Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel

[From the Introduction to A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, due out at the end of this summer. This excerpt is from the section laying out the difficulties involved in fashioning a substantive critique of Buddhism, and offering a strategy.]

Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel

What are we to make of Western Buddhism? Is it the serious form of thought and practice that its adherents would have us believe? It certainly speaks in the idiom of seriousness. Buddhist teachings invite us to entertain possibilities that should make even the most impulsive of the proverbial rushing fools balk: emptiness, selflessness, freedom, rebirth, the multiverse, enlightenment, abiding happiness. Topics like these, of course, have occupied some of the brightest minds that humanity has produced since the dawn of recorded human thought, thinkers from Parmenides and Plato to David Hume, Hannah Arendt, and Stephen Hawking, to just barely get the list going. Now, we’re hearing about Buddhism’s ability to address the most vexing issues confronting the twenty-first century, issues such as the domination of technology, environmental degradation, the intricacies of trauma and addiction, and the mysteries of the human brain. Western Buddhist teachers suffer no loss for words when it comes to any of these topics. Academics, too—principally in Buddhist studies, but also in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy—laud Buddhism’s contributions to interminable debates on epistemology, ontology, logic, language, perception, and consciousness. The accumulated result is that Buddhism enjoys a blue-ribbon reputation in the West as a profound all- encompassing system of thought, or at least, to those less inclined toward intractable conundrums, as a self-help remedy par excellence.

Is this reputation deserved? Perhaps the most obvious approach to investigating the viability of Buddhists’ claims for their ostensibly pansophic teaching would be to systematically present and analyze these teachings. Such an approach, however, would be tedious beyond belief and ultimately unproductive. Why do I say this? It would be tedious because “Buddhism” is the name of a two-and-a-half millennia amassing of ideas, beliefs, rituals, worldviews, texts, theories, art, architecture, music, fashion, practices, universities, monasteries, lay communities, virtually ad infinitum. And all of this in the cauldron of cultures spanning Beijing and Boston. Although this baroque assortment bears the shared name of “Buddhism,” the commonalities across time and space are mostly of the family resemblance variety, wherein the self- identity of each lies in its difference from the others. Like the proud factions of a venerable and extremely large clan, Buddhists seem to be particularly sensitive to this matter of difference. This sensitivity, furthermore, informs the reason that a doctrinal analysis of Buddhism would be as unproductive as it would be tedious. Contemporary Western Buddhists commonly respond to criticism with an appeal to exception. This tendency parallels what I call a detail fetish among Western Buddhists, a kind of exemplification reflex. Providing a particular example in order to make a finely calibrated point is, indeed, not unusual in complex systems of thought. Heidegger has his hammer; Wittgenstein, his slabs. Spinoza has his hatchet, and Descartes, his wax. If you have ever read even the first page of a book on classical Buddhist philosophy, you will almost certainly have come across “the pot.” Buddhists, in the written word and in dialogue, have always been quick at the draw with their own mechanism of ideological damage control: the hyper-specific doctrinal detail. Apparently, there is no criticism of a given Buddhist concept that cannot be decisively dismissed with an added detail, an overlooked facet, an ever-so-slight shifting of the dharmic goalpost. The detail is taken from this teacher’s meticulous interpretation, from that pinpointed textual passage; or, failing its intended effect, from the hidden sphere of wisdom known as personal experience. The detail corrects, alters, refines, and reshapes. And along the way, it inevitably derails any criticism, rendering it irrelevant.

If Buddhism is in equal measure elusive and unassailable, how is an evaluation of it possible? If the term “Buddhism,” or for that matter “Western Buddhism,” is a catchall for such a wide diversity of phenomena, what is it exactly that is being critiqued? And even if we can say, if every particular instance that is offered up for critical analysis is countered by a supposedly more salient yet resistant instance, on what foundation can a critique be raised? To indicate more about my approach to these matters in A Critique of Western Buddhism, and to convey a sense of the book’s spirit, I would like momentarily to band together the Buddha and the bearer of such ad rem wisdom as “Where there is a stink of shit/ there is a smell of being.”

