spectral-discourse.jpgWhat follows is a chapter in search of a book. I originally wrote it for an edited volume on meditation and health. I thought that the editor’s idea for the book was very promising. A conference was held in which a group of Buddhist studies scholars, Buddhist practitioners, and a combination of the two, scholar-practicitioners, gave papers offering various perspectives on meditation and health. The idea for the book was to take papers that addressed the same theme but from different perspectives and put them in conversation with one another. Dialogue was central to the project. The title of the book might have been something like Dialogues on Meditation and Health.

The editor was rightfully concerned that such a book would be too strange a hybrid for a publisher. After all, it combined untheorized dogmatic discourse with theoretically sophisticated discourse. How could a book like this, one that addressed at least two seemingly incommensurable audiences, be made to work? My contribution was meant to help in that regard.

It is not surprising that a book like this would fail to come to fruition. It was a long-shot to begin with. The reasons for the failure in this case were complex, having to do with the usual university politics, funder requirements, and professional and personal needs of the participants. But, being a disciple of Freud, I suspect that it failed for other reasons, reasons having to do with the issues I address in my text.

The examples I give stem from the specific nature of the conference. Some of them might seem strange to some readers. It should not be difficult, however, to exchange out these examples with countless other x-buddhist instances.

Spectral Discourse

by Glenn Wallis

1. The articles in this volume create a spectrum. A spectrum, recall, is a perceptual field of some sort that is constituted by a shared component, but within which specific values can vary infinitely. Think of the color spectrum. It spans hues from dark, melancholic violets and cool, deep indigos to hot, bright yellows and fiery reds. Notice the plurals. A spectrum is characterized by its gradations of values. But notice, too, the singularity of theme: the common phenomenon we call color. This allows us to speak more figuratively of a spectrum of, say, political views or of the autism spectrum. So, I think spectrum is an apt metaphor for making explicit the fact that the papers in this volume are (1) addressing a single theme, Buddhism, but (2) doing so in a way that reveals different values—sometimes subtly and sometimes quite profoundly different values. A reader of this volume could thus be excused for questioning whether it coheres in any meaningful way. To return to our metaphor, if that reader said that these papers were not on the same wavelength, would he or she be wrong? Remember that what makes the colors on the spectrum so different from one another is that each is constituted precisely by varying wavelengths and alternating frequencies. These papers are not all on the same wavelength. They do not operate on the same frequency. In our figurative sense, wavelength might be a metaphor for goals, agendas, intents, beliefs, and value systems. Frequency might stand for manners of communication, intensities of rhetoric, pitch of phrase, and force of argumentation. Speaking of the papers in this way brings to mind another relevant sense of the word spectrum. Spectrum is the Latin word for something seen (specere, to see), hence, an appearance. But we all know the suspicion with which mere appearances have been viewed in the history of both western and eastern thought. And, indeed, spectrum and its cognates specter and spectral come to connote, in English, apparition, vision, shadowy figure, object of dread and even ghost. I would like to suggest that the articles in this volume, taken as a whole, do have a spectral, shadowy, ghostlike quality to them. Even with (or because of?) the ingenious dialogical prism that the editors have provided us with—recall that a prism separates out the colors based on wavelength and frequency—we have before us quite contrasting hues of thought. In what follows, I offer some raw materials for bringing perspicuity to the threatening specter of miscommunication.

Dialogue as Speculum: Models, Tools, Approaches

2. Buddhism. The most obvious shared feature of the dialogues taking place in this volume is that they are Buddhist. They are, in fact, Buddhist redoubled in that they take as their subject matter Buddhist themes, and they are carried out by people who self-identify either as Buddhist practitioners or Buddhist studies scholars or, in some instances, as both. So, let’s begin our collection of models, tools, and approaches to dialogue with a brief consideration of what Buddhism itself might offer us. Among the many categories of texts we find in the Pali suttas (sermons, narratives, discourses, sayings, etc.), is the dialogue. The variety of people the Buddha engages with in the suttas is, in fact, quite astounding. He speaks to ostracized untouchables, laborers such as bricklayers and carpenters, merchants and money lenders, women of all classes, learned gurus and disciplined ascetics, and, of course, royalty. The Buddha is famously praised for his “skill in means” as a teacher—his ability to adjust his communication to the capacity of his listener. One might expect from this concern with communicative inclusion, that Buddhists have developed a nuanced, self-conscious approach to dialogue. Yet, what we find instead is a wholly rote formulaic approach. A dialogue might be initiated because an interlocutor has posed a question to the Buddha. But once that happens, the course of the discussion is entirely determined by the Buddha. Typically, the interlocutors are reduced to foils. “What do you think, Kalamas, are infatuation, hostility, and delusion beneficial or detrimental?” “Detrimental, sir.” “Are they with or without fault?” With fault, sir.” “Should you restrain from such qualities or indulge them, Kalamas?” “Restrain, sir.” And so on. But even when the discussion partner is an opponent from another sect, he can barely get a word in edge-wise against the Buddha. One might be tempted to ascribe these traits to the demands of composition, transmission, and storage in an oral culture. However, when we look at the Mahayana and Vajrayana literature—works composed in writing—we find essentially the same style of communication. It may be true that Subhuti, for instance, asks the Buddha interesting questions, but those questions elicit only catechism-like responses: Subhuti says: “With regard to what the Lord has said, in speaking of the bodhisattva, what is meant by the word bodhisattva?” followed by the Buddha’s long explanation of what is meant by the word bodhisattva. Although the Buddha’s responses cry out for follow-up questions, requests for concrete examples, clarification of seeming contradictions, objections to faulty logic and all other manner of robust dialogue, they are met with acquiescence on the side of his discussion partner. And we find this general pattern of discourse, I would argue, throughout Buddhism’s history, down to the present day. Does Buddhism simply lack awareness concerning its approach to dialogue? Or might we more fruitfully see in its approach an implicit, and perhaps even thoroughly self-conscious, theory of dialogue? I think the latter is the case: the Buddhist theory of intersubjective discourse—implicit and untheorized as it is—is an exemplary instance of what Jacques Lacan calls the discourse of the master.

