A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.

 

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There is no spoon: The Matrix and Buddhist philosophy

In this video by The Film Theorists Youtube channel, a compelling plot theory is proposed for the movie The Matrix and the entire Matrix franchise created by the Wachowski Brothers. In this theory, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) and the movie’s heroes of Zion, the last refuge in the real world of free humans not enslaved by machines, are actually still trapped inside the Matrix. This explains Neo’s powers outside the Matrix that are seen in the later movies in the series.

However, I believe this interpretation misses many important elements. For instance, the Matrix itself isn’t real either. It’s just a movie.

Did I blow your mind yet?

Here’s what I mean: these kind of plot-specific theories about the Matrix miss the symbolic character of the movie. I believe the Matrix should be interpreted not just as a science fiction movie with philosophical elements thrown in, but as a philosophical statement in and of itself. Why is Neo able to use his powers outside of the Matrix? Because its a movie! It’s all an illusion, and we as viewers are meant to see that Neo is just as imaginary as anything on screen. However, we participate in that illusion, even to the point of trying to make theories about the film in order to make it a consistent, logical reality. Sound familiar?

This isn’t just a metacommentary on film as a genre, some kind of ultimate fourth wall reference. In fact, the Matrix is simply a large commentary on the actual nature of reality itself, not the reality of the movie. In short, the point we should draw from characters like Morpheus doubting the reality of Zion is that “there is no spoon” also refers to “real” world.

The Matrix also evidently borrows from Buddhist metaphysical and philosophical concepts. This is not just idle speculation; it is evident from the directors’ comments and movie plot (not to mention the fact that Keanu Reeves is a Buddhist and starred as the Buddha in the movie Little Buddha). The bald orphan in robes who delivers the famous “there is no spoon” line is an obvious homage to Buddhist monks and the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness. More on emptiness later, but the proof is also in the words of the Wachowskis themselves. Take this quote from a 2003 interview to the directors when they were asked if Buddhism influenced making of the Matrix:

“Yes. There’s something uniquely interesting about Buddhism and mathematics, particularly about quantum physics, and where they meet. That has fascinated us for a long time.”

The intersection of Buddhism and physics has fascinated many scholars, including the Dalai Lama himself, who wrote about it in his book The Universe in a Single Atom. What is usually discussed in this context is the uncanny resemblance of several interpretations of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. Emptiness, or the lack of inherent existence, is a fundamental Buddhist concept that essentially posits that reality itself is an illusion, in that because all things are temporary and subject to time, nothing really exists independently and thus nothing has any fundamental substance. This seems to be born out by our modern understandings of physics at the most elementary level. Not only are particles like atoms already made up of 99.9% empty space in which a few elementary particles are whizzing about, but these elementary particles themselves are non-substantive because their nature as particles or waves is dependent on a variety of factors (in some interpretations, even whether they are observed or not, although the technical meaning of the term observation is still subject to intense debate among physicists). This physical phenomenon is known as wave-particle duality. Wave-particle duality is also supplemented by the famous Schrodinger equation, made famous by the Schrodinger’s cat analogy in which an elaborate quantumly-determined death trap is set up so that a cat in a box can be dead and alive at the same time. This fundamental indeterminacy of the quantum world (referred to as the probability functions of quantum particles), among many other features and theories of the quantum world, is why Buddhist teachers and physicists have been able to have many prolific discussions. It has also led some physicists to propose that “fundamental particles” do not actually exist: they are merely human interpretations of the strange and indeterminate world of the smallest scales of reality.

However, the Matrix does not only reference the quantum world. In its “levels of reality” schema, the Matrix sets up a situation in which worlds or dimensions are inside of other worlds, layers upon layers of illusion. This bears a striking resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of interpenetration, which is explored most distinctly in the Buddhist scripture called the Gandavyuha Sutra, a part of the larger Avatamsaka Sutra. Interpenetration is most clearly represented by the metaphor of Indra’s Web, the god Indra’s infinite web of jewels in which jewel reflects all the other jewels. This infinite net of reflections creates the eternal illusion of reality itself. To put his metaphor in the language of the Matrix, there is no escape from the Matrix because we are eternally caught in Indra’s Net. Indeed, the Matrix is Indra’s Web. Who created the Matrix (Reality itself)? There is no answer because all is illusory: this is the answer we are given over and over by the sutras, the Zen patriarchs, the Tibetan tantras, and all Buddhist masters and yogis of the ages. Another way of expressing this ineffable truth is “nirvana is beyond concepts”. 

Something else that must be explored is the idea, foundational to Mahayana, of non-duality. Non-duality is most eloquently articulated in texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. In these texts, such ambiguous and mind-breaking teachings (for a Buddhist) are explicated, such as:

“There is no Nirvana, there is no Buddha, there is no Dharma [teachings]”

“Nirvana is Samsara [impure cyclic existence, our world]”

These paradoxical teachings seem to imply that the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, including the promise of freedom, are also fundamentally illusory. Therefore, is Enlightenment, the goal and promise of Buddhism, a lie? No: rather, enlightenment is realizing that nothing like Enlightenment exists as such. This must not only be temporarily realized, but integrated into the fabric of one’s mind, and all subtle traces extinguished.

