Non Buddhist Mysticism: Performing Irreducible and Primitive Presence
(Part 2. To read additional sections, go to the ToC and scroll down to “Non-Buddhist Mysticism“)
“’Disenchantment augurs passage.’ Non Buddhist Mysticism opens up that passage.”
If you suspect that those statements imply a certain price of admission—a certain self initiation—you are right. Laruelle says that future mysticism is “born in the spirit of heresy rather than sanctity.” Let’s turn that statement into a basic requirement, into a minimal condition that the subject of this non buddhist mysticism dramaturgy must entertain if not desire, and desire if not fully perform. Like the dramaturgy itself, the potential performer, too, must be guided by the spirit of heresy.
Why heresy? We can look at one of the twenty-eight statements that brought Meister Eckhart before the Inquisition in 1325 on charges of heresy. Eckhart had preached:
“Everything that belongs to the divine nature also belongs wholly to the just and godly person. For that reason, such a person also does everything that God does. That person created heaven and earth, together with God. Such a person is the creator of the eternal word, and without such a person God would not know what to do.”1
What makes this proposition heretical is that it places “the person,” and not “God,” at the center of creation. I put those terms in scare quotes for two important reasons. First, are we not too quick to think we know what they signify? The reason we are too quick is precisely because of our subjugation to, indeed internalization of, the authoritarian thought systems (henceforth, “Authorities”) referred to earlier. In fact, your immediate assumption of the meanings of those terms is an example of the reflexive nature of ideology. Second, these two terms are examples of what Laruelle calls “first names.” We will consider “the person” a first name for the One, and “God” a first name for the Real. More will be said later. The point here is that we are concerned neither with God nor the Real. That point bears repeating: we are not concerned with the Real. Another way of saying that is that we are abandoning the very ambition, as old as humanity itself, to know the Truth. (I know how strange, even ridiculous, that sounds. This abandonment, I believe, will be the most difficult feature of this work to accept—why read a book on Buddhism and mysticism if not for the Truth?—so I will periodically remind the reader of it.) It is because we are concerned with first things that we place the person at the center of our inquiry; for, the person is precisely the one without whom “God would not know what to do.”
Thus, non buddhist mysticism is an initiation into “the person.” Laruelle asks us to proceed from the supposition that the person is an “irreducible and primitive presence.”2 We are asked to experiment with the thought that the person is, in Laruelle’s strange language, “given-without-givenness.” This means that we proceed from the supposition, or indeed establish the axiom, that the individual is a given who stands prior to all the givings provided by Authorities. Authoritarian systems invariably place the person in relation to a determinate X that defines the person; for example, difference, gender, language, race, labor, culture, consciousness, the unconscious, the cogito, neurons, the state, the economy, the absolute, desire, power, life, being, history, spirit. Enclosed within such systems, “the person” is not even considered, not even glimpsed, much less known. An Authority beholds a person and sees its own model reflected back. “The person” is inevitably mixed with the other term of the relation, a term given dogmatically by the Authority. Following the heretical Eckhart, we, too, refuse the very relation.
It is crucial to note that this refusal is not a matter of creating better, more truthful relations, of replacing the inferior ontologies of the Authorities with the superior ontology of non buddhist mysticism. When Eleni Lorandou writes that in future mysticism “The human is emptied of its identity,” this is not to nominate the ontological element “emptiness” as the proper determinate X to which “the person” must now be related. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon writes that “Ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”3 Such notions condemned Fanon to a certain heretical status within the French psychoanalytic community and even, to a certain degree—given his anti-identitarian universalism—within the Black radical tradition. Like Laruelle, Fanon is thinking “the black man” from the supposition of an “irreducible and primitive presence,” one that can only but be distorted by mixing it with any given Authority’s ontology. Thus, the heretic always proceeds not from ontology but from the individual directly, or, in Laruellen terms, not from Being but from the One, not from Authorities but from Minorities. In language that is by terms opaquely technical and imaginatively evocative, we can say that the heretic enacts “determination-in-the-last-instance.” This concept, Laruelle says, is “the key to the relations…that seem to crush [individuals].”
“Determination-in-the-last-instance contains the novel meaning of a unilateral—non-reciprocal or non-reversible—determination. The stake of a thought of individuals as they are, or as minorities, is the experience of a radical irreversibility or uni-laterality in thought: how can individuals act on these universals, which seem to crush them?”4
Let us risk an answer. They can act on them by becoming heretics, by performing the refusal to stand within the alienating relations imposed by a given authoritarian system of thought. Think of nature in relation to general systems theory. The latter is an attempt to enclose “nature” or “the environment” within a defined set of criteria in order to subject it to scientific analysis. This effort gave rise, in the mid-twentieth century, to the dual concepts of “ecology” and “the ecosystem.” Insofar as “system” was conceived of as “entities composed as interacting parts,” this all seems harmless enough. Yet, as Anthony Paul Smith writes in A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature, “due to the difficulties of studying actual, complex, and changing systems, ecology is often not able to rise to certain epistemological norms common to more abstract sciences; for instance, falsifiability is notoriously difficult in ecology.”5 The point here, however, is not the inadequacy of ecology as a science; it is rather the unilateral, non-reciprocal, non-reversible relationship between general systems theory and the “irreducible and primitive presence” of the actual environment. Nature is wholly indifferent to the categories, methods, analyses, even interactions initiated by systems theory. Their relationship, in fact, exists only from the side of systems theory. Nature does not require that relationship to be nature; but systems theory does require nature to be systems theory. Thus, we can say that nature determines systems theory in the last instance. Similarly, it is “the person,” its supposed “problematic,” that determines the “universals” of the Authorities. For the heretic, the relationship exists only from the side that has created it. In more abstract terms that we will explore later, we can similarly say that it is the Real that determines mysticism and Buddhism in the last instance. In so doing—although blindly, mutely, and indifferently—the Real reveals the contingency of these forms. This revelation, in turn, opens up the possibility of using the mystical and Buddhist materials to whatever ends (hence, as dramaturgical materials). Only heretics, in a paraphrase of Laruelle, know how to deliver mysticism and Buddhism from the “punctilious gaze” of the masters; only the heretics know how to relieve Buddhism and mysticism of their “faith, and to bring [them] permanently into the knowledge and practice of humans.”
