Stranger Subjects: Interview

I was recently interviewed by two super-smart and creative young men, Andrew Blevins and Jonah Sprung. Our conversation was just published by The Flood, an online magazine “that sits at the confluence of radical politics and spirituality.” As this description from their site indicates, this blog and The Flood share at least one very important interest in common:

Histories of spirituality and social movements are inseparable. Experiences of the sublime bump up against the mechanisms of the state, bureaucracy meets intimacy, and the mundane is disrupted by jubilation. The Flood explores this ongoing relationship and asks: as the waters rise, how can we help each other stay afloat?

[NOTE. 11-15-22: Normally, I would post a short excerpt and then link to the original website for the rest. But my bad-link app alerted me to the fact the The Flood is defunct. So, here’s the entire interview.]


It wasn’t so long ago that the variety of practices known as meditation stood outside, if not quite against, the American spiritual mainstream. With heads turned vaguely toward the East, the seekers of the Baby Boomer generation moved in a territory delimited on one side by Orientalist mysticism and on the other by Sixties radicalism; the Dharma was to be found somewhere between Alan Watts’s soothing chin-beard and Allen Ginsberg’s hippie mane. Today, Buddhist mainstays like the cessation of desire and realization of the Self’s inherent emptiness compete with other productivity hacks, more likely to arrive via push notification than guru…While his philosophic constructions tend toward a sort of theatrical maximalism, in person Wallis is easy and unaffected; he looks more ex-punk than ex-professor, with a piratical ring through his left ear, and speaks in a Philly-inflected baritone. His good humor confirmed the playfulness one often suspects is dancing beneath the surface of his writing, though it also lent an unsettling charge to some of his darker pronouncements. We met in a large post-industrial coffee shop (cf. “ruins,” below) on the main drag of Philadelphia’s Fishtown.
Glenn Wallis: I guess it starts, in terms of the production of work or whatever, with this band Ruin. I started that band as a teenager. It started with the idea that it’s gotta be something really powerful, that really affects people. We want bodies and lives and faces. We were reading about Nietzsche and the Dionysian, the origins of the theater; or we were reading people like Artaud, the Surrealists, the Situationists. We wanted to create an event. We wanted people to have an encounter with something very real.

Jonah Galeota-Sprung: So you had this sort of project or desire already, and punk happened to be the best available form?

GW: I was a philosophy major. This is the early Eighties; Nietzsche, the existentialists were still popular, just barely. Punk had just hit and we were all very excited about it because, you know, I don’t want to put down prog-rock, I like a lot of prog-rock, but me and my friends felt that it was getting kind of sluggish, ponderous. I mean Yes is beautiful, I love Yes, it’s nice, it’s fun to play, if you’re really high it’s nice to listen to; but as sort of a catalyst for, uh, an encounter with the Real, it didn’t quite do it. Punk just happened to be there, and it excited us. The way I look at it now is that it kind of recaptured our drive, which had been buried or lost or deeply repressed in the lifestyle of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The numbness of high school and all that. Something about the punk spirit, for me and my friends anyway, helped to revitalize this drive. Being a human being. Having an effect on the world.

Andrew Blevins: Did your interest in punk start at the same time as your interest in Buddhism?

GW: Actually, it probably begins with Buddhism. I got interested in Buddhism already as a fifteen-year-old kid, and this punk stuff hit when I was about seventeen or eighteen. I went to what you would now call a Free School. A philosophy grad student at Villanova and a friend of his who was an English professor somewhere started this school and put up advertisements for students who were smart and well-behaved but couldn’t function in the regular school system. First day of school I show up and it’s like, “What do you want to learn? What are you interested in at this moment?” My father had just given me that Ram Dass book that all the hippies read, Be Here Now. For some reason he thought I’d be interested, and I was. So I said, “Asian philosophy.” And they were like, OK! They go out into the community and find a guy named Bruce who was gonna teach me Asian philosophy. We sat in this room all year long and he taught me the Dhammapada, the Buddhist text. And he taught me what I now know as Vipassana style meditation. I was just so interested in Buddhism from that moment on.

JGS: Had Bruce come to Buddhism through hippie sorts of pathways?

GW: The only thing I remember about Bruce: He told me that he had been like an accountant or something at some American business place, and he pulled into his driveway one day, and got out, and went around to his trunk to get his briefcase and his suit, opened the trunk, and just had this breakdown. Like, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m a young man and I’m miserable.” He quit his job; he did what they were all doing back then, he tuned in, dropped out—I don’t know if he turned on. He looked like he had never actually turned on.

So, from very early on these Buddhist ideas were coupled with this kind of social critique. Because of Bruce. His story and his critique of American corporate society were interwoven with my reception of the ideas from the Dhammapada. It’s been there from the beginning, that connection. 

JGS: A kind of response to the anomie, or what you earlier called numbness?

GW: Yeah, the numbness and the emptiness and the nausea—that was a term we used to throw around, from the Sartre book—to me, that was part and parcel of the larger social structure. The big corporate structure that I had reference to at the time was high school, which I thought was just horrendous. I could not believe that such a place existed. I’m getting a stomach-ache just thinking about it. To me, it was a really sick environment. I understand it all better now, but back then I just felt depressed and numb. So the punk was a way to explode out of that. And to connect to people again, you know? 

JGS: So, with Ruin—I know that you didn’t want to define yourselves as a “Buddhist punk band,” but that label did get applied.

GW: Part of that is still an interest of mine: to have everything be of a single piece. It never made sense to me to separate things. I never felt like I had to make an effort to put them together because it just seemed natural. We were getting a lot of ideas and a lot of inspiration from Buddhist practice. All of us were practicing Buddhists except our drummer. Why not have that be one of the ingredients?

AB: Eventually, the band winds down and you end up entering the academic world. How did that happen? 

GW: I thought, well, what do I love the most? And it was Buddhism. So I found myself in Berlin studying Sanskrit, the idea being that I wanted to read the Buddha’s texts myself and not have to rely on what other people say. And I studied Pāli and Tibetan as well. I wanted to get, like, the code of Buddhism. And I liked the idea of practicing and studying. It’s like this old idea of the monk-scholar. I slowly, though, became critical of the fact that there was really no room to apply it to social critique. There was something about religious studies that didn’t care for that kind of work.

JGS: So you ended up teaching for a while at UGA, where you were given tenure. But you didn’t stay.  

GW: At some point [at UGA] I was getting really disillusioned with higher education. I started realizing the consumerist, corporate nature of higher education. And then I also started experimenting with what I was doing in the classroom and bumping up against walls. It’s like high school, it’s like the factory… 

Talking to you guys now it makes it clear how interconnected all this stuff is. I had this idea, when I was doing Ruin and trying to figure out what to do next, that everything I did, I’d call it Ruin. So that at the end, it’d look like one complete piece done over a whole lifetime. I begged them to let me use it in the subtitle to the new book. I use the concept of ruin in the book—the idea is that it’s a good kind of first term, like [François] Laruelle calls it, for the Real. [Whereas] the “edifice” tries to present itself in some way that you could decipher ideologically or whatever, the ruin gets rid of all the pretense. It’s starting to meld back into what it is—to nature. 

JGS: From UGA you move to the Won Institute in Philadelphia, where you’re heading the Applied Meditation program, a training course for meditation teachers. What sort of teaching did that involve?

GW: I made a decision early on to teach this text called the Anapanasati Sutta. I didn’t want to be sectarian. I thought, if I’m gonna teach meditation in a Buddhist context, I’m gonna teach the oldest text we have in the Pāli canon. Because in a way, the Pāli canon is “before Buddhism.” In a way. 

