Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Cruel Theory/ Sublime Practice": Book Review

Glenn Wallis, Matthias Steingass, and Tom Pepper reevaluate Buddhism. Dismissing quiescent and supernatural states, they seek a practice grounded in liberating socially engaged agents, committed to intellectual rigor, ideological application, and political confrontation.  If they push Buddhism to the brink, they may glimpse an abyss, or play among the ruins where a tipped, upended rupa shatters. Expanding ideas discussed at the Speculative Non-Buddhism online project, they deny world-transcendence while affirming a collective mind--outside the individual brain--as liberated subjects revitalized, after a truth-event named as Buddhadharma.

This esoteric, exacting study demands concentration. In cruelty, via Antonin Artaud's theater, it unnerves the practitioner. With practice, invigorated by theory, the informed and radicalized subject revives. After Wallis's précis about its individually authored chapters, Tom Pepper rejects an "ultimate cosmopolitan anti-intellectual aesthetic practice" which comprises most of Western Buddhism. In "The Radical Buddhist Subject and the Sublime Aesthetics of Truth," he equates postmodernism with "sophisticated anti-intellectualism." (22)

Given Pepper is a literature professor, I pondered (fresh from reviewing Thomas Pynchon's forthcoming novel Bleeding Edge) if erudite evocations of power and control within Pynchon's works or, for example, Roberto Bolaño's 2666, Don DeLillo's Libra, Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, or José Saramago's allegories and chronicles deserved this tacit dismissal as "anti-intellectual" for their own sophisticated postmodernism. Pepper may intend to blame the secondary orality of postmodern culture. When fewer people read closely, they parrot received ideas with less self-awareness. Such lassitude enables the solipsism of consumers seeking Buddhism now, as marketed often in the West.

Pepper prefers to dismantle philosophical rather than fictional constructs which ease disengaged, dissatisfied audiences away from "the desolate landscape of postmodern thought." He castigates those Western Buddhists who eschew thought within meditation, and those who further "global capitalism" by choosing a more comforting "aesthetic negotiation" which prefers the comfort of beauty to any confrontation with an edgy, uneasy "sublime" harnessed to economic reform and radical change. (23)

Moving from David Hume's aesthetics, through Pali texts, past Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics into Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Pepper promotes as a corrective Alain Badiou's version of the sublime. Here, Pepper's definition meshes with postmodern literature, if by implication: "The sublime assumes a lack or emptiness, a gap in our World, our ideology, and also assumes the emptiness of conventional truth." (58) Pepper sharpens his perceptions, urging the need to acknowledge conventional truth. He reflects on Nagarjuna in light of Hume, Althusser, and the search for the Higgs Boson, as ways to start remapping worlds which stop reifying false premises. He uses Badiou's agency to propose common efforts which, as in the Aristotelian sense of making a habit a commitment to serious play and immersion in moral action, together create social transformation.

How this revives Buddhism might be, Pepper suggests, akin to how Keats's "Ode to Melancholy," the Harry Potter series, or the film Avatar may be studied. Students can unite to dismantle ideology, and to rebuild it. Exposing the mind as the core, not the brain, for "symbolic communication, which must always take place between multiple individuals," Pepper draws on Marx and Lacan (in passing), Badiou, and Buddhist thought for his remodel. (56) This "sublime" may not soothe, but it can awaken. No-self, dependent arising, and conventional truth provide markers by which humans can achieve consciousness rather than submission to "reactionary or obscurantist subjectivity." (83) How this will be achieved pragmatically, as in many manifestos, remains nebulous, but the promise of philosophical and political change lingers. Knowing this dependence on better ideology, and not being discouraged by this necessity to live with an ideological foundation, people by choosing wiser ideological constructions will transform reality.

