Archive for the ‘Culture Industry’ Category
In response to an article from Alter-Net, “Will Avatar’s Pro-Indigenous Narrative Bother Oscar Voters”:
Shouldn’t the title of this piece be “Will Avatar’s Pro-Noble-Savage Narrative Bother Oscar Voters?”
The militaristic invaders are portrayed, in a way, as the actual savages of the film, but few seem to see that the Na’vi (the official or formal “savages” of the film, in Lenin’s sense of actual/formal) are part-n-parcel of our own savageness the film arguably is showing us.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of Cameron’s ideas behind the film is an eye-opener about Western imperialism for some (while preaching to the choir for many more, probably). In a very important sense though, the Na’vi don’t exist. They do not exist as savages apart from the savagery of the imperialists. Avatar will do well at the Oscars because it offers a way of enjoying imperialist savagery.
Jacob Libby leaves an excellent comment on my now somewhat old post on Western Buddhism (redux), which I have been meaning to update and otherwise revise. I would like to put it up for its excellence in itself, and as a way point for further discussion. The only thing I will say now (there will be updates) is that I whole-heartedly agree in dropping the true/false-buddhism angle. I even think I have in subsequent posts, when I pick up on Zizek’s critical/therapeutic religion distinction (though I wouldn’t isolate this split to an effect of modernity; Walter Breuggemann employs this same distinction, though without naming it, when discussing “the religion of God’s freedom” and “the religion of God’s accessibility” or religions of transendance and immanence in his book “The Prophetic Imagination”).
Set aside the question of whether Plum Village is capitalist in its Essence. Ask rather, what would it take for Plum Village exist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti? This is the revolutionary question: can Buddhist “practice” undermine the Capitalist relations of production that warp and control the social and economic space of our choices — that ultimately determine where and when Buddhist practice can flourish?
If you love Haiti and you love Buddhism, please read my words!
Joe claims that the Buddhism Zizek critiques is not the real Buddhism. The properly Zizekian response here would be to claim that the division between so-called Western (postmodern) Buddhism and “true” (scriptural) Buddhism is not an aftereffect of Buddhism’s cooptation into America and European society but rather is a primordial cut inherent to Buddhism itself. In other words, the postmodern “interpretation” of Buddhism was part of Buddhism from the beginning, one of its intrinsic possibilities. In this case, Western Buddhism expresses what is to the scriptural Buddhists the repressed core of Buddhism proper, its relativistic complicity with the violence of Global Capital. So, for example, Suzuki’s commentary on affirmation “not conditioned by a negation” (mirroring Nietzsche’s notion of the Yea-sayer as well as Foucault’s double circumscription of meaning and truth in philosophical archaeology) strikes a relativistic chord sharply contrasting Zizek celebration of Divine Violence, which depends upon a double negation. For Zizek, such an act must first step out from the coordinates of world-perpetuating activity by a radically negative gesture of non-participation; only by means of this negating gesture of freedom is the space opened for a true act. In what Zizek would call “a properly Hegelian paradox,” freedom is the condition for freedom.
But does this not put Plum Village alongside the Shanghai Commune and the Paris Commune in a line of radical communities who have dropped out of society and forged ahead with a new non-Capitalist vision? The answer is clearly “No.” No where does Zizek celebrate the apolitical compassion of the sustainable, non-exploitative, and egalitarian Buddhist community. Plum village does not fit alongside the death-defying radicalism of Robespierre or the Red Guard in Zizek’s narrative of world transformation for a simple reason: a Plum Village alive and well in the heart of capitalist Europe offers no fundamental challenge to the hegemony of Global Corporate Power. The Paris Commune and Shanghai commune occurred at the epicenter of world-transformative revolutionary violence — to Zizek they were failed attempts to directly institutionalize the spirit of the revolution. Plum Village is what Zizek would call decaffeinated revolutionary — the impossible revolutionary without the revolution. If, instead, on the proverbial day after the apocalyptic scene at the end of Fight Club — after Tyler Durden destroys the computer databases of the main central banks — yes, then Plum Village would be the site of revolutionary activity (the revolutionization of the revolution) — and Durden’s death would represent his truly Buddhist detachment from commodity fetishism. But without the explosives, the personal transformation does not make it into Zizek’s pantheon: while Global Capital still calls the real shots, still controls the economic realities that interpolate and warp our reality and our choices, Plum Village remains an ideological appendage of Capitalism.
