In her new book, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, Ann Gleig, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida, remarks on the speculative non-buddhism project. (Matthew O’Connell recently had one of his reliably illuminating discussions with her on The Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Links below.) As I read the book, Charles Prebish’s work on the American Buddhist scene of his days kept coming to mind. Like that work, Gleig’s has a heavy ethnographic sensibility. Anyone who would like to get a snapshot of the contemporary state of the x-buddhist situation in, mainly, North America, can do no better than dig into American Dharma. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This illuminating account of contemporary American Buddhism shows the remarkable ways the tradition has changed over the past generation
The past couple of decades have witnessed Buddhist communities both continuing the modernization of Buddhism and questioning some of its limitations. In this fascinating portrait of a rapidly changing religious landscape, Ann Gleig illuminates the aspirations and struggles of younger North American Buddhists during a period she identifies as a distinct stage in the assimilation of Buddhism to the West. She observes both the emergence of new innovative forms of deinstitutionalized Buddhism that blur the boundaries between the religious and secular, and a revalorization of traditional elements of Buddhism, such as ethics and community, that were discarded in the modernization process.
Based on extensive ethnographic and textual research, the book ranges from mindfulness debates in the Vipassana network to the sex scandals in American Zen, while exploring issues around racial diversity and social justice, the impact of new technologies, and generational differences between baby boomer, Gen X, and millennial teachers.
Readers of this blog will recognize many of the names and organizations that appear in the book. In fact, many, if not most, have appeared in posts and essays and even in the comment section of this blog: Shaun Bartone, and Engage!, Vincent Horn and the Buddhist Geeks, Katie Loncke and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Ted Meissner and the Secular Buddhists, Richard Payne, Matthew O’Connell, Natalie Quli, David Chapman, Kenneth Folk, and many others.
Of course, I am pleased that such an astute and knowledgeable scholar as Ann Gleig gives attention to the non-buddhism project. As is always to be expected, I suppose, there are certain features of Gleig’s treatment that I feel can benefit from being addressed. So, in the spirit of open dialogue, I’d like to offer some remarks in response. How great it would be if she would join me here in an exchange!
Gleig’s treatment, “Speculative Non-Buddhism and the Critique of ‘X-Buddhism,’” occurs as a subsection of the aptly titled Chapter Eight: “Critical, Collective, and Contextual Turns.” She begins by offering her general estimation:
The most theoretically sophisticated and sustained interrogation of Western Buddhism has come from the Speculative Non-Buddhists.
This estimation will figure in my further remarks, so I’ll come back to it. Gleig continues:
All three report a progressive disillusionment with Buddhist practice and a corresponding shift from a modern reformist orientation to a radical deconstructive critique of Buddhism informed by various academic interlocutors, particularly François Laruelle’s non-philosophy and the critical theory of Alain Badiou, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault. SNB defines its project as “the critical analysis of the ideologically underpinnings of x-buddhism,” a term that refers to “virtually all forms of Buddhism from the historical to the contemporary—from a (atheist) through m (Mahayana) to z (Zen).” The aim is to uncover how all of the various strands of Buddhism—from the traditional to the contemporary—are culturally and historically specific and contingent upon certain unsustainable, problematic transcendental or “unconditioned” foundations.
