Super Mario and the Gray Matter

Mario and the Gray Matter

Can meditation have something in common with video gaming? It appears that it can. And that something what brings together those two seemingly distant spheres of human activity is an increase in gray matter. Yes, just have a look at the results of studies published last year in Molecular Psychiatry and compare them with some of the conclusions presented by the authors of the article entitled “Mind of the Meditator” that has just appeared in the latest issue of Scientific American. For all those of you who, with some understandable reluctance, abandoned your Nintendos in favor of thickening your brain tissue and honing your concentration skills through practice of meditation, this could be surprisingly welcome news. It seems that now you can safely skip those grueling hours of sitting practice and simply return to grow your grey matter with your old pal, Super Mario.

But before you happily dust off your consoles and plunge into the game, let’s look at Mind of the Meditator from a slightly broader and critical perspective. Promise, it won’t be long.

One of the most mind-boggling aspect of articles intended for broad public consumption, such as the one discussed here, is that the authors, focusing on nothing else but “treating depression and chronic pain and […] cultivating a sense of overall well-being” (p. 40), that is, a version of “relaxationism” — see no problem at all in associating their meditative methods with the other-worldly discourse of liberation codified as x-Buddhism. Mark Singleton, a scholar of the contemporary yoga movement who actually coined the term “relaxationism,” writes that it refers to “(t)his blend of biomedicine, psychology, and esoterica [which] is very generally propagated as ‘wisdom of the East’. A critical distinction, he adds, is rarely drawn between modern relaxation techniques and ancient practices. In fact, the line often seems to be intentionally blurred to lend a method of “Asiatic cachet.” (p. 289) If there are some distinct interpretative frameworks that relaxationism draws on they are offered, rather, by New Age religion and Western esotericism. A  concern with synthesizing religion and science, for example, was already present in Renaissance Hermeticism. As another contemporary yoga scholar, Elizabeth De Michelis writes, following groundbreaking work on New Age religion by Wouter Hanegraaff,  “this ongoing attempt at synthesis mirrors a deep-seated human unease vis-a-vis the deep epistemological split brought about by the rise of modernity within Western (and nowadays global) societies.” (p. 21)

So if one tries to look through the prism of Singleton’s arguments at the rhetoric presented in the article by Ricard, Lutz, and Davidson, one soon realizes that their meditative techniques may in fact have little to do with any premodern version of x-Buddhist tradition, as they claim, but is just another version of what William James and other nineteenth/early twentieth century European and American authors called “salvation through relaxation.” In other words, it is a belief in the salvific function of proprioceptive awareness which, as Singleton writes, “is far less an integral package dispatched through the millennia by Indian sages than a symptom of the religious and economic crisis of our time.” (p. 302) Within this esoteric framework relaxation leads a practitioner to an inviolable epistemological certainty and wisdom, whereas tension, (like ignorance) prevents it. For, as  James argues in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, relaxation of body and mind is “the fundamental act in specifically religious, as distinguished from moral, practice” and “is capable of entering into the closest marriage with every speculative creed.” (p. 285)

It would not be a mistake then to argue that this notion of bare awareness – a notion that has become the foundation of a global movement of Buddhist modernism that sees meditation and living in the present as the essential core of its x-Buddhist doctrine – is “the closest marriage” for relaxationism today. And furthermore that a broader reason for this eclectic creed is that it dovetails so well with the libertarian age in which we currently live (cf. Lilla in the references). Like the obsessive meditative focus on the present moment, dogmatic libertarianism, with its  principles of the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom and  distrust of public authority – sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. Paradoxically it has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. Like the modernized, transglobal Buddhism, in libertarianism there is no place for political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes.

All this produces an extremely dangerous situation: instead of disclosing how the present emerged from a comprehensible past and how it is now moving toward an intelligible future – like the political ideologies born out of the French Revolution (a progressive one culminating in a liberating revolution, and an apocalyptic one ending with the natural order of things restored) – libertarian dogma, by fetishizing the present – here and now! – prevents any revisions when political developments happen, as they always do, to threaten its plausibility. One should look no further than the current denialism around the issue of global warming to see how destructive this kind of present moment utopianism can be. Has the obsessive non-judgmentalism of the proponents of the Mindfulness Industry something to do with the maintenance of this  apolitical libertarian utopia of our age? Would it be an exaggeration to state that both of those contemporary trends serve to immobilize the masses in the illusory cage of the present, thus preventing what is most needed today: mobilization and movement against the unjust and catastrophic status quo?

One might also ask who exactly (besides former cell biologist Ricard) belongs to this group of more than 100 monastics participants in the scientific experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Medison and other universities? Why, as serious followers of the path leading to liberation from the bondage of this-worldly experience, do they even care to subject themselves to  mundane scientific investigation? Why do they strive to share their religious know-how with the lay world, something that was unimaginable to premodern x-Buddhist monastics and especially to the tiny sliver of the sangha that actually practiced meditation in permanent solitary retreat? What agenda do this group of monastics led by the Dalai Lama really represent today? Aren’t they a part of the modernist transnational spirituality that first emerged in the late nineteenth century as a way, as David McMahan says, “to enchant the secular disciplines that early Buddhists modernizers used in staking their terms.” (p. 15)? Aren’t they part of the pet project of an emerging transnational educated elite who have the capacity to introduce it into the global mediascape? As McMahan further reminds us, “it is among this population that the new Buddhism of enchanted secularity has grown for over a century and continues to thrive today.” (p. 18) It begs the  question as to why this elite is taking such an interest in bringing those other-worldly monastics into laboratories to have their brains scanned? Is the noble intention to help all beings find happiness the only reason for all of that?

But before we get to what is determining such an undertaking, lets first ask one simple question which might force itself upon a reader who is not so ideologically blinded: aren’t the remarkable results presented in The Mind of the Meditator self evident? One of the article’s important points is about “meditation’s benefits” evidence which show up in magnet resonance imaging as “neuroplasticity”. Reading through the article one wonders if the findings about neuroplasticity are not, at this stage, just trivial. Wouldn’t it be an expected outcome that a being, which depends in its life functions on physical features, shows changes in these features when actualizing and indeed specializing certain areas of its contingency. Has anybody ever tested the brain of a dog trained to find explosives or drugs, in comparison to a dog which rarely leaves its owner’s sofa? An owner, furthermore, who sits there smoking crack and watching soaps all day long? And what does the brain of a crack smoker looks like in comparison to a London cab driver with 1000s of hours of driving practice? If we then read that “physical changes in the brain – an altered volume of tissue in some areas – occur through meditation,” so what? And if we read on and learn that practitioners “also experience beneficial psychological effects such as the ability to react faster to stimuli and show themselves to be less prone to various forms of stress,” again: so what? There are a myriad of examples of how humans learn to react faster and better, more efficiently and with less stress in relation to their environment. Remember Zen at War by Brain Victoria. In this book Victoria portrays Zen soldiers who developed remarkable indifference to the suffering of their enemies and who were able to kill at will without hesitation and remorse. Zen already proved how remarkable meditation can be. And regarding the development of human skills in relation to their environment, we don’t have to search far either. European sailors like James Cook were astonished at the ability of their indigenous pilots to navigate open waters in the Pacific. An Aborigine can live without a problem in the Australian desert, a place  where no white man would ever put his foot without a great deal of preparation and support. People navigated to the moon with barely the equivalent of a Commodore 64 computer on board. People climb the highest mountains with only the clothes they stood in. They count Pi to the 1000s decimal… not to speak of those on this planet who are forced to live under exceptionally bad conditions and who have to learn to interact with stimuli which would cause us to immediately collapse. So what is so new in the exceptional feats of those guinea piggy meditators, apart from the fact that “they react faster to stimuli and are less prone to various forms of stress”? The answer is, there is nothing exceptional in the findings as presented here by the Scientific American.  The “In Brief” at the bottom of page 40 is just plain common knowledge. As it has been said about x-buddhism: It is putting nothing in boxes and selling it.

Another more important question is about the presuppositions the Scientific American uses to support its claims. This question is about the transcendent other-worldly dogmatic patterns infused into this discourse without any further consideration and which form a base argument, a kind of axiom on which the rest is build. Or to put it another way: it is exactly about a certain world view, a philosophical decision, a circular reasoning which is presupposed in this article without further questioning and which integrates what is afterwards said into a certain discourse – especially into a discourse which establishes an authority which isn’t, thereafter, to be questioned. The question is how authority about what is to be discussed is raised in the first place. In the “In Brief” (p. 40) we read:

“Meditation is an ancient pursuit that, in some form, is a part of nearly every world religion.”

Such is the first claim made in this article about meditation. It is a plain assertion – not an assumption, a hypothesis, or even a theory. There is not even a reference to any further reading. The statement is presented as a fact. A fact which is presented as a universal – without proof. To make it short: This is the claim of the colonial master. The gesture of the well educated white Europe male telling the world how it is. The claim is a universal which suppresses every other local view about a world in which humans live. The stated claim of such a universal today – after Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault etc. – is naïve. But nonetheless such claims are en vogue again, otherwise a publication like the Scientific American would be unlikely to put them forward. Donald S. Lopez in Prisoners of Shagri-La has analyzed how Eurocentristic universalism  is stealthily fed back into Tibetan Buddhism, and especially into the discourse of the Dalai Lama (cf. chapter The Prison). The point here is that such claims about the universality of meditation and religion are gestures of an authority which tries to evade being questioned as to the basis of its authority, its origins and its objectives.