The Buddha did not write books, but if he had, I can imagine him thinking, along with his scatological comrade, Antonin Artaud: “I would like to write a Book that would drive people mad, that would be like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go; in short, a door that opens to reality.” In the terms that I introduce in Chapter 2 , what Artaud calls “reality” is better understood as “the Real.” In one of its uses, the concept of the Real gives us a way to talk about disavowed features of reality that threaten to sunder our constructions of order, sense, and meaning. In another usage, the Real names a facet of existence presupposed, yet unaffected, by human symbolic systems, such as language and ideology. So, I will accordingly adjust Artaud’s terminology here. The Real, in Artaud’s charged and idiosyncratic idiom, is marked by “cruelty.” It is, in fact, the definitive cruelty. The very purpose of theater, Artaud believed, is to refract this cruelty: theater should be coextensive with the Real. It should ensue from the Real, thus operate alongside it. And yet the theater of his day aspired to be little more than a melodramatic retreat from the threats of modern life. It sought to protect its audience from the cruel. Artaud had a different vision. He saw in theater a practice that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.” With this aspiration, he was up against no less than a popular institution that served, like the church and the police, the creation of a public submissive to an oppressive status quo. Artaud thus made it his mission to transmute this theater of complacency into an “immediate and violent”  maelstrom, one that exposed its viewers to the primal truths of their lives. Only a theater that wakes up its audience’s “nerves and heart,” he believed, is worthy of the name. Such a theater must be built on the cruelty that is the Real, on those eschewed features of reality that, to evoke Artaud’s wise words from above, stink. Such a theater must not shrink from the possibility that “extreme action, pushed beyond all limits” must ensue from its feral process. For, if not pushed with such intentional zeal, the machinations of delusion and self-satisfaction will overwhelm the vitality that is catalyzed by the lucid acknowledgment of the cruel Real.

What do the fiery dreams of a bona fide madman like Artaud have to do with the cool and eminently sane Buddha? To suggest a parallel, let’s turn to the primal scene of their respective spheres of action. We see demented revels of the Dionysian maenad dancing and drinking themselves into orgiastic frenzy, shredding, with their phallic thyrsoi, then ecstatically devouring, the raw flesh of the sacrificial beast. Out of this appetite, the theater is born. Buddhism’s myth of origin is hardly less dramatic. Revisiting the locus of its founding scene, the seat of the Buddha’s awakening, we are in the presence of overwhelming elemental power: trees, water, sky, fire, earth, bodies beautiful and decaying, lust, passion, storms, death, swirling cosmos, occult powers, animals, sprites, spirits, gods. Sitting against the trunk of a massive ficus , the Buddha, as Gilles Deleuze says of writers, uses all the resources of his athleticism to “dip into a chaos, into a movement that goes to the infinite.” By engaging in extreme contemplative experimentation, the Buddha enters into a “Dionysian space of undoing” within which he enacts “not a system of demonstration, but an ordeal in which the mind is given new eyes.”

Each of these spheres represents a literal theater, a theatron, a space of violent, if perhaps cathartic, seeing. And yet from a catalyst for the crushing ordeal of human awakening, the Theater of Buddhism, like that of Artaud’s France, lapses into a refuge of comfort, into an institution of sleepy, complacent social conformity, into thought so sluggish as to mope its way into the desert of the Western New Age. That, at least, is one of two major premises of this book. What creates this breach is that the progenitors of Buddhism and of the Theater of Cruelty presuppose a “Real” of which their particular forms are crucial recoveries. This fact, the positing of a relationship to the Real— indeed, the very evocation of the notion—permits a corollary to the premise. In the case of Buddhism, this corollary is that its conceptual materials may, despite its lapses, offer valuable resources for radical reformations of thought and practice and of self and society in the contemporary West. But now a shadow of this first premise appears; namely, the noun “Buddhism” indexes an historical failure to unleash the force of its very own thought. “Buddhism,” that is, names an obstinate containment of potentially vital human goods. The end result is that Buddhism everywhere functions as a conservative protector of the social status quo, however toxic, and as an ideological fortress spawning subjects whose treasured goal certainly appears to be to remain unscathed—in some sense or another—by life’s vicissitudes. Paradoxically, therefore, we cannot look to Buddhism—to its teachers and defenders, to its commentaries and explications, to its communities and organizations—to assist us in removing its auto- erected bulwark of resistance.

