I. On Suffering
I’ve spent some weeks writing and re-writing what I intended as a kind of declaration for my vision of the Trash Community project. I’ve written a lot, most of which I’ve thrown in the figurative bin. What has been difficult about writing this kind of thing is that we are stuck here in a catch-22. The difficulty of figuring out what a Trash Community might look like lies in the fact that it is the Trash Community itself which was supposed to provide the direction for answering this question.
The Speculative Non-Buddhism project has been, in part, an attempt to slap the complacent smirk of idealism off the face of Western Buddhism. I would like the Trash Community to address the next step in this process: once we’ve become disillusioned enough to wipe the shit-eating grin of transcendence off our faces, how do we proceed? How do we stay committed to materialism; that is to say, to human existence, rather than the non-human existence always so cherished, but never attained, by capitalist spiritualism?
I propose that the Trash Community should be an exploration of the following fundamental question: How can we become less indifferent and oblivious to the suffering that exists all around us?
This is, of course, a question on which Buddhism has had a lot to say. But Buddhism has been mostly in the business of obscuring this question by transcendentalizing it—and it is here that I part ways with Buddhism, while retaining the right to make use of its conceptual arsenal.
Again, this simple question: How can we become less indifferent and oblivious to the suffering that exists all around us? It is so easy, so tempting, to take this question as the point of departure into idealism. And so, to be perfectly clear, I am speaking here of material suffering, which is the only kind of suffering there is. Therefore, I have no interest in wasting time discussing idealist answers to this question. The distinction between “spiritual” and “material” is hereby abolished. We are, first and foremost, creatures living in the Real. We are material creatures. What we call “spiritual,” what we so wish to delusionally think of as over and above the socio-material reality of human existence, is in fact what is most deeply human, which is to say the most deeply social and, hence, the most deeply material.
The attitude toward suffering employed by Western Buddhism is to assert that suffering is an illusion that must be “seen through” via meditative introspection. In the Trash Community, we will reject this absurd notion and assert the opposite: suffering is real; it is material, ideological, social; and it must be acted upon materially, ideologically, socially.
II. On Desire
What are the operational desires that motivate a practice community? The prevailing desire motivating Western Buddhist sanghas is the desire to become a non-human:
X-buddhist typology cynically belies fear of the human of flesh and blood, and thus fashions in its place fantastic constructions of enlightened mutants.
What if we abandoned the project of becoming enlightened mutants? Is such a thing possible?
Maybe, maybe not. The desire to surpass our humanity is not merely an x-buddhist problem; this desire is the raison d’etre of human activity itself. Humans have, from the start of our history as humans, been engaged in the struggle against nature and against ourselves. Historical and technological development has been the attempt to overcome humanity and its limitations. Western Buddhism, in its marriage with capitalist individualism, has taken this activity, which has always been (and must always be) a collective activity, and made it appear as an individual one. Thus, x-buddhist “community” has taken on the function of not much more than supporting the individual’s quest for enlightened mutation, for overcoming a humanity which, quite frankly, is not hers to overcome.
We must, first and foremost, make this desire to overcome humanity—which is to say socio-material humanity, the only kind of humanity there is—explicit, wherever it may arise. We must resist the promise of non-humanity, of enlightened mutation, recognizing that overcoming the limitations of humanity has always been, and will always be, a socio-material project carried out collectively.
III. On Masters
There does not yet exist a liberated society, and therefore, there does not yet exist a single liberated human being.
The desire to become a non-human leads, naturally, to the search for an existing non-human who possesses the infinite wisdom and compassion to lead us to non-humanity.
Glenn Wallis observes in Trash Theory #1:
In x-buddhism, the teacher [the One-Supposed-To-Know] is the commanding figure who occupies the center of the practice community.
Is it possible to “once and for all negate this figure from our quest, from our image of thought, from our practice”?
Once we have made explicit the desire for non-humanity, and the sacrificial tendency that is born of this desire, we can declare a vigilance toward making this tendency explicit, in the act of crucifying the very idea of the One-Supposed-To-Know.
