Trash Theory: Preliminary Materials for a Non-Buddhist Image of Practice #5*
Assistance is not service, reciprocity, exchange (even unequal); it is the work of solitude without-consistency. Only inalienable poverty in essence is capable of doing combat with Hell.*
In non-buddhist terms:
The bodhisattva’s compassion for creatures engulfed in the flood of samsara must remain baseless and indeterminate. Otherwise, it amounts to yet more violence against the sufferer. For both “bodhisattva” and “compassion” index qualities, admonitions, values, relations, and so on ad infinitum, that culminate in a suicide disguised as murder charged against the sufferer. In x-buddhist terms, that means: that culminate in putting another head on the head you already have, in riding your donkey in search of your donkey, in buckling the raft to your back once you’ve crossed to the distant shore—all self-defeating gestures incited by the harassing index itself. “Solitude without-consistency” is an act of annihilation, of eliminating the very index, together with the values and postulates it entails. Thus:
bodhisattva’s compassion. Paradoxically, it is this cancellation that preserves the very possibility it names. The “price” of this annulment, and hence of this possibility, is ultimately no price at all. It is the recovery of the inalienable poverty that already constitutes our species being: the in-human.
We can add this postulate to our trash theory toward an image of practice:
Non-Postulate 8 Only inalienable poverty is capable of doing combat with samsara.
Floating for several days in a mental space of suspended animation, my finger caressing the delete button, this postulate received an impetus and sense of urgency after I listened to Vince Horn‘s recent podcast on Buddhist Geeks. The episode is called “Metadharma: Set and Setting.” (Link at bottom.) Here’s how the project is described on the podcast site:
In this episode Vince Horn kicks-off a new series on Buddhist Geeks on “Metadharma.” Sharing his journey from working with integral philosopher Ken Wilber in the early aughts, to deconstructing grand metanarratives with inquiry meditation and developmental psychology, to returning back to a metaphilosophical orientation in recent years.
This series, on Metadharma, will explore the ways that the three jewels of the Buddhist contemplative tradition, the Buddha, Dharma, & Sangha, may be understood in light of the emergence of a Integral/Metamodern orientation.
In speculative non-buddhist terms, we would say that Horn is in the grip of several experiences which the non-buddhist heuristic was created to highlight, such as ancoric loss, aporetic dissonance, aporetic inquiry, cancellation of warrant, curvature, devitalization of charism, fitting proximity, incidental exile, postulate deflation, saliency of requisite disenchantment, and others. I mention these features here, and provide the link to full descriptions, for a reason. In light of Horn’s podcast monologue, these otherwise abstract concepts are on resplendent display. Contrary to a common criticism, the non-buddhist heuristic is not an exercise in theoretical abstraction: it is a concrete roadmap to exile from x-buddhism’s thaumaturgical refuge.
As is par for the x-buddhist World, Horn makes no reference to any of this. Neither does he refer to the most obvious heuristic experience at work in the episode: The Great Feast of Knowledge. I want to make a few remarks on this aspect of his monologue because it is with this feature that he transposes the personal into the public.
I am looking forward to hearing what emerges out of Horn’s exploration. Non-buddhism is nothing if not an inquiry into the uses of Buddhist material. As I said in one of the very first posts on this blog, in which I compared Hokai Sobol’s notion of “post-traditional Buddhism” with the then still rough idea of “non-buddhism:”
Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to—and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to—the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.
Crucial to this endeavor is participation in The Great Feast of Knowledge. This is a trope in which the representatives of x-buddhism sit down at a table alongside of local knowledges such as art, philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, physics, and so on, and begin conversing as equals. So, for example, x-buddhism’s complex discourse on the deleterious nature of desire is deeply problematized by, say, biology’s valoration of the life-giving impulse of desire. In essence, Horn’s blurb on the episode is a description of the seat he is taking at the Feast. I don’t know how it will turn out for him, or for “The Dharma,” but I see several potential stumbling blocks, or, in keeping with our dialogical metaphor of the shared Great Feast, conversation killers. I hope Horn will find his way around them. We’ll see.