Sati is a word that the people who do mindfulness, they translate it as mindfulness. It really means “remembrance.” And anapana means in breath and out breath. So it’s called Anapanasati Bhavana, which is, cultivation of this capacity for remembrance of the in breath and the out breath; but, somewhat paradoxically, remembrance in the present. I chose this text because it’s completely devoid of what we would call metaphysical or transcendental or religious terminology. It’s very psychologically oriented, which speaks to the modern-day secularists. It’s a cool text, a really powerful sort of meditation manual. 

I did bring in some of my Zen training as well. We had a really beautiful mediation hall with nice floors, a nice space, and—it was very strict. Facing the wall in a sort of a Zen sitting posture. Sometimes we’d sit for a full three hours, no breaks. The idea was to train them in a really rigorous way. If you can sit for three hours, focusing every moment your awareness on this sensation of the breath in your nose, you can do this thing called meditation. And I found that most of my Zen colleagues, the Vipassana people, etc., couldn’t do this. Many people, they’re doing some sort of practice that, if you read the documents, calls for a kind of rigor that’s never realized in the institution. I wanted to create an environment where everyone who passed through there could do this super-rigorous concentration awareness practice. And then go off and develop whatever they felt was necessary. Like the Buddha says, when you’ve gone to the other side of the river, you don’t carry the boat around with you. 

There’s a saying in Zen: “First comes discipline, then comes freedom.” It was operating a little like that. Now you’re relaxed, you let go, you be creative, you do whatever you feel is necessary for your environment—but you’ve had that strict training. I like that approach. And there was a lot more practice stuff, but we’d also read stuff like Zizek and Lacan and Althusser along with it, so they were getting the idea that it’s not a politically free, context-free practice. It’s always placed.

The students were great. They were artists, psychologists, people in education. The problem was that the Institute wanted us to do things like what Jon Kabat-Zinn is up to, and ally ourselves with what has now become this massive mindfulness industry. That’s where the money would have been. But I was taking it in this other direction, and it was remaining very small. So they’re closing the program, and as soon as I’m gone they’re gonna get some mindfulness person in there and cash in. It’s of a piece with all the rest of it. Operating within a system, realizing its limitations, realizing its refusal to abide by its own stated principles. There’s this desire to actually shore up against the very things that they’re claiming that they want to see happen, because they’re threatening. You see that in the big educational systems, too. They talk about openness, inclusiveness, innovation—bullshit. I mean, bullshit. 

JGS: You write in the introduction to the new book that “the noun ‘Buddhism’ indexes a historical failure to unleash the force of its very own thought.”

GW: Yeah. I think that’s a basic principle. That’s how I got interested in psychoanalytic stuff too. Psychoanalysis talks about repression and all that, like, “You say you’re interested in this, but you do that.” I think that’s something that you bump up against in whatever structures you’re working in. That’s very interesting and curious to me. How can you create a structure where you can genuinely fulfill some of these principles that you’re claiming for yourself? Partly, you have to not disavow the potential repressive effects. That becomes part of the overt conversation. That’s what we’re doing over there [at Incite Seminars]. The danger is of forming a new thought-collective. It’s probably gonna happen—human beings operate like that—but if you make it explicit, maybe you have a better chance of avoiding some of that.  

We’ve done ten seminars; the eleventh is coming up this Saturday. We’re trying to create the space for an unusual kind of dialogue. It has a level of sophistication, a level of rigor—we read difficult stuff ahead of time—yet it’s unintimidating. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where people really feel like they can explore. It’s not about academic braggadocio or accomplishment or showing you know more than the other person. It’s hard to do, though, because people are trained in those environments.

AB: Not to draw too neat a line, but it seems like in some way you’re trying to recreate the Free School.

GW: It’s very funny you say that. I said to my wife just two days ago—I just had this realization, I’m just gonna go back to what I learned at that school! It was all right there. Everything I know I learned at the anarchist Free School. [laughs]

AB: Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice has the feeling of a breakthrough or a turning point, in the language and the tone at least. 

GW: It was very intentional in the beginning to use un-Dharmic language. Anti “right speech.” To try and invoke a human response outside of the x-buddhist subjectivity. I wrote it in a way that was supposed to be incendiary. Part of the idea was that the language itself should do something that the argument is trying to do as well. One of the results was that none of the Buddhist people read it. I’m like, you claim to be reading the text of an enlightened being, yet you can’t understand when I quote Lacan! Now this latest book is a readable version of that essay, kind of. It’s intended to be readable, without that kind of violent language. 

Laruelle’s language is violent. And he says it’s violent because we’re talking about an act of war here: the capture of a human being’s desire, agency, subjectivity. That’s violent. So he says we counter it with more violence. He’s not the Buddha. [laughs] 

JGS: What has your own Buddhist practice been? 

GW: When I first started out, it was a form of Japanese Buddhism called Nichiren Shoshu. They’re still around, I’m not sure what they’re called anymore. It was a sort of mantra-based practice. I quickly became more interested in Zen forms, Soto Zen. But I experimented a lot, and that’s a very American Buddhist thing, I think. For the longest period of time, I just did American Soto Zen style, just because—it was really strict, and I liked that, you know.

When I first moved to the area I had my own Zendo, at 2nd and Chestnut, in relation to the group I had been practicing with in Atlanta. They wanted to put in me in line to be the Sensei guy. So I opened an affiliate Zendo. It built up to something like twenty people coming for Sunday sitting sessions. But very quickly I thought, what the hell am I doing? When you’re teaching, you really see the subjugation occurring. It’s like the formation of a galaxy. You can see the formation of a new person. So I’m teaching them a practice that helps them gain insight into their habits and their subjectivity, and then I throw this Dogen shit on them that reforms them into a new thing. I’m like, no. I’m not gonna do it. It’s not responsible to do this sort of Zen without Dogen, so I’m just not gonna do it. 

I mean, I grew up with this. That’s why I understand this stuff from the inside, the subjugating, capturing nature of this stuff, and how difficult it is to slough it off. That’s why [in Cruel Theory] I added an affective element to Laruelle’s concept of decision. For him it’s a cognitive move, but I can see from my own experience that it’s a decision you also make for deep emotional reasons.

AB: Could you gloss this idea of the “decision?” 

GW: In Laruelle it’s very complex and convoluted, but I think you can boil it down. Buddhism has this idea of the Dharma. The Dharma is a collection of teachings that illuminate the nature of reality. In that sense, it’s talking about immanence. It’s giving us categories in order to understand actual human experience, immanent to life. But, in order for that teaching to have some sort of warrant of truth, it makes a decision—an actual scission—from the immanent to the transcendent, where the Dharma becomes something like the logos or the cosmic truth. In other words, the immanent teaching is grounded in some sort of transcendent signifier. And it’s for that reason that it’s something other than what Laruelle would call a science-thought [or theory]. He likes science-thought because it’s committed to resisting that scission, that cut, which is what a decision is. Science-thought refuses to ground its ostensibly empirical claims in some sort of transcendent signifier. That’s in a nutshell what decision is: it’s making claims about the immanent world, but grounding them in a transcendent something, a Big Other of some sort. Decision is a cut or a break that separates a teaching about human immanence and grounds it in some sort of unknowable, unattainable transcendent something or other. 

Does that make sense? That’s a rough way of understanding it. It shows up all the time. Even punk rock did that. Punk was about the grittiness of real life and blah blah blah, yet there was some DIY god hovering above it all who would judge you if you played in certain nightclubs or wore certain clothes. 

