Authenticity and Ideology

Having just completed the draft of Part II of my book in progress, I will need to do some intensive re-reading before I get down to actually writing the final section.  Part of this will be revisiting the arguments of those who would oppose my position—particularly those whose arguments are not the usual cheap rhetoric and sophistry I usually encounter from the opposition.  

Among those opponents whose arguments I find most powerful and intelligent is Charles Taylor.  So I have recently read through his short book The Ethics of Authenticity, which is primarily about the dominant ideology structuring capitalist practices today (Taylor would not call this an ideology, because he uses that term in another sense than I do).  While I find Taylor’s arguments about the ideal of authenticity mostly convincing and compelling, I obviously cannot agree with his conclusion that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (this book was written in 1992) it should now be “evident” that “market mechanisms in some form are indispensable”; I wonder if, after a quarter century of global capitalism, Taylor would be as optimistic as he once was that we are now in an ideal position to ameliorate capitalism and bring an end to its worst effects. 

What I want to focus on is the problem of the power of ideology, as raised by Taylor in this book. He essentially argues that we are suffering from a debased form of the ideal of individualism or authenticity. The ideal, he suggests,  should be a positive ability to determine, in dialogue with others, the commitments we want to undertake in our lives.  We each then become responsible for the directions not only of our individual lives, but of the society of which we are part.  

Instead, he argues (I think convincingly) that we have adopted a kind of hedonistic narcissism, in which our own desires must not be denied, combined with a universal instrumental reason, which serves to maximize the success of our own personal projects.  This is supported by what he calls “soft relativism,” which denies that there are any truths about morality or desires, these things are intractably subjective; we cannot, that is, argue about what we ought to desire, because that would be to oppress someone’s unique individuality.

Now, I think Taylor does a good job of explaining the error here.  All of our supposedly unique individual desires are already socially constructed—we think we have them because of the unique individuals we are, and that “I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences”(27); however, in fact that supposedly individual decision is made in a social context, in dialogue with others, against a background of what can count as significant, all of which are in fact imposed upon me whether I know it or not.  To put it more bluntly than Taylor does, the deep desires I think I have discovered all on my own were produced by the social formation in which I was born and raised. I am mistaken if I think they express my “freedom.”  My “freedom” can only begin once I begin, in dialogue with others, to examine both the source and desirability of those supposedly freely chosen individual and “authentic” desires and concerns.  Real authenticity, on Taylor’s model, would require that I produce desires socially and take responsibility for them, not that I demand of others that they allow the fulfillment of the desires I already have, while refusing to examine the source or merit of those desires.

Okay, I mostly agree with this analysis. What I have trouble with, and what I think leads to Taylor’s defense of the inevitability of capitalism, is that he seems to think we have considerable power to do this kind of examination despite the tremendous power of what I would call our ideology.  Let me explain.

Taylor argues that in fact this debased version of individualism, with its narcissism and soft relativism and instrumental reasoning, is “greatly strengthened, because it is rooted in [our] everyday practice, in the way [we] make [our] living and the way [we] relate to others in political life”(58).  That is, he argues that it is the nature of a “society whose economy is largely shaped by market forces”(97) to produce in us an acceptance of the debased form of individualism and authenticity, depending on our ignorance of the social dimension of our supposedly unique desires, and leads us to embrace instrumental reason and consider all others as little more than impediments to our fulfillment our self-expression.  However, he is optimistic that “there are many points of resistance, and that these are constantly being generated”(99).  

The effect here is that Taylor remains convinced that although capitalism does inherently produce the worst kind of subjectivity in our “everyday practice” (which is what I mean by the term ideology), we can accept that effect because there is enough room, beyond these practices, in which to produce better forms of subjectivity.  We can go on, perhaps, to spend our leisure time discussing philosophy or caring for others or participating in environmental activism, and reduce the effects of capitalist ideology on the kinds of subjects we are.  Then we will be able to improve the conditions of capitalism by collective political action.  Of course, as the book ends, Taylor remains baffled as to why this seems to very difficult to do in the U.S., and why Canada, in the aftermath of the “collapse of communism,” seems to be moving quickly toward the political practices of the U.S.  

