John Clark’s recent article in Capitalism Nature Socialism, “On being none with nature: Nagarjuna and the ecology of emptiness,” has gotten my neurons firing in a productive way. Clark is a political philosopher whose book The Anarchist Moment had long ago excited me about the prospect of melding together a Daoist-flavored, but Murray Bookchin-inspired eco-anarchism with a Foucauldian critique of power. Clark abandoned his Bookchinian social ecology years ago, finding Bookchin’s project too limiting (though he still sees the need to periodically inveigh against it). But it’s good to see that he is still working on a socio-ecological project that continues to synthesize, deeply and thoroughly, from eastern as well as western traditions.

This particular piece is among the best attempts I’ve seen to apply Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (Madhyamika) philosophy to environmental ethics, and it raises issues of relevance to ecophilosophy, the relational/objectological debate that featured here a little while ago, and eco-social liberatory practice. Since the article is only available through a personal or institutional subscription to the journal, I’m cutting and pasting some favorite passages into this post, interspersed with comments recontextualizing Clark’s argument within the philosophical currents I’ve been exploring here — specifically, Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan/Zizek, and others. What follows isn’t an in-depth philosophical analysis, and there remain many issues one could try to work out in the relationship between these different thinkers and traditions. I just wish to point out some of the resonances here. (And, sympathizing with Tim Morton’s — that Deleuzian anti-Deleuzian’s ;-) — recent lament about Derrida’s burial beneath mountains of Deleuze, I’ll briefly touch on their compatibility here, at least in a cursory way. They are both, after all, “philosophers of difference” — as one might argue Nagarjuna is, too — but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there remain large differences, no pun intended, between their philosophical projects.)


First I should say that, with reference to the relational/objectological debate debate, the core Buddhist concept of “dependent origination” is as clear a statement of the process-relational position as any. Clark reiterates (Nagarjuna specialist) Jay Garfield’s analysis of a tree in relational terms, according to which the tree’s “existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells; etc. [this follows an examination of the tree's spatial and temporal boundaries], are all conventional. Removing its properties leaves no core bearer [of those properties] behind.” In other words, the thing we call a “tree” is, as Buddhists say, empty of inherent self-existence; its essence is nothing other than the properties and conditions of its self-manifesting.

This goes against Graham Harman’s (and others’) argument that there is something more to any object than its properties, relations, and conditions. For Buddhism, there is nothing (no-thing) left over. But that is not to say that there is, in fact, nothing… There is the process-relational flux of what Clark calls “nature naturing,” the continual coming into existence and passing away of the experiential bits of the world, all of which is quite real. The point is not that these things don’t exist; it’s that they can’t be pinned down. They aren’t things — they are processes, and when we try to fix them in our minds using the tools we have for that (words and mental constructs), we fail. We can only follow them and respond, react, go along with, resist, interact.

Madhyamaka philosophy does not deny the reality of the world; to the contrary, it affirms it. I’ll have more to say on that shortly, but the basic point I want to underline is that the “negative” and “deconstructive” project that Nagarjuna is best known for — and I use the Derridean term here to indicate a strong resonance with Derrida’s philosophical project — goes hand in hand with an affirmative, “reality-based” project of the sort that, in current Continental philosophy, is best represented by Deleuze. I’ll return to this point below.

In his introductory paragraphs, Clark quotes eco-Buddhist poet Gary Snyder saying that ‘‘the greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, and conditional.’’ This becomes a running theme for the piece, and is why he turns the commonplace expression “becoming one with nature” into “becoming none with nature.” It is becoming, but not becoming “one” “thing.”

“According to the Buddhist analysis, we defend the ego through a futile quest to dominate a fugitive, ungraspable reality. Faced with the constant failure of this project, we experience both ourselves and the world around us as unsatisfactory and frustrating. Our own suffering leads us to inflict suffering on other human beings and other beings in nature, and to attempt to dominate and control them in pursuit of our impossible egocentric goals. Egocentrism takes on a multitude of forms, ranging from egoistic self-hatred and self-destruction to egoistic delusions of an expanded, universalized or eternalized selfhood.” (p. 9)

This depiction of the human psyche as perpetually frustrated by the failure of its project to “dominate a fugitive, ungraspable reality” is very similar to the psychoanalytic analysis, including, and perhaps especially, a Lacanian one such as Zizek’s (this despite Zizek’s ill-informed comments on Buddhism). I love the term “fugitive reality”; if I didn’t have a decent name for this blog already, I might be tempted to change it to something like that. Unlike psychoanalysis with its “talking cure,” however, Buddhism has traditionally taken a multi-pronged approach known as the “noble eightfold path,” with an important component (particularly for those delving further than the average person might) being meditation. On meditation and “nature”, Clark writes:

“It may not be self-evident that meditation is the most immediate practice of the non-domination of nature. However, once one has given up the dualistic view of nature being something ‘‘out there,’’ it is apparent that all that appears to consciousness, that is, within the space of appearing, is nothing more or less than ‘‘nature naturing.’’ Thus, the meditative practice of refraining from clinging to the objects of consciousness means allowing this ‘‘naturing’’ to manifest itself without control or obstruction. This practice as the asymptotic approach to consciousness degree zero is the most immediate (that is, the least mediated) practice of the nondomination of nature.” (p. 9, note 9)

Clark then develops the notion of an “ecology of emptiness”, with its negative and affirmative poles:

“Thus, it is true that Nagarjuna’s dialectic is perhaps the most radically negative one in the history of world philosophy, but, as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, it has a positive function in relation to our experience and relationship to reality. Negation ‘‘has the role of breaking down concepts to the point where the practitioner comes to rid himself of all discrimination and penetrates undiscriminated reality. [...] Nagarjuna’s goal, like that of all Buddhist philosophers, is to save all human beings, and indeed, all sentient beings, from suffering. His negative dialectic is an attack on the confusion, ignorance and illusion that leads to suffering. It is also an attack on the destructive attachments that accompany this confused thinking and lead to grasping, violence, and domination. Nagarjuna dialectically destroys various forms of knowledge as objectification, reification, domination, and appropriation, so that in the absence of such forms, experience can open itself more fully to that which is experienced. [...]

“What is experienced in this process includes all that we conventionally call ‘‘nature.’’ This nature is seen as the realm of samsara, the endless cycle of change, while nirvana is seen as the awakened and liberated state. But awakening is awareness of precisely such unending change. It is awakening to the true nature, or non-nature, of nature.” (pp. 13-4)

“Nagarjuna’s negative dialectic has the positive function of helping one experience nature as directly and openly as possible, free from conceptual distortions.” (p. 15)

“It is ironic that Nagarjuna’s critique of the substantiality of things has sometimes been labeled ‘‘nihilistic,’’ for his central practical and theoretical project entails an explicit attack on nihilism. Nihilism for Nagarjuna means a negation of and loss of faith in reality and in nature. It is an attempt to escape from the real world, that is, the world of the phenomena in all their ‘‘suchness’’ or ‘‘thusness.’’ He attacks ruthlessly (that is, with ruthless compassion) all conceptual escapes from reality, all substitutions of illusions for the realities of experience. Indeed, such nihilism is identified as one of the two extremes that are forsaken by those who travel the ‘‘Middle Way’’ of the Madhyamaka.” (p. 16)

Nagarjuna’s critique of nihilism, that is, of the escape from reality, mirrors Gilles Deleuze’s project of “restoring the belief in this world” (spoken of in Cinema 2).

“To say that all things are empty is merely another way of saying that they are dependently arising; that is, that they have no ultimate existence separate from the web of conditions of which they are a part. They exist only as conventional abstractions resulting from our processes of conceptualization. There are thus two levels of truth: the conventional (or relative) and the ultimate. Conventional truths are conceptual and verbal but play a quite real ontogenetic and phylogenetic role in view of their pragmatic value in both individual and species development. Our concepts are of instrumental value for a vast spectrum of purposes ranging from personal and collective survival and wellbeing to the control and domination of other beings. Identity and substantiality are therefore at best eminently useful fictions. Unfortunately, at worst they can be personally, socially, and ecologically destructive delusions.” (pp. 16-7)

“Attachment to the illusion of a separate ego creates deep insecurity, because it leads one to be always haunted by the nothingness, or lack, that one can never banish from this constructed selfhood as it is actually experienced. Through attachment to the ego, we fall into a kind of bad faith in which these intimations of emptiness are repressed, projected, and denied.” (p. 18)

This, again, is the point where Buddhism meets psychoanalysis. The key difference between Freud/Lacan/Zizek/et al. and Nagarjuna is that the former presuppose that this is all unavoidable — the best we can do is to come to terms with the ego (etc.) process and try not to get too caught up in the delusional tricks it plays on us. This is effectively a kind of “middle way” position that squares rather well with Buddhism’s “middle way” — except that Buddhism provides what are arguably more effective tools (refined and developed into quite a diversity over many centuries) for deconstructing ego-attachment. There is a risk, of course, in any such efforts, and Buddhism as itself a historical phenomenon is hardly immune to that risk. The Buddhist tenet that ego-attachment is avoidable, expressed in the historical and institutional circumstances within which Buddhism has evolved, has often tended to develop into a “life-denialism,” a kind of escape from reality rather than the affirmation of reality that Mahayana Buddhism (in particular) speaks so strongly of.

More to come . . .

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Related posts:

  1. Nagarjuna & ecophilosophy, pt. 2
  2. philosophy, salvation, & the world
  3. On ground and groundlessness: Jamesonian Marxism v. Derridean deconstruction v. Buddhist onto-phenomenalism (w/ guest appearances by Lacan and Freud, spiked all the way through with ecology)
  4. immanence & codependent origination
  5. spinning the Earth
  6. on Buddhism, objects, Zizek, Morton, etc.