Review of Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism
Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 24, 2016
Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism. By Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
By James M. Cochran, Baylor University*
Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton open Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism claiming that their book is nothing: “So much nothing, so little time. This is a book made of nothings: with a smile and a quizzical frown, let us talk about nothing” (1). Yet, their book is also about something—a lot of “somethings,” often competing and in tension with each other’s something. Boon’s essay, “To Live in a Glass House is a Revolutionary Virtue Par Excellence: Marxism, Buddhism, and the Politics of Nonalignment,” begins the collection, looking at the ideologies and political dimensions of Buddhism. Next, in “Enlightenment, Revolution, Cure: The Problem of Praxis and the Radical Nothingness of the Future,” Cazdyn argues for a reclamation project to save the radical force of Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. Finally, Morton concludes the collection with “Buddhaphobia: Nothingness and the Fear of Things,” an essay examining modernity’s cultural anxiety surrounding Buddhism. While these essays cover three distinct topics, taken together, they represent a serious and significant engagement with critical theory and Buddhism.
Nothing attempts to fill a gap in critical theory, which, in Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton’s accounts, has largely disregarded or ill-treated Buddhism. According to the three authors, contemporary philosophy and theory have witnessed a “Christian turn,” but there has been no equal “Buddhist turns.”
Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton admit that they have cannot completely explain the absence of Buddhism in Western critical theory, but they point to two main reasons—at least within the works of Badiou, Žižek, and Agamben. First, Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton claim that “there is a lack of engagement born from the sheer compulsion inherent in Western traditions that makes it difficult for any scholar to realize how entangled in them she is” (12). Second, many contemporary philosophers draw from Hegel’s texts on Buddhism, drawing from “rather sketchy Jesuit reports from Tibet” (12). Recognizing these limitations, the authors attempt to illuminate both the gaps and connections between Buddhism and theory.
Boon’s essay “To Live in a Glass House is a Revolutionary Virtue Par Excellence: Marxism, Buddhism, and the Politics of Nonalignment,” explores the political dimensions or the ideologies of Buddhism. Boon frames his essay by considering the common misperception that Buddhism and Marxism (or critical theory, broadly) are radically opposed: “the world-negating spirituality of the Buddha as ideological obfuscation versus the concrete struggle over material conditions of the Marxist militant on the one hand” (25). Boon recognizes that this binary—of Buddhism as an ideology-free system and Marxism as a radically ideological system—holds true at times, but, as the historically complex uses of Buddhism demonstrates, this binary is far too simplistic.
Boon opens with a consideration of the French theoretical thinker Georges Bataille, who had significant influence on Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Achille Mbembe, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, and many others, and, in particular, Boon focuses on Bataille’s relation to Buddhism. Bataille was introduced to yoga and meditation in the late 1930s, and his interest in Buddhism (and other Eastern religions) influenced his notion of “sovereignty,” a concept grounded in nothingness, unknowing, and self-annihilation. Boon reveals how Bataille bases “sovereignty” in Buddhism, believing that monasticism is the “perfect solution” that is “pure expenditure” and “renunciation of expenditure” (Bataille, qtd. in Boon 46). Boon also argues for a reconsideration of the political dimensions of “inner experience” in Buddhism, one that offers a “potential connection between nonalignment and nonviolence in the politics of sovereignty” (57).
To further explore and develop the connection between nonalignment and nonviolence, Boon next turns to the 1945-80 Cold War period of decolonization in India, China, and other places, and he argues that Buddhism, during this period, was starkly partisan. On one hand, Buddhism represented the “residual force of tradition, often transfigured by and adapted to European colonial regimes;” on the other hand, Buddhism was central to the development of anticolonial forces (57). Yet, following World War II, these attempt to develop a Buddhist politics failed because of “military takeovers,” “communist attempts to disassemble the feudal or colonial political-economic basis of existing Buddhist societies”, and the “fading away of the politics of ‘nonalignment’ ” as Asian nations integrated themselves into the “global capitalist economy” (60).
Although a Buddhist politics of nonalignment failed to fully emerge, Boon, by reading the works of Gendun Chopel, Gary Snyder, Thomas Merton, and others, imagines the possibility of such a politics of nonalignment. That is, Boon imagines a system that “rejects the alienation of both capitalist and communist materialisms” (73). For Boon, this political system would involve “gift economy, interdependence, the inconceivable,” elements that are, as Boon argues, central to both a Bataillean general economy and the “Buddhist description of the human condition” (74). Thus, Boon situates a Buddhist politics as an alternative vision within the polarized politics of the Cold War.
