Still devoid of wit, subtlety and danger, now with bongos

The title of this post is taken from a review of Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor. I think it serves as the perfect summation of what I’d like to say about x-buddhism on this blog. I am involved in projects that will require my full attention. So, I will keep this blog up but, for now at least, post infrequently. Or maybe I’ll change the format. I’m still not sure.

I see myself as a Johnny Appleseed: throw seeds, and keep walking. Maybe a better image is a John Bunyan tree-hugger: grasp a big trunk, shake with all the strength I can muster, and watch the dead leaves fall gloriously to the ground. Autumn is my favorite season. Nature’s first green is gold.

I said at the outset that my goals were (i) to create materials toward a genuine critique of x-buddhism and (ii) to catalyze six or so other people to engage the critique in a serious manner. A sub-goal of the latter is to impact contemporary x-buddhist discourse.The first has culminated in the book Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice. That book contains concrete resources for doing work on x-buddhist materials far into the future. The second goal is in evidence in the work of Tom Pepper, Matthias Steingass, Tomek Idzik, Tutteji Wachtmeister, Patrick Jennings, and Adam Miller (each in his own, inimitable way). I am seeing non-buddhist heuristics at work in the writings of others as well, even if somewhat begrudgingly. Most encouragingly, I am seeing and hearing about non-buddhist ideas in the work of certain artists and writers. So, the sub-goal is being met as well.

In Lectures and Conversations, Wittgenstein is quoted as having said “To learn from Freud you have to be critical, and psychoanalysis generally prevents this” (41). I believe the same can be said of Buddhism: to learn from Buddhist teachings you have to be critical, and x-buddhism generally prevents this. What prevents real learning–real thinking and real insight–is a major topic of the work that I and the others mentioned above are doing. Look at what we are saying about the role played by cognitive/affective decision, blind ideology, ignorance of historical contingency, and consumerist-capitalist or status quo complicity in the teachings of virtually (literally?) every x-buddhist teacher past and present. Invoking “teacher” makes explicit the fact that x-buddhism is continually being shaped by real people, people in our midst, people who are making real decisions to fashion x-buddhism as they do. And how is that? From a non-buddhist perspective, it is as an x-buddhism that is still devoid of wit, subtlety and danger, now with the intellectual equivalent of bongos.

Chris Richards, the author of the Arcade Fire review, is appalled that rock n’ roll–a cultural dynamo for heaving up rebels, iconoclasts, and outcasts–could serve as the medium for “an album with a song called ‘Porno’ that you could play for your parents.” His conclusion: “It’s fraud.”

Similarly, we have in Buddhism an image of thought born, ostensibly, in a harrowing, perhaps unequaled, existential ordeal. That ordeal produced insight that poured into our shared cauldron of human thought bold, potentially life- and world-altering ideas such as the following: disenchantment, ancestral anamnesis, vanishing, social-symbolic identity, nihility, thinking, absolute contingency, universe, perspicuity, extinction, flesh and blood humanity (my translations of, respectively: nibbida, sati, anicca, anattā, suññtā, papañca, paticcasamuppāda, sabba, paññā, nibbāna/nirvāṇa, bodhi). Anyone who possesses the desire to think, and the courage to follow the flight of such postulates of human existence to wherever they may lead, should be appalled at the risk-averse, platitudinous, facile do-good use/abuse of these postulates in the hands of current x-buddhist figures.

Mostly because this is rock music that lazily presumes life on the digital plane has made us so numb, so unable to feel for ourselves, that the only way to reach our hearts is by applying a pneumatic hammer to our classic rock pleasure centers. Bowie! Springsteen! Talking Heads! Blam-blam-blam! Bludgeoning and vacant, “Reflektor” is an album that both condescends and sells itself short, over and over again, for 76 insufferable minutes.

Let’s rewrite this criticism for our purposes.

Mostly because this is teaching that lazily presumes life in the late-capitalist West has made us so numb, so unable to feel and think for ourselves, that the only way to reach our hearts is by applying a hypnotic hum to our classic intelligence centers. Mindful! Compassionate! Enlightened! Right-speaking Heads! Huuummmmm-huummmm… Lulling and vacant, contemporary “x-buddhism” is an image of thought that both condescends and sells itself short, over and over again, insufferably. For how much longer?

As our rock critic says of Reflektor, the non-buddhist critic can say of x-buddhism: “it’s something conservative pretending to be something bold. It’s Sandra Bullock’s hack dialogue in ‘Gravity.’ It’s square, sexless, deeply unstylish, painfully obvious” capitalist comfort food.

And yet, the teachings stand there, like a lonely 100 watt Marshall amp stack, waiting for some fuck-up Lemmy to plug in, crank up, and kick out the jams, finally.