AB: It becomes a transcendent representation, and then that becomes a sort of authority.

GW: Exactly. It’s a form of the ultimate authority for the thing. And then you get some sort of priesthood around it. The ones who have the key to this sort of cosmic vault of truth and knowledge are certain people, so then you get into the whole business of the institutionalization and subjectification of people.

AB: So speculative non-buddhism was your attempt to answer that, and create—

GW: Right. It’s trying to ask, what can we do with this material minus that move toward transcendence? That’s what Laruelle’s doing. Laruelle is saying philosophy does that. Heidegger, Nietzsche—not just philosophy, but actual philosophers. They always make a move to some sort of transcendent grounding. And the point isn’t that you’re not allowed to do that, but you can’t do that and claim that you’re doing something else. So what this kind of work tries to do is to reveal the true identity of a form of thought. It’s like the Won Institute, which claims it’s doing this one thing—liberating, training the critical consciousness—but ends up doing this other thing, which is proselytizing the truth of Buddhism. The identity of the Institute changes drastically once you realize that. That’s what the work is about: what are we really dealing with here? It’s upsetting work. It has a deeply affective quality to it. There are human emotions and dreams and desires caught up in all this. 

In the new book I wrote I call it a misturning. It’s Freud’s idea of the parapraxis, what we call a Freudian slip. I go through teachings from David Loy, or Stephen Batchelor, or this guy Timothy Morton, and they all make this move. David Loy talks about the power, the productive power of non-self, anatman. And how there’s this void at the center that’s actually productive. And I’m like, this is great! He’s talking about the Real here, something that escapes our symbolic system and yet is productive. And he’s even talking about Marx and all this, and his book is like—Money, Sex, something something something—the subtitle has the word “revolution” in it [Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution]; I’m like, this is serious stuff!

But then you keep reading and at some point there’s that shoring up. He can’t really abide that nothing at the core, so that nothing at the core becomes a fullness, a fullness of self and compassion. If you go through Buddhist teachings, you constantly see this parapraxis, this conceptual misturning. It thinks it’s turning you away from this dangerous, threatening idea; but if you’re another kind of reader, like me, it’s turning you away from the identity of Buddhism itself, as this kind of liberating teaching. 

JGS: I remember you using the term “flinching” before to describe the same sort of move.

GW: Yes. I was sitting in the library one day and I pulled Buddhadharma [journal] off the shelf and started reading Barry Magid’s short essay on the death of Charlotte Joko Beck, his teacher. And he was saying all this really cool stuff, like she revolutionized Zen because she opened it up to the full range of human emotions, and said that nothing is off-limits, that you’ll never know what you’re going to find at the depths of your existence. But at the end of the article he does the conceptual parapraxis, the misturning, he says: and it turns out, what you find at the depths of your existence is joy. And I’m like: Barry, man, you flinched! You were saying, we don’t know what’s really gonna happen here—it’s very Samuel Beckett-like, you know—and then you have to flinch and say: “and in that not knowing, and in that persistence into the void, you’re gonna discover an everlasting joy.” So then I wrote that blog post on flinching, and he even responded to that. He was a little upset and responded to me privately, you know: “I don’t flinch! I’m a psychoanalyst, I’m a Zen teacher, the last thing I do is flinch.” I was like, alright, man.

JGS: Why do you think that is, that it’s such a universal tendency?

GW: That’s a great question. Why is that? I guess the quick answer is that people are trained in these apparatuses that contain some sort of ideology. In the case of Buddhism or religion, it’s an ideology that has to do with wellness and hope and the promise of some sort of grace, of being saved in some way, and that’s powerful shit. And it reproduces those kinds of people. And, uh… that’s not answering the question. I don’t know why.

AB: There’s that idea of refuge. 

GW: Yeah, I mean, they are refuges. And maybe—why do we do that? I don’t know. You guys wanna read a book? Read a book called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

AB: Oh, I’ve read that.

GW: Have you read it?! What’d you think?!

AB: It really wrecked me. It ruined my summer. 

GW: Did you really read it? You’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s read that book. [laughs] You actually started it and finished it? I know a bunch of people who started it… 

AB: I wouldn’t blame anyone for not finishing it.

GW: No, man. That’s tough. I actually read that literally out loud over several weeks with a group of people. 

AB: What did you think about it? 

GW: I thought it was devastating. And I actually think it’s irrefutable. I can’t refute it. 

AB: Yeah. I think that’s true.

GW: Which is really disturbing.

JGS: If we were gonna, uh, give a quick summary for someone who hasn’t encountered the book… 

GW: Aaah. Basically it—the title, the conspiracy, is that we must persist in not admitting that—how does he put it in there? That life… 

AB: That human life is malignantly useless. 

GW: Yeah. The conspiracy is against that realization, that really life is a malignantly useless thing. The conspiracy is that we must believe that it’s an unequivocal good somehow. He even starts the whole thing with a quote from the Dhammapada, one that says we’re just little puppets with heads full of nonsense. The devastating argument is that if forms of thought are really concerned with human suffering, and they want to ameliorate it and dissolve human suffering, the solution is the end of the human race. There’s no suffering in non-being. But humans can’t abide this thought. They must at all costs reproduce themselves. Maybe that’s part of the answer as to how ideological systems operate, because there’s something very human about it. We want to reproduce this species.

JGS: A sort of conceptual conatus.

GW: We keep giving birth to it over and over again. Ligotti is really questioning this most basic premise, that even these pessimist thinkers don’t allow: the premise that human existence is a necessary good. And again, he starts out with Buddhism. The epigraph is from the Dhammapada. Is that a good summary? 

AB: Yeah. That’s basically how I understood it. I also felt like it was irrefutable. It had a pretty profound effect on me and threw me into a depression for a while. Although I was already—it was right after college, I was already in a bad place… 

GW: How did you stumble on it? 

AB: Through a friend of mine. I’m not sure how he found it, actually. Just a friend of mine from high school. 

GW: Ligotti is known for supernatural horror.

AB: I think that’s how my friend got into it. He was into horror. 

GW: So one thing is, like, Ligotti is talking in a way about a human Real. This abyss, this void of nothingness that is the human. And he thinks that supernatural horror is a really interesting genre because it’s presenting this Real. It’s always this hidden thing in the atmosphere that we don’t know exactly where it is but it’s causing a kind of terror or anxiety. So that’s one reason I found it interesting. And the conspiracy is very much about the idea of keeping alive the promise of meaning and value and truth and all that. And you see the conspiracy in operation when you go around talking to people, right? And it’s disturbing to think of people as being kind of, you know, agents of a conspiracy. You’ve got to be careful not to become too paranoid.

AB: That was my feeling after thinking about the book a lot: the premises are irrefutable, but that sort of temperamental understanding is optional. 

GW: Right! That’s a real interesting point. And we had to keep making that point in our discussions. There are two things: there are the ideas, but then there’s the style with which you live them. You don’t have to live them as some sort of depressed goth. There can be such a thing as—like, I’ve been accused of being a jolly nihilist. 

JGS: We keep brushing up against this concept of the Real, which is very important in CT|SP. Could we maybe kind of walk through that?

GW: The first thing to say about the Real is that it’s not “reality.” And it’s really, really, really important to be careful, because it sounds like you’re creating a new transcendental signifier, and that’s not the case. The Real is discussed in different ways. Lacan talks about the Real as that thing which escapes capture from the symbolic systems, language and so forth, and yet is still operative. In a way, Freud talks about it all the time: the repressed, the stuff in the unconscious, the stuff that we can’t know because it resists all kinds of representation. That’s what makes it un-conscious. 

