the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

Pseudo-Dionysius and the Heart Sutra

In an insightful reading by Don Adams (in Hyperion) of the James Purdy novel In a Shallow Grave, discussing the book as an allegory of the via negativa, I discovered this quotation from “Pseudo-Dionysius,” a theologian who wrote most likely around 500 CE:

The “Divine Cause of all,” says Dionysius:

…is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness…. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.

This cannot help but remind me of the famous language of the buddhist Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness…. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shāriputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhātu up to no mind dhātu, no dhātu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhātu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering; no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment. [translation by the Nalanda Translation Committee]

It has long struck me that genuine wisdom traditions tend to have – and need, in order to be in a healthy state – both a “positive” and “negative” View, in balance with one another. By these terms are meant, respectively, a View which aims through language to reach – as near as possible – to a description of the nature of reality itself, and one which frustrates, which leads the inquirer explicitly away from, such an attempt.

Christianity seems to me largely to have lost the latter, leading to certain long-standing imbalances. Without a via negativa, the basic View of a spiritual tradition has a tendency towards reification and indeed, potentially, ossification. The approach of negation continually opens perception up and out, aerates it, maintains freshness and clarity. It reminds the practitioner of the fundamental ungraspability of truth. Indeed the negative way might, it seems to me, even be thought of as the approach of spaciousness.

Interestingly, buddhism more often suffers from the opposite problem to Christianity…

In the buddhist tradition, broadly speaking two ancient philosophical approaches predominate, again one “positive,” the other “negative.” The positive approach can be seen in the Cittamatra or “mind-only” school, the latter in the Madhyamaka. Madhyamaka – “deconstruction” some 2000 years avant la lettre – makes no positive assertions whatsoever about the nature of reality. Rather, it is purely a technique for revealing the inescapably relative nature of all such statements – both positive and negative! We seem to need both perspectives. A purely “positive” philosophy has a tendency towards “eternalism,” the denial of thoroughgoing interdependence, while a purely “negative” approach might lead to nihilism, its counterpart. Or – as sometimes happens within buddhist communities – to a certain coldness or harshness, or worse.

More generally, in the ravings of fundamentalism we see most clearly what happens when (in the old Zen parable) the pointing finger is mistaken for the moon, when the inherent relativity of all language, all concept, is forgotten.

A bit more on James Purdy in the next post.

scientism: 3) the syndrome

In a previous post I tried to delineate the nature of a particular syndrome, one which is rarely aired outside of Science Studies, STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and other academic departments. In beginning to write about this I’m reminded of a quotation I just came across from Bill McKibben, in an interview publicizing the Burlington Book Festival:

Books remain the single most important way for societies to think seriously about themselves. There are arguments that can only be made at length, and with grace, which is to say only with books.

This certainly holds true with regard to the subject at hand. It’s exceptionally hard, in a short statement, to say anything about it that is perhaps worth saying. Nevertheless, I would like to throw out a provisional set of arguments over a series of posts. As we find ourselves moving further and further down a path whose deeper premises remain effectively unquestioned, I believe this topic can only acquire ever more importance.

I will be suggesting ten or so reasons why such questioning needs to be taken more seriously. Most of these points are not particularly controversial. Nevertheless, their direct implications rarely are addressed in the media, in policy decisions, in the broader cultural discourse more generally.

Before moving on to these, however, one larger point, touched on in a previous post. There is a straw man constantly resorted to here which has to do with the crisis of polarization we’ve reached, whereby virtually any criticism directed towards Science is assumed to have “religious” motivation and a fundamentally “irrational” basis. In fact, this assumption in itself is part of the syndrome – despite the truth that indeed, religious fundamentalism’s antagonism towards rational critical thought remains one of the greatest of dangers in the world.

In any event, this is most definitely not my own point of departure, quite the contrary. What I will be focusing on most here has to do with fields relatively newly “scientized,” which in all kinds of ways touch upon important and vastly complex human questions. And because human, also especially emotive and self-interested. Prior to the past 150 years or so, “science” used to point to a fairly small and circumscribed set of disciplines. Today, as linguist Roy Harris well puts it (in The Semantics of Science):

For many years now linguistics has not been the only subject scrambling to climb aboard the bandwagon of science. Students of virtually every form of human behaviour – including psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and educationists – have tried to do likewise, and in some cases have simply appropriated the title science as an official designation for their own discipline or subdiscipline. If people were shocked in 1914 when Clive Bell spoke of a ‘science of aesthetics,’ they have nowadays become accustomed to universities whose football coaches are “sports scientists” and whose army instructors introduce their trainees to the study of ‘military science.’ (pp. 104-105)

To which one can add, of course, the notion of “political science.”

