Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cultivation and realization: on faith and bullshit

In response to a comment by Elisa, I hazarded that in ritual or liturgical practice, not only do the sampads come to the fore, but that by applying oneself to this mode of being consciously one can cultivate participation. This is a large claim, and I want to nuance it a bit.

First I should clarify that neither "ritual" nor "participation" are for me terms of automatic approbation. The critique of consumerism, for instance, as hinging on a mode of "participation," an identification of buyer with product, is one obvious and plausible way of spinning Marx's account of commodity fetishism. Politics is full of "rituals," and most of them lend their objects, or the process itself, same spurious authenticity as commodity fetishism. I have not thought through my whole take on the way late capitalism intersects with the correspondences (though Agamben and Foucault, not to mention McLuhan, give some possible starting-places), but it is clear to me that advertainment is full of invocations of them, in its implication of a richer, fuller life with the dose of mana promised in the rich lifestyle each glittering product signifies. This might seem a tired old critique, but what it implies in the present context is that there’s a way to distinguish between the superstition of consumerism, which is unconscious and alienated participation, and a “third way” that would navigate between or beyond both this superstition and the scientism that stands opposed to it, by engaging participation consciously.

However, this too needs to be more carefully thought. I had written:
"...ritual tends of its nature to privilege its own moment. Thus every sacred spot tends to acquire a numinous aura which does not "really" obtain....that there is nothing in the temple that is special, but that the temple reveals the world, shows us that the world itself is holy, or destined to holiness."
At the grave risk of misunderstanding (above all by myself), I might very tentatively compare the temple, in this respect, to the scientific laboratory. There, too, the world is revealed, but no special claim is made for the laboratory itself as different in kind from the rest of the world. It is just that the lab is structured in a certain way, a way that makes this revealing possible. Now of course I would argue that it is not that the temple is a laboratory but that (as the old alchemists knew) the laboratory is a temple; the temple, also, structures experience within it in a particular way, and the temple is the more general type of which the laboratory, like the house, the seat of government, and garden, and the factory, are instances. (Calvin Coolidge said: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there.” I realize one cites this at the risk of forever tarring oneself as an apologist for capitalism; I trust folks will know this isn’t where I am coming from.)

It is this structuring, this balance, that is the essential thing. Every human context does this balancing, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. One could call it a sort of feng shui, a weighing of one factor against another, one real thing against another real thing, in such a way that something about reality as such can show through. Thus, for instance, one sits in meditation--comporting one's body and mind in a certain way--in the faith that by doing so one can achieve a realization of the nature of mind per se. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for the way the aspects of a work of art (say, in theater, the actors' words, the scenery, the stage lights) work together to open onto a world beyond the stage. Or again, the way a liturgical event plays scripture, music, incense, silence, architectural space, off of one another in a semi-scripted balance, a play of sampads, to (possibly) reveal something that makes every human measure take on a new and unforeseen meaning that was always meant for it.

But if, as I noted, any attempt to make such a third way risks collapsing into mere wishy-washiness (i.e., hedging one's bets), what can prevent this? Here Elisa offered a useful synopsis:
not to engage actively in the third way (since this would automatically destroy it and make it vanish into superstition) but to leave one's doors open for receiving it. Of course, this needs a preliminary faith that the world is in fact holy and only expects a proper locus to manifest itself as such. Prayer and external attitude may facilitate —although not cause— it.
At the risk of severe oversimplification, i think we can see this as somewhat akin to the curious identity/difference of samsara=nirvana. If samsara is nirvana, what’s the problem, right? If the Tao is realized when we stop distinguishing good and bad, then…. is it good to realize the Tao? And indeed, how is it that this realization can “come about” at all? What is the difference between this realization and it’s lack?

An encounter recorded in some versions of the Platform Sutra speaks to this. When Huai Jang came to Hui Neng (the story goes), Hui Neng asked him where he had come from. “From the mountain of Sung Shan,” Huai Jang replied. Hui Neng regarded him, then asked: “But what is this thing, and how did it get here?” Huia Jang was discomfited and said nothing. For eight years he applied himself to Ch’an, striving to awake, asking himself this question over and over. When, suddenly (if “sudden” is the word for an eight-year process) he attained enlightenment, he went to Hui Neng and told him he had experienced an awakening. “What is it?” Nui Neng asked. Huai Jang replied: “To say what it is like is not to the point.” Still, Hui Neng pressed him: could this thing to which he had awakened, could his awakening itself, be cultivated? Huai Jang replied: “Though its cultivation and experiencing are not uncalled for, it cannot be tainted.”