3. Lacan’s Four Discourses. For Jacques Lacan, language is the central fact of intersubjective existence. “What I’m trying to articulate,” he said, “is that what dominates society is the practice of language” (Lacan 2007: 239). We become the kinds of people that we are, and form the kinds of social relations that we do, based on the kinds of discourse we engage in. Discourse is formative of the person intrasubjectively as well, determining thinking and ideation, affect, belief, ascription of meaning, and personal identity. Lacan went as far as to claim that “It is on discourse that every determination of the subject depends” (Lacan 2007: 178). The strongest hue in the spectrum of dialogue before us, to continue with our metaphor, is seen in those texts and dialogical styles that exhibit Lacan’s first mode of discourse, the discourse of the master. I think that the other three modes are present to some degree in other texts and dialogues in the present volume as well. In any case, they serve as illuminating counter-examples of buddhistic discourse past and present. So, I’ll briefly present all four discourses as resources. Each mode of discourse concerns four components. Lacan uses specific symbols to identify each component: the agent or master signifier (S1); the subject (S); the system of knowledge (S2); and the object cause of desire or what impels the subject (a).

3.a. The Discourse of the Master. The primary aim of the discourse of the master is to dictate and police a body of knowledge. This knowledge is controlled by a master signifier, or indeed by an outright master as human agent, that determines the function and meaning of all other signifiers. Consider a word that we regularly encounter in Buddhist discourse: liberation. What does it mean? Obviously, it means many, many different things depending on context, subject matter, milieu, even, as Wittgenstein reminds us, on inflection of voice when spoken. Liberation in a Marxist text means something very different from liberation in a Buddhist text. But the same is true intra-contextually. When Trotsky utters liberation he doesn’t mean what Stalin means when he says it. Similarly, in a Won Buddhist text or dharma talk liberation signifies something significantly different from the sense of liberation we find in Dogen or when spoken by a contemporary Theravadan Bhante. The purpose of the agent (S1) in the master’s discourse is precisely to provide an anchoring point that stems the interminable slide of linguistic contingency. The way it does this is to rule over the complex network of postulation that constitutes its system of knowledge—to establish meaning, to police usage, and to prosecute and discipline violations. In this way, master signifiers create their subjects (S). A person is a subject of the master’s discourse because he desires the realization of, and invests his identity in, its master signifiers (God, democracy, the unconscious, enlightenment). These signifiers, as controlled by the master agent (priest, political leader, analyst, the Buddha—in person, proxy, or text) form the subject’s beliefs, give specific shape to the world, recommend behavior, and so on. So, in terms of Buddhist discourse generally and, I would argue, in many of the texts at hand, the discourse of the master is at work. In Lacan’s notation, it looks like this:

S1    →   S2

—  ↘ 

S      ←   a

 The master (S1) is the agent (Sot’aesan, the Buddha, Won Buddhism, Buddhism, text such and such). He/it produces () a body of knowledge (S2). He/it produces this knowledge for the sake of a subject (S). The agent relies on () this subject (there is no master without a disciple, etc.). Yet, the subject is split (represented by the line through the S, S) because his or her subjectivity exceeds this identification (because of unconscious material, or in that he or she has other, covert, ideological commitments, a whisper of doubt, unacknowledged disavowal, and so on). The master, of course, must also produce () an object of desire (a) in order to capture the attention of the prospective subject. Because of this catalyzing capacity, this object a is thus called an object cause of desire. It is, crucially, also cause and not object because it is constituted by a lack—specifically, by the subject’s sense that something is missing, and which the knowledge (S2) promises to fulfill (with nirvana, happiness, enlightenment). In a certain sense, then, object a can be said to produce S. Thus subjugated, the subject reproduces the master’s knowledge (S2).

Example. As I said above, Buddhist discourse genetically belongs to that of the master category. The Buddha, that protagonist of all the old canons—Nikāya, Mahayāna, and Vajrayana—is not genuinely interested in his interlocutors’ opinions. He is not even interested in the slow burn of knowledge that is the Socratic dialectic. Tradition tells us that what makes the Buddha the Buddha is his being categorically different from the average worldling; and he is different precisely because of his mastery of the most exigent knowledge available to human beings. His manner of discourse reflects that mastery. His aim in discourse, namely, is to elicit desire in his interlocutor for the effectuation of that knowledge, which he, the Buddha, and only he, will then dictate and his community, the saṅgha, will police.