My question is therefore a different one. Does a “True Buddhist” really care whether his faith is admitted into Zizek’s pantheon? If so, why? Does he inwardly doubt this his path can build the world he envisions in the age of global ecological collapse and continental enslavement? The political dynamics of the modern world demand new questions of the original Buddha. The questions of freedom in the age of global finance cannot but change Siddhartha’s path. The modern circumstance begs Buddhism to reveal what is in Buddhism more than Buddhism itself.
And apropos to today: Who will build (and fight for!) a Plum Village in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
(PS: My understanding of Zizek is based on “Tarrying with the Negative”, “Parallax View”, “Violence”, and “In Defense of Lost Causes”)
We continue our discussion with Shambhala acharya, Judith Simmer-Brown, about how we can strategically invest in American Buddhism so that it survives in the long-term. We explored the first three areas of importance in-depth in part 1, which included the translation of core texts, the development of a monastic lineage, and the appointment of dharma heirs.
In this part of the discussion we flesh out the details of the fourth area, which is royal patronage. Judith speaks about how, given a lack of that kind of support, most dharma teachers and organizations turn whole-heartedly to the market to sustain them. And with that come all sort of issues–including the pursuit of fame and fortune. We finish the discussion, going back to the question of whether we’ll be able to develop a monastic community in the West, and why that’s important to the healthy development of Buddhism in America.
What better than a Buddhist Church Inc. to supplement the post-modern feudal order? I mean, Nazi Germany was nominally Christian, right? Stalin’s Soviet Union was still haunted by the big Other. What about nationalism is consonant with a vision of universal liberation?
From Zizek’s recent appearance speaking at “Marxism 2009″:
“The whole wager of communist revolutionary is: you can make State work against itself.”
This is what you could say is at stake in Jesus suggesting that we “turn the other cheek.” Turning the other cheek means using the impropriety surrounding the using your unclean left hand to force the abuser to hit back with an open palm, which is a gesture of equalization. Zizek’s ideal State, in keeping with his emphasis of class-struggle over social-antagonism, is what Nietzsche would call one’s good-enemy.
This is a society where even the enemy is loved.
Nietzsche and and Zizek, like Jesus before them both, are both philosophers of and *advocates* for (in the biblical sense) the good enemy.
This is the radically liberating equality that Nietzsche strikes at in his support of the agon, what Zizek gets at in his insistence on the necessity of class-struggle for creating a classless society, and is really the only way we can understand why the event of Jesus would lead to something like the Christian tradition, with its Church-state structure. Jesus advocated for that sliver of radical equality which broke with the Lawful (pagan) hierarchy of distinctions – that is, for that moment in equality that was itself freedom. Equality before the (Capitalist/Jewish) Law doesn’t get us very far when it is also the Law that you are untouchable or a slave or property, but it’s in a sense necessary to get as far as we have.
You have heard it said that we should feed the poor, and when the Ayn Randian or similar Libertarian says that is only rewarding or sustaining weakness, we should understand what’s true and untrue about it. It is true that this act sustains poverty, but to be kept poverty is hardly a reward. The latter, to put it as Zizek would, is ideology at its purest. This makes it both a useful example for Leftist ridicule, but perhaps one that has lost its symbolic efficacy. It’s not as distasteful among (at least the American) working-class anymore to suggest, as many right-wing propagandists and their liberal fellow-travelers do, that welfare is something that can in some sense be abused. It functions as both an a condemnation and a defense: a bad-apple doesn’t spoil the bunch. We see its bourgeois-double in the excuse for Capital made by those who sanctify CEOs left and right as “abusers” of Capitalism’ natural bounty. These abusers are really its heros, because we recognize in their abuse of the system their fundamental affirmation of it also: it’s got so few bad-apples that we’ll keep letting it grow. The problem is not simply that Capitalism rewards abusers, at the top and bottom, which must be regulated, but that the abusers are a structural necessity for its functioning.
You will know a tree by its fruits, and cut down the bad ones. We should be clear here though: jesus tells us we should cut down the bad trees, not just the apples. The liberal, pragmatic apology for capitalism is: so what if it produces bad-apples, it produces more apples total and less bad apples porportionately than anything we can imagine.
Cue John Lennon song.
True abundance cannot be abused, cannot be founded on abuse. This is why Ursula K. LeGuin’s short-story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is so fundamentally ANTI-Utopian: the choice between a living in paradise founded on a fundamental abuse and walking away from it is a forced one, and choosing to change Omelas (for the better) is impossible unless you want to take away everyone’s happiness and well-being.
OMELAS DOESN’T EXIST.
Hegel’s essay can be summarized in contemporary terms with a response as pithy as his own terse statement: “the uneducated, not the educated.”