How does this parallel with the Matrix? In the theory offered by the Film Theorists channel, the people of Zion (a Biblical reference to the promised land) are unaware that they are also in a dream, a fantasy created by the Matrix. In the movie, we are led to believe that this is a nefarious plot, an elaborate version of the Cartesian “brain in a vat” problem (how do I know if I’m not just a brain in a vat somewhere?). While the Matrix absolutely draws on Western philosophy as well as Eastern philosophy, the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the later movies are best explained not as a plot-hole or an in-canon larger technological conspiracy, but as a purposeful philosophical statement by the Wachowskis. Thus, the people of Zion are still metaphorically attached to the illusion that they exist, and so are we. 

And so, the most abiding question of film theorists and Matrix fans, “what is the Matrix?” can be definitively answered in philosophical context:

The Matrix is you. It is everything. It is Us, trapped by our own illusions and misinterpretations of reality. We are the ones who should take the “red pill”, while realizing that in reality, “there is no red pill”. In the words of the Heart Sutra:

” Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness…in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no visual form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no object of touch, and no phenomenon. There is no eye element and so on up to and including no mind element and no mental consciousness element. There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to and including no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Similarly, there is no suffering, origination, cessation, and path; there is no exalted wisdom, no attainment, and also no non-attainment.”

There is no You, no Me, and there is no Matrix either.

What should we take from this? I believe there are many answers. One, I believe that we should take what the makers of movies who have something to say about us, about our world, more seriously, even if what is offered on the screen is an illusion. On the one hand, the general viewer must be faulted for not taking the movie seriously enough, or seen in another view, for taking it too seriously (as a coherent story with a narrative that must make sense). The way we watch movies is thus reflective of society as a whole and the way we perceive reality: it can therefore be changed and is not necessarily inherent. The Matrix should therefore also be seen as a cultural commentary, and there are many layers (particularly with respect to the effects of technology on society) that should be explored in more detail, perhaps by other commentators. However, I believe that the proverbial heart of the Matrix lies with its timeless message about reality: that things are not as they appear.

Or are they? It all depends on your point of view.

Check out my other article on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy

 

 

 

What does it mean to deterritorialize?

“For essential reasons: the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and of writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historicometaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure. I do not say the end. The idea of science and the idea of writing—therefore also of the science of writing—is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned.”  –Derrida, Of Grammatology

It was Deleuze and Derrida who almost simultaneously recognized that writing or code inheres in the fabric of more than modern civilization- the code of a computer, genetic code, military secret code, the code of the law, etc. etc. Is this only because linguistic signs and metaphors permeate discourse itself- language not being able to escape language- or is this ontologically actually the case? One would probably go with the former at first in non-anthropomorphic cases, but what if information itself somehow is ontologically primary in reality? Quantum information theory says as much.

By referring to genetic material as code, what do we mean? We mean there is a sequence, a series of particular entities that in one combination produce one biological or chemical product, and in another produce another. The key aspects here of code are combinations, sequences, and corresponding production. Is the key aspect of this the sequence itself, the combination? No, it is reproduction, or corresponding production. Code reproduces itself. A code is stable, as a key or cipher it remains constant so that variable productions can occur. If we continue to use DNA as a model, we should recognize here the differences between transcription, translation, and replication. Code here reproduces itself but also produces new entities by means of mirror replication or half replication. Correspondingly, a signifier refers to other signifiers in the chain of meaning, referring to the original code in a semi-autonomous but never completely redundant way. Redundancy itself eliminates or reduces the possibility for errors, for mutations in intended meaning.

As a professional copy editor, I am told by my company to eliminate redundancy, but I have found that a certain amount of redundancy fills a paper out. There is a distinct difference between “to verb” and “in order to verb”, despite it being categorized as an “inflated phrase”. Of course there can be too much redundancy- this kind of redundancy would probably be eliminated quickly by helpful “editing proteins” in DNA. But the problem is that we are always operating on several codes at once- one’s professional code, one’s ethical code, one’s personal code, one’s biological code (sometimes my code tells me to sleep instead of writing long blog posts in the middle of the night). While we are slaves to our code, our pro-gram (credit to Derrida), we are also in some sense the programmers. Perhaps what it means to be human is that we are given a certain program, namely ourselves, and it is our task to hack it as much as humanly possible without “shorting the circuit”. Perhaps this is what Foucault drove at with the “limit experience”. Perhaps this is what Deleuze truly meant by deterritorialization, with all the warnings that come attached. Deleuze always formulated deterritorialization as a decoding explicitly. One only gets out of a territory by means of a decoding of a certain flow of X.

