Category Archives: criticism

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


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.



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by gesturing towards advances in modern science in an attempt to convince the reader that our theorization of “life” is outdated.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.

Charlie: The Cynic Philosopher

Shortly after the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode “Charlie Work” aired in February 2015, redditors took the the IASIP thread in order to applaud and critique one of the stronger installments from the series. The episode shows Charlie, who typically lands somewhere between an idiot and a (very charming) buffoon, masterfully regulating the rest of “The Gang” in order to pass the city’s health inspection of the bar. The last time I checked, the most up-voted comment thread was a rather puerile riff on one of Charlie’s minor stunts in the episode, but for awhile there was an insightful debate regarding whether his glorious health inspection feat was characteristic or uncharacteristic of him. Some redditors argued he has always been the most secretly intelligent of “The Gang”, while others saw it as either a departure or as an unreliable account of what happened. I’m going to settle that debate right now.

960Here’s how: Since that time I re-read Foucault’s The Courage of Truth (his 1983-84 lectures) in order to refresh my memory of how he distinguished between cynic and stoic Indifference. As a result, I began recognizing cynic fragments in unexpected places. And now I’m convinced that Charlie might be a modern Diogenes, and that this hidden connection helps explain what happens in “Charlie Work”. 

I think it’s worth taking the time to read Charlie as a modern cynic, but I’m going to add a huge proviso in advance: In no way am I suggesting that this show has a positive moral effect. It works as a satire, but at times it verges on nihilism.

With that said, it’s worth highlighting any legacy of cynic philosophy because it doesn’t get much coverage these days, at least not in writings meant for the general public. It does get discussed in more specialized arenas. Foucault’s reading of cynic philosophy was revived in the late 2000s as academic scholarship in the Humanities began thinking in biopolitical terms–thanks largely to the brilliant political philosophy treatises by the Giorgio Agamben. Foucault’s reading of cynic indifference became relevant because, in The Courage of Truth, he suggests that this ancient Greek strategy for living heightened the tension between the natural body (bios) and artificial custom, or what we would now call cultural norms (nomos). The cynics were bio-ethical, so to speak. If you’re not familiar with biopolitical speak, this academic jargon may sound rather dull. It’s not.  

In the popular self-help arena, on the other hand, stoic–rather than cynic–indifference has been plundered by entrepreneurs and business athletes as a Western parallel to Buddhist mindfulness. Whereas the cynic distinguishes between nomos and bios, the stoic distinguishes between external and internal influences, and more fundamentally between what a subject can and cannot control. William B. Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy offers a third category: things that we have partial control over. Mastering the art of self-control provides a foundation for success. 

The cynic tradition is less useful for business athletes (and less publicized for the masses) because it disrupts productivity rather than encourages it. Whereas Stoics can live with wealth (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were fabulously wealthy), cynics actively delimited their material possessions. The most famous minimization anecdote is the account of Diogenes observing a boy cupping his hands at a fountain, and, after observing this primitive strategy, he chucked away his last possession–his bowl–because it now seemed unnecessary. And whereas Stoics do task themselves with discomfort (about once a month, according to Epictetus and Seneca), cynics make discomfort an endless goal. As long as there is culture and wealth, cynics must remind others that nature satisfies the needs of individuals just the right amount. 



So the cynics embrace minimization, which feels modern. I’m thinking here of the 2014 blockbuster, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. Similarly, in the image above, Diogenes has mastered the tiny house lifestyle. However, cynic minimization is done for others–the point is to remind the rest of society that they’re too far from real nature, that is, the bios part of their identity. It should be uncomfortable and repugnant, not chic and bourgeois.

In summary, cynic indifference creates repugnance; stoic indifference maximizes self-regulation and mindfulness.

With this outline in mind, I propose that Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has a distinct cynic signature. It’s not entirely unexpected that a “cynical” figure would appear on a television satire. According to William Desmond’s Cynics, the satirical mode is more or less a literary derivation of cynic philosophy. Conceptually it makes sense: if the goal of cynicism is to remind people of the truth in a repugnant manner, it’s obvious how satire performs this for the masses in an entertaining way.

