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.

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  1. Regarding your issues with Laurelle, would you say that the “stranger subject” is still an ideology, but Laurelle does not acknowledge this? It’s obvious to me that behaving as a “stranger subject” would still be to engage in an ideology, but it seems to be a unique ideology (i.e. always struggling with one’s engagement in dominant social practices is still a social practice, and is not something that some free, enlightened individual is doing). I take it some of the issue you have might have is the same issue I have with metamodernism? That is, the problmematic view is imagining some kind of ironic engagement that is somehow outside of, or removed from, the ideology being practiced?

    I’ve read your exchange with Glenn several times and still am unable to grasp the core of your disagreement. Perhaps I need to read it a few more times. Would you be willing to write something going into more detail on this point, if it’s not too tangential to your project?

  2. I’m doubtful I can make my point about Laruelle any clearer. I just reread the discussion on SNB (under “This is a Rich Disagreement”), and I don’t think I can do more than repeat the arguments made there. It seems to me similar to the argument against reductiivists like Metzinger or Harris or Dawkins, etc. The argument against their position is just incomprehensible from within their posiiton. I tried this for years in the discipline of psychology, and eventually realized the futility of it. From within the assumption that there is a transcendent subject, it is impossible to see that the assumption is even being made. This is why it is impossible to argue with x-buddhists, psychologists, Deleuzians, or neuro-reductivists. They all make the same fundamental error, assuming the existence of a free and unconstructed consciousness that can direct the constructed and limited “mind,” but cannot see that they are depending on this assumption. They in fact spend most of their time denying the existence of their fundamental necessary assumption.

    Laruelle is making the same mistake. It isn’t so much that I think it is wrong to engage in an ideology of struggle. That is, I think, our only option. The problem is that Laruelle, and his followers, believe they are grounding their struggle on some pre-social, extra-linguistic, true access to the real. (Brassier makes this point in the article I mentioned, as does Kolozova in the essay Glenn mentions—Brassier sees this as a problem, Kolozova does not). The idea that langauge traps or subjugated or oppresses us is the error I want to avoid. The assumption that we can access some proviileged pre-soical realm of immanence is the Romantic illusion, the fantasy of the transcendent expressive subject. When we have reached this supposed purely immanent pre-social access to the ‘real”, what we have really done is merely reified the perceptions and assumptions created in our culture, convinced ourselves that rather than end products they are the beginning point of our social formation, that we should strip down to these basics and reconstruct the world from them. The problem is the only world we could reconstruct from them is the very one that we think we are escaping.

    The issue here, as with Romanticism and with Deleuze an with all the reductionism so popular today, is an oedipal one. The fantasy of escaping the demand that we enter the symbolic, that we can avoid participating in negotiating for meaning with others. This is why these thinker always imagine that langauge and social institutions are so oppressive. What they are fantasizing is a position in which they escape the social, and have absolute mastery over it—either in rational scientific formulations of the reductivists or the Romantic expressivist formulations of the Deleuzians and Laruelleans. The problem is they think they are freed from oppression exaclty when they are most thorouhgly constructed by the dominant social system. It is only engagement with social practices and the negotiations of meaning in langauge that we can be at all freed from such oprressions. This is why reductivists, like utilitarians and Romantic artists, tend to somewhat sociopathic. To put it in crudely Freudian terms, they have mistaken their suffocating attachment to the maternal for freedom from the evil oppression of the father’s demand that they engage the broader world.

    Again, I don’t think I can make the case here more clearly than it has already been made. Many have pointed out this error in Romanticism, and in Deleuze, and some have pointed out that Laruelle is doing the same thing. But very few Romantic subjects will grasp the point here. Just like the flip side of this same error has been pointed out, in the Lockeans, phenomenologists, psychologiists, etc, but they cannot grasp it. The terror of the social is too powerful in our current hegemonic ideology.

    And for good reason, I suppose, given the limits put on human social interaction by the system of profit and exchange.

    I’m not so concerned to engage Laruelle anymore. I read several of his books trying to figure out what he was up to, found out it was something I’d seen before in different guises, and decided it was better left alone. I’m sure eventually someone better equipped than I am to fight this battle will explain the error (as Hallward does so well in with Deleuze), and some will get the point but most never will. It may not be worth working too hard to explain the problem to those who cannot see it. I’m focusing on those who are not ensnared in that error, and want to figure out how to move forward.

  3. One more comment on the question of writing something about my disagreement with Laruelle.

    The difficulty here is a common one, I think. The point is so obvious, that no real argument is needed to make it, and probably no argument could be clear or detailed or expansive enough to be of use. It is sort of like trying to explain to a psychologist, not that what they are studying might be historically contingent (a small minority of them might get this point) but rather that the things they believe they are objectively studying they are actually constructing in their discourse and practice! That is, something like the faculty of attention is not only historically contingent (clearly before the 1800s nobody ever had such a faculty), but more importantly its construction takes place exactly in the practice pretending to study it with objective detachment. We can only “pay” attention because it is a faculty we have been instructed we are deficient in by psychologists, and we are taught how to do it and drugged when we fail. Same with depression, or anxiety, etc. And really, just about anything else psychology studies: the kinds of memory we work to improve are produced in the study of them in psychology, for instance.

