Agency in Practice: Trash Theory #4

Trash Theory: Preliminary Materials for an Image of Practice #4*

Agency in Practice

This offering for our trash heap of practice theory elaborates on the following non-postulates:

Non-Postulate 1 Practice is a struggle against mastery, rather than a reaching toward itThe most crucial element for any non-buddhist practice should be a perpetual resistance to taking any part of subjectivity as a refuge, or as some sort of “default” state removed from the inconveniences of social subjectivity. Practice necessarily implies struggle; practice leads to mastery, at which point practice is no longer needed as such. To practice, then, is to resist mastery in perpetuity.
Non-Postulate 3 Practice/struggle is in itself generative of a form of life.
Non-Postulate 7 Any future practice must be collective, educational, and dialogical.
{from various contributors toTrash Theory: Preliminary Materials for an Image of Practice #3“}

As so often happens on this blog, a confluence of events prompts this post.

I. I was reading a Facebook discussion where academics and practitioners were responding to a colleague’s call to take action in the world beyond the classroom. The article, by Pierce Salguero, is titled “The World Outside the Lecture Hall is on Fire.” (Links at bottom.) Here’s the gist. Listening to a scholar give a rather routine scholarly paper at an academic conference, Salguero had a realization.

It was a realization that we have important choices to make about how we spend our time and energies as scholars.

The world outside our lecture hall is on fire, literally and figuratively, and I realized I can no longer keep up the professional facade behind the lectern while it burns.

This insight is, of course, fortuitous. And, given the caution endemic to academia, it is laudable that Salguero writes about his realization. My overriding response to the piece, though, was that it stopped where it should have started. Here’s the final paragraph:

Now, more than ever, how we approach our scholarship is inherently and inescapably a political matter. What we choose to talk about and what we choose to ignore in the course of our ordinary day is our politics. Shall we choose to bury our heads in the sand, or to use whatever platform we have to try to address the conflagration outside the window?

Everything before that final question struck me as material that should be too obvious to an educated reader. Is it really necessary to make the case for action? Why not use the entire essay to explore the decisive question at the end of the piece? Does Salguero’s intended readership really have to be convinced of his basic thesis? The answer, on full display in the Facebook comments, genuinely baffled me. Or, is there an English word that contains a mixture of bafflement, confusion, disbelief disappointment, and sadness? That’s what I felt while wading through the comments, discussion, and reposts. Why? There are several reasons. Some are more or less personal quirks, like my distaste for the Academic Mutual Admiration Society. Others are more consequential, like the realization that the people responding, many if not most of whom are rising or established scholars and practitioners, are hearing for the first time Salguero’s uncontroversial (?) observation that education is a political act. But what I find most disturbing about the entire episode is the yawning gap between the modest spirit of the original article and the jubilation of responses:

Bravo. Your words echo so true.

Will read and re-read for a while maybe two weeks or two years because it’s such an important call to reconciliation between one’s thoughts and actions.

Word from Pierce Salguero.

Great essay by my friend Pierce Salguero.

I may just use a couple of lines from this in my keynote next month.

All the claps in the world for Pierce Salguero!

Important thoughts from my friend and colleague Pierce Salguero.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart! So very important and so true. As scholars and trained writers, thinkers, and researchers, we have much needed skills that we can each share in different ways. I agree that it is essential for each of us to make conscious choices on how we use these skills. THANK YOU FOR SPELLING THIS OUT!

Some of this can, of course, be chalked up to the all-too-commonplace practice of sycophantic fawning among academics. And Facebook is clearly not a forum primed for nuanced discussions. Still, the general trend expressed there, even in so small a sample, is, I believe, nonetheless noteworthy. So, what exactly was sticking in my craw about this entire episode?

II. My pondering about that episode converged with another incident. Peter Limberg, of the Intellectual Explorers Podcastsent me an unpublished article that he co-wrote with professor of psychology Davood Gozli. The article concerns a subject type the authors term the marginal figure. Such figures play a “potential role…as sources of insight and connection across domains and communities.”