But I think Charlie is tied to the cynic tradition more specifically than simply being part of a satirical comedy. Like Diogenes, his daily routine is so uncivilized that it’s difficult for others to be around him. He lives off of partially edible food on most days and food scraps meant for rats on others. Charlie_Work_2This alignment with animals (especially rats and cats) hints at his cynic lineage. St. Francis was a Christian cynic who similarly became aligned with animals. Charlie’s also the most physical of all the characters, in the sense that the materiality of his body is made explicit. Biologically, he’s falling apart. His teeth come out randomly. its-always-sunny-in-philadelphia-meme-2He feigns cancer. He suffers from sniffing too much air spray and glue. He concocts a poisonous patte in order to knock him out each night so he doens’t hear the cats screaming outside his window. He salivates uncontrollably. And, after dumpster diving for awhile, he intentionally becomes homeless. 

Finally, Charlie occasionally slips into a mock-lawyer mode. In several episodes he jumbles legalese and utterly nullifies the law in the process. Whereas another character (Matt) takes religion too literally, Charlie plays with the law as he would a fictional script. In playing law he turns it into a naive game, blithely subverting nomos as a true cynic should. 

Within modern television comedy, his immediate forebear is Kramer from Seinfeld, a connection Adam Kotsko makes in Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. After making this connection Kotsko suggests that Charlie “lacks any common sense,” might be “genuinely mentally ill,” and is (mostly) sociopathic (37).

The critical way in which Kotsko analyzes “The Gang” from It’s Always Sunny seems to miss the point of satire, but I do like how he homes in on the sociopathic element. I think this is important because it suggests a way in which ancient cynic indifference may have mutated into sociopathy–or at least that, when translated into a modern milieu, cynic indifference is hard to distinguish from sociopathic mental illness. Or maybe it’s that our culture is so transformed by the schema of mental illness that it resorts to familiar diagnoses in order to make sense of ancient genealogical legacies such as cynical indifference. We can’t recognize it from our collective past. Maybe.

I want to offer a final note on Charlie’s behavior that, for me, clinches his cynic identity. In “Charlie Work,” the entire episode shows Charlie whipping the Gang into shape in order to pass the health department’s “surprise” inspection. In anticipation of the inspector’s arrival, Charlie crafts an ingenious plan and magically transforms the bar into an ordered space. The episode is thoroughly messianic. In anticipation of the inspector’s arrival (the eschatological Judge), Charlie (the King/Monarch) brings order to his domain. It’s surprising for many viewers because they don’t typically associate Charlie with power.

Yet this is precisely what we should expect from a cynic, who, according to Foucault, believed in a “hidden king”. In The Courage of Truth Foucault suggests that the “theme of the hidden king, the unrecognized king who passes through humanity without ever being recognized by anyone” was taken up by Christianity (285), but it has cynic origins; e.g., the way cynics pit Diogenes against Alexander as the true monarch. In later traditions this duality appeared as a king-fool pairing, most famously in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Only the fool understands the king, who in turn can only confide in the fool (285). In It’s Always Sunny, the boss of the Gang, Frank, moves in with Charlie and similarly confides in him as a consistent partner.

I doubt the writers of It’s Always Sunny consciously adopted the king-fool pairing from Shakespeare and had cynic indifference in mind when scripting Charlie’s character, but it’s there.  

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. 

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?   

Hacking Depression for Clues of Neoliberal Excellence; Or, On Tim Ferriss

– Image is from The Four Hour Work Week

I mentioned Tim Ferriss in my previous blog entry. Rather than delay that allusion I want to go ahead and exorcise him from this arena.

I was introduced to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast when doing research during the Fall of 2014 for my Spring 2015 English class. The theme was to be on habit formation. If you peddle in that industry long enough Ferriss will magically appear. He’s that good.

So I started listening and became fascinated by his interviews with “high performers,” as he pitches his podcast. He’s well-placed for this to work. His breakout was The 4-Hour Workweek. Some time after that book took off, he channeled those funds into the Silicon Valley startup community. From what I can tell (simply by listening to his interviews), it was as an angel investor that he made–and continues to make–most of his contacts with high performing individuals. In this sense, The Tim Ferriss Show is a kind of habit formation tool by and for the rich, humbly made available to the general public via iTunes.

For me, what’s so appealing about Tim is his unique combination of brutal honesty and self-experimentation. In fact one way of viewing his show is as a serial confessional. He doesn’t shy from digging deep into his psyche and he does so his in conversation with an expert.

Some of his blogs and email updates are even more intensely lyrical. “Here’s my life, now think about yours” is the pedagogy behind every one of his viral publications. However, beyond the consistency in style, there’s also a similar theme that is the real point of this blog post: he loves to mine his own depression for clues about success.