It is clear, for Matthieu Ricard at least, what the objectives of religion and meditation are. For him, as a Tibetan Gelug monk, it is the belief in a transcendent sphere beyond the material world and its emergent entities. It is the strict belief in a dualistic world view in which the mind is the final element determining everything else – a mind which is, in the last instance, unfettered by any material influence. Meditation is the practice of actualizing this pure mind, which in its earthly manifestation only exists in a kind of polluted and degraded variant. Meditation, in the case of Ricard is, moreover, the means by which he can resolve the uncertainties which confront the individual after s/he has died and must transit the Bardo — that sphere which the mind must enter after losing contact with the body, at least according to Tibetan Buddhism. In order to successfully travel through the Bardo, the mind must be trained in meditation.

This then is the background of Ricard’s meditation: the believe in a transcendent sphere which is absolutely determining the material. In other words a Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. Coupled with that is the believe in personal reincarnation. Regarding the “provocative and ultimately productive” relation with science, as it is mentioned in the opening paragraph of the article, the strong determinism of the Gelug worldview is especially interesting in the present context. The Gelug worldview requires a discrete cause for every effect. But such a relationship of a cause and effect is negated by the theory of superposition in quantum mechanics (to give only one example), which Gelug philosophy therefore cannot accept.  This is one of the many reasons why the Gelug worldview isn’t compatible with science! (Cf. Tom Pepper’s Feast Interrupted where the author analyzes the strict duality of Gelug philosophy)

The strong determinism of the Gelug world view in particular has to be taken into account if one wants to see the ideological structure which frames this text. The vague definition of meditation is part of the structure. Together with the regular evocation of the Dalai Lama and the proclamation of universals, it serves to establish a sphere of authority within which the discussion must now be undertaken. This sphere of authority shields the topic from disclosing the defining structures in which it is formed, (its sociality for example), and the specific economic setting within which it develops,  and so on. We learn that meditation is “the cultivation of basic human qualities” (cf. p.  42).  These qualities “remain latent as long as one does not make an effort to develop them”. But aren’t these “qualities” just more universals? Do they mean homo sapiens inherits something which makes her fully human only when she develops it? From where does homo sapiens get these basic qualities in the first place?

The text mentions, for example, “love and compassion” as basic qualities. But, apart from more vague notions, aren’t we given here just more proclamations of universal truth? It seem so, but to the contrary “love” is, to say it the Foucaultian way, the result of a certain discourse and a certain dispositive and it depends on a certain historic apriori in which it is formed. The object “love” as we know it today doesn’t pre-exist, in the sphere of Plato’s ideas for example; it is formed only in the process of a discourse, and within a complex bio-social setting. Importantly we cannot think discrete causes for the effect love (or anything else). And neither is love a discrete element which could be extracted from a context. Love is a resulting quality in the bio-social sphere, which forms within the complexity of a multitude of conditions. This could even be formulated, from a buddhist perspective, in terms of dependent arising. In fact Nagarjuna in his Mulamadhyamakakarika doesn’t generally allow either discrete elements nor causes or effects – only “conditions”. At least this is so in the view of Jay L. Garfield. Seen in this way “latent human qualities” are either essentialist thinking, or the text is exceptionally badly formulated. Regarding Gelug philosophy the former is certainly the case.

So, even with a cursory examination, the essentialist structure of the text becomes clear. Another point is hidden deeper but is even more important. With it we finally touch the economical structure that determines this thinking in the last instance. This becomes apparent when we question the ontological relationship of the pictorial “Varities of Contemplative Experience” (p. 41) and the human object it claims to depict. The differentiation becomes quite important when it comes to the behavior of the human object which is deduced from representational information and its underlying data. The unquestioned assumption in the text is that such behavior can quite easily be deduced. But this is not so easy and what actually can be deduced from such information should be very thoroughly discussed. When we talk about the data from which the pictorial varieties are generated on the one hand and the human on the other, what we have before us are two totally different kinds of ontological spheres. Data is zero-dimensional and a-temporal, the human is multi-dimensional and temporal. The problem is that the one cannot be reduced to the other but the assumption that it is possible is silently supporting the text. The point is well known and thought through, (cf. for example the short but instructive discussion by Catherine Malabou in What Should We Do with Our Brain?) The text states that we can deduce from data how human behavior can and should be determined. The text assumes that it is possible to easily think a discrete causation from the results of “neuroimaging and other technologies” to the human. But this is a premature jump to a conclusion in the context of the difference between zero-dimensional data and the multi-dimensional human. It is not at all clear how we go from simple experiments, which comprise just one action – pressing a button when distraction in the midst of a concentrative task becomes apparent – to complex human interactions. All it is possible to say is that some effect might take place if we assume a behavior based on deduction from the data. The point is, if it is assumed that the deduction from data to behavior can take place in a direct and mono-causal manner, we have before us here a relationship of the economic sphere – capital – and the human, in which capital as the motor of quantification is generally determining the economy and neurobiological research in particular. In the last instance behavior then is determined by capital – without the knowledge or awareness of those involved in the research we look at here. The turn we see is how quantification gets a direct take on human behavior. Such alienation is of course nothing new, but the important point here is the new field it seizes. We see how – finally – capital is able to interfere directly with human cognition.

It is about automated cognition now. There always has been a gap in the line of command from the capital to the human. The consciousness of alienation has , up until now, never been shut down altogether. Pockets of resistance remained possible because of the consciousness of alienation – for example about how an alien rhythm is forced upon the human by the assembly line, and how this rhythm excludes other rhythms and how its economic value is the ability to milk a surplus value from the lived human. Control was forced upon the human from outside and the clash of this force with the will to get free from exploitation was a visible sign that some things contradict each other and that all is not right. But within the so called societies of control that have developed since the 1980s, the consciousness of alienation has gradually diminished. Nowadays control isn’t a question of external force anymore. The control enforced upon an alienated human is control from within which is disguised as the freedom to choose whatever one wants. The cult of happiness dictates in a gentle and subtle way how the human should be and, most important, it teaches that if one is not happy, the error lies within oneself. It is not social relationships, exploitation etc. that is to blame. It is  ones own fault if one doesn’t reach out for a never ending blissful life. The only inkling that all might not be ok comes from so called personal malfunction — from forms of chronic depression and the fatigue of being oneself. This is for now the last gap in the line of command from capital to human capital: the question why people do get burned out, over stressed, sleepless, nervous, exhausted and finally fall into a state of severe depression if they allegedly have all they need? The answer given by the societies of control is that they fail on the level of thinking – they don’t get their cognition right.

The society of control successfully shifted control from external to internal. The only remaining problem was how to quantify human cognition to be able to teach it in a one-size-fits-all-manner, how to steer itself in a more fine grained manner. That is the scenario article lays out. The Varieties of Contemplative Experience defines what kind of measurable cognition there should be in order to be able to successfully steer oneself  through the cycle of awareness and distraction. The article furthermore lays out the path to self regulation from stress into relaxation and how it is to be measured and controlled via bio feedback. In the ontological relationship of the pictorial Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the object depicted, the latter is now determined to its fullest extent by the former. What we have before us now is a full one-way determination from capital to neuro-plasticity to the human. The human becomes capital to its fullest extent and the gap between quantification and human behavior is finally closed. In such a way the human becomes fully integrated into capital as quantifiable human capital.

Importantly, in the case presented here, this is an unconscious determination. Ricard, Lutz and Davidson at no point seem to be aware that it would be necessary to discuss the relationship of their science with what in the last instance determines it. Their science is just a given – just as the universals they proclaim in their article are also a given. All this, by the way, is in stark contrast to the pretentious motivation  of x-buddhism to alleviate all suffering (first noble truth) and to analyze the reason of this suffering (second noble truth). Nowhere in the so called sciences initiated by the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard do we see anything which comes near to these noble objectives (and remarkably, as stated repeatedly, it suffices to have the desire to alleviate suffering). Instead it is a purely mechanical undertaking which is shamefully oblivious to how it is determined and what it will help to achieve in the end: automated cognition of the human capital.

Apart from this it remains to be seen if the findings presented in this article are of any value at all. One has to be doubtful. A meta study discussed in this tricycle article makes one skeptical if ‘meditation’ is able to do anything which goes beyond the results of a healthy dietary regime and regular exercise. See here for the abstract of this study. The result may very well cause one to become even more depressed about all this. Seen from this point the three references at the end of Ricard, Lutz and Davidson’s article might be nothing but a very subjective and arbitrary alibi by the authors.