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25 responses to “Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel”

  1. Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel – Dharma Nerds Avatar

    […] Wallis, of Speculative Non-Buddhism fame, has released an excerpt from the introduction to his soon-to-be-released book, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the […]

  2. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    Glenn, this is a great opener and I look forward to reading the book. But I’d like to make a couple of points. Why the focus on ‘cruelty’, as in your first book, Cruel Theory, Sublime Practice? Do you really think Buddhist sanghas are somehow lacking in cruelty? My experience is that Buddhist sanghas are full of unbearable cruelty. I’ve never experienced so much emotional abuse, head games, gas lighting, mind fuck, humiliation, and just deliberate naked cruelty as I have in Buddhist communities. Please, if anything, people need to develop some sensitivity and stop being so damn cruel to each other. The real ‘Theaters Comforting, Theaters Cruel’ is the Buddhist sangha itself. I stay out of Buddhist communities as much as possible so as not to give them another chance to fuck me over. I agree with you that Buddhism needs to stop running away into mental states of somnambulance, stop surrounding themselves with ‘feel good’ affirmations of psycho-babble and greeting card schlock, but they also go in the other direction. At the same time that they’re sucking you in with this promise of bliss and ‘nirvana’ (the most ill-defined word in the Buddhist lexicon) they prey on you with a kind of stealth emotional cruelty, with mechanisms of fanatic control over your every thought and movement. They seem to offload their insidious capacity for cruelty onto unwitting newcomers who fall for their promises of compassion and ‘refuge’. 

    My beef with Buddhism is its ignorance–as in deliberately ignoring–empirical facts of material reality. That’s another kind of REAL that Buddhists deny, the material facts of reality. Scientific facts are socially constructed–I don’t dispute that. We observe and create the scientific facts that we have the capacity to observe and create, based on our current technologies. And we create the scientific facts that are useful and relevant to us; we don’t bother with facts that are of no apparent use. But nonetheless, the empirical facts of material reality so constructed are necessary, crucial to our survival as a species. For all of it’s claims to atheism, attention to objective reality, ‘direct experience’, and affinity for scientific knowledge, Buddhism is just as good at running away from the empirical facts of material reality as say, scripture-based evangelical fundamentalism (whether Christian, Muslim or Judaic). This renders it utterly useless in my estimation. Worse than useless–it sets up the practitioner for a really cruel confrontation with the REAL down the road, when your wife leaves you, when your company goes bankrupt, when hurricanes, fires and flood destroy your town.

  3. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for your comment. You and I are in complete agreement. (Not that that’s necessarily a good thing or the goal. But it happens to be the case in this instance.) Maybe a misunderstanding arises with the word “cruelty.” The kind of cruelty you are referring to is largely what motivates the piqued, vehemently anti-right-speech language of this project. We have this cultural form, Western Buddhism, that presents itself as a compassionate, docile system of thought, practice, and community. On further investigation or, better, through actual participation in the form as you describe, we come to see the relentless harassment and molestation of the form in relation to the person. It’s easier to see this aspect with high pageantry displays like Zen, Tibetan, or Nichiren x-buddhisms. It’s more difficult to see it with forms like secular-buddhism and Mindfulness. In my view, that’s because those forms blend in imperceptibly with our dominant consumer-capitalist culture. But the result is the same: endless hankering after the person to be this way and not that way, to hold this value and relinquish that value, to cultivate this affect and diminish that affect, and on and on. Just spend ten minutes on the Secular Buddhist Association site. It’s an inundation of nagging mansplaining about how to be, (not) think, and live. (New term contest: dharmasplaining? buddhosplaining?) The violence done to the human by seemingly innocuous x-buddhism is precisely the usurpation of his interest and the capture of her desire.

    The practice that can bring this state of affairs to light is what I have in mind with invoking Artaud’s usage of “cruelty”. The practice is cruel precisely because it has found out the name of Rumpelstiltskin. It knows the name. It utters the name. And it reveals the name to anyone who will hear it. But it is not enough to bring the x-buddhist human shell game to light. In my work, I want to keep the focus on the fact that it is people who fashion the materials of x-buddhism into the stultifying, usurping form that it is. Those materials can be fashioned otherwise. So, that is where you and I disagree. I don’t think concepts like non-self-identity, void, radical contingency, and so forth, are “useless.” I believe that these and many other x-buddhist concepts can contribute to a potent concoction of social critique and incremental change. However, I also believe that the majority of people who currently function as the custodians of the x-buddhist storehouse are generally intractable good subjects of our current catastrophe. Hence, we currently have the cruelty that you illustrate, and require the cruelty that I do.

  4. wtpepper Avatar

    I’d agree that most Buddhist groups in America practice a kind of petty cruelty and call it metta. And, of course, there are other kinds of cruelty, like being mean enough to point this out to those who are doing it, or, worse, to hamper their ability to inflict delusion and psychological abuse on others (this is worse, because it cuts into the profits).