I take this to indicate that “cultivation” remains worthwhile, despite the fact that what such cultivation may give one access to (if at all) not only does not depend upon such cultivation but in a certain manner has nothing to do with it. (Compare this, incidentally, to Findlay’s ontological disproof of God: the notion that the religious absolute, as an utterly necessary being, has no bearing on any contingent realities. To the early Findlay this seemed to suffice to show that such a radically necessary entity could not exist. One could hazard--admittedly playing fast and loose with significant cross-cultural differences--that Huai Jang seems to grant Findlay’s logic but dispute his conclusions nonetheless.)

All very well for Huai Jang, perhaps; after all, he became the seventh Patriarch of Zen, after Hui Neng. But for me, I who am not enlightened, how do I mouth such paradoxes without this turning into mere bullshit? This is the technical term Harry Frankfurt uses for the utterance of remarks without regard for whether they are true or false. I sometimes think I catch the waft of such bullshit from the breezy “if-you-meet-the-Buddha,-kill-him” pronouncements of the catch-all newage. After all, if my creed or my practices might be shown (or indeed are assumed to be destined to be shown) to be just “fingers pointing at the moon,” to use another too-flippant phrase, how do I engage them mindfully?

Frankfurt is mostly concerned with bullshit when it is directed outward; when the bullshitter is merely trying to advance an agenda and to persuade others. In another age, this was what was called sophistry; it was, for instance, the art of “making the weaker cause appear the stronger.” When deconstruction was compared to sophistry by its detractors, this was part of the case they were making. In fact, the comparison runs quite deep. While I hold Derrida to be a pleasure to read (at least certain books, and not always the usual suspects), too many of his imitators in the late ’80s and early ’90s excelled in simply avoiding saying anything, and doing so at great length. An uncharitable interpretation of this would be that such writing was bullshit through and through—indifferent to any truth-claims whatsoever, it was intended only to advance the author’s career. Of course, one can only do this so long before one is bullshitting oneself as well. This is all the more dangerous where the religious is in question, precisely because here the issue is far more worth caring about than one’s academic advancement. Though I have reservations about the Sartrean way of speaking of authenticity, Sartre’s critique of bad faith in Being and Nothingness ought to be read and memorized by anyone who would guard against such self-deception.

In short, one must know that at every step one risks mere pretense, and one must, in contrast to the bullshitter, care very deeply—care so much that one would “stake one’s soul” on the matter. This is what Tillich calls the “ultimate concern” which is the object of faith. Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.

But I would rather say, perhaps, that the realization I have in mind is that one has, as it were, “staked one’s soul;” one sees not some new value to which one must now give assent, but rather the pure clarity of what are the values to which one has already assented. (Pascal: “If you had not found Me you would not seek Me.”)

Realization cannot be forced; it cannot be compelled; it is not the object of any technique, but comes after all the techniques have run out. Even in a Buddhist context a language strongly suggestive of “grace” starts to be heard around this. In a recent post I again had recourse to Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between problems and mysteries. In Being and Having, Marcel writes:
A problem is something which I meet, which I find complete before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity. A genuine problem is subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which it is defined; whereas a mystery by definition transcends every conceivable technique.
But openness to realization can be cultivated. It is cultivated, even, in the very devotion to understanding by means of these imperfect models—these crystal spheres, these cycles of prayer, these tables of elements arrayed in ascending order of atomic weight—knowing that these models will need revision and more than revision. This is (I have urged), the whole secret of the tradition known by that hoary word “philosophy,” whether “philosophers” know it or not: there is a trope by which one’s model incorporates the collapse of the model.

And yet. And yet, for all the gravity and fear and trembling, there’s a lightness to faith that belies any sanctimony. All of one’s arrangements of ceremony and correspondence, all one’s synchronized crystal spheres arranged with perfect feng shui, all one’s techniques, may well, indeed shall, turn out to be a great stage-set of skillful means. (There have always been critiques of the sampads, and always someone is clearing their throat to remind us that the lion and the horse do not picture God this way). Even this well-tuned neuronal system of ours, our theatre of sensation and emotion and memory, could meet the same fate: it too may be an ingeniously-contrived (albeit fortuitous) amalgam of techniques. But all of these nonetheless cultivate and give some fleeting glimpse of reality, this thing of which we cannot say what it is like, because this is not to the point.