It is true, it seems, that our grey matter is subject to plasticity. There seems to be enough evidence for this. But in the light of the meta study just mentioned it remains doubtful what activity is of greatest effect, not only in regard of altering our grey matter – diet, exercise, playing Super Mario, worshipping at the alter of the Tibetan noble savage – but more importantly regarding compassion, insight into the human situation of the being and last but not least a sense of humor regarding the weird and cruel lives we live. It seems like cab driving is still the most efficient training. It seems like the mindfulness industry and its Super Mario Monks have a long way to go to come even near the humor about, insight into, and compassion for humans a poet like Jim Jarmusch is able to show via his protagonists in his film Night on Earth

~o~

References

Ricard, Matthieu; Lutz, Antoine; Davidson, Richrad J. November 2014. Mind of the Meditator, in Scientific American.

Lilla, Mark. 2014. The Truth About Our Libertarian Age.

Pepper, Tom. 2011. Feast. Interrupted.

McMahan, David L. 2012. The Enchanted Secular: Buddhism and the Emergence of Transtraditional ‘Spirituality’The Eastern Buddhist, 43/1&2

Singleton, Mark. 2005. Salvation through Relaxation: Proprioceptive Therapy and its Relationship to Yoga. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vo. 20, No. 3

Victoria, Brian. 1997. Zen at War.

Lopes, Donald S. 1998. Prisoners of Shangri-La, chapter: The Prison.

Garfield, Jay L. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika.

De Michelis, Elizabeth. 2004. A History of Modern Yoga, Patanjali and Western Esotericsm.

Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What Should We Do with Our Brain?

Body, Nature, Commodity : The Regime of the Spectacle.

images

Civilization and the Stories we tell Ourselves.

I’ve been reading recently over at the Dark mountain project. For a number of reasons. Weariness with the same old inanities churned out by politicians — sustainable business, sustainable agriculture, the “management” of climate change — at best, fiddling while Rome burns, more often cynicism of the worst sort. I think a lot lately about the relation between the body, nature, ecology, and the way such a discourse might dovetail with a critique of capitalism and the opportunist embrace of environmentalism by liberal political parties, capitalist entrepreneurs, and marketing strategists out to create and exploit niche markets. Not to mention the buying and selling of carbon quotas by western governments, intent on business as usual despite impending catastrophe. Same old story and one structured on an unquestioned anthropocentric discourse that looks to me increasingly bankrupt.

The story, and there is a lot of emphasis at the Dark Mountain on stories, is complicated. The plot has thickened since Kepler, Galileo and Newton displaced Man as the centre of the universe. Indeed, the term Man is indicative of exactly what was knocked off its pedestal. To push the metaphor, what was left of Man seems now shattered beyond repair. We could say that Darwin and Marx finished off the job, in western terms at least. Lets not forget that Man, the chief protagonist in the story of Progress was a westerner whose mission was the civilization of the assorted rabble —  African, Indian, South America, Arab, Asian etc. — everyone in fact except the population of a small corner of Europe and white America. (One of the reasons we should question the unthinking use of the term “we”)

Darwin, or rather the philosophers who cited him and extrapolated from his findings, concluded that there was no unchanging kernel to Man, only a complex of biological factors evolving over time and conditioned on the environment. When Mendel weighed in with his theory of genetic inheritance no one in their right mind regarded the designation Man as anything other than a provisional place-holder. Marx and Freud finished the job by introducing the concept of historical law and the unconscious, both of which put pay to the belief in an autonomous subject exercising free will. The corpse , though, continued to function much in the same way as a chicken without a head will continue to squawk and run around in circles. The corpse perpetrated many a genocide (north Africa, South America, South east Asia) before running out of steam. By the time Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard, showed how language structured our discourses and proposed the relativization of norms and systems of knowledge, Man was as dead as the God who had created him. And the story of Progress died with him, somewhere around the early seventies, as the idealistic belief/hope of the counter-culture that progress could be made met with intransigent vested interest, the might of the state and the strength of the consumerist mirage conjured up by a growing advertising and media conglomerate. This is, of course, a gross simplification, but you get my point.

It seems strange, therefore, that the Dark Mountain Manifesto emphasizes the central importance of the Story of progress, as if anyone these days still  believes in it.  If anything the story we have told ourselves for a long time is of The World as an out of control disaster, a sort of exterior projection of our collective actions perceived as an unstoppable force acting against our own interests and despite our best intentions. The most common reaction to the increasingly desperate state of the planet and its inhabitants is surely a depressed shrug of the shoulders indicative of a hopeless washing of the hands? The idea/feeling/intuition that we are not masters of our destiny and that we probably never were has so permeated the contemporary mind that it seems to anyone under forty an absurdity that we ever did swallow that one.

For me, contrary to the Dark Mountain Project, it is the story of our helplessness in the face of an alien force overcoming our best intentions as individuals, which is the problem, or rather a symptom of the problem.

The System of Commodities and the Spectacle

Consider the structures on which that bubble has been built. Its foundations are geological: coal, oil, gas — millions upon millions of years of ancient sunlight, dragged from the depths of the planet and burned with abandon. On this base, the structure stands. Move upwards, and you pass through a jumble of supporting horrors: battery chicken sheds; industrial abattoirs; burning forests; beam-trawled ocean floors; dynamited reefs; hollowed-out mountains; wasted soil. Finally, on top of all these unseen layers, you reach the well-tended surface where you and I stand: unaware, or uninterested, in what goes on beneath us; demanding that the authorities keep us in the manner to which we have been accustomed; occasionally feeling twinges of guilt that lead us to buy organic chickens or locally-produced lettuces; yet for the most part glutted, but not sated, on the fruits of the horrors on which our lifestyles depend….Hine and Kingsnorth : The Dark mountain Manifesto

 A true description of our condition but it leaves out, I think, an essential point. Something new happened to capitalism in the post industrial age of computers, globalized economy, digital media, online networks, the advertising and publicity blitz, and unbridled consumerism. (although the analysis of the industrial carbon based economy stills holds good )

In “The Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord presents an analysis of this new mode of capitalist society, describing the process whereby the spectacle emerged in the last half of the 20th century as the predominant mode of the market system, built on the foundation of the carbon/industrial complex, completing what the Dark Mountain manifesto calls “the well-tended surface where you and I stand”.

We imagine that with modernism and the discourse of reason, scientific enquiry, secularism and representational democracy, we have abolished the rule of kings and priests , ending the transfer of human power to godly regions and all that entailed. At its root, however, the commodity system reinforces the religious illusion. Capitalism shifts the deference of human power, seating it not in some transcendental realm but in the here and now of the object as commodity. Debord names the totality of the social relations of capitalism in the stage of the domination of the computational/media/advertising/consumption conglomerate as the “society of the spectacle”, where the totality of the power of the commodity object appears to appropriate the humanand re-present it in the image of the desirable other which we are driven to become. Debord quotes a prophetic statement by Feuerbach.

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. Feuerbach, Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity.

The spectacle is the mode of globalized commodity production in which the systems own illusion of itself as the optimum of human well-being becomes the primary product of its activity. Like an earlier stage of capitalist production, in which it was necessary to produce the worker as a unit in the process of producing commodities, the present mode must produce the human as consumer to ensure a market for the commodities produced. It achieves this by inventing through media, advertising, television, film, music, entertainment, the living image of the consummate  object — the celebrity, music idol, film star, media persona, fashion model, media icon — who embodies and mediates the human as consumer of commodities and as, in itself, the consummate object/other capable of being acquired and lived (you too can be this ). This living replica of the spectacle’s banal vision of its own potential offers the worker/drone possible roles and the illusion of escape. This escape, though, is only an identification with the absolute product of the system of production — the living media icon as commodity — and thus only another act of consumption.

The spectacle subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway. For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.[...]Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world, not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality. In all its specific manifestations news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life. It is the omnipresent celebration of a choice already made in the sphere of production, and the consummate result of that choice. In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself. Guy Depord. The Society of the Spectacle, 16

The commodified human is a living replica of its own fetishized self-image, while functioning at the same time as a producer/drone (to be that you must do this) in the overall system of production. The spectacle as mode of production, appears as a self replicating, auto organizing social machine for the unending re-production of itself.

Far from liberating us from the absolute other, the mode of capitalist production has transferred the illusion of otherness from god (the projection into an imaginary metaphysical space of human power) to the commodity (the projection of human power into the object of production and consumption.) In this transfer the individual’s autonomy becomes a matter of choosing between roles in the systems self replicating activity; the compulsion of work becomes a lifestyle choice, freedom a choice between political icons (parties, stances, styles, individuals) packaged, managed and re-presented in the form of the televised circus of media politics. True power continues to reside in the sphere of production, where possibility has already been circumvented by the constraints of the existing mode of social relation.

The destruction of the environment, the extinction of species, the oppressive structures, the waste, the violence, the unending round of production exchange and consumption, are the effects of a process conditioned on the social relations of production. It is within this alienated process that we abstract the material out of which we concoct the various stories of mastery and helplessness. At a fundamental level we are mistaken about what we are collectively doing when we go to work.

