4 thoughts on “Review: Cruel Theory/Sublime Practice”

  1. Compliments to John A Murphy on an excellent and wide ranging review.

    I would make a few points:

    “This book may appeal to those curious about interdisciplinary theoretical discussions of Buddhist and progressive concepts, but who are also disenchanted with current forms of Buddhism.”

    This would seem to be the sort of person the book is aimed at although the term “curious,” I think, needs to be replaced by “passionate.” In Wallis’s terms such a person has come to what he calls (in the text “Nascant Speculative Non Buddhism,” available for download at the SNB site) a state of “requisite disenchantment” or “aporetic dissonance.”

    To quote Wallis:

    “An affective condition. The believer’s discovery within himself or herself of a dissonant ring of perplexity, puzzlement, confusion, and loss concerning the integrity of Buddhism’s self-presentation.”

    This general perplexity might lead eventually to an inquiry into the ways in which the aporia in our understanding of reality which buddhist teaching points to is, paradoxically, voided of its deconstructive force by the phantasmorgoria of the buddhist dispensation, in an effort to escape the existential implications of a confrontation with nihility. (Not-withstanding an obfuscating appeal to the Madhyamaka warning against the twin faults of reifying a substantial self or falling into nihilism.)

    I regard the non-buddhist project as rooted in, not Buddhism per se, but in contemporary thought, particularly the work of Laruelle, Althusser, Badiou and Marx, to name but a few. Its minimally transcendent terms enable work on the texts and practices of Buddhism, or any other systematization of thought. As Wallis says,

    “As Laruelle claims for non-philosophy, I claim for non-buddhism: only once we have suspended the structures that constitute Buddhism, only once we have muted Buddhism’s cosmic vibrato, are we free to hear fresh, terrestrial, resonances.”

    In that sense non-buddhism offers a challenge and a hope.

    John has done an excellent job of trying to convey the complexity of the non-buddhist approach, and the possibilities of its application, apparent within the pages of this book.

  2. John,

    Thanks for taking the time to review our book.

    I want to respond here briefly, just to clarify one point. You seem to be particularly bothered, here and elsewhere, by what you call my “tacit dismissal” of postmodern literature. I want to make clear that I never discuss postmodern literature at all in my essay; I use the term “postmodern,” but I am arguing against postmodern thought in some of its other instantiations—in philosophy, cultural criticism, etc. Had I mentioned postmodern literature, I would not have tacitly dismissed it as anti-intellectual; I would have done so very explicitly.

    Pynchon, DeLillo and Bolaño clearly produce postmodern ideology in the sense Jameson uses the term: the cultural logic of late-capitalism. (I exclude Saramago because he is absolutely not a postmodern writer in this specific sense, and I know nothing at all about Haruki Murakami.) Their work functions to produce subjects who accept as natural and inevitable the universality of consumption and the invisibility of production, subjects who accept the impossibility of collective social practice and rational critical analysis of social problems, and who leave unexamined the social production of desire, bodily experience of the world, and the illusion of personal “freedom” in global capitalism.

    Which leads me to offer a suggestion. You indicate that my actual suggestions for practice “remain nebulous,” but I would say that they are very explicit. My suggestion is that a Buddhist practice capable of leading us to enlightenment would examine those cultural practices we enjoy most, as well as those we take as most “natural,” and determine how and why they are dependently arisen, as well as what effects they tend to have. My suggestions is not that Buddhist practice is “akin” to examining the ideology of Avatar, but that examining the social practice of watching and enjoying movies exactly is a Buddhist practice. Early Buddhist texts suggest that those seeking enlightenment should examine the dependent origination of their daily social and cultural activities; in the west, we tend to try to examine the dependent origination of the daily social and cultural activities of ancient or exotic cultures, and call it Buddhist practice, but we ignore our own culture, leave it unexamined.

    Perhaps you see my suggestions for practice as nebulous only because you cannot imagine that the postmodern literature you enjoy and admire could possibly be producing the ideology of global capitalism; you cannot imagine that I could possibly mean what I say, so it remains unclear to you what it is I am suggesting you do. Postmodern Literature is, however, a social practice which constructs conventional selves, and does so in a way that produces enormous harm to sentient beings around the world. Pynchon may be “sophisticated” and “erudite,” but this does nothing to ensure that the social practice of reading his novels is in any way a positive (skillful, wholesome, etc.) ideological practice; to assume that it is—that erudition and sophistication, being “avant garde,” is equivalent to being beneficial—is terribly naïve.

    Perhaps if you were able to form a group able to examine precisely how postmodern literature works to produce good subjects of global capitalism, you would be able to help some individuals make progress toward enlightenment. This is what I would consider a radical Buddhist practice today. It is a very specific practice, I think, not nebulous at all. Of course, for those who already detest Pynchon, the same could be done with the social practice of baseball or television.

    I am encouraged by the fact that out of four paragraphs devoted to my essay, one is devoted to defending a perceived threat to something I never mention at all. To my mind, this suggests that the essay was at least successful in clarifying for you that one ideological practice you are most reluctant to examine thoroughly and critically. I can only hope it might have this effect on some other readers.

    Thanks again,

    Tom Pepper

  3. It is not just that your notions of practice are nebulous, Tom.

    “When meditation seeks to stop all thought, to insist on a world-transcendent experience of pure consciousness outside of language, it is functioning to strengthen the hold of our ideological formations, to shore up the walls of our World, by insisting on the timeless universality of our purportedly ‘pure’ perceptions.” (Tom Pepper, “Naturalising Buddhism Without Being Reductive: A radical, and ridiculously arrogant, reinvention of Buddhist thought” sic)

    What if the Buddhist practice of meditation was the complete opposite of this?

    “I will teach you the all (sabba). Listen to what I say. What is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and scents, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and thoughts. This is called the all. Someone might say, ‘I reject this all, I will declare another all.’ But because that is simply a groundless assertion, such a person, when asked about it, would not be able to explain, and would, moreover, meet with distress. What is the reason for that distress? Because that all is not within his or her sensorium.” (Saṃyuttanikāya, Sabbavagga 1; translation Glenn Wallis)

    “The relevance of the senses in these contexts is that all our incoming experiential data come through our senses. It is because we cognitively process those incoming data as we do that we continue to have cravings; and it is because of such cravings that our ‘world’ has continued existence: this is how the individual continues. And it is this—this particular ‘world’ of experience—that the Buddhist disciple seeks to understand.

    “In fact what the doctrines of dependent origination and not-self-hood specifically mean is not just that the things that we see are not as separate as we think they are but that what all of what we see is dependently originated in is our subjective processing faculties.” (Sue Hamilton “The ‘External World’: Its Status and Relevance in the Pali Nikāyas)

    “To clarify at the risk of oversimplifying, we can think of a mind-independent truth such as the occurrence of evolution of species. This can only ever be known in a World, in a conventional construal of reality, and so, for us, will always necessarily include some value judgments functioning to shape how we experience ourselves.

    “I would argue that Buddhist practice can become such an aesthetic practice. Because the best way to produce an investment in change is to actually experience the truth that the mind is not an atomistic entity but a socially produced effect of a symbolic/imaginary system. We can become subjects faithful to a truth, even a truth that opposes the interest of our own individual bodily existence, once we experience the truth of what a subject is. To experience the existence of our mind in the trans-individual symbolic/imaginary system could motivate us to place the interest of the entire system above the interest of our individual bodily selves.” (Tom Pepper ibid)

    How would one experience a “mind independent truth” in a way that differs from the Upanisads or later religious Buddhism, without becoming attached to “it is” or “it is not”? Nebulous indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *