Sabotage all representations







The following text consist of a several comments that I and Glenn Wallis exchanged in March 2012 and it was my first serious approach to understand what speculative non-buddhism really is. It had eventually ended up with Glenn encouraging me to write an essay that could capture some of those issues that we touched upon during that short exchange - one prominent of them being Stephen Batchelor's rendition of the four noble truths, that figure in his writing under the acronym of ELSA. Unfortunately I've never wrote that essay, and actually it was Glenn that did it in his own way, writing a critical piece about the Secular Buddhist movement in the West, titled On the Faith of Secular Buddhists.

Having said that, I still, after one and a half years of ongoing dialogue around the speculative non-buddhist project, find this past exchange valuable in understanding the thrust of this unique thought-experiment. Therefore I decided to retrieve it, bring it to light again and share it with all those who might otherwise not stumble across it. There is yet another parallel reason why I think it is worth bringing it up. Matthias Steingass in one of his recent posts on The Non-Buddhist blog wrote that “The thing which is lacking to ignite the fuse is the knowledge of the tools Wallis provided and what they could achieve. The emptiness of zero non-buddhist knowledge has to be filled with the thought tool of the non-buddhist.” I share this opinion and therefore I allow myself to rehash my initial faltering attempts to understand how the non-buddhist tools actually work. Who knows maybe this exchange - full of stimulating ideas of Glenn Wallis - will incidentally help to ignite the fuse of your own aporetic dissonance and will, through aporetic inquiry, lead you out of the thaumaturgical refuge, thereby causing ancoric loss - this irreversible termination of x-buddhistic hope.  




This was my initial comment *:

Glenn, I am very intrigued by the following fragment from “X-buddhistic Hallucination”:

“'X-buddhism' indexes a sacrificial rending from reality. Its rhetorics of display, whether secular or religious or anything else, constitute an act of high pageantry, whereby empty reality is both ruptured and repaired. But the sacrifice and its sacrament are confined entirely to a circle of x-buddhism’s own creation. Reality remains untouched. X-buddhism does not offer up knowledge. It is a matrix of hallucinatory desire—the manufactured desire of the x-buddhist for realization of x-buddhism’s self-created world-reparation.”

I wonder how can this fragment be used to illuminate the machinations of the most fundamental tenet of Buddhism – 4 noble truths. Am I wrong thinking that the first postulate, that there is suffering, constitute this, what you call, “sacrificial rending” or “rupture of the empty reality”? And then, that the rest of the three “truths” are supposedly helpful in repairing this unfortunate state of being? Is someone who subscribes to this kind of framing of reality – who “decides” to take part in this “sacred rite” – the real victim of this sacrifice? The victim whose contact with “empty reality” is occluded by this buddhistic hallucination of escaping, unscathed; who, instead of broadening his knowledge of the empty reality, becomes ventriloquising monomaniac?

Glenn: Reading your multi-part question as unitary, I would answer, “yes.” In fact, your comment reads like a concise summary of a central idea of the non-buddhism theory. There might be one slight twist, though.

