An Interview with Glenn Wallis
By Jonah Sprung \ Andrew Blevins
Photo by Jonah Galeota-Sprung
It wasn’t so long ago that the variety of practices known as meditation stood outside, if not quite against, the American spiritual mainstream. With heads turned vaguely toward the East, the seekers of the Baby Boomer generation moved in a territory delimited on one side by Orientalist mysticism and on the other by Sixties radicalism; the Dharma was to be found somewhere between Alan Watts’s soothing chin-beard and Allen Ginsberg’s hippie mane. Today, Buddhist mainstays like the cessation of desire and realization of the Self’s inherent emptiness compete with other productivity hacks, more likely to arrive via push notification than guru.
In 2011, during an early foray into the vast dharmic library of the internet, one of us stumbled onto scholar Glenn Wallis’s recently launched Speculative Non-Buddhism page. Conceived as a platform for a wide-ranging critique of Western Buddhism, the blog quickly sank whatever hope he might have harbored for mindfulness as existential cure-all; but the riot of criticism Wallis and company had initiated felt vital (if largely incomprehensible), and the site’s arguments lacked the sanctimonious, snake-oily sheen of so much Buddhist writing in English. The almost parodically abstract title, jury-rigging together two contemporary movements in continental philosophy (speculative realism and non-philosophy), signaled something of the spirit of the site’s articles and discussions, which tended to mix crankishness and insight in equal measure. Not content with the easy targets of corporate mindfulness and New-Age exoticism, the SNB-ers took as their object the entire range of Western Buddhist institutions, from hardcore Tibetan traditionalisms to stripped-down neuroscientific deployments. By their lights, everyone engaged in these “x-buddhisms” was sipping the same transcendental kool-aid.
Wallis’s own engagement with Buddhism spans half a century. While studying meditation at an alternative high school in Moorestown, New Jersey, he helped form the locally-legendary Philadelphia band Ruin, whose cryptic lyrics and backstage mantra rituals earned them a reputation as the scene’s premier “Buddhist punks.” In his mid-twenties, Wallis moved to Germany to study Sanskrit, Pāli, and Tibetan with the renowned philologist Heinz Bechert. From there he went on to a doctoral degree at Harvard, a tenured position in the religion department at the University of Georgia, and the publication of numerous books—many of them, such as The Basic Teachings of the Buddha and a translation of the Dhammapada (both published by the Modern Library), aimed at a general audience. In 2006, he moved to the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Philadelphia to run their Applied Meditation program. As we discuss in the interview, his recent work has been marked by his disillusionment with both Buddhism and academia, and by his attempts to turn this disillusionment into positive critique. Still in Philadelphia, he now runs Incite Seminars, an independent educational series that aims “to agitate personal growth and incite social engagement.” Wallis’s newest book, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.
While his philosophic constructions tend toward a sort of theatrical maximalism, in person Wallis is easy and unaffected; he looks more ex-punk than ex-professor, with a piratical ring through his left ear, and speaks in a Philly-inflected baritone. His good humor confirmed the playfulness one often suspects is dancing beneath the surface of his writing, though it also lent an unsettling charge to some of his darker pronouncements. We met in a large post-industrial coffee shop (cf. “ruins,” below) on the main drag of Philadelphia’s Fishtown.
Glenn Wallis: I guess it starts, in terms of the production of work or whatever, with this band Ruin. I started that band as a teenager. It started with the idea that it’s gotta be something really powerful, that really affects people. We want bodies and lives and faces. We were reading about Nietzsche and the Dionysian, the origins of the theater; or we were reading people like Artaud, the Surrealists, the Situationists. We wanted to create an event. We wanted people to have an encounter with something very real.
Jonah Galeota-Sprung: So you had this sort of project or desire already, and punk happened to be the best available form?
GW: I was a philosophy major. This is the early Eighties; Nietzsche, the existentialists were still popular, just barely. Punk had just hit and we were all very excited about it because, you know, I don’t want to put down prog-rock, I like a lot of prog-rock, but me and my friends felt that it was getting kind of sluggish, ponderous. I mean Yes is beautiful, I love Yes, it’s nice, it’s fun to play, if you’re really high it’s nice to listen to; but as sort of a catalyst for, uh, an encounter with the Real, it didn’t quite do it. Punk just happened to be there, and it excited us. The way I look at it now is that it kind of recaptured our drive, which had been buried or lost or deeply repressed in the lifestyle of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The numbness of high school and all that. Something about the punk spirit, for me and my friends anyway, helped to revitalize this drive. Being a human being. Having an effect on the world.