When members of conflicting groups think about each other, what comes to mind tends to be the prototypical group members—someone who embodies all the relevant features of the outgroup, while possessing none of the features of the ingroup. But groups of people are rarely homogenous and could not be fully represented by their prototypical member. If communication within and between groups is only controlled by the prototypical members, there is little chance for intra-group change and inter-group reconciliation. To deflect attention away from prototypical members, it is useful to focus on a concept that stands in sharp contrast to it—the marginal figure.

I would add that an important function served by the marginal figure is that of interjecting crucial yet anathema information into the established thought-system, in-group, or status quo. It is this very function that prevents the marginal figure from being heard, accepted, invited into the center, much less openly applauded for his or her efforts. This treatment of the marginal figure is understandable for obvious reasons. However, it is also paradoxical since it is arguably from the margins that any genuinely substantive innovation is ever going to unfold. 

The margins can interrupt, threaten, or de-stabilize what is in focus. In prototypical cases, what is marginal is left out of our awareness, quietly, though it persists as a potential target of inspection. The margins could be the product of ignorance, thinking habits, repression, or our inflexibility. Their very existence, however, is unavoidable, because our perspectives, our categories, and our theories do not exhaustively cover our reality.

As rich as Limberg and Gozli’s paper is for our purposes, I will wait until it is published to comment further. I mention the article because it made me reflect back to Salguero’s piece and the ensuing Facebook response; and from there, to a specific question about the possibility of agency in any given social formation or practice. That is, we talk a lot about the subject of practice, the implicit person encoded in the text and given shape by the community.  But, here’s the question: what is required to transition from a position of being passively formed to one of active self-forming, from subject to agent? (Any answer to this question must take caution not to subsume “agency” into yet another idealist framework of atomized selfhood. See Postulate 7, above.) Here’s what occured to me. The intended empirical readers of Salguero’s text are today’s intellectual and cultural “thought leaders,” to use a current buzzword. That term derives from the management world, but has, alas, slithered its way into academia. In the old days, we might have said “experts.” But, as is fitting for our era of defeat and desperation, thought leaders are required to be something more than go-to people for specialized knowledge: “They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; they turn ideas into reality…They are changing the world in meaningful ways and engage others to join their efforts. They create evolutionary and even revolutionary advancements in their fields,” and so on. By contrast to this energetic and bold figure, I reflected, the implicit or implied reader of Salguero’s text (I mean the whole shebang here—OP, FB), the reader who is rhetorically embedded therein, is the classic diminished figure of neoliberal institutionalization: vulnerable in the face of the status quo; adaptive in devising coping mechanisms for daily functioning; and resilient in adjusting perpetually to things as they are. I say much more about this issue in a text I am writing on education. My point here is that what is sticking in my craw is the fact that everywhere I look in the worlds of both academia and x-buddhism, all I see are passively formed subjects where active agents, I will never cease to argue, should be.

III. This line of thought led me back to Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. In Gramsci’s terms, what is ailing me is that all I see are traditional intellectuals occupying the rightful site of organic intellectuals. Gramsci’s interrelated concepts of cultural hegemony, ideology, and the organic intellectual should be useful to anyone thinking through the issue of agency in practice. For, against his fellow Marxists, Gramsci denied the dogma of an economic determinism that would inevitably result in the severing of the workers’ chains. He considered this a passive attitude, labeling it “vulgar historical materialism.” The emphasis, he felt, was being placed on “materialism,” resulting in an attitude of resigned patience, like Christians waiting for the Second Coming. By placing the emphasis instead on “historical,” Gramsci introduces a robust element of agency into his theory of political change. Very roughly, his argument goes like this: It has always been the case that one group of people holds power over other groups (hegemony). Power follows from having prevailed in the “war of position,” in, that is, the struggle for cultural dominance wherein one’s own class interests are represented to the detriment of others’ interests. For, it is from the position of cultural dominance that ideology is generated and controlled. Ideology can easily be wielded as a powerful and pernicious tool of domination and made to render natural the very terms and conditions of that domination. We see that happening today in the United States, where the typical Trump voter has absolutely no rational basis for supporting the policies of a man who represents at every turn the interests of the billionaire class. So, why do they do so? This was precisely the question that animated Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in the 1920s. (He sought to understand why, for instance, the proletariat supported the imperialists’ war in 1917; why workers were content with minimal material concessions in negotiations with their wealthy factory bosses; why the poor desired expensive yet superfluous products hawked in the capitalist marketplace, and so on.) His answer is that the 1% is able to so because they have won the war of position. From there, the entire apparatus of control—encompassing the social, political, economic, cultural, educational, religious, etc.—is at their disposal. They use it to convince everyone of the inevitability and naturalness of, say, a $7.25 minimum wage for workers and a $15,600,000 average pay for CEOs; or of the need for a $23,890 tuition price tag on a public four-year college (out-of-state students); or of a paycheck for a woman that is only 78-82% that of her male colleague; or of______. . . Fill in the blank. This phenomenon of ideologically rendering natural is as infinite as it is insidious.  The status quo is thus run through with a self-replicating mechanism that makes it virtually impossible to alter. Enter the organic intellectual. 