The “suffering” postulated in the first noble truth (I call them “preeminent realities”) is not a commonsensical, naturalized, ideology-free, or otherwise harmless notion. The fact that the term is normally left untranslated as dukkha is, to me, a piece of evidence that something is amiss here. The term, the notion, is doing a particular kind of work. Unlike a colloquial sense of “suffering” or “pain” or “unease,” it is, moreover, not a lone bystander. In fact, what we need in order to decipher the meaning and sense of “suffering” in the first noble truth is nothing less than the entire x-buddhist doctrinal infrastructure. Another way of saying the same thing is that the doctrinal infrastructure, or what I call the “voltaic [i.e., charged, electrified, juiced] network of postulation,” constitutes the Rosetta Stone of the dukkha hieroglyph. We learn how to understand “suffering” just as we learn to understand any other piece of language: as an element in a complex grammar. The complex grammar in this case is “Buddhism,” or really some x (Zen, Theravada, Vipassana, etc.) form of Buddhism (hence “x-buddhism”). And a person is an x-buddhist to the extent that he or she can reflexively think and act in accordance with this grammar. So, in so far as the four preeminent realities machinate as – as you say – to indicate a rupture from reality and then to offer a repair for that rupture, x-buddhism is, I say, a form of hallucination.
The reason I say this is that the rupture and repair proffered by x-buddhism is not of reality: it is of x-buddhism’s representation of reality. Reality can not be touched by x-buddhism. Reality is unavailable to x-buddhism–it is foreclosed to x-buddhism’s representations and deaf to its proclamations. This idea hinges, of course, on a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic view of “reality.” I give an explanation of what I mean by the term in the article. Here, I can add to that description and say that, along with Laruelle, I think any talk of “reality” has to remain forever axiomatic. If it isn’t, we just begin piling up a new slew of representations and proclamations. So, the simplest thing you can say about reality, or the real or radical immanence, is that it is that which provides the first condition for all thought and being. What more needs to be said? Well, systems such as x-buddhism never stop saying things about it, and, again, in so doing, create for the subscriber to the system a rupture from radical immanence. (This is where the twist to your comment might come.) The postulate dukkha, it turns out, is only a representational rupture, not an actual one. That is, it is a posited rupture. The actual rupture takes place because the x-buddhist practitioner reflexively accepts and acts on (and thinks along with) this posited rupture. The result is an actual rupture–from radical immanence itself.
Another idea hovering around this one is that of what Laruelle call the “stranger subject.” The idea of the stranger subject answers questions such as: what is the purpose of one’s recognizing the x-buddhistic decisional act? What is gained? What is lost? Does “recognizing the decisional act” amount to yet another promise of enlightenment—a non-buddhist enlightenment? Does it merely constitute a new specular vantage point from which to craft our wise pronouncements vis à vis the world? In short, how might we characterize the person for whom x-buddhistic representation is rendered transparent? In the briefest terms, an apt motto for the non-buddhist stranger subject might be: “sabotage all representation!” For, as Laruelle writes, “The Strangers are radical subjectivities.” For Laruelle, a given Y is “radical” if it correlates precisely not with some system of representation, but with “the real” or immanence. The stranger subject’s identity is concomitant with that of the real. It is, says, Laruelle, “determined-in-the-last-instance by the real, or radically immanent Ego.” It is what one becomes when one thinks and acts along-side of radical immanence. Another way of saying the same thing is that the stranger subject is the subject of the self that has evaded alienation from the real by resisting representation, thereby effectuating radical immanence. So, using a concept like the stranger subject is to answer “yes” to those last several questions you ask regarding the subject of x-buddhism, the practitioner and subscriber to its world. That person’s knowledge of the world emptied of the dharmic dream-world is, as you say, thereby diminished. That is a terrible result–a terrible irony–given that the ostensible point of the entire dharmic enterprise is “liberation” and “the destruction of delusion” and the “overcoming of suffering,” and so on.
About “zero-degree of reality.” I am working with Laruelle’s conception of “radical immanence.” This is different from the contemporary realist’s thesis (which I also agree with) that, in Freud’s terms, “inanimate things existed before living ones.” Since you have Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, look on page 128 for a summary of the different ways Laruelle expresses his idea of “the real.” I think his idea of a non-positional axiomatic real allows us to get on with our work. In non-buddhist theory, we can simply “clone” x-buddhistic postulates such as emptiness (sunyata) and reality (sacca) and radical contingency (paticcasamuppada) and many others, unhinge them from the greater system of postulates, and thereby come, I think, to a similar concept, but one better suited to our purposes since it rests on x-buddhist ideas themselves.

Tomek: So first, I assume, that an initial impulse to buy into this representation rupture, the postulate of dukkha, ultimately comes from – as you write in the beginning of the Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism article – "this atavistic yearning to rise above the status of homo sapiens." And then, after the impulse, comes decision, which in turn activates this hallucinogenic screen of reflexivity, this kind of weapon that every dreamer of the dharmic dream is wielding every time it is said, for example – defending his/her hope – that the notion of dukkha is really just a hieroglyph in the complex grammatical structure, and has nothing to do with immanence. And thus, in the end, the posited rupture turns into an actual one. So in a sense the buddhistic salvation comes from being forever sealed from zero-degree reality by the hope – manifesting as decision and reflexivity – of reaching the end of dukkha; that is, ironically, realizing something that can only exist and be realized within this specific representational reality. This nonetheless leaves palpable traces in the immanent world in all sorts of ways: acts, behavior, institutions, and so on …