Andrew Blevins: Did your interest in punk start at the same time as your interest in Buddhism?
GW: Actually, it probably begins with Buddhism. I got interested in Buddhism already as a fifteen-year-old kid, and this punk stuff hit when I was about seventeen or eighteen. I went to what you would now call a Free School. A philosophy grad student at Villanova and a friend of his who was an English professor somewhere started this school and put up advertisements for students who were smart and well-behaved but couldn’t function in the regular school system. First day of school I show up and it’s like, “What do you want to learn? What are you interested in at this moment?” My father had just given me that Ram Dass book that all the hippies read, Be Here Now. For some reason he thought I’d be interested, and I was. So I said, “Asian philosophy.” And they were like, OK! They go out into the community and find a guy named Bruce who was gonna teach me Asian philosophy. We sat in this room all year long and he taught me the Dhammapada, the Buddhist text. And he taught me what I now know as Vipassana style meditation. I was just so interested in Buddhism from that moment on.
JGS: Had Bruce come to Buddhism through hippie sorts of pathways?
GW: The only thing I remember about Bruce: He told me that he had been an accountant or something at some American business place, and he pulled into his driveway one day, and got out, and went around to his trunk to get his briefcase and his suit, opened the trunk, and just had this breakdown. Like, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m a young man and I’m miserable.” He quit his job; he did what they were all doing back then, he tuned in, dropped out—I don’t know if he turned on. He looked like he had never actually turned on.
So, from very early on these Buddhist ideas were coupled with this kind of social critique. Because of Bruce. His story and his critique of American corporate society were interwoven with my reception of the ideas from the Dhammapada. It’s been there from the beginning, that connection.
JGS: A kind of response to the anomie, or what you earlier called numbness?
GW: Yeah, the numbness and the emptiness and the nausea—that was a term we used to throw around, from the Sartre book—to me, that was part and parcel of the larger social structure. The big corporate structure that I had reference to at the time was high school, which I thought was just horrendous. I could not believe that such a place existed. I’m getting a stomach-ache just thinking about it. To me, it was a really sick environment. I understand it all better now, but back then I just felt depressed and numb. So the punk was a way to explode out of that. And to connect to people again, you know?
JGS: So, with Ruin—I know that you didn’t want to define yourselves as a “Buddhist punk band,” but that label did get applied.
GW: Part of that is still an interest of mine: to have everything be of a single piece. It never made sense to me to separate things. I never felt like I had to make an effort to put them together because it just seemed natural. We were getting a lot of ideas and a lot of inspiration from Buddhist practice. All of us were practicing Buddhists except our drummer. Why not have that be one of the ingredients?
AB: Eventually, the band winds down and you end up entering the academic world. How did that happen?
GW: I thought, well, what do I love the most? And it was Buddhism. So I found myself in Berlin studying Sanskrit, the idea being that I wanted to read the Buddha’s texts myself and not have to rely on what other people say. And I studied Pāli and Tibetan as well. I wanted to get, like, the code of Buddhism. And I liked the idea of practicing and studying. It’s like this old idea of the monk-scholar. I slowly, though, became critical of the fact that there was really no room to apply it to social critique. There was something about religious studies that didn’t care for that kind of work.
JGS: So you ended up teaching for a while at the University of Georgia, where you were given tenure. But you didn’t stay.
GW: At some point I started realizing the consumerist, corporate nature of higher education. And then I also started experimenting with what I was doing in the classroom and bumping up against walls. It’s like high school, it’s like the factory…
Talking to you guys now it makes it clear how interconnected all this stuff is. I had this idea, when I was doing Ruin and trying to figure out what to do next, that everything I did, I’d call it Ruin. So that at the end, it’d look like one complete piece done over a whole lifetime. I use the concept of ruin in the new book—the idea is that it’s a good kind of first term , like [François] Laruelle calls it, for the Real. [Whereas] the “edifice” tries to present itself in some way that you could decipher ideologically or whatever, the ruin gets rid of all the pretense. It’s starting to meld back into what it is—to nature.
JGS: From UGA you move to the Won Institute in Philadelphia, where you’re heading the Applied Meditation program, a training course for meditation teachers. What sort of teaching did that involve?
GW: I made a decision early on to teach this text called the Anapanasati Sutta. I didn’t want to be sectarian. I thought, if I’m gonna teach meditation in a Buddhist context, I’m gonna teach the oldest text we have in the Pāli canon. Because in a way, the Pāli canon is “before Buddhism.” In a way.
