Archive for January 2010
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”)
A thought I posted on facebook, after which a thread of comments follow.
“If there are more skilled social-service jobs, the college-grads forced to work retail or worse will leave, because who the fuck wants to do that, making jobs for the… less-skilled. People who [with regard to Measures 66 and 67 in Oregon] talk about ‘job-killing taxes’ seem to think that everyone wants to work dead-end retail jobs. They’re already there, and a lot of the wrong people are working them.”
Matt Reiter: retail is fun~~~~~~~not.
Eric S. Gregory: So there are ‘right’ people for dead-end retail jobs?
Joe Clement: I had second-thoughts about that the second I hit send. No, Eric, no one should work dead-end retail jobs, though I don’t rule out them out (just the necessity of working them). My point is that those most affected by 66 and 67, especially 67, are those corporations whose job-making potential is largely in this field.
The work they offer is not socially-necessary, which isn’t a backdoor into some bizarroland the libertarians dread where you can only do the work the government offers. There are plenty of medical and education positions these taxes keep, if not expand. Even the unskilled labour that ODOT may employ is more socially necessary than ensuring your complete costumer-satisfaction at Fred Meyers.
To the extent that they do serve a role in keeping Capital in circulation enough (and possibly redirected to more democratic organizations, which I do believe exist, even in the world of necessary goods) that the people don’t choke (a starving population is a lot harder to mobilize than a minimally fed one), I don’t rule out retail jobs.
The point should not be to protect these jobs, but to reduce and ultimately eliminate the ‘necessity’ of working them in the first place. That way, if you really get your jollies frying chicken-strips at the Deli of the Hawthorne Fred Meyers, then you can. Since I doubt many of us would do that kind of thing, organizations like Freddies might either have to downsize or disappear completely.
In a world where the jobs they offer are seen as socially necessary because they’re work period, this would be a disaster. In the world I’m talking about, it’s good riddance.
I also don’t rule out the possibility that in a more equitable environment, working in a grocery-store (a socially-necessary job, unless you assume State-run distribution centers, in which case the grocery-store model I think still makes more sense) could be an unalienated activity.
Whether you prefer some kind of Marxist fisherman-by-day philosopher-by-night approach is for you to decide. I think that many, most probably, would like a monotonous life of steady work in a field they basically like.
Eric S. Gregory: I’m in general agreement, Joe. I just bristle at certain notions of entitlement that might (by implication) exclude or construct a class of others (not that you’re doing this–just wanted to clarify).
At this point in my life, I’ve worked over 30 retail jobs (and I might add that working for the Library–at least the actual work involved–isn’t all that different from working at Borders. I was there for 3 years in the early 90s) and while there were some terrible times, I’ve often found retail jobs to be somewhat liberating–especially for living a nomadic semi-exploratory lifestyle. I don’t even mind the work (I have no problem ‘serving’ people)–it’s the money that ultimately becomes insulting and it’s the money (and benefits–lack thereof) that makes these jobs so easy to take and leave and take and leave and take and leave(hence the liberating aspect). I spent my 20s and 30s moving around the country, living ‘simply,’ doing bands and music, drugs, etc., moving laterally from one shit retail job to the next every year or 2. To some extent, the jobs and the lifestyle went hand in hand and I understood that while working a ‘career’ (ugh) certainly wouldn’t preclude the lifestyle above, it would have made it more difficult (and the “serious” office jobs I worked during those years typically resulted in termination, rather than voluntary abandonment). I still think that the Burger King gig I had in the mid-80s was possibly the best job I’ve ever worked (managers laying out lines of blow and sharing big fat doobies with the workers, showing up tripping out of one’s mind without any worry of job-related paranoia, fucking with peoples’ food, working with probably the most diverse cast of characters I’ve yet encountered).
I’ve always seen dead-end jobs as a means to lifestyle invention/play and as temporary paths and ways around the predictable. But I also had the luxury to position myself as such.
Joe Clement: While no where nearly as glamorous as yur Burger King gig, working at Freddies last year, in the Deli, allows me to say: I can relate. Some of the most satisfying work I did every day (I even looked forward to it, in part because it meant the end of the shift was near) was sweeping/mopping the whole deli. I even contemplated for a whole ten minutes, upon the remarkable suggestion of a co-worker who noticed me dancing with the mop, how satisfactory life could be as a janitor.
I think you’d agree though, that the freedom these jobs impart is an index of how little freedom they really offer in terms of self-determination and participation in collective action. They can keep a working-class, ready for mobilization, fed long enough to start something, but they couldn’t really form a stable or satisfactory economic base (especially when you consider how the predominance of such jobs in the US is an index of a very unfree world on the whole).
Eric S. Gregory: Agree 100%, yes. But insofar as having to make accommodations, compromises and to live within the constrained coordinates of late capitalism, there’s something –what shall I call it?–illuminating? exciting? penetrative? about choosing to not choose a career that will come to colonize and define you. Of course, retail defines as well–but it can also allow one to see more extensively how fucked we really are. And if you coordinate your lifestyle with the material conditions of your employment (minimum wage, no health benefits, demeaned social status), you can sometimes have a good fucking time.
Obviously, this way of accessing retail work as an ideal for living doesn’t work as well if you have a chronically debilitating medical condition or usually, if you’re over 50 (I’ve worked with some over 50s who knew exactly what they were doing).
Joe Clement: I agree with you too. Working in the Deli only entrenched my belief in a democratic world of self-organized collectivity (communism for short). I just fight elevating this subjective, one-dimensional freedom [of retail-nomadism within the constraints of Capitalism] above the objective freedom such a system actively denies. Not everyone who discovers how to cope with the stresses of Capitalism finds the time or motivation to see to its end (or radical restructuring for those more attuned to the neo-liberal jargon). You and I and some others are lucky, if not in a Nietzchean sense a bit superior even, and that isn’t enough for me any more than being born into the right caste 2500 years ago was enough for the Buddha.
The point shouldn’t be to relegate retail-work or similarly unskilled labour, but the social-necessity of the relations in which it is currently implicated and further implies.