Anicca as the Truth of Extinction

Never mind that, in the end, all of human life will have amounted to an infinitesimal flash of dull, vaporous light, wholly inconsequential to the cosmic whole. Never mind that all evidence—biological, geological, cosmological, even historical—betrays processes that are as blind and indiscriminate as they are relentless and ruthless.

Once upon a time, in some remote corner of that universe which is effused into numberless glimmering solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. It was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history;” but, of course, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled, and the clever beasts had to die.—One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how pathetic, how shadowy and evanescent, how purposeless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened.(1)

Two claims.

  • X-buddhist meditation dilettantes can be recognized by their desire to connect everything. Their rhetoric of practice hooks chaotic modes of human being together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras.
  • As long as you live under the compulsion of x-buddhist decision or the principle of sufficient buddhism, you live also within an impotence of thought and within an infinite culpability.

That first claim is a bastardized version of a statement made by Theodor Adorno concerning punctuation marks.(2) The second is a rewording of François Laruelle’s “Theorem 00000000000: On the Advent of Impotence.”(3) (See notes for original wording). I’d like to explore them in answer to a question recently posed on this blog. Doing so will allow me to review some features of non-buddhism (as I am conceiving it).

The question arose from claims that I made in an earlier post on meditation:

(1)   Speculative non-buddhism is deeply curious about the role that meditation practice might play in transcending the division between ideology and self-reflective critique. The raw remarks that I present [in that post (4)] stem from a re-reading, and hence a re-commissioning, of primary classical-buddhist postulates; namely, disenchantment, ancestral anamnesis, vanishing, phenomenal identity, nihility, conceptual proliferation, contingency, world, surface, perspicuity, unbinding-extinction (my translations of, respectively: nibbida, sati, anicca, anattā, suññtā, papañca, paticcasamuppāda, loka, sabba, paññā, nibbāna/nirvāṇa). My, still speculative, contention is three-fold: (i) these postulates can be (re-)read to constitute the Protagonist’s (i.e., Gotama’s, the Buddha’s) calculus, understood here as the qualification of real-world limits; (ii) the calculus, thus re-commissioned, subsumes nihilism, and (iii) meditation is, for the practitioner, an organon of nihilistic dissolution.

(2)   Non-buddhism is a theoretical practice proceeding by way of classical-buddhist axioms yet producing theorems which are buddhistically uninterpretable.

(3)   “Senselessness and purposelessness are not merely privative; they represent a gain in intelligibility. The cancellation of sense, purpose, and possibility marks the point at which the ‘horror’ concomitant with the impossibility of either being or not-being becomes intelligible.”(5)

The question put to me was this:

“What is the ultimate aim of this speculative trajectory that starts with your preliminary ‘zombification’ [of the original x-buddhist terminology], your potent ‘substitute’ of the desired dharmic good, a.k.a. ‘deep joy’? I gather…that if meditation is, as you say, an organon of nihilistic dissolution, then might it be that what you desire by gaining in intelligibility, is something that Brassier also calls ‘the truth of extinction’?(6)

Yes. I want to say that such intelligibility is something that I, as clever homo sapiens beast must come to “desire.” But that is the penultimate—preparatory, not final—aim of non-buddhism. The ultimate aim is a subject who resists x-buddhistic decisional representation, and thereby reinvigorates thought vis à vis empty reality (radical immanence: zero, axiomatic-quasi-fiction). Reinvigorated thought is thought that operates at para-zero. Such a subject has transformed the symptom that is dharmic self-sufficiency into speculative knowledge. The non-buddhist subject thus knows what to do with the de-dharmacized x-buddhist material (note: it is not that s/he knows how to be done with it; non-buddhism may have overtones of anti-buddhism, but it is not quite that.). Unlike the thought of the x-buddhist-subject, which is infinitely expandable, the thought of the non-buddhist subject is unremarkably collapsible—it collapses always back into the identity of mere man/woman. The “ultimate” aim of non-buddhism is the mirror-image of that of x-buddhism. Consider  Laruelle’s “Theorem 000000: On the Suicide Disguised as Murder,” reworded to suit our needs.

X-buddhism has but one goal: to make you believe that you must identify yourself with x-buddhism; to make you assume this suicide, a suicide disguised as murder charged against you.(7)

This language of suicide and murder may sound unnecessarily menacing. But anyone who has spent time within the thaumaturgical refuges of x-buddhism, and observed the formation of ventriloquized subjects there, will, I think, appreciate the violence of those words. Acquiescence to the point of reflexivity—a product of decision—requires evasion of oneself. This self-killing/evasion is the reason for the person’s “infinite culpability.” Non-buddhism is a radical laying bare of the brutal refusal of x-buddhism to honor its most basic pledge: abetment of liberation. A liberated subject will not—indeed, by definition, cannot—subscribe to the x-buddhist program of person-formation. Paths of liberation necessarily bend toward disintegration (of prescribed forms, etc.) and discontinuity (of cohesive programs, etc.), and so are unbearable to x-buddhism. Hence, the interminable connectives that constitute the  inventory of dharmic self-sufficiency— the binding of the person within the dharmic fortress, fastened down with “logical” connectives in the face of reality’s mayhem.

One way of conceiving of the ultimate goal of non-buddhism is in terms of the trope of incidental exile, given in the heuristic.(8) Exile involves a reversion to prior identity, a sloughing off of the hallucinated x-buddhist cipher, acquired via participation in the refuge. Another way of understanding the same thing is Laruelle’s “Theorem 0, or the Transcendental Theorem: On Nontransferable Identity,” which states (reworded):

Nothing can, except through illusion, substitute itself for you and for your identity. And you cannot, except through illusion, substitute yourself for x-buddhism, for The Dharma, etc. Homo sapiens is an inalienable reality. There is no reversibility between homo sapiens and x-buddhism.(9)

To repeat, a recalibration to para-zero identity is the ultimate goal of non-buddhism. X-buddhism, as self-described dispeller of delusions, as, hence, preeminent organon of awakening (of sapientia?—the wisdom, knowing, and ancestral memory that makes us human?), surely must desire the same. Yet it does not. It desires only to connect everything. How so? Via the decisional tension. It thus desires the maintenance and preservation of its dharma-samsara axis mundi.  What x-buddhism desires is to see its own narcissistic visage perpetually reflected, from on high, in the mirror of the world. And for that, x-buddhism desires, because it requires, an un-thinking ventriloquized subject. For, in the words, of a Zen Master: “Only without thinking can we return to our true self.”(10)

Non-buddhist practice deflates x-buddhist postulates to the point of para-zero. Doing so cleanses thought of dharmic excess, thus refreshes thought, and creates new possibilities for thinking with x-buddhist material. Let’s take a brief example. Let’s consider one of the Three Sovereigns of x-buddhism: anicca, impermanence. Let’s look at it as a unit. Let’s unbind it, that is to say,from the colossal network of voltaic servant-postulates that renders it distinctively x-buddhist.

[Along the way, we might consider the consequences of a de-symptomized anicca for, say, the “issue” of rebirth. (If you want to re-humanize a room full of mindful x-buddhists, just yell out, “Re-birth? Yes or no? Discuss amongst yourselves!” Then step back: non-judgmental awareness be damned!)]

Anicca: impermanence.

