Some Thoughts on Having Ideological Options


This is yet another point I won’t come to, in the book I’m writing, for some time.  In order to keep this clear in my mind, to avoid dropping it later on because it usually seems so obvious to me that I forget it needs to be said, I’m going to post some thoughts here on the exact point at which ideology becomes optional.

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor makes the argument that there might be some room for a kind of relativism in human cultures and values, in what I would call ideologies.  His claim is presented succinctly.  It may be the case, he suggests, that:

Human societies differ greatly in their culture and values.  They represent different ways of being human, we might say. But perhaps there is no way, in the end, of arbitrating between them when they clash.  Perhaps they are quite incommensurable, and just as we recognize in general that the existence of certain goods is dependent on the existence of humans, so we might be forced to recognize that certain goods are only such granted the existence of humans within a certain cultural form.

Unlike other attempts to relativize the good…I think this is a real possibility.  There may be a different kinds of human realization which are really incommensurable.  This would mean that there would be no way of moving from one to another and presenting the transition without self-delusion as either a gain or a loss in anything.  It would just be a total switch, generating incomprehension of one’s past—something that could in principle only come about through intimidation and brainwashing. I think this is a real possibility, but I doubt if it is true.  (60-61)

I’ve quoted this long passage because it so clearly lays out some of the key problems I will have to deal with in my penultimate chapter, on interpellation and ideological choice.  It should be obvious to anyone who has read any of my writing and is familiar with Taylor that I will have some differences with him; I’m not going to address them here.  What Taylor does in the first part of Sources of the Self is produce a tremendously useful (if to my mind incomplete) theory of the subject and of ideology.  What I do want to address here is the problems he’s raised for my project as  whole in this passage particularly.

To begin with, it is going to be my argument that I agree with Taylor that the incommensurability he described is possible, but disagree that it is not “true.”  That is to say, I would argue that we can have different ideological projects, each of which so thoroughly satisfies the demands of human flourishing for all participants in them that there is no choosing between them.  

What I want to make note of here, mostly so it is clear to me later when I need to write this part of the argument, is the nature of my disagreement with Taylor, which I take to be fundamental to the overall point I am trying to make.

Taylor here raises the possibility that there might be two different, equally acceptable, ways of life, each of which completely fulfills the needs of those participating in it, which however are so incompatible that what is taken as a good in one would be incomprehensible, or at least not comprehensible as good, in the other.  What does this assume about the nature of human social formations and what is good for a human?

Taylor goes on to say that he thinks it unlikely that two (or more) such ways of life could exist.  He admits that it is logically, conceptually possible, but doubts that it is in fact possible given the kinds of things that humans actually are.  That is, he assumes that what are goods will be arguably goods for all people, and so any social formation that doesn’t include some good can benefit from adding it.  He goes on to discuss goods in a manner that to me would seem odd and problematic: as a sort of marketplace of goods, of which we try to collect as many as we can.  This attempt is organized by a “hypergood,” the one supreme good that we take to be most important.  It is organized in such a way that we might be limited in acquiring other goods by our need to fulfill this one hypergood:  “those with a strong commitment to such a good…recognize a whole range of qualitative distinctions…so that they judge themselves and others by the degree they attain the goods concerned and admire or look down on people in function of this, nevertheless the one highest good has a special place” (62-63).  The model here is that there are abundant human goods, and the goal is to find a “hypergood” that allows as many of them to exist in our social formation as possible.  This is a very compelling account of ethics, so disagreeing with it will be tricky.

My position would be that instead we must see there being only one single limit to what can count as “good” for humans. That is, that there is a limit placed on the evaluation of human ways of life by what we might call our nature or essence; however, this limit is far smaller than is assumed by the marketplace of goods model.  I’ll state it briefly here, but without arguing for it at this point: the only limiting, because essential, good for humans is our need to continually increase our capacities to engage with other humans and the non-human world.  The key term, which clearly needs to be developed, is “engage,” and I will at another time have to explain what exactly I have loaded into this one little seemingly innocuous term.  

For now, my point would be that, while I agree with Taylor’s point about “hypergoods,” I would argue that there are multiple such hypergoods each of which could fulfill our essential nature, and allow for every participant in a particular way of life to continually increase engagement.  However, I would disagree with the marketplace of goods model implied in Taylor’s argument. 