As I was finishing the edits on this post a commenter sent me the link to Simon Critchley's most recent philosophy column in the NY Times, on Kierkegaard's Works of Love. A sample:
Faith has the character of a continuous “striving … in which you get occasion to be tried every day.” This is why faith and the commandment of love that it seeks to sustain is not law. It has no coercive, external force. As Rosenzweig writes, “The commandment of love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover.” He goes on to contrast this with law, “which reckons with times, with a future, with duration.” By contrast, the commandment of love “knows only the moment; it awaits the result in the very moment of its promulgation.” The commandment of love is mild and merciful, but, as Kierkegaard insists, “there is rigor in it.” We might say love is that disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality so something new and inward can come into being.
The contrast drawn here is akin to the one I see between "technique" and whatever comes after or despite technique, and I commend this article by Critchley precisely as a rumination on faith by one who stands self-consciously outside any creed. And, as I read the (inevitably, tiresomely, automatically) acrimonious comments, I am painfully aware (and I say this as a believer who was not always one) of how much like bullshit faith--or at least, talking about faith--looks, from the outside.

This acrimony plays its role in why, as I wrote last post, I tend to be more conciliatory than combative, more interested in synthesis than attack. But it does not trouble me too much. It is not for no reason that the language of faith very often has recourse to metaphors (sampads?) of seeds and sprouting. Faith may be precisely the faith that even the bullshit is there for the sake of (precisely) cultivating something else. But this presumes, of course, that one has planted something other than bullshit.


  1. Interesting post, as often. The main point seems to me to decide whether whatever looks like a contradiction is not worth enquiring further or whether we should not put in question our actual understanding. In fact, on the one hand the nature of photones (or of electrones in many cases) is also "contradictory", but probably worth enquiring. On the other hand, a mystery is not something about which no investigation should be done, but something whose complete understanding will never be attained. Hence, investigation is much welcome, but it will always be a work-in-progress. Probably, a sincere believer could add that grace may occur exactly during this progress.

  2. Elisa,

    How to "decide whether whatever looks like a contradiction is not worth enquiring further" seems a good way of summarizing the question. You are right about photons and the whole wave/particle dualism, though I don't like to have recourse to examples from physics lest I seem to be appropriating the authority of a neighboring discipline. Still, my own feeling is that while "reality itself" does not have contradictions in it, it is very plausible that any meta-reality, in which part of reality tries to represent the whole of reality, will encounter contradictions (hence Gödelian incompleteness-- to risk a different appropriation). In practice, we are always making judgment-calls about which contradictions we will shrug off (as 'noise', more or less), which will spur us to try to resolve them, and which we will live with in a way that is more like Keatsian "Negative Capability," being "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

  3. Hi--I really like this post. (And thanks for commenting at EwN too.) You are one of the very few people with a good sense of "realization" who works on these sorts of materials (if I may make so bold). I'm going to think about your posts (and read that page at Love of All Wisdom), then get back to you.

  4. On a second reading, the comparison of shrine room and lab really stood out. I think that's spot on. Both are "operationally closed" (Varela). In fact Buddhist retreat language talks about the container principle, setting up a mandala that includes a boundary to protect against negative forces, etc.

  5. Thanks, Tim, for these comments; I hope you'll be back. I am glad you caught this comparison, as it was one of the germs around which the post crystallized. One key thing here is that while the shrine and the lab both set up boundary conditions, ("closed systems") in the way that, e.g. Michael Polanyi describes, this is meant simply to reveal [something about] the world as such. The other thing is that of course it need not be a physical space that is in question; it's the operational process that matters. A poem does the same thing.

  6. Skhol,

    Some thoughts.

    Pretend for a moment that there is nothing other than technique, projection and realization as it pertains to these questions. Is there any level of critique more valuable than technique (how something is done)? We attack people's realizations, criticize their visions, recoil from or gravitate to their projections (bodily), but is it nothing more than questions of technique? Ethos.

    Science (aside from its propaganda) made simple is an ethos. Capitalism (aside from its propaganda) made simple is an ethos. Each composed of a panoply of techniques. The lab is derived, both genealogically, but also in terms of a stark technique/revelation correspondence from the magi's chamber. The temple is no different. The confusion perhaps resides in a focus upon the revelation. And the warfare occurs at the level of projections.

    That's my bit of nonsense.

