shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

Divide Yourself; Then, Conquer

(note: I may use the gender-neutral “them,” “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)

I want to start by saying that I’m skeptical of Starhawk’s proposed solutions. It seems to me that her positions aren’t necessarily unique, or even rare, among social movements. But first, I want to try to outline the problem and move on from there.

It seems clear that there’s a tendency in the last several centuries toward various comminutions: mind separated from body, grace as something acquired from outside ourselves, Christianity’s division into various denominations, divisions of labor, the dissolutions of our communities, and so on and so forth. Something similar seems to have long been happening to the left. Some people seem to have concluded that there’s no hope for a much better future, so we should resign ourselves to making improvements on the margins. I should clarify what that means because it could easily be taken in a number of ways. On one hand, I think that most social activists feel that there’s no good reason to privilege some future utopia, in which everything is perfect, over the contemporaneous improvement of the conditions under which people—especially traditionally marginalized people—live. That said, the thesis that says that we should stop looking at solving broad issues of power and focus on smaller, less ambitious movements is one that finds its logical end in each of us fighting against the particular configuration of oppressions that each of us as individuals feels, in solidarity with everyone else. Such an approach would, then, fail to recognize that it’s these particularized struggles that is the very cause for the oppressions that each of us feels. That is, we all help to constitute and reproduce power, so we all have some ability to add or subtract to or from the oppressive systems that rule over our lives. Instead of coming to the conclusion that we need to band together if we’re ever going to stop any, let alone all, of these problems, what often seems to happen is that we come to the conclusion that we should divide our efforts up so that smaller and smaller groups fight for fewer and fewer demands—the hope perhaps being that all of these movements would collectively apply enough pressure to cause broader change while specifically-targeted actions could achieve more specific goals in the interim. Juris enumerates several of the various movements, their different strategies, their different concerns, where they come from, etc. There is something very modernistic in this approach and it also seems, on its face, self-defeating.

Starhawk proposes that we should “be loudly and clearly identified as antiracist and antisexist.” (194) I agree that we should do that, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a solution. She goes on to describe what good allyship means, including developing “personal, not just political relationships,” “raising the issue of diversity,” “sharing resources” and “opportunities,” “interrupting oppression,” and “offering support” (199). Again, I agree that these are things that we should do, but I’m not sure how they help to integrate these movements or to produce substantive changes.

It seems to me that if social movements were truly serious both about intersectional considerations and about effecting broad, meaningful change, one place to begin to try to solve some of these problems would be to try to restart efforts to desegregate US society. When whites and POC are living in the same communities, seeing their conditions as the same as one another’s, seeing their fates and plights as the same as one another’s, then this would increase the common ground on which they could stand and help to develop badly-needed social pidgins, patois, and creoles. In other words, what Starhawk’s chapter showed was that people from differing backgrounds often have such differing experiences, cultures, and languages that there’s no hope for effective communication and action. By trying to desegregate society, there could be more reason to hope for the overcoming of these obstacles, as opposed to simply trying harder, as Starhawk seems to be suggesting. (Not to intentionally be too Marxist-in-an-archaic-annoying-way, but it also occurs to me that the fight for less working hours is another one that seems long dead but potentially highly relevant.)

While I’m talking about possible solutions, it also occurs to me that part of the problem on the left has always been that the left goes stale. This makes perfect sense. How relevant are factory unions today, anyway? And, even when they did have power, they spent so much time trying to negotiate with capitalists in order to make workers happy that it’s easy to see how other social movements and social consciousnesses began to outflank these supposed leftists. My point is that this seems inevitable in a more general way. As radical entities come to have power, they tend to have to deal with elements closer to the center in order to make things happen. If someone spends all their time compromising with people they disagree with, ideas about what can be attained and what should be fought for might become what would seem more realistic, i.e. less radical.

I’m sympathetic to Grubačić’s view of anarchism as non-sectarian, non-vanguardist, and non-elitist (39-40), but it seems to me that his conception privileges academia and professional activists over more common manifestations of anarchism. I especially appreciated when he said “creating webs of solidarity can make all of them more powerful.” (40) In part, Grubačić seems to privilege intellectual engagement in order to make power more diffuse and more equitable—if everyone has access to a great amount of knowledge, then it becomes harder for any class of people to exploit another. I’m sympathetic to this argument, as well. His framing of positive and negative liberties seemed odd to me (41). Positive freedoms are those that allow some people to exploit resources (including labor) at the expense of other people’s access to those resources, often to the very serious detriment of those deprived. I don’t think that anarchism’s problem has likely ever been a lack of advocacy for positive freedom, even if I agree that a utopian imaginary is a good thing (41-2). I also might oppose him (he doesn’t go into sufficient detail) when he takes issue with the “the worse, the better” concept (42). I think that exactly what’s necessary now, perhaps more than ever, is to undercut the privilege of those who have the most. A society in which people were willing to give things up is one in which people could perhaps eventually be on level ground. In the long run, I propose that what we need isn’t so much to focus on greater empowerment; instead, we need more disempowerment, from which more equitable empowerment (and, therefore, necessarily greater empowerment for many of the disempowered) would follow. To be clear, the short-run is a different case, but Grubačić seems to be more focused on developing a long-term strategy. His love for Chomsky and the Enlightenment makes me nauseous.

“Emergence” made the point that the Zapatista movement is in dialogue with various movements around the world. It further expressed that there is a tendency for these movements to recognize the various ways by which unequal power distributions hurt various people in various ways, albeit that the various carryings out of these forms of oppression tend to carry similarities, as well. Especially, the forms of these oppressions’ beneficiaries are often common between the different forms of these oppressions. Juris argues similarly.

