An interesting but rarely discussed puzzle: in those social formations in which we are most certain that language and thought are devoid of all causal powers, we become most terrified of them and eager to escape their unbearable power over us.
Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the standard x-buddhist assumption that thinking and language are the source of all suffering, and the retreat into pure non-conceptual perception or affect would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss (the state we apparently will enter permanently if we can only become sufficiently indifferent to the illusory phenomenal world around us). However, the paradoxical discourse about the oppressive ill effects of language and thought (of, that is, discourse) is not limited to Western Buddhism. It seems that the popularity of various x-buddhisms might in fact be a result of their echoing of this powerful trope, so important to the success of global capitalist ideology. If only all people could be convinced that thinking is both the real cause of all their suffering, and that they can stop doing it if they try hard enough, just imagine how much more easily the 98% could be managed.
This terror of thought has been addressed to some extent in everything I’ve ever written for this blog, from my first posts on anti-intellectualism and Buddhist therapy to the most recent on mindfulness and Locke’s invention of “consciousness.” So why raise it yet again? In part, there are personal reasons. My chronic pain has recently taken a turn for the worse, and I’m unable to sit in a chair, or to stand for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. As any Western Buddhist readers might expect, I’ve been told that if I could just experience the pain as a phenomenal illusion, as not part of my real self, I could use it to become enlightened….and all that crap. The problem, according to the x-buddhist popular literature, is that I continue to think, and so can’t float free into some blissful state. Or become masochistically attached to my pain, like Don Gately in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. For me, however, the one thing that my malfunctioning body has made all too clear is that it is only in thought that we can become free.
The other reason I want to raise this question yet one more time is that the assumption that thought is an unnatural cause of all suffering is so powerful and ubiquitous that it seems for most people to be completely impossible to question. Not just in x-buddhist discourse, but in every kind of discourse that functions to produce our social world, the simple solution to all our problems is to somehow escape the trap of reason, language and concepts, and to live in a state of pure intuition or affect. I’ve encountered this claim in so many areas of my life recently, that I thought I’d take one more shot at raising the unthinkable question: why are we so afraid to think?
Because I’m writing this lying flat on my back with my iPad on my zafu beside me and a Bluetooth keyboard on my stomach, I’m going to try to limit my citations of texts, and be somewhat informal in my approach. The claims I’m making could surely be extended endlessly, and the examples here are not meant to be exhaustive; nor do I intend to claim that the few texts I will cite are somehow responsible for this persistent problem—they are merely indications of how universal this mistake really is. My hope is simply to incite some thought, to allow for some awareness of how we might better be able to really reduce suffering, instead of endlessly blaming the victims, asserting that their suffering is a result not of real human practices in the world but of their own stubborn refusal to stop thinking.
In Zen baggage, Bill Porter’s memoir of a visit to China, the first chapter is entitled “No Word,” and is perhaps the most succinct statement of how this universal assumption works to block any real effort to reduce suffering in the world. Porter offers one version of a fairly standard narrative of the human fall from grace: “Early humans lived in a sea of sound. It took a long time before language and music pulled us out of that ocean and we had to start using religion to find our way back to its shores” (26). Porter invokes Darwin, but in an odd way, suggesting that language is in fact a flawed and accidental misstep in evolution, an unnatural process that interrupts the blissful animal state we lived in “before language came to dominate the human race,” a time when we lived purely in “emotion” instead of “information.”
Interestingly, Porter also recounts his meeting with the Zen master Ching-hui, who tells him he has translated into English the “wrong version” of the Platform Sutra. Porter has translated the version in which the well known poem of Hui-neng includes the line “our buddha nature if forever pure,” instead of the version where the reading is “actually there isn’t a thing.” The difference here is telling: two versions of an important Chinese Buddhist text, one which advocated the “buddhanature” concept and the idea of an essential and eternal consciousness, the other which advocates the “emptiness” concept. Porter seems to see little difference, however, and passes over this discussion quickly with the suggestion that it really isn’t important which text he used. He seems completely unable to even consider the possibility that there might not be an eternal consciousness outside of, not “dominated by,” language. The importance of this question is just unfathomable for him, as it seems to be for most of us.
But this is almost universal in Buddhist discourse in the West. Let me turn to an example from a very different discourse: Marxist theory.
In a recent book Capitalism and Desire, Todd McGowan promises to explain how “Capitalism traps us through an incomplete satisfaction that compels us after the new, the better, and the more.” Using a blend of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Marxist theory, he tries to demystify the core fantasy of our world: the illusion that we will someday reach absolute fulfillment, what I have called “imaginary plenitude,” is possible only because of the very structure of capitalist practices, not least of the powerful illusion of the magical power of pure exchange value, or a particular commodity capable of effortlessly calling into being our every desire, if we could only accumulate enough of it. Given my own theoretical position, obviously I was enthusiastic and hopeful about this book’s potential.
