Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Adrian J Ivakhiv on Slavoj Zizek and Buddhism - [Process-Relational Ecosophy G]


I've been a fan of Adrian J Ivakhiv's blog, Immanence - Thinking the Form, Flesh, and Flow of the World: Ecoculture, Geophilosophy, Mediapolitics, for a couple of years now. I know he is familiar with integral theory (he did a series on Integral Ecology a while back, as well as some reading of Wilber in terms of process philosophy - see all of his integral theory posts), but I suspect he would not identify as an integral philosopher.

That's too bad . . . for integral.

Over at Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality, there was a brief discussion of the talk Zizek gave at the University of Vermont in October 16th, 2012 (the video is at the link), and this is the talk that inspired this post from Adrian.

Immanence is a Creative Commons blogThis weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States license.

Zizek v. Buddhism: who’s the subject?

By Adrian J Ivakhiv
December 11, 2012

This started out as a response to Slavoj Zizek’s recent talk here at the University of Vermont on “Buddhism Naturalized,” but evolved into a consideration of subjectivity, which happened to be the topic of my next post in the pre-G (process-relational ecosophy-G) series. So this can be considered part 1 of a 2-part series. 
There are Western philosophers with a good understanding of Buddhism. Some of them are Buddhologists: longtime scholars of Buddhism, like Herbert Güenther, Jay Garfield, Kenneth Inada, Jin Park (the definition of “Western” gets a little blurry here), Brook Ziporyn, Stephen Batchelor, and others who are philosophers in their own right (if not necessarily academically sanctioned ones), and who have cut their teeth interpreting original Asian Buddhist texts.

Others have come to Buddhism through a side door: either by accident or through a logical extension of their own interests. Owen Flanagan is one of these, and his recent book The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized provides a model for how an established analytic philosopher can develop a critical dialogue with a philosophical tradition that is foreign yet ancient, complex, and clearly worthy of comparative assessment.

Then there are those whose writing about Buddhism extends somewhat beyond what they know about it. In the past, this was excusable by the dearth of material for western commentators. Buddhist literature is voluminous — one might say it’s Himalayan in its voluminousness — and the fraction of what’s been translated into European languages is still comparatively small. But there is enough now to support full-time positions in Western universities for those who specialize in refined sub-areas of Buddhist studies. And with Buddhism alive and well now in the West and in the East, there is no end to what a Buddhist scholar can do.

Where does Slavoj Žižek fit into this continuum? The title of his talk, given here at the University of Vermont some weeks ago, was “Buddhism Naturalized.” In his opening remarks, Film and Television Studies professor Todd McGowan mentioned that his guest had originally planned a response to the Dalai Lama, but that after the latter spoke in nearby Middlebury a few days earlier, Žižek was so taken by the Dalai Lama’s comments that he changed his plans. This, McGowan intimated, would be the new “Buddhist Slavoj.”

With that friendly gesture, Žižek opened a talk that was all Žižek — ranging widely and freely over the terrain of popular culture, politics, and Western (and this time also Eastern) philosophy — but that spent a good half of its time discussing Buddhism.

In the end, however, it was the same old Slavoj, with a few (welcome) conciliatory gestures added. I’ve written about Žižek’s Buddhism before, notably after his last talk here three years ago, but in the intervening time he’s expanded on the topic in his monumental recent volume Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.

This post will summarize Žižek’s argument against Buddhism, presented in that book and in his recent talk, to make the case that while his conciliatory gestures show an advance toward a genuine engagement with Buddhism today, his critique remains a static and abstract one that is unfair to a tradition as complex as Buddhism. It is not so much a misreading as a partial and selective reading, which, for a tradition as large as Buddhism, shouldn’t be surprising. But it is primarily an abstraction intended to prop up his own case for his own philosophical perspective.

Fortunately, Žižek’s philosophical perspective is one that deserves its own hearing, and I’ll try to summarize the contrast, as I see it, between the two below. More importantly, I’ll try to show how the difference between the two raises interesting questions about subjectivity that deserve a deeper probing than Žižek has given them.


As I've argued before, Buddhism and Žižek’s Lacanianism are, in crucial respects, philosophical kindred spirits. Both posit an emptiness or gap at the center of us humans, which we are always striving to fill with whatever’s available: objects and possessions, self/identity projects, community/nation projects (both with their enemy “others”), and so on.