If she replaced “disillusionment” with “disenchantment” (Pali: nibbida), Gleig would be giving her reader a better sense of an animating force of the project, and how it fits with the larger field of x-buddhism. But, other than that, it’s a fair description of part of “our” aim. As any long-term reader of this blog can attest, however, “Glenn Wallis,” “Tom Pepper,” and “Matthias Steingass” index decisively different aims, approaches, viewpoints, rhetorical styles, communication strategies, and referents. On that last term alone, for example, the proper couplings are: Wallis-Laruelle, Pepper-Badiou, Steingass-Foucault. (Actually, Tom Pepper employed Badiou only briefly. See his post—on this post!—”The Compliment of Dismissal.” Link below.) This is not a quibble. As should be expected, conversations with each of our respective “interlocutors,” as Gleig calls them, eventually led to significant divergences in our views. As generous as they have been to Laruelle’s thought, Pepper and Steingass do not see themselves as executors of Laruelle’s ideas, as I do. In noting this nuance, Gleig would have better served her aim of explaining the non-buddhism project to her readers. It would also go a long way in explaining why the three of us have parted ways intellectually; namely, the Laruellen “critique of x-buddhism” must transition into buddhofiction. While the trajectory Pepper-Badiou leads ever more deeply into standard philosophy, and Steingass-Foucault into historical genealogy, Wallis-Laruelle follows the witch’s flight into parabolic redescription. Since Gleig’s treatment is for the most part a reportage on the current field of Buddhist activity in North America, I feel it is crucial that she get this nuance right. Otherwise, she will lead the reader into further confusions, as is indeed the case. Gleig continues:
In particular, Speculative Non-Buddhists have been focused on illuminating the complicity of Western Buddhism and secular mindfulness with ideologies of individualism, neoliberalism, and global capitalism. While claiming to have no interest in offering a modern reform of Buddhism and at constant pains to distinguish themselves from contemporary reformers, SNB contributors privilege the doctrine of anatta, both in their commitment to rooting out any form of ideological essentialism in Buddhism (often referred to as “slipping the atman in”) and in their revisioning of the doctrines of anatta and dependent arising along social, collective, and political lines.
Taking “Speculative Non-Buddhists” to mean the blog Speculative Non-Buddhism and/or the book Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice (throughout, it’s not clear to me what Gleig’s actual source material is) I think Gleig makes several misrepresentations here. (1) It, the blog, has indeed treated the issue of Western Buddhist complicity in neoliberalism, but it has by no measure “focused” on that issue. Would it not be remiss not to point out this feature of, say, Secular Buddhism or Mindfulness, in our critique? So, while critiqued in this vein with verve, it has been done only in passing. (2) While anatta/anatman figures in several analyses, particularly by Pepper, it is by no means “privileged” on the blog as a whole. Pepper sees the concept as an important moment in x-buddhist thought for one crucial reason. While anatman seemingly begs to be employed toward a disabling of any Romantic or idealist pretension to essential selfhood, all evidence points to its x-buddhist usage toward precisely such recuperation. This is so important to Pepper because, as Gleig intimates, he wants to use x-buddhist materials toward, among other things, a theory of, and indeed call to, collective social action. (3) To say that all of this is done as a result of a “commitment to rooting out any form of ideological essentialism in Buddhism” misses the point. But because Gleig has mashed together our ideologically distinct positions, this point is now difficult to clarify. Pepper-Badiou might well be engaged in such a “rooting out.” For, philosophy excels in rooting out contradictions, correcting errors, illuminating aporia, arguing details, and so on. Steingass-Foucault, however, would want to trace the history of the contested versions of the concepts. For, genealogy excels in deriving sense and meaning from the historical traces of our shared knowledge-archives. “The blog/SNB” however, driven as it ultimately is, by non-philosophy, is concerned with the usage of x-buddhist materials. Why would Wallis-Laruelle, then, engage in a “rooting out” of the very chora that constitute the project? Unfortunately, in not clarifying at the outset of her treatment certain fundamental nuances in play at SNB, Gleig diminishes her reader’s chances of understanding the project. She continues:
The SNB pieces are linguistically dense, jargon heavy, and theoretically challenging—an intentional strategy to serve as an antidote to what the authors bemoan as the “anti-intellectualism” of Western Buddhism, but one that also rendered its analytic project inaccessible to many.
I used the language that I did as a direct provocation to the right-speechist self-censoring authoritarianism that I witnessed (and still do) throughout the x-buddhist world. But Pepper and Steingass did not use my language. They used their own language. Their language would have to be characterized differently. Pepper’s work on SNB, for example, is, to my mind anyway, linguistically crystal clear, jargon-light and always explained, but, yes, theoretically challenging. Again, this may sound like a quibble. But it is more serious than that. Gleig sets out to explain to her reader the project of SNB. So far, the reader will, in my estimation, have a difficult time seeing that what Gleig is treating is “The most theoretically sophisticated and sustained interrogation of Western Buddhism.” Gleig continues:
Another intentional strategy was SNB’s adoption of an aggressive and combative communicative style in which participants were more often than not ridiculed, humiliated, and bullied. Wallis theorized his communicative style as performative of its analytic content, but it led to the blog receiving more commentary about its methods than its analysis.
