Foucault and Buddhism Redux

Caveat: Comparing two distinct trajectories of thought–considerably removed in time, place, historical development, context, background assumptions, socio-cultural surroundings etc. is a problematic endeavor. Why do it? One is essentially appropriating some aspect of each trajectory for one’s own uses. So one must be careful not to contribute to the various systemic forms of domination that play out: e.g. those that inform why we are choosing to care about these trajectories of thought as opposed to others and may not be independent from problematic interests; the way we speak about each may be impacted by forces that contribute to systemic oppression (i.e. orientalism); our goal in comparing is never separate from our own interests, and we must be careful about the potential productive use our comparing can do).

Taking these concerns and others into account, I’d like to compare Foucault and Buddhism to elaborate on why one would compare Foucault and Buddhism. Just as in the caveat above, any contribution to knowledge is the putting into play of a discourse for certain effects. In this (my) interpretation (i.e. for this post, this instance of comparative work) the intention is to speak about social justice. Social justice is many things to many people, so perhaps a working definition is in order. To whit: Social justice is the idea that domination should be eradicated, and socio-economic, gendered, sexual, racial (etc.) equity is a major part of combating domination. Domination comes in many forms, but the most productive forms of domination are institutional and structural and impact the individual lives of everyone. With this insight, social justice is the analysis of, critical engagement with, and strategic operation against the institutions and systemic processes within which domination operates.

From this perspective, when comparing Foucault and Buddhism, we can see prima facie (and understandably, given that idea of social justice is already heavily influenced by Foucauldian thought), that Foucault’s analysis of discourse, genealogical history, the construction of the subject and the disciplining of the self through institutions is an important and insightful examination of domination. One way we can think about Foucault’s answer to domination is to imagine that he is saying that these broader structures  are only continually reified in local instantiations–the sum and interrelation of which through history is what enables domination. Thus, strategically, and ethically, the opposite is true: it is only through local instantiations of strategic resistance to, and positive alternatives from, dominating relations that the work of social justice happens.

Buddhism’s concern is somewhat removed here. The telos of  Buddhism is different things to different people. Without going into the historical and comparative background, I think a plausible universal within Buddhism is the goal of the cessation of suffering, most commonly through the work of the cessation of attachment. How these two things play out in Buddhist history is exceptionally varied: from the 8-fold path, to the bodhisattva vow, to the six or ten perfections (depending on the tradition), etc. Two common themes develop in Buddhist history: the cessation of suffering at an individual level (in Foucauldian terms, the construction of the self that suffers less); and, the cessation of suffering at a universal level–that is, the goal of alleviating suffering for all sentiant beings (or sometimes just ‘the most one can reach’). The latter can speak to something similar to social justice: within the category of suffering are those things that lead to the more ‘mundane’ sufferings of poverty, illness, violence, etc., and also the more ‘existential’ suffering of uncontentedness engendered by, say, impermanence. The former theme of the cessation of suffering is a very local one: how does one produce one’s ‘self’ in such a way as to continually decrease one’s own suffering.

The trite part of my analysis comes in here: it seems to me, from the perspective of social justice, Buddhism only works at the level of the individual subject and at the level of a universal abstract. From this same perspective, Foucault’ s analysis works in between these, but only offers up the method for challenging and producing subjects and also leaves for continual re-imagining the goal (the abstract universal telos) of strategic work. In both cases, one could say that he leaves the end-product up to each of us. I would like to imagine, for this comparison, that these two ways of thinking about Foucault and Buddhism are complimentary. The open ends that Foucault leaves us, when filled with my abstract Buddhist analysis above, can be interpreted to speak towards social justice.

The work of re-imagining the subject could be predicated on constructing one’s subjectivity (through whatever practices) towards the goal of the alleviation of suffering. This subject-construction must work in tandem with the more abstract end of one’s reconstructions: the alleviation of suffering for everyone (or, in utilitarian terms: the least suffering for the most amount of sentient beings). What Foucault’s analysis allows us are the tools to interpret the systemic and institutional forces that shape domination and the expanding of suffering, and allow us a method towards which we can work for the cessation of suffering at an individual, local level for broad universal effects. Put another way, perhaps more negatively, Foucauldian analysis fills in the gap between the individual and the universal goals of dukkha-nirodha (the cessation of suffering) that is lacking in Buddhism. Buddhism can help concretize the open-ended nature of Foucualdian subject-construction.

Indeed, put in this light, I would argue that Buddhist goals and aims are on par with other social justice perspectives like feminism, post-colonialism, anti-racism, marxism, etc. that attempt to use Foucault to develop strategies of analysis and resistance to fight Patriarchy, Orientalism, Racism, and socio-economic imbalance, etc. Buddhism, when put within the list of social perspectives, could use Foucault for strategies to fight Suffering. Add dukkha to the list of intersectional oppressions, and use it in conjunction with feminism, post-colonialism, etc.–perhaps even include it, from this perspective, within the list of progressive doctrines. And, since we love labels, call it Progressive Buddhism.

Inspired by this thread: by Klonke at Feministe.


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One Response to “Foucault and Buddhism Redux”

  1. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] For those who come here with an interest in Buddhism, try Buddhism Does Not Exist, or Foucault and Buddhism: Redux. […]

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