Boon closes his essay by turning to a discussion of speculative non-Buddhism and the works of Glenn Wallis, Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass. Boon offers a brief summary of what are, in his view, the two main arguments of speculative non-Buddhism: first, they critique the appropriation of Buddhist techniques and ideologies to resonate with and reinforce “global corporate capitalism,” and, second, they develop speculative non-Buddhism as a model to “think about and practice Buddhism” in contrast to any of the X-Buddhist communities that rely on “irrational obedience to the authority of tradition” (83, 84). Boon critiques “Wallis et al.” for their lack of “subtlety and…compassion” and for oversimplifying the divide between X- and non-Buddhism (85).
However, Boon admits that the value of speculative non-Buddhism is that it signals the “emerging relationship between Buddhism and the emerging paradigm of cognitive capitalism” (86). In part, the relation between Buddhism and politics is founded in interiority or cognitive activity.
Boon concludes, wondering “What will cause human beings to act differently?” (90). While Boon wrestles with this question throughout his essay, he has no clear solution, but he imagines the possibility of collective Buddhist practice spurring this change and bringing about compassion. Boon advises readers to practice: “But basically what I’m saying is meditate. Do it. Right now” (91). Beyond this advice, Boon suggests we have no simple solutions.
Next comes Cazdyn’s investigation of praxis in Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis in “Enlightenment, Revolution, Cure: The Problem of Praxis and the Radical Nothingness of the Future.” In this essay, Cazdyn compares Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis in an attempt to understand the negotiation of thought and action:
This is also an effort to understand Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis as problematics—as modes of engagement that prioritize the inextricable relation between their distinct forms of thought and action (and non-thought and non- action) on the one hand and the historical situation in which they are situated and generate new problems on the other hand. (113)
By first considering and re-theorizing praxis, defined as the “problem of the relation between theory and practice,” Cazdyn hopes to re-emphasize the radical dimensions of enlightenment, revolution, and cure (106). Specifically, concerning Buddhism, the essay attempts to answer, or at least approach, the question of how one attains enlightenment without desiring it.
After establishing his goals and frameworks, Cazdyn traces the original problem of praxis in the histories and development of Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. I do not find it necessary to regurgitate Cazdyn’s historical surveys here: it is sufficient to recognize that, first, Cazdyn sees Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis as originating at initial problems of praxis within specific historical situations. Second, Cazdyn argues that the “recentering of the problem of praxis…is always accompanied by a return (sometimes reactionary, sometimes radical) to the original production of praxis in each discourse” (117). Third, drawing from his first two points, Cazdyn asserts that some of the most radical contemporary engagements with Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis are occurring outside of these fields in forms that might not seem to resemble Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis; yet these contemporary engagements are still connected to enlightenment, revolution, and cure.
Toward the end of his essay, Cazdyn turns toward the concept of nothing. In particular Cazdyn is interested in the work of Arata Isozaki because his negotiation of the problem of nothing speaks to the contradiction of “how to think and act for a radical break with our current situation (as individuals and as collectives) without reproducing global capitalism’s dominant ideological assumptions that there is no alternative, only more of the same” (164). According to Cazdyn, Isozaki’s negotiation of this problem is especially significant because it attempts to unite theory and practice.
For Cazdyn, Isozaki’s music hall “Ark Nova,” an impermanent, human heart-like structure that inflates right on top of the rubble of the past, always ready to be relocated and placed on top of the rubble of the future,” demonstrates the negotiation of the problem of nothing (170). “Arc Nova” makes no attempt to stop or withstand future disasters; instead, it imagines the possibility of a future different than our present. According to Cazdyn, “Ark Nova” bespeaks Isozaki’s interest in ma, or space-time. Isozaki’s use of Ma, Cazdyn continues, represents the “repressed on the return—the future that cannot be contained or managed, and always arrives as something that exceeds our present possibilities” (168). As such, ma is a central component of enlightenment, revolution, and cure.
In the first essay, Boon seems to conclude that meditation is—at least—one answer; in the second essay, Cazdyn concludes, “There is no answer. There is praxis” (173). That is, Cazdyn has no answer to the impossible question: “How does one still hold on to the desire for enlightenment, revolution, and cure without this desire turning into a self-satisfied retreat from the world, a sad militancy, a naïve optimism, or a nonsystematic critique of local transgressions and individual symptoms?” (171). “Ark Nova” represents one answer to the problem of praxis but it does not completely revolve it. Ultimately, praxis remains, and, potentially, the paradoxes that praxis reveals reinvigorate the radical component of Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis.
Morton closes the collection with his essay, “Buddhaphobia: Nothingness and the Fear of Things.” Morton’s work on Buddhaphobia clearly grows out of his previous theoretical writings, especially his work on dark ecology, strange strangers, and object-oriented ontology. Anyone familiar with Morton’s previous works will instantly recognize his intricate mesh of philosophical inquiry and clever prose: for example, at the close of his essay, Morton writes, “Or was American wing mirrors say: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Buddhaphobia is nothing but a fear of subjectivity as such” (252).