Anyway, it’s discussed in different ways, but the point is to name something that’s operative but which, by definition, escapes any sort of representation. A psychoanalytic reading of our conversation right now would say that there are certain nodes, certain drives, certain forces that are operating here that create cohesion and drive things along; but they aren’t being introduced into the dialogue itself. That’s gesturing towards a kind of Real. Or like in a relationship, you have something that’s operating that never really gets expressed. That’s a kind of psychoanalytic notion. 

To [Laruelle], these notions of the Real are too philosophical. They’re making an error. They start to make incursions into this unspeakable, impossible something that is nonetheless operative in human exchanges in the world.

The Buddhists talk about pain, right? And they talk about pain as a Real, as a human Real. Like this guy Jay Garfield. You know him? I have a whole long section kind of critiquing the way he talks about pain in one of his books. He says pain is—and he’s talking about dukkha [the Buddhist concept]—human pain is, he says, using Heideggerian terminology, an existenzial. It’s something that is inseparable from human existence. And the Buddha talks about pain in that way, to a certain extent. So Garfield is saying, human pain is like a Heideggerian existenzial. It’s something that is part and parcel of human existence. But then he starts talking about pain—and the Buddhists themselves do this—as something that can be uprooted. He made that misturning: it’s no longer an existenzial. It’s more like a block of concrete in the road that you can remove, whereas an existenzial would be the concrete that comprises the road.

So [at first,] Garfield is talking about the human Real of pain. It’s this condition that is pervasive, that is occurrent at every moment, even in a moment of pleasure—because pain comes from change, so that the pleasure arises and dissolves and disappears in the very moment that it’s occurring. That’s what the Buddha would say. That’s what makes pain so pervasive, what makes it a human Real.

But then he makes this turn. He says that the Buddhist dukkha explains this human Real—that it points in the direction of the Real. What Laruelle would say is, it’s the other way around. Lacan and Freud, for Laruelle, ultimately do this same thing. They start making excursions into this Real, explaining what it is, identifying it and so forth. But for Laruelle, the Real is foreclosed to systems of thought, and it’s also unilateral. The Real of human existence—or in this case, the Real of pain—has created the Buddhist notion of dukkha. Garfield makes the mistake of thinking the Buddhist notion of dukkha is explicating the Real of human pain. Does that make sense? The Real is something in Laruelle that you cannot make pronouncements about. 

The problem is that it starts to sound mystical. I think of it as something you collide against on your way to transcendence. It’s something in human existence. It’s an element in human thought, first of all. This is not ontology here. Laruelle is interested in gnostic thought, and he’s interested in mystical thought. But when he talks about the Real, he’s not talking about something that exists—

JGS: Some hidden reality—

GW: Right, it’s not like a hidden reality or anything like that. For Laruelle, the Real serves a certain function in human thought. Even for Lacan and Freud, the unconscious is an actual spatial thing, in a way. Lacanian ideas of the Real are of some sort of supernatural force that’s operative and productive, but that we can never put into our language systems. Laruelle won’t even say that. He’ll say, it’s an element in thought that prevents us from lapsing into a kind of idealism and transcendence, that produces a certain subject he called the stranger subject, who abides closely to this thing. 

Ligotti looks like a stranger subject in his book—though he lapses into a kind of decision, too, where there’s a certain value in this anti-natalist thought. Laruelle’s trying to constantly resist that move towards transcendence or idealism, and the Real functions as an element in thought that way. You can’t say what it is. It’s not a something. It’s an element of thought that prevents you from lapsing into an idealism. And it produces a kind of subject: someone who is constantly aware of this danger and this possibility and is always driven back into an immanence of thought. 

He would say even Deleuze lapses into a kind of transcendence when he talks about “absolute immanence.” Because Laruelle is saying it’s always a relative immanence. Something could be minimally transcendent at best, because language itself introduces a kind of transcendence into things. So even Deleuze, who wants to talk about absolute immanence, for Laruelle is thinking idealistically again. 

AB: So the Real is purely non-linguistic.

GW: Yeah. And see, the problem is, we’re starting to sound like when people say, “It’s beyond language.” But there’s not an “it.” It’s a function in language and in thought. Oh god, I’m probably butchering this whole thing. All I can say is, it’s a notion, it’s an idea that produces a certain kind of thinking about the world, that produces a certain kind of subject person that I and other people would want to argue is, is—now here we begin with values—is useful, or something. [laughs]

JGS: Somehow the refusal to commit the decision produces a subject who has a certain range of potentials—

GW: Right. And ideology’s always going to be produced. Subjectivity is always going to be produced. There’s always going to be capture. The question is how to do so minimally. So Laruelle talks about a subject, but it’s a stranger subject, someone who is estranged from these kinds of systems of capture. So you do that kind of work that I suggest in the heuristic [in Cruel Theory], and it makes it really difficult for systems of thought to claim you as a subject. That’s what the stranger subject is, someone who’s estranged from those systems of capture. There’s a whole sort of ethic of resistance in this kind of thought. There’s an idea that the World is a harassing structure. It’s constantly harassing the human. Right?

JGS: [laughing] That’s an evocative image.

GW: I have thirty STEM students right now [as an adjunct at Penn State Abington], and I tell them that if you were my generation you’d be like, art and theater; and it’s because we’re formed by this world, and you’ve been brought up to believe that you have to be an engineer, that science is the way to go. You can’t even study philosophy at Penn State Abington. There aren’t religion courses. You can’t really do much literature. That’s the harassing nature of the World. Maybe you have a genuine STEM interest, and that’s different. But the whole idea is that it takes a lot of work—and this is very Lacanian, too—to discover what our own desire actually is, because we’re entwined in this harassing World. So the Real is an element, let’s say, in thought, that is productive of something like this stranger subject.

JGS: The idea of the stranger subject seems like maybe a good place to link up the idea of the Real with Michel Pêcheux’s adaptation of Althusser’s framework, which you also use in Cruel Theory, where you have the good subject, the bad subject, and the disidentified subject.

GW: Yeah. I like that notion of the disidentified subject. The idea isn’t to become the bad subject or to dismiss religious thought or something. It’s to become disidentified with it, in a way that it can just become what Laruelle called just raw quora, just raw data, that we can construct some new ideology with. 

Forms of thought are seductive, right? And Laruelle builds into this stuff by the way he writes. Have you ever read Laruelle? It’s torturous. I think there’s something about the stranger subject, it becomes incapable of being seduced by these systems of thought. And even Laruelle could be seductive, but part of the way he writes is a complete turn-off. It refuses to be seductive. 

Laruelle creates ideas that you can do a certain kind of work with. It’s not itself a system of thought that leads you to this human Real. It’s a system of thought that allows you to see when other systems of thought start creating the idealized transcendent Real. That’s how I would put it. It’s a lot of tools, a lot of concepts, some of them really powerful. 

AB: What do you think the relationship is between the stranger subject and collective political action?

GW: That’s a great topic, and that’s actually something that [Laruelle] addresses directly in—it’s an interview he did with some French reporter, and it was on this question of politics. One thing he will say, for example, is that the stranger subject thinks politics from the perspective of the victim, from the perspective of the person who is marginalized and repressed and has violence committed against them. In other words, what would it mean to think about the refugee crisis from the perspective of the victimized person, and not from the perspective of, whatever, the capitalist, or the elite, or the middle-class Americans? From what perspective are we even thinking about the refugee crisis? 