We work to provide for our needs, but the social relations within which we exercise our labour —the relations of production— distort the outcome, producing periodic economic crisis.  Work, consequent on the division of labour ,becomes a fragmented process for the most part lacking creativity or real purpose. We are alienated from the means and the result. Collectively we create a world of commodities which seem to stand over us as an alien force over which we have no control. The commodity form and the process of exchange obscure the nature of these social relations, which turns ordinary use value, in which the relation between the object and  human need is clear, into exchange value, where the connection is obscured and is experienced as external law. (of economy) Money becomes the measure of all things, including the relative value of one form of work with another. The usefulness of an object no longer determines its value. Work, the natural impulse to transform the given of nature into sustenance–physical, emotional, mental , spiritual– becomes a necessity imposed on us by apparently arbitrary powers, inflicting on us a regime of sublimation in which our creative and playful impulses are transformed into the actions of an automated drone. Fulfilment, always postponed, ever recedes. We act and the sum of our actions becomes, by means of the convoluted process of social relation, the action of an apparent exterior force. We find ourselves on the industrial and post industrial treadmill suffering a life we think has been imposed on us by that mysterious thing we call “the world.”

Consolation and Revolt

The dark mountain, although it makes no attempt, at least in the manifesto, to produce a detailed critique of present conditions, does advocate a radical reassessment of environmental and ecological thought and practice. In somewhat poetical language, it calls for a tactical retreat,:

If we are right, it will be necessary to go literally beyond the Pale. Outside the stockades we have built — the city walls, the original marker in stone or wood that first separated ‘man’ from ‘nature’. Beyond the gates, out into the wilderness, is where we are headed. And there we shall make for the higher ground for, as Jeffers wrote, ‘when the cities lie at the monster’s feet / There are left the mountains. We shall make the pilgrimage to the poet’s Dark Mountain, to the great, immovable, inhuman heights which were here before us and will be here after, and from their slopes we shall look back upon the pinprick lights of the distant cities and gain perspective on who we are and what we have become…Hine and Kingsnorth: The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Such a tactical retreat is needed. We need to ask questions, though, about the salvic potential of proximity to nature. If we talk, as Dark mountain does, of the bubble of civilization we should place such a representation of nature within the civilized camp as one of its most ubiquitous stories. Much of the discourse on the body, nature, and ecology is couched in pseudo spiritual language inspired by neo shamanist or new age practices and discourses, anti modernist discourses decrying the excess of science and technology, and by a raft of discourses, stances, attitudes and practices originating in American and European nature writing and environmentalism. It is very tempting to beguile ourselves like someone lost in a forest who believes he has found the way home but continues to circle about the one invisible axis. Simply put there is nowhere to retreat to, either within the body or within nature, no depths we can mine for sustenance, no inner sanctum to which we can flee, no holy grail buried in the heart of the dark wood, no God, pagan or otherwise, waiting for us on the mountain top, no unsullied corner which has escaped the reach of the commodity form and the money relation.

It might perhaps be just as useful to explain what Uncivilised writing is not. It is not environmental writing, for there is much of that about already, and most of it fails to jump the barrier which marks the limit of our collective human ego; much of it, indeed, ends up shoring-up that ego, and helping us to persist in our civilisational delusions. It is not nature writing, for there is no such thing as nature as distinct from people, and to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the attitude which has brought us here. And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.

Here again, we presume  that the artist is in some way closer to an untapped inner resource, or more attuned to a deeper level of being, This story of the artist, which is the romantic corollary of the idea of the Master of science and technology and his discourse of unending progress, arose as the alluring consolatory fable best suited to disguise exactly what the ruthless capitalist machine was unleashing on the body and nature, a fable told via the novel, poetry and painting created for the ruling élite who were the beneficiaries of that very machine.

We have reached an impasse in which both the story of progress and story of consolation in nature are a bifurcated pair equally implicated in our undoing. For the most part both stories have been abandoned by the mass of people and replaced by a helpless acceptance of the banality of the spectacles imposition of the drive to consume and exchange as the optimum of human fulfilment–the Story of Man and  his Progress through History has resolved itself into the “happy ever after” of the spectacles banal last chapter- the society of fucking and shopping.

And yet, of course, a redemptive story haunts our minds in which we do reconcile with nature. And there is an undeniable truth in the experience of our alienation. It touches as much on the way we distance ourselves from our own living  bodies as from from external nature. Descartes pushes the cleavage  to the limit with his “I think therefore I am”. We are a ghost in the machine, an alien presence on a hostile planet whose inhabitants must be subdued and enslaved for their own good. This division, between ourselves and all else.– that other of the absolute outside — includes our own body. Like invaders from Mars we gaze down from on high on the uncivilized natives, among whose numbers we include our own bodies, which we then subjugate. What an utterly surreal story Philosophy have concocted for us and how remorselessly we live out its implications.

Separation, alienation, powerlessness, loss, denial–these are the symptoms of our malaise which we will not solve only in the realm of ideas. The exile and separation we experience at the level of embodiment is as absolute as the reign of the commodity. At the level of thought the commodity still reigns, via a philosophical and ideological harassment of the human that tries to impose an identity between thought and the real, as if life could be imprisoned within the thought of the lived; and nature within the thought of nature .The absurdity of such a project does not prevent the unending iteration of philosophical versions of the real. Philosophies supersede each other as alluring objects of acquisition and consumption, in much the same way as the latest commodity is replaced by its successor, despite the obviously repetitious nature of the process. The real, however, continues to be indifferent to the stories we tell ourselves.

There are bodies and there are thoughts/images/discourses of the body; there is the unnamed and unnameable real and the ghost of the real which haunts thought as thought. The real will seem to intrude on the mind’s auto commentary. From this perspective ecological catastrophic is no less unnatural than a hearth attack in the case of an obese man — both are consequent on a mode of life. Just as the fetishized image of the body as object of acquisition must succumb to the real of the lived body, so too nature as resource must succumb to the real of nature naturing. We dramatize this intrusion, and comfort ourselves with stories of healing and reconciliation. But such stories belie the force of our collective action which transforms our individual somnambulist act of going to work each day into a apparent  force of the economy acting against us and against nature.

If we suffer, as most do, from an inertia that prevents action, a depression that paradoxically allows somnambulist action but disallows any action that would contribute to wakefulness, perhaps it is the visceral experience of the weight of the oppressing force applied to us as lived bodies. Such an experience of pervasive alienation from the world we create cannot be resolved in the realm of ideas, critical or otherwise.

But why have we come to this — a body twice removed from itself — once by the alienating force of thought, twice by the inescapable force of the commodity relation?

The materialistic stance of the capitalist subject – both wage labourer and the capitalist who owns it – is marked by an “anorexic” treatment of the physical. The modernist idea of the “material” is indeed what makes the capitalist subject happy. However, immersing into the material without control, allowing it to devour you through pleasure and pain renders the material meaningless, “mere matter.” Matter matters only when fetishized as money, as a sculpted instead of mere body, as sex which is not organs and fluids but representation, as a home which is not (just) a home but a procedure of stylization of one’s life. If the material does not satisfy the fantasized fetishistic expectations, its immediate, unruly, “primitive” needs are treated as defect and their urgencies are (expected to be) subjected to control by the subject of self-mastery.’ Katerina Kolozova. Towards a non-Marxist radicalism of nature.

This reign of the defective body is the underbelly of the reign of the spectacle, of the fetishized media icon packaged for consumption and replication and fed to us via the conveyor belt of manufactured wants as the object of our artificially induced desire. Beyond this fantasy world of unending wants and the dream of an absolute fulfilment that never quite arrives, the real world, pushed to the margins of awareness, lies in ruins. Waste, discharge, excess, debris, putrefaction are the bodily processes — the body of nature and the lived body of flesh and blood — hidden behind the commodified facade. We would rather not look, and yet our fascination with the real, in a vicious twist, becomes an element of the  spectacle, inducing an  obsessed fixation with images of excess —  an entertainment of the grotesque, the forbidden, the taboo, the pornographic —  the corollary of the Roman arena and it choreographies of sex and death. In the world we have created there is no possibility of redemption just because no realm has been left untouched by the corrupt contagion of the commodity form.

Our contemporary climate, both in the physical and intellectual sense, is determined by a single force: the neoliberal capitalist ideology that demands everything reduce its value to the quantitative measure of money so that it can produce more of this measure. Nature, though, appears to be purposely deviating from what is accepted as good, proper, or reasonable in capitalist society. Nature itself appears to be refusing to go away, to separate itself off from “culture” and the human person, and insists on inhering to every part of culture and within every human person, and it resists bowing before capitalism’s demand, to be measured as something relative rather than the radical condition for any relative measurement: Anthony Paul Smith Non-Philosophical Theories of Nature, quoted in Kolozova: Towards a non-Marxist radicalization of Nature.

Where to turn in a world where the body of flesh and blood is rendered over as an object of consumption and exchange and where nature has been de-natured and re-presented as the other to which we can flee for solace and relief?  Where in such a world, is the site of revolt and what are its means?

Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth : The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Kolozova Karerina: Towards a non-Marxist radicalization of Nature.

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle

A New Subject?

job-rebuked

By Labelling as heresy all views of which it disapproved the Church successfully passed off its orthodoxy as a unique scale for weighing the true meaning of words, beings, and things. It nevertheless felt inadequate and disarmed in the face of certain attitudes that it deemed “meaningless and demented”. With some unease the Inquisition attached the words “free spirit” and “madness” to men and women who renounced all spiritual and temporal authority, seeking no more than to live in accordance with their desires…….    Raoul Vaneigem: The Movement of the Free Spirit.