“Emergence: an irresistible global uprising.” We Are Everywhere. New York: Verso. 2003.

Grubačić, Andrej. “Towards Another Anarchism.” The World Social Form: Challenging empires. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. 35-43.

Juris, Jeffrey. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press. 2008. 27-60.

Starhawk. “Building a Diverse Movement.” Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. 2002. 179-200.

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Benjamin and Embodiment: How German Mourning Plays Respond to Alienations

(note: I may use non-gendered “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and/or “themselves” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)

 

On p. 138 of The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin seems to be arguing that one of the effects of Lutheranism is that focus on reality, experience, and embodiment become somewhat lost. He says,

By denying [good works] any special miraculous spiritual effect, making the soul dependent on grace through faith, and making the secular-political sphere a testing ground for a life which was only indirectly religious, being intended for the demonstration of civic virtues, it did, it is true, instill into the people a strict sense of obedience to duty, but in its great men it produced melancholy.

As people’s points of focus retreat into their thoughts, they lose some access to their sensorial lives. Thus, some forms of knowledge become devalued and less effectual. Here, it seems to me that Benjamin is taking issue, in part, with the Cartesian comminution of the person, the products of which are the mind and the body as the two distinct aspects of personhood. Associated with this, Benjamin sees people’s acts as going from being about trying to do good in the world to following rules. Included in those rules is compulsory faith—an act of thought. No longer do we rely on our sense of what is needed in the world around us and what we can do about it in order to achieve grace; now, we rely on regimes of authority and discipline. Later on the same page, Benjamin addresses this more directly: “Human actions were deprived of all value.” Value no longer lies in what we do, but in what we think. Returning to the earlier quotation, Benjamin sees this paradigm shift as dissatisfying, producing melancholy as we lose some of our sensorial experiences, as we become removed from our social environments, and as we lose some of our agencies to do good.

For Benjamin, it seems that the emergence of the German mourning play reflects something that was occurring in the lives of people during the Romantic period. Our lives have gone to ruin, requiring mourning for our shared loss of humanity (p. 139). Referring to the privileging of faith over lived experience, Benjamin claims, “[Life] feels deeply that it is not there merely to be devalued by faith. It is overcome by deep horror at the idea that the whole of existence might proceed in such a way. The idea of death fills it with profound terror. Mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask, and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it.” (p. 139) The mind and the body are again in tension: as the realm of human action is devalued, the mind responds by mourning the previously held value in human action. Albeit likely temporarily, the emotional response appears to set something right: the emotional reaction appears as a reintegration of the comminuted human. By responding in this emotional way to the loss of humanity, the mind and the body come together. The visceral response represents the embodiment of the anxieties felt because of the privileging of the rational. Here, the body and the mind become realigned, even if only briefly.

If we think about some of the other Benjamin readings that we have read (especially “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man”), it seems that Benjamin sees embodied acts as valuable in a way incommensurate with modernistic views that often privilege thought-acts over embodied ones. In the same way that he is wary of the privileging of thought over action, he sees introversion as carrying with it some danger: “The vain activity of the intriguer was regarded as the undignified antithesis of passionate contemplation, to which alone was attributed the power to release those in high places from the satanic ensnarement of history, in which the baroque recognized only the political aspect. And yet: introversion also led only too easily into the abyss.” (pp. 141-2) I suppose that this is because introversion might have a way of causing a person to retreat into themselves and to disengage from physical acts in the world, consistent with the concerns laid out above.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: NLB. 1977.

Decoloniality in Geography: The Legend of Humboldt and the Residue of the Enlightenment

Last week, an issue that we talked about was what Foucault described as “our impatience for liberty.” It seems to me that Dettelbach’s analysis of Humboldt speaks to this concern. Today, Humboldt is remarkable both for the innovations that he made, as well as his tendency toward Romanticism and toward wild conjectures (the eudiometer here comes to mind). Humboldt seems to have fashioned himself as a hero; as such, his rush to discoveries was not well moderated by patience or prudence. Relevant to the rest of this week’s readings, the patience and/or prudence that may have been missing were conspicuously (although, normally, for Humboldt’s time) absent in their treatments of non-European peoples.

Sidaway’s writing reminded me of an earlier discussion that we (as a class) had on the importance of historiographical analysis of geography as a discipline. If it were not clear before, I think that Sidaway makes a strong argument that this kind of analysis can help us to consider the biases in the discipline and to try, in ongoing and in future works, to account for those historical biases, and especially, the distortions and exclusions that might result from those biases. As Sidaway points out, even intentional attempts to criticize the products of these biases can have difficulties escaping them. Livingstone, in Sidaway’s view, glorifies Western exploration and geography, while failing to acknowledge so many non-Western contributions. This suggests that the West and the non-West are never completely separate, even if the story privileges one over the other. Perhaps, as Pratt seems to point out, they even construct each other mutually, as the conception of difference for the sake of exploitation of the non-West necessitates the flawed narratives referred to in Sidaway.

I take from Pratt’s definition of “planetary consciousness” that part of her argument lies on the notion that modernity does not, in the end, recognize a periphery to its center. Instead, everything is subsumed under modernistic epistemological frames (tangential, but perhaps helpful, is to think of how science’s relationship, under modern Christian theology, came to be thought of as congruent with God’s design [only for this to later seem to lead to some secularistic tendencies]). In this way, the whole world is subject to measurement and mastery, waiting to be exploited in whatever ways it might, even under protest, eventually allow (is not this measurement and mastery exploitative in the first place?). This seems to be governed by a kind of modernistic and tautological ethics by which whatever modernists do is right because it is modern and, therefore, progressive. Humboldt’s role (as well as others’ roles) in these transatlantic “progresses” was (were) direct and appears to have been complicated by these issues of modernity.