I also wonder what do you make of those modern, naturalized, secularized renditions of the 4 “preeminent realities”, as you call them, such as Stephen Batchelor's ELSA, pragmatically (therapeutically) oriented system of easing suffering, very broadly (terrestrially-psychologically, socially) understood? He seems to completely undermined any notion of other-worldly transcendence and still calls his system “Buddhism.” I am aware, that you say that “every single form of x-Buddhism – from the most scientistically covert and the most secularly liberal to the most religiously overt and most conservatively orthodox – is founded on an identical transcendental syntax.” But still I wonder, how – from your perspective of speculative non-buddhism – you see Batchelor's ELSA representations (embracing suffering and acting towards the end of it) leads to the rupture, that is alienation, from radical immanent reality? Don't you think that this posited rupture might, in the end, be quite beneficial for it's users in the immanent world? His ideological opiate, ultimately unproblematic and harmless? In other words, does the sabotage of all representations, that you mention, has to be so merciless, to succeed?

Glenn: Does the sabotage of all representations have to be so merciless to succeed?

A crucial principle of speculative non-buddhism is that, whatever goods a practitioner may want to take from the how-to-live marketplace that is x-buddhism, s/he must take as well the part that shows him/her the exit, the part that undoes the whole thing. Ideas like “emptiness” can do the job. BUT: as long as “emptiness” remains—as it inevitably does—yet another aisle in the marketplace, yet another node in the voltaic network of postulation, s/he will remain forever in the marketplace. Ironic does not, for me, capture the state of affairs of a system that posits freedom yet entraps.

I originally wrote, and then erased, a long answer to the above question that framed it in terms of what I call “proper proximity.” But then it occurred to me that, really, the question you ask is most valuable as a question. That is, it is the kind of question that, when continually asked, becomes a crucial part of the practice (of thinking, of being, of living). So, I ask myself: does the sabotage of all representations have to be merciless to succeed? And I ask again, and again. I agree with Laruelle that an axiomatic assertion of “radical immanence” is a necessary and valuable point of departure — it – the real –constitutes what it is ideally “to succeed.” Therefore, “the sabotage of representations” is a line of trajectory toward “radical immanence.” Ultimately, the practitioner decides what constitutes “success.” But for me, I want to breathe the same air as people like Beckett and Thoreau and Cioran and Wallace Stevens and Dickinson—people, that is, who at least expressed a goal of living life as close to the bone as humanly possible.

Your first paragraph. That is a really sensitive summation of the basic thrust of the “hallucination” argument. I can’t say it any better than you do:

“And thus, in the end, the posited rupture turns into an actual one. So in a sense the buddhistic salvation comes from being forever sealed from zero-degree reality by the hope – manifesting as decision and reflexivity – of reaching the end of dukkha.”

Beautiful. And then you make a comment that harbors a very important critique of that position:

“This nonetheless leaves palpable traces in the immanent world in all sorts of ways: acts, behavior, institutions, and so on.”

The reason I call that a critique is that it makes an incisive point–it cuts at the slab of meat I have prepared for my critical oven. If I understand correctly, you are saying: even if the decisional act is – or were to be – founded on a delusion, its effects are nonetheless real, for those effects unfold in the real world. Is that right? What would an analog look like? How about a movie or a work of fiction. I can read a novel and be affected in ways that, say, cause me to alter my behavior. Is that an example? Is it something like Wallace Steven’s idea of a “supreme fiction”?