I became concerned, however, fairly early on with the account McGowan offers of language: “We aren’t capitalist because we are animalistic, but because we are fundamentally removed from our animality…It is language that gives birth to the possibility of this economic form” (23). While I still think the overall project is useful, I would suggest that it is getting the relationship between language and economic practices completely wrong that is our greatest problem in bringing an end to capitalism. What if we were to think of this differently? Surely, language has existed much longer than capitalism, and has not always seemed to carry with it this possibility of the commodity form. I would suggest that some languages are even incompatible with the practice of capitalism. Instead, we might do better to consider that the rise of capitalism makes possible a particular practice of language in which we can come to believe that it would even be possible to think outside of language. Instead of assuming language causes capitalism, what if we begin from the assumption that capitalism causes our tendency to reify, and blinds us to the most important feature of language: its social nature. It is this social nature of language that gives us the power, as humans, to free ourselves from animal necessity.
Along with this this pervasive idea that language is an unfortunate and unnatural aberration, a deviation from the animal state and the laws of evolution, there is an equally pervasive confusion concerning the nature of thought. Almost everywhere these days, one encounters the claim that our problems are a result of thinking, or “intellectualizing,” too much. I hear educators telling students to stop thinking so much, insisting that the attempt to “understand” things is their problem, they ought to just try to memorize. Worse, teachers at the secondary level at obsessed with the idea that their real job is to “teach students, not subjects,” and the best teachers will “relate to” kids, not try to oppress them with facts and concepts. After all, happiness is found at the level of the emotions, and thinking, an unfortunate byproduct of language, causes suffering. This account is so common, one can hardly read a newspaper or watch a television show without hearing it, once we begin to notice it.
In a popular self-help book called The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide, girls are encouraged to “Be More, Think Less.” The way to greater adolescent happiness, they are told, is to focus on emotions—a quote from Osho tells them to “Think less, feel more.” The author, a clinical psychologist, uses the common strategy of reducing thought to nothing except obsession and rumination. Since these can be included under the category of thought, and they are not productive, the assertion is all thought is bad and the better solution is to stick with emotion. This kind of sophistry is almost universal in the field so psychology, in self-help discourse, and in Western Buddhism. Once it is agreed that certain kinds of “thought” (e.g. obsessively rehearsing an insult or disappointment) is bad, then it follows that all thought is bad…so the alternative, emotion, must be good.
However, we might do better to consider Spinoza’s theory of the passions. As Etienne Balibar explains, for Spinoza the passions express our submission to external causes, they “are not a sign of the adequate knowledge that man may acquire of what is useful to him, but of the image he forms of what might be useful to him through his ignorance” (84-85). Emotions aren’t even, then, an opposite to thought. Rather, like rumination or obsession, they are one more kind of poor thinking, enslaving us to the conditions in which we find ourselves. This contemporary cult of emotion serves to block the one kind of human practice that might allow us some real agency and freedom from suffering. The problem is, of course, that this practice might just enable us to question the social conditions which oppress us, and to begin working to change them.
As another alternative, consider the position of the Medieval Catholic theologian Duns Scotus. Perhaps because he is thinking in a world in which capitalist commodity forms are far from dominant, Duns Scotus can help us to think in ways not thoroughly conditioned by capitalism. For Scotus, nature and necessity are not the ideal and the unavoidable that they are for most of us today. The ideal of human free will for Scotus is found in our capacity to do something that is neither natural nor necessary. That is, if an act is necessary or naturally occurring it is not an act of will, and the human capacity for free will is our most important power and one we ought to try to make use of. As Ingham puts it, “without the presence of the intellect or act of cognition, Scotus maintains, the will would be blind. With it, one may speak of free will or free choice in the rational agent” (95). This way of thinking is powerfully antithetical to the dominant understanding today, when following reason is felt to be a kind of harsh and restrictive oppression, and the absence of rational thought is felt to lead to free action. For Scotus, because we are thinking beings who use language to produce abstract concepts, we can be free of necessity. To the extent that we abandon this task, we are blindly enslaved (and, for Scotus, sinfully rejecting God).
In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida accomplishes an almost impossible task. He draws out the unexamined assumptions that structure phenomenology, and by extension all Western thought from Descartes and Locke to the present day. It’s a difficult text, but the difficulty is in this: it refuses to begin from our most common assumptions. Derrida exposes the fear of impermanence and of the social constructedness of the human that underlie our insistence that language is a prison that traps us, our belief that we can find some permanent present free of thought. If Scotus is just as difficult as Derrida or Spinoza, I would suggest it is for the same reason: all three reject the assumptions about language, emotion, action, and freedom that structure most of our thought today.