And both posit that only by facing this gap directly can genuine love become possible. Or something like that: Buddhism speaks little of love and more of compassion and enlightenment, and it’s difficult to say exactly what Lacan is aiming for. But both aim to help us cope with suffering, and their strategies share a large terrain of potential overlap.

Zizek admits more or less this general point in Less Than Nothing, where he writes:
The only other school of thought that fully accepts the inexistence of the big Other is Buddhism. Is the solution then to be found in Buddhist ethics? There are reasons to consider this option. Does not Buddhism lead us to “traverse the fantasy:’ overcoming the illusions on which our desires are based and confronting the void beneath each object of desire? Furthermore, psychoanalysis shares with Buddhism the insistence that there is no Self as a substantive agent of psychic life [. . .]: the Self is the fetishized illusion of a substantial core of subjectivity where, in reality, there is nothing. This is why, for Buddhism, the point is not to discover one’s “true Self;’ but to accept that there is no such thing, that the “Self” as such is an illusion, an imposture. [p. 129]
Deepening his analysis, he continues:
Crucial to Buddhism is the reflexive change from the object to the thinker himself: first, we isolate the thing that bothers us, the cause of our suffering; then we change not the object but ourselves, the way we relate to (what appears to us as) the cause of our suffering [...]. This shift involves great pain; it is not merely a liberation [...]; it is also the violent experience of losing the ground under one’s feet, of being deprived of the most familiar stage of one’s being.
But in the end, for Žižek, Buddhists
do not repair the damage; rather, [they] gain the insight into the illusory nature of that which appears to need repair. [p. 130]
The difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, then, is that
for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive [...]. [131]
Or, put differently:
Far from being the same as [Buddhism's] nirvana principle (the striving towards the dissolution of all tension, the longing for a return to original nothingness), the death drive is the tension which persists and insists beyond and against the nirvana principle. In other words, far from being opposed to the pleasure principle [which Zizek had earlier critiqued], the nirvana principle is its highest and most radical expression. In this precise sense, the death drive stands for its exact opposite, for the dimension of the “undead;’ of a spectral life which insists beyond (biological) death. [. . .] 
Even if the object of desire is illusory, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive content is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real; which is why there is more truth in the unconditional fidelity to one’s desire than in the resigned insight into the vanity of one’s striving. [132-3, emphasis added]
This last passage is a crucial one: instead of recognizing “the vanity of one’s striving” and opting for inner peace instead, Žižek seeks an “unconditional fidelity to one’s desire.” That desire, for Žižek, arises out of the tensions in the (Freudian) drives, generating the subject and making us human. (Lacanians and Žižekians can correct me if I haven’t quite gotten that right. From reading a fair bit of Žižek and some other commentators, like Adrian Johnston, I’m still not entirely sure.)

Ironically, this “unconditional fidelity to one’s desire” sounds not so different from what some forms of (Tibetan) Vajrayana Buddhism aspire to. In Vajrayana, what the practitioner should aim for is not extinction in the blissful passivity of Nirvana, but rather the following of desire in order to unite with the deities that are its emanations — which, since those deities are themselves “empty,” means a union with Desire itself.

Žižek, however, dispenses with Vajrayana by caricaturing it as one of the most “ridiculously ritualized” religious forms. As Žižek put it in his talk, it was Tibetan Buddhists who invented what we now know as television’s canned laughter; their version of it was the prayer wheel. (That is funny. Back to it in a minute.)

But the difference can be specified more precisely. In Žižek’s Lacano-Hegelian understanding, it is the empty subject that we need to retain. For Buddhism, on the other hand, it is emptiness itself, which Buddhism takes to be an open, cognizant awareness that is empty of all reifications, all stillings of the flow, yet which nevertheless consists of an irrepressible flow. (I’m drawing more on the Dzogchen tradition here than on others, and Dzogchen is admittedly not representative of all Buddhism, but I think the general point holds for many other strands of Buddhism.)

The difference, then, is this: what counts for Žižek is subjectivity at the point of its (individual) creation; for Buddhists, it is subjectless subjectivity.