Those who think abstractly are those who believe in some kind of metaphysical common-sense: whether the universal rationality that supposedly governs market-actors’ choices or some common-sensical naturalistic “way”. This goes for the fashionable, artificial back-to-nature simplicity of new agers and their western-buddhist, -taoist and -hindu cousins.
“Be yourself” is metaphysical common-sense. The romantic appeal to feelings is metaphysical common-sense. “The invisible hand” is metaphysical common-sense. Ideology as Marx engages and critiques it is metaphysical common-sense. “The way things are” is an appeal to metaphysical common-sense. The super-ego is metaphysical common-sense as an obscene agency shaping ahead of time the contours of how our ownmost convictions even appear to us as our own.
Thanks to Mariborchan, that master archiver of videos related to Zizek, Lacan and Badiou (among other things) online.
You can listen to all five classes at Backdoor Broadcasting:
“The master class analyses phenomena of modern thought and culture with the intention to discern elements of possible Communist culture. It moves at two levels: first, it interprets some cultural phenomena (from today’s architecture to classic literary works like Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise) as failures to imagine or enact a Communist culture; second, it explores attempts at imagining how a Communist culture could look, from Wagner’s Ring to Kafka’s and Beckett’s short stories and contemporary science fiction novels.”
The above link is to the first class, but with side-bar links to the other four. From Verso’s UK Blog, the five main themes, which roughly correspond to the lectures, are:
1. Architecture as Ideology: the Failure of Performance-Arts Venues to construct a Communal Space
2. Narrative as an Ideological Category: Literary References in Hegel’s Phenomenology
3. The Failure of Nietzsche’s Critique of the Hegelian Narrative
4. Wagner’s Ring as a Communist narrative
5. Narrative Germs of Communism: from Kafka, Beckett, Sturgeon
In an instant-messenger conversation with my friend Jon, more of which I will post above as their own chunks, I was stroked by genius.
Me: I didn’t notice this earlier, but this is the (neo)liberal fantasy par-excellance: ‘my practical goal is to bring about a fruition of captialism worldwide with as few losers as possible.’ It’s a kind of bodhisattva vow made in bad faith.
Jon: oh yeah
Me: That’s a really interesting marriage of theological concepts: a bodhisattva vow made in bad faith. I think it embodies what Zizek sees in Western Buddhism.
Me: Oh my God.
I think I just figured out my paper topic for that conference.
Jon: woaaaah! do it!
Update: From further down the conversation, still concerned with Zizek and Buddhism, I take up an earlier issue in the conversation concerning hegemony and the tendency of the Left to try to undermine hegemony rather than use it.
>You could think of a hegemon as the monopoly on the production of knowledge, where bodhisattvas ‘rely on prajna paramita’ or the production of wisdom for their work. What is wisdom though? Maybe it’s just the way that liberating knowledge first appears, and in todays spirituality industry we (arguably Zizek) have a glimpse into a primitive accumulation of our very souls. If the stress of living in capitalism is experienced as a kind of (what Zizek would call) subjective violence, the spirituality industry inflicts an objective violence that we do not immediately experience, just as we do not immediately experience the environment or our social support networks degrading. I want to risk an even more daring hypothesis though: what if the subjective violence that we experience as stress and other psycho-physiological distortions caused by Capitalism’s gutting of our world were a manifestation of the objective violence more usually called structural violence? In other words, they are not-two. This is the psychoanalytic marxist description of the Buddha’s compassion for suffering.
That is to say, people caught in the new-age, thearapeutic religious loop try to address their subjective suffering at the expense of an objective suffering, though they are one in the same. Such a spiritual path remains stuck in a dualistic paradigm, the very same paradigm it threatens to realize in its relegating of social welfare to self-fulfillment. Freedom for all beings: that is the answer to the first half of Lenin’s rhetorical question aimed at proponents of democratic freedoms in a capitalist society: “freedom for whom, and to do what?”
What of the latter though?
[From an exchange between Derek and I, where I start out asking:]
Me: Isn’t it funny how theatrical a term “jobless” is?
Derek: How so?
Me: It sounds like a title you’d give to an actor. It has a very different connotation from “unemployed,” which still retained this a sense of a larger function (“you are being unemployed by the Market,” which is the dirty secret of the more popular notion that you are “employed by the Market”) and the more pagan notion of being a functional part of everything else, whose peak form of art is the ritual. Theatre has a deep connection to modern politics in this sense, and gives rise to a sense of collectivity that is essentially Marxist before Marx.
A play is a collective endeavor by a bunch of individuals, whose places are not pre-determined by and yet some how fixed according to the narrative. The narrative is is not a higher sort of function that pulls the strings and makes the actors perform the play. The actors come together of their own (of course, through a rigorous, almost religious training period before hand – i.e. study and rehearsal) and perform the play.