Paragraph two seems to be a gloss on the last sentence of paragraph one. Is that right? The questions you pose there are really important. I have dealt with this issue elsewhere, and will try to dig it up. My short answer is that I think the work Batchelor is doing is very important. He is taking crucial, courageous steps, as I put it, out of the x-buddhistic vallation and into the empty world—or from the infinity of x-buddhistic certitude toward zero-degrees of radical immanence. So, to answer directly, yes and no (! what did you expect?!). Yes, I think that what Batchelor – and we should mention, Ted Meissner of the Secular Buddhist Association – is doing is beneficial. It is, in a limited sense, doing some of what I am proposing here; namely, removing certain postulates from the x-buddhist equation, deflating other postulates, valorizing a skeptical stance toward tradition, and so on. But to use the image I gave above, Batchelor is still shopping in the x-buddhist marketplace. Some products he pulls off the shelf and throws in his basket; then comes home and cooks up a meal. Other products he just passes by. (Same with Jon Kabot-Zinn, though he also tears off the x-buddhist labels and puts on his own.) A result of Batchelor’s position is that he is still consuming a diet of x-buddhism. For him, x-buddhism still issues the bulk of existential answers. He is nourished by x-buddhism. He, and many other non-traditional x-buddhists, still remains under its influence: he is thinking within its strictures. Speculative non-buddhism is an attempt to remove oneself sufficiently from the marketplace of x-buddhist ideas (=ideology). “Sufficiently," in the present sense, would mean neither nourished by nor beholden to x-buddhism. My trope of “accidental exile” is meant to capture this aspect of the critique.

“Is his ideological opiate, ultimately unproblematic and harmless?”

This question implicitly points to the reason I am so concerned about ideology, or I should say unchecked, blind ideology. The opiate can, as the metaphor suggests, become a form of addiction. It might also, of course, provide comfort and salve in times of real need. One assumption of non-buddhism, of course, is that culture, too, provides such succor; so that we don’t need to subject ourselves to potentially toxic thought-systems when something else will do. I use the move of postulate deflation to help get at what seems to be an optimal amount of “opiate” (i.e., representation, reflection, cultural accoutrements). Of course, what one person considers optimal another considers excessive. So, we always seem to come back to the issue of what it is we want our system, our practice, our ideology, etc., to do for us.

Tomek: I’d like to come back to the following fragment from your above essay:

“An animating contention of speculative non-buddhism is that every single form of x-buddhism—from the most scientistically covert and the most secularly liberal to the most religiously overt and most conservatively orthodox—is founded on an identical transcendental syntax. This shared feature renders every single form of x-buddhism without remainder indistinguishable from every other form of x-buddhism. Given Buddhism’s self-presentation as organon of radical immanence, this fact is as insidious as it is ironic.”

Actually, I am a bit puzzled by the way you accentuate Batchelor’s moves. First you say things like “He is taking crucial, courageous steps, as I put it, out of the x-buddhistic vallation and into the empty world—or from the infinity of x-buddhistic certitude toward zero-degrees of radical immanence” and then you place him in the “x-buddhist marketplace” and let him go shopping, saying things like “he pulls off the shelf and throws in his basket; then comes home and cooks up a meal. Other products he just passes by.” Eventually you say, that Batchelor is “still consuming a diet of x-buddhism. For him, x-buddhism still issues the bulk of existential answers. He is nourished by x-buddhism. He, and many other non-traditional x-buddhists, still remains under its influence: he is thinking within its strictures.”

What strikes me is that you seem to paint a picture of Batchelor as one of those picky consumers of the x-buddhistic transcendental syntax, not an active, actually one of the most persuasive to many Westerners today, manufacturer of that very syntax. That’s why I asked you in one of my previous comments about his ELSA system – his contemporary rendition of the 4 “preeminent realities” – what do you make of it? Aren’t they the heart of the whole grammar? If so, how to explain his “courageous steps (…) toward zero-degrees of radical immanence,” as you say, and on the other hand his active dissemination of his ELSA? Don’t you see contradiction here? Irony? Or maybe his ELSA has been somehow removed sufficiently from that market and is “neither nourished by nor beholden to x-buddhism.”? There is no dharmic warrant lurking behind it. And indeed, Batchelor is a real exile, not an x-buddhistic thaumaturge officiating at that rite where empty reality is both ruptured and repaired.

Glenn: I do see the ambiguity in my comments about Batchelor’s work. I will be unambiguous here. I think he, as you say, is “actually one of the most persuasive to many Westerners today, manufacturers of [the x-buddhistic decisional] syntax. His “Embrace, Let Go, Stop, Act” (as discussed, for instance of page 160 of Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, is, indeed, “at the heart of the whole grammar.” His entire explication is, quite literally, surrounded by traditional x-buddhist renderings. The first thing you read after his paragraph explaining ELSA is, “Siddhattha Gotama…” That is, to my ears, yet again the x-buddhist ideological interpellation – calling you back to the fold. In fact, there are very, very traditional x-buddhists who have a way similar to ELSA of explicating the four noble truths for contemporary audiences.