One of the difficulties in our Buddhist-Marxist retreat was the absence of leadership. Leadership is tricky. It is true that people have expertise, that some are more well-read or experienced in a given area. However, we are all equally human, which is to say we are all equally fucked when it comes to being a part of the collective suffering that is socio-material human reality. Therefore, there is no master who possesses the way out, be it through spiritual giftedness or some sort of extraordinary meditative talent.
A Trash Community, contra the prevailing image of Western Buddhism, shall operate on the presumption that there are no Masters.
What does this mean in practice? No one of us can say. The objective of Trash Community is to discover the answer to this question, not in the form of a transcendent knowledge which its members will have thus possessed and marked with a price to sell qua Masters, but within practice itself, practiced by humans who have resolved to abandon the fantasy of becoming non-humans.
IV. On Hierarchy & Institution
Hierarchies are celestial. In hell all are equal.Nicolás Gómez Dávila
There is only one social class in a Trash Community: those of us who recognize that we are in hell. None of us have the answer—least of all those of us who, like myself, have spent years chasing the devilish dragon that is the idealist promise of Western Buddhism, to dizzying disappointment. As such, we want to hear what everyone has to say, as long as we have agreed that we are in hell, and that there is no enlightened Master, no special class of spiritualists, who can save us and lead us to the Promised Land.
Moreover, The Trash Community shall be anti-institutional. What is the function of an institution? It is to take a social fact which is all but self-evident and establish it within some bureaucratic system, the function of which is to ensure that it is not questioned, to manufacture it as self-evident (the “rights of man,” bourgeois “freedom,” and so on).
The Trash Community is anti-institutional, because the principle of materiality, that our suffering is socially and materially constituted, is actually self-evident. This is a truth that does not need to be institutionalized—only remembered. That’s not to say that it is hard to forget. In fact, that is the question that should be returned to again and again: How do we stop forgetting?
V. On Practice
The big question that pumps through the veins of Trash Community is that of practice. I want to define the practice of Trash Community as an engagement with the question I raised in (I): How can we become less indifferent and oblivious to the suffering that exists all around us? I also want this practice to follow from an acknowledgement that what we all mean by “suffering” is material, social, historical. There is no atman that suffers, and as such there is no atman upon which to operate via meditation. There are only social, material, historical relations—these are precisely what must be operated on. Can we begin from this presumption?
The practice, then, is taking general—what the x-buddhist wants to call “existential”—suffering, and materialising, socializing, historicizing it. Instead of the idealization of suffering, which has been the practice of most of Western Buddhism, the practice for the Trash Community is making the material, social, and historical reality of our suffering explicit, and not obscuring it with idealist theories of suffering, be they x-buddhistic, existentialist, or so on.
What, precisely, does this practice look like, particularly in relation to the usage of Buddhist thought? In the context of making use of Buddhist thought material as practice, I have here in mind the Marxian conception of practice, particularly Louis Althusser’s notion of practice, by which he means “any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation affected by a determinate human labor, using determinate means of production.” We must examine here each element in this definition. The “determinate raw material” is, of course, Buddhist thought material. The “transformation” is Buddhist thought material fashioned in a determinate way into a “determinate product,” a product which may take on a variety of forms.
The emphasis on form is of some importance; it forces us to consider what is meant by the “determinate means of production.” The means of production available in any given society allow for particular forms of cultural material to be produced. Walter Benjamin, in emphasizing the question of the position of literature within the means of production of a particular stage in the historical development of society, breaks with what had been, in some instances of Marxist literary criticism, an exclusionary emphasis on the role of content over that of form. Terry Eagleton, in Marxism and Literary Criticism, explains that
What Benjamin means by this is that art, like any other form of production, depends upon certain techniques of production–certain modes of painting, publishing, theatrical presentation and so on. These techniques are part of the productive forces of art, the stage of development of artistic production; and they involve a set of social relations between the artistic producer and his audience (57).