The only way to counter the prevailing status quo is to stage a war of position. Realistically, it is only from a dominant position that any genuine change to the seemingly inevitable status quo will emerge. This is the case whether we are struggling to change an x-buddhist sangha, a college administration, or the world order. (Reformism, or tweaking the system “from within,” is rigged in advance in favor of those who currently occupy the dominant position.)  It is the organic intellectual who enables this war. So, who is this figure? We can perhaps best understand the organic intellectual by considering what he or she is not: a “traditional intellectual.” Traditional intellectuals are those who represent and protect the boundaries of their respective disciplines. In this regard, they are the well-interpellated subjects of an academic tradition, and proudly view themselves as such. A certain air of the Ivory Tower professor hangs over this image. Traditional intellectuals see themselves as apolitical and classless, or, really, as above or beyond politics and class, so much the better for studying and analyzing their disciplinary corner of the world. 

Since these…traditional intellectuals experience through an “esprit de corps” their uninterrupted historical continuity and their special qualification, they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group.

Yet, in doing so, they err. Or, more to the point, they delude themselves. On closer examination, the “uninterrupted historical continuity” and “special qualification” that the traditional academics grant themselves as functionaries within a bounded field, are rooted in the ideological hegemony of precisely “the dominant social group.”  The position of the traditional intellectual within today’s neoliberal corporate university thus “conceals an attachment to various historical class formations” (emphasis added). Namely, far from being “autonomous and independent of the dominant social group,” they are the very protectors, enablers, and replicators of that group’s values, interests, and aims. The traditional intellectual can not help but perpetuate the norms of the hegemons from within the educational system.

Diametrically opposed to this figure is that of the “organic intellectual.” The social role of this figure “is primarily that of organizing, administering, directing, educating, or leading others,” initially toward revolutionary imagination and, eventually, toward action. The organic intellectual is thus instrumental in the fight for substantive change to the reigning norms and values that the traditional intellectual, knowingly or not, perpetuates.  

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.

The issue here is, of course, much more complex than I am making it. Gramsci, for instance, understood the traditional intellectual to be a representative of the bourgeoisie and the organic intellectual, of the workers. He also famously said that “All people are intellectuals…but not all people have in society the function of intellectuals.” That is, anyone, whether a college professor or a factory worker, has the capacity to educate others toward social change benefitting the masses; but only someone who takes up the mantle to do so is “an organic intellectual.” Indeed, the chapter “The Intellectuals” in Prison Notebooks opens with this question:

Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group, or does every social group have its own particular specialised category of intellectuals? The problem is a complex one, because of the variety of forms assumed to date by the real historical process of formation of the different categories of intellectuals.

