Glenn Wallis and Tom Pepper

Tom Pepper’s original idea was to publish an e-mail interview with me to mark the half million hit mark on the blog. That number came and went, and we were still carrying on our conversation. That’s what it is, really. It started out as an interview but quickly became a two-way dialogue. And that’s how it should be. –GW

Tom Pepper (TP): To begin with, what did you hope to “get conversation going” about?  Who did you imagine the interlocutors might be?

Glenn Wallis (GW): I wanted to initiate an intervention, like you do with a wayward alcoholic. The blog would be the space where all of us concerned relatives gather together with Buddhism and confront it with questions like “do you see what you’ve become? how can you continue like this?” We’d tell Buddhism, “you’re hurting yourself and embarrassing all of us.” You know, and, “you have so much potential, yet look at you!” We wouldn’t let Buddhism leave the blog until it vowed to sober up. As you can probably tell from this account, I expected interlocutors who had two basic qualifications. One, they had been hanging out with Buddhism for a long, long time, getting drunk with it, maybe. Two, they, too, were eventually fed up with Buddhism’s poor behavior. I assumed that many of Buddhism’s old friends were growing as tired of its dual personality as I was—both its monotonous, bossy, grumpy traditional side and its facile and fawning contemporary side.  

TP: You were supposed to be working on a book at the time, right?  Did that have anything to do with starting the blog?  To keep the book project moving? To escape it?  

GW: I had just abandoned a project that several major publishers had been showing interest in. It was a biography of the Buddha. I had spent a good year on the proposal for this book. The more I researched it, however, the less feasible the project seemed. In fact, I began to think that it was outright irresponsible to pursue the biography at all. There are simply no reliable data for the kind of marketable reconstruction the publishers wanted to see. I realized a few things at this point. I began to question my previous liberal humanist attempts to “translate” Buddhism into a contemporary western idiom. That project is not in itself so bad; it’s just drastically incomplete. What was lacking was a critical component. So, I actually wrote up a version of the proposal that combined an honest assessment of the data with my own critical analysis of what it all meant to us today. Let’s just say it was not a pretty picture. That Buddha is just too dark and ascetic for the likes of us modern American happiness seekers. It would be like replacing your Aunt Betty’s painting of smiling, big-toothed, white-faced, wavy-haired Jesus with Georges Rouault’s sad-eyed, brooding, filthy, and tormented Christ. So, my agent and I agreed to put the whole thing to rest. But it was in that charged atmosphere that the blog was conceived.

TP: To use your metaphor, do you think the intervention has done any good, or is the drunk still in denial?  I wonder if maybe it’s more like Al-Anon than AA, aimed at helping those affected by this bad behavior gain some distance, with no real hope of sobering up the drunk?  Or, to drop the metaphor, do you think Western Buddhism has begun to seriously engaged any of the criticism?  

GW: I think you’re right, it’s more like Al-Anon, or something else altogether. It turns out that the family is perfectly content with the drunk’s behavior; more even, they actually demand it, such that poor Buddhism, it turns out, is just faking its drunkenness for the sake of survival. Maybe it’s a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Beginning maybe ten years ago, I thought I was seeing what I called a “critical turn” in Western Buddhism. People were starting to ask questions of x-buddhism that the older generation never would have. I began practicing Buddhism as a teenager in 1975, so I was there with that generation fairly early on. That generation was too pious, too enamored of their Asian masters, to think about Buddhism critically. Their attitude is reflected in the three glossy Buddhist magazines—Tricycle, Buddhadharma, and Lion’s Roar. It is equally present in the respective presses that they founded, and beyond, to the trade houses and academic publishers that deal in Buddhist material. To be honest, I believe that that pious insider attitude is reflected in much of Buddhist studies scholarship as well. All three of these institutions—Buddhist sanghas, Buddhist-friendly publishers, and Buddhist studies—do of course claim to value a critical attitude. And we do see elements at work in each that we might fairly label critical. Obviously, Buddhist studies goes very far in this direction. Let’s say it represents the strong pole on the continuum of x-buddhist-critical work. The sanghas and the publishers, on the other hand, are at the weak pole. We could debate the extent to which academic publishers should be lumped with Wisdom or Windhorse. But anyone who believes that there is an obvious difference between a proselytizing press and an academic one should consider this harshly revealing fact:  Columbia University Press publishes Alan Wallace and Yale University Press publishes Stephen Batchelor. I could continue; even Oxford and Cambridge University Presses are guilty of placing marketability over critical standards. And apparently what is marketable to an x-buddhist readership is ultimately celebratory, affirmative writing.

