Or, Toward an eco-Buddhist-processualist cultural criticism

Note: This is work in progress and probably won’t be published for a while, and not in this form in any case. It comes from an attempt to theorize an ‘ecocritical’ understanding of culture that is in dialogue with the Marxist tradition of social and political analysis, Derridean poststructural philosophy, Buddhist psychology, and the psychoanalysis of Freud, Lacan, and Zizek, among others. I welcome comments.

For Fredric Jameson, it is history, understood in Marxian terms as a series of changing relationships among and between social groups and their systems of material production, that serves as a relatively stable ground or horizon against which the vicissitudes of human culture play their figure. For Derridean deconstruction (and other brands of poststructuralism), there is no ultimate ground, and textuality in its groundless infinite play is what shows us this most clearly. For the approach I’m working on, rooted in a more naturalistic understanding of the world than Derrida’s and a more ecological one than Jameson’s, there is similarly no ultimate ground, but there are relative grounds that can be found in the unfoldment of social and ecological relations. The hermeneutic I’m proposing doesn’t leave us errantly wandering among texts and discourses (as does deconstruction), but leaves us ethically responding to others (as many deconstructionists themselves do) among relations that are simultaneously material and biological (a la Marx and Darwin), discursive (a la culturalism), and imaginal-phantasmic (a la psychoanalysis).


The role of history is different here than it is for Jameson for two reasons. The first is that one person’s history is not identical with another’s, and there is therefore no ‘true’ history that can be appealed to; as a narrative of the past informing the present, history is part of the shifting ground of human discourse. Secondly, it is not so much the past that grounds as it is relations with the Real – which, loosely following Lacan, I would define as ‘the fullness of experience that eludes signification.’ We cannot say anything concrete about the Real, since it eludes signification, but we can say that our sense of it (which for humans can be both a conscious and an unconscious sense) varies depending on our own conditions of life experience. Freud recognized this as biographical, Jameson recognizes it as sociohistorical, and I’m proposing that it also be recognized as broadly ecological.

If one’s foundational experiences of security and oneness, formed in the earliest stages of life, shape their sense of the Real, so do one’s experiences of the social and ecological world. One’s sense of the Real would be different for someone born and raised during an anarchic wartime than it would be for someone born and raised during a prosperous peace. It would be different for one raised in slavery than it would be for one raised in egalitarian conditions. One’s positioning within these relations – military commander or vulnerable child, slave or slavemaster – affects one’s conscious and unconscious sense of the Real; and it is this that results, for instance, in the slavemaster’s haunted dreamlife and his fears of the revenge of the ‘primitive savages’ whose subjugation his own welfare depends on. In the same way, one’s sense of the Real would be different for one born and raised in an environment that features intimate exchange with other species, reliable and recurrent provision for the survival needs of one’s social group, and a sense of belonging in a spacious and storied landscape, than it would be for one raised without such things. It would also be different in a world which is haunted by the spectre of potential or possible cataclysm, whether that be the nuclear ‘mutually assured destruction’ I grew up with or the eco-catastrophe my students are growing up with today. It is in this sense that we can speak of an ‘ecological’ or ‘ecopolitical unconscious.’

Since the world of our experience is shaped by discourse and language, by social and material relations, and by bodily sensations, desires, imaginings and phantasms, cognitions and proto- or pre-cognitions, there will be a disjunction between the sum total (and potential) of these sensings (the Real), the imaginary formations of these sensings within which one’s desires get their bearings (the Imaginary), and the linguistically symbolized and ordered world in which the self/identity emerges, develops, and unfolds (the Symbolic; I realize I’m using these terms slightly differently from Lacan). The work of critical interpretation is to get beyond the third level to the more primary ones.

Derridean deconstruction tells us little about the first two levels (Real, Imaginary), picturing the first as nothing beyond the free flow of the liberated elements of the second and third, with an emphasis on the third. Buddhist onto-phenomenalism shares this deconstructive picture, but with a greater emphasis on the first and second levels in that it is less interested in deconstructing words than in deconstructing thoughts, tracing them to the desires underlying them (the second level) and ultimately to what is at their heart, which Buddhism (Madhyamika Buddhism, at least) portrays as a luminous or radiant, self-subsistent and self-generating ‘emptiness.’ This qualifier of ‘underlying luminosity’ is significant: Buddhism is sometimes misunderstood as a kind of nihilism, but it differs from a secular, value-free nihilism by making a distinctive leap of faith into the nature of that first level. Specifically, Mahayana Buddhism claims that the nature of reality is ultimately benevolent and that this insight into reality gives rise to spontaneous compassion, since at this level there is no division between (illusory) egos, but rather there is a sense of the shared commonality and solidarity with all sentient beings – all other beings (or becomings) finding themselves in the process of becoming, struggle, and so forth.