Oh boy, have we entered into the terrain of cliches? One hears the right-wing all the time say we need to “deprogram” ourselves from liberal hogwash. Cue the Matrix metaphors about taking the red pill! Here’s the problem with a cliche- it did mean something at one point. Yes, getting out of your territory is getting out of your comfort zone. So what? Its still good advice. But think about why its your comfort zone. Perhaps you have comfort zones you haven’t discovered yet- that’s a nice thought. For instance, I have recently found a passion for chess that I never thought I would have. I at one point never thought I would be into French postmodernism, but here I am.

And so, we come full circle to the quote at the beginning of the essay. What is Derrida saying is occurring? A deterritorialization of the whole field of language. Or, more precisely, the beginning of the end of a certain era having something to do with language. What he was referring to is also called the “Death of Speech”.

Is this Death of Speech a bad thing? Death can also be a rebirth, but here we should avoid the temptation to avoid historical and dialectical cliches. No- time really is linear. A death of speech cannot be reversed. But what is Derrida even referring to? A fundamental change in the nature of human communication. This fundamental change corresponds with changes in how we perceive communication itself, and thus, in social being itself.

Welcome to the Digital Age- stay tuned for more developments!

There’s no celebration of Posthumanism here, only a diagnosis of our present predicament. A historicometaphysical epoch is determinant, after all. Try as you might, one thing is for certain- there is no escaping the present.

Is there anything new I can offer to essentially the hodgepodge of already formulated ideas? Only the drawing of relationship, only creating the map at the edges of which we find the signifier for something more, a new direction. We have our web of concepts: code, Death of Speech, deterritorialization, and the modern importance of the digital or cybernetic. This has all been explored ad nauseam by Deleuze in Societies of Control, by Derrida, but lets dive head in, shall we?

There are two aspects to consider more closely- the prediction of the development of the current historicometaphysical epoch and outlining any concepts that we appear to have missed. Deleuze has indicated that deterritorialization by way of formation of new subjectivities through creative experimentation can counteract the effect of digital societies of control. In other words, in an era filled with new cybernetic mechanisms bent on shaping one’s self to be more penetrable to capitalist exploitation and marketing, through stimuli and response control in a Pavlovian sense, Desire itself is the target of an individual’s subjectivity.

Therefore, my recommendations for future areas of “research” or personal subjectivation: if the problem for forming a truly individual subjectivity is outside stimuli that creates and forms Desire, there are two possible avenues: the “ascetic” route of personal denial and the “tantric” route of shaping and playing with one’s desires.

If we truly want to reshape the world, we don’t only need to “look in the mirror”. We need to reevaluate our (shared) individual and collective desires.

So we have come to a useful conceptual distinction: individual and collective Desire. Nothing that hasn’t been said before, but a useful one. But perhaps more originally, I have offered a distinction between an “ascetic” and “tantric” route to subjectivation, and suggested a dichotomy. I am always intrigued by the concept of “unplugging” in the modern world: going a month without TV, etc. It would be difficult for me, I admit. I think this is exactly what our world needs right now. But I also believe that there must be a libidinal substitute for any kind of ascetic denial. TV is great! So if you plan on getting rid of TV for a month- make sure you are going somewhere nice and won’t be bothered it, or are planning on reading some good books. In a society that encourages binge watching, I purposefully try to watch an episode of my favorite shows per day.

Or, you could “go to the end”- the tantric route- use Desire to eliminate desire. Binge watch until you can go without TV for a year. Watch everything you want to watch, and then get sick of it. This route is NOT for the faint of heart!

And if you are interested in collective liberation, and think me talking about binge watching won’t effect anything, that I’m “feeding into the neoliberal paradigm”, think twice: I’m one step ahead of you! In an era of atomized individuals, we have to work on ourselves first. In other words: we have to deatomize. How? Before coming together in a big chemical reaction that will shake the foundations of the earth, we have to be chemically prepared. I’m saying- if you want a revolution, a political one, it needs to start by recognizing that our current industrial way of life is in the long term completely unsustainable. And no, Zizek, it won’t all be fixed by green energy and luxury space communism.

This kind of experimentation with alternative lifestyles, particularly associated with the green movement, is quickly co-opted by the capitalist hegemony. As Zizek points out, the true alternative is a liberatory framework for society, but this isn’t only in terms of changing the nature of production. Taking down consumer society starts with taking down the DESIRE FOR CONSUMER SOCIETY.

Unfortunately, we have to recognize that despite the enormous conveniences of modern capitalist society for the First World, it has never been that way for the Third World. And we can’t avoid what’s coming.

Yes, we do have to deprogram ourselves, and fast. The ocean is rising

A different kind of Marxist

 

To be a Leninist today is to be an anachronism. So why Marxism? What even is Marxism?

To be a Marxist today is to recognize the structural violence of the global economic system and to want to change it. The problem, however, is the same is in our time as it was in Vladimir Lenin’s time- What is to be Done?

Many today are fed up with the democratic system, and believe it can never deliver the promises of a better society. They believe that without changing the fundamentals of the economic system, our society will perpetuate inequality and violence. It is tempting therefore to view the entire concept of democracy itself as suspect, a bourgeois ideal, and nothing more.

