Introduction to Cruelty
Posted by Glenn Wallis on February 24, 2014
The idea behind the kind of cruelty envisioned in non-buddhism is not what most readers think it is. One fairly well-known x-buddhist teacher recently email-lectured me on the karmic error of promoting what he called “mental sadism” on this blog. That’s not what cruelty means here. The best way to give you a sense of the cruelty that we–the authors of Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice–are engaged in, is to present part of the Introduction to the book. I’ll do that further below. First, a few general remarks on cruelty. And please note that I am speaking for myself alone.
I take inspiration from Artaud without needing to mimic him. Like him, I want to stimulate a rigorous yet creative exploration of what I still find honest and true in x-buddhist materials. Rigor implies a careful persistence of thought–of thought in and as practice.1 Rigor is absolutely essential because of the extent to which x-buddhist teachers have molded the materials to support either the ancient ascetic dream of transcendence or the modern secular yearning for a soothing utopian aesthetic.
Rigor of thought is itself cruelty. Coupled with creative thought, it threatens to result in what Deleuze calls “a kind of ass-fuck” of x-buddhism, “or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception.” And like Deleuze, I can imagine that this rigorous-creative mounting from behind of x-buddhist materials might produce “a child that would indeed be [x-buddhism's] but would nonetheless be monstrous.”
The monster in this case, though, is the human, the person of flesh and blood. X-buddhists despise the human. In its place they seek to enthrone some idealized type. It is cruel to enable practitioners to come face to face with and experience the destabilizing potential inherent in x-buddhist, and realized in non-buddhist, thought and practice. I won’t say more about this issue because, in a significant way, this idea–of subjectivity, of types–is central to all three essays in Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice.
As I am practicing non-buddhist theory, an additional cruelty revolves round language. I want to engage–attract, excite, stimulate, repel, anger, disgust–my reader with a viscerally compelling language. This, too, is a necessary cruelty. X-buddhist teachers speak and write in a bloodless, eviscerated dream-language. Like Artaud, I use language to blow open chaotic, vital energies rendered precious through repression, and to thereby expand the range of affective, cognitive, and enacted possibility. To repressed x-buddhists, inured as they invariably are to the dogma of right-speech, for example, such language will necessarily sound out of bounds or “inappropriate.” I respond with a hearty That’s the point, bitches! Let’s find out what else lies over there, “out of bounds.” Let’s find out what perceived dangers, what disorienting potential, your veneer of compassionate right-speech is masking. I don’t view wrong-speech as a virtue in reverse. It is not a mere corrective, a soothing bass to add sweet harmony to the puritanical shrill that pervades x-buddhist discourse and training. It is a force, a cruel force, in and of itself.
I just recently discovered a call for submissions to a new journal, called Hostis. It, too, sings the praises of cruelty. I am sharing it here for a few reasons. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. It speaks as, and to, the stranger and the enemy. It might serve as a model for new non-buddhist texts, not to be copied, but to be contemplated and consulted. Every syllable echoes cruelty. Where I have spoken of conceptual and affective cruelty, it emphasizes the value of cruelty in the political sphere. It is a kindred spirit to non-buddhism, as I am practicing it. Finally, you just might want to submit a piece (link below).
Few emotions burn like cruelty. Those motivated by cruelty are neither fair nor impartial. Their actions speak with an intensity that does not desire permission, let alone seek it. While social anarchism sings lullabies of altruism, there are those who play with the hot flames of cruelty. We are drawn to the strength of Franz Fanon’s wretched of the earth, who find their voice only through the force of their actions, the sting of women of color’s feminist rage, which establishes its own economy of violence for those who do not have others committing violence on their behalf, the spirit of Italy’s lapsed movement of autonomy, which fueled radicals who carved out spaces of freedom by going on the attack (“Il Diritto all’Odio” – The Right to Hatred), the assaults of Antonin Artaud’s dizzying “Theatre of Cruelty,” which defames the false virtues of audience through closeness with the underlying physicality of thought, and the necessity of Gilles Deleuze’s ontological cruelty, which returns difference through the pain of change that breaks through the backdrop of indifference.
We are looking for submissions that defend cruelty…To remain consistent with the journal’s point of view, we seek material whose tone is abrasive, mood is cataclysmic, style is gritty, and voice is impersonal.