I find that Mignolo’s essay is helpful to me for thinking about coloniality and decoloniality. I find that the interior-exterior paradigm is helpful (p. 20), especially as Mignolo thinks of us as operating within modernity in order to try to analyze modernity. It seems to me that decoloniality often adopts a strategy of trying to analyze the interior from a position that is exterior. This could seem complicated, but my understanding is that this is sometimes accomplished by interrogating the terms that lie at the center of our modernistic thinking.

Also, the way that Mignolo highlights the importance of the Americas in developing capitalism made sense to me, as well as the development of what he calls “Creole double consciousness” (pp. 31-7). I also liked the way Mignolo ties these things together by looking at how the concepts of the Western Hemisphere and the North Atlantic are imposed. It seems to me that it is this imposition that is often at the root of the problem. Although one might argue that abstraction often produces problems, it seems to me that it is one thing to abstract in a way that foregrounds contingency and it is another thing to abstract in ways that impose atemporal absolutes, universals, and essentialities. I think that, when Mignolo talks about everyone’s inevitable, necessary responses to the “‘Westernization’ of the planet” (p. 51) it is this imposition with which Mignolo is taking issue.

Dettelbach, Michael. The Face of Nature: Precise Measurement, Mapping, and Sensibility in the Work of Alexander von Humboldt.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol. 30, No. 4. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. 1999. 473-504.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Mignolo, Walter. “Coloniality at Large: The Western Hemisphere in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 1, No. 2. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. 20o1. 19-54.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge. 1992. 1-143.

Sidaway, James Derrick. “The (re)making of the western ‘geographical tradition’: some missing links.” Area, Vol. 29. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. 72-80.

What is Progress? How the Enlightenment is Ruining Everything

It seems that, fundamentally, the Enlightenment is about an ideal of progress. I think that part of Foucault’s point is to question this notion of progress and to consider how the attitude of modernistic progress is what helps to define modernity.

Much of Kant’s work seems to have been predicated upon the idea that some people have greater value in society than do others. The way that he moralizes people’s positions in society is consistent with certain conceptions of Christian theology at the time (although he certainly seems to manipulate certain contemporaneous aspects of Christian understanding) and it seems to address certain needs of the state and of the bourgeoisie. By conceiving of human nature and human progress in certain ways, and by conceiving of human endeavors in terms of their usefulnesses, his call for rationalization seems to fit within broader ideas of what people should be and what they should do. For Kant, I think that there is a way by which he forms a social hierarchy based on those aspects of humanity that he privileges.

It seems to me that the develop of the Enlightenment, in some ways, might have been a response to the Crusades, the Reformation, British land reform, and colonialism and calls for further colonizations. If it helped to justify different forms of expropriation, discipline, formation of a working class, colonization, Patriarchy, and the like, then maybe it was through things like the idealization of progress and Kant’s call for us to “dare to know.” What these examples appear to have in common is that each is a case of some people’s liberties to effect personal progress (fulfillments of desires) to be privileged over other people’s liberties from harm (denials of harms, or, in some cases, even fulfillments of certain kinds of needs). Perhaps Kant’s racism is an indication that Kant’s philosophical positions were necessarily bound with the rationalization of formations of privilege and underprivilege. Reflective of these unequal sets of privileges, it seems to me that the Enlightenment may have always already been about mastery of the universe as a way of promising that anyone can have whatever they want, given some constraints (one would seem to need the time and resources to fulfill their desires, at least). By privileging certain forms, and methods, of knowledge formation, those with access to those knowledge practices appear to be encouraged to do what is necessary in order to effect progress (even Kant, while describing his geography course, privileges certain aspects according to their industrial usefulness [see long quotation from Kant on Elden’s p. 11]). In essence, what occurs to me is that maybe personal enrichment has always been already tied to the formations of knowledge that have been encouraged by the Enlightenment, always already privileging some people at the expense of others, leading to the fulfillments of some people’s desires at the expense of other people’s needs.

All that having been said, and getting back to Foucault, I think that what the readings show is that the relationship between social concerns and the production of knowledge is a complicated one. On one hand, as Foucault puts it, we seem to have an “impatience for liberty.” Here, I think that Foucault probably means that we have an impatience for the developments of new capacities. These developments of these new capacities come with their own problems, including that new capacities can bring about new forms of harm and can exacerbate old forms of harm. On the other hand, the process of developing new capacities often leads to other kinds of questions. Who has access to the tools necessary for producing knowledge? Who has access to knowledge? What is meant by knowledge? How is the knowledge used? How is the knowledge framed? What does it mean if we propose that we can know everything? How do these concerns affect individuals and societies? Plenty of other questions could be added to this list and I think that all of these and many of those not included are probably worthy of plenty of inspection perhaps even before we try to develop new capacities.

Elden, Stuart. “Reassessing Kant’s geography.” Journal of Historical Geography. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 2008. 3-25.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Louden, Robert B. “Anthropology from a Kantian point of view: toward a cosmopolitan conception of human nature.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 2008. 515-22.

Addressing the Subaltern: A Response to Clayton’s “Subaltern Space”

In describing the subaltern’s other, Clayton refers to Chatterjee’s descriptions: “a ‘pedagogy of culture’ as well as a ‘pedagogy of violence’ (Chatterjee 2005: 496) (p. 248).” The reason that I start here is that I find it imperative to note that this seems to me to be, at its heart, about kinds of violence. Here, I am not contesting what Chatterjee has to say—rather, I am stricken by the relationship between the dominant class’s alterations of subalterns’ minds and the dominant class’s physical violence to the bodies of those subalterns who do not assent to these forms of domination.