Elaborating his scrutiny on the Speculative Non-Buddhism site, Glenn Wallis has moved beyond his phenomenologically inflected interpretations infusing his translations of the Dhammapada (2004) and sixteen suttas as Basic Teachings of the Buddha (2007). Neither merits mention in this volume. Currently teaching applied meditation at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies near Philadelphia, he devises "non-buddhism" inspired by the procedures of François Laruelle. Wallis alters "critical operations" to produce "theorems that are buddhistically uninterpretable." (91) He seeks to expose the hidden syntax, the viability of the propositions, and the "ideological excess" within Buddhism. (92)

Through fifty-eight numbered sub-sections of "Speculative Non-Buddhism: X-Buddhist Hallucination and its Decimation," Wallis establishes his terms, with a coda revising a few as a thought-experiment. His training as a Sanskrit and Pali scholar, his incisive tone, and his occluded career as a hardcore punk guitarist (he applies "decimation" as taken from digital sound processing) hover around a set of propositions and definitions. Confronting "x-buddhisms,” (I follow his punctuation) where x="unending modifiers" (93), Wallis locates in each version an embedded "decision" to affirm that type as a synecdoche for the whole of the dharma. The "non-" disables the Buddhist "network of postulation" while enabling Buddhism to remain as a "positive value." (95-96) "Speculation" requires that x-buddhism remain as is, so that critical inquiry may proceed, doing what x-buddhism will not do.

Therefore, integrating Laruelle's "radical immanence," this non-buddhism exposes x-buddhism. It can dissect, say, a concept such as śūnyatā to demonstrate how it works within a "symbolic system" freed from having to prove or disprove the truth-claim of emptiness itself. (103) "Decision" unplugs the current of self-reflexivity, the self-sufficiency of a Buddhist version unable to examine its own syntax. Non-buddhism, neither negating nor affirming Buddhism, incorporates a concerted strategy which "aims to stimulate the cognitive and affective conditions that render decision intelligible." (105)

Ironically, as a doctrine abounding with metaphors of voids, fingers pointing at a moon, discarding rafts, or burning houses down, x-buddhism refuses to notice its “flinch” when presented with these tropes. It resists its radical terms. Within a loop, trapped by clinging, it fails to provide "knowledge of real processes"; tautologically, it whirls within a "matrix of hallucinatory desire" (112). As a counter-measure, Wallis adapts Althusser's formulation of interpellation, the way people are molded into subjects through "ideological state apparatuses," to show how a "contemporary Westerner" refashions into an "x-buddhist subject." (115) Unless the "bad" subject disidentifies (as Althusser's student Michel Pêcheux phrases this oppositional stance) with the community's ideology, that interpretation seems natural and self-evident. This complacency, Wallis (Pepper concurs although nearly no cross-references connect their essays) demonstrates, prevents the adept from challenging, revolting, or leaving the dominant system. Liberation lets go of the "thaumaturgical refuge of x-buddhism" full of "ventriloquized subjects," as the one unthinking one's self as a non-buddhist enters into exile. (121)

Wallis directs the exiled subject towards "non-buddhist terms for practice." (124) Intrigued by the potential within x-buddhism yet no longer bound to its "dharmic norms," he lists three-dozen varieties of a heuristic within which speculation may work. "Buddhemes" as the reiterations of x-Buddhism, Buddhism as a constantly morphing ideology credited to "The Protagonist," a "Gotamic calculus," "humophobia" or a fear of flesh and blood, the "principle of sufficient Buddhism" as a nostrum for all that ails us, "spiritual narcissism," and a "voltaic network of postulation" speckle these exempla with provocative insight if considerable compression. Eager to defeat Buddhism as a "particular variety of sameness," Wallis escorts "x-buddhism's representatives" (136) to his "Great Feast of Knowledge." (144) There, these claimants can hold their own, albeit democratically, under the "same rules of engagement as all of the sciences and the humanities, as all local knowledges." I add that feasters might look up a Chinese student statement issued in June 1986, “The Not-Not Manifesto.” Consider this, cited by Jonathan Spence in his The Search for Modern China: “Not-Not is not the negation of anything.  It is only an expression of itself.  Not-Not is aware that liberation exists in the indefinite.”

Concluding with a thought-experiment substituting non-buddhist terms for x-buddhist ones, Wallis reckons a "decimated calculus" to distinguish, for instance, śūnyatā from "nihility" or "truth of void." He argues that nihility concocts an "antidote to the inexorable human drive toward transcendental illusion." (148-149) If the dharma defines the void while it evades this truth, it cannot endure as it is.