Intro

This post addresses points about meditation Matthias and Tomek brought up in a recent comment tread. My thoughts were further stimulated by Tomeks video links and related printed material and by Matthias’s list of points on meditation. (links below). The following is structured on a series of questions (the section headings) to emphasize the exploratory nature of the content and its provisional character.

The Personal/political?

The philosopher Evan Thomson has  formulated an understanding of emptiness based not on Buddhist sources, but on the findings of cognitive science and biology.

[...]Cognitive science speaks of the ways in which the processes that bring about our experiences of the world, including our sense of self are dynamical, distributed across space and time and extend across the complex couplings of the brain, the rest of the body and the environment. Although it may seem as if there is a single abiding self that functions as the controller of the mind, cognitive science indicates that what we call the mind is a collection of constantly changing emergent processes that arise within a complex system comprising the brain, the rest of the body and the psychical and social environment, and in which we find no single abiding and controlling self…….Thomson, Evan, Talk given at the Buddhism, Mind and Cognitive Science Conference, Berkley.

It may be that the emphasis on the non– substantial and impermanent nature of the self owes much to Buddhism, in the  way in which he frames the question. Nevertheless we can confirm such a statement independently of the circular reasoning of Buddhist philosophy. Should we want to make use of it, such an understanding is available to us. It can function as a basis for an overtly secular and immanent spirituality, enriched by the insights of ecological and environmental thought, and by developments in contemporary philosophy.

Such a discourse is possible , for me at least, only by a decimation that reduces the terms of any particular discourse to what Laruelle calls a determination in the last instance, a first name that does not presume to capture the real, but functions as a clone of the real. For now, probably on an incomplete understanding of Laruelle’s thought, I think of such decimated terms as provisional signifiers, or orientating conceptual markers. I hope it becomes clear as you read this post what Laruelle means by a first name or in the last instance. Part of the intention is to deflate the terms of any discourse and allow them to speak of the real minus the absolute. Such a process allows a form of work on existing discourses, work that tries to extract the transcendent presumptions of philosophy.

We can distinguish first names from the postulates of philosophical systems by their axiomatic function. An axiom is any statement that serves as a starting point from which other statements are logically derived. Axioms cannot be arrived at by deduction. Axiomatic terms have no logical precedents; they follow from no other terms simply because they are starting points. Laruelle, for this reason, speaks of non-philosophical terms as determinations in the last instance. Philosophical postulates, in contrast, are the result of a series of logical precedents brought together as philosophical theorems—a series of related postulates that say something conclusive, in absolute terms, about the real.

No doubt non-buddhism, on this account, could be charged with a form of relativism, or even eclecticism. Such eclecticism, if that’s what it is, appeals to me as a corrective to x-buddhist sufficiency, a temptation to which any ex x-buddhist might be prone, myself included. Philosophical sufficiency and its ideological counterpart, or should I say bastard child, is not easily abandoned. Glen Wallis adds to the non-philosophical analysis an affective dimension, a concept that invites much thought about the relation between emotion and absolutist ideas. Psychiatry, psychology and cognitive science likewise. But we don’t need science to tell us so. Simply look at your own mind and behaviour. At this level, at any rate, this injunction, which of course is not exclusive to Buddhism, seems to work well outside of x–buddhist systematization. Human beings have done something similar for as long as civilization has existed and probably before.

At any rate, for anyone involved with x-buddhist thought and practice, there is often a residue of the nostalgic, and it is not only in jest that Glenn Wallis described x–buddhist “vibrato” as a siren song (I can’t remember where). Much the same might be said for Marxism or any other “ism”, an especially important point for those who would advocate an activist politics.

The term “activist politics” though, might be misleading. Where does the social  end and the personal  begin?  Past attempts by authoritarian systems to collapse the personal into the social on a theoretical and a practical level, have been disastrous. I am thinking of the attempts by the Stalinist and the Maoist regimes to politicize ordinary life. It led to a dictatorship of politics, claustrophobic conformity, ideological indoctrination, and an expanded state apparatus. On the other hand there is no doubt that the social is thoroughly integrated into the personal, in the sense that, even your most private thoughts are in some way conditioned on the social. That being said, they are private, and no state, for ideological reasons, has yet developed methods of inner surveillance and control. Give them time, though! We should remember that, in one way , the state already has access to our minds. We introject, from birth, the norms by which we live. The structure of the family is a microcosm of the social, complete with an authority figure, the Father, and a division of labor, power and wealth. This is true even with the demise of the patriarchal family structure and its replacement by a more diffuse and flexible structure in which roles are less strictly defined. Isn’t such a change continuous with changes in the social realm?

One could say, on this account, that the personal is a particular manifestation of the social. But the formula, could be turned around-the social is one particular manifestation of the personal. Various forms of philosophical Idealism take this position and try  to honor our autonomy, our individuality, our personal freedom and our capacity for free thought and independent action. Marx, in his thesis on Feuerbach, tries to restore to the materialist position a sense of the active, conditioning nature of subjectivity over and against a crude form of reduction to the material, either as biological process or economic base. Quite early on he grappled with the problem of how to avoid a mechanical application of Hegel’s idea of a unity of opposites to the social sphere without producing an “iron law” of history. Subsequent developments in Marxist theory confirmed his early intuition that crude forms of a reduction to the material were as great a misunderstanding of the nature of the human as its idealist counterpart.

At a philosophical level, this question of the social and the personal is one version of the ubiquitous unity of oppositions — self and its conditioning factors, form and emptiness, the material and the idea, the individual and the social, good and evil —- a survey will confirm that such a structure of opposites in unity operates across the range of categories of human experience, as defined by philosophy. By default, in other words, oppositions and their synthesis is the stuff of philosophy–what Laruelle calls the transcendental material of philosophy on which non-philosophy works. For me, as will soon be clear, this dichotomy, on any level, cannot be resolved by philosophy without producing the decisional structure and by implication, some form of absolutist claim on the real. For non-philosophy such dichotomies can only be solved axiomatically.

The term immanence is a first name for the state which precedes such bifurcation in thought, and from which thought , as an instance of the real, is already and always immune. In practice, life dissolves the opposition between the personal and the social. We already live beyond and before such terms as freedom and necessity, the individual and the social. Immanence, extracted from such bifurcation, is philosophically incomprehensible, since philosophy just is the production of such dyads and their synthesis consequent on a transcendental move; or double move, since the transcendental just is thought as the subject /object dichotomy. And thought is de facto auto self-alienating by virtue of being transcendental– to think just is to bring into being the subject and its object, and this is the originating mediation of the real. We are unavoidably alienated, in this sense, as thinking beings.

The Real is the only certainty of ourselves we necessarily experience as such, and that experience of certainty is made of “the sheer lived” we all are in the last instance. Thus, I am referring to the notion of certainty in its sense of immanence – of the inalienable, inalterable, inexorable “being there,” of the lived each “human-in-human” is in the last instance. This utter experience, this absolute Lived is overwhelming. It is invasive since it is an elemental force, or rather it is pure force. Therefore, it is necessarily mediated, and mediation is by definition aworking of the transcendental (i.e., of signification or of Language). For the mediation to take place the human-in-human must execute the auto-alienating gesture of instituting the “Stranger” which will re-present and mediate the suffocating Real one is in the last instance. One is necessarily alienated.   Kolazova: Figure of the Stranger.   

To recognize this is to put a break on philosophical capture before thought proliferates as postulate — as systematized thought. What, in essence , is philosophy if not this elevation of the ordinary transcendental of thought to the level of a presupposition?–that philosophical thought and its object are, according to philosophy,  identical through difference. Philosophy presupposes an identity between thought and the real, as object of philosophical thought. This is true even when Philosophy defines the object as unknowable, as in much of x-buddhist thought. When philosophy defines the object of thought as unknowable it does so on its own terms as a form of negative adequation. But you need to pause here and try to think a further thought– that this thinking into being of the subject /object dichotomy which is thought, is already and always an instance of the real, of lived experience, of the human of flesh and blood —–of thoughts as thought of a thinking living being, as , in its own right, an instance of lived experience.

 If thought is by definition, the thought of an object, than thought cannot jump over itself , as it were ; it cannot escape its own limitation. Since there is no thought that is not the thought of things constituted as thought, thought can never arrive at the pristine un-thought real. This limitation is, of course, only a problem for philosophy. It is in fact the Raison d’être of philosophy.

The originating term of non-philosophy, its thought in the last instance , is that thought is nothing other than an instance of the real. This thought —- of the  co-relation of thought and the real —- is an axiomatic term that allows work on philosophy.The axiomatic term for this  unthinkable real is the One as lived finite experience or immanence. Immanence allows for no interior or exterior, no thought and its object, and no correlation of thought and the real. There is no thought about the One, since no thinker exists apart from the One. Such a thinker is always already in One. Since nothing is separate from it, the One is beyond both separation and union. As an axiomatic first name finite lived experience, or the human in the human, defies philosophical categorization. For philosophy such a term literally fails to make sense.