Lawrence Grossberg helps to clarify this:

Geographers expose (but how successfully do they subvert or rectify?) how, from a Western vantage point, the subaltern is the ‘product of the failure of interpellation (on the part of the subaltern itself) or of the refusal to allow the subaltern to enter into the economy of interpellation (on the part of the colonizers)’ (Grossberg 2000: 76–7). (p. 250)

The formation of subjects as complicit participants in practices of domination appears necessary to the oppressive regime’s ability to carry out its domination. So long as the subaltern fails to be interpellated as a subject in the dominant regime, the subaltern remains problematic to the dominant regime’s project(s). Resistance to oppression is complicated, though.

As Clayton describes on p. 249, attempts, by non-subaltern people, to speak for the subaltern are often distorted by hegemonic frameworks and language. In part, this takes place because the oppressed are often (at least in some sense) voiceless. This happens despite conscious attempts to properly give voice to the concerns of the subaltern. “An inventive geographical vocabulary […] is geared to destabilising hierarchies of knowledge and advocating a subaltern politics of place, yet without lapsing into essentialism and the reactionary shibboleths of nativism and its geographical corollary, place-bound identity” (pp. 250-1). But, as Clayton suggests on p. 256, we should not hope to fully rectify colonialistic problems while using language that has historically been used to oppress the subaltern.

Further complicating the matter is the question of history. On p. 250, Clayton points out the relationship between recorded history and emergent subaltern movements. If the victors always get to write the history, then how many subaltern movements have been erased from the record? Does this not make it easier for the regime to stand against resistance movements? If people cannot look to the past and see the successes, failures, stories, emotions, and inspirations for past movements, then it seems that there is less fuel made available to run subaltern movements’ figurative engines.

On the same page, Clayton goes over a list of criticisms of geography’s historical relationships to the subaltern. On p. 255 and, again, on p.257 (albeit in the form of his final question), Clayton implies a need for us to look back at these issues in retrospect. What strikes me here is that these efforts reflect consciousness of previous geographies without necessarily reflecting consciousness of in-the-moment geographies. When Clayton asks, “How might a desire for change be related to a geography that does not try to be fully up to date or in full command of itself, a progressive geography of belatedness and incompleteness?” it is surely true that we cannot always be fully aware of ourselves in-the-moment, but that does not seem to mean that we need necessarily take for granted that attempts at in-the-moment self-awareness are wholly impossible and useless.

Instead of only trying to criticize previous geographical work, perhaps there is space for trying to understand one’s own positionality and speaking to that positionality through one’s inclusive (of those ideas that may be useful in properly addressing the subaltern, among other concerns)—but also constrained—argumentation. Keeping performance in mind while performing the act of addressing the complications in geographical work seems to me at least as valuable as criticizing that which came before. Even these acts of sensitive, thoughtful critical analysis can sometimes come with their own erasures, distortions, and tensions. That is, I think that there can be something radical in simply trying to do the right thing. It seems to me that it is not as difficult to criticize some work as it is to be vulnerable to criticism from those invested in the status quo and from those who might have legitimate criticisms of the progressive (in whatever sense) move(s) that one tries to make, but exposing oneself through an attempt to dismantle—or to at least draw consciousness to—oppressions that appear in one’s own writing seems to me somewhat more radical.

Even attempts to look at history with sensitivity to subalternity can run up against issues. Clayton, referring to Mignolo, writes, “‘If you can imagine Western civilization as a large circle with a series of satellite circles intersecting that larger one but disconnected from each other,’ he writes (2000b: 745) in cosmographic terms that announce a ‘critical cosmopolitanism’, ‘diversality will be the project that connects the diverse subaltern satellites appropriating and transforming Western global designs’ (p. 251).” Here, Western civilization is at the center. There may be good reasons to do this, but there also appear to be problems with thinking of it this way. Again, even attempts to decolonize geographic thinking can come with aspects that privilege the West. Moreover, Geography’s attempts to face otherness still occur within a Western, modernistic, racialized, gendered set of spaces, which can lead to distortions, forced assimilations, and misunderstandings.

Related to these issues, I found that the focus on the subaltern as external to the West seemed to form a bias that rendered the argument incomplete. Perhaps, I am missing something here. It seems that subaltern space could work outside of spaces of domination. A remote location that is relatively unaffected by the global capitalist order might serve as an example without it needing to be conscious of its other, i.e. non-resistant and non-anticipatory.

Perhaps obversely, it may be that colonialistic outcomes can take place even within the empire. Relating to coloniality, Clayton writes, “Subaltern inquiry finds one of its most important political cues in the recognition that this insensitivity [to anti-colonialist consciousnesses and efforts taking place within colonialist spaces] […] has outlived the formal experience of colonialism (p. 252).” Perhaps because the ideological assumptions necessary to engage in material colonization are subtler and more diffuse (by virtue of their invisibilities and multiple potential applications) than material colonizations are, colonization’s ideological form is formed in a way that allows it to persist in a way that practices of material colonization cannot (although it should be noted that some contemporary practices still do look very much like past colonizations, albeit perhaps with some caveats). If we think of colonization as infiltration, alteration, and exploitation, then colonization can happen in any number of ways in any number of spaces.

As a final note on coloniality, I would responds to Clayton’s claim—“[S]ince the emergence of ‘the Atlantic circuit’ during the sixteenth century modernity and colonialism have been mutually constitutive (p. 251)”—by saying that perhaps modernity has even served to justify exploitation. But, that is a theoretical point that cannot conscientiously be worked out here.

Clayton, Daniel. “Subaltern Space.” The SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge. Edited by John A. Agnew and David N. Livingstone. London: SAGE Publications. 2011. 246-260.