It is this Marxian orthodoxy of the 19th century that we should reject, along with the concept of the dictatorship of the proleteriat. We must own up to the fact that the legacy of 20th century communism was one of abject failure.

The pundits on Fox News like to say the “Left” are dictator apologists, from Nicolas Maduro to King Jong Un, while forgetting to mention that the US currently backs dictatorial regimes and war criminals around the world such as the Saudi kingdom and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. It is tempting to go the route of “naive realpolitik” and believe, like Henry Kissinger does, that democracy is just a word, and believe that the ideal of democracy is in practice unattainable, because the majority of society can decide to democratically oppress the minority, as was the case in Hitler’s Germany.

Therefore, I have to argue against some of the claims made by Zizek himself in his book Did Someone Say Totalitarianism? Zizek is admirable for pointing out the hypocrisy of the West, particularly America, in claiming to support freedom and democracy, while maintaining always that 20th century communism was a miserable failure. However, in this book, he makes to many concessions to actually-existing socialism, such as the argument that the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe lived a decent life except for lack of political freedom, etc. Of course I am somewhat oversimplifying his argument here, but I find it strange that Zizek seems to oscillate between outright defense of the Soviet Union and Maoist China and complete and total anti-Stalinism. This article he wrote on Tibet illustrates what is wrong with his conception of the reality under actually-existing socialism:

http://zizek.uk/tibet-dream-and-reality/

In this article, Zizek repeats the old adage that Tibet was a feudal economy probably better off under China anyway, and that most of the violence that occurred in Tibet derived from Tibetans themselves. This falls in line with his narrative that one should stay away from Orientalism and “dreams of utopia” if we want to get closer to the truth.

The reality is much more complicated. This empirically false statement exemplifies what is wrong with Zizek’s critique:

“The Cultural Revolution which ravaged the Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s was not imported by the Chinese. Fewer than a hundred of the Red Guards came to Tibet with the revolution, and the young mobs burning the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan”.

It is sad to see Zizek himself fall to such obvious Maoist propaganda, when he see is so deft in seeing through Stalinist propaganda. Elsewhere, Zizek is critical of Mao Zedong, and believes its problematic to view “Eastern communism” or “Latin American communism” or Third World communism in general in a kind of fetishized way. Therefore, it is doubly surprising he didn’t fact-check this story, also given his consistent critiques of the Khmer Rouge, another Communist regime that oppressed and committed genocide against a majority Buddhist populous.

The reality is, as actual scholars of Tibetan history have pointed out time and again, that most of the monasteries were destroyed directly by the PLA during the initial invasion, as demonstrated by forensic evidence from the mass graves. It is here worth quoting Tsering Shakya, author of “Blood in the Snows”, at length for the actual historical evidence:

Wang’s assertion that most of the destruction in Tibet took place during the Cultural Revolution also fails to tally with the historical record. As he himself admits, the monasteries and temples had been emptied long before, and ‘the PLA had bombed them as it re-established control’ after the 1959 Rebellion. In fact, the destruction of religious sites in Eastern Tibet—outside the TAR—had begun in 1956, under the guise of suppressing local uprisings in Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan. In May 1962, the Panchen Rinpoche submitted a long memorandum to the Party Central Committee, detailing the terrible failures of Chinese government policies throughout the entire Tibetan region. Two passages prove categorically that much of Tibet’s cultural heritage had already been destroyed. The Panchen Rinpoche writes:

Our Han cadres produced a plan, our Tibetan cadres mobilized, and some people among the activists who did not understand reason played the part of executors of the plan. They usurped the name of the masses, they put on the mask [mianju] of the masses, and stirred up a great flood of waves to eliminate statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas [reliquaries]. They burned countless statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas, threw them into the water, threw them onto the ground, broke them and melted them. Recklessly, they carried out a wild and hasty [fengxiang chuangru] destruction of monasteries, halls, ‘mani’ walls and stupas, and stole many ornaments from the statues and precious things from the stupas.

Referring only to the area within the boundaries of the TAR when he speaks of ‘Tibet’—the situation was probably worse in other Tibetan districts—the Panchen Rinpoche goes on:

Before democratic reform, there were more than 2,500 large, medium and small monasteries in Tibet. After democratic reform, only 70 or so monasteries were kept in existence by the government. This was a reduction of more than 97 per cent. Because there were no people living in most of the monasteries, there was no-one to look after their Great Prayer Halls [da jing tang] and other divine halls, or the lodgings of the monks. There was great damage and destruction, both by man and otherwise, and they were reduced to the point of collapse, or beyond. [2]

This memorandum to the Central Committee was written four years before the Cultural Revolution.

