Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice: Synopsis

Book.coverCruel Theory | Sublime Practice consists of three separate essays. While each of these essays moves, as the subtitle of the book puts it, toward a revaluation of Buddhism, each does so on its own distinct terms. The book does not, that is to say, present an overarching theory or a consistent program. That it refuses such coherency is in itself an illuminating clue as to the nature of the emerging critique of contemporary Buddhism as the three of us, the authors, are practicing it.

To borrow from Laruelle’s From Decision to Heresy, I would put it like this. The questions we need to ask today are not of the form “what is Buddhism,” or “what does some x-buddhist doctrine say about this or that?” Such questions must be replaced by those of the form: how do x-buddhisms operate? how do they form their subjects? what can they and can they not do? Of course, we have in the very questions the mark of a potentially devastating critique, for such questions assume, contra any x-buddhist self-understanding as being a sufficiency, real limitations. The questions we pose are “partly Spinozist:” from within the x-buddhist safe house, the dharmic vallation, “no-one knows what a [human being] can do.” X-buddhist doctrine so over-determines the discussion concerning human capability that it is really no discussion at all, just prescription to or rejection of a program of belief. It is also “partly Kantian: circumscribe [x-buddhism’s] illusory power,” the power of mythologized authority, of the wisdom of the non-thinking body, of mana-like mindfulness, etc., and do not re-inscribe its self-proclaimed sufficiency in the shape of a transfigured x-buddhism (secular, atheist, post-traditional, and so on). It is also “partly Marxist:” can x-buddhist theorems themselves be employed, in thought and practice, to break the spell of idealism and Romanticism under which contemporary x-buddhism finds itself? how much of the x-buddhist theorem-juice can be extracted from its covertly ideological-subjugation function? And finally, it is also “partly Wittgensteinian:” how can we weaken incantatory buddhemic language and restore its terminology to de-potentialized usage?

Following are synopses of the book’s three parts.

Part One

“The Radical Buddhist Subject and the Sublime Aesthetics of Truth”

By Tom Pepper

Pepper proposes to bring Buddhist thought into conversation with modern western thought, in order to create an approach to Buddhist practice that can produce socially engaged and truly radical subjects in a late-capitalist world. His intention is to strip away western Buddhism’s tendency to produce illusions of mystical bliss or quietist contentment, and to leave behind only the (perhaps unpleasant) truth that we can actually be liberated.

Buddhist thought has been mapped onto just about every modern philosophical approach, from Kant to Derrida.  In this section, Pepper proposes that producing such analogies is never useful and is usually merely reductive and misleading; instead he attempts to bring concepts from the Pali Canon and from Nagarjuna into a conversation with modern thought, particularly the thought of Badiou, Bhaskar, Lacan, and Althusser.  His suggestion is not that these modern thinkers are saying the same thing as Buddhist thinkers, but that these Buddhist texts reveal truths that are absent from contemporary discourses.  Badiou insists that a Truth is always available, that no truth is confined to a culture or historical moment; however, a Truth can only ever appear in a specific World, and so must always appear in the form of that World.  It is Pepper’s argument that there are concepts available in modern thought to enable us to bring the Truth of Buddhism into our World.

Pepper’s focus is on two related concepts: the concept of the non-atomistic, socially-constructed Mind; and Althusser’s productive concept of ideology as the real relations to our relations of production.  These concepts can help us to make sense of the centrally important Buddhist concepts of emptiness, dependent arising, and non-self.  Pepper argues that Buddhism is primarily a theory of ideology—of how it is produced and of how we can change it. Western Buddhists have mostly taken Buddhism to be an ideology; Pepper’s argument is that it is better understood as a theory of ideology. More specifically, the truth discovered in Buddhist thought is the insight that we must always live in ideology, and our ideologies are always produced in aesthetic practices.  We cannot neatly map the concepts of Buddhist thought onto any western thinker, because they contribute something new that can take us beyond the familiar impasses of our philosophical thought.  We can, however, come to understand the Truth of Buddhism only in thought, and not in a retreat into the mystical, the ineffable, or the illusion of “pure experience.”

Finally, the goal of “The Radical Buddhist Subject and the Sublime Aesthetics of Truth” is not to produce a new philosophy of Buddhism, a new conceptual system to reflect the world as it is or simply reinforce its weakest joists.  Buddhism is a theory of ideological production, and can only be of use if we find practices in which to make use of these insights. It is an old cliché that we “feel” what our parents thought. While gravity was once, for Newton, a merely intellectual, mathematical model of the movement of bodies, we can now “feel” its pull as naturally as we can the warmth of a fire. In order to change our experience of the world, to remake, in Lacanian terms, our imaginary register, new concepts will need to precede and guide experience of the world. In the true sense of aesthetics, as the negotiation between the abstract idea and the felt bodily world, Buddhist thought suggests that we can rationally and consciously choose and construct our ideologies with a sublime aesthetic practice. Pepper gives some suggestions about what that practice could look like for us today—and argues that it need not resemble the practices that may have worked for other subjects in other Worlds.

Pepper asserts that the origin of Buddhism was a “Truth Event,” in Badiou’s sense, and that “Buddha” can best be understood in terms of Badiou’s concept of the subject of truth.  This subject, incorporating many individual bodies over the course of many centuries, was able to break the grip of reproduction of the existing relations of production, to become a radical subject of change. The history of Buddhism, Pepper suggests, is a long dialectic of struggle between this subject of truth and the reactionary subjects that seek to contain the radical implications of Buddhist thought; most of Western Buddhism so far has been the Buddhism of the reactionary subject. As Buddhism moves to the West, and into a new millennium, we have the capacity to make it a radical force for liberation, to resurrect the radical Buddhist subject of truth. A Buddhist aesthetics of the sublime can be the practice in which this truth can reappear in our world.