The play can seem like a constraining superfluity (the sort implied by deriding ideology as naivety) or as what the actors themselves put on and make for/of/by themselves. This is effectively art for no one though; how does it, like Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” be for everyone too? Theatre can be enjoyed by any and, in the digital era, everyone. An audience at the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s plays, in his time, is at once radically egalitarian communal enjoyment and a scene of obscene enjoyment of the court).
This is why Zizek says, in his “Arcitectural Parallax” essay he says Mozart is on the side of the poor! Everyone is there minimally for the sake of enjoying the performance, which is itself a kind of self-enjoyment (i.e. for no one) of the actors putting on and yet working together to accomplish “the play,” but the upper classes are their to enjoy their very presence, which is ob-scene (as Dr. Clark was always fond of explaining: literally “off or out of the scene”).
This other scene, in the fully Freudian sense, stages a distraction from the real enjoyment at hand. The performance is not a re-duplication of class-relations and social conditions, for that would suppose that one set was the original and one was not (c.f. the zen koan about what your original face looked like before you were born), but social life and class-relations are themselves performative, which is to say we all put on “a play” called everyday life wherein our our relationship as actors and the performance as a whole is of a class-nature.
In this universe of political theatre, God is a machine (Science and its support in power), and one isn’t unemployed by society, but is nonetheless acting out a jobless role in its infinitely possible flavors. Makes you think about how Keanu Reeves gets picked on for being such a one-dimensional actor, and how in a way he embodies a certain kind of ideological critique of celebrity, which he certainly has some of himself—as if his various characters, and the celebrity they gained for him, screamed out the secret of many or even most great actors: you’re really, actually boring. Could any other actor had pulled “Neo” off as well as Reeves did?
This is what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek: you (my abuser) cannot but give me equality, for it is what your own law compels you to do when I “turn the other cheek” (which given the impropriety (a very different sense of “bad” from the bad sort of thing that you could do to someone without being dishonored by it yourself) of things to do with the Left hand means striking them as an equal with an open palm or fist. To us today, it may seem that it would make more sense, from the angle of wanting to demean and degrade someone, to use the left-hand: that’s what you use to wipe your ass, after all.
Propriety and honor point towards this social commitment that we make as a kind of self-positing, where we oblige ourselves to honorability as such. Acting done well is a similar self-positing.
The link here is what Hegel called “the sensuous expression of freedom,” which strikes most of us as an expression you’d intuitively apply to something like a painting, a poem or book, or a musical performance or a gourmet dish— but not a a theatrical performance. It is here though, and the danger is always that the freedom experienced on the stage will be mis-recognized. Through this mis-recognition on a mass scale, along with other forms of mass theatrics (television shows, especially) we are more likely to relate to our own roles in a democracy as if it were a show being watched. This is why enjoyment is a political factor.
What do liberal, progressive or otherwise Leftist detractors from the Democratic Party have in common with Wells Fargo? They both endorse deferring responsibility in the face of fucking-up.
I say Wells Fargo because that is the bank I use, but I can imagine most banks advocating what I have in mind. For as long as I can remember, Wells Fargo has been regularly offering me credit cards. On the one hand, this is not entirely out of the ordinary. On the other hand, the most frequent kind of credit-card offer I get comes with what they call over-draft protection.
The idea here is that you use more money in your checking account than you have, and instead paying a $30 or more fee the difference is sent to your credit-card and no fee is incurred. In other words, the bank, usually what we associate with financial responsibility, is encouraging you that it’s okay to be financially irresponsible. If you do not have a credit-card, the bank will usually offer a line of credit to you. This makes perfect sense too, because since you need overdraft protection, you probably do not have the minimum of financial responsibility to keep up with your credit-card charges. Even if you aren’t a complete dolt, and get the charges paid off before they get completely out of hand, the bank still wins by encouraging reckless spending, especially if you regularly don’t pay off your credit-cards before the interest actually exceeds the typical overdraft fee.
A very similar logic of deferred responsibility dictates the actions of many “conscience-voters.” Seeing the Democratic Party let them down, they do what any good consumer is knows to do: instead of demanding quality, they demand choice. Typically, the choice implied is the choice of a third-party candidate. However, some freedom of choice advocates go so far as claiming that The People cannot be served by a single party, but only by multiple kinds of representatives who account for the diversity of The People. Everyone is entitled to their very own special opinion, and by extension everyone is entitled to their very own special political representative. Even within the Democratic party this rhetoric of choice prevails: “Yeah, Obama isn’t perfect, but he’s the best choice we’ve got!”