My position is that this possibility, that there are “points of resistance,” is the naive hope of someone who has lived a fairly privileged life.  As a university professor, particularly one working at the world’s most elite universities, it is fairly easy to assume that we all engage in many practices that are sufficiently removed from the demands of the marketplace.  However, I don’t believe this is true for most of the participants in the global capitalist economy (what Taylor calls “industrial-technological-bureaucratic society”); for most of us,  there are few if any “points of resistance.”  For workers living on ten or twelve dollars an hour, without free health care, often working three or even four part-time jobs will barely cover the rent and put food on the table. And this is the reality for the majority of Americans today.  In many other parts of the world, the conditions are worse.  

My suggestion is that it is not enough to say that we need to supplement capitalist ideology, our “everyday practices” of making a living, or trying to, with other practices able to fashion us into truly authentic individuals.  As long as we are living in a  capitalist world, for most of us the majority of our time is taken up with exactly those practices Taylor argues are producing the worst kind of subjects. We then just are those subjects.  The only solution, I will insist, is to eliminate the capitalist marketplace—its effects cannot be reduced or diminished, for most people.  Taylor is not terribly attentive to recent economic history in most of his work, or he would likely see that it is the nature of capitalism to command ever more of the lives of an ever increasing number of people.  His alternative, which amounts to accepting the evil necessity of capitalism for a small part of our day, while engaging in other ideological practices for the rest of our time, is unfortunately only available to a small privileged group of people.  

This is the concern for the final part of my book, then: is there some way to produce the kinds of “points of resistance” for the majority of people? Can we generate any ideological practices that will really work to fashion individuals into subjects who will turn out to be bad subjects of capitalism?  Can this work even while these non-capitalist practices must make up a very small part of our daily lives?

Because it is my position that these practices will need to be, not compensatory as Taylor’s solutions suggests, but oppositional, devoted not to ameliorating capitalism but to eliminating it.  

After all, it was possible to develop enough capitalist “everyday practices” to produce many bad subjects of feudalism, leading to the brutal and destructive, but ultimately triumphant, capitalist revolution that took place worldwide from about 1600 to 2000.  The longest, and deadliest, revolution ever, employing genocide and slavery, and killing people on enormous scales—but it has final succeeded, right? 

What kind of practices might we employ to begin what may be the centuries-long communist revolution?  Will they necessarily be as brutal and murderous as capitalist practices, or is that savage cruelty just a feature of capitalism itself?  

I have some suggestions here, in the final part of my book, but no answers.  All I’m hoping for is to open a debate, to suggest the possibility, that we can produce ideologies that are not capitalist, that pace Taylor and so many others the market is not a natural inevitability.  

Just Couldn’t Resist Posting This

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I just got an ad for this new book from Wisdom.

Apparently, they’ve hired Tutte Wachtmeister as their new acquisitions editor! No wonder his blog went silent!

It is nice to be reminded, by ads like this, just why folks like me cannot get published.

Thoughts on Our First Buddhist/Marxist Retreat

In our recent two-person Buddhist/marxist “retreat,” Chaim Wigder (aka The Failed Buddhist) and I spent some time discussing Shin Buddhism and Marxist ideology theory.  Our hope is that by writing a bit about the outcome of this retreat, we can encourage others to participate in possible future attempts.  Many people we discussed this with were wary of a gathering in which there is no focus on meditation, and in which there is no leader, with each participant being responsible for choosing the focus of part of the discussion.  My thoughts on the results of this meeting are that it was quite helpful in clarifying some important issues, and also providing motivation for continued work.

We each chose a text to discuss, with no prior consideration of their relationship to one another, so I was surprised to find that there is a startling similarity in both the problem that the texts addressed and the impasse that they reached.  