In order to think the new subject as the practice of this axiomatic thought, Laruelle names philosophical systematization — the proliferation of thought as transcendental-material — as World .This world just is  the system of symbolic representations, its laws, its proscriptions on thought and behaviour, its rules and regulations, morals, ethics, taboos, its mundane and super mundane truths, its procedures, scripts, discourses and meanings,  into which we are interpellated at birth. Laurelle names the world as co-extensive with  philosophy. Within this world the non-philosophical subject will necessarily appear as the stranger, that alien thought which is a clone of the real, a last instance or first name, who’s orientation away from the world and towards the actual or immanent state of the world as the lived of the finite human, will seem to the world, and to philosophy, as heresy, as heretical thought,

The Real Situation?

In ideology, or more  precisely, in the social practice that is ideology, the biology of the brain, the instinctive drives, and the symbolic system come together. If social conditions are ripe,  an explosive mix ensues. This is the nexus within which meditative practice might have a role for a subject intent on precipitating radical change. We can, of course, in x-buddhist fashion, become aware of the relation between idea and affect, discursive thought and negativity, habitual thinking and reactivity, within the domain of “personal life,” ( and that would be a good start) but, for our purposes, this is far too limited an approach.

Absolutist ideologies wedded to forms of visceral hatred are not only recent phenomenon, rooted in the imperial conquest of the Arab states and Persia and the resulting conflict—I refer to  fundamentalist Islāmic ideologies who’s excesses are daily news. We, in Europe and America, should not indulge in the luxury of a short memory. We have our own history of excess, our own home-grown ideologies, religious and secular, of the right and left; a history of violence, conquest, war, repression and genocide on a scale against which the grotesque actions of Islāmic fundamentalists pale. Fascism and Stalinism are the most obvious examples. If we want a radical subject, we need to hold this question of violence at the forefront of awareness. One has only to look at the ongoing conflict in Syria to see how an attempt at social change (in its first stage peaceful) can degenerate very quickly into horrendous butchery, when confronted by an intransigent dictatorship and deeply rooted structures of inequality of wealth and power. Throw into the mix entrenched ideologies for and against change and you have the conditions for violence on a grand scale.

This question of the relation between idea and affect, ideology and excess, means and ends, is not only an ethical question. Rather we need to place the ethical  within the tripartite context of idea/affect/behavior, or, in collective terms, ideology/biological drives/collective action. I speak here of the problem of revolutionary violence and not of the violence of the establishment, which has proved time and again its willingness to go to genocidal lengths to keep its power and privilege, and which seems incapable of a reasonable response to a sustained challenge. For radicals this is an old question, of course, and there have been many attempts to forge a revolutionary ethic in the context of an intransigent establishment intent on ruthless repression. This is a complex question and there is no space here to give it the attention it deserves. I simply want to pose this question–have the decimated terms and practices of Buddhism anything to offer us?

In this context, anyone who envisages a radical shift in power needs to take into account the change in the nature of urban warfare brought about by the ready supply of new and highly destructive weaponry, which even a child (literally) can learn to use in a day. This fact alone probably precludes the sort of putsch, supported by mass action, that seemed possible in the past (the Bolshevik revolution being the most well-known instance) Short of a miracle no such radical social event will now unfold as a quasi-peaceful triumph of the popular will, and, in the process, leave a city standing. This is especially true in the United States, with its entrenched divisions of wealth and privilege, its military industrial complex, it’s already ubiquitous security apparatus, it’s proliferation of weaponry, its regionalism, and its disparate mix of races and culture. Are the prospects for a peaceful transition to a new dispensation any less likely in Europe? I think not.

What, in this context, are the qualities a radical subject would need to negotiate such an environment, in times of upheaval and change? I take it, of course, that a commitment to radical change is a real commitment to change in the real world (the one we actually inhabit) and not an allegiance to a fantasy of change in which good will inevitably triumphs and entrenched interests of power and privilege will either magically melt away or be somehow transformed into their opposite by the persuasive power of an enlightened discourse. Nothing of that sort will ever happen, or ever has! What, in other words, does it mean to be a radical activist intent of real change in this world as we find it? More importantly what does it mean for you and me, with our undeniable capacity for anger, aggression and irrationality, enabled by biological evolution and our collective perchance for crude forms of ideological absolutism wedded to visceral hatred?

We think ourselves immune! And yet, if we examine our minds and behaviour in situations of conflict, we might have pause for thought. This might be difficult, admittedly, especially if I am white, professional, middle-class, an academic, or just plain wealthy and used to wielding social power in a situation where my behavior remains uncontested by my fellow human beings. I could give up my wealth and power, of course, if only temporarily, and radicalize my ideas and practice; I could seek situations where I confront injustice and poverty. Not any imaginary sort of poverty, but the real sort that brutalities human beings and turns them into drug users, child abusers, potentially irrational and violent adversaries and resentful ingratiates; the sort of hopeless case I might want to “gate” out, and save my children from. I could test myself in these situations and see how I fare; what intensities of hatred and resentment I might resuscitate; what capacities for care, restraint, and courage I might discover.

Returning to the question of the personal and the political, and conceiving of what might be called a micro-politics of attention, I could regard the personal and the political as a dialectical tension I must constantly negotiate in the context of familial, work and communal relations. I could examine my everyday interactions and monitor the level of my sense of powerlessness, impotence, anger, resentment, indifference and confusion. I could examine the behavior of others and extrapolate from my own experience to envision what is happening on the inside of the contemptuous, angry or indifferent human being who happens to intrude on my habitual propensity to narrow the field of my attention. From there it only requires a little imagination to envision what might happen as social tensions increase consequent on a deterioration in the economy, the political situation, security, etc caused by a massive shock to the global economy. In all likelihood such a shock will not be long in coming.

If, of course, you do not believe the situation is grave, all of this will seem like the boy crying wolf. In that case I predict a rude awakening for you. If you think I am being over dramatic do some research into the preparations already underway for such a scenario by the powers that be, especially in the light of the massive disruption which will result from a combination of climate change, depletion of resources, new aggressively capitalistic economies such as India and china and the challenge they pose to Europe and the United States in the context of decreasing supplies of raw materials, shrinking markets, and massively volatile population movements on a global scale. On any account we are moving rapidly into a period of change, a cyclic process that is not unprecedented, either in terms of our social history ( civilizations have fallen) or our long evolutionary history (we have already endured cataclysmic climate change as a species)

How, then, can we avoid the allure of absolutist ideas wedded to instinctive aggressive drives confronted with social breakdown, insecurity and popular unrest? Or, on a more modes scale, how can we negotiate the day-to-day tensions, stresses and ordinary suffering of the human animal, conditioned on biology— aggressive habitual responses of anger, territoriality, and withdrawal,— coupled with discourses conditioned on socio/economic structures and processes which mask violence, inequality, and exclusion. Can “spiritual” methodologies and especially meditation, have anything to offer here? You might be able to see that even the suggestion that we should consider this seems a pathetically weak response to the situation I have described. That might show the desperate nature of our predicament as a species, or it may simply be the response of someone who has not realized the power of an idea wedded to a determined cultivation of restraint, patience, determination and practicality–the qualities always and already displayed by the truly radical, who are at work even as we speak, ignored, of course, by the media and not therefore registered as such in our collective awareness.

I don’t have any answers to this question, only an insistent awareness that we could ask the question in a way that allows for practices, individual and social, that might  function as an effective break on habitual responses in situations of conflict. This is urgent given that it is one of the aims of any radical programme that it seeks to confront and unmask the lie of a false security and a bogus social peace; a veneer that masks massive structural violence, injustice and calculated repression. We want, in other words, to let the genie out of the bottle, but are we ready for the consequences of such a move? Can we handle the appearance within our midst of such an power-event and stay cool, collected, energized, rational and effective?

 When we concider the alternatives  in the context of Laruelle’s non-philosophy, an opportunity arises to build a discourse and practice in which we avoid the dangers of dogmatism, decisional thinking and relativism. We have access to almost inexhaustible resources. Haven’t we enough raw material at out disposal? The outline of such a discourse has already been sketched in a negative form. I mean the work already done on the decisional nature of x-buddhist thought, its ideological co-option and the critical underpinnings of any thought that would try to construct a discourse based on a new non-buddhist template. The work we need to do is, in one sense , a matter of putting form to the framework already established. What I think we need is to try to fill in some of the gaps, or to join the points together into some sort of coherent pattern, loose enough to allow reorientation, second thoughts or unforeseen avenues of exploration, but structured in such a way that the outline of an alternative to the out worn and, for me at least, discredited discourses of much contemporary x-.buddhism, becomes visible.

A New Subject

When a mediator sits down to meditate he sits with preconceived notions of what it means to meditate. These notions are part of a complex discourse that not only provides a method but also describes a particular subject-one who will traverse the path of meditation and in the process acquire laudable attributes, or character traits, such as wisdom, equanimity, compassion, while freeing himself from the corresponding negative traits —– ignorance, habitual reactivity, hatred . The central liberative notion concerns emptiness —–  the dependent origination of all phenomenon and the absence of an abiding, permanent, or substantial self or essence. It is not, of course, the “mere”idea of emptiness that is important for x-buddhists, but the realization of emptiness through the practice of meditation.