It would be too much to work out here, but Gramsci’s theory can be made to better fit our current circumstances. For example, bourgeoisie/workers can be replaced with status-quoist/precariat. More importantly for my purposes, it can be refitted to apply to the issue of agency in the social practices of education and x-buddhism. Bringing it back to the issue framed in the Salguero episode, we could say that the choice he articulates is between operating as a traditional or an organic intellectual—in the classroom, in scholarship and writing, in conversation with one another, and yes, even on Facebook posts. This can be seen as a direct response to his closing question: “Shall we choose to bury our heads in the sand, or to use whatever platform we have to try to address the conflagration outside the window?” This strikes me as a way out of hegemonic collusion and passive subjugation, and toward robust agency and collective creativity. That’s not to say that it will succeed. But imagine harnessing the energy of the jubilant response to the article to advance in the war of position. It’s possible, right? Or am I deluding myself?

IV. As I was drafting this post, I came across a link on Facebook to an article in the British leftist daily Morning Star. The title of the article was “Promote Parenti, not Slavoj Zizek,” by Zoltan Zigedy. The author’s explicit criticism of Zizek as a clownish figure who “has mastered the tricks of a public intellectual—entertaining, pompous, outrageous, calculatedly obscure and mannered” does not interest me here. Zigedy’s larger point however, directly relates to that thing sticking in my craw. And that is that the acceptance of someone like Zizek—in academia, in leftist circles, in the publishing world, even to a degree in mainstream media—is predicated on a defanged version of some radical idea. Zigedy’s intention is to consider the reception of Marxism in current academia. He observes that:

The curious thing about this intellectual Marxism [of Zizek and others], this parlour dilettante Marxism, is that it is never all-in—it is Marxism with grave reservations.

Marxism is fine if it’s the “early” Marx, the “humanist” Marx, the “Hegelian” Marx, the Marx of the Grundrisse, the Marx without Engels, the Marx without the working class, the Marx before Bolshevism, or before communism.

Zigedy is describing the traditional intellectual here. That is, teaching Marx with such qualifications is effectively to render him a thinker of the status quo, if one with (harmless) intellectual quirks and (impractical) theoretical idiosyncrasies. He even quotes a tandem of academic authors who distill Marxism down to the answer to two burning questions: “what work should I do?” and “how should I spend my finite time?” For, according to these authors, these are “the ultimate questions anyone must ask.” What is the answer, they offer? “Accumulating capital contrasts, they submit, with ‘maximising…each individual’s free time to spend as she pleases:’”

Thus, the struggle for emancipation, in this rethinking of Marxism, is not the emancipation of the working class, but the wresting of freely disposable time from the grip of work.

Zigedy’s conclusion for this section is that the intention of authors from within the university system “seems to be to defang Marxism more than promote it.” This conclusion prepares us for the really damning aspect of “Promote Parenti, not Slavoj Zizek.” And it is this aspect that interests me here: “University employment is rarely available to purveyors of dangerous ideas.” Marx’s barring from university employment was, however, the least of his problems. He was exiled first from Germany, then France, then Belgium. Precariously settled in England, he was relentlessly hounded, censored, and surveilled by the authorities; he and his family were spied on, harassed, threatened, and intimidated. In all of this, he was “a harbinger of the fate of nearly all authentic Marxist intellectuals.” And by “authentic” Zigedy means “dangerous.” (The Parenti” of the title is Michael Parenti, “the most dangerous Marxist intellectual in the US.”) Nicely tying together two of the main strands of this trashy post, Zigedy contends that “Real Marxists are necessarily outliers,” and “It is a telling fact that, though history has produced many “organic” Marxists, Marxists with roots in the working class and in movements challenging capitalism, their contributions seldom populate the bibliographies of university professors, unless to deride.”

“Promote Parenti, not Slavoj Zizek” could be titled “Be an Organic Intellectual, not a Traditional One,” or “Think, Act, and Teach from the Margins, not from the Core.” To do so, it should go without saying, “is not a career move, but a thankless commitment.” To paraphrase Zigedy in light of Salguero’s article:

Capitalist institutions do not endow those who advocate the undoing of __________ [fill in the blank as you see fit: neoliberalism; corporate capitalism, American imperialism, wealth inequality, conformity, the quenching of the fire, etc.] with academic honor or celebrity. And those people who do rise to academic acclaim, who get lucrative book deals, who enjoy media exposure, seldom present much of a threat to the system.