Sati is a word that the people who do mindfulness, they translate it as mindfulness. It really means “remembrance.” And anapana means in breath and out breath. So it’s called Anapanasati Bhavana, which is, cultivation of this capacity for remembrance of the in breath and the out breath; but, somewhat paradoxically, remembrance in the present. I chose this text because it’s completely devoid of what we would call metaphysical or transcendental or religious terminology. It’s very psychologically oriented, which speaks to the modern-day secularists. It’s a cool text, a really powerful sort of meditation manual.
I did bring in some of my Zen training as well. We had a really beautiful meditation hall with nice floors, a nice space, and—it was very strict. Facing the wall in a sort of a Zen sitting posture. Sometimes we’d sit for a full three hours, no breaks. The idea was to train them in a really rigorous way. If you can sit for three hours, focusing every moment your awareness on this sensation of the breath in your nose, you can do this thing called meditation. And I found that most of my Zen colleagues, the Vipassana people, etc., couldn’t do this. Many people, they’re doing some sort of practice that, if you read the documents, calls for a kind of rigor that’s never realized in the institution. I wanted to create an environment where everyone who passed through there could do this super-rigorous concentration awareness practice. And then go off and develop whatever they felt was necessary. Like the Buddha says, when you’ve gone to the other side of the river, you don’t carry the boat around with you.
There’s a saying in Zen: “First comes discipline, then comes freedom.” It was operating a little like that. Now you’re relaxed, you let go, you be creative, you do whatever you feel is necessary for your environment—but you’ve had that strict training. I like that approach. And there was a lot more practice stuff, but we’d also read stuff like Zizek and Lacan and Althusser along with it, so they were getting the idea that it’s not a politically free, context-free practice. It’s always placed.
The students were great. They were artists, psychologists, people in education. The problem was that the Institute wanted us to do things like what Jon Kabat-Zinn is up to, and ally ourselves with what has now become this massive mindfulness industry. That’s where the money would have been. But I was taking it in this other direction, and it was remaining very small. So they’re closing the program, and as soon as I’m gone they’re gonna get some mindfulness person in there and cash in. It’s of a piece with all the rest of it. Operating within a system, realizing its limitations, realizing its refusal to abide by its own stated principles. There’s this desire to actually shore up against the very things that they’re claiming that they want to see happen, because they’re threatening. You see that in the big educational systems, too. They talk about openness, inclusiveness, innovation—bullshit. I mean, bullshit.
JGS: You write in the introduction to the new book that “the noun ‘Buddhism’ indexes a historical failure to unleash the force of its very own thought.”
GW: Yeah. I think that’s a basic principle. That’s how I got interested in psychoanalytic stuff too. Psychoanalysis talks about repression and all that, like, “You say you’re interested in this, but you do that.” I think that’s something that you bump up against in whatever structures you’re working in. That’s very interesting and curious to me. How can you create a structure where you genuinely fulfill some of the principles that you’re claiming for yourself? Partly, you have to not disavow the potential repressive effects. That becomes part of the overt conversation. That’s what we’re doing over there [at Incite Seminars]. The danger is of forming a new thought-collective. It’s probably gonna happen—human beings operate like that—but if you make it explicit, maybe you have a better chance of avoiding some of that.
We’ve done ten seminars; the eleventh is coming up this Saturday. We’re trying to create the space for an unusual kind of dialogue. It has a level of sophistication, a level of rigor—we read difficult stuff ahead of time—yet it’s unintimidating. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where people really feel like they can explore. It’s not about academic braggadocio or accomplishment or showing you know more than the other person. It’s hard to do, though, because people are trained in those environments.
AB: Not to draw too neat a line, but it seems like in some way you’re trying to recreate the Free School.
GW: It’s very funny you say that. I said to my wife just two days ago—I just had this realization, I’m just gonna go back to what I learned at that school! It was all right there. Everything I know I learned at the anarchist Free School. [laughs]
AB: Cruel Theory|Sublime Practice has the feeling of a breakthrough or a turning point, in the language and the tone at least.
GW: It was very intentional in the beginning to use un-Dharmic language. Anti “right speech.” To try and evoke a human response outside of the x-buddhist  subjectivity. I wrote it in a way that was supposed to be incendiary. Part of the idea was that the language itself should do something that the argument is trying to do as well. One of the results was that none of the Buddhist people read it. I’m like, you claim to be reading the text of an enlightened being, yet you can’t understand when I quote Lacan! Now this latest book is a readable version of that essay, kind of. It’s intended to be readable, without that kind of violent language.