    But I’m wondering, Shaun, what kind of “empirical facts” you think the Buddhist community is ignoring? I’m not being sarcastic or snide here—I’m curious what exactly you’ve seen being ignored?

    I’m currently reading a book from the 70s, Ollman’s “Alienation,” and he discusses Marx’s analysis of species being and natural being (bear with me here), explaining that in our alienated world “those activities man shares with animals appear more human than those activities which mark him out as man.” This has always seemed to me to be what most x-buddhists miss. They are obsessed with “empirical facts” so extremely that they cannot see that empiricism itself is a form or reification, and that the “facts” enable us to ignore relations. They can’t grasp the absence of something (because a lack depends on understanding relations between things, and cannot by definition be empircally observed). So, we are told to become ever more alienated—and are insulted and bullied into further denying those specifically human characteristics (thought, language, sociality). The goal is to become like the animal, or to limit ourselves to what little we share with a toad or pigeon.

    This obviously is no more than an idealization of the situation that global capitalism has forced upon us (we have increasingly less power to consciously decide our lives, even down to the level of what we eat or wear or the contents of our own thoughts which must be fed to us by a cell phone). This doesn’t seem to me to be at all in conflict with the kinds of fact empirical science delivers—witness the “research” on mindfulness or the “science” of evolutionary psychology or any of the neuro-everything crap in all the media every day.

    So, short question, is there some specific scientific empirical truth that is incompatible with Buddhism? Or did you just mean “empircal’ in the sense of “evident,” like the truth that our lives are getting worse fast while the richest two percent are getting richer at shocking rates? That the “growth” of jobs is accompanied by an overall low of real income when adjusted for inflation, so people are working more and making less?

    By the way, I read where someboy calculated that the guy who owns Amazon makes more money while taking a shit than the average American worker will earn in a month. Nothing directly to do with x-buddhism, but I thought it was disturbing and funny.

  5. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    Hey Tom Pepper: Ok back from taking a deep dive into Soul Jazz starting a band (the Soul Yogis) because I’m also a guitarist and yes sometimes I really do get sick of Buddhism and love to get involved in other stuff. So now I can come back to your question. You answered it for me:

    “So, short question, is there some specific scientific empirical truth that is incompatible with Buddhism? Or did you just mean “empircal’ in the sense of “evident,” like the truth that our lives are getting worse fast while the richest two percent are getting richer at shocking rates? That the “growth” of jobs is accompanied by an overall low of real income when adjusted for inflation, so people are working more and making less?”

    Exactly. I’m not talking about the kind of ‘direct experience’ that so-called ‘practitioners’ insist is what its all about, like cows muffling the prairies for the best grass to chew. No I’m talking about socially-constructed scientific facts, whether ‘hard’ science or social science, the facts of our social existence, the material facts of our physical survival. Yeah, it’s based on concepts and language and we get it wrong more often than not, but hey its the best we have to work with at this point.

  6. Gavin Avatar

    Hi Glenn, I’m really looking forward to this book. I haven’t yet commented on this site, but over the past few months have been delving into various articles. I am still trying to process and digest things, but my thinking about Buddhism has already been radically transformed by what I’ve read here.

    Like many, I found the density of your style difficult to get used to at first, but with time it became clearer, and I agree with what you’ve said elsewhere about the value of this obtuseness. These things could have been expressed in plainer English, with no loss in meaning, but people wouldn’t have had to grapple with them in the same way. Most ‘true believers’ would have glossed over them. That said, if the more vernacular style of this introduction sets the tone for the whole book, it will be more widely read, and I think that is a very good thing.

    Glad to see there is still some life in the blog, I thought it had been wound up already, and thanks again to you, Tom and Matthias for all the thinking and time that has been put into this project.

  7. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, Shaun, if only more people would grasp that “whether hard science or social science” all our knowledge depends on “concepts and language.” Then maybe the x-buddhists, and American culture generally, wouldn’t be so foolishly deluded by nonsense like evolutionary psychology, neuro-cognitive reductionism, and the “science” of meditation. We’re probably more able to be “correct” about the interpretation of a poem than we are about subatomic particles or the workings of the brain.