I have many more questions about all of this. And there are many conclusions to be drawn for teaching, community, x-buddhism, and practice in general. As I was letting this post simmer, I even came across another thought-provoking source related to the question of agency. But I have gone on for too long. So, rather than present it as the fourth moment in my witch’s flight here, I will just encourage you to see for yourself. I am referring to Tom Pepper’s working outline for his proposed book at The Faithful Buddhist:

My assumption, argued throughout the book, is that real human agency is necessarily dependent on a fairly sophisticated use of language, including written language.  I have come to believe that it is just not possible for those unwilling to think rigorously in concepts to ever become the kind of subject capable of real agency. So no truly popular account, dependent on entertaining presentation and rhetorical manipulation, can ever be of use in this project.

Something is afoot. The world is on fire. The university is on fire. Buddhism is slouching ever more deeply into the New Age desert. Foundations are shaking. Yes. Even traditional institutional players are telling other traditional institutional players as much. Jubilation is raised. Courageous people like Pierce Salguero are sounding the clarion call. But where are we headed? And what will you do? Whatever else you do, please keep an eye on the margins, on the darkness beyond your current horizon of vision. Better yet, consider joining those of us who have lain our camp there. The time has come to be all-in.

Pierce Salguero, “The World Outside the Lecture Hall is on Fire
Peter Limberg’s Intellectual Explorer’s Podcast
Davood Gozli personal website
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
Zoltan Zigedy, “Promote Parenti, not Slavoj Zizek

*Trash Theory: Preliminary Materials for an Image of Practice

The concept of “trash theory” is borrowed from Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl.

So as not to give a false impression—which could  well be our intention—the jumble of fragments that follows does not in any way constitute a theory.  These are materials accumulated by chance encounter, by frequenting and observing Young-Girls: pearls extracted from magazines, expressions  gleaned out of order under sometimes dubious circumstances…The choice to expose these elements in all their incompleteness, in their contingent  original state, in their ordinary excess, knowing that if polished, hollowed out, and given a good trim they might together constitute an altogether presentable doctrine, we have chosen—just this  once—trash theory. The cardinal ruse of theoreticians resides, generally, in the presentation of the  result of their deliberations such that the process of deliberation is no longer apparent. We figure that, faced with Bloomesque fragmentation of attention, this ruse no longer works. We have chosen a different one. In these scattered fragments, spirits attracted to moral comfort or vice in need of condemning will find only roads leading nowhere. It is less a question of converting [x-buddhists] than of mapping out the dark corners of the fractalized frontline of [the x-buddhist World]. And it is a question of furnishing arms for a struggle, step-by-step, blow-by-blow, wherever you may find yourself. (20-21)

How can we conceive of practice today?

Contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues that “anyone who takes part in a program for de-passivizing himself, and crosses from the side of the merely formed to that of the forming, becomes [an agent].” The colloquial word for such a program is practice. The more technical term, praxis, aims to approach the question consciously, with an a priori awareness of theoretical considerations. Yet, at the title of the series indicates, the “theory” arising out of whatever collective and chaotic deliberations may be the case.

More formally, it proceeds from three questions. First, what does it mean to “practice”? What, for instance, distinguishes practice from things like routine, habit, or simply a way of life? And when is a practice one of healthy self-formation as opposed to one of ideological subjugation or romantic fantasy? This question may presuppose a new image of practice, akin to Deleuze’s image of thought. Second, how can we conceive of practice in an age of profound skepticism toward the transcendental orientations of our so-called spiritual traditions? What might a materialist or, in the language of Pope Francis, an “incarnational” practice look like? Third, rather than adapt the practitioner to the existing social formation, how can we ensure that a practice develops competent, courageous agents for changing their formations in closer conformity to their moral ideals?

If you have any thoughts on this matter, please send them along. You can write an original text or share an existing piece of writing or mash the two together. Keep it short, and include a commentary and a question or two for discussion. The purpose of this exercise is to stimulate thinking, not to dominate it. Maybe some of you will eventually use these trashy fragments to create a new theoretical whole. Even better, maybe some of you will put them to the test in actual communal practice. Let us know how we can help.

