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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What can we learn from nutjob Phil Spector, George Harrison, and John Lennon?

A few days ago, I commented on this article: 'Those who support democracy must welcome the rise of political Islam' This is what I said (you can read it as it appeared in the paper if you like):

Hear hear. It is difficult for the so-called secular liberal west to accept this because it lays bare its conceits: 
1.) the ideology that religion is a superfluous remnant from the past that we ought to have 'gotten over', something that has no relevance in today's world, effectively marginalises the plight of the overwhelming majority of the world's population who are struggling against environmental and/or sociopolitical hardship and for whom their faith offers the only horizon of hope; 
2.) the conceptualisation of 'religion' in this ideology derives from a specific European cultural history and cannot be unambiguously applied to knowledge practices around the world that appear to share formal elements; 
3.) the view that secularism is diametrically opposed to religion is a myopic one that mis-recognises how 'secularism' developed out of and continues to be shaped by Christian outlooks, and how the deployment of 'the secular' in contemporary politics in fact produces those 'religious' problems it grapples with. 
For me, what is most exciting about the Arab Spring is not so much Islam in and of itself (though I do appreciate some of its sacred wisdom), but the new configurations between religion, culture, and politics that it might inaugurate--new configurations that would give the so-called secular liberal west (whose privileges I enjoy btw, and would have great difficulty giving up) a much needed slap in the face, as if to say, 'Recognise your own history. Take responsibility for the continuing effects of your imperialistic egocentrism and greed. Don't be smug, don't be hypocritical. Stop abusing the rhetoric of 'freedom' and 'equality'; stop using it to avoid confronting how you are still driven by the same egocentrism and greed.'
The overwhelming majority of the other comments do not share my views. Most of them made the usual arguments about the 'evils' of Islam (and religion more generally) and how it is totally incompatible with secular democracy. I wasn't surprised by such responses; they've been articulated many, many times. But I was somewhat disappointed that very few seemed willing to engage with the article. To my reading, the article is saying: 'Look, these Muslims are genuinely struggling for secular democracy. Yet, they are also committed to their religion. If we are truly committed to the ideals of democracy (which involves, amongst other things, the freedom to participate in religion), we have to seriously consider the possibility that for these societies, religion, politics, and culture are tightly interwoven. So let's not denigrate the effort that the people of the Arab world are exerting to secure a better future for themselves. Let's re-examine (western-centric) assumptions about Islam.'

Now, regardless of whether you agree with my comments (which, btw, are based on current critical scholarship on the political and ideological effects of 'secularism') or with the points raised in the article, I think it is not unreasonable to say that the reluctance to engage with Islam--the unwillingness to reconsider assumptions about the religion despite the fact that it plays a crucial role in the everyday lives of millions who are struggling against real hardship--this unwillingness to accept difference, to allow others to be 'other', suggests a severe lack of empathy in those 'secularists' or 'non-believers' who dogmatically refuse to examine their own position (this applies to dogmatic folks of all persuasions, really).

This is where Phil Spector comes in. On the night before I read the article, I was watching the documentary, The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector. What I want to talk about is not Spector's trial--I think regardless of whether he is guilty or not, it's quite obvious that the man has a lot of issues; he is clearly a nutjob, albeit one with AMAZING musical talents. What I'd like to talk about is his relationship with George Harrison and 
John Lennon. At one point in the program, the interviewer asked Spector how he could, on the one hand, work with George Harrison to produce songs like 'My Sweet Lord' (which be seen as an expression of 'belief'), and on the other, work with John Lennon to produce songs like 'Imagine' and 'God' (which can be seen as expressions of 'non-belief'). Spector, who had proclaimed early in the program that he doesn't believe in God, said something to the effect of: 'All I had to do was convince George that I could believe as he believed.... Likewise, I had to believe as John believed.'

These songs by George and John have had a huge impact on many over the years. I've personally been moved by them; there's an intensity and authenticity to these songs that is hard to ignore.  But as I'm sure you've encountered in interviews with musicians/producers, a song is only as good as its production. Yes, George and John were the ones who wrote the songs. But Phil Spector has to be credited for the production, for bringing out the potentials of these songs, for helping George and John communicate what they felt. I doubt Spector would have been able to do so if he had not, on some level or another, genuinely empathised with the sentiments of the songs and felt what George/John felt. I think this is what he was trying to express when he said that he had to 'believe as George/John believed.' I don't think he was suggesting that he had to literally believe in Krishna as George had. Rather, I'd say that what he meant was that he could empathise with George's thoughts and feelings, and enter into a relationship of trust and good faith whilst they were together, and thereby produce a song about God even though he doesn't believe in it himself. Similarly, he could empathise with John's 
thoughts and feelings, and enter into a relationship of trust and good faith whilst they were together, and thereby produce a song that refuses to believe in any higher entity. At one point, Spector said, 'If George and John could get along [i.e. maintain a friendship and make music despite their differing beliefs] then why can't I?'