    So, if you mean “scientific” facts like the impossibility of ever achieving any kind of objective pure perception, or like the fact that our self-indulgent affluent lifestyle depends on the brutal oppresssion of most of the humans on the planet, either way I’d say that yes, most x-buddhists work really hard at NOT seeing reality! That’s what American Buddhism is all about, after all. So I can see why most people get sick of it after a while. I’m more puzzled by why it usually takes a year or two and several thousand dollars spent on idiotic retreats and meditations books before they do get sick of it…seems it should happen in about one weekend.

  8. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    yeah, Tom, why does it take so long to get sick of Buddhism? Good question. At first meditation actually does something good for you, then you want to know why, and you start to believe in this thing called ‘enlightenment’ and then you start reading lots and lots of books and it becomes an obsession to become ‘awake’ or reach nirvana, or whatever. Then you’re hooked and it takes over your whole life. But early on, it starts to feel pretty weird, like you notice parts of your life that have gone missing, other interests seemed to fade. And you notice that you’re in this bubble and you don’t know how it happened because that’s not what you meant to do. You never wanted to get swallowed up by a ‘religion.’ And then you’re torn between wanting to understand what feels like an alien culture that has taken over your life and wanting to get out at the same time. And then you’re fighting to get out, fighting the institutions that trapped you and fighting your own addiction to it. Then you just start ripping it to shreds, like you have to destroy it to save yourself. But finally, you find your way back to the things you used to care about, or you develop new interests. Like my interest in Soul Jazz was developing at the same time as the Buddhist thing, and now I’ve just gone deeper into it, dove in head first. And btw, Soul Jazz is a complete 180 from Buddhism. It’s about rhythm and groove, passion and sex, music, sound, dance, emotion and feeling, sadness, ecstasy and joy, and above all SOUL—which is something Buddhists don’t believe in or care much about. So it’s headlong into hedonism, and I’m loving it.

  9. Danny Avatar

    Tom, I would suggest that what we all truly need is a good shot of present moment awareness. And you’re in luck–it’s Mindful Living Week from Tricycle, inspired guidance from 25 leading mindful teachers! All free access (temporarily of course, $147 and you can add it permanently to your Buddhist library) so here’s the link..get busy doing nothing!

  10. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    Did you notice how they have to pile on the Dharmalebrities? 25 Dharmalebrities in one week! Only $147! The dharma is getting cheaper all the time. Just like an addiction, it takes more and more Dharmalebrities to get the same effect. No more 3-month retreats in Boulder. Now you can park in front of your laptop for a week and download nirvana for FREE! Dharma-Bingeing–hey that’s a new media trend, wouldn’t you say?

  11. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @Glenn: “Just spend ten minutes on the Secular Buddhist Association site. It’s an inundation of nagging mansplaining about how to be, (not) think, and live. (New term contest: dharmasplaining? buddhosplaining?)”
    Buddhosplaining–it’s a great meme, Glenn, and yeah, I’m way past having ‘enough of it.’ X-Buddhists use Buddosplaining to cut and paste their religion onto any topic of conversation, even though common empirical knowledge provides suitable explanations for most things in life. They don’t intend any harm, they’re just brainwashed. Which is what Buddhism is: self-administered brainwashing–making your brain nice and shiny and clean from all those nasty life experience. Breath in that clean fresh scent of ‘nibbana’.

  12. wtpepper Avatar

    Glenn and I actually discussed doing a critique of this. We decided neither of us could tolerate even one day of this nauseating content. Personally, I couldn’t get past the shocking stupidity of Rick Hanson. I cannot fathom the mind that listens to him for more than a single minute without dismissing him as an abject moron.

    I wonder what is left of in-person Buddhism in America, now that, as Shaun says, you can just “buy” your Buddhism on your laptop and get enlightened without ever leaving you couch, between episodes of American Idol. Around here, none of the Buddhist meditation groups that existed ten years ago still exist, and the few groups that now call themselves Buddhist claim to be a blend of Scientology and Buddhism—and most of them are just trying to sell some kind of “certificate” in something.

  13. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom, Shaun, Danny.
    Tom, your comment about Rick Hanson made me laugh at loud. Thank you. I needed that.

    So, this is the state of the situation: When you enter into the living x-buddhafield—where figures like Hanson, Batchelor, Wallace, Rinzler, and so on, are the reigning x-buddhas—only one outcome is guaranteed: your IQ will drop by thirty points.