Instead, I would suggest that certain hypergoods (what I might call transcendental signifiers for an ideology) create certain kinds of lesser goods necessary to them, which may or may not even be conceivable as a good under the domain of another hypergood.  To take a simple example of this, we tend to think of justice as a good in our way of life; but we could imagine a way of life in which such a thing as justice would be understood to be an impediment to higher goods.  Justice is typically only necessary as an ideal when we conceive of our society as consisting of multiple individuals who are each pursuing their ends and need to reconcile them. Justice is then meant to make each individual’s ends at least appear to be possible and also to rule out any individual ends that might interfere with the ends another is pursuing.    What if we are operating under a hypergood of communal living?  In which case, the concern for justice, for an individual’s right to pursue his own personally chosen end, is not only less desirable but seen as the very opposite of a good?  Many such examples could be developed, of course, once we set aside the assumptions inherent in the construal of the world natural to us as subjects of capitalism.

Taylor, however, believes that is is not likely that there are multiple equally good way of living.  It may generally seem like this would not be possible because in our actual world most of our ideological formations do contain many values which are inherently evil, in the sense of preventing exactly the kind of engagement our nature requires, for some if not all participants in them.  The current social formation in the U.S., for instance, so thoroughly forbids such increasing engagement in the world for almost all young people that most of them require some kind of medication or psychological treatment to survive from day to day.  As Taylor describes it, many people today feel so powerfully the lack of a satisfactory orientation toward some good that “they have a sense of impotence” and “feel themselves on the outside” and so their “lives are torn apart,” and they find themselves in “the grip of lower drives”(44-45).  I would suggest that this lack is fundamental to the particular hypergood of our culture today, mostly because it is at odds with the one fundamental essential need we have as humans.

The point here is that it seems that all ideologies could be improved by adding obvious goods only because all existing ideologies could be so improved.  There are obvious goods, considered as essential even under our particular hypergoods today, which are both highly valued and forbidden to most people.  It may be difficult today to imagine even one way of life in which this would not be case, much less multiple incommensurable options.

Finally, I need to ward of one other problem which Taylor raises as a serious concern. This is what he labels a kind of “sophisticated naturalism,” a kind of naturalism that is not as obviously mistaken as the reductive neuro-everything kind we are used to today:

This sophisticated naturalism could agree that the distinctions marked by our value words were as real as any others, certainly not mere projections.  Coming to learn them would be seen as attaining a kind of ‘knowledge.’  But whatever truths were to be found here would nevertheless in a crucial sense be relative to the given form of life. To the extent to which these goods appear not to be so from the standpoint of another way of living, or even appear to be wrong or evil, there is no way of adjudicating the dispute. (67)

There are two issues at work here. The first is what I would call the myth of infinite malleability.  To be clear, Taylor is himself arguing against this position, and I would agree.  It does not seem likely to me that in fact we can be taught, by our acculturation, to experience just anything as a good.  Or, to be more explicit, we may be taught to desire some things as good that we cannot, because of our essential nature, actually experience as goods. Hence the disturbingly high rate of mental illness, drug addiction and suicide among those in our culture who actively pursue what they are taught, and believe, are goods.  The “sophisticated naturalist” position would seem to suggest a level of social constructionism I do not see as possible, given the evidence of human societies so far.

The second issue is where I would disagree with Taylor.  Because I do believe there could be two cultures, each of which does in fact allow for all participants to fulfill their essential nature by increasing their engagement with the world, and which would see certain practices in the other as not only worthless but actually wrong.  Imagine a culture which, while not being capitalist, still seeks to encourage increased engagement in the world by means of competitive activities. Such a culture would see activities like, say, Dalcroze Eurhythmic dance recitals as not only pointless but as inhibiting the kind of competitive and individualist spirit needed to promote increased engagement.  On the other hand, a culture which generates engagement through collective projects might see an activity like Golf (which does in some sense increase one’s engagement with the world and others) as a negative influence on the kinds of goods it is working toward.

There would be no adjudicating between such cultures, provided both enable all members to fulfill their conatus.  However, this does not mean there is no deciding between them. One implication of the “sophisticated naturalism” model Taylor outlines is the suggestion that these particular practices and goods would come to seem so natural and inevitable that we cannot even conceive of not participating in them.  However, on my model of ideological interpellation, it should be possible to commit to one or the other of these cultural worlds while fully recognizing that it is optional, and not the only possibility.  There need be no conflict, then, between alternative ways of life, until such point as, say, golf courses and concert halls start to compete for space. And even then, we could suppose it might be possible, given that both sides recognize their social projects as a humanly created option, to resolve such problems.  And we might be able to choose between two cultures which both produce only human goods if, say, one can be produced with less damage to the environment.   But even if there is no deciding, there is always the opportunity for someone poorly interpellated into one ideology for some reason of biological capacity or unusual individual trauma to choose to adopt a different ideology.  We can commit ourselves to things that have not been made to seem natural and inevitable; in fact, we do this all the time, and usually get more satisfaction out of such commitments than we do out of those we feel we have not option but to make.  (Think, for instance, of playing Golf or reading Dickens.) 