After this pair of scrupulously academic entries, a digressive approach follows from Matthias Steingass, who jumpstarted this Non-Buddhist site after running Der Unbuddhist. "Control" opens with an anecdote about stumbling across a lavish, graphic book of war photography, in a store tucked away within one of Europe's wealthiest cities, and the unease this juxtaposition created. He sidles into a riposte to the supposition by Robert Thurman and Sogyal Rinpoche that the ego is but an "expert at trickery and guile." (161)  Thurman's "terrorist in your brain" can only, it appears, be disarmed by not thinking, a release of the self into pure consciousness.

Steingass pinpoints in Thurman's salvific, Tibetan version of Buddhism a lack of ethical embedding in a "social context." (165) A disengaged version cannot impel followers to awaken. Thurman garbles the roles of Morpheus and Neo from The Matrix with those of the spectator. Steingass confesses confusion why peace-promoting Thurman advocates a film with such a splatter-specked climax. 

Paralleling this viral, slapdash "Neo-Buddhism," Steingass charges Thurman with denying "Tibetan Buddhism's violent heritage." (172)  (Thurman in Joshua Glenn's 1996 Utne Reader interview  "The Nitty Gritty of Nirvana" responded to such allegations. Thurman encourages engaged Buddhism, although his extended paean Inner Revolution, strangely missing from Steingass' citation, will appease no non-buddhists. Why the Dalai Lama Matters speaks for itself.) Charting cruelty within the rise of the Dalai Lamas, Steingass notes that neither a Shangri-La fairytale nor a dynastic clash of titans reveal a realistic approach towards Tibet, drifting as "oscillations in a fantasmatic landscape" mirroring a Western gaze. He nods at Tibet's noble savage as the West's preferred reflection. 

This crosses (if covertly) with Wallis' discussion of the credulous x-buddhist; if x=Tibetan for Steingass, then by adapting Max Weber's definition of a charismatic leader, Steingass reveals how journalists endow the current Dalai Lama with such an aura. Pascal Boyer's notion that most religious concepts serve as parasites on mental systems (akin to the aesthetic, vis-à-vis Pepper's inclusion of Hume) furthers this dependence on evolutionary psychology, an urge to bow before the shaman or submit to the seer. This propensity endures "below the conscious threshold of individual phenomenological access." (186)

As a "ritual specialist," the lama or priest, Steingass elaborates, gets singled out by Western as well as Eastern cultures as special. This human propensity appears deeply rooted in phylogeny, irrespective of explicitly religious manifestations. Icons endure as both gurus and guitar heroes, after all. As another musician-contributor, Steingass segues into how cultural movements and modern music lack a guiding principle or a framing device-- any more than that aligned by Thurman to limit Tibet.

Steingass summons not only Nietzsche and Foucault but Arthur Rimbaud to match Woodstock and intense social experimentation in the 1960s with the arrival of Chögyam Trunpga in the U.S. Blaming that lama for a "here and now" immersion into a simplistic view of reality "as it is," Steingass adapts Wallis' "principle of sufficient Buddhism" to account for what became a perennial philosophy brand of "Neo-Buddhism." (198-199) Unstated by Steingass, Wallis’s analogous appraisal of the “human drive toward transcendental illusion” propels Trungpa’s Shambhala vision. It rushes past ecological issues to assure the retrieval of a basic goodness without situating this phenomenon within consumer capitalism. Trungpa peddled a remedy to "spiritual materialism," yet he failed to analyze the sexual, political and social predicaments his own actions and those of his sangha then generated.

"Just look inside and the rest will follow" keeps the meditator on auto-pilot, according to Steingass.  Post-1968, an insular authenticity at work or play rules. Whether Jimi Hendrix jamming care of vacuum tubes and magnetic tapes invented in WWII (I detect Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow) or Marina Abramović slipping into shamanism as museum performance, capitalism perpetuates the search for the "authentic." It's a long march from Trungpa's childhood in pre-communist Tibet, but these pop gurus--by reproducing aesthetics and commodifying their emanations-- may nudge, however slyly, individuals to find their empowered vocation, to achieve their own self-actualization.

