Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
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Dublin/Galway, Ireland. 27, history graduate & human rights student
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*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Jul 14

notes on that quote about Foucault

a) the essay discusses Foucault’s writings and public statements in 1976-77, a few years before the Birth of Biopolitics lectures, but it illustrates the same ‘turn’ towards considering issues of power and the subject in a more explicitly (or conventionally) political setting; translating that early Foucault which is so integral to modern critical theory into something which actually intersects with political and economic science. Or at least that’s how I’ve experienced it; I was first exposed to Foucault as part of an undergrad political theory course which covered him alongside (or against) Habermas, and then later encountering aspects of his work in settings mostly (or at least strictly) outside the academic, reading Madness and Civilisation, all the ideas which have influenced critical sociology, and so on, but it’s only now that I’ve realised he produced what is arguably one of the foundational critiques of neoliberalism as a political and economic (as well as legal) project that he feels properly relevant, and perhaps understandable, to me.

b) there’s an interesting criticism of that approach in an article by Michael Behrent, ‘Liberalism without Humanism’, which basically argues for Foucault as a closet neoliberal. There are a few articles and academic pieces I’ve come across online in my readings that are open-access – that isn’t one of them, but as well as putting up some of the more accessible links sometime I think I want to try my hand at discussing this one. Mirowski in his book quotes him approvingly, as part of the idea that leftists shouldn’t be too enthused by Foucault’s critique of neoliberalism and see it more of a cloaked approbation: that as a famed anti-humanist (that is, roughly, rejecting the woolly, sentimental and plain ideological trappings of bien-pensant Western public philosophy in favour of his far more cynical views about power and domination) the technocratic form of neoliberalism actually allowed him to approach a ‘liberal’ stance without compromising his anti-humanist one. I agree there is certainly an ambiguity in Foucault’s opinion on his subject, but I think other aspects of his arguments as they apply to the political history are a little more dubious, or at least open to other interpretations

c) the topic in the quote, and in the article more generally, is to a large extent that perennial issue of the purposes of philosophy and philosophising. Likewise there is this quote about the ‘work of the intellectual’ from which The Knife took their album title Shaking the Habitual and which is reproduced inside the sleeve. I also just reached an interesting section of the Government of Self and Others lectures where he discusses Plato and his definition of philosophy, wherein it has not only an external dimension, to ‘others’, of truth-telling or parrhesia, but an internal one regarding the apprehension of philosophical truth. One of the conditions of which is not writing – for mostly elitist, Pythagorean (i.e. hidden, esoteric truths) reasons but also to emphasise (in a quasi-Buddhist way, perhaps) the centrality of practice, “of self on self” (which if it sounds masturbatory, there is a whole discussion revolving around, as the translator notes, the French verb frotter). He suggests that Plato’s actual writings on The Laws and The Republic were perhaps not really “serious”, as prescriptions of political theory, but like a “game” or “myth” – something similar to how Machiavelli’s The Prince is often understood, as an ironic reflection on amoral politics – which may be worth thinking about with regard to his often rather sarcastic (as with pretty much everything) treatment of neoliberalism. So I guess write, think, but don’t forget to laugh…

foucault philosophy notes escaping from a thesis
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One emerges stronger, more intelligent, more joyous after reading Foucault and yet he only complicates everything further. How is this possible? My intuition tells me this: joy in thinking has nothing to do with how comfortable the conclusions you reach are, but rather with the fact that we discover we are capable of reaching a place by ourselves. It is an experience that leaves a lasting imprint: if we have proven capable of thinking something (whatever it is) for ourselves, we can do so again.
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May 28
While some have railed against the duplicity that was excused by the adoption of a ‘revolutionary morality’ - where the ends justify the means - other veterans believe that such theorizing covered more basic motivations. Former leading Dublin OIRA activist Lar Malone asserts: ‘I’m struggling for me, what I want and the type of society I want. That is the way it was with everybody. I don’t believe in … fellas going around saying “We’re fighting for the workers”; once you hear that you have a hypocrite in front of you.’

Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and The Workers’ Party

Just finished reading this. It’s a superb account of a not very well known section of Irish political history, and makes for even more interesting reading as (‘Provisional’) Sinn Féin make large election gains at the expense of Labour (and the downfall of their leader, former Workers’ Party TD Eamon Gilmore). Lots of stuff about nationalism, republicanism, political violence and revolutionary politics; but also, above all, the shift of ideas in often obscure and (to some) unwelcome ways. The current apostasy of the Labour Party to Irish leftists, under its ex-‘Stickie’ leadership, seems to be yet another chapter in this long saga of accommodation of former radicals to the logic, accurate or not, of modern statehood and capitalism.

The quote above struck me - I wrote my master’s thesis on ‘revolutionary ethics’ in the novels of Arthur Koestler, although without getting anywhere deep enough into the political philosophy as first intended - as expressing, though perhaps somewhat obliquely, an idea I’ve held for quite some time. While it’s accepted that liberal democratic politics is about arguing the case for an individual or, more usually, collective vision, derived from a subjective perspective, the radical counterpart to that - especially (but not exclusively) on the left - is that a particular political project serves an objective good, which others merely fail to see out of ignorance or perverse intention.

The idea that, in the last analysis, we are merely offering competing visions of society which people may reject or accept seems, sometimes at least, quite radical in a different way. Dressing it up in an appeal to some special signifier - ‘the workers’ is merely a somewhat dated one - tends to hide that awful abyss of ambiguity that comes with staking your social morality on a political choice. On the other hand, we can’t not choose - or else we let others choose for us. 

politics Irish history philosophy books
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Dec 31
Permalink zen philosophy buddhism
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Nov 26

Practical Zen / Environmental Zen

In the last post I tried to separate Zen from an instrumental form, although it’s hard to see how pursuing any activity can cease to be ‘instrumental’, in the sense that one still expects to get something out of it. The closest I can get is considering Zen as a ‘practice’ which has no conscious purpose other than itself. Which is used in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow to connect it to environmentalism (as, presumably, an indirect purpose):

"Another important element for understanding Zen’s relation to contemporary environmental issues [the first being its counter-anthropocentric principles] […] is that practitioners are motivated to follow a realization-based, or a unity of ends and means - rather than an instrumental, or means leading to an end - attitude and approach to their training. Moreover, pantheistic implications that suggest that the whole world is contained in a speck of dust provide the basis for the imperative that, if one person practices zazen for a single instant, the effects continue to reverberate and to help redeem karma throughout the entire universe [a notion expressed in Dogen’s ‘Bendo-wa’ lecture in the Shobogenzo, which I personally think is ridiculous, although on a more practical level I do believe that the idea of ‘karma’ as the interdependence - and thus inseparability - of all things is of essential usefulness to environmentalism]. 

The combined impact of these doctrines is to inspire those working for ecological reform not to be overwhelmed and demoralized by the extent of the problems faced. Instead, they dedicate their efforts to accomplishing seemingly small or insignificant tasks here and now while having the determination to prevail and the faith that these activities will eventually have a greater, transformative impact on the whole society. Reformers can learn from monks, who spend countless hours cooking or cleaning the grounds or raking the garden, and can view each and every task, no matter how menial or seemingly trivial, not simply as a means to an end, which is frustrating if the final goal seems remote or unattainable. Rather, the tasks are seen as ends in themselves to be celebrated as eminently worthwhile, which paradoxically enhances their possible benefit for the future.”

Which is all well and good, but one of the main environmentalist critiques at the moment is that the emphasis on ‘small things’ (recycling cans, changing light bulbs) is totally insufficient when faced with the existential threat of climate change; that it’s had its chance to change people’s attitudes and has either ground to a halt or is actively doing harm by lulling people into a false sense of activity while leaving the major issues about consumption and distribution untouched. I would return to my argument that there is (and ought to be) a disjunct between Zen philosophy and non-Zen politics, in this case of environmentalism (which at base necessitates, at least in my opinion, the revolutionary transformation of society and economics, as in socialism). On the other hand, the practice of each can reflect the other, and there is perhaps something more in Zen non-existence and non-attachment that can be useful in promoting the change of fundamental attitudes about consumerism and human living.

