Fish on The Academic and The Political

I wonder what difference there is between Fish’s judgement about private/public commitments in his article on “Liberalism and Secularism” and those he’s making in these last three articles (First, Second, Most Recent). In that article from late last year, Fish attacks the public-private distinction, while recently he’s happy to enforce it, though the terms are a bit more obscure. A professor as a professional pedagogue conducts their teaching in an effectively public realm by Fish’s view, but does Fish’s relegating their political commitments to the private sphere not constitute just another, if unspoken political commitment?

Fish is not about to say that of their political commitments professors should say “I have none,” because it’s ludicrous. At the same time, he doesn’t advocate that professors say their political commitments structure every last bit of their classes and how they’re taught. His middle-position, which puts political commitments off to one side and professional-academic commitments to another, is strikingly similar to the same kind of middle position he lambasts here:

“A candidate cannot say, ‘I don’t have any [religious faith],’ and a candidate cannot say, ‘My faith dictates every decision I make and every action I take.’ Rather, a candidate must say something like, ‘My faith generally informs my moral values, but my judgments and actions as president will follow from the constitutional obligations of the office, not from my religion.’ In other words, I too believe in the public-private distinction and I will uphold it. I won’t insist that you adopt my values and I will respect yours” (“Liberalism and Secularism,” Sept. 7, 2007)

What it sounds like Fish advocates is an approach to teaching that is like a liberal-secular approach to government. Academic and political commitments in this and the last two articles are analogous to the secular and sacred commitments he juggles in that article from last year. In the end, Fish suggests with Mark Lilla that “We need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principles.” In the context of the academic and the political though, Fish doesn’t suggest coping, but rather candidly reverts to high, if academic, principles. His distinction on an academic level pre-supposes what is properly academic and properly political, but it is a matter of politics that this distinction is enforced, which he doesn’t escape. The problem this leaves is the same one Fish finds with liberal-secular neutrality: he does not expect academics to be apolitical so much as of a kind politics that respects the academic as distinct from the political.

Activity in Buddhism

[x-posted at Progressive Buddhism]

Whitney Joiner wrote an interesting appraisal of the Dharma Punx phenomenon, which she playfully titled “Dive-bar Dharma.” Specifically she considers how this new phenomenon within American Buddhism relates to the more original phenomenon of American Buddhism itself (i.e. Buddhism that rushed into America after WWII and proliferated with the then counter-culture). In the end she comes out with what, I think, is the typical utilitarian/skillful-means defense of the movement. Rather than strive for appeal through the quasi-authority of Eastern exoticism—which may or may not fairly describe the original appeal for ’50s and ’60s counter-culture-warriors like Allen Ginsberg, who like many other disaffected youth of his time was already enamored with quasi-mystic figures of the Romantic movement like William Blake and the less mystical but no less romantic Walt Whitman, not to mention being steeped in the Jewish and Christian mystic traditions—Joiner thinks Levine and a fellow dharma punk, Ethan Nichtern, are on the right track with their edgy new approach to spreading/practicing the dharma. What I think is missing from this sort of account is the flip-side of even this movement. I’ll digress for a moment in an excerpt from the lengthy comment I left, which I think says my point about as well as I care to right now.

The key to understanding how active Buddhist practice is already (before getting hipsterfied or whatever) is in understanding how active our minds are already.

We are typically dominated by a more or less mild froth of mental activity, both in the moment but largely also out of it. That is to say, when we pull out the drawer to get a spoon for eating our freshly poured bowl of cereal, our minds are probably engaged in that activity, but more likely than not a bunch of other stuff too—whatever we were doing before we made our bowl of cereal, whatever we anticipate doing afterwards and associations and thoughts of other sorts. What happens is we are constantly pulled out of the moment and to the extent that we are in the moment, the weight of the rest of our mental activity can make things that are not in this moment feel very present. Isn’t it common to be in a bad-mood and to take what someone said or did, or some otherwise inadvertent circumstance, as we put it “the wrong way,” only to realize later that “I was just in a bad-mood” and feel crumby about it?