Understanding this distinction requires asking not only what subjectivity is, but also what the nature of reality is. If reality is inert substance, mute matter, or mere existence without subjectivation, and if the human subject is the one thing that transcends that mere matter, then there is nothing more significant than human subjectivity at the point of its origins. Žižek would, in this case, be absolutely right about what needs to be protected, defended, and cultivated: the human subject as willful decider and actor. The only alternative would be passivity (of the sort that Žižek ends up ascribing to Buddhism).

But if reality — not just human but all reality — is the ongoing production of subjectless subjectivity, or what, in process-relational terms I have called subjectivation-objectivation, then subjectless subjectivity is always already active, not merely passive.

In this sense, Buddhist prayer wheels are not exactly identical to sitcom laugh tracks, but they operate on the same principle. Both acknowledge that the world is always already in (affective-semiotic) motion, and that we, moving beings, are affected on a preconscious level by the in-motionness that is always at work around us.

With its mantras, prayer wheels, and other habit-forming practices, Buddhism attempts to shift that motion into a movement toward liberation. Sitcom laugh tracks, on the other hand, attempt to shift that motion into laughter and distraction. Each pursues a different goal. If Zizek dislikes both equally, it is because he values willful subjectivity — the kind that speaks “I” into the void of its own creation — at the expense of the affective but subjectless subjectivity that a more processual (and process-relational) ontology would ascribe to humans and to the world.


Concluding his brief foray into Buddhism in Less Than Nothing, Žižek refers to a paradox, whose formal structure is that of the “double vacuum” of a Higgs Boson field. This double vacuum
appears in the guise of the irreducible gap between ethics (understood as the care of the self, as striving towards authentic being) and morality (understood as the care for others, responding to their call).
For Žižek, “the authenticity of the Self is taken to the extreme in Buddhist meditation, whose goal is precisely to enable the subject to overcome (or, rather, suspend) its Self and enter the vacuum of nirvana” [134].

To which I would say: yes, this is part of Buddhism, but it is not the whole of it, at least not in the Mahayana tradition where care for others — or for the liberation of others — is equally, if not supremely, important.

(Žižek acknowledged, in his talk, that there is more than just this one Buddhism: Buddhism, as he put it, oscillates between two goals, a minimal and a maximal one. The minimal one is the “spiritual shift” that occurs “within”; the maximal one is a more radical ontic reading for which the global goal is to liberate everything from suffering.)

But let him have the point, which, he concludes,
is not to criticize Buddhism, but merely to emphasize [this] irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness (in the sense of social responsibility): the difficult thing to accept is that one can be totally authentic in overcoming one’s false Self and yet still commit horrible crimes — and vice versa, of course: one can be a caring subject, morally committed to the full, while existing in an inauthentic world of illusion with regard to oneself.
This is why all the desperate attempts by Buddhists to demonstrate how respect and care for others are necessary steps towards (and conditions of) Enlightenment misfire: [D. T.] Suzuki himself was much more honest in this regard when he pointed out that Zen is a meditation technique which implies no particular ethico-political stance — in his political life, a Zen Buddhist may be a liberal, a fascist, or a communist. 
Again, the two vacuums never coincide: in order to be fully engaged ethico-politically, it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity. [135; paragraph breaks and emphases added]
Žižek’s account of the “desperate attempts by Buddhists to demonstrate how respect and care for others are necessary steps” may ring true, again, for someone steeped in Vajrayana. These “desperate attempts” are guideposts — “Careful here, don’t tread further unless you’ve already gone through the preliminaries and quashed your egoic defilements and stupidities!” — that are easy to ignore in a world of total availability (the practices, the rituals) where the rewards (Tantric Enlightenment!) are too compelling for the avaricious spiritual seeker. Repeated incessantly by the carriers of the traditions and lineages, they may start to sound a little desperate.

Ultimately, though, Žižek’s critique sounds to me not so much as a critique of Buddhism’s philosophical core, which I think he hasn’t adequately grasped, than a critique of one of the main tropes and vehicles by which that philosophical core has so often been adumbrated. This is the trope of inner peace and happiness — the cessation of suffering and attainment of bliss through the elimination of ignorance.

Toward the end of his talk, Žižek revealed that he sees “only two [!!] serious ethics” in the world: the Buddhist and the Judeo-Christian. The latter, for him, is an ethic of external encounter, an ethic of the Fall, of falling in love, the traumatic encounter. The former, it seems, is the smiley face of inner peace that, in Žižek’s view, makes Buddhism a perfect handmaiden to global capitalism.


