For Critics: A Rough Guide

Take away points:

  • Speculative Non-Buddhism (SNB) names a multifaceted blog of often disharmonious voices and incommensurable views.
  • The SNB commentariat was designed to permit an extremely wide range of discussion styles and emotional registers.
  • Despite this generosity, the SNB commentariat and posts have a reputation for “an aggressive and combative communicative style.”
  •  That reputation obscures the dynamic of the blog.
  • Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice is a collaboration of three distinct authors.
  • My contribution is most significant for the heuristic it contains.
  • What I call “non-buddhism” is fully formulated only in A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real.
  • Non-buddhism is not a rectification of Buddhism.
  • Non-buddhism is theory of Buddhism.

Work originating on SNB been discussed in several books, magazines, and journals, and on several blogs and podcasts to date. Receiving a notice that your work has been treated in some venue arouses an incredible feeling of nervous excitement. You buy the book or link to the blog, take a deep breath, and read. It is difficult to convey the feeling of satisfaction I get when reading an account of my work that shows genuine understanding. It might seem hard to believe, but that satisfaction is hardly diminished when understanding is mixed with criticism. I appreciate informed criticism. So, the treatment doesn’t have to be sympathetic to arouse a sense of satisfaction. It does, however, have to show a thorough engagement with the material. In fact, a sympathetic account that lacks such an engagement is not all that satisfying. I guess the main factor in a satisfying treatment is an obvious good-faith effort to get it right.

When I read an account of my work that lacks understanding or, worse, doesn’t seem to have made the necessary effort to get it right, the feeling is disheartening. It’s like, damn, all that time and energy I expended in thinking and researching and learning and looking shit up and carefully crafting a text, and the reviewer doesn’t even seem to try. That sucks. I have conviction that the work has value for the flesh and blood human, and so I respond. The response takes the form of a post or a comment or a print article correcting what I view as mistakes and pointing out what I see as the misunderstanding of the reviewer. Doing that also sucks. It always feels like slipping backwards, or like an opportunity has gone wasted .

I have been told (warned, informed, promised, threatened) by several people that I can expect more critical treatments to appear. So, to increase the chances of an edifying, satisfying experience for all involved, I offer this very basic guide for critics.

Speculative Non-Buddhism is a BLOG. And on this blog you will find a motley assortment of authors, voices, genres, argumentation styles, theories, methodologies, ideologies, agendas, recommendations, refutations, offerings, refusals, and more. So, if you take as the object of your criticism “SNB,” your treatment will necessarily lack precision and focus. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to say that “the speculative non-buddhists” believe/think/argue this or that. Doing so, you will often be mashing together disparate things. Your critique will have a better shot at edification if it targets a specific essay, idea, or author “on SNB.” A meta-critique of the entire SNB blog is, of course, possible. But given the “epistemological anarchy” shot into the blog’s DNA at inception (see below) that would be a huge, difficult, project. If successful, it would also kick major ass. So, please Dear Critic, by all means, proceed. But first, read on.

A common feature of criticism of the blog concerns THE TONE. One critic has described it as “an aggressive and combative communicative style” and even went as far as to claim this style as an “intentional strategy.” Yes, you will encounter certain modes of communication that are typically frowned upon in polite discourse. Still, I hope the Critic will notice the extraordinary range of cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal registers expressed on SNB. It is that generosity of range that is an “intentional strategy.”

If you are still wondering about the necessity of this strategy, here’s A CLUE: Take our MC5-inspired original motto—kick out the jams, motherfuckers!—as an indication of the blog’s incipient desire: To incite insurgents to unsettle the well-mannered communal customs of x-buddhism, to hurl conceptual Molotov cocktails into the safe sangha, and to flush out the all-too-buddhisty blackguards therein. (Think: a hermeneutics of suspicion regarding those good buddhist manners.) 

