Reality As It Is

It’s been nearly a year since I published my first piece on the Speculative Non-Buddhism blog. In criticizing the intellectual poverty of Western Buddhism, it is important to remain vigilant of our own ideological blind spots, and so I thought it would be interesting to return to my earlier critiques, to see how my own subjectivity has changed since that time, and to hopefully help others move beyond primitive stages of criticism. I recently decided to re-read my article “Reality As It’s Not” and, though I stand behind the spirit of the critique of Western Buddhism I presented there, I noticed that even in my very critique of x-buddhist ideology, I fell prey to many of the conceptual errors that lead someone to be attracted to something like Buddhism in the first place. I decided that it might be useful, both to myself and to others, to spend some time critiquing my own critique—particularly taking aim at the existentialist approach I was so fond of employing.

In the above-mentioned article, I used the work of the Norwegian existentialist Peter Zapffe to criticize what I saw as Western Buddhism’s tendency to, contrary to its claims that its goal is to see reality “as it is,” in fact avoid reality through the use of various tools from its “repertoire of cognitive defense mechanisms.” I want to begin by simply analyzing the very language of that phrase, in particular the use of the word “cognitive,” in order to show that, while the general claim that Western Buddhism spends all of its efforts avoiding reality remains true, the mechanisms by which they do so are not the result of some vague existential need of humans to repress, but rather arise from specific, historical contradictions within subjects of capitalism.

As I described in my piece, Zapffe’s claim is that the four defense mechanisms humans employ in their efforts to repress—isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation—have come about in order that we may “come to grips with existential anxiety.” Terms like “existential anxiety,” “existential suffering,” and “existential repression” are used frequently throughout my piece, and echo what I see as a popular error in the field of philosophy, an error which I was myself unaware of: the subtle transformation, in thought, of material circumstances into abstract idealisms.

In The German Ideology, Marx criticizes the Young Hegelians for mistaking their “ideas about ideas” for the material conditions of history. This confusion, according to which the history of humanity is reduced to the history of abstraction, is what leads to Max Stirner, for instance, to conceive of history in terms of his ideas about the religious and philosophical illusions of a given historical era, rather than in terms of the concrete material activity of the particular historical peoples under consideration, their material activity in relation to the productive forces of their society. For instance, Stirner conceived of the history of the Middle Ages in terms of the history of Catholicism, and as such had to explain the hierarchy of the Middle Ages by taking “the illusions of the Middle Ages on trust, in particular those illusions which the Emperor and the Pope brought to bear in their struggle against each other” (190). In reality, as Marx points out, the ideological struggle against feudalism “can only be explained by demonstrating . . . [the] practical material relations of feudalism.”

Indeed, a quite similar confusion is at play in much of existentialist theory, which Stirner himself greatly influenced, and which the author of “Reality As It’s Not,” in following Zapffe, gets caught. The confusion is one of existentializing the historical, such that that material reality, ideology, is thought in generalized abstraction and removed from its actual, which is to say historical, causes.

Take the way I describe, for instance, Zapffe’s theory of the development of this “existential repression:” These mechanisms “have been developed by humans in response to us having reached a particular milestone in our cognitive evolution” (emphasis added). The reason that “we”—”Man,” “Humans”—have developed these as of yet historically unspecified mechanisms is that our “cognitive evolution” has endowed us the “capacity to see ourselves for what we are.” And, given our “biological urge to survive [and] reproduce,” it’d be simply too terrifying for us to contemplate our “condition.”

It’s no small irony that this critique of x-buddhist ideology was itself ideological, and in fact ideological in much the same way in which x-buddhist ideology is; that is to say, these two ideologies result from similar historical conditions, and serve similar ideological ends. Let us preliminarily clarify some errors present in this “existential” treatment.

To begin with, the phrase “cognitive evolution,” which implies a conception of the historical development of humanity in terms of increased cognitive “capacities,” such as that of seeing ourselves “for what we are,” (and the “existential anxiety” which ensues from this “seeing”) is an obfuscation of the actual historical conditions under which particular human beings repress, the ways in which they repress, and the things it is that they are repressing. To wit: not a single human being in the history of the Earth has ever repressed anything whatsoever that can be called “existential anxiety.” This is because, in order to exist, humans must first “always already” be interpolated into a particular ideology which allows for her existence. There is no such thing as human existence without human ideology. What is repressed is thus always ideological, in that the content of the repression exists only as and in an ideology. First error clarified.

Second error clarified: In tandem with the idealist naiveties of the “science” of evolutionary psychology, I fell prey to the illusion which has it that the activities born of the human “biological urge to survive [and] reproduce” are best understood as those activities which are most primal, most free of ideology. In reality, these things are the most ideological of all, for neither of these activities are possible for human beings without social relations, and thus without ideology. What is repressed is not consciousness of reproduction itself, but the mechanisms of social reproduction, of the reproduction of the relations of production which in the first instance determine our formal capacity for biological reproduction.

