21. Building a better self: Demystifying stoic anthropotechnics with Erik Davis
Welcome to Episode 21! We have a new website: www.beautifulloserspodcast.com Currently the site is a page to direct you to either the substack or your preferred podcast player. More coming soon. We also debuted our new theme song. Written and performed by Zach Nichols. We’ll discuss the theme in greater depth in a future episode.
Today’s episode revisits the themes from episode 14, where we discussed media, masculinity, and self-help culture in the context of theories of fascism and totalitarianism.
We’re diving into a specific constellation of thinking around stoic philosophy, mindfulness, self-help, and contemporary culture. Why is an ancient philosophy like stoicism suddenly popular today? Why is it often talked about in context with vaguely eastern practices of mindfulness? How do all of these things relate to an emergent industry of self-help and self-care?
We are dissatisfied with the materialist critiques that simply point out the ways that these practices are often schemes to make money—though the critiques themselves are undeniable. These entrepreneurs often have branded and sponsored content, apps, and other pay-to-play lifestyle gear to help you detach yourself from the material world. Occasionally these schemes are especially malicious, like with the example of the MLM-Cult NXIVM, as documented in the HBO documentary series The Vow. Cultish marketing schemes aside, it is more often the case that they’re the intellectual and commercial products of marketing entrepreneurs as amateur philosopher, trying to engage with ancient philosophy in a way to help improve the lives of people today.
Our dissatisfaction with the straight-line materialist critique stems from our own experiences. These practices are useful. They do yield positive, objective benefits. More important, they are valuable systems of knowledge, these are legitimate systems of thought that merit consideration and deliberation. As is often the case on Beautiful Losers, we find ourselves with a classic baby and bathwater situation.
To help us chart a course through this constellation we have Erik Davis, who most recently authored High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. Erik is more than deft thinker and superb writer: he is our friend. Although we hail from different discursive traditions, we share certain sensibilities and foundational insights that cut across discipline, genre, and historical period. Erik is another member of this small intellectual enclave that existed in Houston, Texas in the second decade of the aughts. It’s always a pleasure for us to bring members of that community back together, if only to capture a small fragment of the intellectual curiosity and geniality that shaped our advanced degrees.
For this discussion we read a lot of stuff. Contemporary blogs on stoicism and mindfulness along with ancient stoic texts, we also looked at more popular and contemporary critiques of happiness culture. As a sort of “meta text” to organize all of these ideas we used Peter Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life. At the risk of becoming the official Sloterdijk podcast, we went to this text because Sloterdijk offers something akin to a “systems theory” account of spiritual practice. He argues that one of the key distinctions for the human is our ability to “have a practice” and he uses the word “anthropotechnic” to define the particular complexes of external and internal actions. A person in prayer may bow his head and fold his hands while he simultaneously directing his internal thoughts toward the divine; a soccer player taking a penalty kick empties her mind of all distractions and becomes completely focused on visualizing her immanent physical actions. These anthropotechnic complexes can result in what Sloterdijk describes as a “vertical tension” a general sense of a higher level of being. In religious contexts this is understood as communion with the divine, in sport this is getting “in the zone.” According to Sloterdijk’s account, it’s the act of the practices themselves that produce the vertical tension, not that the practices themselves reveal a hidden world.
For Sloterdijk, to be a human is to have these practices, we cannot but be a creature that practices. It’s for this reason — our permanent state of having a practice — that something like religion will never go away. On the question of religion, Sloterdijk’s argument comes from two directions: on the one hand he clearly shows how no amount education, enlightenment, “progress” will eliminate religion from culture, while on the other hand he reduces the metaphysics of religious experience to a functionalist relationship between practices and perceptions.
The reason that we lean on Sloterdijk is because we want to produce a very nuanced critique of our subject, but in order to do that we need to be able to distinguish between practices, behaviors, feelings, meanings, interpretations, and metaphysical reality. Often what frustrates us is how one of these terms is mean to justify or explain another term. For some, the feeling of transcendence reveals that a transcendent reality exists. Sloterdijk’s book suggests a much more simple interpretation: what if the complex of activity you practice has as consequence the feeling of transcendence? What stoicism and mindfulness practice reveals is that their functionalist nature doesn’t diminish or invalidate the experience itself. Like Sloterdijk, we don’t make this point in order to dismiss the category of truth, rather our purpose is to reconstitute these ideas within the context of a more grounded understanding of what these experiences actually are.
Stoicism is a powerful discourse. It teaches a set of practices that provide very real and tangible techniques for self-preservation. Principles like the dichotomy of control help you understand the difference between things you can control and things you can’t control. This principle is taken up in myriad therapeutic ways, from the serenity prayer in 12 step programs to founding principles in cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT).
Techniques like these help buoy the self and help people get through tough times. There’s a reason that the caricature of the stoic is a hard man with a stiff upper lip: these techniques merge nicely within a broader concept of masculinity. But for those of us that are committed to a more porous notion of subjectivity, collective organization, and materialist outcomes, what does stoicism offer?
The paradox comes into focus when thinking about the self. Stoicism today is inflected with contemporary notions of the self. So the project of boundaries and control become gamefied: rather than passively accepting that which we can’t control, we’re encouraged (incentivized) to expand our domain of control in specific, technical ways.
It’s from that central tension that our conversation achieved lift-off. As has often been the case with our advanced theory episodes: We seek to offer the critique, and then critique the critique. With someone like Erik on board, we also tried to go one level further: to critique the critique of the critique. Or in other words: can we disassemble the object, put it back together differently, take it apart again in a different way, and put it back together again? We’ll let you be the judge the this heady little experiment.
Stay beautiful, losers