It invites thought about our situation.—Let’s review some of the facts. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. It spans a diameter of 150 billion light years (and recall that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second). Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 120,000 light years across and has 200 billion stars. At its center is a black hole. Our earth accreted nearly 5 billion years ago. Life, as simple cells, began to rustle here 3.5 billion years ago. Our ancestors, homo habilis, appeared on the scene 2 million years ago. Anatomically modern humans appeared 150 to 200 thousand years ago. This means that “we” have been present on our “home” for only 5-10% of its lifetime. The sun is about 4.5 billion years old. It has already used up about half of its nuclear fuel. Solar catastrophe will occur about 5 billion years from now, incinerating the earth. A recent report by a team of astronomers “seems to have finally put to rest an age old question… What is the ultimate fate of planet Earth?” The old view seems to have been a rare case of scientific wishful thinking. It was, namely, that billions of years from now the sun would “loosen its gravitational grip on the planet and allow it to escape a fiery demise.” How do things look now? “The sobering reality is quite different and the clock is now ticking for our beloved home planet.” The research of scientists in fields such as biology, climatology, geology and astronomy are revealing “what the future holds for planet Earth… and throws up some shocking surprises. Great supercontinents will form and fragment with lethal consequences, the oceans will turn red before floating away into space, plants and animals will be wiped from Earth before finally, all life will be extinguished forever.”(11)  But what about the universe itself? And what about this exquisite consciousness of us clever homo sapiens? Is there not a way to circumvent the solar catastrophe? Will life—in some form—not prevail in the end? Consider: “Roughly one trillion, trillion, trillion (101728) years from now, the accelerating expansion of the universe will have disintegrated the fabric of matter itself, terminating the possibility of embodiment. Every star in the universe will have burnt out, plunging the cosmos into a state of absolute darkness and leaving behind nothing but spent husks of collapsed matter. All free matter, whether on planetary surfaces or in interstellar space, will have decayed, eradicating any remnants of life based on protons and chemistry, and erasing every vestige of sentience—irrespective of its physical basis. Finally, in a state cosmologists call ‘asymptopia,’ the stellar corpses littering the empty universe will evaporate into a brief hailstorm of alimentary particles. Atoms themselves will cease to exist. Only the implacable gravitational expansion will continue, driven by the currently inexplicable force called ‘dark energy,’ which will keep pushing the extinguished universe deeper and deeper into an eternal and unfathomable darkness.”(12) —Meditation, if configured as organon, may awaken in us a searing, living memory of our ancestral scope and thought of descendent facts. It can be thus configured to establish a line of horizon that renders facile all notions of earth, indeed, cosmos, as “home.” How much more so does it obliterate fantasies of an unscathed exit, such as heaven, a Buddha field, or rebirth? How infinitesimally puny does the ostensible cognitive fizzle known as “enlightenment” appear against the cosmic catastrophe. Present-moment awareness? Ancestral anamnesis (sati)—another exalted member of x-buddhist royalty—means: remember, remember!

But we’ll have to save reflection on that for another day.


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn, part one, first paragraph.

2. Theodor W. Adorno and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. “Punctuation Marks.” The Antioch Review, vol. 48, no. 3. (Summer, 1990): pp. 300-305. Original:

Literary dilettantes can be recognized by their desire to connect everything. Their products hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable;o nly a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras.

  1. Theorem 00000000000: On the Advent of Impotence:

As long as man lives under the Decision or the Principle of Sufficient Philosophy, he lives also within an impotence of thought and within an infinite culpability.

François Laruelle, “Theorems on the Good News.” Translated by Alexander R. Galloway. Originally published as: François Laruelle, “Théorèmes de la Bonne Nouvelle,” La Décision philosophique 1 (May 1987): 83-85.

4.”Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology, and Nihilism.”

  1. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2077): 254.

  2. Tomek Idzik posed this question. He is founder of the Polish blog  “Buddyzm i Psychoterapia.”  The Brassier quote is ibid: 239.

  3. Theorem 000000: On the Suicide Disguised as Murder

Philosophy has but one goal: to make man believe that he must identify himself with philosophy; to make man assume this suicide, a suicide disguised as murder charged against man.

8.”Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.”

  1. Theorem 0 or the Transcendental Theorem, On Nontransferable Identity:

Nothing can, except through illusion, substitute itself for man and for his identity. And man cannot, except through illusion, substitute himself for philosophy, for the Other, etc. Man is an inalienable reality. There is no reversibility between man and philosophy

  1. Zen Master Bon Seong (a.k.a. Jeff Kitzes) of the Empty Gate Zen Center, Berkeley, California.
  2. Source: “Death of the Earth”

  3. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: 228.

Image: Kirstin Dunst, from the movie Melancholia.

A downloadable pdf file is available on the Articles page.

36 responses to “Anicca as the Truth of Extinction”

  1. Jayarava Avatar

    Hey Glen. I think you have surpassed yourself here – I kind of like this jargon you’re inventing, it reminds me of early 20th Century Art. Really I don’t understand most of it, but today I’m smiling reading it. Partly because I feel some sympathy with this statement:

    “X-buddhism has but one goal: to make you believe that you must identify yourself with x-buddhism; to make you assume this suicide, a suicide disguised as murder charged against you.”

    Yes. YES! To be Buddhist you must identify yourself with Buddhism. And this is a suicide of a kind. Often it amounts to the abandonment of responsibility for one’s thoughts. So few Buddhists really think. When I challenge Buddhist belief, inevitably someone writes in to say they don’t think I’m a Buddhist at all. The underlying message is that if you think for yourself you’re not one of us! Buddhism can feel like a Borg collective at times: over the centuries they have assimilated the cultural and technological distinctiveness of many societies, but the search for mechanical perfection continues, and in fact they change very little. “Resistance is futile” (so volunteering is appreciated).

    This, “the formation of ventriloquized subjects “, made me laugh out loud. Yes it’s kind of sinister, though not as sinister as theistic ventriloquists dummies, since a Buddhist will only rarely kill you for disagreeing with them. But why, for instance, in his recent 40+ page apologetic for rebirth, does Thanissaro never once argue from personal experience? Why is is all argument from authority? Which is what, to play the sutta citation game, our mate Gotama (or whatever his name was) calls hassakaññeva, nāmakaññeva, rittakaññeva, tucchakaññeva (D i.240). Most of the Buddhists one meets do seem like the have a hand up their jacksie moving their mouths, at least some of the time.

    Re surviving beyond solar extinction, I’ve no doubt that the real powerhouses of life–bacteria–will find some way to survive. But you could be right about our consciousness, being the least interesting thing to have happened in 4.5 billion years of evolution, especially when you look at what we do with it. Bacteria do better with no intelligence. They are more creative, more adaptable, more beautiful, and more cooperative than us. I don’t think we’ve achieved anything to compare with e.g. the eukaryote cell.

    Best Wishes

  2. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Luis Daniel (from “No More Meditation!” #148). I am moving this part of your comment over here, since it addresses this post. You write:

    Does it get any more hopelessly Platonic than that?

    Sadly I think so, since this dualistic essentialist logic goes on and on and on in more and more re-descriptions of Platonic Faith as is the case of Glenn´s most recent post, Anicca as the Truth of Extinction, where impermanence is “actualized” with the certainty of science´s “predictability”, allowing the rest of us to “lift” the line of vision into the distantly but now available reality just a trillion of a trillion of a trillion years from now … of course he is positioned from the “vision scope” that his blind faith in the predictability power that the trajectory of two or three hundred years of never-the-less shifting scientific paradigms has given physics and thus blatantly negating impermanence itself … with more Platonic Faith Truth-based mechanisms and languages of certainty and finality, exclusive of course only to him).

