Monthly Archives: May 2013

Deconstruction and Buddhism: The Mohel and Manjusri

Although I’m not a specialist in Buddhist studies, Buddhist discourses and practices are definitely included among my general research interests.  One of the things I’ve been following for years now is the developing relationship between Buddhism and deconstruction (specifically Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction).  The groundbreaking work to forge that relationship came in 1984 with the publication of Derrida on the Mend, by Robert Magliola.  For Magliola, the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is staged through a comparative analysis that shows a lot of affinities between Derrida and Nagarjuna (a “founder” of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, the path of the middle way).  Subsequently, Magliola’s work has been a key reference point for further discussion.

Along with Magliola’s text, another important resource is Harold Coward’s Derrida and Indian Philosophy (1990), which situates Magliola’s Derrida-Nagarjuna comparison within the broader context of Indian philosophies.  Coward focuses too much on speech (a typical problem for deconstructionists), but there are some good chapters connecting Derrida not only with Nagarjuna but also with nondual Vedanta of Shankara and the evolutionary spirituality of Aurobindo.

It is interesting to note that Magliola and Coward published their works before Derrida’s ethico-religious turn (before the messianic without a messianism, before the apocalypse sans apocalypse, before his allusive piece on religion for a conference on the island of Capri, before the regular reiteration of tout autre est tout autre).  The writings from the last decade of Derrida’s life are much closer to Judaism than Buddhism, making him look more like a “young Jewish saint” (Cixous) than Nagarjuna, or in other terms, more like a mohel than Manjusri.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to say about Buddhism and deconstruction.  Quite the opposite.  Derrida’s religiously oriented writings provide even more points of Buddhodeconstructive contact.  Along those lines, one of my ‘forthcoming’ books is titled The Mohel and Manjusri.

Much has been written in this century on Buddhism and deconstruction.  Some of it still stays with language and semiotics, as in Youxuan Wang, Buddhism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Semiotics (2001).  Other works focus more on ethics and religion, like the essays in Deconstruction and the Ethical in Asian Thought, edited by Youru Wang (2007).  That anthology includes discussions of Derridean and Levinasian ethics in relation to ethics in Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions.

Another notable anthology that highlights ethico-religious dimensions of the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is Buddhisms and Deconstructions, edited by Jin Y. Park (2006).  That book includes an afterword by Magliola, reflecting on how the dialogue between Buddhism and deconstruction has developed in the decades since his groundbreaking work on the topic.  Park has subsequently become the most prolific and influential writer on this topic, with the wide reception of Buddhisms and Deconstructions along with her articulation of a Buddhist postmodern ethics in Buddhism and Postmodernity (2008).  As the latter title indicates, Park is extending the discussion beyond Buddhist connections to Derrida/deconstruction to the wider field of Buddhist connections to postmodern philosophy.  This extension is further evident in her work with Gereon Kopf editing the anthology, Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism (2009).

In close proximity to this whole discussion of Buddhism and deconstruction is the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, which brought continental philosophy into contact with Buddhism starting in the early twentieth century with Kitaro Nishida.  My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who studied under Heidegger for a short time before completing his PhD at Kyoto University (his dissertation is on Bergson and Schelling).  I’m far from catching up on recent research regarding the Kyoto school, but I’m looking forward to checking out the anthology Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conservations with the Kyoto School (2011), edited by Bret Davis, Brian Schroeder, and Jason Wirth.  Quot libros quam breve tempus!

Deleuze and Wolves

Between Deleuze’s individually written works and his co-written works (with Guattari), he deploys a swarm of concepts.  With that supernumerary distribution of concepts, one might think that there are thus many entry points into readings of Deleuze.  However, some concepts seem to stand out and receive more attention than the others.  The obvious example would be the rhizome.  Everybody likes to bring up the rhizome, whether favorably or critically (e.g., Badiou’s “The Fascism of the Potato”).

It seems like Deleuze’s affinity for human-wolf multiplicities (i.e., werewolves) is another favorite.  I can think of three examples off the top of my head.  First, Catherine Malabou’s “Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves” brings up D&G’s affirmation of wolf multiplicities to criticize Deleuze for doing to Hegel what Freud did to the Wolf Man: homogenizing and totalizing his encounter with plurality and difference.

Second, Jacob Sherman (“No Werewolves in Theology?”) brings up werewolves to critique Deleuze’s rejection of transcendence and to offer an alternative vision for which contemplative engagements with transcendence provide the sort of liberation of becoming that Deleuze was seeking.  In short, becoming-wolf is much closer to becoming-divine than Deleuze admits.

Third, in When Species Meet, Donna Haraway brings up becoming-animal and becoming-wolf to criticize Deleuze (and Guattari) for privileging wolf-human becomings over dog-human becomings (privileging the wild over the domestic, smuggling in a wildness that looks way too much like transcendent divinity).  She thinks that becoming-animal should be much more affirmative of domestic companions, mundane reality, and old women with lapdogs.

Interestingly, Haraway is the only one to challenge the wolf trope and thus challenge the fascination that the rest of us have with Deleuzian wolves.  Malabou and Sherman seem to say that, contra Deleuze’s critiques of Hegel and theological transcendence, Hegel (Malabou) and contemplative mysticism (Sherman) are just as good as Deleuze (if not better) at becoming-wolf.  Haraway, on the other hand, suggests that looking for wolf multiplicities might not be a good way to valorize a philosophical or theological position.  We should be attending instead to the ontics and antics of companion species.

