Monthly Archives: October 2015

On Eating Insects

I’ve known Pat Crowley for almost 10 years now. Super-athlete, entrepreneur, all around survivalist–he’s the kind of guy you want around if the apolocapyse hits.

He started a company (Chapul) about 3 years ago that brings entomophagy (eating insects) into the 21st century. Last spring he asked me to do an informal blog entry for his website. It turned into more of a long form diagnostic on how Hollywood views insects. Here’s the link to the article:

Plasticity Everywhere

We live in the age of plasticity.

The most obvious form is psychological. Plasticity is driving a lot of neuroscience right now, as well as the cognitive-behavioral emphasis on habit formation. Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2012) codified this trend for a wider audience, but the real hero here is Wendy Wood: her work on consumer habits undergirds Duhigg’s book and she keeps plugging away (side note: the Sept. 2015 Annual Review of Psychology includes one of her more recent articles on this topic, “Psychology of Habit”). The therapeutic correlate to all this, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), works precisely because it harnesses the brain’s inherent plasticity.

Neuroscience and psychology are obvious domains, but the term “plasticity” is invading other disciplines.

In an Oct 2014 Issue of Nature, Kevin Laland and his colleagues presented a modified version of evolution, termed “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES). EES re-works standard evolution theory (SET) by incorporating the emphasis on ecological adaptation that has been the focus of more recent evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”) (162). Laland argues that SET is too “geno-centric,” whereas EES does justice to the ability of individuals to “respond to their environment by changing their form–a phenomenon called plasticity.” The effects of plasticity can have long-term effects, eventually selecting for “genetic variants” that “cement” the adaptive behavior (163). That is, genetic mutation can in many cases be traced back to the ingenious behavior of individuals rather than vice versa.

And now there are hints that even novelists are making use of plasticity. This week I read Richard Power’s 2014 novel, Orfeo, which follows the rise and fall of Peter Els, a musician-turned-biohacker. The novel is about art, taste, and the relationship of those terms to natural life. What’s so remarkable about Orfeo is that, in the process of figuring these relationships out, Powers offers a kind of aesthetic of plasticity.

To do this, Powers frames discussions of art in terms of habit. For example, the musician Els discovers “late in life … that the time to concentrate yourself was right before sunrise.” He hammers out a “routine” that induces peak creativity–a discovery that, he laments, could have worked wonders on his earlier, more puerile version of himself.

It’s when he performs this routine one morning that he comes across another physical specimen, a young woman who runs “like an anatomy lecture” and is “preternaturally desirable”–a kind of reconstructed nymph. As a musician, Els immediately focuses on the fact that her earbuds play an important role in this morning ritual. And so, as she runs circles around the ageing musician, he tries to figure out her taste in music. Consumerism, daily routine, and art become intertwined.

This jogging scene allows Powers to explore the impact of individual behavior on modern taste. Els decides that the woman’s routine is built around breaking away from the rhythms of nature (here represented by sounds from the surrounding trees & a particularly insistent bird) to remain within a contented bubble–her playlist. It’s here, in this protective coating, that she can perfect her own body. In terms of plasticity, this suggests two things. First, Els’s refined taste is normalized by Nature, whereas consumer-driven, appetitive taste is purely self-referential. Second, inferior, self-referential taste drives the process of habit formation in everyday consumers. The problem, according to Els the musician, is that the female runner has crafted a self (through an exercise regimen) that remains insensitive to the rhythms of the world.

This consumerist bubble offers a foil to the EES/SET debate in Nature. Whereas the EES theorists claim plasticity pays homage to the relationship between individuals and their habits within local ecologies, Orfeo shows that, for modern humans, plasticity breaks the individual away from locality. Becoming more plastic means becoming more impenetrable.

However, the great irony that emerges later on in Orfeo is that, in an attempt to awake consumers out of their appetitive and consumer-obsessed misery, Els attempts to subtly improve their routine by nudging them. Nudging is the artist’s attempt to bring the individual back into a relationship with their natural ecology. The first form of nudging is by music. Sitting in a coffee house, Els scans the oblivious, ear-phoned teenagers who nonetheless remain susceptible to the “spell of something” cast by a piece of sophisticated classical music playing in the background. The second, more obvious form of nudging is by using a form of genetic manipulation (I assume CRISPR, but Powers doesn’t say) to insert a musical composition into the DNA of living bacteria. Els’s aim is to both bring the art to life but–as a necessary consequence–propagate it through pathogenic colonization. The ceaseless reproductive cycle of the bacteria works as an analog to the musical composition seeping through the coffee house speakers. In both cases the art penetrates consumers, who remain unaware.

What seems ironic about Els’s search for aesthetic purity is that he begins with the belief that real taste adheres to the rhythms of life, but when communicating that taste to others the artist must somehow violate their self-constructed spheres. 21st-Century aesthetics becomes a matter of hacking the self-hackers. 

Some Thoughts on Thomas Nail’s ‘Figure of the Migrant’

A few weeks ago I saw on Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies blog that Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant was being released in early October. I snapped it up as soon as I could. 

Nail’s Figure of the Migrant attempts to provide a counter-history of the migrant by prioritizing movement. Most historical accounts of tourism, vagabonding, migrancy, and refugees begin with the assumption that populations tend to be localized and stable; migrant movement, in this traditional reading, is then read as an accidental offshoot of how humans tend to communalize. Migrants are nothing more than “failed citizens”. This state-first, migrant-second approach views in purely negative terms. And so Nail attempts to re-read that history from a positive point of view.

To do that he offers a new theoretical scaffolding, what Nail calls “kinopolitics”. This “social theory of movement” begins with the assumption that human groups function first and foremost as “flows,” that is, as a continual movement (think hunter-gatherer strategies). From there he layers concepts that explain how bustling energy of human flows become ordered and controlled: by junctions (“redirection of a flow”) and “circulation” (connections of junctions into “larger curved path”). It’s only when junctions & circulations manage flows in accordance with ancient power centers (such as temples, later palaces) that flows territorialize the earth and its resources, domesticating Nature and other homo sapiens. Emerging territories are sustained in turn by “centripetal” (circulating resources towards the center) and “centrifugal” (expelling unwanted detritus outwards) energies.

According to Nail, this territorial ordering is what produces the migrant, which varies over time but remains the expelled other. The centripetal concentration of agricultural communities expel a certain untamed percentage to beget the nomad; empire begets the barbarian; feudal power begets the vagabond; and modern liberalism (market-driven governments) begets the proletariat. That’s not to suggest each migrant figure only appears at that circumscribed historical period. Nail interprets refugees as contemporary barbarians, for example.

What lends the quatrain a common leitmotif is that, due to carefully orchestrated expansions and circulations, a remnant is forced to flee. Although the migrant isn’t helpless. Nail pointedly argues the movement is a mixture of compulsion and self-direction (ancient migrants expelled from middle eastern agricultural communities, for example, strategically headed for the steppes, establishing a nomadic way of life). But either way this mixture is enough to separate, e.g., the vagabond from the tourist.

Yet it’s in these finer details that I start to wonder whether Nail might need to be supplemented with a theoretical framework that’s used to working with theological traditions. The Figure of the Migrant is all about movement. The first historical instantiation of the migrant is the nomad. And yet there’s an entire theological tradition devoted to mythic expulsion that Nail never even hints at. He does refer briefly to Yahweh’s preference for the nomadic Cain rather than the agriculturally-minded Abel; but this allusion only draws attention to the fact that the original mythic expulsion–Adam and Even from the garden–is never explained in “kinopolitical” terms. Furthermore, the most famous polity from the medieval period–Augustine’s City of God as a floating ark moving precariously towards a higher world—doesn’t seem to have a place within the dualism Nail sets up between migrant flows (such as nomads on the steppes) and territorial concentration (such as ancient Sumer). Perhaps Nail would argue that the ark, like the city, is spherical with centripetal circulations; but the Church body within the ark isn’t setting down roots on terra firma. If anything it’s supposed to launch off at some point. Doesn’t Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory show that the medieval City of God departs from Roman territorialization? How would Nail account for this body politic that fits somewhere between Roman and feudal territory? 

And the most common figure representing movement in the same period–the pilgrim–doesn’t appear in The Figure of the Migrant. In Denise de Rougemont’s Love and the Western World, pilgrims and their chivalrous offshoots are driven more by compulsion than by choice. This seems to align them more with vagabonds than tourists. Where do the otherworldly and (sometimes) anti-territorial movements of non-expelled figures belong? Do pilgrims “become migrant” if they occasionally work against centripetal forces? 

In other words, what seems to be missing in Nail’s otherwise amazing contribution to geographical studies is a fine-tuned scale that accounts for anti-territorial movements that fit somewhere in between “good citizens” and “migrants”. There’s certainly space in his account for such figures, but The Figure of the Migrant leans towards an either-or scenario. Either migrants challenge the status quo or everyone else resides contentedly as a peaceful citizen. 

As with most dualisms, the payoff is normative: by suggesting one is either a citizen or an excluded migrant, Nail valorizes the latter as the secret to civilization that needs to be recovered. Migrants are Deleuze’s universal minority that flees entanglement and stasis.

– Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford: SUP, 2015. Ebook.

Why Everyone’s Wrong about ‘McMindfulness’

Has “Mindfulness” peaked? It depends on where you look. School programs that incorporate mindful techniques into its teacher and student training are just now being implemented. The 2015 Davos World Economic Forum held a 10-minute meditation session for the global elite. From students to powerful businessmen, it’s still making waves.

On the other hand, some of the middlebrow newsfeeds are increasingly skeptical. Many of these articles, such as Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng’s recent “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t,” refer to Purser’s 2013 Huffington Post blog, “McMindfulness”. What critics like Purser are most critical of is the business culture’s turn to self-introspection–rather than broader corporate reflection–as a way to manage stress.

Here’s the basic critique: Popular versions of Mindfulness work only when the employee assume responsibility for their suffering; meditative practices remind the overtaxed worker that, regardless of any structural problems that might be leading to unsustainable levels of stress, those effects are up to her; if she’s sick and unhappy, it’s because she hasn’t properly “attended to” herself.

This cynical interpretation of what’s driving the Mindfulness movement is further supported by recent attacks on neoliberal managerial strategies, such as William Davies’ The Happiness Industry. I touched on Davies in my last post. The fundamental approach remains very similar: the popularity of Mindful Meditation is a symptom of an economic culture that has transferred risk from the corporation to the employee/consumer.

From what I can tell, the more academically-informed Mindfulness criticisms derive their philosophical scaffolding from Boltanski/Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism and Foucault’s later lectures on neoliberalism and self-regulation. Now, this is going to be a gross generalization of what Boltanski/Chiapello and Foucault have in common, but for the sake of space I’m going to make it anyways: they both suggest that late 20th-century capitalism has a “new spirit” in how it produces workers and consumers; whereas the Industrial worker was expected to conform, late stage, service-industry workers are encouraged by human resource departments and managerial systems to be highly flexible and adaptable.

Enter Mindfulness, our ready-made strategy for facilitating our flexible worker of the future. 

However, the problem with the backlash against “McMindfulness” is that the former assumes the ideal product of mindful practices–the “business athlete”–belongs entirely to a new economic age. It’s vulgar (the critics suggest) to associate “authentic” Buddhist meditation with tech “disruption” and economic efficiency. And yet, according to Mary Brown and Robert Halsall’s “Askesis in Contemporary Organizational Life,” today’s mindful business athlete actually pulls more from the ascetic practices of her medieval monastic counterpart–despite the obvious contemporary indebtedness to Western forms of Zen-Buddhism. Links between Christian monasteries and modern corporations aren’t just analogical. As Brown and Halsall show, disciplinary medieval programs such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the later Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola have been explicitly adopted by modern management handbooks (7).

From what I can tell, what seems to be happening is that the 7th stage of the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path, or Mindfulness/Awareness, is being folded into a Western ascetic tradition that modern corporations have long appropriated.

Medieval asceticism is so appealing to modern corporate management because it honed strategies for “integrating employees” into institutions. Although institutional “profit” is defined very differently, the key to this integration for both St. Benedict and St. Ignatius Loyola was to instill “permanent spiritual exercise” (3). Brown and Halsall’s research suggests that self-discipline and attentive meditation have long served as key techniques for integration.  

However, what a particular “mindful” exercise actually looks like varies depending on the practitioner. There’s more secular versions such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and Transcendental Meditation; then obvious religious candidates such as Buddhist, Stoic, and Loyola-inspired meditation (admittedly much rarer). What this means is that mindful meditative exercises might serve as a curious nexus for competing worldviews. Modern Business Athleticism collects these ascetic lineages together in order to subordinate them to corporate efficiency.

In doing so, however, can meditative exercises serve as a resistance point for the employee/consumer, who may slip into another mode of self-regulation (Buddhist, Stoic, Loyolan) under the guise of corporate authorization?