Laruelle’s language is violent. And he says it’s violent because we’re talking about an act of war here: the capture of a human being’s desire, agency, subjectivity. That’s violent. So he says we counter it with more violence. He’s not the Buddha. [laughs]
JGS: What has your own Buddhist practice involved?
GW: When I first started out, it was a form of Japanese Buddhism called Nichiren Shoshu. They’re still around, I’m not sure what they’re called anymore. It was a sort of mantra-based practice. I quickly became more interested in Zen forms, Soto Zen. But I experimented a lot, and that’s a very American Buddhist thing, I think. For the longest period of time, I just did American Soto Zen style, just because—it was really strict, and I liked that, you know.
When I first moved to the area I had my own Zendo, at 2nd and Chestnut, in relation to the group I had been practicing with in Atlanta. They wanted to put me in line to be the Sensei guy. So I opened an affiliate Zendo. It built up to something like twenty people coming for Sunday sitting sessions. But very quickly I thought, what the hell am I doing? When you’re teaching, you really see the subjugation occurring. It’s like the formation of a galaxy. You can see the formation of a new person. So I’m teaching them a practice that helps them gain insight into their habits and their subjectivity, and then I throw this Dogen shit on them that reforms them into a new thing. I’m like, no. I’m not gonna do it. It’s not responsible to do this sort of Zen without Dogen, so I’m just not gonna do it.
I mean, I grew up with this. That’s why I understand this stuff from the inside, the subjugating, capturing nature of this stuff, and how difficult it is to slough it off. That’s why [in Cruel Theory] I added an affective element to Laruelle’s concept of decision. For him it’s a cognitive move, but I can see from my own experience that it’s a decision you also make for deep emotional reasons.
AB: Could you gloss this idea of the “decision?”
GW: In Laruelle it’s very complex and convoluted, but I think you can boil it down. Buddhism has this idea of the Dharma. The Dharma is a collection of teachings that illuminate the nature of reality. In that sense, it’s talking about immanence. It’s giving us categories in order to understand actual human experience, immanent to life. But, in order for that teaching to have some sort of warrant of truth, it makes a decision—an actual scission—from the immanent to the transcendent, where the Dharma becomes something like the logos or the cosmic truth. In other words, the immanent teaching is grounded in some sort of transcendent signifier. And it’s for that reason that it’s something other than what Laruelle would call a “science”. He likes “science” because it’s committed to resisting that scission, that cut, which is what a decision is. “Science” refuses to ground its ostensibly empirical claims in some sort of transcendent signifier. That’s in a nutshell what decision is: it’s making claims about the immanent world, but grounding them in a transcendent something, a Big Other of some sort. Decision is a cut or a break that separates a teaching about human immanence and grounds it in some sort of unknowable, unattainable transcendent something or other.
Does that make sense? That’s a rough way of understanding it. It shows up all the time. Even punk rock did that. Punk was about the grittiness of real life and blah blah blah, yet there was some DIY god hovering above it all who would judge you if you played in certain nightclubs or wore certain clothes.
AB: It becomes a transcendent representation, and then that becomes a sort of authority.
GW: Exactly. It’s a form of the ultimate authority for the thing. And then you get some sort of priesthood around it. The ones who have the key to this sort of cosmic vault of truth and knowledge are certain people, so then you get into the whole business of the institutionalization and subjectification of people.
AB: So speculative non-buddhism was your attempt to answer that, and create—
GW: Right. It’s trying to ask, what can we do with this material minus that move toward transcendence? That’s what Laruelle’s doing. Laruelle is saying philosophy does that. Heidegger, Nietzsche—not just philosophy, but actual philosophers. They always make a move to some sort of transcendent grounding. And the point isn’t that you’re not allowed to do that, but you can’t do that and claim that you’re doing something else. So what this kind of work tries to do is to reveal the true identity of a form of thought. It’s like the Won Institute, which claims it’s doing this one thing—liberating, training the critical consciousness—but ends up doing this other thing, which is proselytizing the truth of Buddhism. The identity of the Institute changes drastically once you realize that. That’s what the work is about: what are we really dealing with here? It’s upsetting work. It has a deeply affective quality to it. There are human emotions and dreams and desires caught up in all this.
In the new book I wrote I call it a misturning. It’s Freud’s idea of the parapraxis, what we call a Freudian slip. I go through teachings from David Loy, or Stephen Batchelor, or this guy Timothy Morton, and they all make this move. David Loy talks about the power, the productive power of non-self, anatman. And how there’s this void at the center that’s actually productive. And I’m like, this is great! He’s talking about the Real here, something that escapes our symbolic system and yet is productive. And he’s even talking about Marx and all this, and his book is like—Money, Sex, something something something—the subtitle has the word “revolution” in it. [Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution] I’m like, this is serious stuff!
