The New Subjective Body, #3–Detachment and Stillness.
By Otto Paans
This essay will be published in six installments.
#2 Modernity and Postmodernity: Two Types of Nihilism
The BIBLIOGRAPHY will be included in the sixth installment.
III. Detachment and Stillness
What must a new subjective position accomplish in order to resist the cycle of commodification, especially including self-commodification, and the demands of advanced capitalist production? It must start with detachment. But by that, I most emphatically mean neither a form of detachment that sits back in bitterness and/or resignation nor a form of detachment that consists in a quietist retreat into the woods. Both are forms of withdrawal. In firm opposition to withdrawal, by detachment, I mean a self-conscious act of pausing momentarily in order to let the world pass by. In Buddhism, this moment is called “turning the light to what is directly underfoot” (Nishitani, 1983: p. 4). And at that very moment, a shift in perspective takes place as a horizon of nothingness opens up at the very bottom of being. Being itself appears as embedded in a larger whole that erupts from within it, and that is not merely its negation.
I will have to say more about the nature of this nothingness, but for now, I’ll re-emphasize that the kind of detachment I am talking about is not any form of cynical or passive withdrawal, but instead attentively and actively sets one apart from the usual unfolding of everyday life. We find a similar thought in some medieval mystics, perhaps most prominently in Eckhart:
The masters extol humility above many other virtues. But I extol detachment above humility for this reason. Humility can exist without detachment, but perfect detachment cannot exist without perfect humility: for perfect humility ends in the destruction of the self. Now detachment comes so close to nothing, that between perfect detachment and nothing no thing can exist. (Walshe, 2018: p. 567)
Two points are worth mentioning here.
First, Eckhart’s thought resembles the Buddhist notion of nirvana: the overcoming of the ego, the Cogito, the cognitive, or the self-centered view of reality. This thought is familiar from the Buddhist tradition, although it is by no means its most important concept.
Second, and more radically, however, is Eckhart’s doctrine of the necessary equivalance of detachment and nothingness, thereby implying, by modus tollens, that not-nothing or being entails not-detachment or attachment. This thought is echoed in Buddhism, since attachment is often regarded as the source of all suffering. Here, we find a close corollary in the Bible. The man who approaches Jesus and wishes to follow Him is instructed to leave his material possessions and attachments behind. We are thus dealing with detachment in a qualified sense — one that rejects the lure of being and attachment in favour of nothingness. But simultaneously, Jesus’s instruction is an invitation to embrace a radical openness, a chance to open oneself to the world; and conversely, to give the world a chance to open itself up to oneself. Indeed, we see the same gesture in the Medieval monastic orders: following the respective founders St. Ignatius and St. Francis, members of both Jesuit and Franciscan orders were required to spend time as beggars, travellers, and pilgrims in order to experience humanity and the world from an “outsider” perspective. In doing so, they adopted an attitudinal disposition of creative and moral piety that was religiously expressed.
Returning to the idea of “detachment in a qualified sense,” we can see that it accomplishes two things at once.
First, it extricates one from the speed and rhythms of advanced capitalist production. One is no longer a “subject of speed” in a “city built for success.” Even the very notion of “success” becomes something alien, as if it were a norm from another planet. We can illustrate this effect by considering the view from a driving car. In moving along with 80 kilometres per hour, certain details of our environment cannot be noticed any longer: they become blurred. Due to the speed with which we move, they cannot appear on our sensory apparatus in great detail. This is the very reason that any environment that is built for cars looks grotesque once it is traversed on foot. All the signs that are meant to be seen and understood from a moving car appear as disproportionally large. Their physical appearance only make sense from the “position of speed.”
Second, the same line of reasoning applies to our essentially embodied existence in a advanced capitalist society built for speed, competition, and self-commodification. One must stand still for a moment to regard the appearance of advanced capitalist production for what it is: an amnesiac mirage that is focused on the near future and everything that can be had immediately. It is a world without a present, despite the old criticism that consumer society focuses only on the here and now. But it is not only the past that disappears in our contemporary environments of speed, but also the present as well. The “swipe,” i.e., the gesture with which reality disappears at a whim, is the ultimate non-present. It is the very notion of instability that is built into the simulacra of hypermodernity. This is why we read in the Bible the curious statement that we must become “like strangers on the Earth.” Quite literally, this amounts to be “born again” with such an intensity that one regards the world with new eyes. And what happens is that the world appears to those new eyes as utterly disjointed and strange. Above all, this disjointedness and strangeness appear as a composite phenomenon or mode of being that cannot be reconstructed into a coherent cognitive picture. But it is in this suchness (shinnyo/tathagata) that we are able to find the means to negate the seemingly all-encompassing advanced capitalist mode of production, as we will see.