So, I think there has been something like a “critical turn” in recent years, but neither the “critical” nor the “turn” are sufficiently sharp to add up to what we at Speculative Non-Buddhism would consider being “seriously engaged in any of the criticism,” as your question puts it. The critical work that I see has to do with Buddhism’s role in society. There is a sense, particularly among the younger generation of Western Buddhists, that Buddhist thought should have a wider, more direct, and more impactful application to social issues. Some of this thinking is finding its way into academic writing. This is the case largely because younger Buddhist studies scholars are writing about these issues. But is also partly due to the fact that more senior people are seeing the embarrassing direction that Buddhism is heading in the West—toward vulgar commercialism, New Age superficiality, techno-scientistic absurdity, secularist anorexia, neoliberal collusion, and so on—and are actually commenting on it. But I don’t see any of this critical work as being adequately critical. The reason is that the criticism, in every instance I have seen, always, and it seems, reflexively, assumes the sufficiency of x-buddhism. It is always a case of getting the x-buddhist concept or doctrine right. We’re seeing this play out now in the debates around “mindfulness.” If only those mindfulness proponents understood the true meaning of sati, we could get the application right, says Roshi Joe Jikyo Raftskipper. If only those traditionalists understood that the True Dharma is not the possession of Buddhism, they would get on board, says Mindful Mary Sweetspeaker. Neither side recognizes that their views have the current social-political-economic, etc., reality baked into them. They believe that the goods are timeless, ahistorical, beyond any sort of contingency. Until this factor is removed from Buddhist critical work, that work will never rise above, at best, intra-buddhist debate and, at worst, apologetics.

TP: And what would be wrong with a Rouault version of Buddhism?  It might not be what the happiness seekers want, but wouldn’t it still be, to use Laruelle’s term, a sort of philo-fiction?  To put it in my Althusserian terms, if part of the goal is to produce ideology, without necessarily giving up critical thought, do you think the blog has succeeded in making such ideological production a possibility?  Or is the critical work not far enough along yet?  

GW: Nothing whatsoever! I would love to read such a text. Even more, I would love to see the effects of such a perspective in the real world. Just to be clear, I would have produced that bio of the dark Buddha. But the publishers did not want it. I was being asked to produce something along the lines of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha. It was all about sales. I am, however, producing a buddho-fiction in my current book. This point goes to the second part of your question. I do think that the critical work is not yet far enough along. Immanent and deconstructive critique is indispensable, of course. Social criticism, discourse analysis, ideological critique—that’s all imperative. But you are right, a philo-fiction is essential. Without it, the critique is incomplete. A productive non-buddhist ideology requires texts and practices. Maybe the practice could be reading and discussing the texts. Who knows? Having said that, I do believe that the blog has provided ample goods to make ideological production possible. From the very outset, my goal was to craft certain tools, open up a smithy, crank up the heat, and invite people in to hammer away. I never intended to do the buddho-fiction part. You have written much on the topic of ideology production and an actual practice on this blog and in The Faithful Buddhist. You have also gone a good way toward a buddho-fiction with your Badiou-inspired hyper-translations of suttas. And there really is a lot of rich material on the blog that could be of use in construction a buddho-fiction. This construction is what comes next. I’m working on it as we speak. But for it to amount to anything, other people have to contribute as well.

TP: I do think a kind of life of buddha, along the lines of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the life of Christ, could be good—I didn’t like the way I started doing it, though.  It seems like it ought to be less writerly, and more free-form, like a confused collection of sutra hypertranslations interspersed with a sort of postmodern “frame”, perhaps of some sangha discontent, unhappy about the direction the movement is taking…something like that.  Creating a narrative in which to see Buddhist practices as ideology.  

If the critical work does need to go further, but is perhaps at the point where it might enable the production of ideologies/buddhofictions, can you see any place in this for actual in-person groups? What might such a group be like? What would might it do? To speak in my Althusserian terms again, in order to produce ideology there must be a practice. What might the actual practice of producing non-buddhist ideologies be like? What kind of subjects might it produce? Fredric Jameson has said that one of the challenges facing the left is to make certain kinds of human practice “thinkable and conceivable once again,” in the face of near total ideological hegemony of neoliberalism. along those lines, what kind of things might non-buddhism want to make thinkable again, in the face of Western Buddhist hegemony? What kind of practice might enable that? What kind of actions in the world might a non-buddhist group work to motivate?

