Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism and Critical Theory

BoonThe University of Chicago Press will be publishing Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism and Critical Theory, by Eric Cazdyn, Timothy Morton and myself, in their Trios series in Fall 2015.  As with other books in the Trios series, the book consists of three longish (25,000 words plus!), quantum entangled essays, in this case exploring the relationship, or lack thereof, between Buddhism and Critical Theory.  My own essay is entitled “To Live in a Glass House is a Revolutionary Virtue Par Excellence: Buddhism, Marxism and the Politics of Non-Alignment.” Although Buddhism played an important role in In Praise of Copying, especially in terms of rethinking the meaning of practices of copying, this essay is a more direct attempt to write about what Buddhism means to me today, and what role it can play in twenty-first century critical thought.

I’ve known Eric since I moved to Toronto in 2002, and Buddhism (not to mention Marxism) is something we’ve talked about almost since the beginning.  Buddhist thought is present in a variety of ways in Eric’s recent book The Already Dead — notably in his reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I met Tim in California in 2009 after reading his essay “Hegel on Buddhism” — it turns out that we grew up about ten miles away from each other in the west London suburbs, and shared some of the same Buddhist teachers and more.  Buddhism has played an important role in much of Tim’s work — in Ecology Without Nature, The Ecological Thought and his recent Hyperobjects.  The three of us put together a panel on Buddhism and theory for the MLA in Los Angeles in 2011, and the Trios book project has evolved out of that.  It also began as a response to the various critiques of contemporary Buddhism made by Slavoj Zizek — a challenge that we’ve all responded too in often very different ways.

My essay is a meditation on the relationships, historical, theoretical and prospective, between Marxism and Buddhism, and tracks the way in which a number of thinkers (including Georges Bataille, Gendun Chopel, Gary Snyder, Thomas Merton and the Speculative Non-Buddhist writers) have understood this relationship. The first half of the essay examines Bataille’s interest in Buddhism and yoga, and makes the argument that many of the key Bataillean concepts in use in theory today (sovereignty, formlessness, general economy, the community that has nothing in common) have their origins in Bataille’s attempts to reconcile post Popular Front leftism with the unnameable excesses and nothingnesses of meditation and tantric yogic practices.  The essay then situates Bataille’s struggles to formulate a politics of yoga within the broader post WWII geopolitical context of the Cold War, and the problem of how to formulate a non-aligned politics (which in Asian societies often took the form of innovative attempts to reconcile Buddha and Marx).  The essay concludes by looking at the way Buddhism, post-Bataillean or not, haunts attempts to envision a post-capitalist politics today.

MP3 Collecting Essay in New Book, Contemporary Collecting

I have an essay, “Meditations in an Emergency: On the Apparent Destruction of my MP3 Collection” in an excellent new anthology of essays called Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the Fate of Things, edited by David Banash and Kevin Moist.  It’s a great collection, and includes Stanley Cavell’s important essay on collecting, and nice work by Banash and others.  I got kind of obsessed with collecting while writing In Praise of Copying, since collectors are some of the most profound thinkers of the distinction between original and copy, or good copy and bad copy.  My essay is about what it means to lose and then try to restore a digital collection today, and is written in diary form, describing my own recent experiences with my MP3 collection.  On the one hand, it feels like data is infinitely retrievable today, and that collection is therefore quite banale (this is the argument that Simon Reynolds makes in his Retromania).  On the other hand, when you actually lose data, it turns out to be much more fragile, much more contingent than you thought.  But losing data can open us up to recognizing that, against the model of the private collector with his or her hoards, the basis of collection is sharing.  When the infrastructure that supports sharing really exists, our love of particular objects isn’t diminished, but our desire to hoard it is.

Update: The excellent PopMatters has just reprinted the essay in full here!

In Praise of Copying, now out in paperback!

In Praise of Copying was released today in that most or least arcane of formats: a paperback book!

2011 Annual Report on Drugs and Creativity

Jeremy Shaw, Unseen Potentials (2011).

Creative Capital/The Warhol Foundation just posted the audio of my keynote talk at the their Arts Writers convening in Philadelphia last August.  They asked me to speak about drugs and creativity, and this gave me an opportunity to revisit the work I’d done on drugs and the arts in my book The Roads of Excess: A History of Writers and Drugs in the early 2000s.

As you can hear on the audio recording, mostly my argument was that the heroic age of literary and artistic experimentation with drugs is over, even if many of the questions provoked by the existence of psychoactive substances remain unanswered.  You can see it in Vancouver based artist Jeremy Shaw’s fascinating installation piece, DMT from 2004, where the gap between the noumenal quality of the experience and the banality of the images of those perhaps under the influence or their narratives is a vast one.  Whatever the quality of the experience, it is basically unrepresentable, and thus beyond the sphere of art.  Contrast this if you like with someone like Henri Michaux’s attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to write and draw under the influence of mescaline.

In place of this kind of art, the most interesting drug cultural artefacts have been TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Weeds.  But there’s little attempt to represent drug experiences in those shows, and all the excitement and drama comes from the fact that drugs are an economic and legal proposition.  It’s almost as though people now get high on business or the law, the way they used to on drugs.  I find that an amazing and troubling proposition.  In the talk, I looked at some of Ryan Trecartin’s recent video pieces, which are strikingly psychedelic, but whose psychedelia mimics and amplifies the self-distorting fx of corporate training videos and reality TV, and is without reference to drugs.

Talk of drugs and economy brought me back to research I’m currently doing on William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s collage manual, The Third Mind, and Burroughs’ still unassimilated argument that the broader lesson of drug addiction is that we almost always build our reality pictures based on what he calls “the algebra of need”.  And that need can be and is manufactured — this corresponding to what Zizek and others today call ideology.

For me this opens up an interesting way of thinking about the contemporary impasse of the arts, whether writing or visual arts or for that matter music.  If the presentation of reality itself happens mostly through the manufacture and manipulation of need, what can art be, other than one more form of participation in the manufacture of our need for certain kinds of reality picture?  Is it a question of distinguishing between false needs and real ones? Or do “real needs” become the primary site of ideological capture … i.e. the thing that you submit to believing.  Conversely, would an art that refused any discourse of need have any meaning or function whatsoever? Do we need to have needs, even beyond the biological imperatives that seem so fundamental?  David Levi-Strauss asked me: why “need” and not “desire”?  It was a really good question … maybe this is a very 2012 answer but it seems very difficult to think about desire today without also thinking about what limits or structures desire.  It unsettles me to think about need and I think that’s a good thing.

A Few More Reviews of In Praise of Copying

A busy time of the year for me, but I have a backlog of posts re. copying that I’m working on. In the meantime, here are few interesting recent reviews of In Praise of Copying.  First off Amy Ione in Leonardo Digital.  Then David Banash in Postmodern Culture.  Finally Mark Fisher in The Wire.  All well worth a look …

In Praise of Copying Reviewed in PopMatters and Taipei Times

James Williams just wrote a nice review of In Praise of Copying for PopMatters … and there’s another interesting piece about the book in the Taipei Times.

On WFMU with DJ /rupture, Monday Dec. 27th

I’ll be talking with DJ /rupture a.k.a. Jace Clayton next Monday, December 27th on his WFMU show, from 6-8 p.m.  Jace is one of the finest DJs on this planet or any other, and one of the deepest thinkers about dancehall sounds in the age of globalization.  I’ve learnt a lot from him over the years. In particular, his blog, Mudd Up! is a must read for anyone interested in understanding new global dance sounds. He has some interesting things to say about In Praise of Copying.  Aside from talking about World Music 2.0, the global rise of Autotune, and how to live in a world of copies without originals, I’m going to play some music: expect Kuduro, Logobi, Saharan psychedelia, Ramadanman as well as some clips from other folks’ mixes and some archival hauntings.

Listen to the podcast, in two parts, here.

The New Yorker, National Post, Chronicle and Erik Davis on In Praise of Copying

Several thoughtful early responses to In Praise of Copying….

The first is an excellent blog post by Jenny Hendrix for The New Yorker concerning my Borgesian Brooklyn book launch and how to handle the universality of copying, in the bookstore and elsewhere.

