Sitting as Social Activity

Thesis 8 from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. (Marx’s emphasis)

Do that whenever you are sitting on a bike or bus, at a restaurant or movie theater—on a zafu or even with your breath.

Acting, Political Theatre and Enjoyment as Political Factor

[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.

Capitalism Hits the Fan A Marxian View: A Response to Wolff

This morning I was tipped off by Perverse Egalitarianism (again) about a 40-minute video lecture. The lecture is given by Dr. Richard Wolf, of University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and is called “Capitalism Hits the Fan A Marxian View.” The google-video description reads: “Richard Wolff a professor of economics at UMass Amherst talks on the current “financial” crisis and capitialism in general. A form of socialism is presented as a possible alternative. This talk was presented by the Asociation for Economic and Social Analysis and the journal Rethinking Marxism.” For about the first half-hour of it I was impressed with his smart yet accessible overview of the last 100 years of Capitalism, leading up to the last 30 or so years of wage stagnation, over-production, and the replacement of wage increases with credit-lines. As the above description indicates, he offers “a form of socialism as a possible alternative.” This is where I became less impressed, and I’d like to say a little about why.

I found Wolff’s socialist alternative lacking. That’s not to say I didn’t like the way he positioned it contra both a conservative and liberal view about the crisis and the response to it. I thought that and the talk up to that point was brilliant. The bad taste his socialist alternative leaves in my mouth has two parts.

1) Wolff assumes a lot is going on around these worker-owned companies that make them possible. He and a lot of other people before him have done the work to re-think how a company (any company) can re-organize itself according to principles worker-ownership and management. This approach, more syndicalist than socialist, doesn’t address the way such companies interface with the wider society that depends on them nor the wider socio-economic conditions on which they themselves depends. That leads me to the second aspect of this bad taste.

2) His proposal does not address the capitalist mode of production so much as the relations of production, and not even those so much. In fact, what he’s talking about depends on the profit-motive and the productive arrangements that make it possible, if not necessary as in otherwise top-down ran Capitalism. This has two unpleasant blind-spots in-itself.

On the one hand, when a company depends on private profits for what it does, it is still at odds with government regulation, which cuts into profits. Wolff might argue that the enlightened working-class folks running their own company know that the regulations and taxes (he said nothing of taxes though) are for the workers’ own benefit, so they would not have a problem with them. What’s the point of making a profit then, particularly a profit destined to decline according to the very same processes Wolff elaborated earlier in his talk? The only conceivable point is that profit is never merely a means nor an end, but always both. In light of that, the self-consuming logic of Capital will explode these like all other relations of production, lest it simply be run into the ground.

On the other hand, “democratizing” the work-place in this syndicalist fashion does not over-come the essential privatization of an otherwise social(ist) movement. The workers depend upon their company as an engine of profit and not the State as the guarantor of social equity, which competes with the profitability of these worker-owned/managed companies. It’s only a partial socialization, both of losses and profits. While better than the current arrangements, the fundamental problem of the Capitalist mode of production is not properly addressed and will undo any relatively equitable relations of productions when they endanger profits, as it did in the mid-20th Century with trade unions and New Deal regulations.

In short, from Dr. Wolff’s talk, his “socialism” is not much better, if all that different, from what Marx critiqued in the Communist Manifesto as “petty-bourgeois socialism.”

Back-Handed Praise for Zizek’s Western Buddhism

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.

The Question of Change

I had a fruitful though short exchange with N Pepperell over at Rough Theory late yesterday about some issues raised at Larval Subjects. Distilled like a fine Whiskey, Pepperell concentrates on some questions about change, raised as elaborations of a kind of return to Marx’s “aim of philosophy,” put forth by Sinthome. They are:

1. What is to be changed?
2. How is it to be changed?
3. Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?

In my comments on Pepperell, I jump at what I saw. These are three questions that seem quite old actually, almost worn out and deceptively practical. I would like to suggest that these questions and their ilk are worth raising only if they point us back– and I think they can– to a more core issue for the cause of revolution and freedom: if the aim of philosophy for Marx is not merely to explain the world, but to change it, than our pre-occupation should not be with the world as much as with change itself. In other words, the appropriate question is:what is change?.

This is what I feel Zizek is up to in his jesterly Leninist moments. As I explained somewhat in my entry last week on Repeating Lenin, and re-iterated in my comments with Pepperell, the concern with change must be dead-serious at its core. This means avoiding the cynical gesture that, as soon as we begin to engage the question of what change is really about, change is impossible and necessarily to be avoided. We should adopt an ironic gesture of confronting this apparent impossibility for change, which confronts us with an almost humorous absurdity, with the intent of taking it as seriously as can be. The point is, of course, that change conceived as a co-ordinate in the present hegemonic-ideological field is by definition an impossibility, as it is (at this point anyway, after the great revolutionary attempts of the 19th and 20th Centuries) the repressed kernel effectively making the reproduction of the ideological field possible. This is what Zizek is getting at when he tells us that “[to repeat Lenin] stands for the compelling FREEDOM to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live — it simply means that we are allowed to think again” (Repeating Lenin)

The point is that there is a certain something not going on when all we feel compelled to ask are questions like those I quote from Sinthome above. Masked in such seriousness, this is an activity “of doing things not to achieve something, but to PREVENT from something really happening, really changing” (ibid). The most radical question we should be asking, if we are to return to Marx’s aim of philosophy, is that which confronts change head-on and takes it seriously and not its impossibility. That is why I think there is something important to this repetition of Lenin. It takes us back to “the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to REINVENT Marxism” (ibid)– the Lenin who had the depth and courage to ask in all seriousness: what is change?