Winding back to what disturbed him in the war photography volume in that elegant bookstore, Steingass reflects that the sudden encounter "shifted my perception and intensified it." (208) Options exist beyond Abramović displaying herself, Hendrix recording at Woodstock, or Trungpa, Sogyal, or Thurman selling entry into a "gated community" of blissful disciples as a portal to freedom. Instead of acceptance or resignation, Steingass concludes, we as liberated spectators turned wise subjects can look at each other differently, as he looked at the war photos, or how museum goers look at an artist as an installation. Abramović posed herself in a gallery where visitors expect to find a framed masterpiece or an imposing sculpture. She tapped into the market, fueled by her own novelty.

Similarly, Steingass reminds us as do his co-contributors separately, Buddhism pulses with a potency that jolts a witness. (The sublime is achieved, not the aesthetic, to apply Pepper’s terms, albeit unspecified by Steingass.) Freeing viewers as actors, as those liberated from consumers to appropriators who own the art, and who create their own, radical reclamation beckons.

Each section contains documentation but each remains autonomous. A few introductory paragraphs by Wallis and three synopses of the chapters by each contributor provide a cursory overview.  The authors could have transcribed a panel discussion on “what is to be done,” sifting and refining their collective ideas. But, this lacks an agenda to synchronize students and critics of Buddhism dissatisfied with so many x-buddhisms. Instead, three authors leave it up to a radicalized reader who will reply with reason to x-buddhisms, to unplug what Wallis hears as their "dharmic vibrato." Moving from in theory from “x” to “non-,” the next step stays shadowed in practice. 

So far, coverage as far as I am aware of the non-buddhist juggernaut outside of predictable blowback at secular or legion x-buddhist sites has lagged in print.  In a recent review at New Clear Vision, "Sacred Activism," I summed up Jay Michaelson’s forthcoming Evolving Dharma. He introduces in a section on secular and non-theistic versions of Buddhism both Speculative Non-Buddhism and Matthew O’Connell’s Post-Traditional Buddhism. Michaelson paraphrases O’Connell’s disenchantment with Tibetan teachings before turning to Wallis.  Michaelson credits “scholar-practitioner” Wallis’s work as “marked by academic sophistication and self-reflexivity,” but concludes that “the actual practice of his sangha is not substantially different from the post-Zen Zen teachers of independent teachers such as Adyashanti” (loc. 1048 in e-galley proof), who gains little elaboration from Michaelson other than that he combines Zen with Vedanta and seeks a non-meditation state of “just sitting.” Michaelson, an adept in the Burmese Hadasi lineage (and as also a Yale Law professor, Ph.D. in Jewish thought, journalist, poet, and LGBT activist himself eclectic) extrapolates Wallis, “perhaps the most theoretically and academically rigorous of the post-post-traditional mavericks,” i.e., a prefix ahead of O’Connell’s own mavericks, as converging despite himself with those who “dispense with theory entirely.” 

Michaelson then muses that the “apophatic mystics” might have been right after all, for the likes of iconoclasts such as Wallis, whom he finds not as far apart from his secular antagonists as Wallis and allies may insist.  To me, Wallis has left the building, and the icon will not return for an encore, but to his critics, the threat of the new boss reclaiming the throne of the old boss, one party line shutting out other gatecrashers at the Feast, has generated mosh-pit jostling, at least on the Net. Pepper, after this book appeared, began his own investigation of the Buddha's "truth-claim," at The Faithful Buddhist.

O’Connell and Steingass try to ease some of the internecine tension, with fora open to more accommodation than excoriation as they ponder competing versions of x-buddhisms. Meditation in particular occupies a zone where practitioners continue to debate how much or how little of the dharma need be perpetuated when it comes to imagining reformed spaces for a skeptical sangha. I repeat Michaelson’s telling phrase: “the actual practice of his sangha” implies that Wallis and non-buddhists comprise already, two years after that site arose, a living entity, beyond—and/or as-- a virtual community. Australian sociologist and Zen student Joanne Miller in Buddhist Meditation and the Internet has examined such communal challenges for those attempting to build a cyber-sangha.