The second is the audio of an hour long radio conversation I had with Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust on their Expanding Mind show on the Progressive Radio Network.  Erik was his usual brilliant self, and we covered everything from compassion for viruses, to cumbia, to the struggle to understand what sameness means.  A great pleasure to chat with these guys.

The third is a piece in the National Post by Adam McDowell entitled, “Copying, A Right“, which looks at my book and other recent attempts to figure out how to balance an expanded right to copy with restrictions that support artists and other copyright holders.  I do want to note that the conversation at the launch described at the end of the piece actually ended with a monologue by yours truly on the broader crisis of the workplace today, for artists, factory workers and everybody else, to which my questioner responded “that’s a good answer!” But this is generally a very astute look at a problem that we’re still barely able to even articulate.

Finally, a great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing In Praise of Copying along with Lewis Hyde’s Common As Air, and the notion that books are always copies of other books.

Uploading My Book to AAAAARG.ORG

I am uploading my new book onto the internet. Yes, I am.  The book is not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of commodification … OK, I’m copying again, from the introductory lines of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Unpacking My Library”, which media theorist Julian Dibbell riffed on in his  dawn of the downloading age essay “Unpacking My Record Collection”.   Those two excellent essays were concerned with the figure of the collector.  But what concerns me here is, to use the title of another of Benjamin’s essays, “the author as producer”, and the act of donating a book, “my book”, to a library, if library is the right word for the place where my text is being deposited.

Walter Benjamin’s library card, Paris, 1940.

While I was finishing In Praise of Copying, I became interested in the circulation of texts.  I wondered whether it was hypocritical to write a book that celebrates copying, while still slapping a copyright notice to the front of the book.  There are easy ways out of this: I could say that what I’m doing is presenting a critique of contemporary society but that obviously I have to work pragmatically within existing economic conditions, even though I disapprove of them.  There’s some truth to that. In fact, the copyright notice to many academic books is in the name of the publisher, not the author.  When I talked to people at Harvard, they pointed out to me that in signing a book contract, I had already signed away most of the rights to the book, and that it was therefore more honest for the publisher to claim and look after the copyright.  I could have requested that I retain the copyright, as I did with my first HUP published book, but I thought there was something persuasive about their argument.  And that I don’t need to own the copyright in order to feel some sense of agency in relation to what I’d written.

But I still wanted to explicitly allow people to make copies of my book about copying.  I asked Harvard whether this was possible and they said yes.  As of October 1, 2010, the book has been available from Harvard’s website as a pdf, free to download, but with a creative commons license that restricts the uses of the copy.  I wrote the following text to accompany the web page:

“Given the topic and stance of In Praise of Copying, I wanted the text to participate openly in the circulation of copies that we see flourishing all around us. I approached Harvard to discuss options and they agreed to make the book available as a PDF online. The PDF is freely available to anyone who wants to download it, but it does come with a creative commons license that sets some intelligent restrictions on what you can do with it. Although generosity is a wonderful thing, this isn’t especially intended as a utopian gesture towards a world in which everything is free. It’s recognition of the way in which copies of texts circulate today, a circulation in which the physical object known as the book that is for sale in the marketplace has an important but hardly exclusive role. A PDF of a book is not an illegitimate copy of a legitimate original but participates in other kinds of circulation that have long flourished around the book-commodity: the library book; the photocopy or hand-written copy; the book browsed, borrowed or shared. We all know these modes of circulation exist, as they continue to do today with online text archives.