The replication of this genetic code is discernable in Buddhist meditation-and-health rhetoric from ancient times down to the present day. Perhaps the single most significant reason for this consistency is that Buddhism has created a mythic prototype out of the Buddha’s own knowledge acquisition and transmission. The story of the Won Buddhist master, Sot’aesan (1891-1943), is a good example of the repetition of this pattern. At a young age, Sot’aesan is, like the Buddha, deeply disturbed by basic questions of existence. For a period of six years—just like the Buddha—he seeks a teacher who will clarify these questions for him. His search, like the Buddha’s, proves ultimately to be in vain. So, like the Buddha, Sot’aesan retreats into nature for solitary edification. Then suddenly, in the light of dawn on April 28th, he emerges from a deep absorption when his arduous quest culminates in the cataclysmic event of his “enlightenment”—all events identical to the Buddha’s, whose own enlightenment is said to have occurred in the dawn of April 15th. For both Sot’aesan and the Buddha, the period of realization is followed by that of transmission, when, shortly after the awakening, many disciples begin gathering around the master, thereby constituting the community that will ensure the endurance of his teachings.

Lacan says that “As soon as the subject who is supposed to know exists somewhere there is transference” (Lacan 1977: 232). In our example that means that as soon as Sot’aesan began claiming an enlightened condition for himself, other people desired a similar outcome, and so attached to him as the one, and the only one, in possession of the necessary knowledge. What, in short, does that condition entail? For Won Buddhists, it entails a state of optimal health, namely, that “one’s body and mind [are in] in perfect harmony” (Won Buddhism website). How is this faultless state of health achieved? Meditation plays a central role.

The Master said to an assembly at a Zen Monastery, “In this order [i.e., Won Buddhism] I have adopted the method of concentration of the elixir field [the area around the abdomen] so that one should exclusively practice mental concentration for spiritual cultivation while practicing seated meditation. (Yarovoi: 10)

As the agent of a master discourse, however, Sot’aesan does not merely recommend one form of “spiritual cultivation” over others. He also devises a detailed teaching. In the terms used in this section, it is a teaching that, at its heart, postulates a debilitating lack in the person to whom the teaching is directed. The teaching creates a desire in that person for the fulfillment of that ostensible lack. That desire, in turn, effectively creates from the person a subject, in this case, a Won Buddhist subject. A Won Buddhist subject is someone who strives to divine and fulfill precisely Sot’aesan’s intent. That intent is, of course, codified in the Won Buddhist canon, and enacted in the particular ideology-training apparatus known as the Won Buddhist Order. Treating it is obviously beyond the scope of this article. Luckily, one of the more interesting features of meditation-and-health rhetoric is that it provides a kind of fractal of the whole. So, how does a desiring subject know that he or she is fulfilling the master’s intent? Sot’aesan tells us, “When you have gained the power that comes from long training in seated meditation, the following ten benefits will result:

Rash and flighty behavior will gradually disappear.
The activities of the six sense organs will become orderly.
The suffering of illness decreases and your face becomes smoother.
The power of memory improves.
The power of endurance grows.
Attachments disappear.
Perverse states of mind change into right states of mind.
Your self-nature’s light of wisdom will shine.
You will be gratified by ultimate bliss.
You will gain freedom in birth and death.” (The Principle Book of Won-Buddhism: 117-119)

The non-initiated reader will no doubt be at a loss as to what some of these purported benefits actually entails. At what point, for instance, has spontaneity become “rash,” and enthusiasm, creativity or passion, “flighty”? What are the criteria for “orderly,” “perverse,” and “right”? Are the criteria behavioral or neurological or something else? The answer is important because it determines whether we are dealing with, for instance, moral, cognitive, or physiological claims for meditation. The research known as attachment theory in developmental psychology tells us, to put it simplistically, that to be human is to be attached. Given that research, what can a claim such as “Attachments disappear” possibly mean? Is such a claim, like those about having a smoother face or having your inner wisdom shine, meant figuratively, metaphorically, poetically, or literally? I think it is obvious that every one of these claims raises difficult questions. Of course, a properly subjugated person—a Won Buddhist practitioner—would be able to clarify in detail what each term means. Clarification is precisely the purpose of a master discourse. It stops the interminable unraveling of linguistic signifiers by positing and policing fixed meanings.

3.b. The Discourse of the Hysteric. In this type of discourse, the subject (S) is the agent. He or she knows that any given master’s discourse is at best an incomplete and uncertain doctrine and at worst an unsupportable fiction. In terms of the dialogues in the present volume, the interlocutor who insists on challenging the integrity of his or her co-discussant’s master-like statements can be said to be exemplifying the discourse of the hysteric. Perhaps something should be said about the misogynistic term hysteric. It derives, of course, from Freudian psychoanalysis, to which, Lacan famously claimed, he was but a loyal adherent (Freudians tend to disagree). Today, hysteria has been replaced by the properly gender-neutral term somatoform disorder. This is a type of mental illness that manifests strictly as bodily symptoms. The symptoms, crucially, can never be ascribed to a physical cause. The physical conditions—tics, paralysis, aphonia, severe coughing, neuralgia, anesthesia, aphasia, spasms—and the pain they cause are nonetheless acutely real. In the clinical experience of Freud and Breuer, it was hysterical patients such as Dora and Anna O. who were most intelligently rebellious in the face of their analysts’ ostensibly brilliant interpretations of their cases. This should not be a surprise, for it is the hysteric who most adamantly refuses to embody the master signifiers of her or his society, concerning, for instance, gender roles, sexual norms, class expectations, and so forth. Thus, in the discourse of the hysteric, the agent is the subject who challenges and resists the claims of the master signifiers that uphold some status quo. It is in the discourse of the hysteric, too, that we can gain a better view of the split nature of the subject (S). The agents in the master’s discourse claim an unassailable integrity (wholeness and truthfulness) for themselves, for their knowledge, and for their faithful subjects. The hysterical agent, by contrast, recognizes, and is in fact driven by, his or her alienation from wholeness. This alienation stems from the hysteric’s inability to conform to the demands of any given master signifiers. It manifests symptomatically as, for instance, anxiety, a sense of meaninglessness, or shame.  Crucially, however, the agent retains her desire for completeness, for a sense of meaning. This desire (a), in fact, fuels the quest for new master signifiers (S1) that will produce a desire-satisfying body of knowledge (S2). (We can thus add desiring to our characterization of the hysteric.) Lacan captures this dynamic in the following scheme:

S     →    S1

—  ↘ 

a    ←   S2

The subject (S) is the agent. He speaks and acts with the conviction of his desire’s (a) legitimacy. His desire, which he believes to be unique and valid in its own right, refuses to be captured and controlled by the dictates of the master’s master signifiers. Yet, the hysteric still seeks the kind of stability, meaning, and sense of identity that master discourses so steadfastly provide. New master signifiers are readily available in society. They are offered in movies, advertisements, self-help books. They are freely offered up by friends, parents, guidance counselors, politicians, and Twitter followers. The fields of philosophy, religion, and the arts are vast troves of meaning-making signifiers. Out of these, the hysteric constructs a new body of knowledge (S2), one that gives the subject a sense of stability. As we can see from this, the discourse of the hysteric is still beholden to some form of a master. In the end, his or her desire remains compromised, subjected, as it is, to the claims made on it by the newly constructed body of knowledge.

Example. Ordinary Mind Zen teacher Barry Magid’s statements on meditation and health provide a good example of the hysteric’s discourse. Just at Sot’aesan’s carefully conceived master’s discourse is patterned after that of the original master, the well-mannered Buddha, Magid’s discourse emulates that of the original hysterics, those crusty old Zen scoundrels. Take, for instance, the Chinese teacher Deshan (780-865):

Here, there are no ancestors and no buddhas. Bodhidharma is a stinking foreigner. Shakyamuni is a dried-up piece of shit. “Awakening” and “nirvana” are posts to tether donkeys. The scriptural canon was written by devils; it’s just paper for wiping infected skin boils. None of these things will save you. (Ferguson: 199)

In the hysteric’s view, the controlling signifiers of the master’s discourse are useless. They must therefore be challenged and resisted. Desire remains, however, for the meaning and wholeness that those signifiers aim for. So, the project itself—that of being “saved,” the optimal health that is enlightenment—is not abandoned. The hysteric merely cast that project in his own terms. Deshan is arguing that Buddha nature already lies within the practitioner, and so requires no further elaboration or development. What it requires is realization. And that occurs in the very act of sitting meditation. Magid, a practicing psychoanalyst and Zen teacher in New York City, is addressing an audience that presumably responds better to a more genteel version of Deshan’s prototypical hysteric’s expression, but the message is the same:

The moment we sit down to do zazen, we are useless, what we are doing has no point outside of itself, outside of the moment itself. We just are, we just sit, and in the very act of sitting, we actualize the completeness of the act itself and we actualize our own full completeness as useless human beings, another name for which is Buddha. (Magid: 158-159)

Magid’s rhetoric of uselessness refuses to be captured and controlled by the use-filled discourse of a master like Sot’aesan, and indeed like the Buddha himself.  Yet, as hysteric—as, in other words, alienated subject of the master—he is nonetheless captured by the desire for wholeness that the master discourse so deftly arouses. In an interview with Matt Bieber, Magid offers, however obliquely, his definition of health; and it involves precisely this notion of “wholeness.” Whereas “‘Happiness’ tends to get narrowed down to a feeling state,” he says, the Greek concept of eudaemonia expresses “the flourishing of the whole person in a whole society” (Wisdom Publications blog). Shakyamuni and Bodhidharma, awakening and nirvana, striving and attaining, may all be useless, but the hysteric’s curative fantasy of the completeness indicated by those signifiers lives on.

3.c. Discourse of the University. The agent of this type of discourse is a disembodied system of knowledge. In Buddhist discourse, “The Dharma” typically functions in such a “university” manner.  What this means is that The Dharma, as exigent human knowledge, serves as a totalizing agent (S2). The particular master signifiers (S1), on which it is founded, produce desire (a) for the state of affairs it itself proclaims as essential for human, social, global, and cosmic well-being. We can, of course, substitute for “The Dharma” any number of disembodied totalizing systems of knowledge: Zen Buddhism, Won Buddhism, mindfulness, Dzogchen, and so forth. In each case, this impersonal knowledge-as-agent (S2) functions to form a subject (S) that desires, and becomes able, to reproduce the master signifiers (S1) that are controlled by the knowledge system.