No, “an aggressive and combative communicative style” was most certainly not an “intentional strategy.” Yes, it often got very heated in the comment section. Being adamantly anti-right-speechist, aggression and battle were permitted. (After all, our tagline was once kick out the jams, motherfuckers! Apologies to MC5. Another one was weaving a bloody tapestry of ruin. Apologies to Rumi.) If there was an “intentional strategy,” it was precisely that permissiveness. In fact, Pepper and I often invoked Bakhtin’s idea that dialogue, discourse is a “site of struggle.” Such struggle takes place along a broad spectrum of tones and voices and emotional energy, including aggression. Again, my “intentional strategy” was not to unleash “an aggressive and combative communicative style”! It was to enable fresh life-blood to pump through the entirety of this spectrum that is rendered anemic by the unchallenged x-buddhist dogma of right-speech. This is an important facet of SNB. I wish Gleig had properly communicated it to her readers.
Having said that, I have to ask: really, commenters were “more often than not ridiculed, humiliated, and bullied”?! I suppose we could do a quantitative analysis to determine whether or not that is actually the case. We would first have to agree on what counts as “ridiculed, humiliated, and bullied.” Within the parameters set by x-buddhist values themselves, I suppose many properly interpellated x-buddhists out there would say that Gleig is correct in her assessment. But, again, this misses the point. The point was (and still is) to perform an immanent critique: to tease out hidden values, obscured assumptions, usurpation of desire, and covert ideological machination; elements, in other words that were all-too-often exemplified in the very complaints of our x-buddhist commenters. Also, Gleig mischaracterizes when she follows that first sentence with that second one. Yes, I “theorized [my] communicative style as performative of its analytic content,” but not as ridiculing, humiliating, and bullying! The style I refer to as “performative” of the blog’s/books’ “analytic content” is that which Gleig mentioned earlier: “linguistically dense, jargon heavy, and theoretically challenging,” anti-right-speechist, and, I wish she had noted, funny.
Gleig closes by having Seth Segall and Patricia Ivan corroborate, indeed, exacerbate, her remarks about “our” (my? Pepper’s? the fifteen other guest writers’? everyone’s?) “communicative style:”
Buddhist blogger Seth Segall noted, for example, that Wallis “brings an interesting and provocative mind to the online mix. It’s his tone, however, that I find disquieting. He intends his gaze to be coruscating, but his voice tends toward the corrosive—arrogant, scornful, and dismissive of those holding differing beliefs and attitudes.” Patricia Ivan, one of the few female contributors on the site, reported that the aggressive interchanges left her feeling that “SNB was just another boy’s club” with the “same dynamics as the Buddhists they were critiquing.”
I suck at virtually everything on God’s green earth. Except for one thing. One thing. I am good at one thing: analysis. This is not to say that my analytic ability necessarily leads me to the right conclusions. I make a lot of mistakes, and on a daily basis. What it does enable me to do is detect, isolate, and crunch the many moving parts of rhetoric. I am, more specifically, good at rhetorical analysis (pats self on back). The thing about rhetoric is that, when done well, it remains invisible. So, I want to point out what I see as decisive rhetorical moves on Gleig’s part. If I am wrong, someone (Ann Gleig?!) please correct me.
