The Power of Negative Thinking
Posted by Glenn Wallis on November 17, 2012
“Critique” is that form of discourse which seeks to inhabit the experience of the subject from inside, in order to elicit those “valid” features of that experience which point beyond the subject’s present condition —Terry Eagleton, Ideology, xiv
One of the animating ideas of the non-buddhism critique is that contemporary x-buddhism persistently “denies its own promises and potentialities.” That phrase is from Herbert Marcuse’s 1960 essay “A Note on Dialectic.”* In this post, I will briefly present Marcuse’s notion of dialectical, or negative, thinking. Then, I will suggest ways that readers might use this analytical tool in their own encounters with x-buddhist teachers, literature, on-line sites and beyond. Finally, I will make a few predictions.
The Concept and Practice of Negative Thinking
Marcuse’s concept—and practice—of negative thinking is encapsulated in Hegel’s definition of thinking itself: “Thinking is essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us.” To disabuse the reader of the excuse that this is an abstract philosophical principle, Marcuse immediately says that it is, on the contrary, “saturated with experience—”
experience of a world in which the unreasonable becomes reasonable and, as such, determines the facts; in which unfreedom is the condition of freedom, and war the guarantor of peace. This world contradicts itself (64).
The negative is thus “the central category of dialectic” (64). It is so because thinking the negative is what enables us to recognize that the status quo—the conglomeration of socially posited and accepted “facts”—maintains itself only through systematic, if often blind, disregard of “the fatal contradictions” which constitute it. For a political thinker like Marcuse, an example of how a fatal contradiction manifests might be the chasm between the American rhetoric of social justice and equality and the reality of injustice and inequality. To extrapolate from Marcuse’s argument in Eros and Civilization, although the United States possesses the wealth and resources required to significantly reduce, if not eradicate, poverty, scarcity, and exploitation, somehow the latter increases along with the former. As we, as a society, increase the conditions for a just and equal society, our society in fact becomes even more oppressive. This contradiction, when recognized, is fatal in two senses. First, it abolishes any pretense to a national identity of being “the home of the free and the brave,” where “all men are created equal,” and all that. Second, it makes clear that we, as a society, deny ourselves the very “promise and potentialities” inherent in our ideology of freedom and equality.
Negative thinking is in this manner “the driving power of dialectical thought, used as a tool for analyzing the world of facts in terms of its internal inadequacy” (64-65). Marcuse followed Hegel in viewing dialectic not merely as a method to be applied to phenomena, but as an inherent feature of reality. Viewing the world only in terms of the established “facts” (the American political system is democratic) is thus inadequate because it is woefully incomplete (our “democracy” is rigged toward the wealthy, rife with cronyism, lists toward disenfranchisement). Thus, “all thinking that does not testify to an awareness of the radical falsity of the established forms of life is faulty thinking” (70). Any form of thinking, moreover, that “excludes contradiction from its logic is a faulty” form of thinking (66). “Thought,” in fact, “‘corresponds’ to reality only as it transforms reality by comprehending its contradictory structure” (66). And it is in this possibility of transformation that negative thought has its ultimate value.
Next, I want to invite the reader to spend some time digging up evidence for him/herself for what I claim to be happening with x-buddhist materials. Denying the promise and potential of, say, social equality, is serious business. It is equally serious when human potentialities such as “awakening” and “seeing things as they are” and “wisdom” are at issue. In Marcuse’s terms, denial stems from the refusal of an x-buddhist community to acknowledge “the reality of contradictions” (64) inherent in its system of thought and action. I encourage you to look at Ken McLeod’s site “Unfettered Mind” as a good example of what Marcuse is calling denial of promise and potential (links at bottom). McLeod’s site is rife with instances of the “conformistic logic” (64) which ensues from denial of contradiction. This is a logic that simultaneously “repels its own real possibilities” (67) and impels the very conditions of potential-denying subjugation that McLeod, as x-buddhist teacher, claims to be ameliorating. That is not to say, of course, that McLeod’s site is free from contradiction. Quite the contrary. I hope the reader will notice the site’s incoherent appropriation of, for instance, Enlightenment rationality and skepticism together with Romantic anti-rationalism and exuberant emotionalism, or of its pervasive scientistic empiricism in conjunction with obscurantist mysticism. Notice in particular how all of these (unacknowledged, flattened out) contradictory forces are garnered to create a totalizing system of self-realization—one that is run through with coercive strategies of person formation, and thus leaves little or no room for individual prerogatives. Again, given McLeod’s x-buddhist rhetoric of emancipation, the problem here should be obvious.