But then you keep reading and at some point there’s that shoring up. He can’t really abide that nothing at the core, so that nothing at the core becomes a fullness, a fullness of self and compassion. If you go through Buddhist teachings, you constantly see this parapraxis, this conceptual misturning. It thinks it’s turning you away from this dangerous, threatening idea; but if you’re another kind of reader, like me, it’s turning you away from the identity of Buddhism itself, as this kind of liberating teaching.
JGS: I remember you using the term “flinching” before to describe the same sort of move.
GW: Yes. I was sitting in the library one day and I pulled Buddhadharma [journal] off the shelf and started reading Barry Magid’s short essay on the death of Charlotte Joko Beck, his teacher. And he was saying all this really cool stuff, like she revolutionized Zen because she opened it up to the full range of human emotions, and said that nothing is off-limits, that you’ll never know what you’re going to find at the depths of your existence. But at the end of the article he does the conceptual parapraxis, the misturning, he says: and it turns out, what you find at the depths of your existence is joy. And I’m like: Barry, man, you flinched! You were saying, we don’t know what’s really gonna happen here—very Samuel Beckett-like, you know—and then you have to flinch and say: “and in that not knowing, and in that persistence into the void, you’re gonna discover an everlasting joy.” So then I wrote that blog post on flinching, and he even responded to that. He was a little upset and responded to me privately, you know: “I don’t flinch! I’m a psychoanalyst, I’m a Zen teacher, the last thing I do is flinch.” I was like, alright, man.
JGS: Why do you think that is, that it’s such a universal tendency?
GW: That’s a great question. Why is that? I guess the quick answer is that people are trained in these apparatuses that contain some sort of ideology. In the case of Buddhism or religion, it’s an ideology that has to do with wellness and hope and the promise of some sort of grace, of being saved in some way, and that’s powerful shit. And it reproduces those kinds of people. And, uh… that’s not answering the question. I don’t know why.
AB: There’s that idea of refuge.
GW: Yeah, I mean, they are refuges. And maybe—why do we do that? I don’t know. You guys wanna read a book? Read a book called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
AB: Oh, I’ve read that.
GW: Have you read it?! What’d you think?
AB: It really wrecked me. It ruined my summer.
GW: Did you really read it? You’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s read that book. [laughs] You actually started it and finished it? I know a bunch of people who started it…
AB: I wouldn’t blame anyone for not finishing it.
GW: No, man. That’s tough. I actually read that literally out loud over several weeks with a group of people.
AB: What did you think about it?
GW: I thought it was devastating. And I actually think it’s irrefutable. I can’t refute it.
AB: Yeah. I think that’s true.
GW: Which is really disturbing.
JGS: If we were gonna, uh, give a quick summary for someone who hasn’t encountered the book…
GW: Aaah. Basically it—the title, the conspiracy, is that we must persist in not admitting that—how does he put it in there? That life…
AB: That human life is malignantly useless.
GW: Yeah. The conspiracy is against that realization, that really life is a malignantly useless thing. The conspiracy is that we must believe that it’s an unequivocal good somehow. He even starts the whole thing with a quote from the Dhammapada, one that says we’re just little puppets with heads full of nonsense. The devastating argument is that if forms of thought are really concerned with human suffering, and they want to ameliorate it and dissolve human suffering, the solution is the end of the human race. There’s no suffering in non-being. But humans can’t abide this thought. They must at all costs reproduce themselves. Maybe that’s part of the answer as to how ideological systems operate, because there’s something very human about it. We want to reproduce this species.
JGS: A sort of conceptual conatus.
GW: We keep giving birth to it over and over again. Ligotti is really questioning this most basic premise, that even these pessimist thinkers don’t allow: the premise that human existence is a necessary good. And again, he starts out with Buddhism. The epigraph is from the Dhammapada. Is that a good summary?
AB: Yeah. That’s basically how I understood it. I also felt like it was irrefutable. It had a pretty profound effect on me and threw me into a depression for a while. Although I was already—it was right after college, I was already in a bad place…
GW: How did you stumble on it?
AB: Through a friend of mine. I’m not sure how he found it, actually. Just a friend of mine from high school.
GW: Ligotti is known for supernatural horror.
AB: I think that’s how my friend got into it. He was into horror.