GW: I think this is the mother of all questions. I think about “practice” constantly. As someone who came of age with an x-buddhist concept of practice, my thinking in this regard has certain tendencies which I myself do not fully trust. That is, during my formative years, I accepted the notion of “practice” in the rigid sense of vinaya, or a disciplined educational system comprising ethics, comportment, and contemplation. My notions of these terms have been over-determined by Indian thought. So, vinaya, as education or practice, has, for me, always been ethics/comportment anchored in a strict sitting meditation regimen. (Think of Talal Asad’s statement to the effect that the inability to enter into communion with God is the function of an untaught body.) While I still see some value in this approach (for some people, at some times), I am not thinking about “practice” in this particular way any longer. Most recently, Peter Sloterdijk, his conservative tendencies notwithstanding, has taught me a new way of understanding practice. Perhaps the fact that his formative experience as a thinker came first in an Indian ashram, and then, right on its heels, in the university Hörsäle of Western philosophy, has something to do with my gravitation toward him. I don’t know. In any case, his usage of the old Greek term anthropotechnic is, for me, a way forward toward a non-religious, non-spiritualist, and non-buddhist practice. The term, of course, suggests something like means of human formation or autopoiesis, with auto signifying a collective endeavor. I find the term helpful because it performs something like Nan-in’s “you must first empty your cup,” of, for instance, practice. One feature of idealist notions of practice is, of course, a fully formed and minutely articulated telos. So, this gets emptied out as well. Now what? Laruelle’s stranger subject strikes me as a fruitful new starting point for practice. To be as brief as possible, we might understand this subject as one who “toils the earth, lives in the World, and thinks according to the black universe.” The earth is our material grounding; the World is our infinite ideological infusions into that materiality; the black universe is “that which is already manifested, before any process of manifestation.” With this as our ideological first principle, we come together as a group to read, think about, and discuss, hopefully to hash out, struggle with, and debate, various thinkers, artists, writers, whatever. (Laruelle’s democracy of thought/equality among regional knowledges, or my idea of the Great Feast of Knowledge is decisive here.) I like the wording that Jameson uses, “making certain kinds of human practice ‘thinkable and conceivable once again,'” with an emphasis on “again.” This stranger group is not out to create new knowledge. It—the stranger practice—is rather a question of conjugating already existing forms of knowledge. The practice must include the following: recognizing the subjugating forms and norms at work in any given material; identifying the material’s stratagem to establish sufficiency; its subjugating and idealizing maneuvers thus made transparent, the depotentialized material is rendered raw, potentially valuable human cultural material. Finally, the difficult work of vital conjugations can now begin. An example of a conjugation might be thinking x-buddhism’s “eradicate desire!” together with Lacan’s “don’t give up on your desire!”  In line with the ideological principle of the democracy of thought, neither system of knowledge is allowed a dominant position. Thus, it is impossible to say in advance what might become “thinkable and conceivable once again.” Generally, in the familiar Buddhist terms, we can begin to think again compassion, wisdom, no-self, emptiness, sangha, the bodhisattva, an infinite array of Buddhas, present-moment awareness, the nature of existential pain. But the again signifies that these concepts have been subjected to a process that makes them virtually unrecognizable as x-buddhist concepts. As elements of a new form of thought—liberated, that is, from Buddhist hegemony—they have mutated into something else entirely. Another ideological principle behind this stranger subjectivity is that we should learn to think from the real. Buddhism posits the real. But it errs in thinking toward rather than from the real. For example, in wanting to think the real of human pain, x-buddhism thinks dukkha (a node in a complex chain of signifiers), and confuses this with pain (a phenomenological given-without-givenness, in Laruelle-speak). So, a crucial element of the stranger practice is to learn to think from the real. All of this is probably too vague for anyone raring to go out and change the world. But it is, I believe, a necessary step and crucial for any subsequent practice—it is a form of ideological due diligence, so to speak. This practice should, for instance, instill motivation and incite action in the real world. What kinds of actions? Won’t anything I name here sound facile and platitudinous? Think from the side of the victim. Take the side of the World’s refuse. Volunteer in an inner-city literacy program. Feed the hungry. Write your congressman. Run for office. Be kind but forthright. Show courage. Expose subjugating forms of thought. Speak out. We hear today resist! and even start a revolution! It all sounds so ridiculously hollow. As a friend of mine said, most liberals can’t even countenance voting outside of the two-party system, and yet they want to start a revolution? I am not even convinced that we have a future as human beings. What would it take to truly alter our current social-political-economic material structures? I read this interview a while ago that has stuck with me. An imprisoned Brazilian criminal/social activist was asked about “the solution” to the catastrophe that is Brazil’s villas miserias or slums. This sends him off on a long and impassioned enumeration of everything that would have to happen for such a “solution” to take hold. “Solution? There’s no solution, brother. The mere idea of a ‘solution’ is already a mistake.” He goes on: there would have to be billions of dollars spent in an organized bi-partisan manner, “with a high level of government, an immense political will, economic growth, a revolution in education, general urbanization, and it would have to happen under a ‘clear-eyed tyranny’ that could jump over the secular bureaucratic paralysis,” the divided legislature, the self-serving judiciary, etc., etc. Not only would this cost billions and billions of dollars over perhaps decades, it would also “entail a deep psychological change in the political structure of the country.” He goes on. But his conclusion: “What I mean is, it’s impossible. There is no solution.”  “In the face of near total ideological hegemony of neoliberalism,” as you say, this kind of pessimism sounds like a form of final capitulation. It is exactly what our neoliberal ring-leaders want us to think. But how do the affirmations and celebrations, how does the optimism, of hegemonic Western Buddhism sound in the face of such an ubiquitous force? In Laruelle: A Stranger Thought, Anthony Paul Smith cites this really powerful snippet of dialogue between Frantz Fanon and his former teacher, Aimé Césaire. Fanon sets it up: “This attitude, this behavior, this shackled life caught in the noose of shame and disaster, rebels, takes issue, challenges, howls, and as that’s how it is, I ask him: What can you do? Start. Start what? The only thing in the world worth starting: the end of the world, of course.” The “world,” of course, is what Laruelle writes as “World,” the current means of harassment that we take as inevitable and natural. It sounds idiotic, though, doesn’t it? Start the end of the world. We have seen so many books recently that acknowledge simultaneously the urgent necessity to change the world and the impossibility of changing the world. (Once the world gets changed, it needs changing all over again. Or, as Hannah Arendt said, the revolutionaries become the conservatives the day after the revolution.) The title of Bifo Berardi’s new book encapsulates the conundrum: Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. Benjamin Kunkel’s new title also captures something of the general concern in leftist circles: Utopia of Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. In terms of real-world effects, maybe the most we can hope for right now is to create a community of thought and dialogue that exposes the murderous structures of our current World and, in itself, in its very manner of being, models another World. I know from my own efforts in education and with Incite Seminars that this is a profoundly productive form of practice. But whether its production is ultimately in the measure of Walter Benjamin or Malcolm X, of Hannah Arendt or Angela Davis, others will have to judge. Along the lines of Deleuze’s monstrous philosophical offspring, maybe such a practice can conceive some future Walter X or Angela Arendt. 

