How The Economy Became A Political Myth

“The ‘political’ critique of Marxism (the claim that, when one reduces politics to a ‘formal’ expression of some underlying ‘objective’ socio-economic process, one loses the openess and contingency constitutive  of the political field proper) should thus be supplemented by its obverse: the field of economy is in its very form irreducible to politics – this level of the form of economy (of economy as the determining form of the social) is what French ‘political post-Marxists’ miss when they reduce economy to one of the positive social fields.

The basic idea of the parallax view is that the very act of bracketing off produces its object – ‘democracy’ as a form emerges only when one brackets off the texture of economic relations as well as the inherent logic of the political state apparatus; they both have to be abstracted from people who are effectively embedded in economic processes and subjected to state apparatuses. The same goes for the ‘logic of domination’, the way people are controlled/manipulated by the apparatus of subjection: in order to clearly discern these mechanisms of power, one has to be abstracted not only from the democratic imaginary (as Foucault does in his analyses of the micro-physics of power, but also as Lacan does in his analysis of power in Seminar XVII), but also from the process of economic (re)production. And finally, the specific sphere of economic (re)production only emerges if one methodologically brackets off the concrete existence of state and political ideology – no wonder critics of Marx complained that Marx’s ‘critique of political economy lacks a theory of power and state. And, of course, the trap to be avoided here is precisely the naive idea that one should keep in view the social totality (parts of which are democratic ideology, the exercise of power and process of economic (re)production): if one tries to keep the whole in view, one ends up seeing nothing, the contours disappear. This bracketing off is not only epistemological, but concerns what Marx calls the ‘real abstraction’: the abstraction from power and economic relations that is inscribed into the very actuality of the democratic process.

– From “The Parallax View” Interrogating the Real , by Slavoj Zizek.

What Is In Buddhism More Than Buddhism Itself

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”)

Utopian Abundance and Its Abuses

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.


Notes on Therapeutic Buddhism

This was apparently too long for blogger’s comments, so I’m posting it here. It’s another comment from that Progressive Buddhism post on mindfulness-based therapy and Buddhism.



I’m glad you bring up ENDS and RESULTS, because we have to make a distinction. If Buddhist practice aims at the liberation of all beings, then therapy is at best a result experienced along the way as a side-effect, and hardly a necessary one. Slavoj Zizek introduces a wonderful distinction between therapeutic and critical religion in the introduction to his “The Puppet and the Dward,” one which I think he unfairly develops on the side of Christianity. He does well to highlight the passive tendencies of therapeutic Buddhism, but he misses the psychoanalytic import of his own terms and the subsequent abuse he makes on them. To put it bluntly, what we have here is a distinction between the pleasure principle and the death drive, and it is a misnomer to oppose the “life-drives” (Eros) to the death-drive (Thanatos). To this end, Lacan argues that all drives have a little death-drive in them. Buddhism is not an inherently therapeutic religion, nor is Christianity the sole bastion of critical religion. A survey of American forms of Christianity shows that the therapeutic mode dominates, arguably with less pernicious results than that ethico-spiritual disposition that in triumphal bad faith throws its hands up in the air for the sake of “pragmatism” and getting “beyond politics.”

I also want to dispel the mind-closing connotations of “critical” as judgmental. The best way to think of this distinction between therapeutic and critical religion is along the lines that Emerson, in his essay “Intellect,” distinguishes between “repose” (i.e. comfort and resignation) and “truth.”

“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.”

Another useful touching-point is Patrick Kearney’s essay, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy,” which is is both perspicacious and near-sighted. As the title suggests, he wishes to dispel the connection between what Kyle Lovett calls “traditional psychotherapy” and Buddhist practice (particularly meditation). The problem is when we conflate the history of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, with this image of “traditional psychotherapy,” with its parent-blaming, ego-worshiping escapism.

That is why earlier I brought up Lacan’s departure from the therapeutic mind-set of his contemporaries, who unfortunately did better than him to saturate the popular perception of psychoanalysis. Strictly speaking, for Lacan, psychoanalysis is not a program of therapy. Psychoanalysis does not proceed by labeling from some distance these or that problems, which are dealt with in the voyeuristic privacy of one’s own ego. Rather, psychoanalysis is an experiment in our painful habits themselves, though in the relative safety of the clinical situation, which in many ways we can expand to the student-teacher relation.

Is this not what happens when, for us Zen adepts, we are sitting? We do not escape from our busy minds or the world changing around us; our quietude is a noisy one, because karma is ALWAYS coming up for us. What we find and what the masters report to us is not a stillness of mind (as if they were somehow opposed in the sense of some reality behind illusion), but the revelation of that stillness in mind – that de-centered I of the storm. The transformations this brings to the practitioner are too great to be sub-ordinated to the therapeutic impulse.