There is no need to resort to the kind of cheap psychological analysis Wang adduces to explain why Tibetans turned against the sacred symbols of their religion during the Cultural Revolution. The real reasons are far more straightforward. One of these lay in the Party’s need to restrict the inter-factional struggle in an area which, as we have seen, was highly sensitive militarily. As soon as things looked like getting out of hand the Central Committee issued an order that, in these zones, the struggle should not be formulated as a fight between the ‘two lines’. Such conflict was thus essentially confined to the towns, especially Lhasa. The result was that, in most rural areas of Tibet, the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution was shifted away from the battle between the two factions and directed instead towards an attack on tradition, under the call to smash ‘The Four Olds’. In this effort, no stone was left unturned. The Red Guards may not have entered far into the countryside but CCP rule penetrated every crevice of the vast Himalayan landscape. The Party’s hegemony was so deeply entrenched at this time that even the way a peasant slept was said to indicate ideological orientation—someone who lay with their head towards the west was accused of turning away from Chairman Mao, since he was ‘the Sun that rises in the East’. One of the crimes of which the Panchen Rinpoche was accused during his trial by Red Guards in Beijing was of having anti-Party and reactionary dreams. (The Red Guards here, it should be noted, were not Tibetans but Chinese students.)

 

It is Zizek who here demonstrates his own implicit bias against traditional societies, believing the only thing about Tibetan society that is true was that it was a virtual hell on Earth. This is obviously a different kind of Orientalism, but Zizek, in his infinite wisdom about how we should dispel all illusions, has obviously never talked with an actual survivor of the Tibetan diaspora, or talked with actual Tibetan scholars.

It is inconceivable to him that the Dalai Lama legitimately inspires people around the world, or that Buddhist spirituality is deeply felt by believers and native Tibetans. He can only conceive of it in gross orthodox Marxist sense of “false consciousness”.

So the question continues to be, still, why Marxism?

If Marxism can embrace a truly non-violent spirit, and forget its ideology of “the ends justifying the means”, then maybe true structural violence can be eliminated in a peaceful way. Given Zizek’s embrace of redefining Marxism, revolution, and old Marxist lexicon, it is surprising and painful that he does not apply the same standard to Maoist China. 20th century communism failed to protect ethnic minorities, failed to protect political freedom, and in general failed to deliver to the utopia of equality it promised. If we are to change our economic system for the betterment of humanity, we must not allow demagogues and strongmen to lead us down the road of repressive regimes like the USSR, North Korea, and China, where currently they have almost abandoned any pretense of creating economic equality. I continue to argue Tibet is the theoretical cornerstone of realizing the problem with 20th century Communism.

 

Preliminary thoughts on Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies

More and more when I delve into the subject of the interpretation of science this question keeps popping up: What is Reality? Does Reality exist? Moreover, does Objective Reality exist? Are those two terms different?

Now often, I jump the gun, I have barely scraped the introduction of Latour’s Pandora’s Hope and already I know what he is going to say (probably because I read the back of the book). I’m also simultaneously watching a talk by string theorist Leonard Susskind and reading the opening chapters of a book currently being written by quantum physicist Ron Garret. But I need to get my thoughts out on paper before I lose them, or they change given new information. Here goes:

Latour was inspired to write his book when a psychologist asked him “Do you believe in reality?” The intention behind the question is obvious- are you some kind of postmodernist that doesn’t believe in reality at all, undermining all of science? Latour answered of course he does (followed up by asking what’s your point) and he was offended because he thought scientists should understand that those doing science studies were trying to make the sciences even more objective. Then Latour realized the political dimensions of saying that scientists are fallible human creatures, etc…If I am stretching or misrepresenting what Latour thinks, I apologize, but I’m previously acquainted with his views in We have Never Been Modern.

Latour asks on the back cover- why did the idea of an independent reality free of human interaction emerge in the first place?

Here’s my answer to that, as yet uninfluenced by what Latour has said:

The idea of reality as independent of human interference is essentially a Western construct, necessary for the very existence of science in the first place. It was basically a postulate used to try investigating reality itself, to the point where reality and objective reality are synonymous.

However, now scientists have to deal with “observer bias” and all sorts of phenomena in which human interference changes the parameters of what’s being observed. It’s no secret that everything is connected- it’s intuitive! This doesn’t imply anything strange or mystical at all, its very simple. Step in a river, and its a different river than it would have been if you had not stepped in it (maybe not by much, but it is different). This principle goes for social sciences like psychology and anthropology as well as the hard sciences such as physics.

Therefore, quantum physicists, through various phenomenon that have to take into account the physical effects of observation, and the various laws that come out of that like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, were the first to abandon this notion of objective reality, or reality independent of human “observation” (I clear up some of the New Age misinterpretations of this in another post). What I’m getting at is that some scientists may be turned off to the notion of denying that there is such a thing as objective reality because our terms have been conflated. We are essentially talking at cross purposes. The other reason may be that like Latour says, it threatens their very reason for existence.

