Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Buddhism vs. Zizek—upcoming talk (Object-Oriented Buddhism 22)

There seems to have been some activity involving Buddhism and Zizek of late—much of emanating from my fervid brain. I'm preparing a talk at the MLA in January (LA) called “What's Eating Slavoj Zizek?” as it goes so maybe that explains it.

It's for a panel called
“Buddhism and Critical Theory: New Approaches” and it will be at 12 noon in room 404A, LA Convention Center. I will of course be recording it for your pleasure.

I'm going to be arguing that Zizek makes some fair comments about “Western Buddhism,” but that these devolve into generalized attacks on Buddhism itself. These generalized attacks are in stark contrast to the manifest content of Zizekian philosophy, which in many respects is strikingly Buddhist.

Zizek thus finds himself in the position of a closeted gay man. It would be so much easier for everyone concerned if he just came out and admitted that he was a Buddhist. To the extent that he doesn't, he's got a bad case of what I call Buddhaphobia.

What is Zizek really afraid of? What he's afraid of is isometric with what he's afraid of in speculative realism...the possibility that “subject” is an object-like entity that is not posited in a self-grounding moment of total freedom. Just one object among many...His fear of emptiness (“nothingness”) masks a far deeper fear of Buddhist substance.

Here's my full proposal:

Contemporary humanism is in a double bind where Buddhism is concerned. On the side of the fence that is reasonably sympathetic to Buddhism, phenomenology and Beat (and post-Beat) poetics create touchy-feely versions of the dharma that can't help but appear a little quaint. These versions espouse forms of presentism and rhetorics of immediacy, and tend to inculcate hostility to intellectuality. These features of “dharma-positive” discourse make it an efficient vector for various forms of hostility to the dreaded “theory,” by which is meant (mostly) deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The unsympathetic side of the fence includes ideas ironically very close to what Buddhism would call non-self or egolessness. The “dharma-negative” side is, also ironically, the “theory” side.

The division I outline in this paper is unfortunate to say the least, because, perhaps through some form of implicitly orientalist self-policing, contemporary humanism (including so-called post-humanism) confines an entire philosophical and spiritual (and cultural) manifold of traditions to a heavily demarcated area, cordoned off from crucial spheres of scholarly propriety. Even deconstruction seems happier talking about Christianity, Islam and Judaism than Buddhism (or Hinduism for that matter). Why?

In particular, Lacanian ideology analyst Slavoj Zizek betrays an extraordinary hostility to Buddhism that comes close to a phobia—that is, precisely, an intense desire disguised as intense antipathy. My paper investigates some ways in which Zizek's thinking would be more cogent if he simply “came out” as a Buddhist.

The central issue of Zizek's current analysis—the current ecological catastrophe—makes us aware of timescales and spatial scales on which forms of non-self ethics become vitally important. It would be good for humanism to think more seriously and more centrally about Buddhism, right now.


skholiast said...

I've often thought that Z.'s remarks on Buddhism betray a shallowness. He can work with Christianity because it gives him a kind of purchase for his perverse take on it ("I in my atheism am more Christian than they are!"). In this he's just trying (none too successfully, actually) to out-Chesterton Chesterton. Buddhism on the other hand doesn't seem to offer him any such hold. Thus he can enjoy "coming out" as a Christian because he always gets to add his ironic caveat (if only as a stylistic flourish); but if he came out as a Buddhist, well, he'd just be coming out. (boring...)

Brown said...

Have you seen this?

"There is no positive reality outside these distortions. This
insight-and here, my God, I will turn almost New Age-is also present
to some extent in Nagarjuna, the founder of Mahyana Buddhism. What
Nagarjuna argues is that where Buddhism affirms the notion of void -
sunyata (emptiness/nothingness), it is not nothingness in the simple
sense that there is nothing. The idea is, rather, that every positive
entity emerges from a distorted perspective and that nothing exists
independently from it. Objectively nothing exists, and entities only
emerge as the result of perspectival differentiation in which every
differentiation is a partial distortion."

Slavoj Zizek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Zizek,(Cambridge, 2004), p.96

hat-tip to

Timothy Morton said...

Oh, that's great! Thanks. I know this blog but not as well as that.

skholiast said...

thanks for that quote, Brown.

Aaron said...

If hysterical hypermasculinity is a primary overcompensatory symptom of the homosexual closet, perhaps hyperbolic stalinism is a primary overcompensatory symptom of the Buddhist closet.

Anonymous said...

I'd be very interested in reading this paper. Is it available?