    But if I have learned anything from reading Badiou, it is not to accept the state of the situation. I am writing a book that intends to seize the munitions going to waste in the x-buddhist fortress. Here is a paragraph from the proposal. I present it here because I hope to incite others to insurrection. The conclusion that x-buddhist figures like Hanson are abject morons is, sadly, not without a firm basis. I still want to believe, though, that most of them, along with their customers students, exhibit such lack of intelligence because of the particular nature of the current x-buddhist interpellation.

    So, who will join me in the raid?

    Calculus of the Buddha* is grounded in several interrelated assumptions. The title of the project is intended to signal my conviction that Buddhism offers us valuable conceptual resources for “calculating”—for plotting and measuring—a viable means to what it terms human “awakening,” or the achievement of optimal awareness of self, others, society, environment, etc. Buddhist concepts like no-self, contingency, presence, vanishing, and many others, offer invigorating, often profoundly innovative and radical, vectors of thought. Decades of studying these concepts, however, has convinced me that they are reflexively placed in the service of an unquestioned humanism—with, that is, a celebratory enthronement of the ostensibly rational human at the center of a meaningful universe. Humanism is integral to our current way of thinking about such means. I believe that this claim applies equally to scholarship on Buddhism as to avowedly apologetic literature. This alliance, sustained from the earliest days of Buddhist studies, has had decisive consequences for the Western reception of Buddhism. The overall effect has been to obfuscate precisely what, I argue, is most compelling about the Buddhist material; namely, the prospect of conceiving it as the “calculus” mentioned above. Current usage of the material in contemporary Western society, whether in the hands of scholars or practitioners, does not merely contravene the anti-humanist awareness-enhancing spirit of this calculus, it subverts its trajectory toward an ideological collusion with the current status quo. Given these assumptions, the argument driving the project is that a reconfiguration is in order. But a responsible means of awareness-enhancing, whether conceived as religious practice, contemplative epoché, scholarly study, or practical “self-care,” can no longer seek justification on the same plane on which it has been diminished. For the establishment of a new plane of Buddhist thought and practice, of a position that is tenable to a twenty-first century thinker, something like a buddhofiction is required.

    *”Buddha” names the subject of non-buddhism here, or the “buddha-subject.”

  14. wtpepper Avatar

    So, is this a new project? A follow-up to Critique of Western Buddhism? Moving from critiquing to producing?

    What strikes me in this partial proposal is that you are after something most people would not recognize as Buddhism at all. Buddhism has become a sort of long-term palliative care for the terminally alienated, ministering to their (unacknowledged) despair during their sickness unto death. Many find it stops relieving the suffering after a few doses, and give up, look for a new pain killer, etc.

    But to my way of thinking, Buddhism ought to be more like, say, studying psychoanalysis or marxism. Intense at first, and difficult and distressing maybe, but not meant as an end in itself. Eventually, it needs to be applied to some particular real worlds situation. Of course, there’s always the difficultly of “drifting” away from the original idea, losing its potential for insight and so its ability to provide agency. Like when you’ve tried too long to teach marxist without renewing your study of it, you drift away from the real power of the concepts and get closer to the watered down concepts of the hegemonic discourse. (For instance, begin thinking that use-value really does mean usefulness, and so air and water have use-value—forgetting that the marxist concept of use-value it relational and refers to the use a particular commodity has in reproducing the relations of production, so air has no use value but cheap processed food does, etc.). So we need to maintain and return to study, because it is too difficult to avoid falling back into the illusions of common sense without making that effort. But of course the kind of study we do later on is different from the study of the beginner, first trying to grasp Capital. And it becomes pointless unless there is some real world application to it—unless it helps us decide upon and construct real practices in the world that increase our agenc and reduce our despair (again, in Kierkegaard’s sense).

    Your “calculus” then would not be the kind of palliative ideology, but a kind of reconceptualiziing of the world? Does it need to include a Buddhofiction, then? An ideology? Or could it remain distinct from the ideology, working to inform it but not directly tied to it?

    And yes, I’d agree that the stupidity is a result of the situation, in Badiou’s sense. But I suspect someone like Hanson is just an idiot, and in a less troubling situation would not be getting rich selling books and online retreats, but doing something more suited to his capacities—say, stocking shelves at the Stop and Shop?