    Imagine trying to explain this ridiculously obvious point to a PhD in psychology? It is like trying to explain evolution to a religious fundamentalist. My point is that for those caught in the Romantic ideology of the subject, as Laruelle and his followers are, their error is just as incomprehensible as the error of psychology is to the psychologist. The only real solution is to wait for them to run up against the limits, contradictions and aporia of their project on their own…or just run out of steam. Psychology is on its way out now, being replaced by cognitive neuroscience as the preferred discipline to “prove” the efficacy of pharmaceutical company discoveries, never once having succeeded in any of the tasks it set itself for the last century. I expect the same will be true of Laruelle. Think of all the volumes written about G.E. Moore’s philosophy a hundred years ago, all the careers devoted to it, all the dissertations written about it…and nobody today even knows who Moore is, except a few historians of ideas. So, I don’t want to invest time and energy into a futile effort to point out the obvious yet one more time to those who aren’t interested anyway.

  4. After reading your comments a few times, and re-reading that exchange between you and Glenn, I think I see the issue you’re raising a bit clearer. I still find myself incapable of thinking through the issue, though. It’s like moving back and forth between two different kinds of basic approaches to what it means to do anything at all that whichever side I try to take, I am always left confused as to what the other means.

    So I will need to continue thinking through this until something happens. This would certainly be much easier to do if I could find a way to think through this in real life, and with other people, rather than some kind of imagined-to-be-outside-of-real-life abstract philosophizing, if that makes sense. It really doesn’t help that there is nobody here with which to engage this kind of thought and dialogue. It took me years just to understand that this kind of practice is even possible, let alone to actually begin trying to get anywhere. But I’m seeing that this kind of task is completely impossible to do alone because, as you say, starting with the ideology I am in, and not being able to see it as such, practically ensures that I won’t get anywhere. I think this is exactly the role that a Buddhist teacher could play, to engage in a kind of “direct pointing” out ideological blind spots. Needless to say, no such teacher exists, otherwise they would not be a Buddhist teacher!

  5. I agree that the debate becomes too absract, and when it does it becomes just two different hypothetical approaches. This is what I referred to in that discussion as creating spherical chickens in a vacuum (from the old physics joke). Both approaches seem to make sense on their own terms, and the question becomes which one really works in the world. We can have two recipes for making bread, and both are clear and easy to follow..and the question is which one can make a loaf. This is why I tend to be a bit obsessed with addressing concrete examples. If my account of how reality works can explain really existing practices, then that’s evidence that it is correct. If I cannot explain things that really do happen, I’m probably missing something. That’s why so many of my SNB essays over the years were reviews of various x-buddhist work. I want to find out what exactly is going on when people engage in some kind of practice, and accept its assumptions as true about the world. This is also why I keep asking the Laruelleans to point to any actual example of a “stranger subject.” If I had a real example of what this might be, then I could decide whether there are better ways to describe its causes and effects. But nobody can offer one.

    I agree that the internet is not the best way to make progress on these things. This is why I think the move toward online education means the death of human agency (most suburban schools, the affluent ones who can afford it anyway, are moving toward having their kids taught completely by software—the result is adults who cannot read, write, think critically, or carry on a conversation. In short, a generation of affluent idiots). But in person meetings become difficult when they depend on profit to keep going. It becomes necessary to pander to the demands of the broadest audience, instead of seeking the truth. This happened to the Buddhist group I used to belong to, which was Shin at one time but is now an obscene mix of mindfulness and Scientology, because that was what brought in the biggest crowd. That’s why you’ll never find a “buddhist teacher” who will point out ideological blindspots. There’s a small audience for that kind of challenging and sometimes unpleasant practice.

    Just a brief suggestion on the problem of what it means to do anything. This ceases to be such a paradox when we can comprehend the mind, and so the subject, as produced collectively, in language and social practices. To me, that is why my position makes sense and Laruelle’s neo-Romanticism doesn’t. The primal subject that begins from its unconstructed pre-social extra-linguistic access to the immanent real can never have any kind of agency. We can do things only collectively. Which is why it so often seems impossible to do anything really meaningful, in a world where anyone trying to do this is vastly outnumbered by good subjects of capitalism—and anyone trying to do something meaningful is usually hampered by the myth of atomistic subjectivity, in its modern Lockean/Romantic form.

    Anyway, I’m quite serious about the idea of a retreat of some kind. No celebrity gurus or beautiful zendos or vegetarian dining. Just a few folks at a campground somewhere talking about these things in person for a couple of days. I’m not longer employed after next month, and I do have some physical limitations on how much travelling I can do. But if anyone want to set something up anywhere in the Northeast, say some time this summer, email me. I do think that in-person discussion is far more productive. Socrates (and Buddha and Jesus) was smart to be wary of writing anything down.

  1. Ann Gleig on SNB | Speculative Non-Buddhism

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