Thoughts on things other than Trump, coronavirus, stock market corrections, and the fear of Bernie Sanders…

Really, I’m not going to talk about any of those things.  Too depressing.  Just some ramblings about what is on my mind right now, as I try to avoid the news.

Still struggling with finishing up the book, and deciding what to do with it now that every publisher I can think to submit it to has declined to read it.  I suppose self-publishing is the only option left.

In the meantime, I’m preparing to relaunch the old “Imaginary Relations” online journal from several years back, trying to drum up some submissions—the goal there is basically to do marxist/feminist/psychoanalytic readings of individual aesthetic objects, trying to puzzle out what kind of subjects we are made into when we consume or participate in these particular aesthetic experiences.  If anyone is interested in writing something, contact me for more information.

I’m also contemplating something on the nature of addiction, involving the concepts of intention (central to the current book project) and akrasia.  

But on a completely different note: I recently got an email add for an upcoming Buddhist online course from Tricycle.  Frankly, it appalled me, but it also reminded me of how important, despite the apparent futility, the kind of critical work I keep struggling to do might be.  Perhaps if others more gifted than I am would lend a hand, we could do some good.  

For your amusement, here’s the description of the online course, for which you would pay a mere $199!

The Whole Path: Kindness, Meditation, and Wisdom, our upcoming online course with Sharon Salzberg, begins on March 23. This course will cover each aspect of the Buddha’s eightfold path to guide you toward the transformative wisdom that is to be uncovered.
The Whole Path unfolds in six units covering the following topics:
Unit 1 | Ethics as a Source of Self Respect: Sharon will show how ethical conduct supports a healthy view of ourselves and, in doing so, supports our meditative development.
Unit 2 | The Five Precepts: The Buddha recommended that lay practitioners abide by five simple guidelines. They provide us with an opportunity to reflect on our values and to train our self-discipline in ways that gently support our wellbeing. 
Unit 3 | Concentration: We will learn to gather our scattered mental energies and settle them, find tranquility, and empower ourselves to take action. Sharon explains how concentration arises and can be cultivated.
Unit 4 | Mindfulness: The ability to really know what it is we are experiencing is a critical ingredient for deep insight to arise. Sharon will help us understand and apply mindfulness as we bring receptivity and a kind, curious awareness to our practice.
Unit 5 | The Three Characteristics: Through mindfulness, the Buddha saw that all experiences have three characteristics. Seeing these characteristics for ourselves is decisive. We begin to loosen up. We don’t take life quite so personally. Sharon will explain the significance of these characteristics and how they free us.
Unit 6 | A Life of Wisdom: With these insights, we will see so much more of who we are and how connected we are to others. This will inevitably lead to the development of greater love and compassion in our lives.

 

I imagine any regular readers here, or readers of Speculative Non-buddhism from days gone by, will see immediately what is so horrifying.  Have you ever seen a more perfect account of the development of the modern, Western, neoliberal subject?  Or a “Buddhist” course more obviously dead wrong about the fundamental concepts of classical Buddhist thought?  Well, sure we have: name a popular Buddhist teacher, right?

So here we begin by reducing ethics to improving our image of ourselves, move on to self-discipline as a way of increasing our happiness, then mediation to create the illusion of a detached Cartesian mind…and wrap it all up with some nice ironic detachment, because we shouldn’t take the world or ourselves too seriously.  What do we get?  A new and improved atomistic self now able to freely choose to enter into social relationships with others to our mutual and maximum pleasure!  

John Stuart Mill himself could be teaching this class!  

Of course, I don’t expect that Salzburg has any idea she is even doing this.  She’s simply doing what all the “celebrity” x-buddhists do.  She takes an untenable, even horrifying, contemporary model of the subject, and finds that it is really what ancient Eastern spiritual teachers were saying all along, if you (mis)translate carefully and think ahistorically!  I’m sure she believes in the deep truth of this position, and its benefits.

And, of course, we know it can’t do much harm.  That is, nobody who isn’t already a good neoliberal subject would plunk down a couple hundred bucks for some lame videos and PDFs, meant only to reassure them that of what they already think, and give them one more bit of proof of their spiritual superiority. 

On the other hand, what it does do is prevent people from seriously considering what we might learn from Buddhist thought if we could stop finding in it an exact mirror of our desires.  But then, who wants to make that kind of effort?