zen philosophy politics environmentalism useless words
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raptoravatar replied to your post: Personal Zen
My tldr reading of that is: ‘an ability to affirm spiritual solace in incompleteness allows zen to fill some of the holes instrumental reason will always leave.’ which I really like!

ha, I like the idea of a “tldr reading”, it’s practically Zen in itself. but that’s a very good summary, almost perfect in that I can’t think of a way to complicate it further… except “spiritual solace” is a phrase I would avoid, not just because of the ‘spiritual’ part but also because ‘solace’ is a concept that I don’t think really fits with Zen, at least not entirely. Solace implies a refuge from the rest of the world, and I don’t think it can work like that or is meant to - if I feel despair (or hurt or anomie or any variation on all-encompassing suffering), I feel despair, and Zen doesn’t stop that in that moment (usually), no more than simply telling anyone life is meaningless would get them to stop caring about it. Instead it’s more about creating a base in ‘incompleteness’ so that the lows don’t hit too hard, or too much - insofar as it is about something or has an aim, because the other problem with the idea of ‘solace’ is that it turns Zen itself into an instrumental form of, if not reason, then unreason (which is probably worse). 

Another aspect of the (post)modern philosophical approaches to Zen outlined in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow that I think would appeal to the Tumblr milieu (at least, it did to me) is this account of Nishitani’s reframing of a traditional Buddhist eschatology:

"the scientific and/or apocalyptic possibility is understood as the existential actuality of a here-and-now encounter with the transformative experience of the great doubt/death, that is, profound anxiety leading to genuine self-discovering following the demise of the ordinary ego"

which is very wordy and I’d certainly need to read the original argument in more detail to get any more out of it, but to me it seems to be echoing a lot of current Internet theory about technology and the self, or even just the particular existential anxiety of the current moment. I don’t want to get sucked into mysticism, but I’m certainly not above transcendence… 

Or, as perhaps more bluntly put:

"Thus, Nishitani has recast and reversed that modernity seems to pose - can the seemingly archaic naturalistic outlook of Zen survive in an industrialized world? - by asking: Will technological culture itself endure without the metanoesis, or profound conversion or transformation, uniquely expressed in Zen’s view of absolute nothingness?"

zen philosophy useless words
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Nov 25

Personal Zen

"Besides contrasting Western Being with Eastern Nothingness, in his later writings Nishida also at times makes a broad distinction between a Western “logic of things” and an Eastern “logic of the heart-mind (kokoro).” While Western thought tends to begin with an objective logic of substances (be these physical or mental), he claims that in Buddhism one can find the germ of a logic of the heart-mind, even if traditionally this remained largely at the level of an expression of personal experience rather than being fully developed into a genuinely philosophical logic (see Nishida 1964, 356). (Scholars of Buddhism may want to argue that it was Nishida’s own knowledge of Buddhism that remained too much at the level of personal experience, rather than the sophisticated teachings of the Mâdhyamaka, Yogâchâra, Tiantai, and Huayan traditions of Mahâyâna philosophy.)”

The Kyoto School (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)

Again, following on from this post, the above is an obviously simplified statement of a view I don’t wholly agree or disagree with. Zen Skin, Zen Marrow starts off with a discussion of Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot, a fascinating and kind of terrible book in which a European intellectual (and a “controversial, side-changing” one at that) goes to India and Japan in the 1950s and makes some pretty strong criticisms based on his experience and reading. This description in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow is a good summary of the conflicting aspects:

"The sense of disillusionment and disgust in Koestler’s book, his only major work dealing with Zen, seems like a throwback to unrepentant Orientalists whose agenda it was to turn Asian religious thought into disreputable clichés. But at the same time, to his credit, Koestler presciently anticipated and articulated nearly all of the main rebuttals to TZN [the Traditional Zen Narrative, acronym used by the author] provided by HCC [Historical and Cultural Criticism] on the issues of language, ritualism and societal affairs"

I went back and read a couple of the chapters on Zen in The Lotus and the Robot and while the tone is not particularly pleasant, and the criticisms while robust also seem to contain something of a wilful blindness when seen from an appreciation of non-dualist philosophy (and as can be seen from the title of that book and others, Koestler loved using binary opposites) it’s not wholly unfair at base and depends really on negotiating between social and cultural values towards appreciating Zen in a lucid context. So yes, Zen can degenerate into irrational silliness that’s not particularly socially useful or even harmful, but (as he recognises with the symbiotic nature of its origin to Confucianism) those same qualities may have or have had their uses.