I. The first potential hazard is dilettantism. I am not saying that Horn is a dilettante. I don’t know his work. This is the first episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast that I have ever listened to. The reason I listened is that I am interested in the incipient thinking about practice in the x-buddhist World, and this episode was recommended by Pierce Salguero on Facebook. But dilettantism is demonstrably a predictable feature of x-buddhist discourse in general. What I mean is that when x-buddhist figures engage thought outside of “The Dharma,” they tend do so in a desultory or superficial way (as the dictionary defines the term); they don’t so much make use of the non-dharmic thinker as dabble in his or her thought toward obviously preordained (x-buddhist) ends. My guess is that this feature of x-buddhist discourse can be traced to the principle of sufficient buddhism, i.e., to the non-negotiable requirement that x-buddhism has both the upper hand and the final word. So, caution here. The specific area of hazard is around the term “metamodern,” from which Horn’s neologism “Metadharma” derives its basic impulse. “Metamodern” originated in the 1970s but has gained traction in diverse disciplines recently. Horn makes it clear in his podcast episode that he intends to tarry for a good long while at metamodern’s table at the Feast. So, what does it mean? First of all, it eschews the categorizations of “philosophy” and “movement.” It embraces that of “a structure of feeling.” Basically, it signifies an attempt to steer between (or maybe oscillate between?) the Scylla of modernism (too simplistic and naîve) and the Charybdis of postmodernism (too ironic and cynical). Hence, I guess, beyond, meta, modernism but not quite all the way to the post, the after of modernism. In the words of Luke Turner, the author of what appears to be a central text of Horn’s project, The Metamodernist Manifesto: “We must liberate ourselves from the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child” (i.e. postmodernism). (Link at Horn’s site.) Why would anyone want to do this? Well, to allow for the creation of meaning in a world headed straight to hell. Horn, like other x-buddhist figures who show sympathy with this burgeoning Metadharma discourse, couples (equates?) postmodernism with what he, and they, call “deconstruction.” Apart from pomo’s distrust of the all-encompassing grand metanarrative, it is not at all clear to me what Horn and the others take these two terms to actually signify or how they relate. Other than Horn’s passing reference to Lyotard in his podcast, I don’t find actual postmodern philosophers represented, even as foils. This allows Horn, following the metamoderns, to reduce postmodernism down to a few talking points: it’s anti-narrative rhetoric is emotionally and conceptually paralyzing; it encourages ironic distance to the world; its eschewal of human nature, objective reality, reason, progress, etc. So, what’s the problem? Like metamodernism, Horn’s Metadharma is defining itself to a great extent as a remedy to the excesses of postmodern-(Buddhism’s) malaise—to its narratological paralysis, to its dearth of meaning-making—as well as to the “deconstructive” critical work that ostensibly serves ultimately to diminish its object (Buddhism), as well as to (what they seem to see as) modernism’s untenable sincerity and optimism and pretension to truth, and so on. If this is the case, then Horn will have to engage these intellectual vectors far beyond the somewhat clichéd talking points. This is particularly true since metamodernism proposes a recovery of meaning via a permutation of “romanticism.” Turner writes, “We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage.” Readers of this blog can attest to the beating that such notions have received here. That fact may be irrelevant to Horn and his sympathizers; but not to serious thinkers. (And, I’ll say in passing that from what I have seen of Ken Wilber’s work, contrary to Horn’s appreciation, I can’t imagine that the more philosophically sophisticated participants at the Feast will be impressed. Maybe Horn will make me reconsider that view, too.)
II. But maybe he is not interested in contributing to a form of thought and practice—a new Buddhist formation—that is convincing and attractive to critical skeptics like, well, me. Maybe Horn’s intended audience is the already good x-buddhist subject, albeit one who is ready for some changes. In that case, the danger is cloning. The history of intra-Buddhist alteration, innovation, strife, and schism is the history of always creating yet more Buddhism in the image of Buddhism (hence, “x-buddhism”). The clone, of course, retains every single speck of its originator’s DNA. The “new” x- remains beholden to the very norms, forms, and structures that already govern -buddhism. This conversation killer is foregrounded by Horn himself when he says, “It’s totally within the history of this Buddhist dharma tradition to transcend Buddhist dharma, to go meta on it.” Yes, his interlocutor wonders aloud, and as the very term “Metadharma” suggests, isn’t it more than likely that this turns out to be but another iteration of the same (x)?