To regain the present, one must be present first. Forget here the techniques of mindfulness or the type of commodified meditation practices with which burned-out bureaucrats, managers, and office workers are enticed into believing that they can counteract the damage they do to themselves daily, without actually having to reject or unlearn their bad habits. To become present, one must change speeds, focusing on the light underfoot. This radical shift in orientation effectuates a radical shift in speed.
To make the present fully present again, we must take stock of where we stand. And, quite literally, this amounts to an act of slowing down, or of stopping altogether. It is no coincidence that many meditative practices build on this act by starting from a stationary position. We can illustrate this with the example of a pebble that is carried by a strong current or wave. The forces exerted by the current or wave keep the pebble moving, overcoming its weight, and sweeping it along. Only when the current or wave becomes calmer or flattens out, will the weight of the pebble drag it down to the bottom. The initial step in finding one’s existential anchor, then, is to negate (and not ignore) the influence of societal and cultural forces and let one’s own weight do the work. We must interpret “one’s own weight” metaphorically and envision it as our inalienable existential agency, that is, as the capacity we have to act freely and authentically, for the sake nurturing and protecting our unique subjective perspective on the world.
But equally, we must think of “one’s own weight” as the effect that we can exert in the world. As long as we remain mere cogs in the global production structure of advanced capitalist production — as long as we remain “subjects of speed” — our existential agency lies dormant, as a capacity that is perpetually undermined and annulled. If we live for prolonged amounts of time in this state, we damage ourselves. Above all, we lose or damage the capacity for creative piety.
This is why seeking detachment is a primary duty to ourselves. When Kant wrote his famous exhortation to the effect that one must treat all human persons, including oneself, as ends in themselves and never merely as means, he tacitly assumed that the moral duties towards oneself and towards others are equally valuable and complementary. However, I wish to propose that duties toward oneself are primary. This may sound egoistic, or downright immoral, but it has nothing to do with self-interest or selfishness. Instead, it is the full recognition of three facts:
(i) Our world is thoroughly morally non-ideal. That is, we will always encounter situations in which our compliance with moral norms, standards, and values is not strict, and indeed typically cannot be strict, in view of our “human, all-too-human” nature and the brute fact of bad moral luck. Given these facts, we might look to laws, understood as absolutely universal, necessary, and strict rules.
(ii) But a law is always an idealization, and it is often unattainable or inapplicable across all conceivable situations.[i] It applies to a range of situations, which in a morally ideal world would overlap with all possible occurrences. But given (i), this is not and indeed cannot be the case. In turn, this means that laws cannot provide infallible moral guidelines. In such cases, we might look to principles, understood as rules that are at least conditionally universal, necessary, and strict.
(iii) Nevertheless, every principle is thoroughly indexical and context-sensitive. As per (i) and (ii), its scope varies in all specific ranges of real-world situations and all particular real-world situations, thereby leading to moral dilemmas. The best example is probably the seemingly at least conditionally universal, necessary, and strict principle “Thou shalt not kill,” which is repeatedly violated by the moral permissibility, or even moral obligation, in context, of killing in self-defense.
Given (i)-(iii), we can say that we have at least the duty of self-preservation towards ourselves. This does not merely mean that we are morally justified in defending ourselves against physical attacks, or that we are morally justified in choosing to save our own lives in life-or-death situations. Surely, such cases are clear for everyone. Instead, it means that self-preservation exceeds the narrow sphere or survival. As essentially embodied minded human animals with innately specified cognitive capacities, affective or emotional needs, and practical capacities, we are morally justified in preventing harm to ourselves. But this entails also that we must abstain from those influences that capitalize on our bodies and that exploit them. Moreover, when we generally apply this moral principle to postmodern hyperproductivity, this entails curtailing it corrosive influences on us. As we have seen, these influences range from enabling our addiction to digital media, to obsessive self-commodification, to coercive moralism, and to twisting one’s genuine selfhood into what Heidegger aptly calls the “they-self.” In short, it amounts to making people complicit in their own deformation, in all the relevant senses of that word.