We should not forget, though, that the practice of meditation is always presented as one element in a structured path, most explicitly described, perhaps, in the lam-rim teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, although all traditions have similar prolonged programmes of study, ethical cultivation and meditative practice. Apart from its role as the quintessential Buddhist statement on the ontological, the idea of emptiness plays a structuring role within these teachings. It presents realization as the ultimate fruit of the path. The notion of emptiness, whether in the concise formulation of the Heart Sutra, or the  complex formulations of the classical Buddhist philosophers, functions teleologicly by ensuring the forward momentum of the path traversed by the practitioner over long years of dedicated effort, while subverting that very process in its commitment to a radical non-substantialist ontology, a corrosive that dissolves the structure while, paradoxically ensuring its survival.

The idea of realization is closely bound up with meditation, and despite contemporary x-buddhist insistence to the contrary, realization is a conceptual formulation which meditative practice confirms.  Such confirmation is articulated in the form of language, and this is true of what we think of as the practice lineages of Zen, dzogchen and Mahamudra. Indeed, we can understand meditation as the re-enactment of the doings of a mythical founder and not the empirical investigation of an objectively existing experiential reality via introspection. At any rate we could be skeptical of the overblown claims about realization, and the elevation the attributes of the realized master to which most modern x-buddhist subscribe.

Having said that I do think it is possible to reduce reactivity and suffering by disciplined practice of one or more of the meditative methodologies available to us. What seems important is to integrate this with a discursive understanding enriched by the findings of the exact sciences,the human sciences, and by the insights of contemporary philosophy. As pointed out earlier we could see meditation in the context of the decisional structure revealed by non-buddhist analysis and trace the emergence of a particular x-buddhist subject; and we could place this subject within its social and economic context and, in the spirit of Althusser’s concept of interpellation, show how such a subject is unavoidably co-opted to serve the interests of late capitalism; how such a subject just is the late capitalist subject par excellence.

We can follow-up by asking the question: what would a new discourse look like and what sort of subject would this new discourse produce? Lets call this subject, for easy reference, the non-buddhist subject, with the proviso that, as Laruelle tirelessly points out, any naming of a subject is possible only as a determination in the last instance, a first name that implies no absolute capture of the human, but is a way of speaking of lived human experience in ways that avoid the presumption of philosophy and its decisional structure. What then would this non-buddhist subject look like? What discourse would it articulate and what would its practices be on a personal and social level?

X-buddhists answer the question of the relation of form and emptiness by reference to an epistemological possibility other than the practice of rigorous thought–that by virtue of meditative practice the Buddhist practitioner comes to realize, in a direct way, knowledge of reality;  this knowledge is, of itself, liberative; it frees us from the habitual reification of a separate and abiding self, and, in consequence, from suffering.

This, as we have come to see via the non-buddhist analysis, is a chicken and egg situation in which the supremely ocular Dharma, by a transcending move, is able to confirm that the nature of reality as described by the Dharmic dispensation. In other words the self just is empty by virtue of an insight into its own nature via its own epistemological resources; chiefly its perfection of meditative introspection. We are left, in other words, in a state in which, as paradoxical creatures, we manage to exist and not exist at the same time; we manifest the absolute by means of our finite, conditioned, relative state. When we ask x-buddhist what on earth all of this could mean and how we, as rational beings, might resolve such a conundrum, they advise us that we need to apply ourselves to meditation so that the paradox might resolve itself, or rather dissolve itself—no mind no problem, as Zennists are so fond of quipping. Meanwhile, of course, our existential condition as finite beings doomed to extinction and caught is causally conditioned cycles of psychical, mental, and social suffering remains unaffected by this change of mind, although , of course, x-buddhists will protest that such a trick of words makes a world of difference. In this they expose themselves as philosophical idealists, whether they have the wit to know it or not.

As touched on earlier we need a radical non-philosophical procedure that frees us from the constraints of a thinking caught in bifurcation, oppositions and unities, cleaving the One of immanent lived experience into subjects, objects, processes, and forces — in short, into the myriad oppositions in unity which are the endless iterations of philosophy, to which the lived human must conform. As for meditation we might forego it delivering anything but the most mundane truths —– the only truths that are useful. This abandonment is the practical consequence of our exchange of absolute Dharmic Truth for truths arrived at by inference from experiential and empirical investigation.

Freed from its capture by x-buddhist philosophy, can meditative practice deliver benefits? Lets take it for granted that the concept of emptiness/interdependence, as understood by and extracted from the sciences will function as the discursive context within which any practice of meditation takes place. What would such a practice deliver to a subject intent on some form of radical or revolutionary social action? And lets confine ourselves to mindfulness for now, and ignore the many other useful traditions and methods.

We will need a working definition of mindfulness that avoids the limitations imposed on it by the mindfulness industry, therapeutic applications, and x-buddhist philosophies of capture, circularity, and decision. Richard K Payne describes mindfulness by paraphrasing of the work of Georges Dreyfus, but for our own discussion I will paraphrase Kayne. Refer to the originals for clarification. (link below)

Turning to descriptions of the mental process of attention found in the abhidharma literature, Dreyfus identifies the stages of attention as: orienting (manasikāra), which turns attention toward an object, mindfulness, which “retains the object and keeps the mind from losing the object” concentration (samādhi), which is “the ability of the mind to remain focused and unified on its object” He describes mindfulness and concentration as complementary parts of the process of attention. Concentration stabilizes the mind by constricting it to a particular object, while mindfulness is expansive, allowing one to be aware of the qualities of the mental process (caitasika) as distinct from the object of attention. He goes on to describe two structuring aspects; the cognitive ability to retain an object, either in present attention or in memory. He refers to this as “mindfulness proper,” to distinguish it from the evaluative function that is also part of mindfulness in Buddhist thought. This latter evaluative dimension of mindfulness, which Dreyfus refers to as “wise mindfulness” involves distinguishing between “wholesome and unwholesome mental states”. Richard K Payne (link below)

A New Practice of Mindfulness?

Richard Kayne Makes the crucial point that this method is embedded within a classical Buddhist discourse in which the goal is liberation. Note that the goal is clearly defined and accessible via language; the practitioner achieves it by seeing into the impermanent, non-abiding and insubstantial nature of the self.  Needless to say we will use this template minus the accretions of history and decimated of its transcendent element. In this context mindfulness extends an already existing potential of ordinary human beings. Such forms of artful living come naturally to some; others might need to assiduously cultivate it  as a conscious practice.Note that the distinction between the cognitive ability to retain an object in the present or as a memory of the object and the evalutive function, grounds the mindful method alternatively in neuro/biological processes —- conditioning the cognitive structure— and in social/symbolic processes —-conditioning the norms by which we evaluate any particular experience, thought, or impulse as “wholesome” or “unwholesome”

A good working marker-concept for mindfulness as a general cartography is provides by Glenn Wallis:

Sati (present moment awareness, mindfulness) Ancestral anamnesis The truth of the non-correlational memorial sacrifice.[...] it is the lived corollary to the liturgical reminiscence of the Christian believers, who make sacrificial memory of God’s salvic deeds. As such it is the recognition in thought of the horizon which enables thought. This horizon appears as consciousness of our irreversible concurrence with the natural world. Natural science employs ancestral statements to illuminate this horizon, thus catalyzing our recognition.[...] This horizon-this consciousness-catalyzes a searing, living memory of our ancestral-dependent scope. It establishes a line of horizon thats sacrifices all our consoling notions of the earth and cosmos as “home”. How much more so does it obliterate fantasies of an unscathed exit, such as heaven or rebirth. The non-buddhist evacuation of spiritualized x-.buddhist values from sati renders the fethishized “present”hollow. More seriously, it renders infinitesimally puny the ostensible cognitive fizzle known as “enlightenment”. Ancestral anamnesis, like decimated sati, indeed means: remember, remember.            Wallis: Cruel/Theory Sublime/Practice, pg 146/147

Here science functions, over and above its practical usefulness, as a context for the practice of remembering. It replaces the concept of a sacred cosmos, whose articulation contextualize Buddhist practice and gives it overall meaning. In place of the sacred, a decimated sati offers a vision of the natural cosmos which is no longer human centred but nevertheless sustains us, for now at least. We remember cosmos as ancestral origin; as impersonal process; as a magnitude exceeding any possibility of capture. Against this horizon any illusions of salvic care or transcendent belonging fall away. Such a vision forces us to confront our existential situation as animal— evolved biological organism—and as socialized human with no absolute right to survival or well-being. We have in the end only our ingenuity, our capacity to adapt, and our  collective resources to rely upon. To remember this is to remember out true situation against its broadest horizon; and this is necessary to free us from our illusion of a transcendent salvic possibility and to concentrate our minds so that we can come, literally, to our senses, and confront the historical moment in which we find ourselves. On any account this moment is one of immediate crisis, and one caused not by our biological propensities to aggression and avarice, but by our failure to build social structures that enable co-operation, equality and solidarity, thus sublimating biological drives and putting the energy to work for collective well-being.