What Is Modernity?: A Response to Benavides’s Conception of Modernity

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)

 

Benavides’s point seems to be that modernism may have always existed within Abrahamic religions and that these religions provided fertile ground in the West on which to plant the seeds of modernism’s most pronounced characteristics. Benavides also gives examples of modernism in non-Abrahamic religions but he focuses more on the Abrahamic religions.

An interesting point that Benavides makes is how thinkers in the West have tried to understand scientific facts as in accordance with the will of a jealous god—at least in theory, rendering incompatible potential investments in magic (pp. 190-1). Something like, The world works as it does by God’s will, and looking outside God and His laws is (at least) foolish. This has the potential effect of legitimating scientific engagements, and it seems reasonable to state that, to some degree, this potential has been realized.

That said, Benavides’s way of discussing science strikes upon an irony. Central to his thesis is the notion that self-reflexivity lies (likely in conjunction with other aspects) at the core of modernism. On p. 188, Benavides refers to Elvin to say that one characteristic of modernism lies in “power over nature in the form of capacity for prediction.” Here, Benavides, by way of Elvin, appears intent on defining science. However, science was not framed in terms of predictive power until Karl Popper proposed Falsificationism as a response to backward-looking—and, in Popper’s eyes, insufficiently capable of prediction—theories from Marx and Freud. Today, we may properly assert that there are issues worthy of attention in referring to Marx’s and Freud’s theories as “scientific,” but this does not seem to have been the consensus before the early-to-mid-20th century. Benavides seems to clearly illustrate historical ties between science and modernism, as well as other issues.

One issue that Benavides is concerned with is that of ritual. On p. 196, Benavides mentions how ritual goes from the religious context to the economic. He refers to E. P. Thompson’s, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” in which Thompson says, on p. 90: “In all these ways—by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports—new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed. (found in Past and Present).” Work habits become banalized and serve to mark out our lives in industrial routines.

I am not convinced that Benavides does not fall short of completion in his analysis, though. Perhaps modernism is really about something more than the tension between aesthetics and technology, more than (the surely fraught) social relations and power, more than scientism, more than the internalization of ritual, and more than the dismissal of mysticism, among other points that Benavides raises. Is it not also true that modernism supposes that anyone can have whatever they want, given certain constraints (the accomplishment of any wish-fulfillment requires time and resources)?

At the end of section II, on the top of p. 190, Benavides suggests something that approaches the idea that modernist promises are unlimited, but he never fleshes the idea out. To consider a kind of genealogy of modernism, the Enlightenment was born of the Renaissance, which occurred as a kind of colonization of thoughts and practices of Arabic Muslims in Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia). In essence, the Moors had translated Classic texts, and Western Christians decided, while killing and forcibly removing the Moors, to appropriate these Moorish practices. The practice of translation and reinterpretation of Greek and Roman texts eventually gave way to the Enlightenment period. Arguments made during the Enlightenment helped to justify colonization and what is sometimes referred to as “primitive accumulation.”

In the West, there has historically been a legitimate debate over what are termed “positive” and “negative” conceptions of freedom. Under the Enlightenment, freedom has been conceived of in such a way that fulfillments of desires for some, at the expense of the denial of needs for others, is sometimes thought of as a reasonable idea in the formation of, and debate over, social relations.

This liberalization of the promise of material gain, and the supposed happiness that might come with it, appears different from what would have been allowed by social relations in Rome, Greece, or in Europe’s feudalistic Middle Ages. However, this brings up another complication in Benavides’s argument.

When Benavides, on p. 190, claims that modernism has represented a tendency away from transcendentalism, perhaps it could be said that what he is tracking is the replacement of transcendental grace with a kind of transcendental satisfaction—i.e., instead of thinking of “a rejection of any notion of transcendence,” perhaps one form of transcendence substitutes for another. Or, we could think of it as secular enrichment in this life replacing sacred salvation in the afterlife. Finding satisfaction in one’s life by gaining material wealth seems to increasingly become a driving force for people’s regular actions. Previously, working to survive while adhering to religious laws may have more often been thought of as reasonable and good in its use of one’s time. This appears to be so true that even those who seek sacred salvation might sometimes still seek prosperity while they remain on Earth. No longer does “the virtuous poor” bear any real social significance.

Benavides, Gustavo. “Modernity.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. ed. by Mark Taylor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1998. 196-204.

On Cultural Exchange

(Note: links in references aim to give a cursory understanding of the underlying thoughts to which they correspond. In more robust works by the authors referenced, they give much more thorough explanations than those embodied by the explanations given in the linked pieces.)

We live in a contentious and divided time. More and more, people seem to silo themselves among people who think and act just as they do, often choosing to see people who do differently as inimical to themselves, regardless of what the evidence might say.

An important question has arisen in regard to the place of contemporary cultural exchange, and for good reason. While it may be easy to point out that cultural exchange is a phenomenon that has always been with us, the stakes seem to have never been so high. Changes to art, religious practices, food products and preparations, languages, and other forms of culture have always been influenced by interactions between people of different cultures, leading to appreciable innovations in all of the above. However, cultural exchange under capitalism takes on a different form and involves different stakeholders acting on different motivations than on those embodied by past people. Perhaps this is increasingly the case.

The appropriations of blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop musics, Mexican and Chinese foods (especially “fusion” varieties), minority-founded revolutionaries’ salutations (“Peace in the Middle East,” “Power to the people,” etc.), emoji, parts of language, aspects of “exotic” religions, etc., ad nauseam increase at an increasing rate as global capitalism spreads its tendrils into more and more isolated locales, sped up by the incredibly rapid dissemination of communication technology and the like. Under capitalism, this more and more takes on the quality of commodity fetishism and postmodern jockeying for hipness currency (which then leads to commodity fetishism as well). Corporate communications reference the coolness and hipness of things, throwing in catch phrases and cultural references that give corporations credibility to younger, and more diverse, demographics. By doing so, they’re able to sell goods and services similarly extracted from cultures not their own, by means of cultures not their own, in order to cultivate and harvest the products of new markets, i.e. profits.