III. In which case, the stumbling block of transaction surfaces. If you are willing to consider the possibility that “Only inalienable poverty in essence is capable of doing combat with Hell,” transaction is a hazard. For, acting from inalienable poverty obviates any bill of goods. It renders unnecessary the exchange of meaning and value, and certainly of Romantic re-enchantment, neo-mythologization, and all the rest, however “pragmatic.” Twenty-four year old Harold Pinter’s 1954 letter to a friend after reading Samuel Beckett paints a powerful, if somewhat conflicted, image of this refusal of the “how-to” transaction that infests the x-buddhist marketplace.
The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy—he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not—he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely.
Pinter’s final two sentences—”He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.”—are wholly unnecessary. In fact, this effusion detracts from the force of poverty that Pinter is experiencing. He could find Beckett’s work hideously ugly, and his point would stand. And ultimately he does buy the goods! However, the presence of this conflict is instructive for our purpose because it highlights our profound recoil from inalienable poverty, as well as our driving desire for a really truly profitable bill of goods. Given metamodernism’s desire to “illuminate the forking paths along which [history’s] grand narratives may navigate the here and now” (Turner), transactional promise will be hard to avoid.
We will see what comes of Horn’s Metadharma. If nothing else, it will be a contribution to the rumblings of revolution that some of us are feeling beneath early twenty-first century x-buddhist institutions. Whether it represents a consequential contribution depends, I believe, on avoiding the stumbling blocks I mentioned, at the very least.
Another potentially significant contribution to change in x-buddhist thought and practice is being articulated on Matthew O’Connell‘s podcast, The Imperfect Buddha (link below). Interestingly, like Horn’s, O’Connell’s most recent episode is a solo performance in which he “lays out a number of principles for guiding a sort of critical engagement with Buddhism, Buddhist materials, and practice materials more broadly beyond spirituality.” Even though O’Connell employs the literary conceit of the project’s unfolding “on a deep dark night in a deep dark wood,” it contrasts to Horn’s in tracing bright lineaments of a pathway that, in my estimation, is deeply sensitive to, and avoids, precisely the dangers that I have presented here. As that trope of a dark night intimates, O’Connell even ends the episode with a discussion of mysticism. The fact that, in O’Connell’s hands, even mysticism—a form of thought that readers of this blog should expect me to be allergic to—excites new possibilities, is telling of the care he is taking in each step on his dark path.
Finally, we can now formulate some trash theorems from all of this. They are from Ray Brassier’s, Nihil Unbound.
Non-Postulate 9 We are not well served by staving off the “threat” of “deconstruction” (i.e., criticism, critique) by safeguarding the experience of meaning— characterized as the defining feature of human existence. (Slightly emended.)
Non-Postulate 10 The disenchantment of the world understood as a consequence of the process whereby the Enlightenment shattered the “great chain of being” and defaced the “book of the world” is a necessary consequence of the coruscating potency of reason, and hence an invigorating vector of intellectual discovery, rather than a calamitous diminishment.
Non-Postulate 11 The disenchantment of the world deserves to be celebrated as an achievement of intellectual maturity, not bewailed as a debilitating impoverishment.
Non-Postulate 12 X-buddhism’s organon of the Real is the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the “values” and “meanings” which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable. Nature is not anyone’s “home,” nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. (Slightly emended.)
Non-Postulate 13 X-buddhism would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between human and nature. It should strive to be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. X-buddhist first names for the Real—emptiness, self-void, radical contingency, etc.— do not entail an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. (Slightly emended.)
For a full explanation of the concept of trash theory, go here (scroll down).
*Assistance is not service. Joshua Ramey’s translation from a translation-in-progress of a text by François Laruelle on mysticism. My non-buddhist riff on the statement may have nothing to do with Laruelle’s intent. I’ll return to it once the book is out, and I can see the larger context.
Vince Horn, “Metadharma: Set and Setting”
structure of feeling is from Notes on Metamodernism, “Misunderstandings and Clarifications:” “Metamodernism, as we see, it is not a philosophy. In the same vein, it is not a movement, a programme, an aesthetic register, a visual strategy, or a literary technique or trope…It is not a system of thought…For us, it is a structure of feeling.”
Matthew O’Connell, The Imperfect Buddha, “Critical Turn #1”
Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Metamodernist rhetoric is, I would argue, in the same lineage of early Romantic attempts to stem the advances of the Enlightenment’s applications of reason. Brassier is arguing that philosophy, that reason, gives us an organon through which to perceive the truth, the Real, of human and planetary extinction.
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