    I am confused about where you’re getting this idea that I said “impermanence is ‘actualized’ with the certainty of science´s ‘predictability.’” Actually, re-reading the rest of that comment, I wonder if you might go back and re-read the essay. based on what you write here, you completely misunderstood it. Thanks.

    Culture, received beliefs, the status quo, etc … who ever claims that these are not questionable?

    In the context of this blog’s project, it is x-buddhist social structures that disallow genuine questioning. Tradition has produced numerous tropes that suggest genuine questioning (think: finger pointing to the moon; letting the collapsed house lie in shambles; releasing the raft; killing the Buddha; Bodhidharma and the emperor, etc.); but the social forces of x-buddhism debar their actualization. I define a genuine question as one whose answer or very discussion risks fundamental structural change. That never happens in x-buddhism. The dharma-samsara axis is eternal. On this blog, I am not discussing society as a whole. I am discussing a sub-culture, namely, x-buddhist society.

    I see so much ado here about, well, very little. Question your beliefs? GREAT. All the time. GREAT. Perfect. Be skeptic of authority, or of the given order of things, or the all purported buddhist saviors, the market and democracy itself. YES, PERFECT. But also be it of communism, Badiou, Althusser, Laruelle, Freud, Lacan, Buddha, Batchelor and Rorty himself. What is so hard about just simply floating by actively questioning everything??? These gentlemen here say question x-buddhism, but they don’t question non-buddhism and their model writers, nor philosophy or science, which simply amounts to not really questioning themselves fully and instead in the mean time entertain themselves with telling others how to think their way out of their miserable existences. I don’t buy ideological obscurantism. Nor frustrated academic intellectualism or frustrated would-be buddhist teachers.

    On the one side of that remark: who says anything about the value of skepticism here? On the other side: who holds those people whom you mention sacrosanct? Certainly no one I’ve read on this blog, other than some stray x-buddhists arguing from the buddha’s authority. Other people have used the thinking of these people to formulate their own, often quite distinctive, views. Do you see a problem with that? What am I missing here? Are you confusing art with science?

    “Academic intellectualism,” etc.?

    What the fuck are you talking about?

    “Non-buddhism and their model writers.”

    Non-buddhism is a theory-fiction, one that is, moreover, still be conjured from the ether. What’s a non-buddhist model writer?

    Ideas and beliefs have NO power to change things. Only to serve the status quo.

    Really? Is that statement ironic? I honestly can’t tell. From the context, I would say that you mean what you say. From what I assume you must surely know of world history, I think you have to be saying it mockingly. So, perhaps some clarity?

    Come on, man! Read and write with more care!

  3. Tom Pepper Avatar

    So many western Buddhists have spent so much energy to defend Buddhism against the “charge” of nihilism, and I’ve never really been able to see why. Of course Buddhism is nihilist–that’s why it can liberate us. There is no world-transcending soul, and everything is completely dependently arisen–what could be more “nihilistic” than that: there is no timeless meaning to our lives, and when the sun burns out, or perhaps long before, we will cease to exist without causing even a ripple in the universe. I’ve never been quite sure why anyone would turn to Buddhism expecting it to give a guarantee of transcendence and meaning. If you want those illusions, there are plenty of religions that offer them.

    However, I wonder if it is really useful to jump into nihilism before escaping the trap of atomism? That is, if we are still attached to our atomistic conceptions of our minds, wouldn’t nihilism lead to pure competitive hedonism? Wouldn’t nihilism, coupled with atomism, be the perfect foundation for an ideology of capitalism? We could easily fall into beer-commercial hedonism: you only go around once, and there are no consequences, so have all the fun you can!

    My approach is to eliminate the concept of atomism first–then nihilism seems both obvious and less likely to lead into the trap of living for pure ideology, the trap of the death of the bodhisattva.

    On the other hand, many people seem unable or unwilling to even grasp the concept of a non-atomistic mind, and so never even get so far as considering whether the concept is true. Might it be the case that the unpleasant obviousness of nihilism can make it easier to consider this possibility?

  4. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom (#3).

    Good points. I have always been baffled by the chasm between the obviousness of nihility and people’s acceptance of that fact. I can imagine that there simply must be deeply ingrained bio-adaptive reasons for homo sapiens’ blindness in this regard. But then along comes the Buddha–the exemplar of human awakening. As evidence of his coruscating insight, he cannot open his mouth without uttering emptiness! non-self! impermanence! vanishing! extinction! zero! And what do his present-day hearers hear? deep joy! happy rebirth! diamond-like mind! And I hear the Buddha respond to that, “well, maybe, who am I to say; but not before emptiness! non-self! impermanence! vanishing! extinction! zero!”

    You ask whether nihilism coupled with atomistic notions of ourselves would not lead to pure competitive hedonism. Not with me it hasn’t! In fact, I would say that any genuine compassion for others that I possess is a direct result of my “insight” or whatever is–belief?–into nihility. I would love to see an experiment–even a thought experiment–that subtracts meaning and purpose from our current ideology of capitalism and replaces it with nihil. How would that effect the ideology as a whole? What force would it have in real-world terms? Ironically, I am about to surprise myself now and express optimism about my fellow primates. I would predict that acceptance of nihil–momentary and ultimate nihil–would alter the capitalist ideology in a way that renders it unsustainable. I am a believer after all! Or in Nick Land’s phrase: “Zero is indivisible, so that zero belief cannot be rigorously differentiated from belief in zero” (The Thirst for Annihilation).

    I like your approach of eliminating atomism first. I also share your concern about the force that is required to do so. After all, we are employing metaphors of fission here. So, what does it take to produce the cataclysmic split, to release the energy that enables a radical re-envisioning of self, society, and culture? Lately, I have been taking the most direct, radical route that I know to that decisive event. And that means insisting on big-ticket nihilism. Fewer and fewer people are accompanying me, I notice. They, apparently, have a choice. I don’t.

  5. Robert Avatar


    It seems to me that remembering that we will die is all we need to do to recognize what you call nihility. Not to suggest that it is an easy thing to do. That to me seems the be the most convincing argument, forget about all that other stuff.

    I think I agree that this understanding of nihility is a sine qua non for compassion. I am reading terry eagleton’s Trouble with Strangers, this is exactly where he seems to be going and it is convincing, by and large. Of course there is another type of nihilism that is nothing but hedonism and capitalist ideology in its purest sense. This is something non-Buddhists should think about.

    As well, it isn’t just capitalist ideology that is being undermined by what we are talking about here. Nihilism destroys any ideology, it goes after the ideology of ideology so to speak. No ideology without a subject, and subjects and nihilism dont mix. To what extent that is entirely a good thing I am not sure.


  6. Tomek Avatar

    Glenn, you wrote:

    The ultimate aim is a subject who resists x-buddhistic decisional representation, and thereby reinvigorates thought vis à vis empty reality (radical immanence: zero, axiomatic-quasi-fiction). Reinvigorated thought is thought that operates at para-zero. Such a subject has transformed the symptom that is dharmic self-sufficiency into speculative knowledge.

    These words made me think about Brassier saying that:

    I consider myself a nihilist (…) and continue to believe in the difference between truth and falsity, reality and appearance. In other words, I am a nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth, unlike those whose triumph over nihilism is won at the cost of sacrificing truth. I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition.