“It is only of the heretic…that one can say that they do not need to ‘exit’ [mysticism or Buddhism] because they never ‘entered’ it with hands, feet, and soul bound, but that they took responsibility for transforming it.”6
This is an important point for our purposes. I argued in Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice that the subject of the non-buddhist discourse must maintain “fitting proximity” to some traditional form of Buddhism (x-buddhism). If the subject remains too close, non-buddhism will always appear to be nothing but yet another such form of true and correct x-buddhism, albeit a reformist or critical one. If the subject remains too distant, the result will be a shriveling of interest in x-buddhism. The first is the good/identified subject, the second, the bad/counter-identified subject, of x-buddhism. Michel Pêcheux argues that for a thought formation, indeed for an ideology, to change, what is required is a third subject type: neutral/dis-identified.7 My engagement with critics of non-buddhism and non-philosophy has taught me that this point, too, is difficult to do, if not necessarily to understand. Specifically, it appears to be quite difficult for interested readers to take responsibility for transforming our Buddhist and mystical materials, and much easier to become “bound up” in them. I will return to this point in a later section, on “buddhofiction.” The salient point here is that the heretic is someone who, like Meister Eckhart in our example, neither embraces nor disavows the root material. Indeed, it is the taking of this strange posture that rouses suspicion of heresy.
As with ontology, we should be clear from the outset that this is not a form of humanism. With all of this talk of “the person,” the reader could be excused for reading it as such. Hopefully, however, the reader will come to see that it is in fact something much more severe than “A joyous alternative to religions that believe in a supernatural god and life in a hereafter.”8 The humanists’ stance would be, in Laruelle’s distinction, “revolutionary” rather than heretical: “for ‘revolution’ is a philosophical object, it is an overthrow, sometimes a displacement.”9 Unlike the humanists, we are not interested in dethroning the gods (God, the Buddha). To do so would be to abort this project at conception. Rather, we implore the gods to remain as they are, as healthy and robust as possible, so that we can work with them—just as Eckhart’s just and godly person works with God—to construct a world, or as we will now symbolize our ideological construct, a World. So, eschewing revolution and humanism, we embrace the “radical break” of heresy.
I would like to briefly make two final points about the spirit of heresy. First, the reader may have noticed that heresy is not articulated here in terms of empiricism. Heretics are not heretics because they know better from first hand observation. They are, rather, heretics in thought. If you reread this section, you will notice that we refuse the relation to Authorities in thought; we think from this position; we “proceed from the supposition;” we “establish the axiom;” we take a position, and so on. However, I want to immediately add that in thought, within a non-philosophical framework, always means “the force (of) thought,” or thought performed. I will say more later. The point is that, in addition to eschewing the Truth and the Real—the very obsessions of mystical and Buddhist thought—we are not even involved in a simple empirical investigation! Second, if all of this adds up to anything yet, it is to a quality that the mystics can only call poverty of spirit. Our goal of “returning in a strict, rigorous way to the immanence of the individual” requires nothing less (or more).10 Why poverty? Because in our dramaturgy we use the script, taken from the mystics, that poverty is a condition of union with the absolute; from the Buddhists, that poverty is a condition of awakening; and from future mysticism that:
Only inalienable poverty is fit for the clash with Hell.11
1 Meister Eckhart, Vom Wunder der Seele: Eine Auswahl aus dem Traktaten und Predigten (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1986), 74-75; all translations from German are mine.
2 “Heresy: An Interview with Jean-Didier Wagneur,” translated by Jeremy R, Smith, Endemic Theory, website, https://endemictheory.wordpress.com/2021/01/07/translation-of-francois-laruelle-heresy-an-interview-with-jean-didier-wagneur.
3 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 90. Emphasis added.
4 François Laruelle, A Biography of Ordinary Man: On Authorities and Minorities, translated by Jessie Hock and Alex Dubilet (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 33.
5 Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 129ff.
6 François Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy: Experiments in Non-Standard Thought, ed. Robin Mackay (New York: Urbanomic and Sequence Press, 2012), 284.
7 Glenn Wallis, Tom Pepper, Matthias Steingass, Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice (Roskilde: EyeCorner Press, 2012), 134 and 114, respectively.
8 American Humanist Association, website: https://americanhumanist.org.
9 “Heresy: An Interview with Jean-Didier Wagneur,” translated by Jeremy R, Smith, Endemic Theory, website, https://tinyurl.com/dwuae2j9.
11 François Laruelle, Mystique non-philosophique à l’usage des contemporains (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2007), 229. Poetic license taken. The original literally reads: Only inalienable poverty in essence can combat Hell (Seule l’inaliénable pauvreté en essence peut combattre l’Enfer).