Benjamin is, of course, referring to the production of art, but in our age, I would argue, his insights can be applied to all forms of cultural production, including the production of Buddhist material which I am referring to as practice. Let us consider this statement with respect to the practice of the production of Western Buddhist material. The most common form in which Western Buddhist material has been produced—the book—is one entirely dictated in our society by the logic of capital that grinds the gears of the publishing industrial complex, whereas newer forms have emerged—in the case of Western Buddhism in particular, blogs, podcasts, and so on—that, though constrained in the last instance by the dictates of the logic of commodity production and consumption, nonetheless constitute forms which may to a certain extent be alienated from it.
Thus, what I have in mind when it comes to practice, as defined above, is in part an expansion of the forms in which Buddhist material is produced. The literary or artistic producer, Benjamin argues, does not exist in a social vacuum, fashioning her product out of the mist of of her own imagination. Rather, she starts not only with the raw cultural material necessary for the transformation of that material into a product which has not existed before her labor, but also with a particular means of production which she relies upon for her labor to be possible, these means of production being determined by the particular stage of the development of a society and preceding her very existence as either artist or human being. Furthermore, these means of production, and in turn the possible forms in which cultural material is produced, also produce certain social relationships between creator and consumer, artist and audience, and so on.
Revolutionary art therefore consists not only in producing cultural material with a particular content or “message,” but also in changing the very forms and forces of production within which such content is fashioned:
For Benjamin, the revolutionary artist should not uncritically accept the existing forces of artistic production, but should develop and revolutionize those forces. In doing so he creates new social relations between artist and audience; he overcomes the contradiction which limits artistic forces potentially available to everyone to the private property of a few, cinema, radio, photography, musical recording: the revolutionary artist’s task is to develop these new media, as well as to transform the older modes of artistic production (57).
For us, then, revolutionary Buddhist practice—by which I mean practice aimed at the reduction of suffering by transforming existing reality into something other—must consist in the first place of the transformation of Buddhist thought material into a “determinate product” which is radical both in content and form. It must be capable in this process of producing, moreover, new kinds of social relationships which differ from those produced by the dominant forms of Western Buddhist thought material currently on display in the spiritual marketplace.
The function of the Trash Community is thus to facilitate this kind of practice:
“the transformation of a determinate given raw material [Buddhist thought material] into a determinate product [a product that enables us to become less oblivious and indifferent to the suffering all around us], a transformation affected by a determinate human labor [philosophical (or non-philosophical) and dialectical thinking, writing, speaking, painting, acting… whatever] using determinate means of production [the tools necessary to create content within such or other forms].”
VI. On Format
Finally, given the above, let us set out what the format of our meetings might be. I want to keep this open to a variety of views, while at the same time setting certain non-negotiable limitations, such as what I’ve said so far.
In keeping with (III) and (IV), anyone can lead a group discussion on any topic, provided it addresses the fundamental question posed above and adheres to a strictly materialist conception of suffering, or at the very least is, in principle, committed and sympathetic to such a conception. The kind of practice briefly outlined above is difficult. Because of the material conditions of our societies, it is extremely difficult to imagine that our suffering might be anything other than a personal, atomistic phenomenon that can be understood and changed individually through some sort of “spiritual” practice. It would be absurd to expect us all to always be aware of this, and this is precisely why we need a practice that addresses this problem.
In the past, we’ve had people suggest texts, and facilitate discussions based on these texts. I would like this format to continue, with the following addition: it must be made clear how the text relates to the question that I proposed to be the object of the Trash Community project, and this relation can be one of obscuring it or making it clearer (either is welcome, as long as the nature of the relationship is made explicit). I also want to emphasize the practical aspect of the project, so that the result of these gatherings is the production of new Buddhist thought material.
It may be useful, as well, to dedicate a portion (a half hour, one hour?) of the gatherings to a “meta”-discussion on the project itself, its format, so as to resist institutionalizing what I say here, and keep open the possibility of some creative mutation.
I would like to call for a Trash Community gathering to discuss these six articles, so that it can be clarified, critiqued, revised, expanded, and agreed upon. Is there any interest out there in the kind of project I outline here?