Taylor’s theory of ideology and subject (he would say of the good and the self, I suppose) has considerable overlap with my position, but the differences are crucial to point out. While Taylor is, from a marxist perspective, defending the ideology of global capitalism against its critics, my position would suggest that the “inward turn” and the “affirmation of ordinary life,” which Taylor suggests are part of our progress toward ultimate good, are in fact disastrous for human happiness.  

My point, then, is not that we can opt out of ideology, but rather that which specific ideology we construct is up to us and there will never be only one possible “best” one.  If it seems like all ideologies are bad, and we must escape ideology, or at best find the one ideology programmed into our genes by evolution, to be happy…well, that is only because all of our existing ideological options deny our essential conatus as humans. Once we recognize this, we will still need to collectively produce an ideology to exist as language-using animals. But there will many possibilities for such social projects which can be equally good. As I used to tell my students when I taught Literature: there are dozens of right answers, but infinite wrong ones.  

The Compliment of Dismissal

Over at Speculative Non-buddhism, Glenn Wallis has responded to the brief account of the non-buddhist project in a new book seeking to survey the landscape of North American Buddhism.

I don’t have much to add to this, and I will certainly not be reading Gleig’s book.  

However, I do want to clarify one thing related to my project here, on this blog.

Glenn characterizes my work with this brief sketch: “the trajectory Pepper-Badiou leads ever more deeply into rational philosophy.”  I would hope to be able to make it clear that the fundamental influence on my project is NOT Badiou (although his work is important to my thinking, as is Hegel’s, Nagarjuna’s, Lacan’s, Foucault’s and many others; I’m not smart enough to come up with many really good ideas of my own).  My hope is that it should become clear to readers here that it is Althusser that is the most important influence on my entire project.  And this is important, because it is essential to understanding what I am doing that I am NOT promoting “rational philosophy” in any of its forms, but realism, which is a very different undertaking. 

Personally, I am thrilled when folks like Gleig are dismissive of what I do.  She seems to employ the same basic response I hear all the time: you use too many big words, you’re mean, and anyway your a white man so whatever you say must be bad.  (She leaves out the “white,” but hits all the other points). It is the job of university professors to dismiss or contain any serious challenge to capitalist hegemony.  The fact that she felt the need to “damn with faint praise” and use cheap rhetoric to dismiss SNB suggests to me that it might have some actual threatening potential. I think I might have doubts about continuing my project if someone like Seth Segall did not find it corrosive and disquieting.  

I will say that it would be surprising if the SNB project got more than three paragraphs.  It really has a very limited impact in the x-buddhist world at large.  Very few nightstand-buddhists in the U.S. have any idea it exists, and I would be shocked if the average American Zennie could understand a word of what was written there over the years.  

However, I will also  say that there seems to be some fear that this might change, now that Glenn has focused the project on Buddhofiction.  It remains to be seen whether this will have a wider influence, but not doubt it will be disquieting and corrosive if it does.

My own project is not meant to have such an influence.  I know my writing has enabled a few people to move on with their own projects, by removing some conceptual impasses. It is not my goal to do much more than this…I hope never to have a following, and certainly not to create some new form of Buddhism (I’m fine with Shin, myself).

I will, then, simply mention that one reason I no longer comment on Glenn’s blog is that my project is in fact to attempt to “root out” NOT “ideological essentialism”, but rather “essentialist ideologies.”  The difference here is crucial to me.  The former (Gleig’s phrase) implies, without quite clearly stating, that ideology itself is inherently essentialist and must be rooted out in favor of a non-ideological position.  My point is that there is no such position, and what I want to “root out” is only those ideologies that are essentialist, to make room for the production of those ideologies that NOT essentialist.  I don’t, however, attempt to produce those ideologies myself, for the most part (except, perhaps, thoroughly unsuccessfully in my fiction).  All I want to do is remove the reification that leads to our capture by debilitating ideologies.  Hence my obsession with the concept of anatman.  

What I take Laruelle to be after is exactly the kind of essentialist ideology I hope to encourage people to STOP engaging in. Because Laruelle’s capture by the myth of the given reproduces the illusion that we can escape ideology altogether. This is a recurrent fantasy, of course. The dream of being free of the influence of the father, or even of the other, and so to live in a world of pure expression of our immanent selves.  As both a Romanticist and a Freudian, I’m always alert to this fantasy, and familiar with the disasters it produces.  