JGS: I’m not sure if I’ll be able to articulate it, but—there seems to be a sort of tension between on the one hand this work of critiquing fantasy, the work of decimation, deflation, etc., and then on the other hand the sort of essential element of utopian thinking or imagination when it comes to politics. I don’t know how you can square that. 

GW: I’m sure you guys know the old critical theorists like Adorno, the Frankfurt School guys, right? What’s really interesting about them is, they performed this devastating analysis. Horkheimer developed studies to interview the German working class to figure out the potential for revolutionary change. There was this kind of old Marxist assumption that it was going to come from the workers, right? So then they started carrying out this research, kind of sociological research. And they discovered that, man, these people are ripe for something like fascism, totalitarianism. This is scary. Of course, it all came to fruition. And they flee to France or America. Eventually they come back, the Frankfurt School continues. So there’s this profound disillusionment at the heart of their whole enterprise, where they felt literally betrayed and they felt like idiots for even having these notions that one thing was occurring when actually the exact opposite was occurring. And yet, an idea running throughout their corpus is, you must hold out for utopia. Utopian ideas have to be an element of human thought. 

And you can’t justify it, really. I mean, what does it mean to be a pessimistic thinker and one who refuses to abandon the possibility of a kind of utopianism? Incite Seminars, it’s driven by a kind of utopian thinking. My meditation program is driven by a kind of utopian thinking. Utopia means “no place,” right? It’s like the Real. It doesn’t exist, but it performs a function in thought. I mean, goddamn, I just have such a low opinion of human beings, to think that an actual utopia…? Human beings are so disappointing.

Disappointment is a real theme in this kind of thought. Like, individually, personally. Again, that’s why the psychology and the psychoanalysis part is—we come to this thinking for reasons that are often very personal. That’s what I mean by the psychoanalytic Real operating here. What is that really? It runs throughout all these thinkers we’re naming. Like, Laruelle’s never been accepted in the higher education system. He’s always been an outsider. How much has that experience formed some of his thinking about the stranger? Because these systems are very grand, and when you’re young and idealistic and romantic you really—“Oh, god, look at what human beings have created. Let’s create this beautiful thing.”

That’s that Cassirer-Heidegger debate. Cassirer thought that human beings are able to create these imaginative forms, works of the spirit, and that that’s what we should teach people to do more of. And Heidegger and him had this debate, and Heidegger said no, to form an authentic human being or authentic life you need to teach people about the “hardness of fate.” Ligotti’s talking about the hardness of fate. That real shit. Anxiety, depression, disappointment, impossibility. Impending disaster. Catastrophe. Political figures used to write about the coming catastrophe. Now they’re saying we’re in the catastrophe. [laughs] We’re living the catastrophe.

JGS: The “crisis ordinary.”

GW: We’re all just trying to figure out how to create good communities for each other, and we’re confronted with crisis all the time. Now it’s pervasive, isn’t it? A sense of crisis. Not knowing what to do. Right? Don’t you think?




















25 responses to “Stranger Subjects: Interview”

  1. Gavin Avatar

    Excellent Interview Glenn. About the stranger subject, is there a danger that constantly assuming the attitude of critique creates a kind of subject who is also blinkered, just in different ways to those subjects created by urges to conform or by beliefs in transcendence? If you hadn’t sustained a kind of belief in the power of Buddhism over so many years, your critique would not have become as informed as it is, you would never have developed the insight into the tradition that now allows you to critique it so powerfully. Doesn’t the accrual of deep knowledge involve phases of suspension of disbelief? The effort to understand Laruelle (or some of your own writings for that matter :p) needs to be powered by a belief that it might not make sense now, but if you stick with it, it will eventually. So how do we walk this tightrope between faith and critique? Punk that had been more aware of its tendency to set rules as to what dress, behaviour etc was acceptable, might have had a more varied wardrobe, but would surely still have been defined by a certain attitude that would open some conceptual doors while closing others? Edward Slingersland approaches topic this in Trying Not to Try. Ancient China embraced both Daosim and Confucianism, seemingly very different philosophies, because each could balance out the excesses of the other, and one or the other may be more appropriate depending on the situation.

    My overall point is, is the best approach to play a kind of dance between decision and suspicion of decision? Does the Real, as the limit of what can be thought, become ‘smaller’ over time as we do this?

  2. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Interesting interview. I think you get right to the core of the problem I have with Laruelle—at exactly the point where you get stuck and say “I’m butchering the whole thing.” I would argue that Laruelle is making the same mistake you point out (in your recent book) so many x-buddhist teachers are making. He slips in a bid for transcendence, while claiming he is the only one to avoid doing this. The idea that the real is outside of language is exactly the problem, the mistake we need to avoid.

    Laruelle is right that Deleuze does make this mistake. He reduces all of the social to the oedipal narrative, and then asserts that we can be free and authentic subjects (what he calls Originals who live in Primary Nature, among other terms for it) only once we escape all social constraints. Laruelle does the same thing, when he embraces the myth of the given, the idea that we can live free of social constructedness. I can see, then, why this would appeal to someone used to Western Buddhism—it follows the same basic logic of claiming to avoid transcendence by simply refusing to call your transcendent terms what they really are.

    I would argue (have argued?) that it is better to follow the Lacanian concept of the Real, as something that always and only follows from the symbolic order. Language must precede and construct the Real. To think we can escape language by tarrying in the Real is the worst kind of disempowering delusion, because it forfeits our capacity to change the symbolic order.

    We are social animals, and we need to realize that sociality, or social constructedness, is not the other to our freedom, but is the source of our freedom. We can escape the natural necessities other animals are subject to because of our ability to use language, and work within social structures with intention. What I like to call “Fear Of Sociality” is, to my mind, the greatest problem we face today. The idea that we cannot, and should not attempt to, engage in and change socially constructed practices. The idea that anything really real must not be socially constructed at all. We cannot bear to take responsibility for creating our own world. Retreating into the Laruellean real is not different from things like evolutionary psychology, neuroreductivism, or belief in divine law—all different ways to avoid the responsibility of sociality.

    Sure, it’s important to avoid reifying a particular social/symbolic system. But we don’t avoid reifying, and gain the power to change, when we fantasize about escaping into pure language-free immanence (one of Laruelle’s terms for this is “the Real-in-person), any more thane do when we fantasize about escaping into Primal Nature. Laruelle is just one more version of the Romantic ideology, presented in yet another set of arcane neologisms.

    You do a good job of pointing out where so many others fall into this error. Why do you still have this Fear Of Sociality? Lacan would suggest an oedipal dilemma, I suppose. Anyway, that would seem to a good explanation for my inability to engage in the social more successfully…but I have no illusions that there is any alternative.

  3. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Gavin. Thank you. I understand “blinkered” to be a synonym for “human being.” So, yes, it goes for the stranger subject. It is precisely that deep-rooted proclivity toward blickeredness that necessitates systems like x-buddhism and, particularly, their critiques. About the “accrual of deep knowledge,” I agree. In my Cruel Theory heuristic, I have an entry called “fitting proximity,” which argues something similar to you. About walking that tightrope: the need to do so is why I introduced the trope of x-buddhism as a critique subsumed within an ideology subsumed within a faith. It’s all bound up together, as I understand it, anyway. It’s a question of degrees and of opacity. To what degree is, say, secular-buddhism or soto-zen-buddhism, each? For instance, I would argue (in fact, have) that secular-buddhism is primarily a faith fashioned in the form of a humanist ideology and involving only the pretense of a critique. The non-buddhist work aims to re-calibrate the mixture so that: critique is primary, persistent, and explicit; ideology is present, acknowledge, and defended, yet defanged of its sufficiency; and faith is an ephemeral specter haunting the [w]hole yet never materialized, much less realized. So, yes, on that dance. And yes, on that smaller–eventually disappearing altogether.