This, I believe, is what we can learn from Phil Spector, George Harrison, and John Lennon: empathy, the willingness to relate to another with trust and good faith, to feel as they feel, whilst letting the other be other, be different, be not-me, not-I, not-mine. On that note, I'll leave you with the two songs from the opposite ends of the spectrum, 'My Sweet Lord' and 'God'--I must, of course, post the album versions of the songs as a gesture of respect to Phil Spector: 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What is so feared about gay marriage?

The issue of gay marriage is receiving some attention here in recent months. I recently read a pithy, insightful remark by Leo Bersani (Prof of literary theory/cultural criticism at Berkeley) which cuts to the heart of what is so feared about homosexual relationships. Echoing a dead, baldy French philosopher (heh... Foucault) he said, 'what you are really afraid of is the threat to your privileges in the gay escape from relationships you created in order to protect your power.'

OK, I’m going to be deliberately lewd here; I’m assuming that people reading this would have the sense not to be offended by—if you are, well, I hope you get over it quickly. Bersani’s comment implies that it is not the fist fucking, anal reaming, and whatever exchanges of pleasure homosexual folks engage in that scare non-homo folks. Rather, it is the alternative social bonds accompanying and sustaining these exchanges that scare them, because these alternatives reveal the contingent nature of seemingly ‘natural’ relationships like the family unit, to cite just one obvious example. 

The seemingly 'natural' relationships constituting family unit and its role in society solidify what are really fluid notions of masculinity and femininity, thereby allowing many men to maintain patriarchal privileges, and many women to scoff at those who do not share their model of parenthood.  IMO, then, while the struggle for gay marriage seeks to ensure the right of gay individuals to express their loving relationships, it would be helpful if it is also mindful of how marriage--as it has been institutionalised--is increasingly less about love and more about socioeconomic access/privilege. To this extent, the struggle for gay marriage not only holds the potential to reconfigure received heteronormative notions of love, but also to reconfigure wider social structures and relations of power that held together by existing notions of marriage, and which are disguised by the rhetoric of 'love=marriage'.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I'm as much under the watchful eyes of another as others are under my watchful eyes

Another excerpt from the essay I'm working on, 'Inside or outside? Practitioner or scholar? Autoethnographical reflections of a postcolonial 'Western Buddhist'':

New Years Eve 2006--a hot, 40°C summer day. About fifty of us sit cross-legged in a poorly ventilated cabin in Woori Yallock, a small rural town in the state of Victoria, Australia. It is day five of a ten-day Vipassana meditation course and I am trying not to react to the pain in my right knee but to observe the sensation with equanimity, as we had been instructed. But I am getting increasingly restless. The heavy air and feeling of numbness spreading from my foot is making it quite unbearable to sit still. ‘Your body needs a break’, the mind rationalises. I open my eyes and gently uncross my legs with a quiet sigh of relief as the pain and numbness slowly dissipate from my sweat-soaked limbs. I'm seated at the back of the room, on the left where the men are. The women are on the right, separated by a pathway that leads to the elevated seat of the assistant teacher who sits facing us, his eyes shut in deep meditation (or were they in fact half opened? Did he just cast a quick glance around the room? I couldn’t be sure, not without my glasses). Surveying the backs of my fellow meditators, I entertain passing thoughts, ‘Good thing I’m seated back here. I can watch others without them seeing me. Even the assistant teacher can’t see me.’ But as the so-called ‘monkey mind’ is wont to do, an inner monologue quickly ensues. ‘How can you be sure? The assistant teacher could very well have been looking at you a moment ago. Anyone could have cast a glance your way without your knowing when you shut your eyes to meditate.’ Chuckling at its own musings, the mind continues, ‘I’m as much under the watchful eyes of another as others are under my watchful eyes. This gives an interesting twist to Foucauldian ideas about panopticism and subjectivation, doesn’t it? Well, why not? Why not research into Buddhist meditation with Foucauldian thought? Didn’t he write about the art of living and technologies of the self? Perhaps this could be a way to honour the Buddhist commitment to Right Livelihood: by bringing Dhamma and academic practice together?’

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Again, it's been a while since the last post. But as I'd mentioned, I'm going to approach this blog with a more relaxed attitude. I was probably posting more regularly some months ago as I had to work through some thoughts and ideas that I was grappling with in my research/writing. This is more or less why I started the blog in the first place: as a means to chart--to mindfully observe, if you will--the movement of thought, and to allow traces of this body-mind called Ed to co-mingle with countless other traces criss-crossing this nonspace of the Internet. 