To me this is not rocket science at all. This is because from a young age I have learned the all the terms of Buddhist metaphysics, namely, dependent arising, interdependence, cause and conditions, the lack of inherent existence of any phenomenon, etc. This last one, the lack of inherent existence of any phenomenon (shunyata), or the lack of independent existence of any phenomenon, is what the lack of something called “objective reality” I think really means. No need to invoke general relativity at all. Its perfectly clear to anyone given enough thought, and every single student of Buddhism has had to be led through this “insight” meditation. Through a certain traditional “thought experiment” the student comes to realize that because no object is independent of any other, the designation of that object as an object as such is relative. This is the literal term that is used! In Buddhist metaphysics, there is absolute reality (in which there is no things as such) and relative reality, in which there are things that exist relative to other things and relative to our minds.

Maybe its because I have been sort of inculcated in Buddhist ways of thinking, namely the Middle Way school of thinking common to Tibetan Buddhism, that I find these debates about whether there is reality outside of human interaction generally very boring.

And this comes back to my original “critique” of Latour. My critique of Latour and company wasn’t that I disagreed with them- I do agree with them! It’s that the way they come up with their conclusions is basically reinventing the wheel. I contend that the only reason we were able to get outside this Western philosophical frame of reference (starting with Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc) is exposure to the non-West. It’s well known that Schopenhauer was one of the first to study Buddhism in Europe seriously based on new translations, and Schopenhauer was one of Nietzsche’s primary influences, etc.

What I am saying is this- if Latour came to his conclusions independently using science studies and his own “genealogy of thought”, then I give him all the credit in the world. A quick look through his index reveals references to Foucault, Leroi-Gourhan, Lyotard, etc. All people who have influenced me- but all I’m saying is that Latour is still using in what me and fellow philosophy blogger Landzek at Constructive Undoing are attempting to call the “scholar’s paradigm”, which is basically a reliance on Authors and Authorities with a capital A (something Foucault and Derrida, incidentally enough, wrote a lot about).

So what does Buddhist philosophy have to say about independent objective reality directly? Buddhist philosophy, before talking about reality in general, usually approaches the topic of emptiness of inherent existence by way of talking about selflessness, or the lack of an inherent self or “I”. The primary Buddhist philosophical text (as opposed to a strictly religious text or sutra) that relates to this concept is the 7th century philosopher Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way. In the Eighteenth Chapter of that treatise, Nagarjuna states that:

“If the aggregates were the self, it would be produced and disintegrate. If it were different from the aggregates, it would lack the aggregates’ characteristics”. 

This is a formulation of emptiness in terms of selflessness. In the commentary it explains that this verse means that because there is one self, because the self is made up of many aggregates, then it cannot be identical to its parts. Similarly, if it something completely different than the parts, then it would lack the characteristics of the parts. Seeing that humans lack an inherent identity is much easier to show then an object’s lack of inherent existence, however.

Nagarjuna goes on to say that:

“Whatever arises relying on something else, is from the outset not that. Nor is it other than that. Thus it is neither non-existent nor permanent.”

This is a statement about causality. A cause is neither completely identical to nor completely different than its effect, because the cause transforms into the effect. In the words of the commentary on the text, “dependently arising nominally imputed phenomena  are neither inherently one with nor inherently different from their causes and conditions or parts and their mode of existence is between the two extremes in that they are neither totally non-existent nor do they have any reified existence”.

This great tradition of the Middle Way (Madhyamika) school of philosophy founded by Nagarjuna was studied for at least 4 years by every monk in many great monasteries of Tibet. Maybe you will say that I am appealing to another kind of authority in asserting that Buddhist philosophy has something to say about this problem of objective reality. My biases aside, I can tell you that these fundamental truths are not dependent (funny enough) on any religion, they are truths about reality itself. But Buddhism has and will continue to have more to say on this subject precisely because it has been the topic of intellectual for well nigh two millennia. The idea that they were just all sitting around chanting in monasteries for two thousand years is a false one based on lack of exposure to the tradition. Many other  Eastern schools of thought have other things to say about this, namely Zen, Taoism, etc. It’s the lack of a single reference to Eastern philosophy in something like Latour that really bugs me, and it just furthers our Western mythology of scientific objectivity that Latour is trying, whether he likes it or not, to undermine.

Despite all I’ve said, I’m sure that I will thoroughly enjoy Latour’s book. To be accepted, Latour generally has to go through certain conventions and hoops, and I perfectly understand that. His project of science studies is something different than a rethinking of traditional Western ontology through Buddhist categories. My hope is that one day the name Nagarjuna will be cited like Hegel in an academic bibliography. Then maybe one day my job as an anthropologist has been accomplished.

 

A collection of aphorisms

I am going to do this post in Nietzschean aphorisms because, I feel like it. They are all connected, but cover a wide range of topics.