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Arcade Fire review

Matthias Steingass

Tom Pepper

Tomek Idzik

Tutteji Wachtmeister

Patrick Jennings

Adam Miller

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (ed. Cyril Barrett), Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966).

Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, Introduction

Book.coverI’ll post a few excerpts from Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism over the next few weeks, just to give you a taste. It’s available at Amazon and EyeCorner Press. Buy it, read it, and write a review–in that order, please!

Read John L. Murphy’s review at The Non-Buddhist.

Read Frank Jude’s review at Goodreads.

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INTRODUCTION

I employ the word “cruelty” in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor, an implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness; in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue…It is the consequence of an act… Everything that acts is a cruelty. —Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt. ―Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Everything that acts is a cruelty. And yet the theater, the sphere of Artaud’s own struggle, had devolved into a form of self-soothing diversion, creating a submissive public content to be “Peeping Toms,” gawking at lives that were not their own. Artaud’s sublimely impossible task was to forge this theater of complacency into an “immediate and violent” whirlwind that exposed to its viewers the raw truths of their lives. Only a theater that wakes up its audience “nerves and heart,” he believed, can approach this goal. Such a theater must be built on cruelty—on, that is to say, “extreme action, pushed beyond all limits.” If not pushed with such intentional zeal, the forces of delusion and self-satisfaction will overwhelm the vitality that is catalyzed by acts of lucid cruelty.

Everything that acts is a cruelty. What about Buddhism? Does it enable the cruel thought made possible by its sublime teaching, or does it lapse, like the theater of entertainment, into a falsely assuring aesthetics of the beautiful?

The term “Buddhism” evokes a hackneyed bifurcation. Here, we have a soft version that caters gently to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises salvation in the form of diurnal restoration, like ease in the midst of stress or real happiness. There, we have a hard version, derived from the doctrines, practices, and institutions of Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment” or “nirvana.” Both versions flourish by virtue of a curative fantasy as ancient as Homo sapiens ape: to emerge from life unscathed.

What use is Buddhism today? It is perpetually hoisted up as the elixir par excellence against the acidic tensions intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. Its remedy? Gelassenheit in the midst of the infernal samsaric whirlwind. Is that it? Is Buddhism a modern-day Epicurean path to eudaemonia, a garden that “slakes the thirst with a natural cure?”

Many questions present themselves. Does Buddhism even yield useful knowledge anymore? Doesn’t science provide more satisfying models of, for instance, perception and cognition, than does Buddhism? Doesn’t philosophy better articulate the questions that seem to animate Buddhist discourse on meaning, language, and being? Doesn’t psychology offer more effective forms and models of mental health? In short, are Buddhism’s institutions and beliefs too cumbersome and unsophisticated to satisfy any but the most willing to believe?

The single most important question for us is: Is Buddhism fit for modern life?

The answer to that question is far from clear. Indeed, there is little evidence that it has yet to be addressed at all, and certainly not in any sustained manner. Neither those who embrace Buddhist teachings nor those who reject them are inclined toward such questioning. To the former, querying is threatening. It begets the possibility of unforeseen and undesirable transmutation, even destruction. To the latter, such questioning is irrelevant; for they have already foreclosed on Buddhism’s viability. So, who does that leave? Who will ask the question?

The purpose of this book is to engage in a creative critique of Buddhism. In doing so, we neither take for granted the salubrity of Buddhist teachings for the contemporary western world nor bar the possibility of renovation and application. We see, rather, in the very process of critique an opening. In order to exploit this opening, however, we find it necessary to create drastically new, and buddhistically indefensible, theorems.

This book is a radical laying bare of the brutal refusal of x-buddhism to honor its most basic pledge: abetment of liberation.

This is a book of heresy.

Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice consists of three parts. Each part addresses both theoretical and practical dimensions of Buddhism. Authored individually, each part nonetheless interacts with the concerns of the others. Those concerns include the formation of an autonomous subject in the face of Buddhism’s concealment of its ideological force; the possibility of a practice that thus serves as a theory or science of ideology; the reconstitution of practice as an organon of authoritative structures, including controlling social-conceptual representations; and the perception of Buddhism as the subject of a historical process. Perhaps the most salient theme running throughout the book concerns the crucial necessity of transfusing anemic contemporary Buddhist discourse with the lifeblood of rigorous, creative thought.

Will Buddhism in the twenty-first century West help fashion a liberated subject? Or will it continue to be a deceptive mythos spawning subjects who are content to rest at ease in the thrall of predatory capitalism? The three parts of the book share a common concern: to push Buddhism to the brink.