Category Archives: Habits and Routines

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.


Best 10 Philosophy Books I Read in 2015

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I read only a handful of philosophy books published in 2015 (on this list: Nail’s Figure of the Migrant and Agamben’s Stasis) because I dedicated most of my “slow reading” to ancient and modern texts that contributed in a significant way to (mostly Western) understandings of self-discipline. The place to begin here was Foucault’s immensely influential 1983-84 lectures on the Stoic & Cynic ascetic traditions, followed by a comprehensive survey of the Cynic tradition by Desmond, and then a Stoic emphasis by Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. William James’ Energies of Men offered a modern psychological spin to all of this. Next, Svedson’s Philosophy of Boredom showed what happens when Western Civilization loses interest in asceticism more generally. Departing from this theme entirely: Sloterdijk’s Globes: Spheres II is one of my favorite philosophy books of all time; Nail’s Figure of the Migrant should be read by every citizen of the globe; and Agamben’s Stasis wasn’t great but I persuade myself to like everything he puts out.

  1. Peter Sloterdijk – Globes: Spheres II
  2. Lars Svedson – A Philosophy of Boredom
  3. William James – The Energies of Men
  4. Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a Way of Life
  5. Diogenes Laertius – Lives of Eminent Philosophers
  6. William Desmond – Cynics
  7. Gavin Flood – The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition
  8. Thomas Nail – Figure of the Migrant
  9. Foucault – The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II (Lectures at the College de France, 1983-84)
  10. Giorgio Agamben – Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm

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”. 

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.  

High-Performing Soldiers and Workers: A Note on O’Hanlon’s ‘The Future of Land Warfare’

A few years ago (around 2012) I started following research updates published by the Brookings Institution. That dropped off when my interests drifted elsewhere. Then more recently I’ve been looking for political podcasts with some heft; I searched for the Brookings Institution once again.

I’m glad I did. Their Oct. 30 podcast event, “The Future of Land Warfare,” offers a roundtable on…the future of land warfare. The main interlocutor is Michael E. O’Hanlon, whose book, The Future of Land Warfare, argues for a build-up a conventional U.S. forces in order to prepare for future (and ongoing) conflict. He sees this as a correction to the present trend towards de-militarization (although he does laud Gen. Allen & the White House for its unprecedented coalition-building breakthroughs).

What I found most interesting about the podcast, however, is Gen. Petraeus’ comments. He more or less backs O’Hanlon’s call for an increased military presence; at the very least, they both agree, it creates deterrence. But Petraeus’ key addition to the discussion is that land forces in the future should be made up of what he calls “pentathlete soldiers”. I did a quick web search and found that he’s been pushing for this since at least 2007. Basically, a pentathlete soldier is different from a conventional Army soldier in the range of skills they’re expected to deploy. These future soldiers should be able to respond not only to conventional warfare, but also humanitarian crises, outbreaks, disasters, etc.

The trigger for any given scenario would be global instability. This is key. “Instability” is more general than traditional “warfare,” and this lack of specificity means that a pentathlete soldier must adapt to many different circumstances–the context here determined by shifting geo-political configurations. As world revolutions emerge and submerge at a faster rate, and as national boundaries are increasingly disrupted by globalizing forces, future soldiers must become high-performers.

This emphasis on varied high performance, capable of adapting to unforeseen instability (i.e., risk), is fascinating because it offers a strong military parallel to the emphasis on adaptation and varied skills in the economic arena. Just as the increasing instability of conventional domains demands that soldiers become more plastic, more “athletic” in their training, so must potential workers (students) view education as risk-minimization training, wherein they too learn skills varied enough to survive multiple economic cycles.

However, what stands out in this comparison is that there’s a strong spatial (strongly geographical) component that’s driving the demand for pentathletes. Petraeus explicitly makes such a connection in the “Future of Land Warfare” discussion. It’s as though the new geography is creating new military subjects.

But the economic instability leading to demand for entrepreneurial risk-taking seems rather non-spatial. It’s a matter of economic ebbs and flows rather than spatial alterations. 

There’s much more to the podcast. Do check it out.

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?   

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.