Buddhism and Abstraction

Extending a thought I started in a comment at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt I add:

G.W.F. Hegel’s “Who Thinks Abstractly?” and his critique of common-sense abstraction (Nietzsche’s “herd mentality”) are kind of at the heart of it, and I think the originality of Buddha’s everywhere in terms of both compassion and wisdom.’

‘Common-sense’ abstraction as opposed to the more conventional attribution of abstraction to academic and otherwise educated people. Hegel’s response to the question ‘who thinks abstractly?’ is ‘the uneducated, not the educated.’

We have to remember that with the exception of Hui Neng and some other figures in the Pali canon, most of the prominent figures of Zen and Buddhism in general were either directly from or just outside the aristocracy of their time and place, the Siddharta Gotama especially. However, I think we are led astray if we chase after some hitherto repressed ‘householder/everyday buddhism’ as something very different from what does appear in the written and orally transmitted teachings/stories. There is no authentically ‘everyday’ form of Buddhism, and it would be absurd not to view the already given teachings as speaking to and from everyday life. Kings and Queens and Masters and Buddhas are just ordinary people.

We should recognize a form of this ‘talk in plain speak’ attitude in the appeals many conservatives and hicks make to the common-sense appeal of creationism and intelligent design (or the common-sense appeal many liberals feel comfortable making to ‘the market’). Mind you, those two bits in particular are beside the point. The point is in the way that ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ rhetoric appears even when we seem to be talking about universality and equality and the close ties it has with other forms of reductive thinking.


A Holy Man Comes To The Deli

From an exchange I had with Hannah:

Me: I had an encounter with who I could only call a holy man in the deli the other day, though it was something of a mixture of two separate occasions with the same guy.

[The first time], he ordered a half-sandwich from our list of prepared recipies. However, per some stupid rule, we’re not allowed to sellf half-sandwiches from that list. You have to do the ‘make it yourself’ option to get a half-sandwhich. He wanted it with our soup-and-sandwich special, which is a half-sandwhich with a cup of soup. I started to go into my script of why I can’t do it and why I think it’s still a dumb rule, but I stopped myself and just said, ‘you know what, I’ll just make it for you.’ He then wouldn’t stop applauding me, and said I was a model worker, someone who he’d hire in a heart-beat if he had the money to run his own sort of business (sandwich related or otherwise).

Hannah: lol

i’d applaud you too

Me: A couple weeks later, he came back again, and was chatting up me and my partner. The prior incident kind of came up again, and quickly turned into a conversation about how the management don’t manage properly (i.e. they do it top-down). I can’t remember exactly how he put it, which unfortunately was what I thought was so significant about it, but he said something to the effect of ‘you know how I know when God is talking to me? He doesn’t talk down, but talks up.’ That struck me as absolutely brilliant, and reminded me of something Peter O’Toole said (‘When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself’). It’s also the basic philosophy I have toward social organization, especially in terms of ‘the work-place.’

This is why I think 1 Kings 3:16-28, the story about Solomon solving a dispute between two women arguing over a baby, is so important.

God’s will does not descend down through Solomon to the women in dispute, but arises from the true mother herself* – i.e. the one who would give up her baby, as well as her utterly vital status in the community as a mother (she was otherwise a prostitute, an under-classling), her life essentially, rather than have it cut in half per Solomon’s judgement).

There is a lesson about collective (political) action in this story, which the holy man brought together for me by connecting it to the way the deli was ran. The key is to view all these characters as actors in a network, and not mere individuals (you are starting to get through to me Levi). My experience in the deli has re-enforced by faith in communism, of collective self-management. The injection of the privative relation, the one which the false mother maintains both towards the child and Solomon’s judgement, that disrupts the flow of this process, is experienced coming from above.

It is not hard to make the leap from this to saying that Capitalism is self-managing, but this self-management is a kind done in bad faith, again as represented by the false mother, who exercises her selfishness by way of Solomon’s (external) judgement. What I am talking about is the self-management of the “You have heard it said … but” sort. Jesus is, after all, speaking within the Jewish tradition, while simultaneous breaking (from) it.

You have heard it said that you may only order half-sandwiches from the make-your-own menu, but…

*I do not know why Adam Kotsko doesn’t get this reading. What he calls “the common-sense reading” I associate with the abstract “common-sense” of “the uneducated” in Hegel’s “Who Thinks Abstractly?”