I hope that a handful of people might someday be able to begin to question the common-sense conceptions of ourselves and our world that inform silly nonsense like this “Buddhist” course.  I hope my book may help with that…and even more, that a journal devoted to examining the ideological functions of our most loved aesthetic objects might make this questioning more possible.  So do let me know if you have any interest it writing anything for a new, and hopefully less “academic”, version of the “Imaginary Relations” online journal!

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6 Comments

  1. Craig

     /  February 29, 2020

    My question about all of these ‘courses’ and retreats has always been shouldn’t there be a point when the participation starts decreasing because everyone is so wise? Same with modern psychology. I mean, this course above basically promises ‘deep insight’ and wisdom. But practitioners seem to have to keep going to these things over and over. Do they ever get to finish? Obviously not because it’s only a few that have reached true mindfulness and they make a ton of money keeping people on a string.

    Knowing what I do now I do read that course description with horror and laughing out loud. What a load of shit. Mindfulness-the ability to really know what we are experiencing. What does that mean? A very slippery slope of reifying the dominant capitalist ideology. I’m grateful I’ve gotten away from this stuff, but I still get caught up in it.

  2. My hope has always been to help people become better thinkers, so that vacuous nonsense like this won’t seem to be saying something profound. When I was teaching, I never tried to teach marxist theory or psychoanalysis, so my students would be stunned to learn I was a marxist (very few ever did). My focus was on getting them to read the text in front of them and understand what it actually said without projecting onto it what they wished it would say. Then, to get them to make logical arguments with evidence. I still believe that if more people could do these two things, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today. (And, of course, I believe if everyone could think better marxism would just seem so much more obvious to them.)

    But course like this are meant to do the same thing colleges are meant to do today: to create obfuscation in the service of global capitalism. So we are meant to gather our “scattered” mental energies in order to act more efficiently…but never question what exact action we ought to be taking. Isn’t this exactly what Zizek said Wester Buddhism was for?

    And what the hell does it mean to “really know what we are experiencing’? Are we afraid we are having lots of experiences we are unaware of? What does that say about the definition of experience? Or is it just a suggestion that the ideological reframing of our experiences offered here will be more “real” somehow? We can be led to abandon our ideological positions and be interpellated into the ideology of global capitalism?

    People always ask me why I bother to spend time pointing out the stupidity of folks like Shinzen Young or Mark Epstein, etc. But if you can’t see why this is horrifying, you haven’t learned to think yet. Saying it doesn’t matter if most people believe this gibberish is profound is giving up the fight!

    Since I don’t teach anymore, I’m going to devote some time to critiques of the place where much of our ideological mystification go on…aesthetics. I hope some reader here (who I know are capable of doing this for themselves) will help out with this. Let’s have some fun with it!

  3. I would love some pointers on where to begin to learn the method of actually analysing aesthetic objects in a formally marxist/psychoanalytic manner. I’d be very interested in doing this kind of work, but I’m not sure how capable I am of doing it.

    When I consume aesthetic objects myself, such as when I see a play or a film, the ideological content typically seems quite obvious to me. But I always have trouble articulating it in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m merely ‘winging’ it or doing a good bit of guesswork. The good news is that most plays and films today–at least the ones I’ve been seeing–make it fairly obvious which kind of subject it’s trying to produce. But I’d like to be able to rigorously examine these things, and to know how to communicate it. Reading the example in your book of The Hunger Games was useful, and perhaps reading more examples will help too. But I’m interested in the methodology itself. Any tips?

  4. Chaim,
    Part of our interest in reviving “Imaginary Relations” is to get away from the kind of academic analyses that are usually so stultifying and work so hard to avoid saying anything. These days, analysis of the ideology of an individual aesthetic object just isn’t done—it wouldn’t be publishable. What we get instead are essays that discuss a particular trope or ideologeme as it appears across a whole range of works, remaining superficial and trying to seem painfully clever. So, we might see an essay on the “representation of addiction in superhero movies,” but never an analysis of the aesthetic production of subject position in one particular movie. What we’re looking for is more essays focused on individual works—although of course it could always be necessary to mention other works that are alluded to.