We’re just getting started! Send your trash to the comment section or email



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10 responses to “Agency in Practice: Trash Theory #4”

  1. James Blackman Avatar
    James Blackman

    Great article. “The passive subject”, the bits of him put in place by the world, not really through any choice. Reminds me of the old Tetris game, his brain being the line the blocks fall down upon. I look back on my 38 years and I see I was most radical (but in a very dumb, thoughtless way) from the age of about 16 to 22 – I read Marx, joined the Social Workers Party – but much of it was ego-driven, I liked sitting in cafes with a jaunty cigarette, talking about things that I thought I knew about but didn’t really – my radicalism at this age was very, very superficial. I look back and wince. Then alcohol and drugs took over my life, and I got involved in the acid house/rave scene – which was, in a way, far more radical (and liberating) than trying to pretend I knew about Hegel. Then alcoholism took over, and a drug-addled brain. And then when I quit drugs and drink in my early twenties, years of an anxiety followed and a grinding, impulsive, never-ending foray into the world of self help and therapy. Clean and sober but an emotional and mental wreck. And then, say three years ago, I discovered Buddhism and mindfulness – I stopped, finally, jubilantly, buying self help books, and “mindfulness” and “simple meditation” began to sweep up and cease my pain. I began to see clearly. And with that clarity, I am finding myself drawn far more to radical positions in a far more authentic and energised way than at any other time of my life – meditation showing me how inseparable, one and the same, I am from the world around me, and that, (unavoidably and regrettably uttering from the “grooves of borrowed thought”) the world’s suffering is my own. So I think practice can be very radical. Whilst I am determined to wreck Buddhism to ruins, inspired by this blog, I still think I can’t unlearn or cease, or have any desire to, the radical implications of some of its practices.

  2. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Jim. I really like your comment. Thanks. You hereby have an open invitation to explore on this blog your view that “practice can be very radical.” It should be clear that I completely agree with you. The question I have is how to unlock it from those grooves or borrowed thought (and action). How to get it, and the practitioner, to the place of ruination that your very comment exudes?

    What you say about your early days as a “radical” is particularly interesting in light of what Tom Pepper is up to with his thinking on agency. He writes that “I have come to believe that it is just not possible for those unwilling to think rigorously in concepts to ever become the kind of subject capable of real agency.” My point is that maybe reading Hegel as a dumb, thoughtless twenty year old (I was one of those!) was doomed to failure, but not necessarily as a sober, meditating, thirty-eight year old, right? Good luck going forward!

  3. Shaun Bartone Avatar

    Hey Glenn: I know that you and Tom Pepper see problems in X-Buddhism with ideology and philosophy, and I respect that. But as a sociologist, I see it as two other problems: (1) the total lack of empiricism in Buddhism, which is not helped by new and ever more clever forms of ideology, but what I call FFF: FACE THE FUCKING FACTS. And (2) as a problem of human behavior and social organization, i.e. the social organization of Buddhism. I will address the Problem 1 in a couple of essays, or maybe a book. But I would like to address Problem 2 in a totally different way, and as a matter of practice, of coming together to discuss what the fuck is wrong with Buddhist institutions, and how we can “do” or practice Buddhism differently. I am calling for the First Conference on Buddhist Anarchism. Let me know if you’d like to participate. I welcome your contribution.

  4. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Shaun. I agree with you on both counts. I think my take on (1) is on this business of the conceptual parapraxis. That is, x-buddhism makes plenty of empirical claims that are more or less uncontroversial, I think, but inevitably abandons that claim for an ideologically-inflected version. In any case, if you haven’t yet done so, I would highly recommend reading the front matter (at least) of Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science. I agree, too, with (2). Ideology is not a free-floating spirit that seeps into the heads of the group members. It’s a material mechanism wielded by those who hold power over the group. That conference sounds really interesting. I will have a look for sure. Thanks!

  5. Pierce Salguero Avatar
    Pierce Salguero

    Thanks for reading my Medium post. This particular piece was an intentionally brief teaser: a share-worthy post meant to reach colleagues who aren’t already thinking about the politics of their everyday choices. For a more detailed roadmap with more concrete actions, I’d point your readers to my article “A Professor’s Action Plan for the Trumpocalypse,” published in 2016 shortly after the election: (I added a link to that at the bottom of the post just now as well.)