My choice was an essay by Kaneko Daiei, originally published in the 1920s and reissued in 1966, called “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies.”  Kaneko advocates what was initially a minority and controversial understanding of Shin Buddhism, in which the pure land is understood as a myth, a useful fiction, and not a real place to which we might go when we die.  He also advocated the engagement with Western philosophy, particularly Kant, in order to think more critically about Buddhism, and argued that it is essential to historicize Buddhist texts in order to grasp their full meaning for us today.  Although he was removed from his teaching job after WWII because of his collaboration with the imperial government, he was later reinstated, and his position on the study of Shin Buddhism became more common.  His essay was republished as he worked, in the sixties, to defend the importance of his academic discipline.  He sees Shin Buddhist studies as a way to move forward to a society in which there is less necessary suffering, but it is clear enough that one could see this academic discipline as serving to promote the adjustment of the Japanese to the new capitalist world they were building.  

Chaim chose to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Sociology of Marx, published in 1966, and also largely a defense of an academic discipline.  But Lefebvre’s goal is to find a way to use the discipline of sociology to advance the cause of communism and resist the post-war triumph of capitalism.  

At first glance, then, it may seem that these two texts are diametrically opposed.  In order to demonstrate the helpfulness of the kind of retreat we engaged in, as a means of enabling dialectical thought, I want to briefly demonstrate the similarity I found in these two mid-twentieth-century attempts to engage with the juggernaut of global capitalism through academic disciplines.  I’m sure Chaim will have his own, somewhat different, conclusions to draw from our discussions—and this difference should also serve to illustrate the potential for this kind of short-term intensive discussion of challenging texts as a form of practice, which does not necessarily lead to a single “conclusion” as might be expected to occur in a retreat focused on a teacher.

What struck me was that both of these thinkers are trying to overcome the impasse of determinism, but fail to do so because of a hopelessly idealist conception of language. The result is that, in both cases, we need to rely on an optimistic hope that there is an inevitable progress toward liberation that simply must occur, but only once we stop trying to direct change through the oppressive and obfuscating medium of language.  

I’ll take each thinker in turn, and briefly outline the argument.

For Kaneko, it is important not to assume that the pure land is real. As he puts it, “Sakyamuni started from the position that there is neither a god nor a soul” (201).  What are we to make, then, of talk of an afterlife in the pure land?  His suggestion is that talk of the afterlife is meant to “reveal the contrast between the actual world and the ideal world”(177), sort of the way a utopian fiction might.  Our desire for a pure land should be understood as arising from the contradictions at the center of our existing world, a world which produces us as a kind of subject which is inherently dissatisfied with things as they are.  For Kaneko, we should not look to historical situations to account for the fantasy of a pure land, or a heaven after death.  Poverty and oppression may give rise to such fantasies, but so will any historical situation structured on contradictions.  Even if we are affluent and comfortable, in a world dependent on the poverty and oppression of others there will necessarily be, in the structure of our selves, a dissatisfaction which motivates us to undertake some spiritual practice.  

The dilemma, though, is in figuring what exactly we should do about this situation.  We cannot resort to analyzing it in language, Kaneko assumes, because we “fall into delusion through ‘perfuming though words’,” and “Sakyamuni’s true realization…is impossible to express in words”(183).  What is essential here is that he assumes that the goal, the ideal state realized by Sakyamuni, must be represented  in language in order for language to be of any use at all—since language fails at the task of objective representation, we need to abandon it completely.  The result is that we are left to hope that the contradiction structuring the subject will simply automatically motivate or produce the action necessary to its own resolution.  We cannot plan a response to our state of dissatisfaction, but must find one already indicated to us, through what Kaneko calls “reflecting inwardly.”  The problem, for me, is that there is no reason to assume that this contradiction will resolve itself into anything other than whatever the current social formation needs to perpetuate itself.  This is an extremely abstract point, I know, but I hope it will become clearer as I explain how Lefebvre faces the same fundamental problem.