S2     →    a

—  ↘ 

S1   ←   S

Perhaps Lacan chose “university” for this mode of discourse because its aim is literally to educate the subject—to lead him out of ignorance—an ignorance, moreover, that it, as supreme knowledge (S2), and only it, can remedy. It aims to educate and encode. As such, personal desires are irrelevant. Desire (a) is produced and controlled by the knowledge itself. That is, such systems of knowledge contain within them both an incentive (nirvana, salvific insight, favorable rebirth, etc.) and its means (eight-fold path, meditation, right action, etc.). In this sense, university discourses display the domination of what is perhaps the prototypical instance of such discourse: a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is an example of pure system, system that labors to reproduce itself as system. Lacan saw the modern university in this light as well. It is a place where the degree-seeking student (S) must demonstrate her ability to replicate the norms, values, and knowledge of her professors—who, in turn, performed likewise in relation to their professors, and so on back generation after generation. She must learn to desire, act, speak, and think within the ideological strictures (S1) determined by the body of knowledge (S2). Only then will she, as faithful subject of the discourse of the university, succeed.

Example. We should not lose sight of the fact that, for Lacan, “it is on discourse that every determination of the subject depends” (Lacan 2007: 178). The term “discourse” refers to social practices that form subjects. It points to intersubjective relationships. Thus, the four discourses presented here are meant to help identify the ways in which real people, as Buddhists, come to have the particular Buddhist beliefs, affects, aspirations, values, proclivities, prejudices, and so on, that they do. For Lacan, such discursive relationships depend primarily on “the practice of language” (Lacan 2007: 239). So, one way of understanding the different discourses is to consider the dominant form of speech in each. The master’s discourse, for example, is determined by S1, the master explicator who (or that) stops the endless unraveling of possible signification in the terms that constitute primary signifiers (mind, health, Buddha nature, etc.). The good subject of this discourse is thus one who faithfully replicates, in speech, those fixed meanings. The hysteric’s discourse is determined by S, the subject who is motivated by the very subjective feature that constitutes his or her splitting: the desire simultaneously to resist and to fulfill the healing fantasy catalyzed by the master’s discourse. The speech of this subject communicates this split. Magid’s statement that, in seated meditation, “we actualize our own full completeness as useless human beings, another name for which is Buddha” perfectly illustrates the hysteric’s split speech. He speaks the desire that is the ultimate goal of a master like Sot’aesan. But he just as longingly speaks an escape from the stultifying status quo of the master’s dogmatism.

Implicit in the idea of discourse as a social practice is the material fact of institutionalization. People become Buddhists in community with other Buddhists. For our purposes, the university discourse is thus perhaps best understood through the example of the Buddhist bureaucracy known as the “saṅgha.” The saṅgha’s constitution is determined by knowledge, S2, in and of itself. That is, it is determined by a disembodied form of knowledge, one that obtains irrespective of the particular desires and idiosyncrasies of its members. Buddhists universally use the Sanskrit term dharma to identify this pure knowledge. “The Dharma” is the totalizing and, from the perspective of ideological critique, tyrannical or coercively formative knowledge, the realization of which constitutes ultimate health and truth for the participant. The saṅgha is the loyal guardian of the Dharma. As a human community, it is simultaneously the place of educating individuals in the ways of the Dharma. A certain relationship becomes apparent here. The university discourse or, in our case, a particular saṅgha’s Dharma, masks the overt role of the master. “The Dharma” is presented objectively as “the way things are,” covertly obstructing the fact that it is, on further investigation, merely “the way the master says things are.”  The symbiotic relationship between the two discourses becomes clear when we observe the fact that exposure of the one leads to exposure of the other.  That is, the Dharma is and must remain the Dharma, and not merely “the way the master says things are.” Otherwise, all of it—master, saṅgha, and knowledge—is seen for what, to a non-participant, it in fact is: a kind of spiritual bureaucracy. It is the task of the bureaucratic saṅgha’s university discourse to ensure that the master-constructed nature of the Dharma is suppressed.

3.d. Discourse of the Analyst. Lacan considered all three of the foregoing types of discourse to be coercively subjugating. In each case, desire is captured and controlled by something exterior to the person participating in the discourse. This is most obvious in the discourses of the master and the university, where the agents are some intermixture of forceful, master-signifier-wielding people, scriptures, and institutions. Even the more self-directed agent of the discourse of the hysteric, however, is incapable of escaping the subjugating imposition of others. Recall that the end result of that agent’s rejection of dominant master signifiers is a search for new, more personally relevant, ones. In doing so, therefore, the participant in the hysteric’s discourse finds herself yet again split off from her desire, with her identity under the yoke of a newly subjugating fantasy (system of knowledge). The discourse of the analyst is able to lessen the subject’s dependence on other-induced master signifiers. It, furthermore, aids her in structuring her social relations on the basis of her real desires and drives and on truth-telling. The discourse of the analyst thus represents those kinds of interactions—dialogues, debates, conversations, etc.—that are restoring and revolutionizing. It is initially driven, somewhat paradoxically, by the desire (a) of the analyst. It is this, always enigmatic, desire that produces the subject (S). The subject, supported by the master signifiers informing this desire, is eventually able to produce her own knowledge.

a   →    S

S2  ←  S1

The key to healing the analysand’s dependence on others’ signifiers and to revolutionizing her outlook toward her desire, however, lies in foiling the analysand’s efforts to divine the object of the analyst’s desire. As Lacan writes:

It is in as much as the analyst’s desire, which remains an x, tends in a direction that is the exact opposite of identification, that the crossing of the plane of identification is possible, through the mediation of the separation of the subject in experience. The experience of the subject is thus brought back to the plane at which, from the reality of the unconscious, the drive may be made present (Lacan 1981: 274).

