” and “how the mesh of life is altered by x or y practice, rather than securing the best theoretical or epistemological ground for our political actions” (114).

This “what doing does” ethic backs away from the salad bar scenario. The point isn’t whether someone should decide whether or not to eat a certain category of food, but rather how their consumer practices contribute to the emergence of a new ecology. Nealon is suggesting that it’s never going to be clear in advance what kinds of foods consumers should eliminate from their diet because “life” (in the biopolitical sense) doesn’t work that way. This is his attempt to un-ground animal studies.  

It’s with this pivot towards a non-grounded ethic that I think Nealon may fall a little short. Here he hews a little too closely to Deleuzeguattarian philosophy. Rather than shift the biopolitical conversation towards a nebulous “what doing does” (which can hardly ever be determined in a straightforward manner), the critical project executed so well by Plant Theory might be better served by a Nietzschean attempt at purposeful self-grounding. Beyond Good and Evil famously shows how it’s possible to both undermine all previously grounding attempts while still grounding future endeavors. It’s a matter of purposeful construction–setting new limits in order to create a new and better world.  

Until then I’m going to experiment with whether it’s possible to eat rocks.