GW: So one thing is, like, Ligotti is talking in a way about a human Real. This abyss, this void of nothingness that is the human. And he thinks that supernatural horror is a really interesting genre because it’s presenting this Real. It’s always this hidden thing in the atmosphere that we don’t know exactly where it is but it’s causing a kind of terror or anxiety. So that’s one reason I found it interesting. And the conspiracy is very much about the idea of keeping alive the promise of meaning and value and truth and all that. And you see the conspiracy in operation when you go around talking to people, right? And it’s disturbing to think of people as being kind of, you know, agents of a conspiracy. You’ve got to be careful not to become too paranoid.
AB: That was my feeling after thinking about the book a lot: the premises are irrefutable, but that sort of temperamental understanding is optional.
GW: Right! That’s a real interesting point. And we had to keep making that point in our discussions. There are two things: there are the ideas, but then there’s the style with which you live them. You don’t have to live them as some sort of depressed goth. There can be such a thing as—like, I’ve been accused of being a jolly nihilist.
JGS: We keep brushing up against this concept of the Real, which is very important in Cruel Theory. Could we maybe kind of walk through that?
GW: The first thing to say about the Real is that it’s not “reality.” And it’s really, really, really important to be careful, because it sounds like you’re creating a new transcendental signifier, and that’s not the case. The Real is discussed in different ways. Lacan talks about the Real as that thing which escapes capture from the symbolic systems, language and so forth, and yet is still operative. In a way, Freud talks about it all the time: the repressed, the stuff in the unconscious, the stuff that we can’t know because it resists all kinds of representation. That’s what makes it un-conscious.
Anyway, it’s discussed in different ways, but the point is to name something that’s operative but which, by definition, escapes any sort of representation. A psychoanalytic reading of our conversation right now would say that there are certain nodes, certain drives, certain forces that are operating here that create cohesion and drive things along; but they aren’t being introduced into the dialogue itself. That’s gesturing towards a kind of Real. Or like in a relationship, you have something that’s operating that never really gets expressed. That’s a kind of psychoanalytic notion.
To [Laruelle], these notions of the Real are too philosophical. They’re making an error. They start to make incursions into this unspeakable, impossible something that is nonetheless operative in human exchanges in the world.
The Buddhists talk about pain, right? And they talk about pain as a Real, as a human Real. Like this guy Jay Garfield. You know him? I have a whole long section kind of critiquing the way he talks about pain in one of his books. He says pain is—and he’s talking about dukkha [the Buddhist concept]—human pain is, he says, using Heideggerian terminology, an existenzial. It’s something that is inseparable from human existence. And the Buddha talks about pain in that way, to a certain extent. So Garfield is saying, human pain is like a Heideggerian existenzial. It’s something that is part and parcel of human existence. But then he starts talking about pain—and the Buddhists themselves do this—as something that can be uprooted. He made that misturning: it’s no longer an existenzial. It’s more like a block of concrete in the road that you can remove, whereas an existenzial would be the concrete that comprises the road.
So [at first,] Garfield is talking about the human Real of pain. It’s this condition that is pervasive, that is occurrent at every moment, even in a moment of pleasure—because pain comes from change, so that the pleasure arises and dissolves and disappears in the very moment that it’s occurring. That’s what the Buddha would say. That’s what makes pain so pervasive, what makes it a human Real.
But then he makes this turn. He says that the Buddhist dukkha explains this human Real—that it points in the direction of the Real. What Laruelle would say is, it’s the other way around. Lacan and Freud, for Laruelle, ultimately do this same thing. They start making excursions into this Real, explaining what it is, identifying it and so forth. But for Laruelle, the Real is foreclosed to systems of thought, and it’s also unilateral. The Real of human existence—or in this case, the Real of pain—has created the Buddhist notion of dukkha. Garfield makes the mistake of thinking the Buddhist notion of dukkha is explicating the Real of human pain. Does that make sense? The Real is something in Laruelle that you cannot make pronouncements about.
The problem is that it starts to sound mystical. I think of it as something you collide against on your way to transcendence. It’s something in human existence. It’s an element in human thought, first of all. This is not ontology here. Laruelle is interested in gnostic thought, and he’s interested in mystical thought. But when he talks about the Real, he’s not talking about something that exists—
JGS: Some hidden reality—
GW: Right, it’s not like a hidden reality or anything like that. For Laruelle, the Real serves a certain function in human thought. Even for Lacan and Freud, the unconscious is an actual spatial thing, in a way. Lacanian ideas of the Real are of some sort of supernatural force that’s operative and productive, but that we can never put into our language systems. Laruelle won’t even say that. He’ll say, it’s an element in thought that prevents us from lapsing into a kind of idealism and transcendence, that produces a certain subject he called the stranger subject, who abides closely to this thing.