What is the significance of these errors?

Just as with Stirner and the Young Hegelians, who “consider conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute independent existence, as the real chains of men” (Ger. Id., 30), a consideration which leads them to believe in the very illusions of those whom they criticize—so too the existentialist critique of Buddhism will necessarily “consider [the] conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness” of the x-buddhist to be their “real chains.” In my critique, for instance, I quoted Jack Kornfield, who describes the Buddhist refuge as that which is supposed to help us in “our journey as we move through joy and sorrow, gain and loss.”

My critique of this quote took “on trust” Kornfield’s own ideological description of what refuge provides for him, instead of recognizing that this description of his represents none other than his own illusions about what it is that he is repressing. The x-buddhist, in practicing refuge or meditation, does not repress abstractions called “sorrow and loss,” but rather they repress the consciousness of specific conditions of their material lives, material lives which exist under capitalism.

This point is difficult to grasp, so I will present another example. I included a quote from Kornfield in which he uses Victor Frankl to legitimize the concept of Buddhist refuge. Frankl “discovered”—and Kornfield re-discovered this invariable human phenomenon—”that most of those who survived the [Nazi] camps did so only if they had faith in a greater purpose for themselves and the world.” Kornfield goes on to say that, much like a holocaust survivor (recall that Kornfield is quite the victim himself, leading retreats that cost only the most modest of sums of upwards of $1500 per retreat), the subject of capitalism must find her “sense of purpose,” so that she can “orient and support” herself “amidst the fragmented pulls of busy, modern life.”

The implication is, of course, that material circumstances do not matter: whatever the form of suffering one experiences—be it due to Nazi persecution or capitalist exploitation—this suffering should be conceived simply as a general “existential” suffering, for which the cure is always the same: a bourgeois “sense of purpose.” There is no need to investigate the historical and social causes of this “busy, modern life.” We must simply take it on trust that the solution to this “existential” situation is the same of that of overcoming Nazi persecution.

The point here is to not, in fact, take the illusions of x-buddhism for granted. It is to recognize that their description of the kind of “suffering” which they imagine themselves to be practicing away is in fact just their own illusions about what they suffer from, insofar as they are entirely unconscious of the practical material relations which produce their consciousness.

Similarly, in my discussion of the strategy of “anchoring,” I took “on trust” what we as “Westerners” think about our own motivations for being attracted to Buddhism. I hypothesized that Buddhism is so attractive for the following reason:

Many Westerners . . . are increasingly recognizing the arbitrariness of their culture’s system of anchoring, which is clearly illustrated by the decline of religiosity in the West.

In seeking “existential relief” and failing to find it within the “anchorings” of Western culture—so my hypothesis went—people turn to the “mysterious East” to discover new forms of anchoring. If I had thought to not take “on trust” what we as Westerners think our motivations driving our attraction to Buddhism are, I would have looked to the actual material conditions that produce the actual motivations driving our attraction to Eastern spirituality. I would have instead concluded, for example, the correct explanation for this phenomenon, which is not that our religions are failing to provide us with a refuge from “existential anxiety,” but that our religions are becoming less and less adequate at reproducing capitalism.

This is why Buddhism is so attractive: not because humans have some kind of abstract need for comfort and security, but that humans have a real, material need for comfort and security, a need for which we have invented capitalism. Since our institutions are no longer as effective in reproducing capitalism, we turn to spirituality, which, as we have seen, is better than Christianity ever was at making capitalism appear desirable and natural. Instead of seeing our suffering as being the cause of real, material circumstances, we ascribe it instead to an abstract lack of meaning, to an existential suffering, and look for new illusions by which to cure us from our own abstractions, so that we may go on reproducing our social formation.

4 thoughts on “Reality As It Is

  1. I’ve never felt “existential anxiety” myself—but I’ve heard about it all my life. I’ve always suspected that those who feel it are really feeling something, there’s some real angst and unhappiness that they mean to describe. They’re just mistaken about what causes it. My understanding has always been that they are mistaking the alienation of capitalism for an ontological given—and so look for ways to tolerate, rather than eliminate, their misery.

    One thing I’m struggling with is the lack of terminology to discuss this. Someone like Zappfe isn’t really producing an ideology, in the strict sense of the term. He is not producing a relation to the relations of production, a way of living in the world that gives us a sense of naturalness, meaning, etc. What he seems to me to be doing is producing pseudo-scientific claims, which work in two ways: 1) to naturalize the existing ideology, presenting it as a state of nature and not as a humanly created thing, and 2) to help make the construction of any alternative ideology seem impossible, by preventing the production of real scientific knowledge about the causes of misery.