The virtue of Žižek’s critique of Buddhism is in the value he places on suffering and on choice. Subjectivity is only possible because of our condition of separation, the very gap that underlies our suffering. Eliminating that gap should not be the point of a spiritual or philosophical practice; what should be is recognizing that the gap is one we share will all manner of other gapped, broken, suffering (because groundless yet ground-seeking) others.

A Buddhist who works only to eradicate suffering in him or herself is, I agree, a Buddhist that does little for a world full of suffering. (But is such a person really practicing Buddhism?)

Analogously, a philosophy that values the arising of subjectivity out of the drives (or wherever subjectivity comes from) without recognizing the fundamental entanglement of those drives with everything else that lives, that moves, that suffers, that dies, is a philosophy that privileges will without offering a means for deciding how that will should act.

That, perhaps, is why Žižek needs his Marxism: it provides him with an ethical foundation for action. To the extent that it offers an understanding of our relations with all beings who suffer, Buddhism may be more inclusive in this respect: it provides a wider vision for justice and solidarity than Marxism, even at its humanistic best, has ever provided.

But that’s a debate for another day.
* * * * * * *

On the subject(s) of experience

By Adrian J Ivakhiv
December 14, 2012

This continues the consideration of subjectivity begun in the last post (on Zizek and Buddhism). It also continues the series on process-relational ecosophy-G, or pre-G.


Who or what is a subject of experience, and what does it matter?

A. N. Whitehead’s panexperientialist metaphysics, and many of those philosophies that are in resonance with it, claim that experience characterizes all real things, or at least the interiority of all real things.

Everything real emerges as a mutual arising of subjectivity and objectivity, of subjectivation and objectivation. The first of these, the becoming-subject, is internal to experience, characterized by and expressed as experience. The second, objectivation or becoming-object, is how that interiority, once it has arisen and “become” (or, in Whitehead’s words, “concresced”), offers itself as datum for other arising subjects. And the relation between the two — the prehensive dynamic between subjects and objects — is the vector by which reality is produced, moment to moment.

What does it mean to say this? What exactly does it apply to, and what relevance does it have for our actions?

Does it make a difference whether something — another human, a dog or elephant, a fetus, a virus (organic or electronic), an electron or neutrino, a blood cell, a telephone cable or global network of such cables, a corporation or football team, an unfolding storm, a galaxy — is a center of experience or not? More to the point, does it make a difference whether or not we think of that something as a center of experience, a thing that has experience at its very core?

This is the same kind of question as has been raised in response to the more individualistic forms of biocentric ethics, such as Paul Taylor’s “biocentric egalitarianism.” According to the latter, all living creatures are “teleological centers of life” with goods of their own which are deserving of equal respect, in principle, as those of any other creatures.

In contrast to Taylor’s biocentrism, both process-relational and object-oriented ethics extend moral valuation beyond the category of “life” to all real entities.

What qualifies as a real entity, however, isn’t always self-evident. Process-relational philosophy (at least in its pre-G form) postulates that every real entity consists of minute doses of processual relating, of subjectivating-objectivating, which, by definition, involve some measure of creativity at their core. They involve an active prehension of objects they encounter, attend and respond to, and thus an active subjectivation in relation to those objects.

(Recall that a human bodymind emerges out of a complex set of relational systems, whose basic constituents, at the most microscopic level, are the sort of thing that Whitehead calls an “actual occasion.” A human bodymind is a “society” of such actual occasions, a kind of coordinated mega-occasion — and occasioning continuity — in which a certain guiding unity is felt or experienced.)

In principle, process-relational philosophies concur that all real entity-events are morally considerable, though their considerability may vary with their accessibility to us. (The planet Pluto, in this sense, holds a lesser moral claim on me, in this moment, than the beings directly affected by my choice of what to eat for lunch.) But because we cannot really experience the experience of another entity “from the inside,” we can never be sure what is a center of experience and what only appears that way to us, or what the nature of another’s experiencing is in comparison to ours. So we are left to rely on our intuitions and deductions to make our best guesses about these things. And our own experience is (as Whitehead argued) the best foothold for entities like us to begin to grasp what experience is for anything (or anyone) at all.