If we were to invert the common understanding what might we be enabled to do? Suppose instead of telling our daughters to stop thinking so much and wallow in blind emotion, we were to explain to them that ruminating and obsessing are not real thought, and teach them how to actually think? What would be so terrible about them coming to understand exactly why being snubbed by a more popular kid has really upset them so much? Suppose we were to begin to explain how capitalism entails attempts to reify language, and why the invention of dictionaries and the frantic search for original or natural languages began just when capitalism became the dominant mode of production? What would be so terrible about rediscovering the inherently social and collective nature of language?
There is, of course, one terrible consequence. We would lose the powerful fantasy of imaginary plenitude. We would lose, that is, the hope that we will some day reach a state in which we are nothing but pure bodily bliss, a sort of spiritual version of the orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper. We would lose the illusion of our immortal souls, only to gain real freedom and joy in the world. But this freedom and joy come with the price of having to make some bodily and mental effort. A price not many are willing to pay.
This fantasy of absolute power without any effort, which I have called imaginary plenitude, also goes by the name of exchange value: the illusion that we can accumulate so much wealth that our every desire will be instantly fulfilled and we never need make bodily effort, or negotiate with others in some kind of social process, again. Infinite wealth is infinite control. Of course, the absurdity of this illusion should be obvious (what is money worth without a collectively negotiated social system to insure its value?), but too often it is not.
And it remains obscure in part because of the universal tendency to naturalize capitalism. Although capitalism has existed for only about .6% of the time humans have been in existence (or less, depending on what we count as truly “human” and what we count as true capitalism) we tend to think that there has never been a time when the commodity form of money, and capitalist acquisitive individualist subject, did not exist. Some years ago, David Graeber (the author of Debt: the first 5,000 years) lamented the fact that today even the Marxists naturalize capitalism. If we can’t stop making this error, we may never be able to stop destroying all life on the planet.
One way that capitalism is naturalized in by making our natural ability to think, collectively, in symbolic systems seem to be the both unnatural and undesirable.
We are asked to forget that it is only because of language and reason that we have things like electricity, vaccines, a surplus of food and drinking water, air travel, central heating, much less the wine to sip and kitchens to chop carrots in as we mindfully attempt to escape the evil trap of language.
The erroneous belief that we would be much happier without language and conceptual thought asks us to deny what we are by nature. Our ability to use language is one of our natural capacities. The only way humans can be joyful (and here I am just following Spinoza—I have made this argument at great length elsewhere on this blog) is if we are able to make use of our natural capacities. To fantasize that only non-human animals are “natural,” and wish to be like them, is a grave error. We suffer when we are unable to make use of our ability to increase our interaction with the world. We may sometimes gain temporary pleasure by sacrificing this ability. We, do this when we substitute increased interaction in virtual worlds of video games for real interaction, or when we accept the approval of the gaze of some imagined Other as compensation for denying ourselves joy (in asceticism, in which category I would include mindfulness). But these temporary pleasures will always produce more suffering than joy.
Because of the, today almost ubiquitous, idea that thought and language are evil, we try to reduce ourselves to the miserable pursuit of an elusive state of complete mindlessness. Aquinas might have called this attempting to abandon our rational souls and inhabit an animal soul, a pursuit that would have seemed foolish at least, and sinful at worst. A pursuit that can only leave us enervated and discontented, dreaming of escape into some other world than this.
The solution is not to sink deeper into torpor and ignorance, but to see that this illusion is the source of our unhappiness. Not thought, but these mistaken ideas about what thought is, cause our misery. The problem, of course, is that we can only grasp this in discursive thought!
In conclusion, then, I would suggest that we be on guard for every single instance of someone telling us to stop thinking so much. Always be quick to point out the sophistry involved, and the horrible consequences that follow. Don’t fall for the argument that such calls to stop thinking are a kindness, because those suffering need relief and can’t be expected to do the horrible painful work of thought. Real thought need not be horrible or painful, and it is the only thing that can set us free from the bondage of necessity, or from the trap of our current social formations.
We need to conceive of our species-specific ability to think in language as a naturally occurring power that has set us free from complete submission to contingencies. Our terror of using this power is not some great spiritual advantage, but the result of socially produced ignorance, the result of a long struggle of the few to gain and maintain control of the many.
We can’t think too much. We can’t stop thinking. We can only choose between thinking poorly and thinking well.