Sunday, September 26, 2004

Zen and postmodernism

The KimcheeGI sends me some links related to that book reviewer, Jin Y. Park.

Link 1

Link 2

Link 3

Charlie writes: seems like she's trying to deconstruct Son and leans towards Won buddhism, but judging by titles, of course, is a dangerous supposition when dealing with anyone who claims the post-modern school.

[What follows is the text, slightly edited, of my emailed reply to Charlie. I thought it worth blogging, so voilà.]

PoMo on my monitor!

Augh! My eyes! My EYES!

The Derridean wing of PoMo makes claims that are to some degree consistent with Buddhist nonessentialistic thinking (e.g., the idea that, in the world of semiotics, there's no "transcendental signified"-- i.e., no foundation of meaning), but I'm wary of drawing too many Zen/PoMo parallels. I guess I'd have to (gag) read Park's work before I can judge her arguments, but if you're right that her project is deconstructive of Son, then one thing I'd look out for is whether she misses the brute fact that Derrida's differential PoMo schema is still, at its heart, dualistic. Zen isn't. Derrida is content to paint a picture of the eternal (inter)play of signifiers; he and many of his fellow PoMoers aren't too keen on moving out of the sandbox to deal directly with questions of process nondualistic ontology.

I think PoMo probably does have something to say, sociologically, about the role of power, gender, etc., in Buddhism as it's lived, but PoMo isn't a rigorously developed philosophical system. Rather, it's a label for a jumble of thematically related thought-streams, which limits its ability to make coherent critiques of... well, anything. PoMo puts a huge focus on things like "particularity" and "alterity," often presuming "irreducible diversity" in an attempt to prove that, when it comes to human phenomena, it's simply impossible to generalize. Two problems immediately arise, though:

1. PoMoers themselves end up making general claims, which is blatantly hypocritical.

2. Much PoMo thought is (deliberately) self-deconstructing, which means that after the chunk of PoMo reasoning dissolves in your mouth to a tasteless mush, you're left wondering what you just ate. In academic terms, it's almost impossible to know whether the PoMo writer herself believes the claims she's making-- i.e., is her goal to make the claims "stick," or is everything she's saying merely provisional and loaded with qualifiers?

To some extent, all academe demands qualifications. You can't just make a brute, bumper-sticker-style claim and expect to be taken seriously. Facile generalizations usually indicate a simpleminded approach to theory and research. But PoMo's absolute insistence on irreducible diversity, alterity, pluralism, etc. is unbalanced: if we assume, blindly and from the outset, that it's impossible to make any general claims about human phenomena, then we're basically attacking one of the most important human faculties we have: the ability to construct theories and discern patterns. PoMo, in the French tradition from which it largely springs, worships cosmic absurdity and resists cosmic intelligibility.

PoMo is also, in the main, fighting so-called "totalizing metanarratives," i.e., grand theories that attempt to explain complex phenomena very simply. It's at war against "ahistoricality," i.e., claims that supposedly apply eternally to the human condition, regardless of historical period. There's some truth to the idea that we've leaned heavily on ahistorical claims in our theory-making over the centuries, but as someone like Dr. Vallicella would point out, there are entire classes of ahistorical things-- among them, mathematical truths like 2+2=4, which remain true regardless of time and place.

To put this in terms of the Heart Sutra: PoMo swings toward form (i.e., particularity and diversity); totalizing metanarratives swing toward emptiness (i.e., generality and unity). Neither approach is a balanced one. If anything, each needs the other.

PoMo is Yang taking out a knife and trying to amputate Yin.


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