Kenneth [Folk], never wrestle with [the non-buddhist] pigs. All of you get dirty and stink badly, but the pigs like it. –Michael Roe, on Justin Whitaker’s blog
Of course people have the right to deceive themselves. Some choose to profit from this, others point out their delusions. Isn’t it funny that it’s usually the latter that are accused of being cynical and elitist? –Tutteji Dai Osho
What role do Buddhist studies scholars play in contemporary x-buddhist discourse? Does their detailed research on, say, x-buddhist textual transmission or the formative influences of socio-historical trends on x-buddhist doctrine, have any on-the-ground impact? Or are their discussions and proclamations obscured by/ignored because of the rarefied air of the ivory tower? In Tutteji’s terms, do Buddhist scholars function in the larger, public discourse to perpetuate delusion concerning “The Dharma” or do they provide tools for dismantling such delusion?
When I get some time, I’d like to explore this issue in more depth. Here, I would like to present what will surely turn out to be three broad strokes of that issue. I will do so on the basis of Justin Whitaker’s current post on his blog (links below). Whitaker, bear in mind, presents himself as a Buddhist studies scholar. I see in his posts a tendency common to much Buddhist studies scholarship: mirroring of x-buddhist ideology.
First, a pithy recap of the basic thrust of the speculative non-buddhist critique:
We are interested in explorations that locate the point where brute language, image, or action spins into a web of entangling ideological formations. (From our non + x site)
Our goal “consists in wresting vital potentialities of humans from the artificial forms and static norms that subjugate them” (Marjorie Gracieuse, “Laruelle Faces Deleuze” Immanance, Resistance, and Desire”).
“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)
To Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself… This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think. (Lydia Goehr, in a recent talk on art criticism)
The pithiest recap of all comes from the incomparable Master T-tteji: it is about exposing their ideology and rhetorical tricks.
So, here is a very brief non-buddhist analysis of Justin Whitaker’s all-too-common x-buddhist rhetorical trickery, to which he adds a dash of ideologically blind scholarly trickery. The goal of this non-buddhist look?—to break the authority that such “thinking” has on its readers.
The three tactics used by Whitaker, and commonplace in both x-buddhist dialogue and scholarly Buddhist studies exchanges, are ideological obfuscation, feigned objectivity, and vacuous nicety. Obviously, the first two moves are closely aligned, but it’s useful to separate them out a bit.
Ideological obfuscation. In re-presenting the 16,000+word discussion, Whitaker understandably wants to edit. He admits that he has done so on the basis of his “own subjective takes.” (And it is abundantly transparent how x-buddhist/x-spiritualist Whitaker’s “take” is from his About page.) Yet, in the very next sentence he tells us that he has endeavored to “copy the ‘heart’ of the various comments and ignore those that are ignored by others on the post.” This is a double-obfuscation. First, Whitaker erases the fact of
his own subjective takes and elevates that to having reproduced the heart. Second, he further obscures subjective take-as-heart by replicating the already x-buddhist ideology-driven ignoring of certain comments by Ken Folk. I am referring, too, for instance, the several argument-driven comments which, had Folk responded to them, would have completely changed the entire “heart” of the exchange. Folk refused to engage these pointed critiques of his work. Instead, he insisted on simply trying to, on his own account, “out-bully” his interlocutor. So, in replicating the “heart” of this x-buddhist refusal to engage serious critique, Whitaker merely doubles down on it.
Feigned objectivity. In an edit to the post, Whitaker states: “I myself will try not to steer opinion in any one direction.” He added this edit in order to explain that he has deleted Master T-tteji’s comment as well as my own. Both of us merely asked Whitaker to answer his own questions. I also asked him why, and using what criteria, he chose to present my one defensive comment and ignore my three substantive critiques. (Now I understand. See above.) How should we understand Whitaker’s belief that he is not steering the discussion in any particular direction? One possibility is that he is stupid, or at least not very sophisticated. But since he studies Kant, and, it seems, has not been kicked out of the program, that can’t be it. Another possibility is that he is entangled in the wheels of the x-buddhist decisional juggernaut. One of the central spokes in these wheels in the belief is the possibility of a unitary objective account of reality (namely, The Dharma). This belief is so deeply ingrained in x-buddhists, and so essential to continued affiliation, that without that spoke the wheel stops turning.