Who Thinks Abstractly?

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.

Zizek’s Notes Toward A Definition of Communist Culture

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

A Bodhisattva Vow Made in Bad Faith

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?

The Form of this Formlessness Itself

In a comment to “The Monstrosity of Christ,” Nathan brings up religion’s therapeutic value, which reminds me of a point Zizek makes in the Introduction to The Puppet and the Dwarf (available HERE) about religion being therapeutic or critical.

One possible definition of modernity is:the social order in which religion is no longer fully integrated into and identified with a particular cultural life-form,but acquires autonomy,so that it can survive as the same religion in different cultures.This extraction enables religion to globalize itself (there are Christians, Muslims,and Buddhists everywhere today);on the other hand,the price to be paid is that religion is reduced to a secondary epiphenomenon with regard to the secular functioning of the social totality. In this new global order, religion has two possible roles: therapeutic or critical. It either helps individuals to function better in the existing order,or it tries to assert itself as a critical agency articulating what is wrong with this order as such,a space for the voices of discontent—in this second case, religion as suchtends toward assuming the role of a heresy.

Zizek focuses a main part of his book of arguing against Buddhism as the therapeutic religion par excellence and for Christianity as the critical one. However, this discussion of the Eagleton’s book reminds me that the therapeutic and critical distinction is internal to a given universal religion (too). Eagleton swoons over critical Christianity, but overlooks its (paradoxically destructive [i.e. nihilistic) therapeutic dimension, especially as dominant in the United States. Zizek has a similar blind-spot in the P&D, where he gives little attention to therapeutic Christianity OR critical Buddhism.

I think the future of a Lacanian critique of therapeutic Christianity resides in some alliance with these critical Buddhist elements, which means working through Zizek’s analysis, his focus on critical Christianity and therapeutic Buddhism, and instead invert the whole thing. In this sense, Zizek’s analysis is still stuck in the Imaginary and the relation narcissism and aggressivity, between ideal-ego (formless Buddhism) and ego-ideal (form of this formlessness itself Christianity). We might say Eagleton’s analysis is in a similar position, but apropos the relationship between critical Christianity and therapeutic Atheism.

Take Zizek’s comments on the new Star Wars movie in In These Times:

Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace gave us a crucial hint as to where to orient ourselves in this melee, specifically, the ‘Christological’ features of the young Anakin (his immaculate conception, his victorious ‘pod-car’ race, with its echoes of the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur, this ‘tale of Christ’). Since Star Wars’ ideological framework is the New Age pagan universe, it is quite appropriate that its central figure of Evil should echo Christ.”

I’m not actually opposed to this reading, but it’s easy to also look at Vader, especially coming from “an overwhelming desire to intervene, to do Good, to go to the end for those he loves ” to “seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it,” and see the quasi-paranoia of therapeutic Christianity. Makes me wonder what how a bodhisattva would appear in the world of therapeutic Christianity.

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.

Architectural Parallax: On Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle

Zizek’s explicit appropriation of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin’s architectural metaphor for ex-aptation, in conjunction with a talk at the Tilton Gallery.

The notion I propose here is ex-aptation, introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin: it refers to features that did not arise as adaptations through natural selection but rather as side effects of adaptive processes and that have been co-opted for a biological function. What should draw our attention here is that Gould and Lewontin borrowed the architectural term ‘spandrel’ (using the pendentives of San Marco in Venice as an example) to designate the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves. In architecture, the prototypical spandrel is the triangular space ‘left over’ on top, when a rectangular wall is pierced by a passageway capped with a rounded arch. By extension, a spandrel is any geometric configuration of space inevitably left over as a consequence of other architectural decisions. Say, the spaces between the pillars of a bridge can subsequently be used by homeless persons for sleeping, even though such spaces were not designed for providing such shelter. And as the church spandrels may then incidentally become the locus for decorations such as portraits of the four evangelists, so anatomical spandrels may be co-opted for uses that were not selected for in the first place.

Are, then, – back to my main line – the ‘interstitial space opened up by the ‘disconnection between skin and structure’ in performance-arts venues not such spandrels, functionally empty spaces open up for exaptation? The struggle is open here – the struggle for who will appropriate them.

I like extending “spandrels” to the living spaces made between bridge-pillars. This retains Gould and Lewontin’s evolutionary sense of the term, but also adds the political edge of re-appropriating social space for social need.

Read the rest HERE.