TP: Just to clarify, for myself, can you say anything more about the idea of the Stranger Subject?  I can’t quite grasp what this is.  It has seemed to me to suggest the idea of a subject stripped of all the social and symbolic, and limited to some kind of pure biological and bodily interaction with the world.  But for me, this seems impossible, since the human subject doesn’t exist prior to language, which is alway already social—that is, we can’t reduce ourselves to the level of the purely animal, because we are by nature speaking beings—it would be like trying to reduce a mammal back to its evolutionary ancestor by cutting off its limbs and chucking it into the ocean.  Anyway, if this isn’t what Laruelle has in mind, I can’t figure what he does mean by this term.  I can’t get any idea of what it might mean to “think from the Real,” either…the Real just is what we presently cannot think.  So, is thinking from the Real something like Badiou’s “forcing a truth”?  

My own thought on practice have always been that the goal is to do something outside the circuit of money-profit-debt-capital-exchange value.  Theater, maybe, but only street theater.  Writing and teaching, sure, but not for profit through the mainstream media or in the existing ideological institutions. It is important to develop social practice of knowledge reproduction outside the realm of capitalism, as well—but very hard to do.  

My concern with Sloterdijk’s concept is similar to my concern with Aristotle—it is an attempt to adjust the subject to the system, assuming there is a subject separate from the system.  Aristotle (and Plato) couldn’t even conceive of a social formation without slavery, and Sloterdijk can’t conceive of anything but capitalism.  The task, for me, is to produce not new-and-improved subjects, but systems and social practices that make completely different kinds of subjects.  Not a technology of making better people, but way of making better social practices.  The conservative turn here seems to me fatal—it assumes the naturalness of what we need to get rid of.  Like Arendt’s too-clever-sounding aphorism, that works perfectly to dissipate any revolutionary enthusiasm, but is clearly false.  Because the revolutionary communist exactly does NOT become a capitalist once he has triumphed— “conservative” may mean wanting things to stay the same, but there is a huge difference from wanting oppression to stay in place and wanting to maintain a state of human dignity and joy (in the Spinozist sense).  When we make the mistake of assuming the problem is radical=good vs. conservative=evil, we’ve already missed the whole point, and stopped thinking in terms of capitalism and the actual concrete evils to be removed.  It isn’t that endless radical change is the goal (although it is value in certain stages of capitalism); we need to remember that there are specific social practice of violent oppression and environmental destruction that we want to end, not conservatism as such.  For me, this kind of thinking, reminding people to think beyond aphorisms, to stop retreating into the idea that capitalism is eternal and natural, this would be the ultimate kind of practice.  I’m rambling on a bit, but the point seems to me to go to the heart of the concepts created in Buddhist thought: that the existing social formation is a human creation, is ideological, and so can be changed.

GW: Like you, Laruelle believes that “that the existing social formation is a human creation, is ideological, and so can be changed.” Maybe I created confusion by citing the earth-World-universe scheme. This is from a highly “experimental” text by Laruelle, and so probably creates more problems than it solves. (He himself has said that he’s embarrassed by these writings, yet hopes to produce more of them.) Certainly, “earth” is not meant to signify “some kind of pure biological and bodily interaction with the world.” I just take it to indicate the fact that there is a co-terminus relationship between matter and idea. The humans on Mars will likely create ideologies incomprehensible to us earthlings. Here are two short statements on the stranger. Maybe they’ll help a little:

The stranger or the identity of the real is non-reflected, lived, experienced, consumed while remaining in itself without the need to alienate itself through representation. (Laruelle)

The stranger: is the name for the subject of practice-of-theory, modeled (“cloned”) on given material (philosophical, but in this instance sonic/music/ aesthetic/cultural etc.), but determined by the real of the last instance (=One, etc.), whose immanence it effectuates. The stranger-subject is what you become when you think-practice-perform in radical immanence. (Ray Brassier)

When I read what you have written about ideology, subjectivity, and so on, and then read these two statements, I don’t see a difference. So, can it be that you do already understand what the term “stranger” means? Reading a text of yours could be said to be a practice that effectuates radical immanence. Laruelle, too, is trying to produce texts, the writing, reading, thinking about, discussing together, actualizing of which is the practice. As this indicates, in order to grasp the idea of the stranger subject, it is necessary to consider it in terms of performance. That is probably the reason that, once all of the concepts, models, etc. are cashed out, what we’re left with seems so meager. Like what you say your practice is below. That’s all very practical, immediate, and doable. That’s really all I am talking about, too. I want to create a community of dialogue based on ideas that address the need for real change. That’s all, really. And that’s really all the stranger is and does or can do. (Speaking of theater, do you know this book, Theaters of Immanence? This article might also be interesting: “Laruelle’s ‘Criminally Performative’ Thought: On Doing and Saying in Non-Philosophy.”)