The reader, after examining three expansive exegeses, will find a few hints how to put non-Buddhism into action, in either the virtual or real worlds. Wallis's revised vocabulary as a thought-experiment, Pepper's admonition for an ideologically aware cadre, or Steingass's wish for an invigorated viewer's insight to adapt as a common vision offer suggestions, if inclined toward subtlety or density. The adamant tone of two-thirds of this treatise may daunt some readers, however familiar with Buddhist and philosophical concepts. By contrast, Steingass roams into popular culture and recent history widely, but he shrouds several thematic links. What deserves keeping and what needs discarding from the dharma, after such fierce scrutiny, waits as tenuous. Context may be gleaned by inspecting the Speculative Non-Buddhism website, as well as the emerging perspectives at The Non-Buddhist and Post-Traditional Buddhism and other sites linked therein, but this book does not duplicate (contrary to a claim in the first review extant at Amazon US/UK; my review has been posted there in short form), beyond the numbered elements underlying Wallis's section, the objectives of his original, often contentious, online project.

Encouragingly, this volume moves into fresh areas of inquiry. Pepper's hopes for a revolutionary vanguard and Steingass' concluding appeal to passive consumers turned engaged appropriators of art tend not to intersect on their respective paths to pursue the possibilities of non-Buddhism. However, with Wallis' ambitious formulations as the book's pivot, the patient reader will uncover his or her own suggestive resonances and correspondences. A tighter connection between essays and a bit more proofreading (I tally a few slips in the first section for spelling and usage and a couple in the last) would have amplified the long-range impact of Cruel Theory/ Sublime Practice. All the same, as a re-evaluation and valuation of the hidden drives within Buddhism, this strategy invites those in search of radical renewal.

(Thanks to Camelia Elias, EyeCorner Press, for a review copy. Remake-remodel as edited from above to 3300 words, 3/12/14, at Journal of Buddhist Ethics (2014) 21: 261-271; mostly as above 3100 words 9-9-13 to The Non-Buddhist. Update at TNB on JBE review (and pdf). Finally, 1160 words, revamped at Amazon US 9-8 and British Amazon 9-9-13. Order info.)


David Riley said...

Hello, fellow Los Angeleno. While I commend you for this thoughtful and objective review (that is, if it isn’t some form of subtle dry humor), I still must ask myself how a seemingly well-educated person who likes John Dos Passos, has read Pynchon’s latest, has Irish heritage and digs Ken Bruen, could ever take the crap this trio dishes out as anything other than ego-driven pseudo-intellectualism (or perhaps, over-intellectualism). But I will say that you have inspired me. Thus, I intend to devote a chapter in my latest to-be-written book, “The Diaspora of the Modern Buddhist Tetrad and the Outrageous Lychees of Doctrine,” to examining this book through the lens of William Safire’s term (penned, I believe, for Spiro Agnew), “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Dear David, cheers in our drought-ridden burg. I found this fractious trio out via my interest in Glenn Wallis' translations and then, as I'd always wondered about any Buddhist-punk connections as I'd never heard of any over the decades, his band Ruin. That led me then down the path to perdition, as I attempted to interpret the trio's challenging material for 'the educated general reader,' which you are. I tried to keep a balanced perspective, open to the project but clearly indicating its daunting discourse and stentorian tone; this may come out more on the JBE version as the editors requested more attention as to for whom this book appealed. And, I've been subjected to abuse on the mosh-pit at SNB, more than once, be assured, for my lack of seminar cred. As I've learned despite grad school to finally enjoy Pynchon as much as Dos (who is never read anymore in grad school anyway), I find Wallis a kindred if formidably learned and theoretically enamored spirit in his doom-laden density, and perhaps more hidden in translation, Steingass reveals some musical vibes that I may nudge others to pluck the hidden harmonies between Jimi and Chogyam, who knows? That's a Pynchonesque pursuit. I do find humor in all this skittering, as I always do when 'discourse' turns into the vernacular. Even if one of the trio makes me sound like Pollyanna. P.S. as to nnn, alas, I always admire abundant assonance and alliteration also!