While you’re at it, you may want to do the same kind of examination of your favorite x-buddhist material—website, dharma talk, book, Shambhala Sun article, and so on. Ask yourself: does this material exhibit contradictions that are somehow suppressed through non-elaboration, thereby denying the promise and potentialities that are, ostensibly, the material’s very reason for being? The “power of negative thinking” that Marcuse promotes in “A Note on Dialectic” will surely prove useful in your investigations of x-buddhist material.
The Negative of the Positive
Marcuse’s apparently intentional reversal of Norman Vincent Peale’s multi-million-selling 1952 publication The Power of Positive Thinking has significance for us even beyond what Marcuse intended. I say this because contemporary western x-buddhism is nothing if not a “positive thinking” movement. It is one, moreover, in the grand tradition of the movements surrounding people like Peale, Dale Carnegie, James Allen, and Napoleon Hill, It is positive in two additional senses that Marcuse’s negative thinking is intended to counter.
First, x-buddhism is a complex system of valorization. It valorizes practices and dispositions that it deems positive—constructive, affirmative, helpful—and does so to the point of making them essential spiritualized qualities. A visit to McLeod’s site reveals the all-too predictable list of such positive qualities: right speech, balance, generosity, goodness, compassion, loving kindness, non-judgmental mindfulness, meditation, devotion, equanimity, top-down student-teacher relationship, and many more. In the world of x-buddhism, these “positive” qualities, significantly, are not merely recommended: they are required for sustained admission to the community. To act or speak with, say, judgmentalism or emotional imbalance or to reject the hierarchical teacher-student relationship is seen at best as a breach of good-buddhist propriety and at worst as want of “spiritual” accomplishment and forfeiture of authority. I encourage you to test this claim by leaving an “unmindful,” unrightspeechified, yet nonetheless thoughtful, comment on some topic on the Tricycle blog, at the Secular Buddhist Association, or at Dharma Wheel.
Western x-buddhism is positive in another sense, as well. It employs its “facts” as a means of creating a false unity. For Marcuse, to repeat, facts are what constitute the present order of a situation, such as the values mentioned on McLeod’s site. The facts are thus “positive” in the sense that they are granted visibility by the community, made explicit, put on display, presented on the surface, rendered status quo, and so forth. But, says Marcuse, the facts remain positive only through suppression of “that which they exclude” (67), namely, their opposite, their negative, that which opposes and negates them. I predict that your investigations will confirm that, from the conservative zen- and theravadan-buddhists to the ostensibly progressive secular- and atheist-buddhists, contradictions are as a matter of course masked, diminished, flattened out or outright suppressed. Again, you can test this hypothesis yourself through robust dialogue with fellow practitioners, teachers, and on-line communities.
A Couple More Predictions
I also predict that you will discover that your x-buddhist interlocutors will repel your inquisitive probing into the negative aspect of their thought. The obvious result of a community’s safeguarding of the “positive,” in all senses of the term mentioned here, is that its contradictions remain hidden, and the status quo of the enforcers reigns. Given that this anti-negative one-sidedness constitutes “denial of promise and potentiality,” a less obvious but quite real consequence follows. Marcuse argues that the primary condition for the maintenance of the enforcement-domination cycle is hereby established: participation in Ken McLeod’s “Pragmatic Buddhism,” for example, leads the participant to voluntarily internalize the oppressive values that disable the promise of social and personal emancipation potentially inherent in the material. Only robust, persistent negative thinking (and dialogical interaction) can prohibit such repression and enable emancipatory potential.
Finally, it will be interesting to note, given many previous discussions on this blog, that Marcuse claims that negative thinking is “the mode of thought capable of piercing [our] ideology” (71). With that, I will leave you with one final prediction: drawing out the negative in our current x-buddhist materials and teachers, in our search for their promise and potential, will be prove to be as liberating as it is destructive.
* The essay served as a preface to the revised edition of Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, originally published in 1941. I referred to Andrew Feenberg and William Leiss, The Essential Marcuse: Selected Writings of Philosopher and Social Critic Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).
Ken McLeod’s site (with quotes such as: “One cannot be free by opposing another.” –James Carse)
Secular Buddhist Association (their “Community Standards” page exemplifies what Marcuse calls “surplus repression.”)
Dharma Wheel forum (discussion of a Tom Pepper essay)
Glenn Wallis holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University. He is the author of Mediating the Power of Buddhas and several other books and articles on Buddhism. Wallis also blogs at Ovenbird. He co-founded, with Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass, the e-journal non + x. For more information, visit: glennwallis.com.