  15. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Tom,

    That’s a great concise analysis of what we can call “conceptual drift.” It’s a very astute observation about a phenomenon we are probably all familiar with, that loss of potency that happens to ideas and insights as we settle back into the comforting, hegemonic discourse of the status quo. A huge question becomes, then, how do you keep the charge hot and the detonator dry? A related question: how do you wrest it out of the possession of the Hive’s bureaucrats? A comment you once made has stayed with me. It was something to to the effect that Buddhism is valuable because it offers concepts that lie outside of, and so challenge, our current ways of thinking. I am still holding out for that possibility. But contrary to the facile usage of that cliche about “thinking outside the box,” doing so is extremely difficult. It takes vigilance and diligence. It seems to involve something like a perpetual act of negation.

    I am writing the project as a buddhofiction. I am not making an argument about x-buddhism. I am not even suggesting new ways of conceiving of x-buddhism. I am just doing something immediately with certain x-buddhist concepts, without apology or explanation. It is an intravenous intervention. It’s probably too ideological at this point, skewing toward anti-humanism tropes. I hope to make it finally into something that is closer to an instrument for recognizing the dominant ideology. Anyway, thanks for your stimulating comments.

    Off to the Stop and Shop. Maybe I’ll see Hanson there!

  16. wtpepper Avatar

    I still think that much of (historical) Buddhism depends on ways of thinking that are alien to us, because they are not part of a capitalist World. There are other discourses like this, things we have records of that come from a world prior to the dominance of capitalism (it wasn’t all that long ago—even Aquinas is writing from a different World). But how do we give these concepts the power to explode our hermetic World? To fissure the wall of concepts we live in?

    Conceptual drift is a good way to put it—and it is just as common in Buddhist discourse as in psychoanalysis. As when Goldstein tells his favorite story about the water glass breaking to “explain” impermanence, replacing a difficult concept with the ordinary meaning of the term. It takes constant and collective work to avoid the easy but wrong version of Buddhism and think in the strange and foreign concepts.

    I would say we all need ideologies—we are ideological animals by nature—but we should try to produce these ideologies with a greater awareness that ideologies, not eternal verities nor necessities, is what they are. What I think is most crucial in the history of Buddhist thought is that it can demonstrate that it is possible, contrary to what just about every modern thinker would have us believe, to commit to something we consciously choose—we don’t need to feel that we are forced to do something, that it isnt’ up to us but divinely decreed or hardwired into our brain, in order to do be willing to make any effort, to commit. Unfortunately, pop buddhism is, as you say, completely a kind of Humanism, is committed to the opposite, to convincing us that we ought only act according to what is in the objective nature of the universe (hence the obsession with “pure perception”) or hardwired into our brain (hence the obsession with a science of meditation and with evolutionary psychology).

    In the old fable, Buddha picked and ideological practice (what we might call vagabondage) informed by a philosophical analysis of the current situation. A new fable, so informed, might have real power…but only if embraced by a collective.

    Oh, and I mean no disrespect to Stop and Shop employees. In my experience, having done such work myself, there are far too many people unhappy in such jobs exactly because they DO have the potential or capacity to do much more. I just meant we should all find some role suited to our abilities—but far too often those with no intellectual capacity (or even interests) wind up as college professors or medical doctors, while the department secretary or medical technician has to try to keep things running against the enormous inertia from above. If the World we inhabited made more sense, people like Hanson (or Young or Epstein or Wallace) would never be publishing books, because nobody would be confused enough to take any interest in his nonsense.

  17. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @wtpepper: I think it’s debatable that Buddhism is “not part of a capitalist world”. Buddhism has always thrived in a proto-capitalist culture. “As for Sarao’s second thesis, that Buddhism thrived among commercial trading networks but not amongst settled agricultural communities, this certainly dovetails with the first, that Buddhism thrived in growing urban centers. Sarao argues that Buddhist monasteries were almost entirely dependent on donations from the enterprises of banking, finance, production and trade in goods, i.e. commercial enterprises.” Buddhism has always been populated by and supported by the urban intelligentsia and commercial elites involved in foreign trade, i.e. the ‘capitalists’ of medieval India and Asia. . . . Even today, it’s become a truism that Buddhism thrives in the West amongst the upper middle class, the college educated, scholars and professionals with advanced degrees, wealthy capitalists and entrepreneurs—in other words, the bourgeoisie. But if we look back at its long history in India, from its ancient roots right up to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the lawyer-politician with two doctorate degrees, it always has thrived amongst the middle class. The bankers, financiers, traders, and entrepreneurs that supported the Buddhist monasteries in the ancient and medieval periods, were, so to speak, proto-capitalists.
    Read more of this discussion here:

  18. wtpepper Avatar

    I’m not interested in bullshit like “Proto-capitalism”. I’m talking about capitalism as a specific historical occurence, something that did not exist at all before a couple hundred years ago. I know sociologists and historians, keen to naturalize capitalism, have invented this concept of “Proto” or “Pre” capitalism, but there’s no such think. It’s like calling shouting a “Proto-cellphone.” If you’re confused about this, I recommend Ellen Melksins Wood’s excellent book “The Origin of Capitalsim.”