But, is cultural exchange always a problem? If it has always taken place, when and why did it start being a problem? Can it be avoided? In essence, why did this happen and what is to be done?

To address the first question first, it’s difficult to say whether cultural exchange is necessarily problematic on its own. What’s clearer is that it has likely almost always taken place and is almost definitely very difficult to avoid. Consider maybe the most common form of cultural exchange: that of communication between two peoples who speak different languages. It would appear inevitable for one culture to adopt some of the other culture’s words; after all, some languages have words for things that other cultures don’t. So, is this problematic? In order to consider what cases are and are not problematic, perhaps some examples would help.

If we think of pre-capitalist England, shortly after the Norman invasion, it would have been clearly problematic if the mostly Frankish-speaking king had gone down to the peasantry and addressed them in mostly Germanic language in order to try to win their favor. It would have been problematic because the king would have been dishonest and pandering for his (forgive the gendering, but the kings were all men) own benefit. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine that most forms of pre-capitalist cultural exchange would have been so problematic, but this may become clearer later.

To help to think of why appropriation under capitalism is problematic, we might consider Paul Simon’s well-received and incredibly successful (by capitalist standards [i.e. highly profitable]) 1986 album, Graceland, which made heavy use of African sounds, including performances by African musicians. Controversy around the album’s release had to do with its apparent break with the boycott of apartheid South Africa, which addressed a highly tense issue of that time. What was not then controversial in the mainstream was Simon’s appropriation of African music. Simon decontextualized and recontextualized African musical forms and performance styles, repackaging the cultural products with rock and folk music aspects, and he gained personal accolades, as well as considerable profits from the production and release of the album.

But what, exactly, made this problematic? It might have been less problematic had Simon chosen to dedicate a track on the album to describing the historical legacies of the musical forms he was exploiting, including paying homage to prominent musical figures in Africa. Had he then donated the profits to African initiatives to help Africa and Africans, this also would have been less problematic than what he instead did. Simon exploited the work and innovations made by African musicians; he failed to clearly pay sufficient respect to the histories and contexts of the musics; and he benefitted greatly without having given back to those from whom he had taken these musics.

Borrowing from cultures seems to be somewhat inevitable, but these exchanges take on different forms. On one hand, privileged capitalists are often able to freely take at will what appears to them beneficial to take. On the other hand, people might experience a reality by which their experience of culture is inherently and unavoidably bimodal (or even multimodal), forcing them to operate on multiple cultural planes—in such a case, the deployment of one or the other set of cultural understandings and phenomena seems unavoidable and devoid of some of the problematic aspects of capitalistic appropriation. Between these two forms of cultural exchange lies a wide range of forms of cultural exchange by which some problems are avoided and some aren’t.

If someone grows up in a community primarily comprised of people of a different culture from their own, it is completely reasonable that this person might adopt many of the cultural norms of the people from this other culture. This can appear problematic if the person adopting these norms is a person whose difference affords them privilege not afforded to the people who embody the cultural practices being adopted. In such a case, the culture-taker can be faced with a choice of altering their behavior if it occurs to them (through their own inquiry or the influence of others) that this might be appropriate. If not, then it is difficult to see how a solution might present itself.

If someone grows up in a community of people who share their own cultural heritage, then it is easy to see why their adoption of others’ cultural aspects would come into question. It may be that such a person enters a social context in which it appears appropriate to adopt these foreign cultural practices, but it requires a choice on the part of the agent. At this point, if they are confronted with the problematic presented by the situation, the choice should be clear.

Often, the difficulty in these fraught social situations lies in the inherent tension that arises when a problematic case of cultural exchange appears. Blame of a particular agent appears to be unreasonable (for better understanding of this position, please see the work of Robert Sapolsky) and violent. In essence, blaming someone seems to be both without merit and it perpetuates the tools of privilege and power in an ironic reflexive (albeit mistargeted) response to capitalism. While violence toward those who control the most significant levers of power may be tempting, violence is proven less effective than nonviolence (the work of Erica Chenoweth helps here), while also presenting the inherent contradiction and paradox of responding with the ultimate expression of power in order to address the inherently problematic phenomenon of unequal power (along with helping to perpetuate this very phenomenon), but that is a subject appropriate for further discussion at a later point.

What appears to be an appropriate response to the problems presented by cultural exchange, then (as in many other cases), is to observe, learn, educate, speak out, and do what is in one’s power in order to raise awareness and to help to try to change the oppressive system in which these phenomena take place.

A Postmodernistic Note on Late Capitalism

Perhaps “Late Capitalism” could be described as the ways by which Western conveniences rely on the exploitation of the most vulnerable people throughout the world. It’s a bit as though Society strapped you into the contraption that was forced on Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange, only you’re sitting there having to watch a mother eat all of her young, while having to get a job and buy an iPhone or you’re a loser who’s going to die early1. I think that’s basically what “Late Capitalism” refers to.*

*Also, you’re supposed to laugh at it, and if you don’t, then you’re a Snowflake™ and you can “go fuck yourself, you self-righteous, hypersensitive, try-hard idiot.”

1. Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. 2004.

Pickett, Kate and Wilkinson, Richard. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. 2009.