Tarrying with this mental activity, which takes us out of the moment when we don’t even normally realize it until after the fact, is the core of Buddhist practice. Stilling the mind is not simply turning our inessential mental activity off, because we can’t turn our thoughts off like that. Luckily for us, what comes goes, and the same is true for our thoughts. So, the trick of Buddhist practice, at least when we’re talking about meditation, is staying with these thoughts long enough to notice that they are there, but not so that we become unaware of everything else that is going on around us. This is, on the one hand, profoundly difficult, more difficult than anything else someone can try and do, because it is asking that we stay in full contact with every nook and cranny of our mental activity so we don’t lose track of it. On the other hand, it turns out to be profoundly simple too, since after establishing our mindfulness, the mental activity goes away by itself. We’re just there to watch, engaged enough to know what’s going on, but not so much that we’re really worried about what’s going to come of it, since we already know: when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.

In this way, Buddhism is already profoundly active from the get go. I’m very much on board with what one of the commenters said about the ease of this practice perhaps unskillfully being put before its simultaneous [depth and] difficulty. As much [as] overly esoteric practices and teachings are unskillful (not in themselves, but because they are brought [up in] an inappropriate context), I think that overly exoteric practices and teachings are probably just as unskillful. The idea that “you aren’t doing anything” isn’t wrong, as I already pointed out, but it’s incomplete, and it is incompleteness of a view or a practice that makes it unskillful. What we do on the meditation cushion, or however you meditate is, first of all, tremendous work, but it isn’t to be just something we do on the meditation cushion. The goal is bring this practice we have in meditation into every moment of our lives. If that doesn’t sound like positively the most difficult thing anyone has ever suggested to you, then I don’t know what will. Nonetheless, somewhat in defense of the article, it doesn’t matter what’s going on the outside so long as the same practice is happening on the inside, whether you say “Peace, man” or “Oi!”

That’s pretty much all I have to say, but I should still add a bit more. What is at stake for Buddhists brought up in Generation X and now Generation Y is still very much what was at stake for the first mentionable generation of American Buddhists in the last century: suffering and its cessation. I probably gloss over a lot when I say this, but I’m not giving a rigorous historical account, just a perspective. The way I see it, people have come to the dhamma because they are ready to begin taking up the path to the cessation of (their) suffering and dissatisfaction with life. If they aren’t, then allure of the exotic (whether its from China, the hippie commune, or the tattoo-parlor) wears off, as everything does, and they get on with their lives—still unsatisfied.

The point I fear is missed by many in the Dharma Punx movement and those surrounding it is that we practice the dharma for its own sake—not because it’s cool or fun or whacky or edgy or however you want to describe the vehicle. I think this marks one of the difficulties for the development of a truly Western (or American) Buddhism, because we have a deep cultural penchant for commodities (i.e. things whose first and practically only purpose is to be consumable by as many people as possible, which is to say, things that are all exterior), which translates into approaching something like the dhamma asking “so what is it good for?” The only meaningful answer I can think of is: everything, and nothing less.

This reminds me of a story I’ve heard from somewhere about the Buddha and a farmer. The farmer comes to the Buddha, who he heard has this great teaching, and asks him if it can help him with this or that mundane problem of his life (nagging wife, unruly kids, failing crops, etc.). The Buddha says his teaching cannot help with any of those problems. He tells him that life is full of all kinds of problems, 83 to be exact, and the Buddha’s teaching will help him with none of them. The farmer, kind of ticked off, asks the Buddha just what good his teachings are then, if they in no way answer to any of these issues in his (or anyone else’s) life. The Buddha points out that his teachings are good and only good for one still yet unmentioned problem, an 84th problem enveloping all the other 83 problems: the farmer wants to have no more problems.

In a similar way, the American Buddhist community’s task is not to be popular (i.e. prolific in a social context insofar as that context stays the same), like when the farmer asks if it can fix this or that problem (i.e. a fix for a problem only when it’s a problem), but to remain effective. By effective I don’t mean in the sense that there is any particular, conventional issue it addresses, but because it remains true to its only purpose: the cessation of suffering.


For Stanley Fish, “that’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study,” he writes in a follow-up column (in the New York Times) to an earlier one that entertains the question, “Will The Humanities Save Us?” His argument—much like one he outlines in the introduction to his 1989 book, “Doing What Comes Naturally,” where he argues that “theory has no consequences” (14)—is that the study of the humanities (that is, the professional study of the humanities) has no (tenably) extrinsic use, but only intrinsic value. In other words, “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. ” What’s more is that, as he puts it, this is “an answer that brings honor to its subject.”