    I wonder to what extent (if any) Brassier’s “progress in cognition” can be compared to your “reinvigoration of thought” (speculative knowledge)? If x-buddhistic system of natural deduction can be suspended by using non-buddhism heuristic, Buddhism‘s specular oracularity, as you call it, seen from that para-zero level, turns out at best to be just a useful fiction, “a regional or bounded phenomenon”.

  7. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Robert: I’m not so sure just knowledge of our own death is the same as nihilism. Most people I know are fairly sure they’re going to heaven to live on eternally in paradise. In fact, they seem to take it as an inalienable right–that is, even those who are not religious, or feel no need to be bother with ethics or kindness, even those who proclaim themselves “angry with God,” seem to believe that not even God has the right to keep them out of heaven (although they are just as sure nobody else is “good enough” to get in). Bodily death is equivalent to nihility only if one doesn’t believe in a soul or god or spirit of any kind.

    I’m curious about your take on Eagleton. I haven’t read the book you mentioned, but I have read a dozen or so of his books. What I can’t figure out about his writing is why so many people I know who are far to the political “right” of his position, even republicans and libertarians, can read his books with enjoyment and approval and not feel their position challenged at all. He seems to leave the right-wing intellectual with the impression that being a marxist is simply a matter of taking an ironic intellectual attitude toward capitalism.

  8. Peter K Avatar
    Peter K

    Tom P (#3) says: “So many western Buddhists have spent so much energy to defend Buddhism against the “charge” of nihilism, and I’ve never really been able to see why. Of course Buddhism is nihilist–that’s why it can liberate us.” Oh! Yes!

    I have long thought that many of the debates about atheism somehow miss this point. For me at least, atheism is not about the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings, be they “supreme” or otherwise. It is far more to do with Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman:

    How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

    While religious traditions continue to offer an all-embracing “meaning” which seems to be based purely on the say-so of authority then they offer cheap solutions.

    If I may quote from contemporary fiction (Ursula Le Guin’s “The Farthest Shore”):

    “I know what they think they seek. But I know it to be a lie. Listen to me, Arren. You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose….That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself – safety forever?”

    x-Buddhism seems to stop short.

  9. Robert Avatar

    Tom, 7

    I was a bit sloppy, what I meant to say is that thinking about one’s own death is an excellent way to expose or uncover one’s position vis a vis nihility, to make it more explicit. That there is no heaven of any sort is a given in this kind of practice, but even so, what I discover is that I find it hard to believe that I will really die, that there is a possible world without me in it.

    Eagleton is a great guy as far as I am concerned, a clear writer interested in the same kinds of things as I am these days, and providing lots of context and background, which I greatly appreciate since I have a lot of catching up to do. This book, Trouble with Strangers, looks at various ethical thought systems as essentially being rooted in either the imaginary, the symbolic or the real. I think Eagleton would assign the exchange of oneself with others, tonglen etc, as well as the primacy of feeling in ethical thought altogether a place in the imaginary, with all that this implies. Eagleton’s practical critique of this ethical approach based on heart-based empathy is that it is a flaky foundation, and that it may work for people close to you, but loses its force when dealing with strangers. Interestingly he also argues that ideology meets and feeds the needs of the imaginary in that it provides a world that feels like a perfect fit to the subject. For me this approach begins to clarifiy why blindly being subject to ideology is indeed samsaric.

    Why right wingers would like him I can only guess. Christian, proper accent, and not too political, I guess. He pissed a lot of people off though when he went after Martin Amis a couple of years ago.

  10. Matthias Avatar

    A short note about a topic which might be interesting to follow further.

    X-buddhism has but one goal: to make you believe that you must identify yourself with x-buddhism.


    The formation of ventriloquized subjects.

    I was recently thinking about how the hierarchical structures of x-buddhism might help to produce authoritarian social patterns. It seems clear to me, at least from what I saw in tibetan sanghas over the last years and from what I see here in the german buddhist internet scene, that there is a deep believe in hierarchy grounded rather on tradition, “thaumaturgical display”, “rhetorics of self-display”, “vibrato” and the like. That’s nothing new.

    What ensues is a certain discourse-control and, reduced and oversimplified, it supports the authority of the leader. Now, buddhism is not overly prone to become some sort of dictatorship but there are a lot of examples that it is all to willing to subject itself to some political order. The question is, how far is a x-buddhist subject socialized to the point to say “Yes and Amen” to any political rule because it does not learn to think and to articulate concerns about the situation it finds itself in?

    The point is not only about consumer buddhism as a tranquilizer for post-democrats but that x-buddhists deploy certain techniques to suppress critical thinking in a certain way: Repressive Tolerance. The term was coined by Herbert Marcuse in 1965 in an essay with just this title. He begins with stating:

    [W]hat is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.

    Reading the essay I was astonished at how many places one can substitute “policies” “political” etc. with “x-buddhistic”, “x-buddhism” etc.

    Tolerance is extended to [x-buddhism], conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.

    I think a lot of buddhist tolerance can be described as repressive tolerance and as such it is becoming an aggression itself because it hinders development, solution finding, creativity…

    I wonder if we should point more directly to this kind of aggressiveness which disguises itself as loving kindness? Indeed, one could think about how metta can become brutality.  

  11. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Robert, re #9

    I admire Eagleton, and find his books useful (even if his clever turns of phrase sometimes become a bit tedious). He does sometimes make overly sensational claims that don’t have much merit-didn’t he go after Salmon Rushdie, once? I think his popularity does depend on his staying “not too political.” It reassures the right wing that they’ve got all the dangerous radicals safely ensconced in endowed chairs writing books most people won’t understand.

    I do think that Eagleton is just stubbornly incapable of grasping Althusser’s concept of ideology, though. I’ll have to take a look at this book, now, and see if he’s reconsidered it, but for years now he has repeatedly given a thoroughly wrong summary of Althusser in all his books, and I can’t quite see why he refuses to read Althusser more carefully. In an essay in the latest issue of Radical Philosophy, Macherey does a very good job of explaining quite clearly what Althusser meant by ideology, that it is a productive force and not at all an illusion or distortion of “reality.” Eagleton doesn’t seem able or willing to get that point.

    I do see your point about considering one’s own death–it is all we really need ONLY if we accept that we have no immortal soul. And it is very difficult to accept this–which is why most Buddhists are really vedantics at heart.

    I wonder how much this terror of nihilism really does have to do with what Matthias says in #10 about the cult of kindness? This obsessive and oppressive insistence on always being nice about everything seems to me quite often a way to avoid facing hard truths.

  12. Robert Avatar

    Tom, re 11. You have made this point about Althusser’s ideology before and I could really use some clarification.  Couldn’t ideology be both a productive force AND an illusion?  Productive in the sense that it contains our collective memory and keeps things moving, and illusory because it addresses “the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live”?  Isn’t the role of ideology to assure us that we have a productive and beneficial role to play in society, isn’t that what makes it imaginary? Isn’t that assurance through ideology illusory in the sense that assuming that role is by and large not at all productive and beneficial for the subject in question, at least not in our current world?


  13. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Jayarava (#1).