Part Two

“Speculative Non-Buddhism: X-buddhist Hallucination and its Decimation”

By Glenn Wallis

Part Two of Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice presents a practical theory of Buddhism in two sections, “Critique” and “Performance.” It should be said at the outset that the purpose of the theory that Wallis calls “speculative non-buddhism” is not to move cumbersomely through the morass of the Buddhist canon making proclamations apropos of this or that ancient doctrine. His ambition is both more limited and farther reaching than that. The theory is concerned with Western cultural criticism in the present. As such, it is being designed with three primary functions in mind: (i) to uncover Buddhism’s syntactical structure; (ii) to serve as a means of inquiry into the force of Buddhist propositions; and (iii) to operate as a check on the tendency of all contemporary formulations of Buddhism—whether of the traditional, religious, progressive or secular variety—toward ideological blindness. Speculative non-buddhism creates the conditions for revisiting Buddhist sources—conceptually and creatively, not philologically or genealogically—and to do so unburdened by tradition’s concealing and coercive tessellation.

The second section of the book offers a heuristic. This heuristic is performative in two senses of the term. First, it constitutes an act of decimation. This term is intended both metaphorically and literally. Metaphorically, it refers to a procedure in digital sound processing whereby the sampling rate of a signal is reduced via filtering. In practice, this reduction often requires discarding, or “downsampling” extraneous data.  The result is decimated data, which means: reduced cost, eliminated distortion, destruction of excess signal. Again, the purpose of the heuristic is not to perform intricate philological surgery on the Buddhist “text” or, indeed, even to explicate its meaning. The purpose is to allow performance in a second, more literal sense: to create a subject who regards the decimated Buddhist material alongside of “radical immanence”—reality stripped of its buddhistic representations.

“Radical immanence” is a term coined by the contemporary French thinker François Laruelle. Wallis’s idea for the interpretive strategy that will permit this analysis—speculative non-buddhism—was initially inspired by Laruelle’s recent work in non-philosophy. Wallis does not see speculative non-buddhism, however, as a mere transposition of Laruelle’s non-philosophical procedures for understanding the nature of philosophy over to a study of Buddhism. Given the specific Buddhist discourse-related issues that this approach uncovers, an entirely new theory is required. The insights of Laruelle nonetheless figure in Wallis’s work.

Part Three


By Matthias Steingass

This text is about history. It shows how a certain kind of Buddhism today in the modern day world can adapt and develop while at the same time ignoring the multitude of conditioning influences it is exposed to. Steingass shows how a tradition incorporates cultural artifacts from a new environment without being aware that the sheer act of integrating these new strands leads to its own change, thereby remaining oblivious to its own historicity. The text shows that this kind of Buddhism, as an example, instead of being aware of its historicity, uses a certain distorted picture of its history as an image cultivation for the pretension that it is one of the foremost harbingers of peace on earth. Western Buddhism wants to teach us that the evil ego is the central delusion of the human. This is a message sold to the public by a compliant publishing industry with books titled No Self No Problem and the like. But contrary to this simplistic popular view, what comes into sight, when one lurks under the surface, is ample evidence that the evil ego sits at the very core of Buddhism itself. In fact we will see that Western Buddhism, with its constant aggressive anti-ego polemics, possibly constitutes an act of repression. But, as we will see, too, the repressed resurfaces in Western Buddhism’s dream of omnipotence.

The omnipotence dream is a desire to build a life and a world under perfect control. Neo-Buddhism, as the Buddhism under investigation will be named, dreams this dream by fantasizing a perfect past which only has to be rebuilt again. But yet again, an unwelcome truth resurfaces. The past isn’t paradise. It is war, a war fought by holy Buddhist men killing each other mercilessly.

While this first consideration aims to show the reader the social side of the conditioning of a religious entity, and by the same token the conditioning of its believers, a further part of the investigation intends to show the role that the cognitive system of the human might have to play in creating the impression of religious experience. There is evidence today for the hypothesis that religious experience in general, and the phenomenon of the charismatic leader in particular, is a phenomenon that can be in part explained elegantly by phylogenetic cognitive structures. With both parts taken into account, the social and the cognitive side, the picture of contemporary Buddhism changes to that of an entity that is a result of effects in the historical process like any other social institution. Moreover it is shown that this Buddhisms cannot demand for itself the claim to educate anybody anyway. All this might be seen as examples of aporetic inquiry and aporetic dissonance and my help lead to ancoric loss (cf. Wallis’s heuristic, ¶¶ 21-23).

Finally, Steingass explicates the particular historic setting in which all this takes place. This setting is characterized by the fact that capitalism is able today to integrate even the most adverse forces into its own structure and to its own avail. And not only this. An example is given that shows that even human emotion is subject to this commodification. It is important to see the development of Buddhism in the West in this context. If Buddhism is not aware of its own historicity, then this is already a tragedy. But if Buddhism as a self-declared “master of awareness” is not cognizant of the ongoing ubiquity of commodification of the whole human, regarding not only his workforce but also every aspect of his intellectual and emotional life, then the conclusion is that Buddhism is entirely useless, and even dangerous, as a social institution.

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