Buddhism, or this anti-essentialist variant of it, can then be understood as a form of ‘deep deconstruction,’ where what is being deconstructed is not only texts and the linguistic or symbolic realm, unveiling reality as an infinite play of sliding and unfixable signifiers. Rather, it is the very nature of selfhood – concepts of self as well as convictions of self-identical existence (the ego) and the bodily, emotional and mental experiences that underpin these convictions. These are deconstructed to unveil the play of experience as a kind of relational field characterized by desire and suffering, which is shared across subjectivities (including any arisings of subjectivity, not just human individual ‘subjects’) and which unfolds through the interconnected actions and events that make up the life process.

While Buddhism is a rich set of traditions encompassing many diverging schools, the Mahayana Buddhist philosophical tradition I am drawing from can be represented through a simple formula, which is taken from the modern Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The formula essentially defines emptiness (or the self beyond illusion) as “empty in essence, cognizant in nature, unconfined in capacity.” In other words, at the heart of experience is an emptiness, a non-self, which is aware (of what is going on) and agential, that is, capable of acting. Recognizing the emptiness of one’s ego, not just theoretically but experientially, especially as a result of extended meditation practice, one gains insight into the effects of one’s actions on others.

While some traditions of Buddhism de-emphasize any social implications such insight might generate, the Mahayana tradition celebrates those figures, known as Boddhisattvas, who have attained such realization and who have in turn devoted themselves to spreading it and to guiding other beings toward liberation from suffering. The tradition of engaged Buddhism, as it has been developing in Asia and in the West, takes its impetus from this form of commitment.

The systemic level: Always ecologize!

But while it is helpful at the microscopic/molecular/individual level, it does not help us as much at the systemic level, where we need to understand the complexity of larger sociopolitical and techno-economic systems and the historical dynamics they evince.

If for Marxism, as Fredric Jameson puts it, what is essential is “the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity” (Political Unconscious 19-20), a struggle that occurs through the wresting of truth from ideological falsity, for a post-humanist or post-anthropocentric political ecology what is essential is a collective struggle to wrest a realm of compassionate solidarity from a realm of suffering based in delusion.

If the prime directive for Jameson is “Always historicize!” (Political Unconscious p. 9), for onto-phenomenalist eco-deconstructionists it is “Always ecologize!”, with the understanding that this ecologization be a political and historical one, not merely a scientific or crudely environmentalist one. It can be rephrased as “Always contextualize within the networks of social, historical, and political-ecological relations that make up the broader world and ‘ground’ of the object being examined.”

For his historical understanding, Jameson draws heavily on Ernest Mandel’s four phases of capitalism: early, industrial, imperial, and late. Our political ecology can take in a much wider lens, one which Marx and Engels grappled toward, but the details of which we can fill in much more readily today than could they. The full spectrum of political or cultural ecologies includes small-scale societies subsisting on hunting and gathering or on farming and pastoral relations, as well as the vastly bureaucratized civilizations that Marx and Engels had only a premonition of. It also includes the history of imagined relations between selves and others, such as colonial depictions of otherness – of primitives, brutes, and savages, depicted against hierarchic scales of ‘civilization’ or ‘development’, with all their mappings onto race, gender, social class, community, nation, and species. This diverse history, or at least the sensed relation of oneself to that history, becomes the ‘horizon’ for criticism in this mode.

Where Jameson, for instance, would read nineteenth century novels in terms of their mediation of the social realities and unequal class relationship of industrial capitalism, our political ecology would broaden the lens to include the loss of access to and affective connection to land (through land enclosures and neoliberal privatization) and the sudden emergence of chaotic urban conditions faced by the industrial proletariat or today’s global shanty-town underclass, etc. Industrial capitalism would be defined not just as a new form of relationship between social classes, but also as a thorough change in relations between people (social classes) and land, a deterritorialization and reterritorialization of these relations. A similar process occurs through colonization and eventually through globalization, both of which involve the enclosure of land into new structures of commodity relations, ownership and access (or lack of it) of land, and associated class relations.

If cultural criticism, for Jameson, means reading texts as embodying the repressed features of historical anxiety and trauma, then surely these altered relations to places, animals, landscapes, and environments will be felt at a level consciously or unconsciously recognizable to users of these texts.

More to come, eventually (bringing Deleuze & Guattari into the picture, no doubt)…

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