The interlocutor of the subject engaged in the discourse of the analysts thus refuses to offer his or anyone else’s desire as the subject’s own, and thereby thwarts the subject’s longed-for replication of (another’s) identity. It is on the basis of this relentless refusal that the subject is able to traverse the fantasy that had defined her life, and find her way to her own desire, drive, knowledge, and identity.

Example  Figures like the Buddha, Sot’aesan, Barry Magid, and leaders of saṅghas are all “subjects supposed to know.” They are able to elicit desire in others, and thereby gain followers and establish Dharma bureaucracies, precisely because of this imputation of their knowingness by people who themselves long to know. Here, we have the most significant difference between the analyst’s discourse and the others. The Buddhist teacher who speaks as master, hysteric, or dharmic bureaucrat delights in divining the ultimate desire and presumed “spiritual” need of the practitioner. These teachers know the secret. It is a secret that every person desires to be in on. It is the differential within these two subject positions that determines, for Lacan, the oppressive nature of the three former discourses. The analyst discourse postulates a completely different kind of relationship between the one supposed to know and the one who desires to know. The teacher as “analyst,” namely, knows that, of the kind of knowledge the practitioner seeks from him, he knows nothing at all. (In a very real sense, the practitioner does not even know what he seeks.) Unbeholden to the dictates of masterly replication, hysteric reconfiguration, and university objectification, the facilitator of the analyst’s discourse can support the production of a restored subject. Similarly, the subject of the analyst’s discourse, freed from those same fantasies, can begin to construct signifiers that obtain from his or her own, uncoerced, desire.  It is for this reason that the element driving the discourse is the subject’s desire, a, itself. It is precisely the practitioner’s unmanipulated desire that is excluded from the other discursive modes of formation, and that must be restored in order for health to occur. What constitutes health in this case, however, must sound like slim pickings to the acolytes of the other three discourses. Here it simply entails “traversing the fantasy” that there was ever anything decisive to be known at all, much less anyone who knew it. The ultimate fantasy is, perhaps, that health is even possible.

Where in the world of Buddhist discourse do we find such a figure? We can find a few figures who, at first blush, seem to speak the language of the analyst. I am thinking of contemporary Buddhist figures who are considered to be “critics” of Buddhism, meditation, or mindfulness, such as Stephen Batchelor, David Loy, Brad Warner, Hokai Sobal, Noah Levine and the Dharma Punx, Vincent Horn and the Buddhist Geeks, Ted Meissner and the Secular Buddhists, Stephen Schettini, Jayarava, and a few others. In these cases, and in every other case of which I am aware, however, such figures never escape from the hysteric’s discourse. In non-Lacanian terms, we can say that they never lay down the mantle of the loyal opposition. Each remains, in every instance, an apologist. The principle of sufficient Buddhism (or of meditation or of mindfulness) prevails even among the current critics.  And it is the upholding of this principle that forecloses on the possibility of an analyst’s discourse in those circles today. In fact, a genuine fusion of the analyst’s discourse and meditation rhetoric would entail a kind of “non-buddhism,” in which the curative fantasy that drives much of the meditation-and-health discussion is both laid bare and traversed.

4. Incommensurability of Thought Collectives

The prospect of distinct modes of discourse raises the specter of incommensurability. Are we simply talking past one another? Should we not assume that the authors in the present volume present arguments in the particular form of discourse that they do for reasons that are coextensive with their very arguments? If so, these strategies must surely be significant and revealing in their own right: the interlocutor’s very linguistic mode of presentation must communicate a great deal about his or her views concerning, for instance, the status and location of truth and meaning; her beliefs about the subject’s relation to truth and meaning, their epistemological method; his stance toward textual or institutional authority; what she considers the determinants of identity and desire to be, and so on. The following table summarizing Lacan’s four discourses exposes the potentially irreconcilable values, norms, beliefs, and aims at work in dialogue.

Discourse Effect Authority How the subject comes to know Meaning and Truth Status of subject in relation to received knowledge
Master Dictating, policing Enlightened teachings in person or text Accurately divines the teacher or text Provided by the master Acknowledged subordination
Hysteric Desiring, challenging, resisting Various figures in the history of ideas Rummages the history of ideas Constructed by the subject Apparent autonomy
University Educating, encoding, interpellating Dominant social institution (order, church, nation, science, Wall Street) Becomes educated Enshrined in the institution Learned subordination
Analyst Restoring, revolutionizing “The One Supposed to Know” giving way to the knowing subject Ideological formation becomes transparent Excavated via dialogue and interpretation Discovered


The Polish microbiologist Ludwik Fleck might call these differing approaches thought styles. In Lacan’s psychoanalytic terms, we can say that a thought style is a symptom: it is the manifest sign of an underlying identification; it marks the place—the “(w)hole” of discourse—that the interlocutor has “fallen into.” A person’s thought style thus reveals his or her subscription to a program of knowledge, or of belief. Fleck defines a thought style as “the readiness for directed perception and appropriate assimilation of what has been perceived” (Fleck 1931: 142). He will explain that what directs perception and determines appropriate assimilation is the particular thought collective that produces a thought style. But first, I should mention the role that mood plays in the allure of ideas. Although Fleck is taking the natural sciences as his example of the genesis and development of knowledge, anyone referring to religious material should recognize the qualities of this “mood.”

