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Archive for the ‘Culture Industry’ Category

The Na’vi Do Not Exist

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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.

Written by Joe

February 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm

What Is In Buddhism More Than Buddhism Itself

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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”)

Written by Joe

January 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Buddhist Church Inc.

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From Buddhist Geeks:

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?

Written by Joe

November 10, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Utopian Abundance and Its Abuses

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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.


Written by Joe

July 9, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Who Thinks Abstractly?

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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.

Written by Joe

June 30, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Zizek’s Notes Toward A Definition of Communist Culture

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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

Written by Joe

June 26, 2009 at 10:28 pm

A Bodhisattva Vow Made in Bad Faith

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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?

Written by Joe

June 9, 2009 at 3:10 am