Our intuitions tell us that the things that are most like ourselves — other humans, animals, and sentient organisms, for instance — probably share at least some of the qualities of experience with us. But they don’t tell us much about the mineral world, the subatomic world, the astrophysical world, and other worlds farther out of our experiential reach. Nor do they tell us what any differences mean: for instance, whether a rock’s difference from us makes it less significant than us, or more, or neither.


We tend, naturally, in our moral imaginations, to start with ourselves and those most like us, and extend beyond that in proportion to our capacity to do that and to the stakes involved. There is, in this sense, always some measure of “centrism” — ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and so on — in our capacity to identify with others.

But that centrism can and should be seen as something to overcome, or at least to contend with critically. A process-relational ethic is one that values the effort to relate creatively: to see opportunities for new relations as opportunities for new ethical and political engagements. It builds on foundations it has learned to trust — for instance, that those most like me feel similar to how I would (in similar circumstances) when they are hurt or oppressed; that they, like me, would feel gratified and extended when someone comes to their aid; and so on. But it stretches those foundations in situations where it is capable of doing that.

This “where it is capable” is a useful reminder of our limitations. In threatening conditions, humans (or entities like us) tend to constrict in our ethical and political capacities. Many Americans did just that in response to the events of 11 September 2001 (or, in different ways, to the economic crash of 2008) — which made it easy for predatory politicians to encourage and amplify their socially constricting responses. In more secure conditions, we are more capable of extending our ethical response to others than in less secure conditions.

This tendency toward moral constriction, however, should not be an excuse for moral constriction. A process-relational universe is by definition an open, emergent, and exploratory universe. Its primary moral value is in enhancing the possibilities for what might be called sustainable exploration. It follows an ethic of flourishing, but one that isn’t restricted to the flourishing of possibilities known and/or seeded at the outset. It courts danger for the sake of its own exploratory capacities. It seeks novelty for its own sake.

(I realize that saying that the universe “follows an ethic of flourishing” begs all kinds of questions: Is the universe itself a unified entity that acts in a singular manner? What does it mean to say that it follows an ethic, any ethic? Am I not confusing what is with what ought to be? And how could we possibly know any such things anyway? We can’t. We postulate and see where those postulates get us. We try things out. We try them out by taking them on as habits, cultivating them, and noting the results. We admit we may be wrong: for instance, that the universe may be entirely devoid of meaning, and any apparent meaning may be a delusion. We cultivate whatever faith we’re prepared to act on knowing that it is all work in progress.)


In times when the world itself gets out of whack, when things begin to appear threatening all around — as they will, for instance, if and when scientists’ climate change scenarios begin to really get rolling — the trick will be to encourage a sense of ontological security within a changing and challenging universe. Otherwise we risk reversing the possibilities for moral expansion.

By providing an account of change as normal, healthy, empowering, and beautiful; of every moment as a moment of creative response to given conditions; and of relationality as ever more extendable and enriching, process-relational philosophies can help provide such a sense of ontological security within change. They do this, in part, by helping us appreciate the beauty within movement, flux, flow, swerve, quest, rhythmic sway, tidal drift, tectonic shift, unresolved cadence, improvised counterpoint, the pursuit of the new and the utterly unrecognizable.

And they do this by their ceaseless reminders that engagement is everything. We, all of us, are engaged at every step in the clasp of the unknown, always losing ourselves as we seek to find ourselves anew. This is risky, scary, painful, beautiful. There is no place to retreat to, no shell of objectivity to climb back into. (Here, I think, is a clear point of disagreement with the object-oriented philosophers.)

We are subjects always in the making and never quite made, destined to disappear like a footstep in the sand, but reaching into the next step in bold moves toward the other that we together might become.

Those steps send off oscillations in all directions; they affect others. A process-relational ethic encourages us to seek satisfaction in action (not in the object or end of that action), and to be sensitive to the reverberations of that action in the world. That world consists of those like us and those unlike us; it consists in a rhythmic engagement between like and unlike, familiar and foreign, whose particulars show no end of variation.

Our steps should therefore be graceful, honoring the dignity of those we step with, on, against, and beside. They, like us, are open, porous, torn. We share in the solidarity of those whose solidity is painfully elusive.

We all move, together and apart, without foundation and without guarantee, toward a subjectivity that only arrives when we have released it to others.
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