Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Radical Potential

Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 10, 2013

MalevichSpeculative non-buddhism is an attempt to think x-buddhism via radical concepts. A radical concept is one that has the status of a transcendental minimum. In Laruellen language, a radical, transcendentally minimal concept is one that “clones” the real rather than the wholly transcendental, and is thus posited by the “human-in-human” rather than by some totalizing x-system. Intriguingly, yet confoundingly, x-buddhism itself is populated by radical concepts. In Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, I argue that the prime calculus of classical-buddhism is constituted by radical concepts. I have in mind concepts such as vanishing, ancestral anamnesis,  symbolic identity, nihility,  surface, and others (anicca, sati, anattā, suññatā, sabba).

And yet I claim that the brutal failure of x-buddhism throughout its entire history has been its inability (or refusal?) to unleash the revolutionary potential of its thought. I further claim that what has filled the space of this failure/refusal is not a merely quasi-revolutionary force-of-x-buddhism; it is, rather, an impotent collusion. Contemporary x-buddhism’s impotence makes it easy prey to the very status quo its calculus is, arguably, designed to upset. Do we need any further evidence of this than the smooth grafting of x-buddhism onto the western marketplace? In fact, this is an old pattern. Everywhere Buddhism has been brought–Tibet, China, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc.–it has been co-opted by the ruling power structures, and thereby seduced away from its revolutionary designs.  It is fair to ask whether today, in Europe and North America, x-buddhism is not just another product that enables its consumer merely to retreat and  refresh before the next day’s onslaught. That would certainly fit the ancient pattern. Chinese Chan, for example, was a mix of agrarianism, Daoism, and Indian Buddhism bound tightly with the heavy chains of Confucianism. In the West, we have a mix of feel-good pop psychology, Hallmark Card-like positive affirmation, and world-buddhism trapped in the bloated cage of consumer capitalism.

That unfortunate, recurring fate of x-buddhism is an issue for historians. Speculative non-buddhism is practical theory. It is concerned with the inherent, present conditions of x-buddhism. Because the radical concepts that speculative non-buddhism works with are derived from x-buddhist thought itself, speculative non-buddhism may be viewed as a form of immanent critique: It considers its subject while immersed in its subject; it remains open to and curious about its subject’s premises and postulates; it follows, in the first instance, the contours of thought drawn by its subject. But it does so not in order to validate the structure of that thought, but to expose the fault lines where x-buddhism’s governing principles break apart.

As a simple example of the confluence of some of these issues, let’s look at the following comment from another blog. The writer is lamenting the tendency of x-buddhist teachers to lure people into their groups with sensible talk sprinkled with a things as they are naturalism, pragmatism, and so on, and then eventually springing religious dogma on them. In other words, the old bait and switch of the peddler.

I saw Ajahn Sumedho give a talk on his way to retirement in Thailand where he pronounced the good news that there is more than this life! So I asked him what experience he had that he based this knowledge on, and did it occur in a meditative state. He ignored the question, like a slick lying politician, and gave me a basic dharma instruction. This is one example of that duplicity in action.

Sumedho was not being duplicitous. He was being consistent. As a bona fide peddler of x-buddhist wares, Sumedho was simply offering up the goods at his disposal. Those goods are that which is indexed by the term “basic dharma.” “The Dharma,” is a non-radical concept. It is, in fact, the polar opposite: a wholly or absolutely transcendental concept. A radical concept stems from a question, one, crucially, posed by the human in and as human, one rooted in our immanent situation. The Dharma, by contrast, constitutes a complex of prescribed answers. Like all wholly transcendental structures, The Dharma’s answers are static and inert. They are not born of the demands of our primitive situation, a situation that alters over time and that science can chart. The Dharma’s answers are born of the demands–logical, emotional, cultural–of a differential, one, moreover, of its own creation, unavailable to science or any other local knowledge.

In his essay “What Kind of Buddhist are You?,” Tom Pepper presents a valuable typology (borrowing from Alain Badiou). In the terms of that typology, Ajahn Sumedho is performing as an “obscurantist” subject (link at bottom).

The obscurantist subject is that subject who [quoting Badiou from Logics of Worlds] “systematically resorts to the invocation of a full and pure transcendent Body, an ahistorical or anti-evental body” which “has the power to reduce to silence that which affirms the event, thus forbidding the real body from existing”(59-60).  The obscurantist subject appeals to some ineffable truth beyond words, which science threatens to destroy, the “truly human” that escapes reason, and can only be found in miraculous revelations and is always hidden in obscure origins.  We see this in x-buddhism whenever there is an insistence that awakening is beyond language, that Buddha never used language to teach, that we must never think if we hope to become enlightened, or that the ultimate goal is some full and pure “substrate consciousness,” Buddha-nature, or “true self.”  We see this subject whenever argument is squashed with appeals to tradition or sutra-quoting or lineages.

The person asking Ajahn Sumedho the question seems be prepared to follow the obscurantist line. For, what if Sumedho had replied, “yes, I attained this knowledge of future births in deep, non-conceptual meditation.” Would that claim have been enough to satisfy the query? If not, the questioner may be approaching the status of a “faithful” subject.

The faithful subject is the one that notices the truth event and tries to force its acceptance in the World. “Forcing” is a term borrowed from set theory, and refers to the attempt to transform the discursive practices and institutions of the World in such a way that the truth becomes demonstrable, is able to appear and be spoken of; in a sense, it is offering a “proof” of a truth that it as yet only “intuitively” grasped. Until it is “forced” into appearing, a truth is indeterminate, it does not seem to belong to the World, and is on the fringes of the discourses and institutions—it exists, but it does not officially appear (Badiou uses the example of undocumented workers in France).  The faithful subject notices the truth event, the occurrence in a World of something that seems a contradiction, an excess, something that cannot be accounted for, and this subject struggles to remake the World to bring this truth into appearance. As Badiou puts it, the faithful subject “engenders the expansion of the present and exposes, fragment by fragment, a truth”(53).

In the terms I am using, a faithful subject thinks x-buddhism via its own radical concepts. What happens to the traditionalist’s “rebirth” and “awakening” or, for that matter, the “non-reactivity” and “present moment” of the post-traditionalist, when forced to reckon with fading (anicca), radical contingency (paticcipasamuppada), and nihility (suññatā)?

What happens, in other words, when we take x-buddhism at its own, radical, word?

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Link: Tom Pepper, “What Kind of Buddhist are You?

Image: Kazimir Malevich (Russian. 1879-1935), Suprematist Composition: White On White, 1918, Museum of Modern Art New York.

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