His 2013 productivity hack on manic-depression set a high bar for the Silicon Valley confessional mode because of how nakedly it illustrated the phenomenon of depression in that high performance arena. This blog remains one of his most popular entries.

What’s so fascinating about Tim’s depression confessions is that they fit so cleanly into the narrative that William Davies spells out for us in his 2015 book, The Happiness Industry. According to Davies, modern depression is packaged along with American capitalism’s highly competitive business culture, which isn’t so surprising. But Davies convincingly shows that depression might actually be a result of an obsessive preoccupation with wellness, fitness, happiness, and positivity. Concepts of “wellness” and “fitness” might be part of a set of managerial relations that drives the psychological opposite. 

Davies is far from alone on this. Gordon Hull (channeling Foucault) recently explained that one way of thinking about modern society is that risk and responsibility is increasingly transferred from institutions to individuals, a dynamic ripe for depression. Only the most risk-tolerant men and women thrive in competitive environments. This creates what political theorists call homo economicus (economic man), typified by the business entrepreneur. Basically, the future will be peopled with mostly Tim Ferriss disciples. Right now we assign specialized roles to entrepreneurs, but increasingly that specialized role will become a more general trait of all (surviving) citizens of the future. This is precisely what The Tim Ferriss Show podcast does: it generalizes entrepreneurial traits for the masses. It’s a kind of neoliberal apparatus par excellence. 

So I’m not just intrigued by his productivity hacks. I also tune into Ferriss because I believe he’s an oracle for modern American capitalism. These interviews are moments of revelation that provide a glimpse into where we’re heading. Where is that?

What I’m most fascinated about right now is Tim’s ongoing attempt to redefine success. Since at least 2013 he has been preoccupied with de-coupling “happiness” from “success” in an attempt to do justice to his emphasis on personal fitness. This year, the conceptual tool for carving out his own vision of happiness (or well-being) has been meditation. And any good Tim Ferriss Show listener knows that options he tinkers with most are Buddhist, Transcendental, and Stoic meditation.

On July 31, 2015 Ferriss published his Tara Brach interview. In my view, his sit-down with the guru of mindful meditation is the clearest articulation listeners can expect of how modern success is being redefined. First, Ferriss and Brach adamantly agree that success must be refuted. The second step is meditation. Why? Brach explains that her form of Buddhist meditation provides access to “greater executive functions,” and that “this training allows us to access our greater potential.” That’s the self-help part of the equation.

Third, mindful meditation allows for greater team-building, collaboration, and creates “more problem solvers.” In short, meditation done right hacks the self in order to solve social problems. Sounds beautiful really. It’s such an easy pill to swallow because it combines practical techniques with a clear social ethic. In case you missed the anti-competitive strain, Brach elaborates: “It’s not the competitive domain. It’s going towards collectivity.” Much of this language is very business self-helpy. HBR’s Idea Cast Sept. 17 interview with Tiffany Schlain offers much the same advice shorn of meditative trappings.  

However, Brach’s message is refracted by the Tim Ferriss show. She is careful to add that her advice is for “world-class teachers and learners,” that is, those that rise above and excel.

World-class excellence always lurks around the corner in a Ferriss podcast, and his self-hacking spin on excellence is perhaps his one unique contribution to neoliberal ethics. However, excellence only makes sense when a stable reference point is set, the key to the emerging entrepreneurial ethic.

So what’s the reference point? For Ferriss and Brach, the standard is no longer money. Money is so 1980s Wall Street. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, on the other hand, are all about reach, a concept that occasionally bubbles to the surface throughout the Brach episode but remains an utterly uninterrogated goal. Reach qualifies how the listener should understand “collaboration” and team-building, Brach’s savvy marketing language that appeals to a public tired of success. The goal is not how to get rich, but how to get reach through self-hacking. That’s the new success. 

Ferriss himself consistently primes his listener to prioritize influence. He posts constantly on self-expansion, e.g.,“How to Build a Large Audience from Scratch.” In fact, according to Ferriss himself, the entire purpose of his show is to create disciples. But his very macho version of entrepreneurial self-expansionism is deftly matched by Brach’s own expansion of mindfulness into school systems, creating a generation of disciples that practice her de-mythologized version of meditation. They both practice what they preach; and make no mistake, they are first and foremost evangelists for the good news of self-expansion.

In an economic era when brand value is calculated by “Average Revenue Per User” (ARPU), redefinitions of success are trickling down from Facebook nodal influence to self-help guides.