  4. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Tom. You are raising an issue that is as important as it is difficult. Rather than me take yet another brutal stab at it, what about writing up your criticism of Laruelle on this point. I will then ask any or all of the following Laruelle thinkers to respond: Anthony Paul Smith, Katerina Kolozova, Joshua Ramey, Alexander Galloway. I will publish both your critique and their responses on the blog for further discussion. Thoughts?

    Just to try to light the fuse, I will repeat that I am convinced that Laruelle avoids all of these charges (of Romanticism, of endeavoring to slip past language, of escaping in Primal Nature, etc.) Of course, that avoidance never takes the form of a philosophical argument. It takes the form of a discourse that precisely refuses to make epistemological and ontological pronouncements. That is not to say that such a non-philosophical discourse is not profoundly effective–of a subject, of a World, and in the world.

    Are you in?!

  5. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Ah, a year or two ago I would have enjoyed this. Now, I’m afraid I just can’t do it.

    But on my reading, what Katerina Kolozova says about Laurelle seems to be exactly right. As I’ve said here before, I think she proves my point exactly–she just thinks that this proposed escape is possible and a good thing. So I doubt the debate would get anywhere. The idea that there can be no “philosophical argument” to clarify this position is, again, exactly the strategy of Romanticism–the production of an ideology at the level of affect and practice that remains immune to thought because it won’t engage in thought. Not much different from Wordsworth, really. There’s no arguing with someone who says their position is outside of argument, right?

    I’m afraid I have to conserve my energy these days for smaller things I might actually accomplish. But I’m sure there’s someone out there, probably much smarter than me, working on just such a critique of Laruelle.

  6. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Okay, Tom. It’s an open invitation. I think it would be a lot of fun.

    Laruelle is not claiming for his ideas that they lie “outside of argument.” He is claiming that those ideas are well served only in relation to another type of application, one concerning creative usage. Maybe we should take it as a clue to his theory that my artist and musician friends almost intuitively grasp the spirit of his thought. Similarly, we can take it as a clue as to what philosophy is that philosophers only want to (are only capable of?) arguments of quite specific forms. I certainly see x-buddhism’s identity as being wrapped up in a quite particular form of presentation. The form, moreover, remains intact only by means of the adhesive called sufficiency. The same goes for Romanticism, of course. It, too, is just a human material that we could do all kinds of interesting shit with. The problem with Romanticism doesn’t lie with Romanticism. How could it? It’s just a mass of inert human chora. The problem lies with the human propensity for creating ideological Golems. Wordsworth is no more the definer or master of Romanticism than Frankenstein was of his monster or Sharon Salzberg is of x-buddhism. Our human participation in the deaf and dumb Real has led us to create Romanticism. It’s ours to mold into a whatever material.

  7. wtpepper Avatar

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised that artists and musicians “get” Laruelle. Deleuze has the same kind of following—writers and painters just “get” him easily. Because the ideology of art is still thoroughly Romantic. I always think this is obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be to most people.

    I wouldn’t agree that Romaniticism is “inert human chora,” and this is, I think, the fundamental difference in our positions. Romanticism is the human social practices that produces subjects, and in very limiting, inherently capitalist, ways. (I am a Romantiicst by training, so this too has long seemed obvious to me…). The idea that we can exist outside of this practice, that it is just material we can pick up an use, assumes a kind of transcending, not socially constructed, subject that I just don’t believe exists. So no, Salzburg doesn’t define x-buddhism, but x-buddhism does produce her. We can’t “mold” Romanticism, it produces human subjects. We can only do something other than Romanticism, if we don’t want to be that kind of subject. This is very difficult to get people to understand, though. If it’s weren’t we wouldn’t still be Romantic subjects after all the work done to demonstrate the limitations of this particular ideology. But I’ve made these arguments so many times…I doubt it’s worth making them again.

  8. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom, how about re-fashioning a Wordsworth poem as a form of non-romanticism? That is, retain Romanticism’s impulse to correct the cold, heartless errors of the Enlightenment’s cult of Reason, but refuse to potentialize Romanticism’s yearning for transcendence, its collusion with capitalism, and so on. I’d love to read that poem!

  9. Mal Avatar

    Tom – how can what’s real only follow from language? Don’t animals live in the real world without language? I’m reading Jack Kornfield’s (excellent) “No Time Like the Present” at the moment, in which he encourages us to hold our feelings in loving awareness – not our words for feelings but the actual feelings. Are you saying a feeling of, say, frustration is constructed out of words? At first insight it certainly doesn’t feel that way to me!

    Who’s suggesting we not attempt to change socially constructed practices? Are you fighting straw Buddhists here? Have you any quotes from x-Buddhists saying “Don’t oppose Trump in any way, don’t even vote against him…” I bet even Kabat-Zinn and Kornfield vote, and not for Trump.

    How is evolutionary psychology avoiding the responsibility of sociality? Doesn’t it suggest that we evolved to live in a hunter gatherer society, and point out that the human animal is thereby a very social animal?

    Glenn – on Laruelle not claiming that his ideas lie “outside of argument” but are served only in creative usage – can you give an example in the Buddhist context? To me it seems like you are saying, for example, that Buddhist ideas like “letting go leads to the end of suffering” can be argued about, but only after putting the ideas into (long) practice can the ideas be seen to be correct – argument doesn’t really come into it, except for motivation, or in case of failure (!)

    Tom – I find your idea that romanticism might be a human social practices that must produce a subject limited to our ‘orrible, everyday, capitalist reality is intriguing and might have some mileage. At the moment, I’m probably spending too much time reading novels and listening to Brahms, which is really a romantic escape, wheel spinning (even if the wheel has bright lights, and makes a pretty noise…)So don’t give up making this argument! Any good introduction to this argument?

    Glenn – great idea on taking the transcendent out of Wordsworth. I’ve always had great doubts about his woolly transcendentalism and nature mysticism. Maybe Tintern Abbey would be a good one to try?

                                          .... And I have felt 

    No presence that disturbs me with some joy
    No elevated thoughts; no sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    No one dwelling in the light of setting suns,
    nor the round ocean, nor the living air,
    Nor in blue sky, nor in the mind of man:
    No motion and no spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    Nothing rolls through things. And I am not
    A lover of the meadows and the woods…

    Maybe that last line is going a bit too far, but then again, maybe not. Can you still love the meadows and the woods if you ditch Romanticism? I remember reading an account of a Wordsworth fan who took a Tibetan Buddhist monk for a walk in the woods and he was appalled that the Tibetan felt no “sense sublime” and couldn’t wait to get out of the wood and back to the comfortable hotel.

    Is “love of nature” anything more than a by product of evolutionary psychology, so really a “wood with spirit” is no more than a good place to gather food; apes feel pleasure when they see such an environment, just as they feel pleasure during sex, where pleasure is simply an indication that a good way to propagate genes is present.

    … well pleased to recognise
    In nature and the language of the sense
    No anchor of my purest thoughts, no nurse,
    no guide, no guardian of my heart, no soul
    Of all my moral being….

