Karl Ove Knausgaard on Death

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Jogging with Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book II

After hearing quite a bit of hype, I tried reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book I about a year ago. I found the first 50 pages or so fascinating; yet every subsequent read became shorter and shorter, until I finally gave it up.

But since then I’ve heard even more about Knausgaard and recently felt the pressure to give his work another shot. This time, instead of laboring over my screen, I opted for the audiobook version. This proved decisive. Listening to his novel, A Time for Everything, was a treasure. I quickly followed that up with My Struggle, and now I’m mostly done with My Struggle: Book II. Knausgaard rambles in such a patient yet meaningful way that listening to–rather than reading–his autobiographical sketches becomes almost meditative.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to his work is that his neo-Romanticism offers a kind of antidote to our American fascination with progress and the futurism of Silicon Valley. Listening to My Struggle feels almost like a guilty pleasure, like a lost time that modernity will always try to cover up, and in some cases for good reason. Yet his style of thinking helps me think about other material that I come across in a new way.

Here’s a passage I listened to while running in the Boise foothills:

Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious. But in my lifetime death was removed from our lives, it no longer existed, except as a constant item in all the newspapers, on the TV news and in films, where it didn’t mark the end of a process, discontinuity, but, on account of daily repetition, represented, on the contrary, an extension of the process, continuity, and in this way, oddly enough, had become a source of our security and our anchor. A plane crash was a ritual, it happened every so often, the same chain of events, and we were never part of it ourselves. A sense of security, but also excitement and intensity, for imagine how terrible the last seconds were for the passengers . . . everything we saw and did contained the intensity that was triggered in us, but had nothing to do with us. (175-76)

These thoughts originate in Knausgaard’s reflections on his Dostoevsky reading. He mulls over the distance between Baroque death, Dostoevsky’s grotesque yet compelling figure of a redeemed humanity that has fallen into nihilism, and then the way modernity has triumphed over death in an artificial, abstract manner—”in my lifetime death was removed from our lives.” The reproduction of death in the news, on film, and through the technology of the internet has made it routine. Death at a remove.

What struck me about this passage is that in it Knausgaard critiques the same indifference towards death that the modern revival of Stoic philosophy values. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are practically triumphant in the Bay Area right now, in part because they offer a Western correlate to Buddhist indifference. One of the core components is indifference towards one’s own death. “Death is nothing frightening,” Epictetus reminds Stoic practitioners in his Manual for Living.

The Stoic effort to become negative–to become free from externals–is attractive for sated consumers and entrepreneurs alike. Yet looking at modernity’s neo-Stoicism through the eyes of Knausgaard suggests that this indifference is enabled, or even compelled, by data collection. It’s big data that makes plane crashes a ritual, a routine that can be algorithmically determined. This ritualization of death begs for indifference.

Does that make the Stoic revival noble, or naive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best 10 Works of Non-Fiction I read in 2015

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2015 was a big non-fiction year for me. I researched three separate tangents that led to some interesting book discoveries. Early in 2015 I was researching habit formation. That’s when I stumbled across Nir Eyal, Charles Duhigg, and Daniel Kahneman. Later on in the year I did a crash course in geology. Ward & Kirschvink was helpful here, but I found the older introduction by Tim Flannery to be outstanding for someone relatively new to that area. Finally, I tried to keep in touch with what was floating around Silicon Valley circles. That led me to read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (Mark Zuckerberg approved), but Nir Eyal’s Hooked also belongs to that thread.

  1. Tim Flannery – The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples (print)
  2. Dan Barber – The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (ebook)
  3. Nir Eyal – Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (audiobook)
  4. Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (ebook)
  5. Mary Beard – SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (audiobook)
  6. Ashlee Vance – Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (audiobook)
  7. Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (audiobook)
  8. Mohsin Hamid – Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London (audiobook)
  9. Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (audio/ebook)
  10. Peter Ward & Joe Kirschvink – A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth (audio/ebook)

For my Best 10 Works of Fiction from 2015, see this post. I’ll post one more “Best 10” list soon on Philosophy and Criticism.

Best 10 Works of Fiction I read in 2015

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This represents some of the better fiction I read in 2015. In the list below I’ve included the medium as well. 2015 was a year of audiobooks, ebooks, and almost no print. I suspect 2016 will remain similar.

  1. Liu Cixin  –  Three-Body Problem (audiobook)
  2. Liu Cixin – The Dark Forest (audiobook)
  3. J.G. Ballard – Concrete Island (audio/ebook)
  4. J.G. Ballard – High Rise (audio/ebook)
  5. Mohsin Hamid – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (audiobook)
  6. Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections (audio/ebook)
  7. Andy Weir – The Martian (audiobook)
  8. McCarthy – Satin Island (audiobook)
  9. Richard Powers – Orfeo (audio/ebook)
  10. Margaret Atwood – The Heart Goes Last (audiobook)

I’ll post two more 2015 lists soon: one on my Top 10 Philosophy & Criticism Works and my Top 10 Non-Fiction Works.

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. 

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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:

http://www.chapul.com/blogschizotasters-what-the-movies-can-teach-us-about-branding-insects-as-food/

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.