Complicated Buddhisms

In the West, we are often faced with visions of Buddhism that appear to privilege contemplation and meditation above all else. Sometimes, the notion of flying monks and otherworldly feats may come to the fore, but it seems rare to think of Tibetan monks taking on spiritual lives for the sake of privilege and wealth, and it seems equally unlikely that a Westerner might think of compassion in Buddhism as having to do with medical practice or carving woodblocks with which to make prayer flags. However, what we might take from this week’s readings and Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup is that life in the Himalayas is just as much about making ends meet; about making compromised, practical decisions; and perhaps even about World Cup soccer as life is about those things in many other parts of the world.

The story of Ts’ampa Nawang helps us to think simultaneously about Buddhist dharma and about the most profound concern of most sentient beings: staying alive. As Sihlé puts it, the Buddha “presented the gist of his teaching, the Four Noble Truths, in a distinctly medical style” (236). Sihlé observes that the Four Noble Truths represent “clinical observation,” “diagnosis,” “prognosis,” and “prescription” (236).

More specifically, Sihlé tells us that Nawang envisages medical practice as necessitating altruism (243). In Nawang’s Himalayan Buddhist world, the reason for being a medical practitioner is to take care of others, and only through compassion could one “accomplish the long, very demanding course of medical studies” (243).

Sihlé informs us that Nawang’s experience experience of compassion for others privileges medical practice over religious activity (243). Sihlé explains that Nawang conceives of “medicine even more than religious activity as the paradigmatic altruistic activity…” (243). And, Nawang is not alone.

According to Sihlé, Nawang’s experience “exemplifies a type of Tibetan practitioner found most notably in the Nyingma tradition” (243). While it may appear to us that Tibetan Buddhists exemplify higher orders of compassion that might appear incomprehensible to Westerners, in fact, many of their concerns appear to be not wholly unlike ours, even if the satisfaction of their wants and needs may appear differently.

Similarly, Tashi Dondrup’s story appears to exemplify the pragmatism that must be necessary for many poor Tibetan Buddhists (Childs). On one hand, he is driven to live a life in accordance with the dharma as he knows it; on the other, his life chances are seriously constrained by the opportunities availed to him (Childs).

Childs prefaces Dondrup’s story by pointing out some apparent contradictions. In Buddhism, eating often means the deaths of sentient beings, causing a tension for Buddhists who believe in not causing harm to sentient beings (Childs 228-30). Childs makes this concrete by explaining that Dondrup “never hesitated to crush lice and fleas plucked from his clothing or to kill home invading rats by enticing them to feast upon poisoned morsels of food” (231). It may be easy for one to criticize such actions for being contradictory to Buddhist doctrine, but it is hard to blame someone for protecting their livelihood against those who might encroach on it. Childs quotes Dondrup: “I am a poor man. The rats should take pity on me instead of the other way around!” It may be that no Buddhist would prefer to kill a rat (would any of us, after all?), but understanding that Dondrup’s life appears to have been one of constantly concerning himself, from moment to moment, for how he can subsist over any period of time, it may become clearer that Dondrup’s actions were: 1) predicated on the idea that he never knew for how long he would be able to survive by the means at his current disposal; 2) his decisions were made under a great deal of stress and with access to very few options. To blame Dondrup for having violated doctrine would seem short-sighted.

Another interesting aspect of Dondrup lies in his personal relationship to Buddhist thought. Childs alludes to Dondrup’s disposition as one that might have helped Dondrup. Dondrup, according to Childs, took “solace in the basic tenets of Buddhism — for example, the knowledge that performing good deeds in this lifetime can help ensure less suffering in future lives. […] He never blamed bad karma for his present predicaments. Rather, he faced obstacles with stoic determination” (231). Here, Childs seems to be saying that Dondrup’s attitude toward the dharma was one by which he was able to see value in performing good (in Buddhistic terms) deeds, but faced his challenges with a pragmatism that allowed him to move past them.

At one point in Dondrup’s story, Childs tells us that Dondrup was promised some inheritance by his father, despite that Dondrup’s birth was illegitimate (231). Dondrup’s father had seen that Dondrup was a “good worker,” but in the end, Dondrup gets no part of the inheritance (Childs 231). The inheritance then went to Dondrup’s half-brother (legitimate brother, at that), but rather than despite the half-brother, Dondrup cares for him, using his last resources to help a rather painfully useless relative (Childs 232). Dondrup said, “I acted as his guardian when he was a child. But these days I no longer even speak to him. I have no use for a brother like that” (232). Even after having to have made the difficult but maybe necessary decision to have given up on his half-brother, Dondrup continues to work hard and to try and live the best life that he can (Childs). While Dondrup seems clearly to be motivated by Buddhist doctrine, he also sees his behavior as playing a crucial role in the outcomes of his life.

Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup focuses around a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in India. The period examined coincides with the 1998 World Cup, and the film’s protagonist is a boy, named Orgyen (played by Jamyang Lodro), who enthusiastically follows soccer throughout the film.

Often in the West, it seems that there is a perception of Buddhist monks as being especially pious, devoid of missteps and mistakes, fairly perfect and incredibly disciplined in their holy lives. If we are to take anything from this film, perhaps disabuse of the notion that all Tibetan Buddhist monks are perfect could be the primary outcome (Norbu).

Orgyen and his friends routinely misbehave during meditation sessions, draw graffiti on monastery walls, read contraband magazines, and sneak out in the middle of the night in order to watch soccer matches (Norbu). Orgyen’s attitude often seems to be about fulfilling his controversial desires, rather than about satisfying his need to study or to engage authentically in Buddhistic practices (Norbu).