    Nice to hear from you, as always. Re my jargon, etc., I have a couple of quotes on the Before you Read page that are meant to hint at the intention–and intentionality–of my jargon. For instance:

    Plain speech is essentially inaccurate. It is only by new metaphors that it can be made precise.
    —T.E. Hulme

    What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane? —Samuel Beckett

    A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game.
    —Jacques Derrida

    My favorite is from the sad, irrepressible Artaud

    All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar’s teeth. —Antonin Artaud

    My own, “It is too late for arguments,” is also meant to signal a non-linear, non-argumentative (though not not argumentative) approach to dialogue. You and I have had the discussion about x-buddhist-oriented language before.

    The effects of a settled can be seen in the tendency toward what I call ventriloquized subjects. I like your sentence, “Most of the Buddhists one meets do seem like the have a hand up their jacksie moving their mouths, at least some of the time.” “Jacksie” a funny word. I suppose it’s from down under; and i suppose it means ass. An excellent image! I know about ventriloquization because I’ve found my own hand up my jacksie all-too often while wisely extemporizing on the Good Law. Having done so myself, I can more easily recognize it in others. And I find it occurring more and more frequently. When our professional knowledge-makers, like the scientists (Jon Kabot Zinn, Richard Davidson, etc.), psychologists, Buddhist studies scholars–oh shite too many names to mention–start babbling along with the people they are supposedly studying, we have entered into mass hallucination.

    So, that’s one reason I insist on the language that I do. It does, believe it or not, have the extra merit of being precise, and funny.

    peace, my friend!

  14. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Robert, Tom (#5,7,9),

    I also vacillate in my usage of the term “ideology.” Sometimes I find myself employing it in the sense of “the force of thought” that forms our views and informs our actions. Sometimes I use it meaning “the web of delusion.” In the first usage, it’s productive; in the second, it’s illusory. So, it seems I have the same question–and confusion?– as Robert. I’d like to stick with an Althusserian approach to ideology, rather than a generalized one.

    The comments that Matthias picks up on in his #10 address the issue of ideology:

    X-buddhism has but one goal: to make you believe that you must identify yourself with x-buddhism.


    The formation of ventriloquized subjects.

    I see x-buddhism’s formation machine at work on a daily basis, since I literally work in a Buddhist organization. I see people go one one set of productive values, language, beliefs, and so on, to another–the one prescribed by the particular form of Buddhism being embraced. It certainly appears, from the outside, that ideology involves both productive forces and illusory projections. I call the latter “hallucination.” I don’t believe in some hallucination-free consciousness, though. Tom, is that what you mean by ideology’s not being about distortion? Is the point that it can’t be about illusion and distortion of reality because that would imply the possibility of the opposite–and that just brings us back to the endless loop of professed yet incompatible “truths” that we’re all trying to become self-conscious of in the first place?

  15. Tom Pepper Avatar

    RE: Ideology.

    Ideology certainly CAN include beliefs that are simply false, but it does not need to, and usually involves only beliefs/practices that are not falsifiable, and so cannot be illusory. The U.S. legal system, for instance, is an ideology–it is a set of ideas embedded in practices which function to reproduce the existing relations of production. To say that laws are an illusion would be an error–they exist, and have real causal power, but not in any mind-independent (intransitive) way. If absolutely everyone decides to ignore a law, such as the law in New York making homosexuality a crime, then it ceases to have any power at all. (I’m not really sure that law is still on the books–I know it was up until the 1980s–I’m just using it as an example). Laws have real power, but only because we believe they exist. We also believe they make us all equal, and keep order in society, and all that crap–much of which is probably only half-true. Ideology, then, can’t really be a mistake, a false-consciousness, an illusion, because it really does exist as long as it really does shape and motivate human action. We can argue that a particular ideology is not in our best interest, that it produces human suffering, but there is no point in saying it is an “illusion.” The only sense I can think of in which ideology is ever “false” is when it pretends not to BE ideology, when it is presented as a timeless or natural truth. But simply unmasking this one error usually does little to weaken an ideology’s power.

    Althusser uses the term “imaginary” in the way he understands Lacan to mean it. It is not pure fancy, made up, unreal. Instead, it is something more on the order of how we perceive and construe our world–closer to phenomenology than to fiction. To say that ideology is an imaginary relation, then, is to say that it involves the structure of perceptions/emotions/meanings in which we experience, and act in, the world.

    So I would say there can never be a completely “ideology-free” consciousness. There are certainly concepts that are about the mind-independent world, and they may very well not serve to reproduce the existing relations of production at all. Our ideologies may function to delimit what kinds of such non-ideological concepts our society produces and preserves–and so even science is never “free” of the effects of ideology–but it is not, necessarily, ideological itself. It is because of this that we have the capacity to produce non-ideological knowledge of our ideologies, and make judgments about whether they are useful for us.

    I would say that ideology very often does work to assure us that we have a productive and meaningful role in society–but not always and not for all people. For many, the ideology they are interpellated into works to persuade them that they never could hope to be of any importance in the world, and must wait for the next one. There is not one, monolithic, ruling class ideology–there always must be multiple ideologies to interpellate multiple classes, races, genders.

    My concern with Eagleton is that he sees Althusser as having made a major blunder, because he mistakenly believes that Althusser simply MUST mean that ideology is a false consciousness and we can somehow get outside of ideology–and this despite several very explicit statements to the contrary in the ISA essay.

    Does this clear up at all what I mean by ideology?

  16. Luis Daniel Avatar
    Luis Daniel


    re # 2.

    I have to say I admire one thing in you and that is your “I dont give a shit about anything” attitude. I find it consistent and genuine. The rest, well, I dont have the time nor erudition to really engage too extensively. My point about anti-essentialism is relatively hard to make in this context. I dont give a shit, either. I think you entertain yourself here and that is as valid as anything, or more. I do have a deep difference with you -yet another- and that is about nihilism. I think nihilism makes you embrace disguised certainty rather carelessly. In your language, it permits you to indulge in some form of facilism. Having a point, a perspective, a not-knowing stance and yet also a being-in-the-world desire and praxis is, at least in my case, a consecuence of nihilism itself. An honest decission. I dont live and dont live at the same time. An open position doesnt mean no position. And much less, multi-positioning. I is easier to be flamboyant than just being un-glamourously practical. Why substitute the compexities of the concrete with artificially inflated conceptualizations and refried descriptions of the same concepts? Is it too boring, just not fun? Isnt contingency -not nihilism- a quake-like shake of very discourse in every being? Isnt solidarity and social justice simply worth it? Taking the boldest conecptual risk is ALWAYS risk-less compared to taking risks in action. So with all youir audacious forms and conectp, accomodations and re-accomodations, I think you make it quite comfortably for yourself.

    And yes I meant what I wrote, and meant it for you. From my point of view there are descriptions used as tools for action. Ideas and theory per se only serve to keep things as they are.

    So what course of action are we discussing here? do x-buddhism and x-beliefs (my addition) get in the middle of a better course of action?

    I argue that essentialism as a whole, and not just x-buddhism, are an obstacle for social justice.

    And that science as a form of ceertain prediction of events and a language of certainty is basically a scam.

    As much as believing in re-birth or samsara or idelogy.

    Good to be here. See you around.

    And about art, well, my father was a sculptor and I grew within it … I think your are the one confusing art with everything else.