Morton’s essay investigates a fear of Buddhism or Buddhaphobia, a modern anxiety concerned with nothingness. For Morton, this nothingness is theoretically complex and would require a few pages of summary, and, or the sake of space, Morton’s nothingness is meontic nothingness, which has a “certain physicality, a physicality whose phenomena I cannot predictably demarcate from its reality in advance” (203). Meontic nothingness is queer and uncanny, speaking to the gap between thing and phenomenon.
Like Boon, Morton also addresses non-Buddhism, a framework that Morton sees as affected by Buddhaphobia. According to Morton, one weakness of non-Buddhism is that it is intellectually dismissive of devotion, or “nonconceptual intimacy of mind with itself,” which is central to many x-Buddhist schools (188). In addition, non-Buddhism rejects mindfulness as “relaxationism,” but Morton disagrees with this argument because “Buddhisms” never claim “calm attention” as a goal; instead, the emphasis is “what one is aware of…impermanence, suffering, emptiness” (188-89). Moreover, many Buddhist texts critique mindfulness so, in this manner, to critique mindfulness is to find oneself deeper within the Buddhist tradition.
The majority of Morton’s essay centers on Western modernity’s fear of Buddhism, consisting of and connected to a “fear of consumerism, fear of narcissism, fear of passivity, fear of loops, [and] fear of things” (213). This phobia is, at its core, a fear of intimacy with the self because what is within one is more than just oneself: “There is an entity in me that is not me…this idea compresses a central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism concerning Buddha nature—it is an entity in me that is more than me” (189).
Morton also attempts to counter Žižek’s (and others’) argument that Buddhism is narcissistic, and Morton does so, precisely by defending narcissism. Critics of Buddhism suggest that it is a religion of the self, concerned only with self-soothing. Yet, Morton responds that this critique is itself narcissistic: “The trouble with trying to step outside of narcissism is the same as the trouble with trying to step outside of language” (223). Morton continues, explaining that the critique of Buddhist as narcissistic stems from a “narcissistic woundedness so painful that it seems better to paint the whole world with its raw colors than examine itself in all its halting lameness” (223). For Morton, narcissism is necessary to relate to others and oneself.
By considering the cultural anxieties around Buddhism and nothingness, Morton suggests that we can recognize the weird encounters between Buddhism and critical theory that have been happening since the mid-eighteenth-century Jesuit accounts of Tibet that informed Hegel. An engagement with Buddhism also means a “meaningful encounter with commodities and consumerism, and thus with those unloved things we call objects” (251). To survive in the postmodern age, Morton concludes, people need a less fearful encounter with nothing and Buddhism.
Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism represents a helpful starting point for spurring critical investigations of theory and Buddhism; yet, in my view, the collection is not without weaknesses. At times, the collected essays seem to meander, as Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton wrestle with the intersections between Buddhism and critical theory. This meandering is likely intentional as the three authors, moving through an array of theoretical and Buddhist works, attempt to answer their research questions, but it is meandering nonetheless and fails to retain a clear development of the argument. Additionally, because one of the work’s central concerns is theory, the work is obviously theory-heavy. The discussion of and dissection of theory is, of course, expected and reasonable, but some more explicit definitions and development of the authors’ theoretical concepts and texts could help keep readers more grounded in Nothing.
Beyond the essays themselves, Nothing includes a brief and helpful glossary of Buddhist terms, prepared by Claire Villareal. Certainly the glossary is not essential to Nothing, but it seems to serve as a significant part of Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton’s mission—that is, to spark a serious engagement with critical theory and Buddhism. The glossary offers a means for those in the philosophy and theory fields to fully digest Nothing as well as grasp basic terms that they can then incorporate into their own critical contemplations. Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton decide not to include a critical theory glossary, “assuming that most readers of this text will already have some familiarity with the critical theory lexicon” (19). As I have mentioned, a critical theory glossary to coincide with Villareal’s glossary might improve Nothing.
Still, as a work that attempt to jump start conversation about Buddhist and critical theory, Nothing succeeds. Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton neither attempt to synthesize their separate arguments nor do they pretend that they have said all there is to say about the intersection of Buddhism and theory. Nothing is certainly not a comprehensive treatment of Buddhism and theory; indeed, Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton announce, “This conversation is not intended to end, but rather to begin the investigation” (20). The three essays succeed through the ways in which the essays, while containing distinct arguments, speak to and interact with each other, especially in approaching the concept of nothing and the relationship between practice and thought. Despite its limitations, Nothing is a worthy attempt to prompt the “Buddhist turn” in critical theory.