    So, no, there is no debating this point. The world in which Nagarjuna or Santideva thought was just not a capitalist world, and so its concepts were not capitalist. The fact that a complete misrepresentation of Buddhism is popular with the middle class in capitalist culture in no way proves that the correctly understood concepts of Buddhist philosophical thought are capitalist (proto or otherwise.).

    I’m wondering if anyone is willing to stop this quibbling bullshit and have a serious conversation? I’m not interested in the tiresome academic strategy of claiming you cannot say anything ever because it’s always possilbe with equivocation and sophistry to refute you.

    Anyone at all up for Glenn’s challenge? Or are you all just too defeated by the dominant ideology to even want to think?

  19. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @wtpepper “So, no, there is no debating this point.” Ok, so now you’re constructing a Fundamentalist Non-Buddhism where things are not debatable. Why would I want to be involved in a project like that? Everything is debatable, jack, that’s what intellectual work is about.

  20. wtpepper Avatar

    Anyone who thinks that what “intellectual work is about” is that “everything is debatable” is beyond hope. That’s exactly the kind of postmodern nonsense that leads to idiotic crap like American Buddhism. I think my new guiding principle has to be to only engage in serious discussions with someone who can explain why that statement is not just incorrect but sublimely stupid.

  21. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Shaun,

    The “everything is debatable” question is a sizzlin’ hot item in the US right now. It centers on the First Amendment, and how it relates to attempts by universities to prevent certain speakers, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer and Ann Coulter, and certain ideas, mostly conservative and right-wing one, from having an institutional platform. Those who want to limit the platform argue precisely that not everything is grist for intellectual work. Their opponents argue that the First Amendment protects such ideas nonetheless. In reality, even the First Amendment contains numerous exceptions; so it’s not a pure, anything-goes charter. My only problem with the platform limiters is that it opens up the dangerous situation where certain people, almost invariably liberal academics, are deciding what counts as worthy or not for debate. I had a long heated argument about this topic with my brother-in-law last year. He ended up writing this article for the New York Times. Taken together, the article and the comments are a great source for the topic as it continues to unfold in the home of the brave and the land of the free.

  22. wtpepper Avatar

    My concern has nothing at all to do with political correctness, free speech, or the alt-right and their alt-truths.
    It is just an epistemological matter. Intellectual work cannot possibly begin until there is already an agreement that some things are just NOT debatable. This is just universally true in every kind of intellectual pursuit, from physics to the interpretation of poetry. Anyone to whom this is not obvious is just not worth trying to debate with–there is no true skeptic, and even the half-skeptics are just sophists.

  23. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @Glenn Your brother’s article was excellent. At it’s core, its a ‘balancing of rights’ argument: “The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.” My offer to debate the socio-economic history of Buddhism does not question, deny or negate wtpepper’s identity or humanity, nor does it deny his right to participate as a ‘fully recognized member of the community,’ nor does it preclude his right to speak on that or any issue. So it’s not in conflict with any of the provisions put forward in the article.

  24. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    @wtpepper; thousands of historians, economists and social scientists have been debating the history of capitalism for the last hundred years at least, going back to Karl Marx and the early economists. To say that the history of capitalism is not debatable in the face of that much scholarship is simply ludicrous. You said that “capitalism as a specific historical occurence, something that did not exist at all before a couple hundred years ago”. Immanuel Wallerstein, only one of the thousands who have debated this issue, but recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the subject, locates the development of capitalism in Europe to the 15th century, spanning 1450 to 1640, which is at least 400 years ago, not ‘a couple hundred.’ “It was the sixteenth century that there came to be a European world-economy based upon the capitalist mode of production. “The New European Division of Labour c. 1450-1640; The Modern World-System I : Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century.”. So the history of the development of capitalism has been debated by thousands of scholars in hundreds of thousands of scholarly publications for over a hundred years at least, and continues to be debated today.

  25. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    correction: locates the development of capitalism in Europe to the 1500s, spanning 1450 to 1640, which is at least 400 years ago, not ‘a couple hundred.’

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