While the film follows the familiar refrain of Boarding School films (think Flirting or Dead Poets’ Society), the story’s ending is made positive when Orgyen faces the dilemma of having to help a fellow child-monk with getting back the watch the boy had received from his mother before having been shipped off to monastery (Norbu). In the end, we might think of this scene as confronting something very human in us, but it is also true that Orgyen is having to deal with the tension between watching a soccer match for which he had fought so hard to be able to watch and having to deal with the sadness and regret that could come from his friend having to have lost the watch; that is, it may be as simple as that he had a human moment or may be his dedication to compassion that leads to his altruistic acts and sacrifice at the end of the film (Norbu).

What was common in the readings for this week was that Buddhism is complicated. It is not simply the study of doctrine and ritual practices presented in Buddhist texts. Certainly, Buddhists face the kinds of life challenges that everyone else does, too.

References

  • Childs, Geoff. “Hunger, Hard Work and Uncertainty: Tashi Dondrup Reminisces on Life

    and Death in a Tibetan Village” in Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism Through the

    Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed.

  • Norbu, Khyentse. The Cup.
  • Sihlé, Nicolas. “Benefitting the Doctrine and All Sentient Beings: The Life of a Tibetan

    Lineage Master and the Ethos of Altruistic Action” ” in Buddhists: Understanding

    Buddhism Through the Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed., pp. 237-245.

Complicating Buddhism in Practice

The story of Ts’ampa Nawang was interesting to me for how it conceived of altruism (Sihle). In a way that appeared to me quite pragmatic, Nawang’s concern appeared to have been more for the daily physical suffering of people than for any higher esoteric or theoretical concern: “In Ts’ampa Nawang’s discourse, it is medicine even more than religious activity that appears as the paradigmatic altruistic activity…” (Sihle p. 243).

In some way, this could simply appear to be common sense: while any of us might have concerns over our afterlives or spiritual wellnesses, staying alive seems to be a nearly-universal goal among people. As such, Nawang’s privileging of his medical practice over his more spiritual practice seems to have reflected the most acute concerns of those with whom he engaged.

Until this point, while I would not have necessarily ruled out such pragmatism, neither would I have presumed that more formally religious practices would have taken a secondary role.

Beyond the practical concerns of this week’s readings, one of the most aspects of this week’s readings that interested me most was how these practitioners managed to synthesize their material concerns with their spiritual ones: in the case of Nawang, his altruism required that he focus on his medical practice; producers and consumers of food have to find ways of dealing with the violence inflicted on animals; the women in the Kashmir were made to escape oppressive men; Chomo Khandru’s remarkable spiritual life was enabled by the Bon custom of dedicating second daughters to religious lives.

On a bit of a side note, something that surprised me in some of the readings was how practices were sometimes presented as apparently contradictory or somehow disingenuous, but there was not necessarily always evidence for this. I bring this up here in part because it seemed as though some of the readings were meant to convey how the local specificities of particular Buddhist practices were perhaps complicated, although the issue that I bring up here confused me, rather than convincing me of the fraught tensions faced by Buddhist practitioners.

To keep this brief, one such moment occurs in Childs’s writings, when he claims “[T]o restrict a calf’s caloric intake so that it succumbs to a death that appears more natural is ethically ambiguous.” (p. 230) I suppose that we should take from this that it is at least “ethically ambiguous” to Childs, but the form of his statement appears absolute. Does he mean to suggest that these Buddhist practitioners, themselves, find it ethically ambiguous? Should we presume that Buddhists do not make a sufficient distinction between active violence and passive neglect such that this ambiguity remains? I would have been interested to have known exactly what Childs intended here (as in other places), and on what he (and others) based his (their) assertion(s).


I am not inclined to privilege Buddhism for the specificity of its different schools of thought or the different practices that correspond with its different localized manifestations. It is clear from the readings that Buddhism looks different in different places, but so far as I can tell, that is a common feature to maybe even all phenomena.

While some Buddhists (as is the case with Tashi Dondrup) practice their Buddhisms in abject poverty—even despite being “good worker[s],” in some cases—some Buddhists are able to see “ample opportunities for privilege and private profit” (not unlike the story of Ts’ampa Nawang), all while many women face circumstances such that they have to provide for their families and, at the same time, perform their religious roles (Childs p. 231; Gutschow p. 266; Sihle; Gutschow). Between the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism—“Gelug, Kagyud, Sakya, and Nyingma”—Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and nascent Western forms of “Buddhism,” it is clear that differences are plenty (Gutschow p. 264). But, perhaps it could also be said that there are as many Buddhisms as there are Buddhist practitioners, just as something similar could likely be said of Christianity and its practitioners, Islam and its, Hinduism, and so on.

At some point, this appears to be the same semiotics problem that seems to always be encountered when trying to name anything. In fact, is there not something here that simultaneously reflects the thoughts of post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida as well as the concept of anatman? Just as all signifiers are deferred, so it is that there is nothing essential to anyone or anything. All perceptions are referential, all use of language is reductive—there seems to be no way around this. I imagine that neither the post-structuralists nor many Buddhists would object to me pointing out that I am not the same Shaun right now as I am right… now!

That said, it is hard for me to justify singling out Buddhism as unique in its multiplicity. This is true even if the constellations of beliefs and practices that we refer to as “Buddhisms” may appear more loosely tied than do the different segments of other major religions.

References

  • Childs, Geoff. “Hunger, Hard Work and Uncertainty: Tashi Dondrup Reminisces on Life

    and Death in a Tibetan Village” in Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism Through the

    Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed.

  • Gutschow, Kim. “The Delusion of Gender and Renunciation in Buddhist Kashmir” in

    Everyday Life in South Asia, Mines and Lamb, ed. pp. 261-274.

  • Sihlé, Nicolas. “Benefitting the Doctrine and All Sentient Beings: The Life of a Tibetan

    Lineage Master and the Ethos of Altruistic Action” ” in Buddhists: Understanding

    Buddhism Through the Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed., pp. 237-245.

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