Ligotti looks like a stranger subject in his book—though he lapses into a kind of decision, too, where there’s a certain value in this anti-natalist thought. Laruelle’s trying to constantly resist that move towards transcendence or idealism, and the Real functions as an element in thought that way. You can’t say what it is. It’s not a something. It’s an element of thought that prevents you from lapsing into an idealism. And it produces a kind of subject: someone who is constantly aware of this danger and this possibility and is always driven back into an immanence of thought.
He would say even Deleuze lapses into a kind of transcendence when he talks about “absolute immanence.” Because Laruelle is saying it’s always a relative immanence. Something could be minimally transcendent at best, because language itself introduces a kind of transcendence into things. So even Deleuze, who wants to talk about absolute immanence, for Laruelle is thinking idealistically again.
AB: So the Real is purely non-linguistic.
GW: Yeah. And see, the problem is, we’re starting to sound like when people say, “It’s beyond language.” But there’s not an “it.” It’s a function in language and in thought. Oh god, I’m probably butchering this whole thing. All I can say is, it’s a notion, it’s an idea that produces a certain kind of thinking about the world, that produces a certain kind of subject person that I and other people would want to argue is, is—now here we begin with values—is useful, or something. [laughs]
JGS: Somehow the refusal to commit the decision produces a subject who has a certain range of potentials—
GW: Right. And ideology’s always going to be produced. Subjectivity is always going to be produced. There’s always going to be capture. The question is how to do so minimally. So Laruelle talks about a subject, but it’s a stranger subject, someone who is estranged from these kinds of systems of capture. So you do that kind of work that I suggest in the heuristic [in Cruel Theory], and it makes it really difficult for systems of thought to claim you as a subject. That’s what the stranger subject is, someone who’s estranged from those systems of capture. There’s a whole sort of ethic of resistance in this kind of thought. There’s an idea that the World is a harassing structure. It’s constantly harassing the human. Right?
JGS: [laughing] That’s an evocative image.
GW: I have thirty STEM students right now [as an adjunct at Penn State Abington], and I tell them that if you were my generation you’d be like, art and theater; and it’s because we’re formed by this world, and you’ve been brought up to believe that you have to be an engineer, that science is the way to go. You can’t even study philosophy at Penn State Abington. There aren’t religion courses. You can’t really do much literature. That’s the harassing nature of the World. Maybe you have a genuine STEM interest, and that’s different. But the whole idea is that it takes a lot of work—and this is very Lacanian, too—to discover what our own desire actually is, because we’re entwined in this harassing World. So the Real is an element, let’s say, in thought, that is productive of something like this stranger subject.
JGS: The idea of the stranger subject seems like maybe a good place to link up the idea of the Real with Michel Pêcheux’s adaptation of Althusser’s framework, which you also use in Cruel Theory, where you have the good subject, the bad subject, and the disidentified subject. 
GW: Yeah. I like that notion of the disidentified subject. The idea isn’t to become the bad subject or to dismiss religious thought or something. It’s to become disidentified with it, in a way that it can just become what Laruelle called just raw chôra, just raw data, that we can construct some new ideology with.
Forms of thought are seductive, right? And Laruelle builds this stuff into the way he writes. Have you ever read Laruelle? It’s torturous. I think there’s something about the stranger subject, it becomes incapable of being seduced by these systems of thought. And even Laruelle could be seductive, but the way he writes is a complete turn-off. It refuses to be seductive.
Laruelle creates ideas that you can do a certain kind of work with. It’s not itself a system of thought that leads you to this human Real. It’s a system of thought that allows you to see when other systems of thought start creating the idealized, transcendent Real. That’s how I would put it. It’s a lot of tools, a lot of concepts, some of them really powerful.
AB: What do you think the relationship is between the stranger subject and collective political action?
GW: That’s a great topic, and that’s actually something that [Laruelle] addresses directly in—it’s an interview he did with Philippe Petit, and it was on this question of politics. One thing he will say, for example, is that the stranger subject thinks politics from the perspective of the victim, from the perspective of the person who is marginalized and repressed and has violence committed against them. In other words, what would it mean to think about the refugee crisis from the perspective of the victimized person, and not from the perspective of, whatever, the capitalist, or the elite, or the middle-class Americans? From what perspective are we even thinking about the refugee crisis?
JGS: I’m not sure if I’ll be able to articulate it, but—there seems to be a sort of tension between on the one hand this work of critiquing fantasy, the work of deflation et cetera, and then on the other hand this element of utopian thinking or imagination when it comes to politics. I don’t know how you can square that.