  6. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Pierce. Thanks for your comment. My post wasn’t so much a response to your short piece on Medium as a comment on the reaction to it. The latter is all the more remarkable given the former’s brevity! As I say in the post, it’s a small sample, yet I, like pollsters, believe you can form certain valid deductions nonetheless. I have read your “A Professor’s Action Plan for the Trumpocalypse,” and certainly see those points as (theoretically) showing a way forward. But the real purpose of my post was to lay out some of the conditions that, I would predict, make your plan fall, like Hume’s book, stillborn off the press, or at least in grave danger of doing so. If you were to follow up with a piece exploring what it would take to institutionally implement those points you make, I predict you would stumble across issues similar to the ones that my post raises. For example, assuming, for the sake of a momentary thought experiment, the validity of Gramsci’s traditional/organic distinction, how can any of your plan move forward if virtually all of your audience are traditional intellectuals? or Zizeks rather than Parentis? or core dwellers rather than marginal figures? And so on? My point, and the real point of the post, is that we are implicated and ensnared in social practices that aim to delimit and predetermine our efforts for, say, “interrogating privilege” or “pedagogical engagement.” The post is a rough attempt to give thought to, to make more explicit, forces hindering advance in the “war of position” that many of us do, or desire to, participate in..

  7. James Blackman Avatar
    James Blackman

    thanks for your comments glen. how to make a practice radical? I think Manu Bazzano is brilliant at times on this. I think you will like his work. Very academic, combines a lot of philosophy with Zen. Anyway, rejecting transcendence and embracing immanence is a good start to radicalizing any sort of practice, in my view.


    To speak of immanence does not imply enclosure – least of all foreclosure of change and
    transformation. This is often an argument posed by transcendentalists: without the positing of
    a transcendent world, no spiritual transformation is possible at either a personal or societal
    level. We must be able to transcend this imperfect, samsaric, unjust world of blood, sweat
    and tears. We must be able to hold a spiritual vision, they say, in our hearts and minds. This
    position certainly has appeal. In some exceptional cases, the spindrift gaze towards heaven
    comes with formidable flights of the imagination: many a great poet endorsed it, from Dante
    to Milton to William Blake. Moreover, I also believe, with Levinas (2003), in the profound
    human need for escape. What is objectionable is not the flight per se but the looking down on
    the world from on high, its categorization as evil. For a transcendental thinker like Thomas
    Aquinas, in whose reflections Aristotle, Plato and Christianity all converged, the world is
    good and true not in essence, but only indirectly, by “analogical participation” (Barber, 2010,
    p. 431) in a transcendent God. The equivalent in meditation practice is to posit a wide gap
    between delusion and enlightenment, the world of samsara populated by ordinary sentient
    beings and the ‘pure land’ of the Buddhas. The person who can see the world as good and
    true only indirectly, as emanation of a transcendental and eternal reality, effectively steps
    aside the living stream of living-and-dying in which he or she cannot but participate and
    plays at being arbitrator and judge.

    “The world, because it has not rendered itself amenable to the truth, is evil – it must be
    judged by the truthful man (Deleuze, 1989, ibid).”

    The above stance is often motivated by an understandable need for consolation, and by the
    very real sense that the world is too much for us: “too powerful, or too unjust, but sometimes
    also too beautiful” (Deleuze, 1989, p. 18). But to look away, step aside from the living stream
    and, at times, deliberately minimize our level of experiencing is also a doorway to great
    mental distress (Goldstein, 1995) and incongruence.

    There is a concrete alternative to this impasse: embracing immanent spirituality: for instance,
    through a meditation practice that rather than averting its gaze from the unbearable suffering
    and excruciating beauty of the world and seeking inspiration in a transcendent realm,
    intensifies instead our inherent connection to the world. True, the world is intolerable,
    immeasurable, and inassimilable. Its sheer intensity gives us anguish. But in averting this
    intensity, we deny ourselves the possibility for healing.