    Doesn’t Wordsworth’s overly romantic view of nature lead to suggestions that it can do more than it is capable, which is actually leads to suffering (when you realise Nature and Romanticism isn’t the solution! ) I mean the follwing lines are just unbelievable, very pretty, but just unbelievable:

    …. Nature … can so inform
    The mind that is within us, so impress
    With quietness and beauty, and so feed
    With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
    Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
    Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
    The dreary intercourse of daily life,
    Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
    Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
    Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
    Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;

    Over 90% of the English countryside was held by robber barons in Wordsworth’s time (over 50% still today…) All that country living produced greedy capitalists with few lofty thoughts, with evil tongues, with rash judgements, with excess sneers, little kindness; and their blessings included things like the “highland clearance”, Irish starvation, Native American genocide, and the slave trade. Still I bet the robber barons read this and kidded themselves that they had lofty thoughts & good judgment because they lived in big houses in the “beautiful countryside”. You can see why Wordsworth became an old reactionary beloved by the Tory establishment.

  10. wtpepper Avatar

    That’s the point—the ideology is in the form, the social practice, of poetry itself. Just as you say that philosophy can only recognize argument that take a certain form, we can only recognize something as a poem if it takes a certain form—if, that is, it produces the capitalist subject not just in its content but in the practice of reading it. That’s why there are no leftist poets! All the canonical poets are on the extreme right (even the feminist poets are producing a capitalist kind of feminism). To remake a Wordworth poem so it is not producing capitalist ideology would only be to produce sometime other than a poem. So, perhaps, a critical essay on a poem. A demystification of the poem’s ideology—which is a kind of text, but not one that produces capitalist/Romantic ideology. Would you “love to read” such a text? Probably not in the same way (although I do enjoy such texts, it is a different kind of enjoyment.

    And the important task is to escape the Romanitc idea that reason is cold, oppressive, and evil. A non-romantic ideology would have to see reason as freeing, as enjoyable, as a joyful social activity. That would be radical.

  11. wtpepper Avatar

    The Real doesn’t mean “reality.” Read the interview—Glenn makes it clear that he is not using the word in that way. I was responding to what he says in the interview.

    It’s a little shocking to imagine someone believing that voting against Trump would make one not a capitalist. Surely the Goldman Sachs Administration (er, I mean Obama administration) was thoroughly neoliberal and capitalist. So, sure, Maybe Kornfield votes against Trump….but that woudn’t make him in any way radical or subversive. It would just make him a good capitalist American, participating in the ruse of democracy…

    On the question of Romanticism as capitalist ideology, a good place to start is the chapter “The Rise of English” in Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: And Introduction. He outlines both sides of the case briefly (Romanticism as radical, and Romanticism as capitalist ideology). Another classic text on this is Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology. There are dozens of other books alone, and countless essays. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you could read an essay I wrote thirty years ago, “The Ideology of Wordsworth’s ‘Michael: A Pastoral Poem’.” I try to give a specific example of how a Romantic poem produces capitalist ideology.

    On evolutionary psychology, well, I took that to be too obvious to need explaining. The whole premise there is that social construction is nonsense, all the things we do are hardwired into us by evolution. Fear Of Sociality is the entire motivation for all of evolutionary psychology, and cognitive psychology, and all the neuro-everything pseudo-disciplines.

  12. Mal Avatar

    Tom – I take Glenn as saying the Real is the “real reality” whereas Garfield, and most other Buddhists, have a wrong picture of reality. From the discussion:

    GW: “The Buddhists talk about pain, right? And they talk about pain as a Real, as a human Real.”

    I’m taking this as Buddhists say that pain, “suffering”, is “really” real, you can’t argue against pain. Suffering is something encountered in life as something of fundamental importance, nothing is more real, nothing is less in doubt. So in capitalising “Real” he stresses that Buddhist think pain is really Real! Buddhists in talking about pain as Real – are saying that pain is really Real, it’s not some false reality like (say) Christian ideas of reality.

    GW “Jay Garfield… says pain is… something that is inseparable from human existence. And the Buddha talks about pain in that way, to a certain extent… But then he starts talking about pain—and the Buddhists themselves do this—as something that can be uprooted.”

    Good point – there is no evidence that pan can be uprooted so Garfield is moving from the reality of pain to a fantasy world where he thinks it can be pulled out of human conscious like a tree can be uprooted from the ground. So if Buddhists are saying “In the Real, pain can be uprooted”, I agree with Tom that Real is not reality in this case.

    Heck, I think we may just be talking around different definitions here. Could Tom or Glenn provide their dictionary definitions of “Real” and “reality” please?

    GW: “So [at first,] Garfield is talking about the human Real of pain. It’s this condition that is pervasive, that is occurrent at every moment, even in a moment of pleasure—because pain comes from change, so that the pleasure arises and dissolves and disappears in the very moment that it’s occurring. That’s what the Buddha would say. That’s what makes pain so pervasive, what makes it a human Real.”

    So does this translate as “Garfield is talking about the human unreality of what-he-thinks-is pain.” Is Glenn saying that Garfield, and most Buddhists, are wrong in thinking “pain is pervasive, concurrent at every moment, even in a moment of pleasure”? Is he saying that pervasive pain is not part of human reality? If so, I’d tend to agree, surely humans often feel pleasure, and that’s not pain!

    GW: “for Laruelle, … the Real of pain—has created the Buddhist notion of dukkha. Garfield makes the mistake of thinking the Buddhist notion of dukkha is explicating the Real of human pain. Does that make sense? The Real is something in Laruelle that you cannot make pronouncements about… But when he talks about the Real, he’s not talking about something that exists … it’s not like a hidden reality … For Laruelle, the Real serves a certain function in human thought… it’s an element in thought that prevents us from lapsing into a kind of idealism and transcendence, that produces a certain subject he called the stranger subject, who abides closely to this thing.”

    So is the Real a term used to refer to things that are “obviously real to immediate human perception”. So, if I’m getting this, actual pain is Real, the fact I am “seeing something” at this moment is Real, I’m sipping a coffee at this moment and the taste of that coffee is Real.

    But dukkha, as a theory of suffering, is not Real, and produces the absurd idea that pleasure is pain. The Higgs boson isn’t Real because it’s far beyond immediate human perception (even atoms aren’t Real – the feeling of heat that we might assume comes from warmed atoms of air is Real, we cannot be wrong about feeling the warmth, but the heat might actually come from solar radiation not speedy atoms of air! )

    “B: So the Real is purely non-linguistic.
    GW: Yeah.”

    In summary, Tom, I think Glenn, after reading the interview a second time, does think that Real means reality. If you want to expand on why Glenn doesn’t think Real means reality, please do. I may be totally confused about these matters. (Please don’t tell me to read the interview again, if I haven’t got it by now I certainly will not get it by reading it a third time…)

  13. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Tom.
    “the ideology is in the form”
    That fact is the entire reason for the “non” project! I think you, or someone, absolutely can write a non-romantic poem. It would retain the vital potential that is encoded in the x-romantic form while depotentializing whatever you take to be errantly subjugating.

    “To remake a Wordsworth poem so it is not producing capitalist ideology would only be to produce something other than a poem”
    Exactly! It would be a non-poem. Hence, necessarily strange and estranging to reader-subjects properly interpellated into x-poetry, but potentially liberatory to those in whom rings aporetic dissonance.

  14. wtpepper Avatar

    Okay, so, I think I’ve already done this. Really. Read my essay on Wordsworth’s “MIchael” that I mentioned above. This is what I mean by the kind of text that is “something other than a poem.” And reading it might have a real ideological effect—the effect of demystifying Romantic ideology. But I would guess that such an essay is not the kind of text you have in mind. You’re looking for something that “retains the vital potential” of form, but I would say that this particular “vital potential” is exactly what needs to be dropped. The whole idea of “vital potential” in a poem is the problematic ideology, leading to obfuscation and loss of agency, etc.