For Lefebvre, the key concept it “praxis.”  Praxis, he tells us, “rests on a twofold foundation: the sensuous on the one hand, creative activity stimulated by a need it transforms on the other”(42). It is “first and foremost act, dialectical relation between man and nature, consciousness and things”(45).  Let’s take a crude hypothetical example to illustrate this. Imagine primitive humans having a sensuous need for food; our creative capacity enables us to develop agriculture, to prevent shortages and failure to meet the need; this creativity in turn produces a new transformed need, the need to produce plows and silos and fences, etc.  The dialectic of man and nature, then, produces an internal contradiction in the subject, who both wants freedom from the deprivation of sensuous needs but also freedom from the kind of increased necessary labor that agricultural production requires.  We are driven by a core contradiction, which leads to certain practices, like division of labor and class distinctions, enslaving and oppressing workers, etc.  These very practices maintain the core contradiction in the subject, leading to further dialectical progress and new creative activities.

The problem, for Lefebvre, comes in with the use of Language: “language—not only the language of ideologists (e.g., philosophers) but also of all those who speak—distorts practical reality”(73).  Ideology arises because it becomes possible to use language to distort reality in such a way as to stop the natural dialectic, which would have driven us toward resolution of the current contradiction.  “Praxis,” Lefebvre argues, “always looks forward to new possibilities,” (77), while ideologies reify existing conditions. Therefore, it is the goal of marxism to “do away with ideologies”(86).  The problem is that all language is ideological by nature, failing to represent reality accurately, and so we must also escape the trap of thinking in language, and return to pure praxis.  As with Kaneko, we are left with the need for an optimistic hope that the contradiction will, if we stop using concepts and language, lead to its own best resolution. 

But is there any reason to assume this will happen?  Isn’t it more likely that the dialectic will lead us only to more intense fantasies of escape to the pure land, or to more oppressive forms of production that exclude the unpleasant manual labor from the consciousness of the ruling class?  

What both approaches lead to here is the abandonment of the only kind of agency we can actually have.  And this is so because both assume a naive representationalist model of language.  

My position would be that we need not escape language or ideology, but make better use of them.  We can understand language as primarily functioning to produce shared intentions, and only secondarily as representative. In this way, we need not see the lack of objectivity as a failure of language, but as a strength.  Our goal, in using language, is to make explicit to one another our shared assumption and commitments, and the relationship between these two. Only once we understand this can we have the limited kind of agency humans are able to have.  We need no longer rely on the blind hope that contradictions will work themselves out in a way advantageous to us. 

Instead, we can begin to use language to make explicit the assumptions and intentions that are producing these contradictions.  But we can also use language to produce new and better assumptions and intentions, which we can understand as infinitely corrigible.  It is true that language, and ideology, often do obscure reality and naturalize current practices; but the only escape from that dilemma is a more thoroughly rigorous use of language.  Retreating from language will only rob us of our most powerful asset as the only symbolic species on Earth.

My experience on this “retreat,” then, has renewed my motivation to pursue the work I have been engaged in for many years now, at a point when my enthusiasm was fading.  But it has also helped clarify for me just how this core error manifests in multiple and very different twentieth-century discourses.  Both are defenses of particular academic disciplines, and I have come to wonder if perhaps this is part of the problem: if academic discourses of necessity are limited to obfuscations and reifying language practices (that is, it is required of academic disciplines that they avoid the making explicit of assumptions and commitments), and so the only apparent option within any academic field is retreat into purely paradoxical confidence in determinism to do the right thing for us.

I would not have thought this through without a retreat like this.  My own idea to revisit some particularly troubling Shin Buddhist texts would probably have been postponed indefinitely; and I doubt I would have read this particular text of Lefebvre, or even have revisited Lefebvre at all any time soon.  

At the moment, we have no specific plans for a second Buddhist/marxist retreat.  But I would hope to do another, with more participants.  If anyone is interested, get in touch with me or with Chaim, and perhaps we can plan another event.  It will have to be in person, and will NOT focus on meditation, but any topic of discussion related to Buddhism and/or marxism is possible.  

Works Cited

Kaneko Daiei, “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies”, trans. Robert F. Rhodes.  In Cultivating Spirituality: a modern Shin Buddhist anthology.  SUNY Press, 2011.

Lefebvre, Henri, The Sociology of Marx, trans. Norbert Guterman.  Columbia University Press, 1982.