  1.  All paradoxes about the infinite are not really paradoxes- all seemingly illogical conclusions that come from infinities and the mathematics of infinite series only seem that way, but actually there is a deeper intuition at play. The infinite must contain all within itself and yet be able to add more- that is the definition after all of infinite. Correspondingly, all mathematics about infinities is not fascinating, just simply boring.
  2.  This is what Nietzsche meant by the fact that “mystical explanations are thought to be deep, the truth is they are not even shallow.” However this aphorism itself will be misunderstood by those who think that Nietzsche only thought that religion tricked the foolish. Nietzsche elsewhere in his corpus praised the surface of things, the shallowness, as opposed to pretensions of being “deep”. Therefore, paradoxically, Nietzsche’s statement is a praise of mysticism, or rather, a recognition that those who have “mystical insight” only have relative insight to the “herd”.
  3. One could misinterpret Nietzsche’s above-mentioned aphorism as pretentious, as a claim to immediate understanding of all metaphysical insights. But rather, Nietzsche understood that mystical understandings of the world precisely work from taking what is everyday ordinary experience and making it uncommon. We all have experienced those moments (which may be profoundly uncomfortable) where suddenly we see something we thought we knew very well and suddenly it seems frightening or strange.
  4. Human beings only learn through experience. The constant sensory flux of information, combined with the overwhelming amount of stuff that is in the world and the fact that the world is always changing, means we only learn through repetition. (Oh there’s that thing again- what was it called? Cow!)
  5. This is what Tantric Buddhism or Zen means by the fact that ordinary mind is the basis for everything, or rather, why the ordinary itself is brought out as something to be exalted. Because behind what we view everyday, if we alter our perception, are entire worlds. Like in the scene at the beginning of Blue Velvet by David Lynch, where a dead man is laying on the ground, and they gradually begin to zoom into his ear, and one begins to see the bugs crawling on the grass. Behind our normal human way of viewing the world, there are things that are normally beyond our perception.
  6. Much of the unseen world has been conquered by humanity, through microscopes, telescopes, infrared detectors, or simply exploring places that were ignored, forgotten, or previously uncharted in our own world, like the bottom of the ocean. Most of the world is now aware of things that are invisible- how incredible is that! Things like viruses, bacteria, etc. Therefore, one day, humanity will not only be aware of levels below that of the microbiological (the protein, DNA), but one day organic chemistry will also become ubiquitous, even though it is generally still specialized knowledge.
  7. Most of the world is aware of the atom, probably because of the advances in nuclear physics that led to nuclear reactors and the atomic bomb. But the quantum world is so new of a discovery, that humanity hasn’t had time to situate it into its understanding of the world. With discoveries of phenomena like the Planck length, we have seemingly hit the bottom of the barrel. History should show us that there is no bottom of the barrel. The human can transcend the human, but not through merging with technology. Humanity will simply no longer apply to what we have become.
  8. Through all of the change that humanity has undergone, we are still mortal beings of flesh and blood for whom death is no abstract concept, but an ever-pressing reality. Science will not save us from this. But perhaps now the difference is this- in days gone by humanity accepted the infinite, made peace with it. Now it stands as a dark chasm that is both threatening and a challenge waiting to be explored. The question now is- will we, or have we, already reached those limits? Is knowledge of humanity’s theoretical limitations a prerequisite for a full understanding of what it means to be human?
  9. Heidegger undertook a project of full ontological understanding of Being, through the lens of understanding humanity, or Dasein. One was necessary for the other. Dasein is fundamentally, for Heidegger, a being towards death. If this is Dasein’s fundamental nature, can other aspects of Dasein be changed? Our lifespan? The way we act in the world? The way we relate to each other as a species?
  10. I think of Star Trek every time I want to understand what humans could be someday. The Vulcans are just a picture of what we could become, a society wholly based on logic, with an understanding of who they are in the cosmos. As knowledge continues to build over time, could we not, in some sci-fi future, approximate the Vulcans? Couldn’t all of humanity be given, from the time of birth, the tools to go through the world and all knowledge from prior generations, like the Vulcans do in their Science Academy? In my mind, what humanity has yet to achieve is a kind of worldwide planetary society.
  11. A worldwide planetary society would not be homogeneous, or tell everyone what to do. But it would instead allow the entire world to thrive, and create an end to things like hunger through automatic restitution of lost crops due to natural disasters, etc. It would require basically a UN that we pay taxes to, and is fully functional with no dominance of one nation (cough cough the United States). Only then could humanity look back collectively on our dark past and basically say- what the hell happened?
  12. Zizek is right when we say we need to go further and not admire local organization. We need new international solutions to our problems- international laws with real teeth, levels above the state level that can coordinate things with a degree of actual consistency. As it is, our fledgling attempt at world order has failed- it did not stop Rwanda, it did not Bosnia, or Darfur. And it certainly won’t stop Syria, because we have yet to let go of the doctrine of national sovereignty

What is Love? (baby don’t hurt me)

So let’s get one thing out of the way- the title of my blog is Amorinoblog because that’s just my last name. But I think it was Jung who said that names sometimes direct the course of a person’s life in unseen ways. The deep unconscious definitely exists, that’s one thing I know for a fact through my experiences as a person. My unconscious is constantly operating and making connections for me and directing my life in ways I never consciously could. But a friend recently drew my attention to the fact that my blog could be read as “amor (love) in blog”. Now that’s something.