My personal attraction to Zen stems, I’m pretty sure, from a dissatisfaction with the incompleteness of intellectual pursuit in a (Western) framework of science and philosophy, and even the humanities and arts as a bridge between the two. There is no system which will answer all our questions, and perhaps similarly to the way one is - supposedly, traditionally - led to question capitalist economics, maybe that is because the whole nature of our ‘systems’ is flawed? Critical thinking, despite the exhortations of our educators and business leaders who tout its material ends, manifestly does not bring happiness and rather tends to decrease it whenever we face a failure to rationally reorganise our lives and the world. Art can be a solution for some, hedonism for others, but what for the intellectual depressive and innate conservative who just wants to break the chain of thought without breaking anything else?

All of which is to say, in a rather incomplete fashion, that when I see such a statement as “in Buddhism one can find the germ of a logic of the heart-mind, even if traditionally this remained largely at the level of an expression of personal experience rather than being fully developed into a genuinely philosophical logic” I am both sceptical of and drawn towards it. I’m sceptical of a notion such as ‘heart-mind’, to start with, because I’m still too rationalist; yet at the same time I don’t want to see the ideas of Zen “fully developed into a genuinely philosophical logic” - in large part I reckon because my personality, which to use the Myers-Brigg typology (itself an unscientific, effectively anti-rationalist but deeply appealing ‘system’ that I find pragmatically useful) begins with the introverted intuition of ideas, proceeds to an outward facing rationality, followed only then by (introverted) feelings and (extrovert) sensory logic - because I need to keep it outside that sphere, free from its chains.

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Social Zen

"Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.

The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.”

Nishitani Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (1990) Appendix: ‘The Problem of Atheism, 1: Marxist Humanism’

So arising out of Zen Skin, Zen Marrow*, a book I picked up just because it looked interesting and seemed to be discussing the moral and political dimensions of Zen (which rarely happens from within the movement), I’ve now discovered a movement in Japanese academic philosophy - the Kyoto School - which applied Buddhist and Zen ideas to Western existentialism (or, perhaps more importantly, its immediate precursors; and also vice versa). That is, I’ve always seen the connection or resemblance between Western postmodern thought and Buddhist non-dualism, and perhaps rather more in the cultural than rigidly philosophical sense; this is, however, a series of Japanese thinkers before and after the Second World War applying ‘Eastern’ thought to Nietzsche and Heidegger (and yes, there are obvious, doubly compounded political issues with that). So it’s both a little unexpected and well out of my depth.

Nishitani appears to be chiefly a writer on religion, from this kind of Buddhist-existential perspective (his main work is titled Religion and Nothingness) and the quote above is from a brief appendix to a work I’ve not been able to give more than a cursory look over, but which does intrigue me (I’ve read quite a bit about Nietzsche and nihilism in, of all places, a book called James Joyce’s Negations, but I haven’t read Nietzsche himself yet - although he is in an existentialism reader I have on my shelf; Nietzsche also features prominently at the start of Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement). I’m unsure as to how enthusiastically I would agree with the above: if put bluntly, it seems basically accurate; yet I’m wary of taking on too much the perspective that materialism does not deal sufficiently with human life, given that its non-material existence has no rational basis (hence my general distrust of spiritualism)**.

Yet at the same time it is essentially my position on the limitations of political thought as applied to individual psychology, and also of the seemingly necessary disjunct between the philosophy of Zen and the politics of socialism: not that they necessarily contradict each other, but that it is a category error to force them together. Suffering and oppression are not the same thing; it doubtless requires a certain privilege to be able to focus on the former, although oppression enhances suffering and is necessarily one of its (myriad) causes. To say, however, that there is an essential problem with the human condition is not to abandon socialism, unless it is of the very dogmatic Marxist kind that sees every aspect of social progress as flowing scientifically from the rearrangement of economic relationships. It may be more strongly heretical - perhaps from both perspectives, the rationalist socialist and the transcendent Zen - but more and more I wonder if better self-understanding is not an essential, or at least important, prerequisite for collective action? (And how do I distinguish that from a simple truism that I’m too introvert to have shared before?)