In my most recent post on this subject I quoted the following from Jerry Coyne (my emphasis):

I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

I find the formulation I’ve highlighted both honest and largely accurate as a description of how science operates. The trouble, to my mind, comes in with what follows the colon, with phrases such as “the truth about nature,” “most rational people,” and “what’s out there.” These beg a number of questions that need to be explored in greater depth, which I hope to be able to do in future posts.

the humanities make us human

Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.

But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.

Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.

Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.

The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.

History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.

Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.

But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.

In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.

Žižek 2

More generally, Žižek does seem quite taken with possibilities for a redemptive use of violence (see for example this essay by Adam Kirsch – I’m aware that his supporters find this piece a hatchet job, but haven’t (yet) seen anything that convinces me it is not at least on the right track).

Simon Critchley’s thoughts on the same subject – Žižek and violence – are also worth reading.

The title of Žižek’s talk this time is “Buddhism Naturalized,” which makes me even more hesitant to attend. For some years now he has been attacking buddhism in ways that suggest he has little understanding of it. Many have demonstrated this already. Here’s an example of where he’s coming from, in the same interview just quoted from:

Buddhism is the predominant ideology in the west now. It plays a very conformist function. It makes you feel good in global capitalism. I read an analysis why all the top managers in the US like to practice Zen and all. Because things are so confusing now with one speculation you can lose billions of dollars in a minute. The only thing that can explain this is Buddhism which says that everything is an appearance and be aware of the inner reality and all that. You are dealing with just fake appearance. The tradition[al] European thinking doesn’t help in explaining the world in a flux. This new age Buddhism gives authenticity to global capitalism. That’s why Dalai Lama is popular in Hollywood. I hope he is aware of what kind of game he is playing there, maybe he is not aware. He is providing them a cheap spiritual path so that you can basically go on with your life — seducing, sex orgies, drugs, earn money — but it gives you a feeling that I am aware I am not really that. It helps you to normalize and neutralize the schizophrenia we live in.

There are soooo many things wrong and even bizarre about his understanding here that it would take something probably essay-length to do justice to it. So I have to decide whether or not I want to listen to two hours along those lines, maybe in the end asking a question which … probably wouldn’t be engaged with. Basically – grinding my teeth!

Do I really want to see Žižek (especially on buddhism)?

He’s coming to my university with great fanfare but…

Here’s the thing. Though it gives me philistine, unhip status amongst a lot of people, I have yet to understand what is so special about the guy. Admittedly, I don’t know his work well. Have not read The Parallax View, in fact have read only one book of his (the slim Welcome to the Desert of the Real), which did not impress me. Beyond this I’ve read a number of shorter pieces of his and interviews with him, watched a bunch of videos, and eventually … gave up. Not permanently, but I don’t leap to read anything from him at this point.

What I find is that his style tires me, especially the obvious glee he takes in inverting language to create provocation and shock. (And I’m guessing he also relishes the moniker that now follows him wherever he goes: “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.”) Here is a now-well-known example from an India Times interview with Shobhan Saxena (but he does this kind of thing constantly):

Žižek: …what people perceive as violence is the direct subjective violence. It’s crucial to see violence which has to be done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. I am not just talking about structural violence, symbolic violence, violence in language, etc. In that sense Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. Hitler killed millions of people. It was more reactive killing. Hitler was active all the time not to change things but to prevent change.

Saxena: A lot of people will find it ridiculous to even imagine that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler? Are you serious when you say that…

Žižek: Yes he was, although Gandhi didn’t support killing. With his actions — boycott and all that — he helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer. This is something Hitler never wanted. Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the functioning of the British empire or the way it functioned here. You have to think why was India called the jewel of the empire? That for me is a problem. Let us locate violence properly.

I hardly know where to begin to respond to something like this. And the trouble is that he engages in this tactic all the time. Here’s another example, from the film Zizek!. The first minute or so of this clip I follow what he is saying but then here is how he ends:

I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world,” “universal love.” I don’t like the world. I don’t know how I — basically I’m somewhere in-between “I hate the world” or “I’m indifferent towards it.” But the whole of reality: it’s just it, it’s stupid. It’s out there, I don’t care about it. Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means: I pick out something and I, and it’s, you know it’s again this structure of imbalance. Even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person, I say “I love you more than anything else.” In this quite formal sense, love is evil.

So, I look at this and begin to respond but end up just kind of internally spluttering… I’m not even sure it’s worth it. What I sense in him, perhaps unfairly (and I remain open to seeing it in a different way), is someone really in love with the play of conceptualization for its own sake, so in love that I’m not sure he knows when to stop. And doesn’t seem to understand that now more than ever, when the entire world can read your thoughts via a mere tap on a screen, the philosopher bears even greater responsibility for how they express things, in addition to what is being expressed.

More later.