Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, Introduction
Posted by Glenn Wallis on September 8, 2013
I’ll post a few excerpts from Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism over the next few weeks, just to give you a taste. It’s available at Amazon and EyeCorner Press. Buy it, read it, and write a review–in that order, please!
Read John L. Murphy’s review at The Non-Buddhist.
Read Frank Jude’s review at Goodreads.
I employ the word “cruelty” in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor, an implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness; in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue…It is the consequence of an act… Everything that acts is a cruelty. —Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double
Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt. ―Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Everything that acts is a cruelty. And yet the theater, the sphere of Artaud’s own struggle, had devolved into a form of self-soothing diversion, creating a submissive public content to be “Peeping Toms,” gawking at lives that were not their own. Artaud’s sublimely impossible task was to forge this theater of complacency into an “immediate and violent” whirlwind that exposed to its viewers the raw truths of their lives. Only a theater that wakes up its audience “nerves and heart,” he believed, can approach this goal. Such a theater must be built on cruelty—on, that is to say, “extreme action, pushed beyond all limits.” If not pushed with such intentional zeal, the forces of delusion and self-satisfaction will overwhelm the vitality that is catalyzed by acts of lucid cruelty.
Everything that acts is a cruelty. What about Buddhism? Does it enable the cruel thought made possible by its sublime teaching, or does it lapse, like the theater of entertainment, into a falsely assuring aesthetics of the beautiful?
The term “Buddhism” evokes a hackneyed bifurcation. Here, we have a soft version that caters gently to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises salvation in the form of diurnal restoration, like ease in the midst of stress or real happiness. There, we have a hard version, derived from the doctrines, practices, and institutions of Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” Both versions flourish by virtue of a curative fantasy as ancient as Homo sapiens ape: to emerge from life unscathed.
What use is Buddhism today? It is perpetually hoisted up as the elixir par excellence against the acidic tensions intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. Its remedy? Gelassenheit in the midst of the infernal samsaric whirlwind. Is that it? Is Buddhism a modern-day Epicurean path to eudaemonia, a garden that “slakes the thirst with a natural cure?”
Many questions present themselves. Does Buddhism even yield useful knowledge anymore? Doesn’t science provide more satisfying models of, for instance, perception and cognition, than does Buddhism? Doesn’t philosophy better articulate the questions that seem to animate Buddhist discourse on meaning, language, and being? Doesn’t psychology offer more effective forms and models of mental health? In short, are Buddhism’s institutions and beliefs too cumbersome and unsophisticated to satisfy any but the most willing to believe?
The single most important question for us is: Is Buddhism fit for modern life?
The answer to that question is far from clear. Indeed, there is little evidence that it has yet to be addressed at all, and certainly not in any sustained manner. Neither those who embrace Buddhist teachings nor those who reject them are inclined toward such questioning. To the former, querying is threatening. It begets the possibility of unforeseen and undesirable transmutation, even destruction. To the latter, such questioning is irrelevant; for they have already foreclosed on Buddhism’s viability. So, who does that leave? Who will ask the question?
The purpose of this book is to engage in a creative critique of Buddhism. In doing so, we neither take for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary western world nor bar the possibility of renovation and application. We see, rather, in the very process of critique an opening. In order to exploit this opening, however, we find it necessary to create drastically new, and buddhistically indefensible, theorems.
This book is a radical laying bare of the brutal refusal of x-buddhism to honor its most basic pledge: abetment of liberation.
This is a book of heresy.
Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice consists of three parts. Each part addresses both theoretical and practical dimensions of Buddhism. Authored individually, each part nonetheless interacts with the concerns of the others. Those concerns include the formation of an autonomous subject in the face of Buddhism’s concealment of its ideological force; the possibility of a practice that thus serves as a theory or science of ideology; the reconstitution of practice as an organon of authoritative structures, including controlling social-conceptual representations; and the perception of Buddhism as the subject of a historical process. Perhaps the most salient theme running throughout the book concerns the crucial necessity of transfusing anemic contemporary Buddhist discourse with the lifeblood of rigorous, creative thought.
Will Buddhism in the twenty-first century West help fashion a liberated subject? Or will it continue to be a deceptive mythos spawning subjects who are content to rest at ease in the thrall of predatory capitalism? The three parts of the book share a common concern: to push Buddhism to the brink.