Since we all agree that “the task…is to produce not new-and-improved subjects, but systems and social practices that make completely different kinds of subjects,” I think it’s important to keep the focus on formation of practice. Again, what we say will sound meager compared to the grand possibilities inherent in thought. Incite Seminars is my current practice community. It is a system and social practice that aims to make a different kind of subject than is currently on the prowl. I am trying to circumvent the capitalist machinery as much as possible. If I want to continue with it, and to really build it into something, though, I have to earn money. The old Zen saying that the monastery has two gates, finance and teaching, seems true to me. If I can’t make something like the seminars work, I will have to fully submit to the beast in the form of an academic position. It is indeed very hard to “develop social practice of knowledge reproduction outside the realm of capitalism.” I guess I see that conundrum as an element of the practice itself. Again, Buddhism offers something helpful here, the idea of the koan. 

Having said all of that, Laruelle and (some) of his explicators are careful to mention the “uselessness” of non-philosophy.” Smith puts it like this: It “has no future. It is the expression of the radical immanence of human (existence) and such existence has no purpose, has no future other than what has been hallucinated as the determination of lived (reality.” Like this kind of thinking, the stranger subject is one who has no future. But that’s because it only has a present. The entire point of fostering of a community that enables such a subject is the lessening of unnecessary pain here and now. Yet, finally, without a doubt there is a strain of pessimism and “positive nihilism” running throughout Laruelle. Katerina Kolozova’s article might be helpful, too. 

TP: The Kolozova essay was very helpful—although her account of Laruelle is exactly what I was understanding him to be saying.  I just don’t think Laruelle’s thought corresponds to reality on this—the idea that language is “radically alien” to the human, that it somehow requires a transcendental (it does in the capitalist subject of course) or that there is some pre-linguistic that we are alienated from by language, well, seems to buy into the whole Lockean thing too easily.  To me, it’s like saying the bird is radically alienated from the world by its wings, or the elephant by its trunk—language isn’t something separate from reality and separating us out from it, it is a natural real thing that is how we engage the world.  This assumptions seems to me to run through Laruelle—and its why I agree with his goals, but don’t see that he’s offering an way to accomplish them.  It’s a mistake to assume the Real is before and indifferent to language—the Real as the unthinkable is only created in language, doesn’t exist prior to the symbolic in which it is unthinkable (Zizek, sometimes at least, explains this quite well—other times, he seems to miss his own point…).  So, if Kolozova is right, then I guess I was getting Laruelle’s point, I just think he’s dead wrong.

GW: This is a rich disagreement! I think we are circling around what Laruelle calls the “heart” of his method. Without it, there is no non-philosophy. The technical term for this is “determination-in-the-last-instance.” In Laruelle, “radical immanence,” like the economic in Marx,  is that which, when all is said and done, has causal power in the real world. It, like vision-in-one, human-in-person, etc., is, of course, merely a “first term.” Like the Hindus say of God, the real has 330 million names. It doesn’t matter what you call it or even if you call it at all, because it, it’s name and the question of its correctness or incorrectness have no bearing on the function it serves. This is the tricky and, for most readers of Laruelle it seems, unacceptable part of his theory. The function of “the real” is purely axiomatic. It is not intended to say something about reality. Non-philosophy has no interest in saying how things are. It is not interested in for instance, adjudicating between competing theories of x or figuring out what properly constitutes the subject. Laruelle’s method certainly isn’t helping us to grasp the real. It is intended rather to help us grasp the idealism and the typically unacknowledged transcendence that, he claims, invariably constitute philosophical forms of thought. It, the real-function, is incommensurable with “being” and “reality” precisely because it, the function, serves to disable the decisional circuitry that is required in making pronouncements concerning such matters. Similarly, language is alienating because it is always tracking in the direction of some decisional matrix. Language is always implicated in and the vehicle for some “occasion,” some regional claim to knowledge, some World. I think that the crucial point here is that it is not a matter of right or wrong. It is only a matter of using the axiomatic method or not. Right or wrong requires decision. Right or wrong is a move in the philosophical game, not the non-philosophical game. Right/wrong requires a decision both in the weak version of deciding which theory or view of is correct, and in the strong version of necessarily, whether explicitly or not, of grounding that decision in criteria that are not given in the x. That’s why  Laruelle says that “the One only acts in-the-last-instance, [meaning] that it does not exit itself.” That’s why he says it’s “One-in-One.” He is aiming for an extreme rigor of thought, and believes that this rigor both requires an axiomatic formulation and, in so doing, depotentializes decision. In short, it is simply a method for seeing (not determining) what happens to some real first term when this term is, as Laruelle puts it, “foreclosed” to the interminable incursions, postulates, and pronouncements that x-thought desires to mix it with. Of course, as Althusser says, “From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.” In that case, we only ever have some regional knowledge. Laruelle, however, would claim that we should add “may” before “never.” It all depends of whether we apply the axiomatic method of the real or whether we support the ancient court of philosophical, buddhistic, etc. justice. 

TP: Yes, I think this has been a point we’ve always differed on.  It always seems to me a mistake to assume that because language has an intention and is meant to do something, that it is therefore inherently idealist and transcendental.  I think this mistake is common, at least from Locke to phenomenology, and the fantasy of getting outside of language to some pre-linguistic immanence is, it seems to me, an idealism and transcendentalism, a kind of “decision” that, to my mind, Laruelle makes and fails to notice.  It’s sort of like saying that because a shovel or a hammer has an intentional function they are therefore idealist and transcendental.  Language is not magic or alienating, any more than a pair of shoes is—it is a material practice we construct to accomplish something.  It is the case that in capitalist ideologies there is a powerful attachment to certain master signifiers, to the idea of a transcendental truth, etc.  But it’s important, to me, not to mistake capitalist ideology for ontology.