What I take Fish to be suggesting, as the at once explicit and tacit question of these articles is why we should fund the study of the humanities and why should anyone study them professionally, is that, as anti-climatic as it seems, the humanities are worth preserving in themselves. This also goes for (financially) supporting the study of the humanities, specifically, however, avoiding the notion that through studying them we become “well rounded citizens.” In this sense, Fish is saying that studying the humanities anymore persists because the people who devote their lives to the study of the humanities (like Fish) are people, which is to say, they are not agents of some extrinsic goal. An agent of some extrinsic goal would be like a job (or our idea of being a worker with a job) in relation to the idea of retirement (or our idea of not being workers anymore): paradoxically we commit our lives to something, and in effect make it that something, purely for the sake of something that is not it.

The same issue is at stake in an anecdote Zizek recalls in “The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason,” and probably somewhere else given how Zizek writes, where

In the course of the Crusade of King St.Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she is doing it, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: “Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God.”

To Fish the humanities, or those who study and write on them for a living, perform in their very existence the function of the old woman. This is NOT in the sense that they have an agenda to destroy all instrumentality, but that earnestly pursuing the humanities quickly turns itself away from an agenda apart from itself. This is kind of at odds with his equally emphatic insistence that even this is not to be put to extrinsic use (i.e. as inspiration to be better people, or as a standard against which we can hold ourselves). A possible way out is to conceive of the study of the humanities as fundamentally interpretive, but only in the sense that Fish also says that EVERYTHING is interpretive, and that the in studying the humanities we make interpretation its own interpretive end—as opposed to, say, interpreting some data to decide on doing this or that.

On the one hand, it could be viewed in that same sense of a kind of “higher ideal” to which we aspire, while on the other hand I think the Buddha’s notion of “Mindfulness” can help us figure out what this has to do with the rest of our lives.

I think that the former view still fails because, insofar as we’re going along with Fish and saying that EVERYTHING we do is interpretation, the humanities cannot claim to have something not present in other spheres of life/academia. Fish somewhat gets at this when he critiques in the second article the notion that there is something called “critical thinking,” which incidentally is crucial to everything we do and only can be learned within the humanities. He points out that we engage in critical thinking all the time in popular culture, and cites as support some (sloppy) examples of political analysis on television. Some commenters pointed out the weakness of these examples, but none did nor could get rid of the point he is still making: there isn’t anything we’re doing in studying the humanities that we aren’t or can’t be doing at least some of the time elsewhere.

If we take the humanities as Fish invokes them to be where we are studying or getting at what the Buddha taught as Mindfulness, then we can appreciate what people are doing there and how it can/does relate to what they and others are doing elsewhere. Mindfulness (Pali: Sati) is part of what the Buddha taught as the Noble Eightfold Path, and specifically in this sense he referred to it as Right or Whole Mindfulness (Pali: samma-sati). In a nutshell, it is intentional awareness of/in the present moment. As it appears in the literature, mindfulness is basically the practice of “contemplating [body, sensations, perceptions, consciousness and mental dispositions] within [body, sensations, perceptions, consciousness and mental dispositions].” On its face, this asks us to have nothing to do with interpretation or discriminating thought, though the through-going interpretation going on in the humanities, particularly when it leads one to one of those “Wow!” moments, may have more to do with it than it would seem.

I say this because, at its height, the study of literature, philosophy and history is, as Dogen Zenji and later Shunryu Suzuki said, the study of ourselves, which has become blatantly obvious with the rise of French-influenced literary theory. More deeply, the influence there is from Hegel, who would agree that we are studying ourselves (that is, ourselves as Spirit) when we study not just the humanities, but the world in general. Where Hegel does not go, though, is that we study ourselves in order to forget ourselves. Lacan (and, perhaps, Foucault) seemed aware of the vanishing quality of the subject, already anticipated in the vanishing moments of Hegel’s dialectic, such that as we realize the radical emptiness of the Other, its not really being there except for us acting as if it were, we realize something radically empty about what we call our self.

When Fish says that the study of the humanities is worthwhile in itself, and that this is a good thing, he is affirming the basic gesture of (life-) affirmation itself. In this same way, as D.T. Suziki said in his deceptively thin “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” (Zen) Buddhism is seeking a higher affirmation—not of some external goal or use, but of something in itself. This becomes instantly relevant to everything else in our lives as we begin to realize how to pursue goals as ends in themselves. As Emerson said, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road … is wisdom.” I want to say that the modern study of the humanities seeks this same affirmation, with its same radiating quality, and that scholars like Fish are giving us a better vocabulary for realizing this quality both within and without the humanities.