Hostis is a journal of negation. It emerges devoid of ethics, lacking any sense of democracy, and without a care for pre-figuring anything. Fed up with the search for a social solution to the present crisis, it aspires to be attacked wildly and painted as utterly black without a single virtue. In thought, Hostis is the construction of incommensurability that figures politics in formal asymmetry to the powers that be. In action, Hostis is an exercise in partisanship – speaking in a tongue made only for those that it wants to listen. The journal’s partisanship is neither the work of fascists, who look for fights to give their limp lives temporary jolts of excitement, nor martyrs, who take hopeless stands to live the righteousness of loss. Hostis is the struggle to be dangerous in a time when antagonism is dissipated. This is all because Hostis is the enemy.
And now, an excerpt from the Introduction to Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice.
I employ the word “cruelty” in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor, an implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness; in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue…It is the consequence of an act… Everything that acts is a cruelty. —Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double
Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt. ―Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Everything that acts is a cruelty. And yet the theater, the sphere of Artaud’s own struggle, had devolved into a form of self-soothing diversion, creating a submissive public content to be “Peeping Toms,” gawking at lives that were not their own. Artaud’s sublimely impossible task was to forge this theater of complacency into an “immediate and violent” whirlwind that exposed to its viewers the raw truths of their lives. Only a theater that wakes up its audience “nerves and heart,” he believed, can approach this goal. Such a theater must be built on cruelty—on, that is to say, “extreme action, pushed beyond all limits.” If not pushed with such intentional zeal, the forces of delusion and self-satisfaction will overwhelm the vitality that is catalyzed by acts of lucid cruelty.
Everything that acts is a cruelty. What about Buddhism? Does it enable the cruel thought made possible by its sublime teaching, or does it lapse, like the theater of entertainment, into a falsely assuring aesthetics of the beautiful?
The term “Buddhism” evokes a hackneyed bifurcation. Here, we have a soft version that caters gently to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises salvation in the form of diurnal restoration, like ease in the midst of stress or real happiness. There, we have a hard version, derived from the doctrines, practices, and institutions of Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” Both versions flourish by virtue of a curative fantasy as ancient as Homo sapiens ape: to emerge from life unscathed.
What use is Buddhism today? It is perpetually hoisted up as the elixir par excellence against the acidic tensions intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. Its remedy? Gelassenheit in the midst of the infernal samsaric whirlwind. Is that it? Is Buddhism a modern-day Epicurean path to eudaemonia, a garden that “slakes the thirst with a natural cure?”
Many questions present themselves. Does Buddhism even yield useful knowledge anymore? Doesn’t science provide more satisfying models of, for instance, perception and cognition, than does Buddhism? Doesn’t philosophy better articulate the questions that seem to animate Buddhist discourse on meaning, language, and being? Doesn’t psychology offer more effective forms and models of mental health? In short, are Buddhism’s institutions and beliefs too cumbersome and unsophisticated to satisfy any but the most willing to believe?
The single most important question for us is: Is Buddhism fit for modern life?
The answer to that question is far from clear. Indeed, there is little evidence that it has yet to be addressed at all, and certainly not in any sustained manner. Neither those who embrace Buddhist teachings nor those who reject them are inclined toward such questioning. To the former, querying is threatening. It begets the possibility of unforeseen and undesirable transmutation, even destruction. To the latter, such questioning is irrelevant; for they have already foreclosed on Buddhism’s viability. So, who does that leave? Who will ask the question?
The purpose of this book is to engage in a creative critique of Buddhism. In doing so, we neither take for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary western world nor bar the possibility of renovation and application. We see, rather, in the very process of critique an opening. In order to exploit this opening, however, we find it necessary to create drastically new, and buddhistically indefensible, theorems.
This book is a radical laying bare of the brutal refusal of x-buddhism to honor its most basic pledge: abetment of liberation.
Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice consists of three parts. Each part addresses both theoretical and practical dimensions of Buddhism. Authored individually, each part nonetheless interacts with the concerns of the others. Those concerns include the formation of an autonomous subject in the face of Buddhism’s concealment of its ideological force; the possibility of a practice that thus serves as a theory or science of ideology; the reconstitution of practice as an organon of authoritative structures, including controlling social-conceptual representations; and the perception of Buddhism as the subject of a historical process. Perhaps the most salient theme running throughout the book concerns the crucial necessity of transfusing anemic contemporary Buddhist discourse with the lifeblood of rigorous, creative thought.
Will Buddhism in the twenty-first century West help fashion a liberated subject? Or will it continue to be a deceptive mythos spawning subjects who are content to rest at ease in the thrall of predatory capitalism? The three parts of the book share a common concern: to push Buddhism to the brink.
[Get it? Now, get to work!]
1 See, for instance, Patrick Jennings,”Critical Thinking as Spiritual Practice,” and Tom Pepper, “On Reading Hegel as a Corrective for Meditative Malpractice.”
Painting: Emil Nolde (German-Danish, 1867-1956), Masks, 1911.