    Pseudo-sciences, or even just scientific error, often work this way—to prevent real knowledge about causes and conditions, and so to prevent the conceptualization of alternative practices (that’s just impossible—it defies the laws of nature, etc.—think of all the neuro-cognitive-everything disciplines today). So it isn’t really an ideology, but is an important support to an ideology—discouraging the creation of alternatives. There’s no real term for this, and I often wind up calling such practices “ideological,” which they aren’t exactly, which leads to confusion about the nature of ideology…

    I suppose blocking the creation of such terms is an important part, too, of preventing the production of real knowledge. As we saw from the 80s on with the rejection of the term “ideology” and the endless stupid books and essays on what a poor and confused concept it is.


  2. I also had trouble with the terminology in writing this piece (which, as you can see, is somewhat scattered). I would say that you’re right that the work of someone like Zapffe is not quite an ideology, though it is ideological in the sense that it functions to reproduce actual ideologies.

    This is the case, as well, with pretty much anything labeled today as “existentialism.” I did at one point feel something like “existential angst.” Of course, the real cause of my anxiety was no more “existential” than buying an expensive car is a “midlife crisis.” Instead, the discourses that made it so that that is what I thought I was feeling, these serve to obscure the real nature of anxiety, and so inevitably reproduce whatever ideology I happen to be unknowingly participating in.

    Perhaps one could call it simply a “discourse,” or an “ideological discourse?” In contrast to a scientific discourse—for instance, a Marxist analysis of a particular instance of “anxiety”—ideological discourses are those which have the very specific function of reproducing a certain ideology. A scientific discourse wouldn’t necessarily function in the reproduction of an ideology. It would merely provide us with a correct understanding of the world, and we’d have to decide which ideology we want to participate in based on this knowledge.

    I would want to distinguish, though, between ideological discourses that are merely that, and discourses which explicitly obscure real knowledge, and so make it impossible to present alternatives (for example, Zapffe’s pseudoscience). For now, though, maybe the term “discourse” is better than “ideology,” although perhaps even that term has another meaning elsewhere.


  3. I struggled to understand this piece initially and the argument presented. I have tried to reconstruct it below, though it is something of a caricature with some extrapolation. But here goes:

    You use phrases in the piece and comments such as “actual motivations”, “correct explanation”, “first instance”, “real nature”, “real cause” and “real knowledge”. The argument is that actual/correct/real explanations come from marxist analysis. Marxism is scientific, and hence is true, therefore marxism is true, and correct. Other modes of explanation, such as evolutionary biology, get the scare-quotes “science” and instead are pseudosciences because they conflict with a marxist analysis, which is the best kind of analysis.

    The marxist analysis advocated involves rejecting individualist and biological explanation of behavior for historical and sociological causes, encapsulated in the term “ideology” which describes how individuals interface with these causes, and these trump all other kinds of explanation for human behavior. Human activities that are social activities are “the most ideological of all”, so, most of them, hence why “ideology” can explain most of human behavior. The best way to understand historical and sociological causes and conditions is through marxist analysis, therefore all conscious experience is best understood by the “real/actual/practical material conditions/circumstances” people find themselves in, where “material” has a particular marxist meaning, and I think relates to dominant economic systems within a culture (a “mode of production”).

    The dominant economic system of capitalism for most people in the world today leads to subjects who don’t understand that their lives are conditioned by the dominant ideology (capitalism) and can’t conceive other ways of being. Capitalism is very bad, and we need to have a revolution to overthrow it with something that isn’t capitalism.
    Individuals aren’t able to understand the real causes of their behavior, because they follow capitalism, but if you use marxist analysis you can determine the real causes. If individuals do repress anything, it is because they are interpolated into an ideology, and the content of repression exists “in and as an ideology”, and hence can be explained through marxist analysis, the best and correct way to understand humans.

    Is that about right?


  4. Etz:

    What I was trying to argue in this piece is that what existentialists call “existential anxiety” is in fact anxiety produced by ideology, and that all ideology is historically situated. I employed Marx because Marx was the first to precisely reject the illusory and pseudoscientific abstractions of the kind Zapffe has produced (in his case he was dealing with 19th century German philosophy), and instead provide a correct explanation of a phenomenon by looking at the material conditions which give rise to it.

    I am not at all claiming that a Marxist analysis is suitable for understanding everything, or that biology is a pseudoscience. It would be quite absurd, for instance, to try to explain DNA conjugation in E. coli using a Marxist analysis. The method of dialectical materialism is a method for understanding societal and historical processes, and it is particularly useful for understanding how capitalism functions.

    As for your final paragraph, that is somewhat of a caricature. Dialectical materialism doesn’t say that “capitalism is bad,” or that “we need to have a revolution to overthrow it.” It simply aims to explain what capitalism is, and moreover what capitalism is in a particular society at a particular time. Again, Marxism is a method. It has a particular object of investigation (i.e. history/ideology) and it has its limitations (e.g. it does not explain the digestive system, because that is not its object of investigation). On this point, consider reading Capital to understand what the method is.


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