How could we begin to integrate a practice of mindfulness into an activist politics? Matthias Steingass makes an important point about the society of control, in which human capacity of attention becomes the object of appropriation

I am not concerned here with promoted products—with the ads and fads washed around in this hotchpotch. Rather, I am interested in the values which are transmitted to us through this multiple media frenzy. That the definition of beauty for example is inscribed into the consumer via this steady infusion is a more obvious case; but what about more subtle messages concerning, for example, moral values, what to expect from life, what goals to accomplish and how to reach them, notions of fairness in interacting with my partner, neighbours, colleagues, competitors or even with somebody hostile and hateful? Another question: how does this steady stream of media input influence our consciousness on even more basic levels? Does it do so; and, if it does, how does it alter our capacity for deep thinking, how does it affect attention span, and what is its influence on the synaptogenetic level (neuronal development in childhood)—on a child not even two or three years old, exposed to this never sleeping, maniacally colorful maelstrom, moving, shifting, whispering, magically conjuring I-want-everything-and-I-want-it-now? If you’ve ever seen a child in front of a TV, you know how completely attention can get hooked…. Steingass, Matthias: Meditation and Control.

He goes on to ask if meditation might be a way of short circuiting this process of appropriating the attention and thus hooking one’s desire and channeling it to particular ends. This is obviously an important question for anyone interested in social practices that challenge existing power relations, and relations of economy and exchange. Before we can open to new ideas and new social practices, we must find ways of unhooking ourselves from distracting and dehumanizing attention traps. This then could be our first practical goal.

This, though, goes deeper than the everyday act of turning of the television or the computer and turning from the virtual to the real. If we return for a moment to the tripartite relation between idea, affect and behaviour we will see that this relation can deliver positive as well as negative outcomes. There is potential here, since any discourse which addresses all three might deliver an antidote to the habitual cycles of negativity and distraction which bedevils our personal and collective life. This, of course, just is the claim that x-buddhism makes. Given this claim, what are the prospects that a decimated form of the mindfulness practice we have described could supplement the work of formulating an ethics,  making it more likely that habitual negativity will not overcome our commitment to living out our ethical  vision ? Can mindfulness, in other words, become an activist tool —- a way of short circuiting instinctive reactivity and replacing it with more effective and humane responses?

As touched on above, one way of describing such practice is as a form of micro politics of attention–a term that tries to describe the way individual practice dovetails with the macro-political situation, requiring that the same cognitive/practice framework be applied at the two levels, while honouring the dialectic between them. Such a practice of politics at the individual level would involve study —– the cognitive level, mindfulness — the  practice level and political activism — the integration of personal study and practice with the macro political situation, probably in the context of some sort of group action, but also involving individual action where that is effective. These, though, are crude categories. They fail to convey experience as a seamless mesh of dynamic forces, gross, subtle, and extremely subtle, which , for the most part, work below awareness, in the ordinary run of things at any rate. Such categories do not do justice to the subtle range of affects which serve to condition experience, from gross instinctive drives, for sex, food, territory, to very subtle dispositions — what could be called subtle affective inclinations or potentials for action, and corresponding subtle states of openness and vulnerability, of being acted upon by the environment, natural and social, and by the movements of our own mental continuum.

Such a practice might enable us to integrate the personal/political through a radical change of lifestyle; a decision for a way of living that rejects a dominating culture of distraction, accumulation, destructive and unethical work, over emphasis on exchange value relations, consumerism, wasteful or ecologically unsound behaviour, exploitative social relations, and the abuse of other animal species. Were this to include a form of communal living, a transition could be made to a more overt mergence of the personal and the political, that avoids a collapse of one in to the other. Isn’t this in one way a return to the sort of community we once enjoyed, but leaving behind many of its disadvantages–its authoritarianism, inequality, and narrow-mindedness? Who would choose the idea of the nuclear family as a personal or social ideal? and if we haven’t chosen it, why do we live it?

We have returned to the relation between the personal and the social —- of course we never really left it —- this relation, in theory and as lived practice, infuses our every word and deed. We just are the personal/social. Indeed , if we go back to where we began —- to Evan Thomson’s explication of the idea of emptiness conditioned on the findings of science — we will see that to describe the emptiness of the self is to describe the factors that give rise to the self and their relation. There is no need to elevate this particular way of seeing the human, to the level of a philosophical postulate. Suffice to say that such a way of looking at the social and the personal, the self and its conditioning factors, emptiness and form, is but one way of describing our common evolutionary inheritance as evolved organisms and our human history as socialized individuals. My contention is that mindfulness as a decimated term and an axiomatic first nameas Sati (present moment awareness, mindfulness) Ancestral anamnesis:The truth of the non-correlational memorial sacrifice -– offers us a politics of ordinary life; a micro politics of the everyday; To be mindful is to practice the art of remembering in the context of the lived of human experience. It is the practice of  politics that honers our unique irreplaceable individuality. We can consciously live such an immanent thought as the practice of the everyday, which tries in creative ways to discover the truth(s) of experience while avoiding the pitfall of elevating such truths to the status of an absolute presiding over the human as a form of harassment.

References and links.

 Thompson, Evan : Buddhism and Cognitive Science: How Can the Dialogue Move Forward  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqWYeE2E07w&list=PLOyuQaVrp4qp76S84r_l4ygZDXkg2ogE9

 Wallis Glenn, Pepper Tom, Steingass Matthias: Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice,Towards a revaluation of Buddhism, Eyecorner Press, 2012

Payne, Richard K :: Mindfulness I.O,  http://rkpayne.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/mindfulness-1-0/

Steingass, Matthias:Meditation and Control, http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/01/14/meditation-and-control/#comment-2162

Kolozova, Kateriana, The Figure of the Stranger. A possibility for Transcendental Minimalism or Radical Subjectivity.

Mindfulness 1.0

Originally posted on Richard K. Payne:

In attempting to formulate what I have meant by mindfulness, and its possible benefits, I have like any other dutiful plodding academic—stoop shouldered, threadbare elbows in my imitation Harris tweed coat, staring fitfully and distractedly into some ill-defined middle distance—had recourse to what others have written on the subject. Only to discover that the literature is mind-numbingly bloated.

I have been fortunate enough, however, to come across one very useful, deeply informed and well-modulated essay—Georges Dreyfus, “Is Mindfulness Present-Centred and Non-Judgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Dimensions of Mindfulness,” (Contemporary Buddhism 12.1 (May 2011): 41–54). Dreyfus examines the contemporary representations of mindfulness as found in the therapeutic mode, which we may note is much the same as that found in the business administration, and self-help modes. Taking as just one of any number of similar definitions, he quotes the work of S. Bishop, et al. (“Mindfulness: A Proposed Definition,”

View original 1,132 more words

Meditation, Pain and Liberation: Thoughts on a long weekend.

Intro

Recently, Matthias and I took part in a long weekend meditation retreat. It was a self organized affair between friends. The nominal leader of the retreat trained in the Zen tradition of Deshimaru and has practiced for over 25 years. We sat for four hours a day in hour-long stints. This was the most intense experience of meditation I have had since I became involved in the non-buddhist project. It was an opportunity to examine the effect on my practice of a year of reading and thinking about contemporary philosophy and non–buddhist thought. Not to mention writing, which I now consider a practice in itself.

Of course many x-buddhists would not consider this a ‘real’ retreat, since it was missing the legitimacy bestowed on such an undertaking by a Guru or his appointed teacher. Lets leave that aside for the present; anyone who has read here will know that we are not worried by such a lack and in fact welcome it. That does not mean, though, that one can get by without the presence of someone with experience. What it does mean is that one can organize such an event outside of x-buddhist practice and produce an experience every bit as useful.

In future posts I hope to explore the relation between meditation and non-buddhist thought, using such weekends as a sort of laboratory experiment. For this post I want to concentrate on one of the consequences of intensive periods of meditation – pain.

Continue reading

Force of creation; The non-Aesthetic

Phillip Guston

Phillip Guston

The Artist

Popular imagination ascribes a ‘vocational calling’ to the artist, distinguishing him from the run of ordinary mortals, often using terms borrowed from the discourse on religion. This residual of a romantic idea long abandoned by the academy is a mixture of ideas about internal essences, creativity and self-realization, extracted from the human potential movement, new age pseudo-spiritual discourses, or popular psychology. The metaphor of the ‘call’ rising from the depths of the mind accompanies a host of equally overused metaphors alluding to inner journeys, searches for meaning, and creative/spiritual explorations. The artist is named as one who searches within to find inspiration on the basis that somewhere in the ‘depths’ of his mind there are inexhaustible resources of the imagination, unique to him and yet of universal significance; fuel for artistic burning, energy for transforming mundane material into the gold of high art; an alchemy of the imagination — making something, (high art, spiritual realization, wisdom) out of nothing, (that mysterious thing we call the mind) – the artist as shaman endowed with a vital power exercised on behalf of the collective.

Continue reading

The non-Buddhist Reader

There’s a new development connected with the non-buddhist Project, compliments of our friends at the forum. Here’s John on the thinking behind it:

This will be a place for material related to the non-Buddhist project. At the moment, I’m planning on posting old pieces from the various blogs and articles from thinkers who have inspired them, and it may branch out to interviews, art, and original content. Contributions are welcome

It’s called  Non-x Reader.