Whether Hegelians and contemplative mystics can get along well with companion species is a question to which Malabou and Sherman surely would respond masterfully.  In any case, the point here is simply that the alarm that gets our attention need not be “There are wolves!”  It reminds me of a fable about a scholar who cried wolf.

Stengers and Haraway on Indigenous Cosmopolitics

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a Sawyer Seminar Lecture at UC Davis featuring Isabelle Stengers and, responding to Stengers, Donna Haraway.  Although they’ve been influencing one another’s works for years, this was one of only a handful of public appearances they have made together.  Adam Robbert of the world renound Knowledge Ecology posted recordings of the lecture HERE, and for a good overview of the topics covered, check out his notes HERE

Following the other lectures in this Sawyer Seminar series, the topic of the lecture was the problem of indigenous cosmopolitics.  I say problem because they were note proposing answers or uncontested definitions, but were opening a series of questions.  How do cosmopolitical proposals for  a global or universal collective of humans and nonhumans relate to indigenous lifeways, for which politics is embedded in local places?  Is “indigenous cosmopolitics” an oxymoron?  If it exists, how?  And so what?

Stengers focused on indigenous cosmopolitics by way of an encounter with “the challenge of animism,” which she connected with the challenges of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft, citing Starhawk on withcraft (feel the smoke of witches burning) and citing David Abram’s sense of an “ecology of magic.”  The main point for Stengers is simply this: ideas are actual participants in the craft of cosmopolitics.  They are, as Haraway put it, “cosmopolitical critters,” actors in the risky “speculative fabulation” (sf) that defines the craft of cosmopolitics.  

Our challenge is to learn the craft of building lures, the craft of animating and being animated by abstractions.  Indigenous cosmopolitics enrolls narrative and memory in practices of reclaiming (not to restore, but to reformat and reactive) the metamorphic power of ideas, bringing them into an open space of participation where humans and nonhumans can (just maybe) co-constitute a world where, as Zapatistas put it, “many worlds will fit,” including the worlds that we call “ideas.”

A Hegelian Laxative

I finally got around to attending to some of the wonderful essays in Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic, edited by Slavoj Žižek, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis (Columbia UP, 2011).  Incidentally, this is one of about four of Clayton Crockett’s books I’ve read in the last year.  I’ll have more to say about his work later.  For now, I’ll just say that this book on Hegel is a must-read…for Right-Hegelians, Left-Hegelians, post-Hegelians, anti-Hegelians, etc. 

For all of those who are stuck in an interpretation of Hegel as a totalizing thinker who appropriates and assimilates all difference and alterity into his own absolute knowledge, this book would be a great place to start loosening up—reopening your interpretation of Hegel and letting go of that overused straw man argument. 

It turns out that Hegel is not an extremely constipated thinker who appropriates reality into himself without remainder, nor a coprophagic thinker reappropriating that remainder.  Hegel is much more open-ended, radically affirming the irreducible contingencies of the real.  Žižek makes this abundantly clear in his chapter, “Hegel and Shitting: The Idea’s Constipation.” 

The matrix of the dialectical process is not that of excrementation-externalization followed up by swallowing up (reappropriation) of the externalized content, but, on the contrary, of appropriation followed up by the excremental move of dropping it, releasing it, letting go. (p. 231)

The move of letting go is like the movement of God, letting go of divinity in the process of incarnation, which is an act of emptying (kenosis).  This letting go opens a space for inquiring into religion and the complex political relationship between the sacred and the secular (where the secular is the sacred letting go of itself).  This movement of letting go (in the vernacular, “shitting”) also “opens up an unexpected space for ecological awareness,” a scatological ecology according to which nature is experienced “as something to be left to follow its inherent path.”

“What critics of Hegel’s voracity need is, perhaps, a dosage of good laxative.”  True as that may be, as I recall, William James let go of some anti-Hegelianism with a dosage of nitrous oxide, not laxative. …in any case, a dosage of good something… 

Becoming Inaccessible: A Touch of Castaneda

Becoming integral is a way of life.  It is the light touch cultivated in the art of becoming inaccessible…

I think often of Carlos Castaneda.

“The art of a hunter is to become inaccessible,” he [Don Juan] said.  “In the case of that blond girl it would’ve meant that you had to become a hunter and meet her sparingly.  Not the way you did.  You stayed with her day after day, until the only feeling that remained was boredom.  True?”
            I did not answer.  I felt I did not have to.  He was right.
“To be inaccessible means that you touch the world around you sparingly.  You don’t eat five quail; you eat one.  You don’t damage the plants just to make a barbecue pit.  You don’t expose yourself to the power of the wind unless it is mandatory.  You don’t use and squeeze people until they have shriveled to nothing, especially the people you love.”
—Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan (New York: Washington Square Press, 1991), p. 69. 

“But don’t overdo it,” he went on.  “The touch of warrior-travelers is very light, although it is cultivated.  The hand of a warrior-traveler begins as a heavy, gripping, iron hand but becomes like the hand of a ghost, a hand made of gossamer.  Warrior-travelers leave no marks, no tracks.  That’s the challenge of warrior-travelers.”
—Castaneda, Active Side of Infinity (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 146.