Lareulle’s thought seems to become somewhat of a “spherical chicken in a vacuum,” sometimes.  It seems to work perfectly, until you try to do something in the world with it.  I find myself, when I read one of his books, agreeing up to a point, then disappointed when he makes, once again, what seems to me the fundamental error of philosophy since Plato: the conflation of the mind-independent world with the humanly-created.  Because when you get down to a concrete instance, Laruelle’s concepts work well enough to expose the hidden master signifiers of an ideology, but don’t work when dealing with material realities. There surely is a right and wrong—it is right to say that the polio vaccine works to prevent polio, wrong to say that it is a government conspiracy and doesn’t work at all.  Sure, we want to prevent polio for ideological reasons, but that doesn’t mean we are doing it only in some transcendental idealistic illusion.  Sure, it would be foolish to say anything about what the subject “really is”, because the subject is always produced by the social system, but that doesn’t mean we can’t say something about what the subject of this particular social formation really is.  When Althusser says the last instance never arrives, he’s trying to point out that the economy can never be the only determinant, it is just the most powerful one—how we produce our food, shelter, clothing, etc. will always be the most powerful determinant in any social formation…but can never be completely determining.  Laruelle’s idea of a last instance seems to me to be troubled by the desire to be free of ideology, caught up in the romantic myth of an original state prior to “alienation” in language.  But human beings don’t precede language—we are the product of the biological capacity to communicate symbolically.  

GW: I agree with most of your position when it comes to these matters (language, ideology, etc.). I still think that Laruelle is up to something that eludes your criticisms here. Again, the pivot point is always the function of the axiom. He is not saying what language, for example, does or does not do in the real world. That is philosophy’s job. Laruelle is rather showing how and when it slips into idealism and supports the transcendental illusion. It is Buddhism and philosophy and mysticism and so on that entertain our “fantasy of getting outside of language to some pre-linguistic immanence.” Laruelle wants to position a massive deaf and dumb stone called the real for those thought-systems to crash against on their way to the Ideal. That stone only exists in thought. he would say that it is all ideology, all this World or that World, all language formation, and so on. But how do we discern that fact? Positing radical immanence axiomatically rather than philosophically is what serves this function in his method.  I completely agree with you that “Lareulle’s thought seems to become somewhat of a ‘spherical chicken in a vacuum.'” I am thinking at this point, though, that this fact simply points to the necessity for the “x-fictional” work. That is, the really hard part is also the most interesting and potentially valuable part, namely, the creation of new ideologies. Really, that’s all a philofiction or buddhofiction is: an ideology constructed out of x-material run through the anti-decisional machinery and slapped with the warrant of “insufficient.”  This is also a rich point of struggle between us: “Laruelle’s concepts work well enough to expose the hidden master signifiers of an ideology, but don’t work when dealing with material realities.” Of course, I agree with the first part. And I don’t disagree with the second part; I am still undecided about that. He claims, and Anthony Paul Smith is quite vehement on this point, that his thought is nothing if not an effective intervention into material realities. I am still seeing how that might be the case. I suspect that if it is the case, it is not the case in a big, robust, change-the-world way. He says, for example, that he always expects the worst. He works with a cyclical rather than linear (and perhaps necessarily teleological?) image of time. So, it’s not “how could this happen! when will it end?!” but rather, “oh, this again.” Having said that, the entire point of this kind of practice is changing the World., changing this social formation in order to create a presently inconceivable, hence “strange,” subject.

One final point. Agreed: “it is right to say that the polio vaccine works to prevent polio, wrong to say that it is a government conspiracy and doesn’t work at all.” This point only highlights for me Laruelle’s elevation of “first-science” (on the model of the ancient “first philosophy”) above all other regional knowledges. Science is a mode of thought that thinks the real in a minimally transcendental manner. That’s why it is capable of rightness. He wants to create a form of thought vis a vis philosophical concerns that is akin to science, a “science of philosophy,” as he calls it. Finally, I am not a Laruelle follower. I am just working with his method in order to perform certain operations on Buddhism that, I think, would be otherwise impossible. It is probably no accident that the most committed Laruellens out there are in the performance arts, particularly theater. I actually think that I am accessing Laruelle’s thought mainly through my experience as a musician, rather than through my interests in philosophy and buddhism.

TP: I do agree that Laruelle is helpful when it comes to pointing out the idealist flinch, what Derrida would call the metaphysical moment, in discourses, particularly in philosophy.  I thought his book on Badiou was very good for this reason, pointing out that Badiou is assuming that a human symbolic system (math, set theory) is ontology; for all that Badiou’s thought enables, he stops short of recognizing that the structure of the human mind might just not correspond to the universe as such.  

The problem for me is when he assumes, as you say, that it is all ideology…this is the collapse of two very different things into one category that has been going on since Plato—either there is just the material world (materialist reductionism) or there is just ideology (idealism), but there cannot be both!  This, as I’ve said before, is what seems to me to be Laruelle’s own “decision,” or metaphysical moment.  I don’t think that he would need to work so hard to produce his obscure terminology if he weren’t so devoted to the idea that there really is NO use of language, no thought at all, that is not ideological.  Even hard sciences may often fall into a sort of spontaneous ideology, so it has no privileged status there (what is String Theory, for instance, other than doing ideology with math?). 