My last name is Portuguese in origin, and it translates to cupid or little love, the diminutive form of love. I don’t know the origin of this name or why it was the name of a family in Portugal, but I’ve always felt that my name has a certain guiding role for me or spiritual kind of power. At least personally. In Tibetan culture, indeed most cultures outside of the West, names have power, they are more directly attached to things in the world, their meanings aren’t obscure or etymological. But using Tibetan/Bhutanese culture as an example, children are named after holy or auspicious things such as jewels (Pema) and holy sceptres (Dorje). Sometimes they are just named Karma, pretty straightforward. Name is destiny. Tenzin Gyatso, the name of the Dalai Lama, literally means Ocean of Wisdom.

So what is love? Love for most of us is the personal feeling of loving specifically another person. It is based on certain characteristics about a person, based on familial familiarity, on things like kinship or friendship. Is love these things? On a relative level, the answer has to be yes. Simply “letting go” of these attachments often doesn’t work or is detrimental. But is love an attachment?

First of all, in my mind, there can be attachment that mutually fulfills two people, and attachment that is essentially negative in character. But the fundamental insight that the Buddha had was that love is based on the desire for permanence, a permanence that cannot ultimately be satisfied. Attachment leads to suffering. This does not mean that breaking attachments does not lead to suffering as well.

Is it possible to love without being attached? I think this is the meaning of karuna, or the Sanskrit term for compassion. In ultimate karuna, there is no desire for ANY kind of repayment in one’s love. Most love is selfish- it wants to be loved. Kind of like the John Lennon Love is Real- “Love is wanting to be loved”. Well hate to disagree with John, but real love does not need anything in return. A mother’s love approaches this kind of love, it is a good model for thinking about it, but even a mother desires her son or daughter to repay them with kindness, and this should be our desire as well. But this should, this ethical dimension to love, is what is lacking I think in people’s everyday understanding of love.

Christian love, brotherly love- this of course approaches this concept as well. But ultimately, even Christian dogma reproduces the idea that God is a “jealous” god (maybe more Judaism, but its still in the Bible, so sorry Slavoj). Now from a Buddhist point, the idea that God is jealous is very strange. The whole idea of divinity in Eastern religion is based on the idea that one has achieved liberation from negative emotion. The essential insight of Buddhist psychology is the idea of the near enemy. Love has as its near enemy jealousy, determination has as its near enemy stubbornness, and so on. Maybe the Nichomachean ethics is like this as well, but I’m not sure.

So maybe it could be phrased like this- love is a desire, but Love is a desire to not only help, but free any living being from suffering.

It is the identification of love purely with personal happiness that has caused many problems in our culture, even beyond material structural problems. It has caused us to ignore our neighbor, it has created callousness in the upper classes. This is why Jesus said “I come with the sword”, as well as the famous parable about the eye of the needle- because his message was one of righteous indignation at the treatment of the poor.

At the end of the day, its not that our understanding of love has to be reintegrated into any particular sort of Theology, as fundamentalists claim. True love for me actually isn’t God’s love, unless it is as an ideal. True love is compassion for the suffering.

I also believe, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says in his book Not for Happiness, that we have to modify our Western idea of compassion as trying to materially aid the poor and the meek, the normal objects of compassion for probably most people. Ultimate highest compassion encompasses every single living thing, including our enemies, political or otherwise. For me this is a valuable lesson for leftist movements. We will never sway the masses with hatred. As much hate and resentment as we feel is justified for those that hoard resources at the expense of the “wretched of the Earth”, I feel fundamentally that the idea that revolution can only be achieved by violent revolution has to be wrong. For our mutual survival, it has to be wrong- the stakes are ultimately too high, in an age of nuclear weapons, to repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. Non-violence is the solution of the 21st century, where it was only a glimmer of hope in the 20th.

To me, one of the best exemplars and expressions of love in the recent past was Martin Luther King Jr. He represents for many people still today the hope and promise of a better tomorrow, a real fighter for social justice, who was not afraid to call out hypocrisy, but used his prophetic voice to advocate for a higher calling. It is people like MLK, Bishop Oscar Romero, the Dalai Lama- in short, advocates of Peace and Human Rights, who knew and advanced our notion of what love is. It is fitting that two of the people I just mentioned won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and one of them is in the process of becoming beatified as a saint.

I don’t want to turn this into a debate about non-violent vs. violent tactics of the oppressed- all I know is that despite certain gains made by violent revolution, they came at great cost, and often reproduced systems of oppression in the long run. Whether non-violent revolutions like the Indian revolution ultimately worked is a different story. But I know that our message now for how to change our world has to not only be practical but ethical. Non-violence or ahimsa is both practical and ethical. 

As the Dalai Lama says, “if you have to be selfish, be selfish wisely- love others!”

Also, kudos to the developers of wordpress for making it so that it saves your draft as you write. I accidentally swiped left on my keyboard and thought I lost my post. Saves a whole lot of frustration with that feature

OM MANI PADME HUM