Vacuous nicety. In the post, Whitaker displays nothing if not niceness. But it’s the kind of niceness that is endemic to x-buddhist dialogue; namely, the thought-killing kind. Here are examples. Robert Michael Ellis, the apostle of “Middle Way Philosophy” (“a practical and moral philosophy of universal applicability”) writes:
The point where the speculative non-Buddhists start responding to a balanced, thoughtful and compassionate engagement by calling the person doing this “a complete fucking idiot” is the point where I stop reading.
Whitaker responds to Ellis’s priggishness:
Thanks for commenting, Robert. Yes, that does seem to be a kicker for a certain percentage of the audience. On the other hand I wonder if it is that kind of (can I call it ‘edginess’?) that drives the discussion amongst another portion of their readers.
That’s a nice start, but… I could certainly think of a lot more to respond with. For example: Robert Michael, is that a Middle Way Philosophy response? Care to elaborate on how? Oh, it isn’t? Care to explain why not? Or how about pointing out the probability of bullshit inherent in Ellis’s comment. After all, some version of “you’re a fucking idiot” has been uttered from the outset, yet Ellis just now stops reading? Bullshit. So, what’s up then, Robert Michael? etc., etc.
Another example of niceness quashing robust question-asking is Seth “Zuiho” Segall’s sorry statement:
Justin, I have tussled with the Speculative-Non Buddhists before (http://bit.ly/oczdYx), but I’ve continued to read their website out of sheer curiosity, and the belief that one ought to read what one’s critics are saying. Sometimes you can learn something when you least expect it. While my initial objection to their website was mostly one of tone, it’s come to be more about my disappointment with their content, or lack thereof. Simply put, there’s no “there” there. They are mostly Johnny-One-Notes. What’s useful about their critique has been said before and better by others. What’s unique is mostly sarcasm, spite, and ill-humor along with some warmed-over Marxism and obscure Deleuzeanism. I don’t find any of it enlightening.
Whitaker could ask: Really, Seth? You’ve determined that they are virtually without content, mere “Johnny-One-Notes,” and yet you continue to read “out of sheer curiosity”? Is the occasional reward so profound that you slug through their shite nonetheless? What’s really going on, Seth Zuiho? Or how about asking Segall to cite those “others” who have made the non-buddhist critique “before and better”? Now that would be interesting to hear about, don’t you think? No, nice Justin Whitaker responds:
Hi Seth – thank you too for the comments. And wow – yes, I see you and others did have a long tussle with the SNB crowd a while back. Thanks for the link.
Let’s see how he responds to Al Billings’s intelligence-phobic comment. Billings claims, for instance that “Their critiques have little impact on my actual lived, day to day, practice.” If Whitaker wants to further thinking, he could ask, for example, Okay, so which of the non-buddhist theories have you actually applied, and how did they fall short of “impacting” you? But I predict he’ll just be nice.
Niceness such as Whitaker’s (or Segall’s or Ellis’s or any other prudish right-speechist) is not innocent. An observer of such right-speech-driven x-buddhist exchanges will learn a lot about the rhetorical force of vacuous niceness by asking questions like: who gains by this niceness? who loses? what is lost? and at what cost? what remains in place? what is prevented from appearing?
What is the purpose of such reading and critique? Again, it is to expose the machinations and lost opportunities of unfulfilled thought. It is to expose the ways in which potentially coercive ideologies begin to take root. Most importantly for our purposes, it is to follow the witch’s flight of insight into human truths, charted, with potent potentiality, by Buddhist thought.
As I was about to publish this post, I saw a comment on Whitaker’s post that made me scratch my head. Matthew O’Connell writes:
The most measured voice of the [speculative non-buddhists] was always Glenn, who seems to be more interested in critiquing Buddhist figures directly these days. I frankly find such a project a distraction. Perhaps Tutteji’s humour is a better way to go.
What is dismaying about this view is the assumption that the abstract-theoretical aspect of the discussion could somehow be isolated from the concrete-personal one. In fact, I find it hard to understand how O’Connell can see value in the non-buddhist critique, yet be so chummy with x-buddhist figures, like Hokai Sobol. If the heuristic exposes the workings of x-buddhism, it also exposes the manipulations of x-buddhists, particularly x-buddhist teachers. That is why I employ the theory on an abstract-concrete/theoretical-personal continuum. O’Connell’s plea for humor really just asks that we go easy* on the x-buddhist figures, whose M.O., I suspect, must be unraveling before his very eyes.
For a much more, ahem, flavorful discussion, see our Master’s site.