The Fear of Error is the Error Itself; or, There is No Ignorance nor Ending of Ignorance.

The word of God is not a proposition over and against us, but a word used in conversation with us. This is the difference between how the true and false mothers of 1 Kings 3:16-28 respond to Solomon. The false mother treats Solomon’s words as a proposition, and can only in return repeat them – revealing their impotence and unsatisfactoriness. The true mother, however, actually responds to Solomon, engages and contradicts him: in short, enters a dialogue with him. The nature of truth is not propositional, which is the basic pre-supposition to a correspondence view of truth, but dialogical – where dialogue is not an exchange of propositions, but an engagement with both what is and isn’t there/said/true.

God talks to us where we are not; therefore, we are where God is not talking. Where we are not? In sacred objects/practices that reflect our own emptiness. The mistake that all art, philosophy and religion critiques is the fear of error in-itself. The error in-itself? It does not exist, in the sense that in The Heart Sutra “there is no ignorance and no ending of ignorance.”

Not All Cultures/Values Are Equal

The woman below is Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, probably most well known for her recent interview with Chris Matthews on Hard Ball where she basically calls for a McCarthy-era witch-hunt.

On its face, this is an attack on equality. However, the Representative makes a valid point that she distorts for her own purpose. The distortion as well as the sense of this being an attack on equality are both superficial. There is a truth here, but we have to know how to read/hear it. If we take the Representative’s remarks seriously, more seriously than she does even, then we are in a position to return them to her in an inverted form: of course not all cultures/values are equal, and your culture and values are some of the most unequal of all.

The Left shouldn’t turn away the political debate teeming in these remarks, but engage it whole-heartedly. If not all values/cultures are equal, then clearly the Left is in a position to advocate its own culture and values over those cherished by the Representative and her likely supporters. That means striking down the phony multi-culturalism that dresses up racist anxieties with pretensions of tolerance AS WELL AS the overt racism that the Representative otherwise champions.

In other words, don’t let the conservatives/Republicans/Fascists frame the debate to their advantage, but just the same don’t pretend there isn’t a real political struggle going on either. Imagine if the Allies responded to the Nazi’s anti-semitism with a tolerant attitude, and even proposed holding of judgement until coming to fully understand the Nazi’s position—“maybe we should see if what they say about the Jews are true?” Hell no! This is a culture and set of values that we resolutely rejected and fought a war (arguably still fighting it) to defeat. This demonstrates the Representative’s point clearly. That’s not to say that we should engage in a bloody war. I do not think we’re there yet. What it means is taking the Representative more seriously than she takes her self—“we know that ‘not all cultures/values are equal’, but why are YOU of all people telling us; what extra bit of meaning are you trying to slip in when you tell us what we already know?” This is an instance of where appearances—rather than “substance”—matter deeply, because it is on the level of appearances that the the Representative manipulates what her common-knowledge remarks “really mean.”

Another perfectly related example would be the meaning of credit-cards for the American worker whose wages have been stagnating since the 1970s. They were marketed to mean what a decent wage and retirement through Social Security or a pension used to mean, above all the “freedom” to continue conspicuous consumption, which itself has been shoved down our throats for God knows how long as what it “really means” to be “free.” The unequal value of this “ownership society,” and the position in which the Left are in to advocate something better, is the truth of the Representative’s remarks.

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.”

Zizek: ‘Don’t Just Do Something – Talk!’

Alerted by Perverse Egalitarianism to this new London Review of Books article by Zizek, I thought I’d say a couple things I like and find lacking in Zizek’s assessment of the financial crises.

While I like how he takes the time to strike down “bi-partisanship,” he only does so for when McCain advocates it. I see him trying to fudge Obama as being in the position most relatively aligned with The People, and it would help Zizek seem less hypocritical to explain how he sees “setting aside politics to get stuff done” function in the discourse of either candidate when both are significantly bought up by business interests. Maybe the difference is between how McCain and Republicans in general seem to think the question is “state-intervention or not,” while Obama and the Democrats in general seem to be more focused on what Zizek calls “the real dilemma … what kind of State intervention?”