Instead of seeking more effective forms of political organization, many liberals and progressives retreat from power, whether they blindly embrace or blindly reject the Democratic Party. They frame either move in a rhetoric of choice that is central to liberal capitalism, which is why Republicans can and do talk about responsibility in purely economic terms. Responsibility is a value the Left should embrace for itself, except it should re-cast it in terms of political responsibility first.
Here’s a slightly edited post I left in a Buddhist Forum on Western Buddhism. It starts with a quote from another post in the thread.
Paraphrasing Slavoj Zizek: “Western Buddhism” as it is used today represents a set of techniques and methods that are designed basically to make your crappy office job more meaningful and less stressful. This is why he calls it the ideal supplement to or “hegemonic ideology par excellance of global capitalism” (that’s in On Belief).
I think Zizek’s onto something here.
If your motivation for practice is “stress relief,” I humbly suggest a reconsideration of your motivation for practice is in order.
This doesn’t address the broader speculative question, however, of what an authentic Buddhism that is integrated in an intelligent way with Euro-American culture might look like. Really, it’ll have to take some generations of rigorous practice for that to come around.
I have wrestled with Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism for a couple years now, and I think he is on to something too. I also think, for as versed as he is in the Euro-American philosophical tradition, he’s sloppy when it comes to how he defines and subsequently critiques Western Buddhism. The point about “stress relief” as a motivation for practice is why I reply though.
Jacques Lacan, one of Zizek’s most important influences, didn’t view psychoanalysis strictly, if at all, as a therapeutic exercise. It was a quest for truth, particularly the truth of our desire (a complicated term that shouldn’t be immediately substituted for/by related Buddhist terms). Therapeutic benefits, in terms of self-fulfillment or “being happy,” aren’t necessarily the criterion of a successful psychoanalysis, though they aren’t necessarily excluded either.
It’s from this perspective that I think we should consider Zizek’s definition and subsequent critique of Western Buddhism. That is to say, one the one hand there is Buddhism practiced in the West by Westerners; on the other hand, there is a critical sub-set of that, which is what I think Zizek accurately identifies in his notion of Western Buddhism, that takes particular notions of well-being, which for Zizek are hallmarks of a perverse superego injunction to Enjoy, as criterion of the efficacy of the Dharma.
Though the Buddha taught to avoid the extreme of self-mortification, it would be a bit disingenuous to characterize the motivations of acknowledged Dharma-teachers and masters as happiness. The Buddha himself identified happiness with suffering, and even equanimity (cf. Dogen’s warning in the Shobogenzo about the monk who mistook equanimity as the proof of his attaining enlightenment) isn’t strictly speaking the point of practice. In other words, the point of practice is more important than partial effects like happiness and the reduction of stress, though they are clearly not unimportant in the Dharma either—”With nothing to attain, a Bodhisattva relies on Prajna Paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear.”
Anyway, getting back to Zizek, an important question he at least implicitly raises for me is with regards to the effects of capitalism on so-called Western culture and what that means for Buddhism as it adapts to the West. Specifically, what I have in mind actually touches on a memorable remark Marx made about the effects of Capitalism and modernization on feudal societies and tradition in general: “all that is solid melts into air…” Buddhism didn’t really become influential or widely practiced in Europe or America until the late 19th century, if not much later, well after those regions had industrialized and begun, for better or worse, the process of up-rooting traditional sensibilities and ways of life.
In its life in Asia, Buddhism had fairly well established cultures to engage in the process of adaptation, which I don’t think for the most part it had in Europe or America. That’s not to say there aren’t cultural peculiarities in Europe or America, but that the historical developments of the region called “the industrial West” and the pre-industrial civilizations of East and South Asia have yielded different encounters with Buddhism. Zizek, half recognizing this, throws his energies into criticizing (what I see as) the negative effects of the Western encounter. Unfortunately, this seems to be the larger part of his view of Buddhism. Moreover, he sloppily conflates his Western Buddhism with Buddhism in general (cf. parts of The Puppet and the Dwarf and elsewhere, where he directly argues against “Asiatic Buddhism” being a different, much less innocent phenomena), which is ironically a symptom of the distortion I see him critiquing.
Nonetheless, I think a critical engagement with Zizek’s negative and positive interest in Buddhism offers some interesting ways of wrestling with the complexities of practicing Buddhism in the Western context. He gets some things wrong and others right, but its his assessment of the problems and complexities of late capitalist culture that are the most useful for the more difficult Buddhist engagement.