  15. wtpepper Avatar

    No, on my understanding I think you’ve pointed out the problem very well. Laruelle does both say that the REal is something other than reality (it is the “something you cannot make pronouncements about”, the limit of thought, the point where they symbolic order is exposed as a social construct, etc., just as Lacan would say), and he ALSO assumes that there is a Real (with the capital R) that is a direct, ideology-free perception of what exists, free of all social construction (the Myth of the Give, the bare non-conceptual perception, etc.). This is the problem I’m trying to point out. This is, as you demonstrate, self-contradictory. And I would say that it is so exactly because it is yet another bid for transcendence that fails to recognize that it is one. So, Lareuellians can only talk endlessly about how radical thier way of thinking is, but cannot ever DO anything—to actually take an action would require lapsing into “decision”, a terrible thing. The Stranger Subject remains like the Neoplatonic Christ, promising redemption at the level of the imaginary, instead of the Markan Christ, demanding active discipleship in the world—they just reliable non-action as radical action…and there you are. This is my concern: decision, from my perspective, is a very good and desirable thing, provided only that you know you are making it, and are willing to take responsibility for all of its consequences.

  16. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Mal.

    “B: So the Real is purely non-linguistic.
    GW: Yeah.”

    Yet, in being such an a priori, in both the psychoanalytic and Laruellen senses, the Real becomes “infinitely effable.” It appears in language via literally countless names. It is just such a name, a “first name,” that a good psychoanalyst would want to attend to in his analysand’s discourse. But “it” is not a feature of reality–reality here meaning the Worlds created via such naming, framing, acting, etc. “It,” in Laruelle’s sense, is precisely an axiomatically posited feature of our thought, valuable for its Ideal-routing capacity. The axiomatic functions ensure that it itself is not Ideal. An axiom is not true or false; it just permits a certain kind of work or operation. Laruelle will critique the psychoanalytic Real for being, well, Being. Such Being would seep into the actual world, becoming a feature of reality. Thus, Laruelle introduces the feature of “foreclosure,” such that the Real never exits itself. Really, what that move amounts to is that the entire point of the “non” work is to do something with some x-material. It all comes down to ceasing argumentation and act.

  17. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom. “Radical,” for people working with Laruelle’s concepts, is a technical term. It denotes the result of performing the “non” functions, namely, a paring of excess transcendence. So, they are doing nothing if not “radicalizing” some x-material.

  18. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, exactly what I was saying. They just redefine the word “radical” to mean nothing at all radical…
    Unnecessary neologisms, an entire (and constantly shifting) specialized vocabulary that blocks all criticism (you just don’t understand our new and secret use of the term..), insisting on changing the way we think but not anything we do, and the refusal to see a fundamental conceptual error. All these sound, to my naive ears, exaclty like Philosphy As Normal. I do get the appeal of Laruelle. It is the same appeal that all relabelings of Romanticism have. The same appeal that Buddhism has to westerners. It allows one to keep ones fundamental delusions in place, while thinking one is completed free of them…to be a reactionary while mistaking this for radicalism. Like Blake, or Swinburne, or Yeats, or….it’s a very common phenomenon in Literature. This may be why it seems more evident to me than to others; I’ve seen is so many times before, in so many forms. Surely I’m not the only one who sees this, though.

  19. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom. Really? So we should employ language that was decided and fixed…when?…with the original grunts of Adam and Eve? Language can’t be used creatively to shape new ways of seeing? The irony here may be that your thinking leads to some version of pre-linguistic purity whereas the Laruellen one that you’re disparaging is assuming that it is forever language all the way down. Your comment itself contains numerous “neologisms”–terms fashioned at a particular point in time to bring something new into the world. Were or are they “necessary”? Can you give us an example of a sentence devoid of “unnecessary neologisms” and “specialized vocabulary”? Another irony is that the Laruellen usage of “radical” is about as unspecialized and unsecret as you can get, paring back to a root. I will just repeat myself for the thousandth time and say the the entire point of Laruelle’s method is to get to work fashioning forms that we believe bring something useful in the world. Ultimately, arguing about it is like arguing about whether you may play an F#m7 in the G scale: play it and see what happens!

  20. wtpepper Avatar

    I have to say, Glenn, I’m surprised by the cheap rhetoric here. I didn’t expect it from you. Can you really be taking me to say we should return to some primal language? Are you really incapable of distinguishing between the necessary and meaningful progress of language and the use of neologisms to simply avoid clear thought or reliable and recycle discredited concepts? Do you really think I can’t tell the difference?

    The sophistry here suggests that perhaps you’re feeling cornered on this point—so maybe we’d best leave it there.

    And yes, I can offer an example of a sentence devoid of UNNECESSARY neologisms—the sentence in which you asked that question, for instance, is one.

    I do hear what you are repeating—but it is just that, repeating, You (and I would say othe Laruelleans as well), cannot respond, only repeat.

    Show me an example of this “paring down” and I will explain, yet again, why it is nothign new—just the same old Romantic ideology posing as radical. Wordsworth, by the way, was very fond of this “paring down.” Read the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” It is a standard Romantic trope.

  21. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Tom. “Cornering” is a move in a philosophical game. Comment threads on this blog that take form of argumentation are endless precisely because of the circular nature of the very form (philosophical argumentation). I am saying let’s all be done with argumentation and get to work creating the forms—textual, personal, institutional—that we think might produce the World we desire. Like delusions, there is no end to philosophical argument.

    I am as allergic to the formation of transcendental illusions as anyone you’ll ever meet. So, I was very pleased to discover in Laruelle a practice of countering such formations while preserving the raw human cultural materials from which they are formed. I wouldn’t want to see the obliteration of Romanticism, mysticism, Christianity, Buddhism, or many other seemingly problematic ideologies. But I would love to see these forms reimagined. In fact, I am currently working on a redescription of a German mystical text. It’s pretty fucked up, this text, but with some extraordinarily potent lines of thought that it itself leaves unthought.


  22. Gavin Avatar

    Thanks Glenn,

    Yes, I very much like this idea of a critique within an ideology within a faith, and the parallels you draw between this and Freud’s id, ego and superego. Your last line threw me, about the possibility of the Real disappearing altogether…how is this possible?

  23. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Gavin. Thanks. I’m not sure which “last line” you’re referring to. In the book or in the Flood interview or in a comment here?

  24. gavinchengdu Avatar

    Hi Glenn! I mean, the last line of your reply to my earlier comment, which I interpreted as meaning that the Real can eventually disappear completely.

  25. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    I mean that the limit becomes “smaller” over time, minimalized, closer to us, or we to it. Ideas like unilaterality, axiomatization, foreclosure, in-the-last-instance, etc. are so important because they prevent the Grand and Perpetual Error of our believing that the limit is ever crossed, and that we may venture into the Real. This is, it seems, a difficult point to grasp because it frolics so intimately with the Error itself. Anyone who understands Laruelle or, more importantly, works, thinks, and lives in this vein himself, could never believe that consummation follows. In the end, what matters is that the reduction of the limit means a life lived ever more intimately–and immanently–in relation to the fecund Real. Maybe we can say the the Real “disappears completely” in the sense that “it” ceases to be an idea, and becomes, rather, a brute yet fluid force in a life. I think the most difficult aspect of this kind of thought is that it sounds philosophical, but is not. Maybe if Laruelle had been a musician rather than a philosophy professor we’d have an easier time with it.

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