ANOTHER CLUE: Given what I believed back then (still do) to be a self-censuring puritanical strain in x-buddhist discourse, my initial decision was to create an unrestrained forum. (Think of Paul Feyerabend’s principle of epistemological anarchy in Against Method: “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.”) This helps to explain what you will encounter in SNB’s much maligned commentariat. My commenting policy immediately earned us a bad reputation in x-buddhist circles as a crass transgression of the time-honored value of “right-speech.” Academics, too, expressed, and continue to express, disgust at the “aggressive” instances on the continuum of The Tone as stains on SNB’s otherwise academically respectable arguments. Do I care? Consider another of my mottos: “Nothing is more ridiculous than a blogger (thinker, writer) who wants to be liked” (Nietzsche, sort of). From the beginning, the intent of SNB was not to ensure genteel Buddhist discourse, much less to abide by the bland impersonal style of academic communication. No! The intent is:

  • to draw out the idiosyncrasies of  individual personalities;
  • to open the floodgates of overly-precious x-buddhistly repressed expression;
  • to encourage word blood—language that plunges deeply into the well of human being;
  • to enable the bile of enmity to rouse our passion no less than the ecstasy of love;
  • to create masters of the art of verbal kyosaku;
  • to honor all language that lives, breathes, shits, and bleeds.

Why? In order to get a better shot at the human truth burrowed in some matter. (“Without a constant misuse of language there cannot be any discovery, any progress”—Feyerabend again, or is it Linchi?)

I feel compelled to defend this register of The Tone’s continuum because it is where critics tend to get stuck. Look again, and you will find even more instances of kindness, care, concern, compassion, curiosity, thoughtful questioning, cautious honesty, and many more varieties of full-bodied human engagement.

Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism is a COLLABORATIVE BOOK. One feature of this book is worth mentioning here because it captures something of the anarchic spirit of the SNB project as a whole. I had originally signed a contract to write the book entirely myself. I had conceived a plan, and was ready to go. But two commenters were repeatedly catching my attention. These commenters were Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass. I was so struck by their respective take on things that I scrapped my plan and asked them to join me in the book project. It is crucial to understand that we do not form an SNB posse. We are three very different thinkers. I recognized this then. It’s what intrigued me about the collaboration.

This point has been lost on reviewers and commenters of the blog and the book alike, who seem to think Wallis-Pepper-Steingass articulate a unified “SNB” doctrine. So, Dear Critic, with the hope that you’ll avoid that error, I’ll paraphrase here something that I mentioned to a critic who failed to introduce the necessary nuance. Again, it applies to the blog as well as to this book.

“Glenn Wallis,” “Tom Pepper,” and “Matthias Steingass” index decisively different aims, approaches, viewpoints, rhetorical styles, communication strategies, and referents. On that last issue alone, for example, the proper intellectual couplings for the book are: Wallis-Laruelle, Pepper-Badiou, Steingass-Foucault. As should be expected, conversations with each of our respective source thinkers leads 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. This is an important nuance. It also goes a long way toward explaining why the three of us eventually parted ways intellectually: Pepper-Badiou leads ever more deeply into critical philosophy; Steingass-Foucault ventures farther into historical genealogy; Wallis-Laruelle transitions out of critique and into buddhofiction.

My contribution to this volume, “Speculative Non-Buddhism: X-Buddhist Hallucination and its Decimation,” has two features: a rough version of “non-buddhism,” and a heuristic.

A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real is a work of NON-BUDDHISM. As I wrote in the Acknowledgements, “The blog Speculative Non- Buddhism provided me with a venue for experimenting with and thinking through many of the ideas developed in this book. I am grateful to the many participants on that blog for creating a passionate and productive site of ideological struggle.” Thinking, the circulation of ideas, is a collective act. But in the end, I am responsible for this particular configuration. So, Dear Critic, if you want to treat “non-buddhism,” your argument will be best served if you to take as your source material my book A Critique of Western Buddhism.

If you treat non-buddhism as yet another iteration of Buddhism, your criticism will miss the mark. By all means, try to do so, if you like. Who knows what you might come up with, right? But be aware that non-buddhism intentionally looks something like Buddhism—shadows it, tracks it very, very closely—precisely in order to undercut its authority, expose its hidden ideological machinations, trace its methods of subjective capture, and so on. More importantly, non-buddhism does so in order to “wrest the vital potentialities of humans from the artificial forms and static norms that subjugate them”  (Marjorie Gracieuse), forms and norms that, I aim to show, constitute x-buddhism. Most importantly, non-buddhism does so in order to craft new, hopefully non-subjugating, ideologies from the x-buddhist materials.

Non-buddhism, then, consists in three operations:
recognition of x-buddhism’s identity;
negation of the sufficiency that marks that identity;
redescription in the form of new modes of non-sufficient and ideologically transparent thought and practice.

A pointed critique of non-buddhism, I believe, would address its function as a theory of buddhism. 

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