*if that seems an obvious echo, or complement, of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones a very good collection of stories and koans - it’s because it is: referring to the sequence of four transmissions passed on by Bodhidharma to his disciples, in decreasing order of superficiality from ‘skin’ to ‘marrow’ with ‘flesh’ and ‘bones’ being the intermediate levels, although it is argued (naturally) that such a value judgement is not meant to be taken as an absolute.

** though thinking back on it, Marx - or ‘Young Marx’ at least - does address this issue quite directly in Theses on Feuerbach, arguing for a kind of materialism that is on the verge of non-dualism in folding together all aspects of human life, if still primarily concerned with removing the last vestiges of idealism from that as a philosophical project.

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Oct 27

"What allows one to disinvest in the capitalist mode of subjectivity is not, in my view, the psychoanalytic session.  Instead it is the confrontation with a mode of enjoyment that ceases to provide the satisfaction that it promises.  This prompts one to think about alternatives.  Obviously, not everyone can become a theorist, but in a sense, everyone already is a theorist.  We theorize our enjoyment when we think through our day and plan out where we’re going to do.  Even watching a television show requires an elaborate theoretical exercise.  Making this theorizing evident and thus arousing an interest in theory is to me much more important than having a lot of people undergo psychoanalysis."

Enjoying What We Don’t Have: Interview with Philosopher Todd McGowan | Spirit is a Bone (via hautepop)

I am immensely distrustful of psychoanalysis (thanks to Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement) and I think Lacan is essentially a load of nonsense (even before getting to the fact that the application of his thought to political theory is, apparently, largely retrospective) but reading part-way through this he does seem to be taking a critical perspective, and one which goes in interesting directions.

I’m moved to think of the approach in Zen Buddhism of its view of its own ‘theory’ (for lack of another/better/emptier word) as “nothing special”, of the idea of enlightenment being in some way inherent to daily life and function, and of course of the similarity between “the confrontation with a mode of enjoyment that ceases to provide the satisfaction that it promises” and the essential truths of Buddhism, specifically that of suffering. On the other hand what is described as ‘theorizing’ is largely that which Zen seeks to avoid, in making communication non-verbal and even “before-thinking”, which gives rise to an obvious charge of anti-intellectualism - but what it seeks to promote in the first place is an awareness, of a theoretical and practical kind, of the intellectual nature of desire and the possibility of at least temporary escape. 

(cf. current Zen koan I’m looking at: “The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of samadhi can you escape being burned?”)

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Oct 12
All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, VIII

I have a tendency to see echoes, or parallel evolutions, of Buddhism (especially Zen) in more recent Western philosophy (especially postmodernism, which of course generally derives from Marxism). I’d never connected the Marxist ethos of praxis with the Buddhist one of practice before, however. The 11th and last thesis, the one everyone knows, states “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”; the Buddhist version might be “The world exists only as it is interpreted; the point is not to change it, but to change the philosophers” (if that isn’t too close to Brecht’s “dissolve the people, and elect another” - even satire has a perverse grain of truth).

The immaterialism, for lack of a better word, of Buddhist thought is obviously antithetical to the philosophy of materialism, but Marx’s insistence on lived, “sensuous” experience travels in the same direction as the contra-intellectualism of Buddhism and Zen. Of course from the perspective of the latter all is still illusory, and reality is conditional (conditional on existing in the material world, I suppose). Resolving the dialectic is a challenge - along with getting any political message from pure Buddhism, beyond vague platitudes - but revolutionary and personal practice exist in parallel, if opposite, directions.

Aside from tenuous Buddhist connections, what struck me about the above thesis was how all-encompassing yet ultimately useless it is. What it says about practice is true and important but the kicker at the end is “the comprehension of this practice” - how one is meant to attain that, rationally or otherwise, remains the true mystery.

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