  17. Robert Avatar

    Tom, re 15.   Yes, this clears things up a lot, it is very helpful. I am sorry that I wasn’t able to articulate clearly what it is I am aiming at.  I get your point that ideologies manifest in the material actions of persons, and as such ideologies can never be illusionary. But I continue to think of ideology as fundamentally based on a false consciousness, or, as I stated in my earlier comment (12) as having an illusionary foundation, without implying that therefore we can somehow get outside ideology. From my very limited understanding Lacan describes the imaginary register as originating from an illusion, namely the infant thinking that it is its mirror image, coherent and in control rather than the fractured and spasmodic baby it really is.  In this context then doesn’t placing ideology in the imaginary register do more than just saying it “involves the structure of perceptions/emotions/meanings in which we experience, and act in the world”.  Doesn’t it also hint at that fundamental mistake underlying this structure?  And in that sense, doesn’t saying, as Eagleton does, that ideology makes you feel at home in the world, as if the world was made specially for you, reflect exactly what the imaginary register is all about?   Understanding that ideologies come in all flavours, doesn’t this hold at least for all those multiple ideologies that align with the interest of the state?   

    Thanks, Tom, once again I am hoping you can help me out here.  

  18. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Robert, Re 17: I don’t want to suggest that ideology NEVER asks us to believe things that aren’t true (there’s a God waiting to reward you for your poverty, eg). And there is in a sense a “fundamental mistake” only to the extent that we believe our ideology is NOT an ideology–that it is a truth about the essential nature of the mind-independent world. Keep in mind that the “mirror stage” is just a heuristic metaphor, in a sense. Even in a culture in which an infant might never see a mirror, it would still develop an imaginary register.

    So, yes, there may be many ideologies that do seek to make us feel at home in the world, as if we are centrally important. However, it is Eagleton’s idea, and not at all Althusser’s, that this is always how ideology works. They might, but probably quite often do not. For instance, the peasant in a feudal, christian society is certainly meant NOT to feel important and at home in the world, to feel and experience the world as a hostile, unpleasant, sinful, fallen place, so that his will look forward all the more to his reward in heaven. Even in postmodern ideology, many people experience the world as a meaningless, chaotic and unpleasant place, in which they cannot find any purpose or useful place at all. They must believe this is the nature of the world (this must be their ideology), because if they did not they might find a purpose in trying to change things. Very often, it is exactly in the interest of the state that people fail to feel the world a meaningful place.

    I think I see what you mean, but I don’t think “illusion” is the most useful way to put it. We certainly can argue that our ideologies are not actually in our best interest, or that they require the oppression and suffering of others, and so they are not what we think them to be. They are still real, though. Take the example of romantic love. In our culture, it serves to distract us from real sources of unhappiness (alienation, inability to use our productive powers, poverty, injustice, etc), to displace all our discontent onto our sexual relationships–the right one would finally make me perfectly happy. It also serves to maintain the family unit as the primary organizing principle society, reproducing the existing class structure through inheritance. And, as Lacan explains, love is really simply the desire to be desired by the one we take to be the ideal other, because in the psychological structure our culture produces we feel that this desire of the other will insure our meaningful existence. All of these things may be true, yet we may have no idea of what we really mean when we say we “love” someone, or what function it serves in reproducing the existing relation of production, and might actually “feel” the affect of love in such a way that it motivates and directs our behaviors. Romantic love is not an “illusion,” but a powerful and real socially-constructed affect that many people actually do feel and that involves very real material practices. What’s more, you can tell somebody all of this, they may even “understand” these causes to be the true reasons we have constructed the emotion of romantic love, and yet, they will feel the emotion, or even its lack in their life, despite knowing this. This, for me, is why it isn’t helpful to say it is an “illusion.” An illusion loses its power once you know it is just a trick, but an ideology does not.

  19. Tim Avatar

    So when people piss me off, would it be better to do the whole ‘watch your breath, identify your emotion, use some mental technique to deal with it’ thing OR just say to myself ‘Screw it, we’re all just on one pathetic journey to asymptopia’?

  20. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tim (#19). That’s a good question. I would ask you to explore some potential answers, and report back. What I mean is that you have to figure out the relationship between the close-range “this moment” and the long-range “asymptopia.” How does the latter inform the former? How does the truth of unsalvageable extinction alter your relationship to this person, to this emotion, to this anger? Maybe an either/or logic won’t apply. I know my answer to your question–because I have ask myself that very same question. For me, it was answer arrived at via experimentation, trail and error, and real-world action. It was not comfortable. This blog is one of the results–part of the answer.


  21. Robert Avatar

    Tom, re 18.  I agree that to say that a dominant ideology aims to make us feel at home in the world is a sloppy choice of words (my words, by the way, not Eagleton’s).  Better to say that the result of ideologies is that you feel that your place in the world, when all is said and done, is the only possible one for you, and that the actions you pursue are the only options available to you.   More or less along the lines of when you talk about perceiving an ideology as a natural phenomenon rather than something shaped by societal forces.   

    My real interest at this time is understanding what causal link there may be between unknowingly adhering to an ideology and suffering.  You say “reproducing our existing ideologies, as if they were the goal instead of the means, is the source of the suffering of subjects”.  But you don’t really explain why and how this is the case.  Actually, just unquestioningly doing what an ideology tells you to do should make you happy, after all, it feels like the natural thing to do.  Take the ideology of romantic love.   I love my partner, it indeed feels natural, and this does make me happy.  

    Now Eagleton, when discussing / explaining (I think he is a great popularizer) Lacan’s system, is talking about suffering pretty well all the time: the imaginary, the symbolic, the real, it’s all   one big vale of tears.  And the imaginary, being the foremost domain of ideology, is no exception. The particular cause of suffering in the imaginary register seems to be in the tension between the ideological/imaginary notion that the world is naturally the only one for us, and what is actually the case, namely that the world couldn’t care less about us.  For instance, again in the context of romantic love, my partner could die, or she could just stop loving me.  Would you agree with this?

    Looking forward to your reply, your patience as always much appreciated,


  22. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I guess I would agree with the idea that ideology is that system of beliefs-in-practices which usually seems “natural” so that we cannot conceive of a different world. Most people cannot conceive of a world without romantic love as we understand it today in the west. The very idea that it does not exist, in exactly the same way in all cultures, is unthinkable. Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t really feel this culturally produced kind of love for our partners. And it must give us some pleasure and comfort and sense of belonging, or why would so many people bother with it.

    I would suggest, though, that the source of difficulty is not just that the world is indifferent, that your partner could die, etc. The source of difficulty is that we live in a world in which we are unable to use our potential, to fulfill our “final cause” as humans. I’m not saying that we have some eternal destiny, but that we have a nature, as a symbol making species of ape, and if we cannot do what it is our nature to do we suffer. There are many ways, in many cultures, to fulfill this nature–at least, I would suppose there are an enormous variety of possibilities. The problem is that the social system we now live in prevents the vast majority of people from doing this. So, we suffer and don’t know why. And love is a distraction, to keep us from noticing that we are prevented from being active, productive beings interacting with the world. Our problem, we are supposed to think, is that our romantic relationship is not good enough. If we could just meet a new partner, a better, perfect partner, our happiness would be complete. We have a host of such distractions–they all provide some happiness, and we are very attached to them as natural. When I get that promotion, I’ll be happy. When I have a bigger house, can join the better country club, can go around under par, whatever.

    What’s important is that we not think our ideology is an illusion, a false consciousness, hiding the “reality” from us. It is a bunch of very real beliefs embedded in practices, some of which we may want to keep even once capitalism is gone. It is entirely possible people may choose to have monogamous sexual relationships in a communist world–but they would have to be experienced differently. Right now, love is so tied up in class, in maintaining or escaping class positions, that it is hard, in our culture, to imagine it being about anything else. If, as Lacan says, love is the desire to be desired by the other, the other is always an other in terms of class–the paradigms in our culture are novels like “Jane Eyre” or “Great Expectations.”

    Eagleton tends to think of ideology as protecting us from facing the unbearable truth–but even if we accept the truth of nihilism, we’ll need ideologies just in order to channel our productive energies. We could, though, pick ideologies that maximize our ability to fulfill our nature, instead of ones that leave most people suffering in idle poverty while the rich play.

    I’ll have to take a look at this Eagleton book you mentioned. I understand he writes about Badiou in it, and I’m curious what he has to say–since Eagleton’s take on Badiou is likely to become the “standard reading” of his thought, at least in English departments.

  23. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    The picture at the top right depicts Justine from the Film Melancholia by Lars van Trier. Some thoughts about the film (attention, spoilers included).

    I just watched Melancholia. On a hot and sunny sunday morning that is better than the traditional sermon. It is a powerful meditation about the inevitable, how different characters cope with it. Meditation in the sense of the word as it was used by people with a so called classical education. Before marketing raped Buddhism and x-buddhism was begotten – this Caliban of our day. Meditation as intense, lucid thinking. As presence of mind, Geistesgegenwart. As being with the other – with the boy Leo for whom Justine builds the magical grotto. Again this makes me think how much more people like Lars van Trier, the director of this meditation, have to say about our condition in comparison to the most celebrated buddhist celebrities. Again one can think about how much more our culture today has to say. About identity, relation, evil, meaning. The culture, not the culture industries. The latter celebrates the death like a fetish or as, indeed, the fetish. With the culture industries one can sit in the movie laughing about people dying. That indeed is fascism in one of its reincarnations. Or one can sit and dream about enlightenment like as in this shit from Bertolucci where the guy plays the buddha who also made an appearance in Matrix… of course The Matrix – the film every x-buddhist must love because it allegedly tells something about reality, whereas it transports nothing but a stupid duality of good and bad. Not so with Melancholia. This is a true modern day sermon. It leaves one baffled and when the archways of the church open, when one has to feel ones way out into the blinding light of a glaring hot day, one takes along a certain feeling, a strange sensation, a light impression of an irritating calmness – although it is an inevitable insight of this lecture that it is not possible to leave the theater. The horse named Abraham, which Justine rides, two times refuses to cross the bridge which leads down to the village. The third time when Claire, her sister, tries to flee with her son, she also isn’t able to cross the bridge to the other world – the world where the bastards of x-buddhism, the Bob Thurmans of the hoi polloi sing their lullabies. Bob aka Morpheus of The Matrix offers two pills. Down there in the village they tell you about two pills, one will open your eyes to reality (“as it really is” Bob would ad), the other will send you dreaming for ever. But how do you tell the difference if you took one? Down in the village we’ll find no answer. So, at last, the two woman Justine and Claire have to face the inevitable. Claire makes a last try to thumb her nose at death. She wants to celebrate with a glass of wine when her world becomes engulfed in fire. But Justine – la juste – denies her her wish. Magical thinking is only allowed in one case. Only the child Leo is allowed to rest in meditative equipoise, to remain in an illusive trance, in the illusion that the inevitable isn’t until it is.

    I recommend strongly this film. Brace for impact!

  24. Danny Avatar

    Matthias (23), Thank you for recommending this film. It is an incredible work of art, I wish Hollywood could make them like this! I knew I had seen this image at top right (depicting Justine) somewhere, but could not put my finger on it. This film will be with me for a long time, it is completely unforgettable.

    “Brace for impact” indeed!

  25. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Danny (24), thank you for your comment.

    I am still thinking about how the film facilitates this deep impression it leaves. There certainly are movies which make one thinking. Matrix is one of them. Besides the overwhelming amount of esoteric platitudes (which make it really difficult to see it for me without pushing fast forward every other minute) there is an interesting structural pattern in this movie. I would, for example, propose to interpret Mr. Smith, the agent, as an repressed element of consciousness. It is an element of our reality, a repressed truth. The truth that we are the ones exploiting human resources. “We” as the first world sucking energy from the rest of mankind. We are the machines harvesting energy from wherever we can without a second thought what happens to the rest of us. Neo and Morpheus are our omnipotence-fantasies which try to supres this unloved truth. The emotionless face of Mr. Smith is our own mirror-image of our supresed dark side. Neo haunted by his own bad conscience in the persona of Mr. Smith. In the end (Matrix Revolutions) Neo defeats Smith and this is of course, in this interpretation, the infantile dream of the Hollywood dream-machine about forgetting once and for all the bitter truth of our reality. But however this might be, the film doesn’t leave an emotional impression like Melancholia.

    Tom somewhere made the proposition to look into works of art we like very much to deconstruct them in a manner that would tell us something of our hidden/unconscious motivations. Maybe it is the heroic attitude with which Justine faces her own annihilation which fascinates me. It might be a romantic dream to face the inevitable without becoming desperate. I identifie with Justine (and certainly not with the coward John). But then again the film leaves no room for the heroic fantasie to become true. Perhaps this makes the movie so stunning: it does not bypass anything.

  26. Craig Avatar


    I think justine and john were exactly the same…severly depressed. of course, justine was meloncholia type. john had just enough strength to fake it most of the time, yet ultimately, when all his buffers proved false, he couldn’t hold on. justine had enough to get through the wedding, but, as with many newlyweds i think, she couldn’t handle it. her being so depressed that she couldn’t move was very validating to me. as was the fact that she didn’t give a shit about pleasing anyone. she just let herself be depressed and when sweet death was on its way it was justine, ironically, who saved her sister. the anihilation phantasy comes to pass. what a way to go. liberation!

    fwiw-i see depression as the only true human response to this cease pool of a world.

  27. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    26: I wouldn’t see both as depressed. Justine just is the person who is right. She sees something obvious. She sees something what everybody could see – the information is there on the ‘net’. John is wrong, like the marketing-guy, Justine’s boss. He is the liar who tries to conjure a different future although the calculus makes it quite clear where it will end. The calculus of marketing is an omnipotence-fantasie which at last implodes. It circles around the same empty black-whole center of no-self as Melancholia, but it is unable to confront reality. In its manic delusion it rages in destruction. Agression as a hopeless form of activity to bann the inevitable. I think that very much depicts the world we life in. Melancholia, like boredom, is a possible form or resistance…

  28. Danny Avatar

    Matthias (27),

    I like what you say here, “Melancholia, like boredom, is a possible form or resistance…”

    I read that Trier’s inspiration for this film came to him from his own experience with depression, particularly the insight that “the depressed are able to remain calm in stressful situations.”

    Of course Justine is in deep depression when she moves in with Claire, but notice how quickly it lifts as she witnesses the oncoming doom and destruction; she does not fear the truth. She seems to “know things”. She’s eating, bathing, even tans nude after dark in the night glow of Melancholia. Now the only character in control (other than the horse grazing in timeless bliss), leads Claire and Leo, and us too gracefully into the very END, the death of it all. It is her melancholy that comes to redeem her.. .


  29. Craig Avatar

    Depression as a form of resistance. Love it! If you’re depressed, you’re depressed.