I do think that Batchelor (with ELSA and beyond) upholds the dharmic warrant. I do think that he functions as a thaumaturge. I do not think he is an exile. I would say the same for the entire Secular Buddhist movement. Really, they change nothing significant in Buddhism because they perpetuate the transcendental decision; hence, Secular Buddhism is pure x-buddhism. They are robustly involved in one of the most telling signs of x-buddhistic reflexivity: infinite exemplification. Engaged in such interminable exemplification, Batchelor, Secular Buddhists, and all the others, just spin around and around, shoulder to shoulder, on the dharmic pulpit.

That comment leaves no ambiguity, I hope. My saying that Batchelor is courageous is a result – now that you’ve made me reflect more on it – of how I responded to his interpretations of x-buddhism years ago, when I was still trying to interpret x-buddhist teachings in a generous light. From that perspective, he seemed to propose innovative, even somewhat radical changes. But from my current perspective, you are right, those changes seem anything but innovative and radical: they seem through and through status quo.

Tomek: You write, “His entire explication is, quite literally, surrounded by traditional x-buddhist renderings. The first thing you read after his paragraph explaining ELSA is, “Siddhattha Gotama…”

Don’t you think that, there is something else, even before mentioning the name of the protagonist, that can be quite interesting from the perspective of speculative non-buddhism, namely, the first sentence of the paragraph explaining ELSA acronym, which goes as this: “This template [ELSA] can be applied to every situation in life.”?

In your above essay, I find two statements, that I think can be applied to that sentence:

(1) “Buddhism claims to offer exigent, superior knowledge concerning human being (i.e., of the immanently given)”, (2) “In the terms of its own rhetorics, “Buddhism” names the principal and superior representer of exigent human knowledge.”

Isn’t that (Batchelor’s) sentence the very first sign of x-buddhistic rhetorics, the first decisive maneuver in the creation of, what you call, “specular oracularity”? The maneuver, that is a kind of response to “an atavistic yearning to rise above the status of homo sapiens ape and to escape, unscathed, from empty reality.”? If “[x-buddhistic] decision is an emotional reliance on or hopefulness for the veracity of Buddhist teachings” (you write in Nascent SNB article), then Batchelor’s claim that “This template [ELSA] can be applied to every situation in life,” is a perfect example of offering thaumaturgical refuge. ELSA acronym (meme) then being remembered and constantly turned in somebody’s head, can first, do a work of magical mantra, psychologically protecting it’s host in “every situation in life” and second, inspire him/her to – what Batchelor says at the very end on the chapter – “build the kind of civilization that he [Siddhattha Gotama] envisioned.” Which sounds to me as an example of what I wrote in one of my previous comments, to “leave palpable traces in the immanent world in all sorts of ways: acts, behavior, institutions, and so on.”

Then in another place in your essay I read the following:

“In the future, I will use speculative non-buddhist heuristics to explore to what extent such features describe not a contestable program of knowledge or skill acquisition, but rather an ideological system of indoctrination.” And also “X-buddhism does not offer up knowledge. It is a matrix of hallucinatory desire—the manufactured desire of the x-buddhist for realization of x-buddhism’s self-created world-reparation.”

I wonder how would you respond to the claims made by Batchelor in another place in chapter 12 of his book (the same chapter where the paragraph explaining ELSA comes from), where he says something that sounds completely contrary to what I just quoted from your essay. For example he writes:

“(…) the Four Truths are injunctions to do something rather than claims to be believed or disbelieved.” (p. 153) or “The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. They suggest a course of action to be followed rather than a set of dogmas to be believed. The four truths are prescriptions for behavior rather than descriptions of reality.” (p. 154)

These are, at least to my ears, statements, that openly describe the 4 noble truths (ELSA in Batchelor’s idiom) as a very pragmatic “program of knowledge or skill acquisition,” and they “suggest [seemingly very practical] course of action to be followed”.

