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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Well-Being Is Really Okay (Object-Oriented Buddhism 26)

I was inspired by these posts by Levi to think some more about well-being (Greek, eudaimonia). Levi is right on the money when he wonders why Lacanian analysis expresses such contempt for happiness, considering

the compulsive nature of the consumerist lifestyle, the manner in which it often seems to be searching for something it can never find, as well as the low-grade alcoholism and depression that seems to haunt this way of life. (Levi, “Some Remarks on Eudaimonia and Psychoanalysis”)

Is it true that religion is the opium of the masses? What does Marx mean by that? What should we mean by it?

All opinions also code for an attitude. The attitude that “religion is just the opium of the masses” often codes for is "My effed up psyche is the norm. My cynicism is realistic." Many colleagues now believe inner life (euphoric OR dysphoric) is a myth. Precisely because they feel so numb inside that they think they don't have an inside. (Sorry to get all genuine and soppy on you—but that's the point as you'll see in a moment.)

One colleague recently dismissed "psychic reality" as "mere representation"—with a tone of contempt. He FELT strongly that feelings were UNREAL.

Another colleague writes a book about how ANGRY he is that people take their feelings SERIOUSLY.

Zizek supplies perfect cover for those who FEEL STRONGLY that their inner state is IRRELEVANT. See the problem?

Inner life is now an optional belief. Soon it will be a mere myth like the story of Persephone. Vajrayana Buddhism calls this a symptom of a dark age (Kaliyuga).

Our cynical disbeliever in “psychic reality” would cite Derrida and Foucault. To me, this is not just an intellectual game: it's cynical reason trying to go further than ever into NIHILISM—the cool kids' religion. This is one more reason I find OOO so enticing. For once a kind of simplicity is back on the table, or as Graham puts it in his disarming way, OOO is “a haunting new realism more compellingly naive than any that has come before” (Guerilla Metaphysics, 174).

Religion is only opium if first and foremost it makes you feel shit. As smack-rockers Spiritualized put it, you need “Just enough to make me sick” (“Let It Flow”). Real bliss is far more threatening to your ego than feeling shitty. But you can only download real bliss on the basis of well-being.

Even Agent Smith knows this:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization.

Zizek's big mistake lies in reading this passage naively (ironically) as a sophisticated statement of truth—when it is in fact just a wind-up, Agent Smith's verbal torture of Morpheus. There is nothing in our operating system that says we can't experience bliss or well-being. That somehow those states are evil or taboo. What the heck convinced academics that Agent Smith was cool? The sunglasses?

Back to this notion of an inner “life.” I like the word inner because it freaks people out and sounds outdated ...but does it mean dimensionally "in"? No, that's still outer, in my view. What I'm talking about is a Harmanian substance with a metaphorically "molten" core. It's intrinsically a difficult area. In the West we only have "outer" vs "essence"—"inner" is a middle term that gets lost between them. And if you don't believe in essences at all, too bad for your inner life. But the subtle body is also hard in the “East”: not everyone can feel their subtle body.

Ever had acupuncture? That system has prana, nadi bindu (the Chinese version).

I claim this subtle body is irreducible to the endocrine system or the nervous system—another reason to like OOO, which doesn't discriminate a la eliminative materialism. And it's not simply a cultural construct. It's an OBJECT. You can feel it.

I don't mean to freak you out or anything, but your subtle body gets pretty unmoist by the time you're about 40 years old if you live in the go-go speed freak fiber optic fast lane. You can always remoisten it. But “burnout” is a real sensation, isn't it? One of the best ways to remoisten is to do meditation. But you don't believe me do you? I'm just a woo woo Western Buddhist.


Nick Guetti said...

YES!!!! You just resolved a rather significant intellectual crisis I was having. But I have some questions still.

I know I still need to read your book, but gimme a spoiler: If we're all strange strangers, not "parts" of any "whole", then where does prana, ch'i, or as we say in Indonesian martial arts, ilmoe, fit in?

Ilmoe is seen not just as an essence, but as a connecting force. I liken it to the electron field of an atom.

Smith: It was partly the sunglasses, partly the teeth, but MOSTLY: the idea that you can be stiff as a freaking board and still kick ass. This appeals to many academics, who find it comforting to believe that you can shrug off years of toxic stagnation with a mere sexy crackle of the neck bones. I know many good fighters, and none of them move stiff like that; they literally can't, because they've trained that out of themselves for so long. Smith's efficiency of striking motion is crap, too. You have to be an invincible computer program to fight like that, in addition to having a lot of flaws and fragility to be able to think like that.

On one of my favorite radio shows, Citizen Radio, Jamie & Allison Kilkenny-Kilstein have a very accurate term for cynical nihilists: they call them "apathetic hipster douchebags". But I have a more concise epithet for them: "eggs", because they are mostly very white, and very, very fragile. They want to seem hard-boiled, but they break really easy.

I regard it as a valuable skill to be able to melt into a puddle every few seconds. It's hard to break someone who has nothing to break.

I disliked Zizek from the first time I heard him talk, when he commented on the Michael Cain character in "Children of Men" as a symbol of impotence. I realized then that me and Zizek would probably never get each other.

As someone with experience in attaining well-being, I can attest that it can take some work. Cynical nihilism is easy, and made more so by the idea that you're unhip if you ain't got it.

Brown said...

"The many recommendations in contemporary popular western Buddhist
literature to trust your deepest experiences, your inner nature, your
internal vision have more to do with [the legacy] of Romanticism than
with traditional Buddhism. One seldom hears such counsel from
traditional Buddhist texts and teachers; for them, until one is an
advanced practitioner, one's inner experiences are likely to be
considered just another form of delusion."

David L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism,(Oxford, 2008), p.85

"When I am passionately in love, and a
biochemist informs me that all my intense sentiments are just the
result of biochemical processes in my body, I can answer him by
clinging to the appearance: "All that you're saying may be true, but,
nonetheless, nothing can take from me the intensity of the passion
that I am experiencing now..." Lacan's point, however, is that the
psychoanalyst is the one who, precisely, can take this from the
subject, insofar as his or her ultimate aim is to deprive the subject of the
very fundamental fantasy that regulates the universe of his
(self)experience. The Freudian subject of the unconscious emerges only
when a key aspect of the subject's (self)experience (his or her fundamental
fantasy) becomes inaccessible to him, primordially repressed. At its
most radical, the unconscious is the inaccessible phenomenon, not the
objective mechanism, that regulates my phenomenal experience. So, in
contrast to the commonplace that we are dealing with a subject the
moment an entity displays signs of "inner life"- that is, of a fantasmatic
experience that cannot be reduced to external behavior- one should
claim that what characterizes human subjectivity proper is, rather,
the gap that separates the two, that is, the fact that fantasy, at its
most elementary, becomes inaccessible to the subject."

Slavoj Zizek, "Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism," Interrogating the Real,(Continuum, ), pp.107-108
He discusses Buddhism and meditation in this chapter as well.

Does Zizek/Lacan/psychoanalysis insist that people be unhappy, or simply allow them to *not* be happy despite the injunction to "Enjoy!" I see it as the latter.

Brown said...

McMahan's book led me to an important essay/talk by Theravadan monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu: (pdf)
"The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism," Purity of Heart, pp.34-43
"Buddhist Romanticism"

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who takes pains to distance himself from Romantic interpretations of Buddhism, is very much in favor of well-being and (true/noble/pure) happiness, just search the titles of his excellent talks here:

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Brown, I think you just proved my point. It's very easy to show off intellectual or spiritual superiority by beating up on a scapegoat that's warm and soft an "genuine" in an age in which the dominant ideological mode is NIHIlISM

Brown said...

I guess what I meant by posting that- and perhaps I should've waited until the idea had fully formed- was that

1) Both psychoanalysis and Buddhism are skeptical of the reality of self-experience. This skepticism can even be found in bumper-sticker Buddhism: "Don't believe everything you think!"

2) One can be genuinely and wholeheartedly committed to improving well-being while remaining skeptical of the reality of inner experience. In fact, isn't that a major part of the task? Isn't a major purpose of meditation observing the fabrication and reification of an illusory self-experience?

And perhaps I should also clarify: I posted because I'm excited about your project, as I was excited when I first read Eco w/o Nature (when I hit p.12, most precisely): here's someone who values Lacan, Marx, *and* meditation! I apologize if my comments seemed to be in any other spirit.

"When a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist's reproach to him is not "Commodity may seem to you a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people"; the actual Marxist's reproach is rather "You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you — in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers"…"

Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies,(Verso, 1997), p.120

Brown said...

(same Zizek passage appears in "Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism," pp.106-107)

daz hastings said...

ah. I'm beginning to realise how dire the situation had become....i didn't quite realise people had gotten to the point of being angry that they had feelings, or that anyone should take those feelings seriously. I didn't realise it had become an "enshrined" intellectual position, widely supported. Clears up a few questions I've had over a few experiences here and there. Good post. An important one, I feel.