  7. Hi Kevin, and thanks for this. I hope you'll keep reading.

    In a sense, I think I do hold that there is "nothing but" technique, insofar as what is available to human prerogative goes. I may be mistaking your comment, but I hope I do not give the impression of wishing to denigrate technique as "mere," since (as per my argument), in a certain sense one cannot do anything but use techniques, either well or poorly. I don't want to claim that there is no difference between good science and bad, for instance (even if I have a robust interest in what most scientists consider "fringe" stuff). Charles Williams used to argue to the effect that "unless devotion is given to what must, in the end, prove false, what is true in the end cannot come." (not a quote but my approximation of the gist). All one can do with "mystery" in Marcel's sense (I would argue) is experience is, and wither acknowledge it or else deny it. But this "all we can do " may be everything.

    I am interested in your use of the word "projections" here. Again I may misread you, but what this makes me think of is the over-insistence on particular formulae for the revelation.

  8. It seems we are on the rough page together. We both have an appreciation for the role of technique and also it seems for identifying technique as a proper level of critique and change. In this, "there is nothing but technique" involves, necessarily "the choice of techniques" (which could itself be called a technique as well, and which, if you expand it far enough you end up with something resembling what "Philosophy" is supposed to be, not a meta-discourse, but a technique for choosing techniques). Perhaps our background in Wittgenstein helps us agree on this, as he is a rather technique driven and focused philosopher (or anti-philosopher, as the interpretation may be).

    As far as projection goes, I have this in mind, and it stems in part from my study of Spinoza. Projections are not just phenomenological experiences in the world, or imaginary compositions of the world as it likely or possibly is. They are actions. Acts to power. Ontological leanings into streams and differentials (if I can hesitantly speak in that way). On the intersubjective level (if there is really such a pure thing), they involve cathexes, "encampments" of affective states which are your own, but then are projected into objects, but more readily people, and even situations such that they becomes affective potentials for triggers of your own states. Spinoza leverages his entire theory of the "social" upon this projective capacity of sameness, whereby imaginary states coherently express themselves through an affective and sympathetic weaving of one's own body into the fate of other bodies like it. These are weaves of affective investments, social bodies that extend, epistemologically, out across the world, such that if an event happens in one body, it ripples down into our perceptive own, and these affective linkings via projections are themselves highly ideologically entrenched (at the level of "the subject"), but even more so, epistemologically entrenched, such that affective sympathies (and thus necessarily antipathies) confirm the very cogency of our thought.

    I say that war occurs here because as we debate the facts of the world (and facts include values as well, when criteria is at stake), and our attendant revelations, it is with the very marrow of our body that we feel these coherences, and recoil from their disturbance. And this is why "technique" is the best prescriptive level on which to enter an in-cogency. At the level of projections the nerves and sinews are already sewn into pictures.

    Don't know if that makes sense to you, but it is my natural response to your question.

  9. Thanks, Kevin. I have some sympathy with the notion of projection as action, as I understand you to be using it. From my own reading of Wittgenstein, the thing I took away most was the irreducibility of practices; the assertion that at bottom, theory too is a practice. I am not sure how far I want to push the arguments that this makes all our positions "entrenched" (as you put it), whether epistemologically or ideologically; but I think I see how this is coherent with Spinoza given his drastic monism and essentially his materialism. In any case, I agree that the passions are involved here as well as our supposedly easygoing minds. "In our marrow and sinews" we feel these commitments and the threats or supports to them.

    Yes, philosophy as I conceive of it is really a kind of meta-technique. A way of discerning which context calls for which "skillful means." And above all an acknowledgment that one doespass from context to context.

  10. Interesting that you view Spinoza as a materialist. Perhaps you mean this as in a very loose sense, or in a highly narrow technical sense (whose criteria I am not familiar with).

    Glad we are on much of the same page in terms of the answers to these kinds of questions.

  11. I'd say my sense of Spinoza as a materialist is "loose," and corrigible; but I think it is an admissible interpretation (I am following Jacobi). As for you & I being on the same page, this is also perhaps loose, but I am--at the risk of being cloying-- open to learning from everyone. I am certainly not an expert on Spinoza, or anyone else for that matter.

  12. Nor I an expert on Spinoza, though I've thought a lot on him, and researched him in the unbeaten path way. I guess I would just have to stake out rather firmly a refusal of Spinoza as a materialist (though I don't know Jacobi's argument for such), since he refuses any reduction to something like "matter". Instead Substance is irreducible to an infinity of attributes, only one of which is "extension". I suppose I could be convinced if presented with a narrow definition, but largely Spinoza places what is really, really real (in terms of what lies beyond us) lies beyond our adequate material description or calculation. It would be hard to call this a materialism, unless it is perhaps an mystical materialism (which seems quite odd to say).