Here goes. Gleig’s treatment of SNB is not, and never was, intended as a treatment of SNB. I say that because her text on SNB here is run through with classical existentialist ressentiment. (NOTE WELL: I am claiming this on the basis of her text; I do not know her.) Ressentiment, recall, is “a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration” (Wikiwand: Ressentiment). Gleig’s textual attempt to grapple with “Speculative Non-Buddhism and the Critique of ‘X-Buddhism’” is nothing if not a display of frustration—of misunderstanding, of mischaracterizations, of not quite accurate descriptions and of a serious failure of nuance. (It is noteworthy that none of this, as far as I can judge, is true of her book as a whole.) When she mentions the many difficulties that have “rendered [SNB’s] analytic project inaccessible to many,” does she count herself among that “many”? Her text presents evidence that she just might do so. Assuming on her part, as I do, stellar intellectual ability, how can we explain such treatment, and in all of three paragraphs over two pages, for “The most theoretically sophisticated and sustained interrogation of Western Buddhism”? So, it is possible that she did not grasp the complex thrust of the project. But more likely, in terms of ressentiment, it is possible that she did grasp it, and did not like, indeed resented, what she saw. Until corrected, I will error on the side of the latter. Gleig’s text belies frustration with the claims, postulates, and arguments of the SNB project. Her final paragraph suggests that she feels unable to say so herself. (Perhaps she subscribes to the right-speechist principles of niceness and humility?) So, über-nice Seth Segall has to say it for her! I would contest the notion, by the way, that I personally engaged in the “tone” that Segall mentions. As I mentioned, that is not to say that this “tone,” so grating and offensive to Mr. Segall, was not present on the blog. God knows it was! But, yet again, an argument from “tone” is not helpful here. Or, on the other hand, maybe it is helpful in that, for instance, it, “tone,” is an integral feature of “The most theoretically sophisticated and sustained interrogation of Western Buddhism.” Which is it? It is precisely the task of the scholar of a book titled American Dharma to sort all of this out, to present the necessary nuance, to help the reader make sense of it all, and to do so with cogent analysis. Rather than engage in such work—work that is arguably the most basic responsibility of a scholar—Gleig chooses to close out her treatment of SNB with a dismissive remark by Seth Segall and a confusing comment by Patricia Ivan. Ivan’s comment is confusing because Gleig doesn’t bother to explain what Ivan means by the feeling that she had encountered on the blog the “same dynamics as the Buddhists they were critiquing.” We were critiquing right-speechism, neoliberal collusion, ideological obfuscation, subjective capture, pervasive x-buddhist flinching from x-buddhist postulates, and so forth. I don’t think Ivan is talking about any of this, right? So, what “dynamics” are being referred to? And why are these dynamics so incredibly crucial to mention, if only obliquely, in a three-paragraph treatment of “The most theoretically sophisticated and sustained interrogation of Western Buddhism”? I was also left wondering why Gleig reached out to Ivan for her grand finale (Ivan’s comment above came via an email exchange) rather than to, say…me? As befits her ethnographic methodology, Gleig spoke directly to many of the people who appear in American Dharma. Why not to the agent provocateur of the rowdy band of speculative non-buddhists? Or, if not me, why not check in with any of the numerous other people who have been commenting on the work of SNB, both favorably and critically, but generally responsibly? It is a genuine question: why not? Until I get more evidence, my conclusion is clear: x-buddhist ressentiment.
In the end, Gleig succumbs to the same ad hominem rhetorical move that was so prevalent in the blog’s commentariat: dismissal of ideas because of perceived personal nastiness. More insidiously, I believe, she is engaged in a deeply problematic rhetorical sleight of hand. For, in juxtaposing language like “aggressive and combative communicative style,” “ridiculed, humiliated, and bullied,” “corrosive—arrogant, scornful, and dismissive,” “aggressive interchanges” with “the same dynamics as the Buddhists they were critiquing,” Gleig creates a damning innuendo. I do not think Gleig’s text shows dishonesty here. Again, I think it is displaying something else, ressentiment: it exudes hostility to a form of thought that perhaps disturbs the writer. And here we come to a major feature that, I believe, sets off the SNB texts from the criticism that these texts have so far received: the SNB texts do not hide their authors’ annoyance, contempt, hostility, righteous anger, whatever, of what these authors view as a violent usurpation of human desire to the ends of a unitary system. Might that feature, that “tone,” be the cause of the resentful accusations of “corrosive,” etc., that are routinely hurled at SNB? Can we at least agree that one person’s “corrosive” might be another person’s “coruscating.”
Surely, readers being presented with a treatment of “The most theoretically sophisticated and sustained interrogation of Western Buddhism” will, after reading Gleig, be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity
Matthew O’Connell talks with Ann Gleig at The Imperfect Buddha Podcast.
Tom Pepper, “The Compliment of Dismissal,” at The Faithful Buddhist.
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