  30. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    I would like to differentiate between Melancholia and Depression. The latter is a very vage term which is used in common language as anything from light forms of the blues to heavy forms of psychomotorik deceleration. The latter forms are really no fun and it would be frivolous or cynic on my part to talk about it as a form of resistance. I have had depressions myself. Psychomotorik deceleration sounds neutral. What it doesn’t tell, is how fucked up it feels and how strong an option to end it all becomes. Its nothing romantic. It is sheer desperation but with zero energy. Something like the anger which comes with desperation, only that the anger is changing into a numbing force suffocating everything. In desperation we kill the other, in depression we kill ourselves. So I want to be very careful about what I mean here.

    Melancholia might be within the spectrum of moods which are sombre, darker, sorrowful, down to the zero point of being an inability that cannot even raise a finger anymore and to the point when one has the impression that thoughts begin to freeze, when even thinking gets in a slowmo mood – like in the opening scene of the film. But Melancholia might have more to do with the blues. Its grievance coming from an insight into inevitable ‘qualities’ of life. But it leaves one with the possibility to act. Perhaps it has more to do with grief then with desperation. Friedrich Rückert comes to mind with his “Kindertotenlieder” – songs for his dead children – he wrote after he lost two daughters. Gustav Mahler set some of them to music. The leading tune from Wagner’s Tristan might ad to the mood van Trier is evoking here. Grief is a mood one does not see much more nowadays – like boredom. Both moods – melancholia and boredom – have something sinful about them. At least in christianity they are looked at with suspicion. That make them appealing to my. They are a sin to the day. They decelerate. That’s their value and that’s why I think they can help us to become more autonomous…

  31. Craig Avatar


    yes, i assumed you were seen melancholia and depression to be different. i can’t help but think of the DSM diagnosis of major depressive disorder-melancholia type. the idea of depression as a form of resistance i find liberating because it’s finally some validation of the condition….desperation with no energy. it’s utterly ironic. we live in societies that work us to death and abhor depression as laziness. however, the only mature response to this death society is depression…or melancholia.

  32. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    I think depression can be seen as some sort of resistance of an individual against the force of total responsibility in which we live today. The total freedom to be everything – I want everything and I want it now – comes with a paradox. We have no time to consume all options. Think of what we can download for free today. All Mozart ever wrote, Goethe for sure, myriads of texts with myriads of context – but no time. Our possibilites in relation to our options converge to limit zero. No wonder some individuals break down under this paradox. We are in fact zero. But if this is a kind of resistance then it is a resistance of the psychophysical organism against the overwhelming pressure of the culture industries: “You have to be someone, choose! If you don’t choose, you are a loser! You have to life up to the expectations we present to you. Be a super hero. If not in reality then at least on twitter.” It’s not only about Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame anymore. We have to be famous the whole time. And if we cannot, we skimm through the tabloids to look for what the famous do wrong. They eat shit too. They become depressed too, or manic, or addicted. We are reduced to what Tom calls an atomistic being. We live alone with this paradox of all options vs. zero possibility. And we are made responsible alone if we don’t get out of it something. There is no true community. The wedding sequence in Melancholia…

  33. Luis Daniel Avatar
    Luis Daniel


    I agree with you. But super-ego demands have always been present in humanity, especially through the concept of God. Substitute centuries old God-must-do manipulations by the Churches for the capital-must-buy apparatus and you have a clear continum. I strongly disagree however with Tom in many fronts, this one not being the exception. I think that personal autonomy/responsability through ellucidation is the only way to put real limits to the heavy buderns impossed by the super-ego and society.

    Seven years ago I read a book that was useful which helped me better clarify the difference between melancholia and depression and their relation with angst.

    Should you want to take a look at it, its name is Grundformen der Angst, by Fritz Riemann.

  34. saibhu Avatar

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but maybe one additional story where depression/melancholia becomes resistance.

    Rop Gongrijp once* told the story that, when he explained to his friends how much the increasing surveillance and loss of privacy in his country worried and finally even depressed him, the response of his friends often was: Well, there’s no reason to be depressed! Look at all the drugs we have! Just go see a doctor and get a prescription!

    Of course for many people a prescription is just what they need, but in that case he explicitly mentioned the reason for his feelings.

    So being “unhappy” in that case means a resistance to be satisfied with the state of the society. A resistance to the ongoing message of “if want to be happy – just buy [x] and that’ll do the job”. Instead he takes one step back and asks: Do I want to be happy? It’s also a kind of personal sacrifice. The resistance to focus on the own happiness and simply ignore the responsibility an individual has towards its society.

    It might also be an example of the atomistic self model held by his friends. If he’s unhappy that’s his fault and not the fault of the society. He should change (taking drugs) but not the society.

  35. Craig Avatar


    there lies the rub. do we work to change society that obviously is the cause of much of our suffering or do we change ourselves and our response to our and society’s suffering? probably both. personally, i feel like i really can’t do much more than make it though the day. at the same time, if everyone who cleans toilets one day did not go to work and demanded a better society we would see change immediately.

    as an aside, i always find myself in ptsd mode this time of year. i think it’s because of 9/11. hell, i wasn’t even in new york, but i just feel like societal anxiety increased exponentially after 9/11. that being said, it was nothing compared to the atomic bombs dropped in Japan. what a nightmare.

  36. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    My point here is about certain forms of experience again. Not about certain notions. Although experience and notion interact intimately. It is the old problem how to express them and to come to an understanding about what we mean – or to an understanding that we do not understand each other. Or that the process of understanding and expression is always also a process of formation. A point with which the question of relativity arises – everything can be true – with possibly ensuing disorientation and in some cases depression as the merciless thought of total uselessness and auto-annihilation as last exit. But understanding as formation of new thought must not lead into the wilderness of postmodern relativity. śīla – one of the three basic components of Buddhist engagement – should provide for a grounding and guarding against the fall into this snake pit. prajñā – knowledge – should result at some point: to know what to value and what to do, how to act. samādhi as any kind of traditional or derived technique to learn how to think differently must act in a way which tries to reach an understanding of ideology (cf. => Samsara as the Realm of Ideology) śīla within ideology not understood can only act as enhancer of any kind of ideology but not as its clarification. Certain experiences we all know, which enact deceleration – e.g. boredom, melancholia sans self-abasement – could function as tools to cut a hole into the fabric of reality. If only at first as an act of disengagement.

    In boredom, the gears keep grinding though the drive train is no longer engaged. (cf => the third noble truth)

    Where is Justin coming to the conclusion to no longer engage in the game? It’s no discrete point in time and space but the process which leads to the formation of a certain knowledge. Nobody wants to talk to her about her being frightened. Not even her mother. No interaction, no morality – no śīla – no basis for samādhi and it all goes wrong. Jack the marketing-bastard certainly knows samādhi but no morals. Boredom could provide some room to think about what would be better. It could provide a cut-off. Disengagement as a means to look out for the contradictions. A stretch-limo at a narrow corner. Nothing really fits together in the way we live. It seems obvious – sometimes. It needs a refinement of awareness to hear the gears keep grinding. Jack Nothing wants to keep us from knowing. Justine realizes it and her resignation is not without action! She is śīla. And she is depressed, sick of it all, she has to implode when even her mother tells her to fuck off. Her narcissistic implosion maybe is only the opposite of Jacks manic nothingness. Maybe the film is only a dream about suicide. But a least we can think of it a bit without dying.

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