  8. Failed Buddhist Avatar

    Excellent piece, Glenn. The question of “what is required to transition from a position of being passively formed to one of active self-forming, from subject to agent” is the most important one we are faced with. I would agree with Tom’s contention that one of the necessary (though not sufficient) requirements for agency is the ability to think rigorously using language and concepts. Equally important, I would argue, is the awareness—seemingly lacking among academics and “traditional intellectuals”—that we are always engaged in some social practice(s). The question I have is, which do you think comes first? That is, is the ability for “a fairly sophisticated use of language” or “think[ing] rigorously in concepts” a necessary step for recognizing our already-given embeddedness in social practices? Or is the first prerequisite an understanding that we are always in the social?

    I want to argue that this question is not just a philosophical one. I really do think that it has consequences. When you ask “Does Salguero’s intended readership really have to be convinced of his basic thesis?” and “Is it really necessary to make the case for action?”, it seems obvious to me that the answer to these questions is a resounding “yes.” Yes, unfortunately it really is necessary to make the case for action. And making the case for action is quite easy (though making the case for radical action is another matter). I think that, in general—and I would argue that this is evident from the responses to Pierce’s post— the difficulty is in getting people to understand (i) specifically what action is necessary, and (ii) that they are already acting, in the sense that they are engaging in social practices whether they realize it or not. Sure, we may see as obvious the fact that academia is a social practice, and a political social practice at that (as all social practices are!). But why is this not as obvious to most academics, and why does such an assertion elicit the kind of response you’d expect upon pointing out to someone who’s never looked at the sky before that the sky is blue?

    I think most—or at least many—academics are quite skilled at using sophisticated language and concepts. Just flip to a random page in any philosophical journal. I suppose we might say that there is a difference between using sophisticated language and using language in a sophisticated way, but I’m not sure how much of the difference is obvious and rigidly discernible. My point is that often the sophistication of concepts and language is used precisely to avoid what is actually quite an elementary recognition: that we are always engaged in material social practices, no matter how idealist our perceptions are of the kind of work we are doing. I believe this to be a crucial aspect of Laurelle’s critique of philosophy. Often, the more sophisticated a conceptual apparatus is, the more transcendental it becomes. Decision is most easily masked in sophistication.

    This relates, of course, to the problem of the (de)naturalization of the status quo. What is “natural” is, by conventional definition, not subject to the inconveniences of the social. Thus, when a social practice is taken as natural, it is hard to see that it is in fact a social practice. The de-naturalization of a social practice, then, is important in unmasking its sociality. Such “denaturing”—and I am using the word both in the definitional sense of removing the appearance of naturalness, as well as in the biochemical sense of adding something to an alcohol to make it toxic for consumption, which we can here repurpose as the addition of some (critical) conceptual apparatus which, when applied to some social practice, renders it as a perception of something foul or, perhaps, “strange”… such denaturing does require some level of sophisticated language and concept usage. However, since any concept presented will always be incorporated by the presentee into his or her already existing “thicket of views,” or symbolic web, to denature something is quite a challenge. As with chemical denaturing, as well, the process will leave the subject in question with quite a bad taste in their mouth!

    In summary, I wonder whether Laurelle’s tools for running concepts through an anti-decisional machinery will always be the first thing that must be done. For it is only through being able to think rigorously in non-decisional, axiomatized, sophisticated language and concepts that such language and concepts can be useful. Where they are useful, I think, is in thinking through social practices and ideology. Not just recognizing that we are socially constructed, which is the crucial first step, but actually beginning to understand precisely how, in what particular ways, and through what mechanisms, we are socially constructed. Only then is it possible to conceive of agency as active and conscious participation in ideology.

  9. James Blackman Avatar
    James Blackman

    maybe it’s a case of you “cannot pull apart the master’s house with the master’s tools” Audre Lorde?

  10. Resistance – Journey to Stage 5 Avatar

    […] I’m thinking here of something like the Salguero post Glen Wallis discusses here; lot’s of desire and discussion and back-slapping, but no action […]

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