So here's an update. Early in the year, I mentioned that I'm working on a paper that examines the ethico-political implications of Buddhist meditation with Foucauldian thought and Buddhist social theory. I had completed the paper but decided to overhaul it such that it now addresses a different set of questions. The paper is now called 'Buddhism, poststructuralist thought, cultural studies: a profession of faith', and it more or less summarises the general thrust of my dissertation. It will be published in February or March 2012, in a journal addressing the theme, 'Secular Discomforts: Cultural Studies and Religion'. The analysis of Vipassana I outlined is still presented in the paper, but in an abridged form (I now hope to rework the original plans for the paper into a submission for another journal, one with a Buddhist or religion studies focus). 

In the meantime, I've been asked to contribute to an edition of a religion studies journal that is addressing the theme, 'Religion and Postcolonialism.' Well, it's early stages yet, and I'm not sure if the paper would eventually be accepted. Nevertheless, I'm using this opportunity to map out the overarching narrative of my dissertation, which I will be working on intensively (I hope) in the coming months. At the moment, the paper is tentatively titled, 'Inside or outside? Practitioner or scholar? Autoethnographical reflections of a postcolonial 'Western Buddhist''. Below is the introductory sequence I've written; the final version would probably be different but this pretty much outlines the aims of the paper: 


Is there a place for autoethnography in Buddhist Studies, particularly the study of contemporary articulations of Buddhism? How might autoethnographic research elucidate the complexities, contradictions, or conceits of the ongoing narrative of ‘Western Buddhism’? While the label ‘Western Buddhism’ is widely used in academic and popular discourses to refer to the forms of Buddhism that have emerged in late-modern Western societies, it is important to recognise that its boundaries are amorphous and indeterminate. Nevertheless, its genealogy can at least be traced to European encounters with Buddhist traditions of Asia in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Under the conditions of colonialism, Buddhist texts and artefacts were excavated by the West and studied through Orientalist lenses. This early phase of scholarship set in motion discourses that foregrounded the ethical and the philosophical over the religious, reifying the textualised approach of the West as the most authentic way of understanding Buddhism, against which the practices of Asian Buddhist cultures were judged and found lacking. These discourses would proliferate beyond academic circles such that by the end of the nineteenth century Buddhism had become an object of knowledge and fascination amongst the general public of European and American societies. Although Western interpretations of Buddhism were deployed to secure ideological domination, it must be stressed that it also prompted the revivalism of the religion in Asian lands, where Buddhist reformers appropriated Western discourses to resist imperial hegemony and negotiate the challenges of modernity. These shifts and changes in traditional Buddhist understandings would in turn provide the seeds for some of the more distinctive forms of Buddhism that were to germinate in the West (or the Anglophone world at any rate). For instance, the revivalism of Japanese Buddhism paved the way for the popularisation of Zen during the countercultural decades of the 1950s and 1960s, while the revivalism of Theravada Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand paved the way for the emergence of lay-oriented ‘insight meditation’ groups which have taken root in places like Australia, the UK, and the US. 

Such developments across both the East and the West are described as ‘Buddhist modernism’, an ongoing process whereby the varied forms of Buddhism are attuned to and made contemporaneous with the social, cultural, and intellectual frameworks of its historical milieu. ‘Western Buddhism’ is situated on this historical continuum. It is not so much a unified movement as an evolving, nebulous constellation of different, and at times conflicting, ideas and practices, some of which maintain close ties with the religious sects/lineages of traditional Asian Buddhist cultures, whilst others distinguish themselves with non-sectarian or secularised interpretations of the teachings attributed to the figure of the Buddha. This essay will revisit some critical analyses of Buddhist modernism to examine the interstitial spaces of ‘Western Buddhism’. The aim is to explore the contributions of autoethnography to what is described as ‘Buddhist critical constructive reflection’.

The following highlights the key moments of an ongoing autoethnographic project that investigates how a postcolonial subject moves inside and outside ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’: suspended in in-between-ness and unfolding as hybridity, how may one who is both a practitioner and scholar of Buddhism honour one’s commitment to the normative truths of the religion and the principles of the secular academy, whilst traversing the boundaries between them? What is this ‘I’ that is bringing religious inspiration to academic work and academic knowledge to religious pursuit? What is the ‘I’ that discovers and develops faith through a coterminous practice of Buddhism and sociocultural analysis? These questions of the ‘I’ are prompted partly by the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or not-self, and partly by poststructuralist theories of knowledge, ethics, and subjectivity guiding the project. If autoethnography refracts scholarly inquiry through the prismatic experiences of the researcher—interweaving memoirs, narratives, and/or other autobiographical expressions with critical analyses to interrogate the discursive regimes, social structures, and relations of power circumscribing both the subject and object of inquiry—where would it locate this ‘I’ that straddles Buddhism and academia, East and West? What would the ‘writing of self-writing’ elucidate about contemporary articulations of Buddhism? How might autoethnography facilitate conversations between Buddhist scholarship and communities? To explore these questions, here writes the reflections of a postcolonial ‘Western Buddhist’.