[The mood] is expressed as a common reverence for an ideal; in the belief that what is being revered can be achieved only in the distant, perhaps infinitely distant future; in the glorification of dedicating oneself to its service; in a definite hero worship and a distinct tradition. (Fleck 1935: 142; emphases in original)

Significantly, the symptomatic nature of a thought style ensures that the interlocutor employs it reflexively. This reflexivity, in fact, marks the successful subjectivization of the person within a particular ideological apparatus, or, in Lacan’s terms, within a university discourse. It is this apparatus that Fleck refers to as a thought collective. A committed practitioner is called to—desires—a system of knowledge on hearing the promise of its master’s signifiers. But he must then spend time within the institutional structure that encodes the master’s knowledge, being formed as the “special ‘carrier’” (Fleck 1935: 39), as the embodiment, of that knowledge via the thought style of the collective.

[A] “thought collective” [is] a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction…The individual within the collective is never, or hardly ever, conscious of the prevailing thought style, which almost always exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon his thinking and with which it is not possible to be at variance. (Fleck 1935: 41)

It is this tendency toward doctrinal invariance combined with institutionally reinforced personal identity formation that foreshadows incommensurability. An astronomer might listen “with respect” as her astrologer interlocutor explains the impact of Venus’s rising in Gemini on the love life of earthlings, but she won’t be buying any of it. Conversely, the astrologer, on hearing from the astronomer that Venus’s atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide, 3.5% nitrogen, and less than 1% of carbon monoxide, argon, sulfur dioxide, and water vapor, might, while feigning interest, die of boredom. Both interlocutors are “experts” on Venus. But to each, the other’s thought style, and by extension institutional thought collective, is deeply misguided, even foolish. This example, of course, raises the question of what the proper analogue to our present dialogues might be. (Is it, for instance, something like: astrology:astronomy? solar astronomy:planetary astronomy? myth:science? poetry:prose?) I’ll leave that work to the reader. My point is that we should not discount the possibility that, all good intentions and friendly decorum aside, we just might not be making sense to one another.

Because it belongs to a community, the thought style of the collective undergoes social reinforcement…It constrains the individual by determining “what can be thought in no other way.” (Fleck 1935: 99)

One interesting feature of the present volume is that it brings differing thought collectives into dialogue with one another. Such collaboration, however motley and short-lived, creates a new thought collective. In brief, thought circulates here. This feature accounts for the possibility of what we all know to be true of systems of thought, even the most sacrosanct: they change. Hence, as Fleck says, a “fundamental phenomenon of epistemology is the fact that the circulation of thought is always related, in principle to its transformation” (Fleck 1936: 85; emphasis in original).

So, our reflection on incommensurability ends on a note of promise. But it’s a promise that carries with it a certain threat of cognitive anarchy. For who can say what might be bred in the dregs of thought’s circulation? Who can say whether the trajectory of “transformation”—mutilation, defacement, mutation—might follow the witch’s flight?  Yet, as the greatest champion of the unbridled anarchy of thought, Paul Feyerabend, insists, perhaps knowledge absolutely depends on the sounding of discordant opinions:

Knowledge…is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges toward an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives., each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness. (Feyerabend 1978, 30; emphasis in original)

But before we celebrate our escape from the morass of incommensurability, Feyerabend will remind us that this turbulent ocean of knowledge is populated not only by the “lucubrations of experts” but also by “ancient and modern prejudices…and the fantasies of cranks” (Feyerabend 1978: 46-47).

5. On the Agony of Dialogue

Feyerabend’s phrase “process of competition” brings to mind Mikhail Bakhtin’s assertion that dialogue is an intensely social “site of struggle.” It should be said that by “dialogue” I mean a robust intellectual exchange, one involving emotional investment, in which there is real risk for the interlocutors. What is at risk in dialogue is not merely the status of an idea, but the very standing of the traditions and institutions that encode the idea, not to mention the interlocutor’s sense of identity. (In Fleck’s terms, every presentation of a thought style, as a talk or an article, exposes the thought collective from which it originates.) No matter how cordially a dialogue might unfold, at its very heart is a struggle for institutional power and ideological supremacy. This agonistic feature of dialogue is often manifest in political discussion. By stark contrast, except for when the topic is Islam or Satanism, inter- and intra-religious dialogues, as we have here, are famously marked by genteel agreement and mutual celebration.