GW: I’m sure you guys know the old critical theorists like Adorno, the Frankfurt School guys, right? What’s really interesting about them is, they performed this devastating analysis. Horkheimer developed studies to interview the German working class to figure out the potential for revolutionary change. There was this old Marxist assumption that it was going to come from the workers, right? So then they started carrying out this sociological research. And they discovered that, man, these people are ripe for something like fascism, totalitarianism. This is scary. Of course, it all came to fruition. And they flee to France or America. Eventually they come back, the Frankfurt School continues. So there’s this profound disillusionment at the heart of their whole enterprise, where they felt literally betrayed and they felt like idiots for even having these notions that one thing was occurring when actually the exact opposite was occurring. And yet, an idea running throughout their corpus is, you must hold out for utopia. Utopian ideas have to be an element of human thought.
And you can’t justify it, really. I mean, what does it mean to be a pessimistic thinker and one who refuses to abandon the possibility of a kind of utopianism? Incite Seminars, it’s driven by a kind of utopian thinking. My meditation program is driven by a kind of utopian thinking. Utopia means “no place,” right? It’s like the Real. It doesn’t exist, but it performs a function in thought. I mean, goddamn, I just have such a low opinion of human beings, to think that an actual utopia…? Human beings are so disappointing.
Disappointment is a real theme in this kind of thought. Like, individually, personally. Again, that’s why the psychology and the psychoanalysis part is—we come to this thinking for reasons that are often very personal. That’s what I mean by the psychoanalytic Real operating here. What is that really? It runs throughout all these thinkers we’re naming. Like, Laruelle’s never been accepted in the higher education system. He’s always been an outsider. How much has that experience formed some of his thinking about the stranger? Because these systems are very grand, and when you’re young and idealistic and romantic you really—“Oh, god, look at what human beings have created. Let’s create this beautiful thing.”
That’s that Cassirer-Heidegger debate. Cassirer thought that human beings are able to create these imaginative forms, works of the spirit, and that that’s what we should teach people to do more of. And Heidegger and him had this debate [in 1929], and Heidegger said no, to form an authentic human being or authentic life you need to teach people about the “hardness of fate.” Ligotti’s talking about the hardness of fate. That real shit. Anxiety, depression, disappointment, impossibility. Impending disaster. Catastrophe. Political figures used to write about the coming catastrophe. Now they’re saying we’re in the catastrophe. [laughs] We’re living the catastrophe.
JGS: The “crisis ordinary.”
GW: We’re all just trying to figure out how to create good communities for each other, and we’re confronted with crisis all the time. Now it’s pervasive, isn’t it? A sense of crisis. Not knowing what to do. Right? Don’t you think?
1.“Laruelle defines first terms as: Fundamental terms which symbolize the Real and its modes according to its radical immanence or its identity. They are deprived of their philosophical sense and become, via axiomatized abstraction, the terms–axioms and theorems–of non-philosophy. (Future Christ xxvi)” Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice (2012), p. 145.]↩
2. Wallis uses the term “x-buddhist” to refer to all the various possible brands of Buddhism, e.g. “Dzogchen, Soto Zen, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Secular Buddhism or even Post-traditional Buddhism.” Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, p. 129.↩
3. Media theorist and Laruelle interpreter Alex R. Galloway clarifies: “What does Laruelle mean by science? Well, it’s clear what he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean what we call ‘big science’ or the notion of ‘techno-science’ (the industrialization and canalization of science according to strict mandates around innovation, monetization, privatization, and so on). … Science [for Laruelle] is always direct or radical, not reflective or mediated. Science reveals things immediately, unilaterally, and unconditionally. Thus when Laruelle refers to non-philosophy as a science of philosophy he means simply that it focuses on philosophy’s radical or irreflective immanence, not its penchant for the transcendental.” Superpositions (2014), at cultureandcommunication.org.↩
4. Here, the “good subject” willingly identifies with an ideology, the “bad subject” turns against it, and the “disidentified subject,” e.g. the non-buddhist subject, withholds allegiance without direct contradiction, allowing for a different sort of engagement with the material. Of the non-buddhist, Wallis has written: “Such a subject has transformed the symptom that manifests as reflexive belief in the self-sufficiency of dharmic minutiae back into the capacity for speculative human knowledge.” Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, p. 121.]↩
Jonah Sprung is an editor at The Flood. His recent writing includes this piece on starlings.
Andrew Blevins is a writer living in Brooklyn.