So, while I’m curious to see what ever comes of the project of Buddhofiction, absolutely anything I could say would run counter to it, and be incomprehensible to those engaged in it in exactly the way just about everything on SNB remains incomprehensible to readers like Gleig and Segall.  

So I’ll continue with my own, much smaller, project over here…nothing Badiouian, and certainly nothing rationalist (whatever that might mean), but hopefully helpful to a few readers who might want to escape the capture of the hegemonic position advocated by mainstream Buddhists and university professors.  I don’t, as many have pointed out, offer a “replacement ideology” here.  I’m hoping there are others more competent to do that work than I have ever been.

Language and Addictions

Learning to let thinking come and go, we can eventually understand a thought as a thought and a word as a word, and with this understanding we can find a measure of freedom from thoughts and words.

—Norman Fischer, “Beyond Language

Reading this morning’s “Daily Dharma,” just after reading a chapter of a book on relativism and Christian theology, has reemphasized for me the urgency of the project I’m working on.  The assumptions about what language is and how it works that guide how almost everyone in our culture construes the world are seriously troubling and disabling, and without addressing them in argument as well as in practice it won’t be possible for any of us to regain any kind of agency.  We’re doomed to lives of seeking ways to numb our minds while we work to destroy the Earth.  

Of course, almost nobody ever thinks at all about how language works.  And that’s the problem.  We don’t think about it at all, but the assumptions about it that have been produced by naive theories of language have so thoroughly trickled down into the very structure of our common-sense understanding. that they completely limit how we interact with one another and the world.  

My hope is that by making these assumptions more explicit, we might weaken their hold, and become slightly more able to engage in less debilitating practices.

I’ll make a brief attempt here, partly as a reminder to myself of one of the most important messages of the book I’m working on.  

I’ve just finished reading a very intelligent and engaging book by James K. A. Smith, who is usually referred to as a philosopher but seems to be primarily a theologian of the Calvinist or Reformed school, but with considerable influence from post-structuralist (he would say “postmodern”) thought.  The book is called Who’s Afraid of Relativism. To be clear up front, I fundamentally disagree with all of his conclusions…because I fundamentally disagree with his premise that, in his words, the “Absolute Being has bound himself covenantally to a people; otherwise we could never know him”(180).  That is, he assumes that there actually is a foundation for all knowledge (something he repeatedly denies the existence of throughout the book).  It is just that that foundation cannot come from reason or from experience, but only from the revealed truth of God.  Okay, fine, if you buy that…

One thing Smith makes clear in this book is the fundamental strategy of all pragmatisms and relativisms of the twentieth century.  That is, they make “relative” and deny any causal power or epistemological privilege to anything that is inconvenient to the one “foundational” truth that they don’t want to examine.  So, they are never fully “relativist” at all.  It is just that they allow for only those kinds of “reality” that don’t contradict or question their privileged truth. Anything that is in fact troubling for that “truth” is put in the “relative” category, and considered to be something that is no more that one opinion among others.  

For Smith, this ultimate truth is the Christian revelation of salvation and eternal life. For Rorty, it is global capitalism.  But since they share the need to mark off and insulate one particular ideological practice, Smith does an excellent job of explaining how Rorty’s pragmatism makes a perfect Christian ideology.  All we need do is alter the particular foundational truth we want to exclude from consideration.  For Rorty, economics has to be separated out from politics, because the latter is relative and we can change it while the former has the same status as laws of physics, and is just contingent, and something we need to adapt to.  For Smith, the thing that is unquestionable and that we need to adapt to is the revealed truth of Christ (although capitalist economics is also beyond our control, apparently).  

All of this just to offer a bit of context.  The main point here is the assumptions we make about language. And on this point I would absolutely agree with Smith.  He cites a book by George Lindbeck from the eighties, which is making an argument about the ideological (my term, not theirs) problem facing religion in late capitalism (again, my term not theirs).  As Smith summarizes it, Lindbeck is concerned that “a cultural-linguistic approach [to religion] is going to face an uphill battle in modernity: it says that religion is only a religion if it impinges upon that most cherished achievement of modernity—our autonomy”(160).  So what’s at stake here?

The dilemma is that, on any halfway-intelligent theory of what language is and how it works, we need to grasp that language constructs us, that it is what our “minds” are made up of, and that it is produced socially in a community which precedes us and which we enter into when we learn to speak. We adopt not just vocabulary and grammar, but an entire set of values and a construal of the world with the language of our community.  And to be a human is just to belong to such a community—anyone who does not belong to such a community is “just one more animal” (Smith is quoting Rorty here, who is quoting Hegel).  To have the power we do, uniquely as a species, to develop intentions and plans in symbolic systems and so gain a level of “freedom” or agency no other organism has, we just do need to be part of a community that produces this symbolic system together.  