As all of my martial metaphors broadcast, in this final section I would like to suggest the possibility that the agon of dialogue, also known as polemics, can be of use to us. In its colloquial American usage, “polemics” denotes a kind of nasty attack on an opponent’s position with no other purpose, moreover, than to defeat him. Polemics, however, also denotes—particularly in Catholicism—the practice of vibrant, intelligent disputation that has more in common with art than with warfare: it is creative and revelatory, if also, at times, destructive. The point of such polemics is thus certainly not to terminate an argument tout court—there would then be nothing to talk about! The point, rather, is to take the other’s views absolutely seriously, treating them with the highest respect. Such respect calls for the interlocutors to undergo a certain minimal process: (i) a charitable hearing of an interlocutor’s argument; (ii) a rigorous response to that argument; and (iii) a vigorous defense contra the response. Polemics can thus be seen as creating the necessary conditions for genuine dialogue, not least of which is intellectual courage and honesty. Paul Griffiths, a Buddhist studies scholar turned professor of Catholic theology, speaks of this basic condition as a “virtue:”

I take [polemics] to denote an intellectual virtue. Perhaps more precisely, I take it to denote a mode of intellectual engagement that flows directly from a proper and clear realization of what serious intellectual work is for and how it should best proceed…[Polemics is] the kind of engagement that does and should occur when those who take what they believe seriously encounter others equally serious about, and committed to, their beliefs (Griffiths 1994: n.p.)

Polemics is particularly necessary in inter- and intra-religious dialogue today. Can we avoid the conclusion that such exchanges have lapsed into a facile postmodern ecumenism where all views are considered equal—and all equally lovely? From the perspective of polemics, this sort of leveling off of views comes with a price. It cheats the interlocutors out of the vivifying fruits of polemical exchange: stimulation, inspiration, increased self-awareness, an enlargement of life. For these fruits to ripen, however, a certain amount of heat, of pique even, must be present. Whether we have reached the level of polemics or not, in fact, can be gaged by the temperature in the room. For the taking seriously of an interlocutor’s view requires the pummeling of premises, the scorching of propositions, the ruthless exposure of poor thinking, and the parading out of fallacies. A proponent of polemics would argue that these metaphors are as necessary as they are violent. Polemics begins with the assumption that religious interlocutors’ susceptibility to complacent agreement is so pronounced that nothing short of a relentless return to the ostensible matter at hand—careful examination of knowledge of ostensibly cosmic significance—will help.

To give a better sense of the current temper of religious dialogue, here’s a seasoned practitioner:

I have been participating in interfaith dialogue as a rabbi and Jewish leader for more than thirty years, and most of the time it just doesn’t work.

Most of the time—and it is painful for me to admit this—it is terribly boring. Most of the time there is a tendency to manufacture consensus, whether it exists or not. Most of the time we go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Most of the time we cover the same ground that we covered last month or the month before. And far too often we finish our session without really knowing the people across the table and what makes them tick religiously.

And most of the time we are satisfied with mouthing a few noble, often-repeated sentiments. Thus, we affirm the importance of mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue; we assert that all human beings are created in the image of God; we proclaim that despite our differences, all of our traditions preach love of humankind and service to humanity. Nothing is wrong with these sentiments, of course; in conceptual terms, I believe in them all. But if we don’t dig beneath the surface and focus on substance rather than rhetoric, they mean very little.

The result is that most of the time, interfaith discussions are simply excruciating, irrelevant to me and to the world around me (Yoffie 2011: n.p.).

As a way of getting out of this well-meaning morass, the rabbi goes on to prescribe dialogical attitudes that echo the language—or in Fleck’s term, the mood—of polemics. He calls for: setting aside platitudes and emphasizing differences; de-trivializing dialogue by affirming exceptionalism; giving expression to one’s “religious passions,” and allowing these passions to “lead to passionate debate;” admitting that many (most) beliefs cannot be meaningfully “bridged;” admitting, unapologetically, that we think our own tradition is superior to others’.

He is asking us to permit the agon, the struggle, the polemos that lies—shrouded in repression—at the very heart of concerned exchange to manifest. Why would we want it otherwise?

May the spectrum of intra-Buddhist dialogue admit shades both subtle and bold.


Ferguson, Andy. Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teachings. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011.

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. London: Verso, 1978.

Fleck, Ludwig. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Trans. by Fred Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn. Chicago: Chicago University Press. [1935] 1979.

Fleck, Ludwik. “The Problem of Epistemology.” In R.S. Cohen and T. Schnelle (eds.). Cognition and Fact – Materials on Ludwik Fleck. Dordrecht: Reidel. [1936] 1986.

Griffiths, Paul. “Why We Need Interreligious Polemics.” First Things. 1994. http://tinyurl.com/jfu6fqe. Retrieved on February 17, 2015.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Seminar 17: L’Envers de la Psychoanalyse (1969-70). Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, [1964]. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977.

Magid, Barry. Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2013.

Principle Book of Won Buddhism. Iksan: Won Kwang Publishing, 2000.

Wisdom Publications blog. “Everyone Comes to Meditation Practice for the Wrong Reason: A Conversation with Psychoanalyst Barry Magid.” http://tinyurl.com/hxmtgav. Retrieved April 8, 2016.

Won Buddhism official website. http://tinyurl.com/zbcesaw. Retrieved April 4, 2016.

Yarovoi, Serge. Sitting Meditation in Won Buddhism : Digging to the Roots. Bloomington: Balboa Press, 2012.

Yoffie, Eric H. “Why Interfaith Dialogue Doesn’t Work—And What We Can do About it.”  Huffington Post. 2011. http://tinyurl.com/7f2w4th. Retrieved on February 17, 2015.

Image by contemporary artist Chris Mars.

Sean Sturm’s post at Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel provided me with some of the language presented in the table at #4.

11 Comment on “Spectral Discourse

  1. Pingback: Psychological Humanities: Teo (2017) – Davood Gozli

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