Perhaps these online archives just make visible and more “at hand” something that was happening invisibly, more distantly, but continuously before. At the same time, something new is going on. The physical book today is one copy, one iteration of a text among others. What that means for publishers, writers, readers and other interested parties is something that we are working out – on this webpage and elsewhere.” —Marcus Boon

I’ve been reading some of Douglas Rushkoff’s arguments for writers abandoning conventional publishing for a direct web based sales approach as well as the various arguments for and against eReaders, and Ted Striphas’ terrific book The Late Age of Print, which outlines some of the desperate strategies currently employed by authors and publishers.  I understand the need for both authors and publishers to have a functioning economic model today.  I’m a professor at a university and I don’t rely on income from books to make ends meet.  The right to work and get paid is often invoked as a justification for existing intellectual property regimes.  It’s a serious matter and I don’t have an easy solution to it.  It’s not only authors and artists who are wondering how they’re going to get paid.  Couldn’t you say that the car plant worker whose job is outsourced is also experiencing a crisis in the way that we relate to copies?  In this case the industrial age copies that so much of our economy has been built around.  I don’t think that economic arguments are the only important ones – there’s such a thing as a moral right, not just for authors, but for those who participate in the public domain, i.e. all of us.

For example: in the last couple of years, the two most important independent booksellers in Toronto, Pages and This Ain’t the Rosedale Library have both gone out of business. While the chainstores are still there, the newly published “alternative” book as physical object has almost ceased to exist for those living in downtown Toronto.  Such bookstores were more than places to make cash transactions for books, they were an important part of my education: as a former teenager/student/bohemian lowlife/grad student/freelance writer I browsed there, I read chapters, consulted indexes, wrote down citations.  They were places were books were curated and presented in a powerful way I had more or less unimpeded access to the book as object.  Probably if I’d tried to photograph pages from a book it wouldn’t have gone so well, but it never occurred to me to do that.  And if I really needed to copy more, I would have searched the libraries and then copied a chapter while at work. Or actually bought the book, if I had the money.

All of that activity has moved online.  I don’t think we should rely on Googlebooks making texts available online. We should do it ourselves, or through our publishers.  The pdf functions more or less the same way as the book sitting in the bookstore or the library, and I’m happy that my writing will be accessible to those who have a somewhat marginal relationship to book buying, as I myself have had at different points in my life.  Making pdfs of all of our work available online is an easy but powerful gesture towards an expanded public domain.  And it may even support the economic needs of writers and publishers: James Boyle believes so. So do I.

There are proposals in the US for a National Digital Library, and perhaps one could dream of a Borgesian global Digital Library where every text ever written was to be found.  Those proposals raise a number of interesting questions.  But while the negotiation of legal protocols that would allow such a library to come into existence are daunting enough to make the project seem like a utopia, something like this library has already come into being, in a haphazard, piratical way on the internet.

Which brings me to AAAAARG.ORG.  AAAAARG feels like a secret because a lot of the texts that are listed on the site (but stored elsewhere) are arguably in breach of copyright law. But how secret is anything that has a URL?  It’s already an open secret in the sense that scholars like Sedgwick and Taussig described it: something that everybody knows about but no one can talk about.  And what is that something? The public domain itself as the primary fact of our society or any society. Many grad students, artists and professors I talk to have heard of AAAAARG and browsed it. It’s an amazing, but controversial resource, since the site is a library of theoretical texts that encompasses most of the work of most of the key thinkers of the last hundred years … except when  their publishers have issued takedown notices to prevent copies of their texts appearing in the AAAAARG archive.  There have also been attempts to shut AAAAARG down completely, including at least one this year. But the site floats up A.AAAARG turning into AAAAARG or some other iteration.

I enjoy the curatorial aspect of AAAAARG and it’s become one of the first places I go to when I want a quick heads up on a topic, usually be looking through one of the many “issues” that link various texts in the archive.  Anyone can add a text to an issue.  I added IPOC to the Piracy, collaboration, Collage, objects, surplus, Aesthetics, copyleft cuture (sic) groups. Not that I think that’s an accurate summary of what goes on in my book, but it’s a useful set of links.    What happens next? I think that’s something we’re all waiting to find out.  “Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects”, said Benjamin as he finished unpacking his library.  A book collector dwells and lives inside the books that he owns, he continued.  Today, the question of how we can dwell in or with the objects that surrounds us has never been more pressing.  Books, as Benjamin knew very well, are just a tiny part of it …

PDF of In Praise of Copying available from Harvard website now!

You can now download the entire text of In Praise of Copying from the Harvard website. There’s a Creative Commons license attached but otherwise it’s free. I’ll post some thoughts on this in the next few days …