What Lindbeck is concerned about is that most people in modern capitalist society don’t get this, and think that to participate in a community that seeks to change the way you see the world, and so change who and what you are, is the worst kind of oppression.  They believe they have absolute autonomy, and so only look for a community that “resonates” with their own interior feelings and thoughts.  The problem is, they have failed to realize that those deepest interior thoughts and feelings are just as socially constructed, by the particular culture you are part of.  

That is to say, they get it exactly backwards!  To follow your supposedly “autonomous” thoughts and feelings is to be absolutely un-free.  Because you are constructed by some practices you did not choose, and worse, don’t even know are constructing you!  To choose to enter into a community that demands you begin to see the world in their way is actually to be infinitely more free.  You have chosen this community for a reason (that we can act on reasons is a point that needs defending—but see the post on Brandom and his book).  But more importantly, this practice is the only thing that gives you power to act in the world, to change the world instead of merely responding to it.  

This difference is, I think, at the root of my difference with Glenn at Speculative Non-buddhism.  HIs Laruellean position assumes a kind of autonomy, and access to the the world prior to social construction, that I believe naively mistakes certain capitalist concepts for non-conceptual truth.  There is an assumption then that anyone, like me, who believe we must consent to the decision (in all senses of this term) of the group—must even agree to the groups terms on how we can debate such decisions—is a kind of oppressive tyrant.  But this is a terrible mistake—because if you don’t think you are consenting to this you still are without knowing it!  The only difference, an important one, is whether we KNOW that we are consenting to such a decision.  Deleuzian (or Laruellean) fantasies of radical freedom are just that…fantasies.

We need to abandon the fantasy of “autonomy”, which is really just the sign of absolute interpellation into the existing dominant or hegemonic ideology.  We need to participate in communities intentionally, but fully, with commitment.  I would agree with Smith on this—just not on the claim that the Christian community is the only real option we have.

So, when we once again hear the nonsense about being free from thoughts and words—a statement so obviously wrong and ridiculous only the true moron could believe it—what is really bothering someone like Fischer is the possibility that we might begin to question the capitalist construal of the world so important to his affluent clients, and his own income.  

But there’s another concern that is more immediate, raised for me by a recent comment on my post on smartphones.  

Christopher suggests that he had to install Instagram on his phone, because without it he could not maintain “precious friendships and social support.”  He then goes on to explain that he cannot get through the day without using a mind-altering opiate-like substance.  The connection here is, as always, missed.  How really beneficial are these friendships and this social support if they leave one so anxious, depressed and miserable that one cannot survive them without addictive drugs?  

I have kids, and I work with young people, and I will say that Christopher is not at all unusual here.  They all desperately “need” these activities to give their lives meaning, but the kind of “meaning” they get from them leaves them so miserable they cannot imagine surviving without mind-altering substances.  This is no different from my own addiction to alcohol years ago.  For decades, I “needed” to engage in certain practices to give my life meaning, but then “needed” to drink to be able to endure the “meaningful” life I was living.  

The true nature of the situation is obvious to an outsider, though.  It is a mistake to assume that those friendships and that kind of social support is a “need” that the phone helps one to meet.  Instead, it is important to realize that the practices engaged in on a smartphone produce the need for exactly the kinds of superficial misery-producing relationships (always understood as deep and precious etc.) that can only be survived by addicting oneself to drugs or medications. 

My own solution is to become the modern equivalent of a hermit. Really. One cannot go off into the wilderness and live off the land, since every square inch of Earth is private property and producing your own food is illegal in most places anyway.  One needs to work to live.  But it is possible to work minimally, engage with people only in person, and not own a phone.  There is so much to learn from books, and so much satisfaction in thinking deeply and extensively about things, that you’ll hardly miss your fifty or sixty close personal Instagram friends.

So, Christopher, if you’re still reading: you asked “Can you blame us though?  It’s hard out there.”  I would answer, yes, I can blame you.  Instead of responding by numbing your mind and looking for comfort, you could always work to make it less hard out there!  When you’re busy doing that, you might not need the drugs!

Instead of thinking that I’ve failed to make dozens of new friends because I won’t text or do Instagram, I think I’ve lost most (not quite all) my old friends from seven or eight years ago to a horrible and deadly addiction.  It might be lonely, but not terribly so.  And I’d rather live this way than join them in their new addiction, at the risk of possibly needing to return to my old one.