What in your opinion creates occlusion in this kind of rhetorics? When I read the detailed explanation of Batchelor’s ELSA:

“Rather than shying away from or ignoring what is happening, embrace it with mindful attention; rather than craving to seize it or get rid of it, relax one’s grip; rather than getting caught up in a cascade of reactivity, stop and stay calm; rather than repeat what you have said and done a thousand times before, act in an empathetic and imaginative way,”

I don’t have an impression that those steps are somehow psychologically naïve. I imagine, that most of his readers find it as a proof that Batchelor’s secular “Dharma” is something enlightening, rather then something that can potentially lead to occlusion. Or maybe fragments as such, not accompanied by more explicit buddhemes as “Siddhattha Gotama” and warrants as “This template can be applied to every situation in life,” are harmless and beneficial? And when “shorn of its transcendental representations” can be practically used in life.

Glenn: I think the fact that ELSA are, just as Batchelor says, “prescriptions for behavior,” signals the beginning of occlusion. The behaviors they initiate are not obvious or even self-evident. Their sense and import require nothing less than the entire network of buddhist postulations – albeit in a reconfigured secular or atheist aspect. What does “embrace suffering” mean? It means virtually anything you decide it means. Why should you want to “embrace suffering” anyway? Any answer given here would count as an answer. And we could ask many such questions. This infinite set of what counts as an answer points to vacuity. But ELSA is not vacuous; it has definitive meaning. But – and here’s the thickening of occlusion – vacuity is staved off and definitiveness achieved through the proliferation of numerous additional prescriptions; namely, the network of postulation of which ELSA is but one node. So, if you want to know what “suffering” means, just locate the proper node within the network, and you’ll get your answer. This answer, furthermore, will help you know what “pragmatic” action “embrace” entails. And so on and so forth. As Tom Pepper’s essay Samsara as the Realm of Ideology argues, this fact alone is not a problem. It is just an instance of ideological “world” formation. I agree that we can’t help but to live in some sort of constructed “world.” The decisive question for me is whether the “truths” of that world (truths in Badiou’s sense, as explained by Tom) include a robust, insistent, and unfailing organon of ideological formation. If not, I call that a system “occlusion.” Any model, such as ELSA, that is grafted onto the x-buddhist power grid necessarily over-determines the adherents beliefs, understanding, and behavior. I think it is disingenuous to say, as Batchelor and the Secular Buddhist do, that their “prescriptions for behavior” are categorically distinct from “descriptions of reality.” What lies behind the prescriptions, what makes them prescribable in the first place, is that they cohere with a view of reality. The prescriptions for behavior are the superstructure; the (tacit, perhaps) description of reality is the base. So, for me, hiding that machination from the adherent constitutes one mode of occlusion; and shading the eyes of the follower with x-buddhistic representations and reflections from the possibility of other “truths” and “worlds,” constitutes another mode.

[Batchelor] “Rather than shying away from or ignoring what is happening, embrace it with mindful attention; rather than craving to seize it or get rid of it, relax one’s grip; rather than getting caught up in a cascade of reactivity, stop and stay calm; rather than repeat what you have said and done a thousand times before, act in an empathetic and imaginative way.”
I don’t have an impression that those steps are somehow psychologically naïve. I imagine, that most of his readers find it as a proof that Batchelor’s secular “Dharma” is something enlightening, rather then something that can potentially lead to occlusion. Or maybe fragments as such, not accompanied by more explicit buddhemes as “Siddhattha Gotama” and warrants as “This template can be applied to every situation in life,” are harmless and beneficial? And when “shorn of its transcendental representations” can be practically used in life.

But they necessarily resist becoming shorn of the representational matrix that undergirds them. Not to do so would be impossible qua x-buddhist. The entire x-buddhist refuge would collapse.

Someone could surely use the template; but in order to be harmless, he would have to add a component that cautions against ideological adoption of the system. Maybe then it would be a useful option in experimenting with optimal living. But that usage takes skill – and I don't mean the x-buddhist “skillful means.” The voltage coursing through x-buddhist and other such teachings is very powerful and alluring. People are attracted to systems that proffer answers. The entire non-buddhism project is about shutting off the dharmic power station and seeing what, deprived of dharmic juice, still hums and buzzes with life.




* link to the source on SNB blog