Now, when we stop or reduce our self-commodifying, social media-driven activities, our newfound equilibrium reveals a form of stillness that emerges out of the ground of our subjectivity. This stillness is not the mere absence of movement or speed. Once we think of stillness in those terms, we misrepresent it: we forcibly make turn it into the opposite of speed. But that is not accurate. The opposite of speed is inertia. Stillness is an autonomous quality that grows once we allow it to, simply because it is an innate capacity of the rational human animal. The opposite of this stillness is not movement, velocity, or speed. Instead, it is the state of disquiet or restlessness It is precisely this state of existential disquiet or restlessness with which Augustine opens his Confessions: our hearts are restless until they rest in God (Augustine, 2008: p. 3). Disquiet or restlessness, then, is the opposite of stillness. Correspondingly, to be still is to be anchored and at rest; it is the crucial initial step in dealing with the existential nihilism diagnosed by Sartre.
But then, from the Buddhist point of view, quite a powerful objection can be made to my plea for being present. If I have to be present in order to make the present reveal itself again, I am still bound to a mode of Being (which implies “to be”) in which presence is prioritized over absence; fullness over emptiness; clamour over silence; attachment over detachment. A further possible Buddhist-cum-neo-Marxist objection could also be that this very concept ties me to the advanced capitalist cycle of production, simply because the premises I use to distance myself from it remain within the same framework of thought, one in which capitalism and production already have one foot in. The overall Buddhist objection, then, would be that being present is not radical enough: in staying within the field of Being, one is involuntary trapped in its workings.
This objection certainly applies to Sartre’s existentialism. His philosophical orientation is so bound up in the heaviness of being that it remains trapped in the very predicament it diagnoses. And, even despite Sartre’s insistence that his existentialism was really a humanism, it is a very curious humanism indeed. Yes, it recognizes the vastness of the universe, and the often-tragic character of existence. As such, it appears as a mature and inevitable form of thought, one that foregoes the comforting myths of the past in favour of facing up to reality “as it is.” But it is precisely this gesture of “toughness” or “facing up to reality” that covers up the fact that reality-as-it-is stretches well beyond the materialist confines within which the sciences work, and whose technocratic premises Sartre unwittingly internalized. It should also be said that Sartre was by no means alone in this, especially in the decades directly following World War II. The success of a book like Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be during the 1960scan be attributed only to a worldwide sociocultural condition of people who had lost their balance and footing, plagued by the deep insecurities that they had tried to paper over with post-War reconstruction and industriousness. Tillich starts with the concept of courage, a virtue that is sorely needed in the face of impending meaninglessness. But although Sartre and Tillich conceptualize the problem of the human condition very differently, they both propose the same solution: to go forth and create meaning. But then, in a world in which the assumed truth of natural science seems to undermine all meaning, and technocratic forms of government and advanced capitalist production reign supreme, being tasked with creating meaning is not the antidote to nihilism, but instead its cause. One is tasked with performing an impossible task, anxiously pacing back and forth between meaninglessness and the demand to create meaning. And it is this fundamental disquiet or restlessness that we find diagnosed in Augustine: the world and the demands it makes upon us cannot be ignored, yet the demands themselves cannot be satisfied by us. And while Augustine frames this tension in theological terms as the strained relationship between God and His sinful creation, it uncovers the very same tension: to be expected to be perfect, while one’s capacities always fall short of the task.
This is why stopping at the level of Being is insufficient; a second step is necessary, one that has to do with its apparent opposite: Nothingness. For example, if we closely examine Meister Eckhart’s notion of detachment, we notice that detachment and nothing (or better: Nothingness) are like treated as almost equivalent. In a sermon, Eckart puts it as follows:
[G]od is not a Spirit, according to the words of St. Gregory (…) Therefore he says “He came to a place”. The place is God, Who gives position and order to all things. I have said before that all creatures are full of the least of God, and grow and flourish therein, and His greatness is nowhere. (Walshe, 2018: p. 222, sermon 39)
Eckhart describes God as a place — a topos. “God” is a place from which to act, an anchor to connect with and derive strength from. This anchor is not a dogma or set of firm convictions, but the very principle “[that] gives position and order to all things.” But what kind of position and order? It surely cannot be the mechanistic worldview, according to which every part of the natural and social universe contributes atomistically to the operations of a cosmic clockwork. If we were to accept that idea, then we would end up again with a theistic or deistic God, who, as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, reigns as an ultimate creative cause and immanent or extrinsic monarch over the universe.
Instead, we can draw a few important lessons from Nishitan’s philosophical insights. In his works, Nishitani directly grapples with the phenomenon of nihilism, thereby developing a specifically Japanese response to its pervasive presence. In the next section, I will briefly examine some of his core ideas, and spell how they relate to the new subjective position I’m endeavoring to formulate.
[i] Here, Kant’s indebtedness to the Christian framework of thought is fully apparent. As Nishitani shows in The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (Nishitani, 1990) this was precisely Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity: that it holds up an unattainable ideal that humankind inevitably fails to achieve.
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