This is why I’m wary of using Laruelle myself.  It is useful to “foreclose” the master signfiers that enable ideology to deny reality…but I think it’s possible to do this with concepts from deconstruction or psychoanalytic theory, or Althusser, and avoid the danger of assuming that it is ALL ideology.  When I read Laruelle, I get the same message that Kolozova describes, the idea that language is inherently unnatural and alienates us from our radical immanence.  This is why its a puzzle how we can ever “discern the fact” that we have an ideology.  If we stop seeing language as other to our nature as humans, this is less of a puzzle—it is because language is a tool we use to manipulate the mind-independent world that we can detect when it represents that world poorly or incorrectly.  

As with Badiou, I think there’s a lot in Laruelle that might enable us to do useful things; but just as I think Badiou is wrong to assume, for instance, that art (particularly poetry) is a truth procedure, or that math is ontology, I think Laruelle makes some idealist assumptions that we need to be wary of.  But then, if he didn’t, he’d surely not be in the job he’s in, or so successful in it, right?  

Ultimately, for me, it comes down to putting the concepts to use, applying them to some particular practice in the world.  That’s the only way I’m ever able to get beyond the “spherical chicken in a vacuum”—I always need real concrete examples to make sense of things for myself.  So if you can put it use on the discourse/practice of x-buddhism, then perhaps that will overcome the idealist assumptions that keep Laruelle’s work spinning out endless new arcane terminology—the spherical chicken will bounce of the stone, perhaps.

GW: Maybe I’ll break it up a but:

The problem for me is when he assumes, as you say, that it is all ideology.

Except that there’s the earth and the black universe. Somewhere between the raw material and the non-reflective emptiness that yet contains all colors, we make Worlds. So, agreed, I shouldn’t have said “all.”

I don’t think that he would need to work so hard to produce his obscure terminology if he weren’t so devoted to the idea that there really is NO use of language, no thought at all, that is not ideological.  

I see two things happening with Laruelle’s obscure terminology. Certainly, his terminology is an important aspect of his practice, or as he puts it, performance of thought. It is precisely his belief in the importance of language in constructing Worlds that he takes such care in crafting his terminology. I am usually pretty allergic to his all-too-French formulations like life-without-Life, force (of) thought, and all the rest, when it’s taken too seriously. I think that Laruelle is often making fun of that tradition. His goal, after all, is to “clone” philosophy, and to do so in a single gesture. But the terminology also forces, or at least aims to force, I think, a new kind of thinking. (Zen language and tantric “twilight language might be distant cousins in both regards.) The thought that is not (or is only minimally) ideological is science. That’s why non-philosophy aims to be a “science of philosophy.”

but I think it’s possible to do this with concepts from deconstruction or psychoanalytic theory, or Althusser, and avoid the danger of assuming that it is ALL ideology.

So does Laruelle—up to a point. That point is when those disciplines—and I would include Buddhism here—start performing their particular amphibologies. He wants to add a further degree of rigor that catches these confusions and adjusts for them. 

When I read Laruelle, I get the same message that Kolozova describes, the idea that language is inherently unnatural and alienates us from our radical immanence…if we stop seeing language as other to our nature as humans, this is less of a puzzle—it is because language is a tool we use to manipulate the mind-independent world that we can detect when it represents that world poorly or incorrectly.

Not “inherently,” or “other than” but in practice and different from. The stranger subject is precisely the one who practices language and thought differently. He also views language differently from the norm of his World, which wields it largely unconsciously as a mechanism as both harassment and replication. The stranger views language exactly as you say here, namely, as “a tool we use to manipulate the mind-independent world.” 

I think Laruelle makes some idealist assumptions that we need to be wary of.  But then, if he didn’t, he’d surely not be in the job he’s in, or so successful in it, right?  

If Laruelle can be shown to harbor idealist assumptions that would be huge. I wonder if you would want to craft such an argument, and maybe we could ask Anthony Paul Smith to reply. If you want to explore this idea, let me know and I’ll refer you to three criticisms along the lines of yours (roughly)—Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harmann, and Ray Brassier—as well as Laruellen rebuttals. I am always on the alert for slippage into idealism in Laruelle. I do think that he never quite succumbs. But this is a big topic, perhaps the topic on which his entire project depends. For, what will we have gained from him if it turns out that non-philosophy itself requires decision and claims sufficiency?

Ultimately, for me, it comes down to putting the concepts to use, applying them to some particular practice in the world.  That’s the only way I’m ever able to get beyond the “spherical chicken in a vacuum”—I always need real concrete examples to make sense of things for myself.  So if you can put it use on the discourse/practice of x-buddhism, then perhaps that will overcome the idealist assumptions that keep Laruelle’s work spinning out endless new arcane terminology—the spherical chicken will bounce of the stone, perhaps.