Of course, then there is the possibility that the Democrats will advocate the wrong kind of intervention and/or for the wrong reason(s). Yes, most Democrats may recognized that “Main Street can’t thrive if Wall Street isn’t doing well,” but I don’t think we can hand it to them that they fully recognize or demonstrate in their voting records that “what’s good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for Main Street.” Alternatively, if the Republicans and conservatives face what Zizek’s called “the real dilemma,” their response to “what kind of state-intervention?” could be fascism or more State Capitalism. Thinking and talking no longer about the possibility of state-intervention, but state-intervention as such, is what I take Zizek to be advocating when he says “don’t just do something, talk,” but he should be saying that to the Democrats as much as the Republicans, Obama as much as McCain.

In a similar vein Jodi Dean concludes:

If this is the collapse of neoliberalism, we have to push a positive, affirmative view of state action. But it can’t be a kind of apologia for the wrong sort of state action.

I think N. Pepperell has been all over the stakes of this space of critique, too, for over the last week:

All of this needs more analysis than I can provide at present… But one interesting dimension of the current crisis is the rendering manifest of these distinctions in much more popular discussion than we’ve seen for some time, I think… Articulations can have their own hard power – as well as normative force: large-scale public discussion of capitalism – what it is, what it should be – has now opened up on a massive scale. What is articulated now will likely define a space of possibilities for the sorts of actions that lie ready to hand in the decades to come… Opening some potentials… Placing others farther out of reach… This is a time when theorising structural possibilities becomes… unusually impactful… The previous major structural transformation opened an experiential and interpretive gap into which flooded the interpretive systems and policies that have led us here. The question when confronting present and future transformations is how to open the potential for something other – for something that holds onto emancipatory promises that can otherwise be easily drowned out in reactive responses, conditioned by an environment primed to be receptive to ideals of capitalism as an end in itself…

In other words, the dog-eat-dog world of the “[free] marketplace of ideas” has to be re-thought from within very carefully, but what is emerging now out of what Zizek has called the Denkverbot of our “(post-)ideological consensus” is the possibility of thinking again.

Subjective and Objective Greed

Greed is really interesting to think about in these times of financial meltdown. 

On the one hand, there is definitely a certain amount of personal greed in the world. It’s the kind of greed we call out when, say, I polish off the half-gallon of ice-cream when there was still half of it left. Let’s call it subjective greed, greed that is most visible in terms of a definite agent and the stuff they are trying to have for themselves—subjective because the latter are largely dependent on subjective tastes and wants of the agent. On the other hand, there’s a kind of greed that exceeds all human proportions of want and need. Let’s call it objective greed, greed that is objective because it operates beyond or otherwise with no regard for the constraints of subjective taste and want. It is harder to call out, but one form of objective-greed, if not simply its alternative designation, is the profit-motive.

I draw the distinction in the same way that Slavoj Zizek distinguishes subjective from objective-violence in his new book, “Violence.” However, I have yet to really think a full parallel with how he gets into symbolic and divine violence. I don’t rule it out though.

I feel that we need to make this distinction because why a person would push his or her company to make a profit of $250,000,000 over, say, $10,000,000—or, rather, why use profit to generate more profit to generate more profit to generate more profit—cannot be accounted for by greed in the stupid everyday sense sense that I eat all the ice-cream. The profit-motive is not reducible to simple human greed. The profit-motive is fundamentally inhuman, which is why Marx aptly described Capitalism as a vampire, a figure of the undead. 

From one perspective, it seems like all this excessive systemic greed is really the conglomerate of our consumerism on the individual level of subjective greed. Left here, I think this is an extremely simplistic idea. This idea assumes, for one thing, that everyone fucked over by the “greed” of the system is also those who engage it for the satisfaction of their subjective greed. Tell that to the hundreds of millions of workers in China or SE Asia who live on less than a dollar a day. Also, if we think the only thing at play is subjective-greed, then we think the proper response to “Capitalist greed” is not substantially different from how we deal with subjective-greed: regulation.

If Capitalist excess (i.e. overproduction) were a function of everyday subjective greed, there wouldn’t be the excess though. There is no room for excess in our everyday experience of greed, which never makes us want more or other than what we want. When we greedily eat all the ice-cream and maybe start into another gallon, we eventually stop because we have had all we want. Simple human greed is basically rational only in the sense that it is regulated by a certain sense of “enough,” even if that is to the detriment of others.

What propels our economy is a profit-motive that is by definition beyond or other than human need and want; it is its own ends and makes us the means. To address, whether approvingly or critically, the engine of Capitalism as simple human greed is to fall for the economic equivalent of Kant’s “transcendental illusion.”