    So, in short, there’s not much of a model for this kind of work. Back in the day when there were lots of essays analyzing individual works, there tended to be a lot of vulgar marxist readings (focused on the representations of oppressed workers or evil bosses in literature, for instance), or vulgar psychoanalysis (reading novels or movies as allegories of the oedipal process, for instance), or vulgar feminism (finding works by men to produce oppressive gender stereotypes while works by women—which seem also to producing the same gender stereotypes—turn out to be actually subtly subverting them). There are some good examples of marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic and deconstructionist readings in the old Bedford “case study” books—any school library probably still has some of these. And some are actually not bad. But we don’t want to separate out the theories in the ways these books did, as if one could slip on a theoretical hat at will, leaving the “pure text” untouched. What we want to do is instead to use the conceptual tool so marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis to analyze the kinds of subjectivity being produced in the audience (not represented in the text). There’s not much of a model for this—some few examples, but not many, and usually much to “academic” to be of use to a general audience.

    So, the good news is that there’s a lot of room for innovation! No rules to follow other than have something worthwhile to say about a text. And definitely do NOT follow the horrid academic rules of citing all the existing literature on the work in question, or trying to place the text in the authors work as a whole, etc. Just make a case for the kind of subject being produced by this work: when I leave that theater, if the play has done its work on me, if I’m its target audience, what kind of subject might I be?

    What about that “folk metal” music you like? Pick an album (do they still have albums?) and analyze the subject being produced—who is listening to it, how are they listening, and what kind of ideology is being produced for them?

  5. Patricia

     /  March 6, 2020

    I’m thinking, in answer to Chaim’s question, that The Perverts Guide to Ideology might be useful? I know that you have some clear disagreements with Zizek, but I do sometimes use that or the The Perverts Guide to Cinema in my classes. It’s kind of vulgar marxism (with Zizekisms), but it might be worth a look (it’s a film for those of you who may be unfamiliar with it).

    Another example might come in the form of the “case studies” of literature that Bedford puts out that you mentioned in your post. Very simply, if you look at the ideology that that series of books produces about literature for a whole generation of college students, it is this: that a student can slip into and out of these theories (“the hat”) leaving the idea of what’s at stake in a “doing a reading” of literature untouched. One can’t, or shouldn’t as the case may be, argue that one is a “correct” or “right” reading (I’m thinking in terms of social stakes/political commitment/or ethics). That is, the collection presents itself as “neutral”: there’s nothing really at stake in analyzing a text; one “reading” is just as valid, and thus should be valued, as another. You can agree with one, or another, or the readings as almost a matter of preference, but the way the volumes frame “readings” of the texts as just another theoretical “lens” among many gives the impression that theory exists to distort literature’s “real” aesthetic value which can’t be theorized. Literature persist, then, because it is a stable object that theories “distort” or massage to prove a political point (because theory always has to be “politically motivated.” We leave value, aesthetics, purpose unexamined and non-political. It’s a way to “domesticate” theory into a safe methodology, and to guard against any real political thought. Thus, we construct reading subjects, though this theoretical pluralism, who can’t really determine why one kind of writing, novel or poem, might be more valuable (in terms of a more positive ideological agenda) than another. That’s why, I think, we have the kind of scholarship we have today.

  6. I agree that the Zizek movies Patricia mentions can be somewhat helpful. We are looking to be less formally academic, to appeal to a more general audience, and Zizek is able to do that in his discussion of ideology and the ideology of films.

    Chaim: If you’re interested, I could send you a copy of the essay I wrote on “Breaking Bad” when we tried to start “Imaginary Relations” several years ago. It is a bit too, well, pedantic for what we are aiming at now. But it is in general the kind of thing we are looking for.

    That is, I try to analyze the ideology produced in the audience by watching the show, rather than focusing on the ideological “content” of the show or the ideological positions of the characters. Also, I avoid what we would universally see in academic work today: discussing the genre of crime fiction or the form of the modern “long-form” television serial. This kind of work ignores the ideology of the particular object in question—obviously, the crime genre can be used for various ideological purposes, and the new form of television series, while it has an ideological function, is only one tool used to produce the specific ideology produced in an individual aesthetic object. That is, contemporary academic work pretends to discuss these things, while enforcing, with the rules of academic discourse, a studiously superficial and useless account of the object. The effect is, as with the Bedford critical casebooks, to leave the real effect of the aesthetic object in the realm of mystical and ineffable.

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