Again, the claim is that this is through and through a “particular practice in the world.” I certainly live it —enact it, perform it—in the world. I live it, as Buddhists say, in thought, speech, and action. Again, Laruelle’s method itself is “non-epistemological.” It is up to the user to create knowledge and make examples out of whatever material he is working with. Again, your hyper-translations are an example. In fact, it’s an example containing numerous additional examples. Imagine creating a practice community centered on the reading and discussion, and perhaps further creation, of such texts. My Incite Seminars is an example spawning countless unknowable further examples. The SNB blog is nothing if not a “particular practice in the world,” right? Just for clarification, do you see a necessary relationship between idealist assumptions and arcane terminology? Laruelle, I think, might argue that the opposite is the case: our seemingly innocuous everyday terminology is saturated with idealist assumptions, and a new, necessarily unfamiliar materialist terminology must take its place.

TP: Just to be clear, I don’t think new terms are necessarily idealist, and I do agree that thinking outside the ideologically-saturated common sense terminology of everyday speech is always difficult, and will at first seem obscure.  On the other hand, I’m always wary of neologisms—sure, we need them to think new things, but more often they are used to avoid thinking and cover aporias (like Locke’s “consciousness”).  My point is just that, on my reading, Laruelle only really becomes obscure at the point where he lapses into idealism…but right now I don’t think I have the mental energy to make a strong case for it, much less the ability to sit in front of my computer. I think Brassier’s criticism, though, really cannot be successfully refuted—the attempts at ‘rebuttal” I’ve seen really just distort and misunderstand his criticism, none have really addressed what he is actually saying.

That said, I don’t know that it means Laruelle is totally useless.  I mean, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Nietzsche, Foucault or Zizek say, but I think we can still make use of their concepts.  What’s important is less whether they had everything exactly correct than what they enable us to think. At least, that’s how I approach things most of the time.  Jameson may be an absolute naive idealist when it comes to “consciousness,” but he still has lots of useful ideas about literature, art and ideology.

GW: This statement of yours sums it up for me: “What’s important is less whether they had everything exactly correct than what they enable us to think.” I couldn’t agree more. My proclivity to take from a thinker whatever I feel is helpful has got me into some trouble. If you cite a thinker’s idea, people too quickly jump to the conclusion that you endorse everything about him or her. The trick is to do this kind of piecemeal assessment and extraction without falling into a postmodern anything-goes-ism.

TP: Do you have any interest in the conventional “parting words” interview questions?  To wit: what was most disappointing about SNB?  What do you see as the best things to come out of the project?  Any ideas what you might do with the blog next?  

I got pretty much what I expected. Having been around x-buddhist communities for a long time, I knew of their reluctance, and in many cases outright inability, to engage in robust criticism. It has always been clear to me, too, that the principle of “right-speech” functions as a mechanism of self-governance in Buddhist sanghas, whereby the practitioner him- or herself decides not to rock the dharmic raft. The nature of a sangha as an ideological apparatus for molding the x-buddhist subject has also long interested me. (In fact, just before I left mainstream academia I was working on a book tentatively titled The Western Buddhist Sangha: Participation and Identity.) It was this subject whom I expected to encounter on the blog, and I did. It would be too much to say here who this subject is, but briefly, it is someone who: sees himself as possessing, via both Buddhist doctrine and meditation, a critical acumen par excellence yet is really quite poor at critical work; is deeply ensconced in an obviously contrived, even hallucinated, worldview but genuinely, sincerely, and wholeheartedly believes herself to be “seeing things as they are;” views herself as philosophically astute and culturally informed yet exhibits a profound anti-intellectualism and cultural myopia; sees himself as possessing, via some x-buddhist practice, advanced psychological fortitude yet is emotionally hyper-sensitive and even somewhat prudish. The most disturbing aspect of the contemporary x-buddhist subject in general is that it presents itself as politically and socially liberal, even progressive, yet is indistinguishable from your average neighborhood neoliberal. Because I knew and expected all of this in advance, I felt that for the blog to have a chance, for it to cut through the pious pontification and righteous rectitude of x-buddhist discourse, it would have to hit hot and hard. Was I disappointed at the constant harangue from commentators about the blog’s “mean tone”? Of course not!

By far the best thing to come out of the project has been the creation of ideas, concepts, models, and texts that foster the possibility of a new kind of subject in the world. This, after all, was—and still is—the entire purpose of the blog. This is a subject who, at a minimum: recognizes the ways in which a World comes into being, and can make intelligent, ethical choices about what to do about it; recognizes the social nature of self-formation and “practices” accordingly; sees herself as already deeply implicated in the history of ideas, and so labors to become a responsible participant in the continuing flow of that history.

I am not sure what might come next. The hardest part of the Laruellen work is the creation of new “fictions” out of the x-buddhist material. And these buddhofictions should, of course, be the basis of a lived practice in the world. Maybe it can serve as an impetus for that work.

TP: Personally, I think there are some real effects of the blog, even beyond the subtle shift in the discussion of Buddhism (willingness to discuss things like capitalism and ideology alongside Buddhism, or to question the feel-good assumptions of mindfulness or the idealist assumptions of supposed secularists, etc.).  There’s a certain willingness to think, at least among a few of the participants—that is, the production of a new kind of subject, who might think critically.  Sure, anyone who mentions SNB is quick to dismiss it as hostile, sort of like anyone who mentions Firestone’s “Dialectic of Sex” has to mention that she’s “clearly insane”…still, she changed the discussion of feminism, and made it possible for even those who dismiss her to say things they couldn’t have said before…Or, maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.


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