60. IBP: Brooke Lavelle & Zach Walsh on the Great Transition

Brooke and Zack

In a time of environmental meltdown, political and economic crisis, what should we do? What role can practice play? How are we to envision our place in the world, as protagonists in the destruction of our home, and mere bit part players in global conflict? Can we make a difference, or should we retreat to our personal spaces and meditate and be done with it?

This new episode of the podcast explores such big themes and the work of Brooke D. Lavelle and Zachary Walsh, our two guests, as we take a look at the bifurcated road ahead of us; a Great Transition, or a Great Collapse await. While many of us may like to see life continue on as usual, I think most folks are starting to realise that business as usual is killing us slowly. It is time to make change move in a direction that sees us and the many species surviving this century, but practice remains, as Sloterdjik would remind us, and the big picture is always grounded in the lives of practitioners in this conversation.

We discuss such uncomfortable topics as love, care, practice and transformation. We touch on environmentalism, activisms, but also the underlying themes challenging these worlds of work at present and the need to both practice and think and imagine the world differently.

Zachary Walsh
Brooke D. Lavelle
Responding with Love to a Civilisation in Crisis: article for Open Democracy

Enjoy! And come along to The Great Feast…

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12 thoughts on “60. IBP: Brooke Lavelle & Zach Walsh on the Great Transition

  1. The philosophy of non-philosophy

    Underlying the dominant western worldview is a concept of unity, the idea that reality has coherence and a common structure. This has been the leitmotif of the scientific revolution, each new scientific paradigm bringing us closer to “The Truth”. Science follows on nicely from a theistic worldview, whereby as long as there are laws, whether created by a sky god or a scientific community, we feel more comfortable. Those who are disenfranchised from the modern faith in science enter the spiritual marketplace where X-Buddhism offers a new god founded in direct experience. Once you are sufficiently disenfranchised with X-Buddhism you are back in the marketplace of ideas and the non-buddhist elevator pitch may be compelling. The non-buddhist swaps the Buddha for Laruelle and the new god of immanence feels so much more comfortable.

    The brilliance of Derrida’s deconstruction is to root out the very possibility of foundational claims. After Derrida every foundational philosophy has lost all credibility. Laruelle tries to pigeon hole Derrida into a “philosophy box” with claims that Derrida proposes a philosophy based on a decision of “différance”. That move clears the path for Laruelle to claim an innovation and perhaps more importantly to build an academic career. We should treat any claims of Derrida as philosopher with suspicion because deconstruction questions “the rules of the dominant discourse, it tries to politicize and democratize education and the university scene”. Derrida roots out the phallogocentrism guiding Laruelle’s project of non-philosophy.

    The new religion of non-buddhism like all other religions has its guru(s) and its circular incomplete arguments that are coherent from within and will lead to the same disenfranchised subject (if non-buddhism succeeds in selling its ideas and the gurus can monetize their place at the “great feast”). That great feast which is the intellectual equivalent of the capitalist 1%.

    So what is the new-new solution? A profound suspicion of anybody not spelling out the non-foundational construction of their project. A profound suspicion of anybody claiming immanence as a way out of the ignorant human condition. A warning over the hubris of final answers and the false prophets selling those answers.

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  2. Oh I have been promoted to sir, how gracious of your highness, but I refuse that honor, sorry. That you are asking me to clarify the connection really is worrying, you seem to have been swallowed by the beast, the pot could do with some stirring!

    In line with the concept of practise I doubt the possibility of a nondual worldview. For example if we have a dualism of utopia/dystopia and we are able to explore these distinctions, then I think there will be other dualisms framing that distinction.

    When I read the Open Democracy article it sounds like an attempt to recruit the Great Unraveling in the service of the Great Transition (but that is not how it was “sold”). It seems to be missing the point that nondualism is not “combining the best of both”. There is no middle way in a dualism, that is what defines a dualism. The dualism is a valuing of one over the other, for example the article values the Great Transition over the Great Unraveling. It would be possible to write an article in the other sense and recruit the Great Transition in service of the Great Unraveling: the more people believe in the inevitability of the Great Transition (don’t worry geo-tech will save us), the faster we will bring about the Great Unraveling. It seems more likely that the Great Transition requires taking personal risks that will mean we are unprepared for the Great Unraveling – but that radicality is not possible in the “middle way”. Excuse me while I mindfully get through this transatlantic flight so I can tell the Chinese about relationalism…

    For example, I think American imperialism would have been an interesting political topic for you and/or your guests to have put on the table. It was glaringly missing.

    PS The links you posted above were not working for me “Access to gate.sc was denied”

    PPS I hope you are not taking any of this too seriously. It is good to have you soldiering on!

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  3. Have you been on the tipple there Mark? I’m not sure how to take any of it, seriously or otherwise, but I’ll throw a few words into the fire.

    The question of Laruelle is probably best aimed at a Laurellian disciple, or even Glenn. I find his toolkit of non-philosophy to be of great use as I see the human experience of the world as fundamentally paradoxical, and his work, at least for me, offers something along the lines of a third option, outside of dichotomies, for not getting caught within the unconscious reproduction of dichotomies, though I am also aware that invisible dichotomies are always at play and that our vision of the world is always very much partial and positional, meaning we take focal points to narrow the world into manageable perceptual frames within which we place ourselves and attempt to make some kind of sense of it all (if we are so inclined). I see us as all mucking about and muddling through so Brooke and Zach’s work is fine and our conversation, really, was about that; muddling through at a time of critical change with a number of imperfect tools in tow. There are so few people engaging with the emotional, interpersonal and intellectual that I think we have to be a little generous with those who are.

    I am not much concerned about the ontological nature of dualities and the impossibility of their coexistence. In this I may be betraying my lack of a background in philosophy. Rather, I see a dualism as a conceptual frame that we have invented; a selective operational model if you will. I would agree that we are adept at turning them into religious materials.

    The point about risk is perhaps the most interesting for me in your comments though I am starved of time for thinking deeply in this period due to my health issues. American Imperialism? Relevance to which bit? We could have had several conversations goign in different directions but that did not pop to my mind.

    Have a great trip.

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  4. Not so much a question of being (or not) on the tipple, more like which one am I on 😉 I wanted to raise the non-philosophy point because that is something that is being used to orient the interviews. If guests can bail out with claims to nondualism or immanence without elaborating on that then it may make for shallower interviews.

    A criticism of non-buddhism can only be made from the margins. Directing critique at the tribal headquarters is like going on an x-buddhist forum to present non-buddhism. Close to a waste of time. Perhaps it is not fair to use your comments section to publish these thoughts. I would not mind if you censored the comments (although I probably would stop interacting – as happened with the non-buddhist crowd).

    My assumption is that you, Brooke and Zach do not need ego stroking. As long as you understand that I am not criticizing the person but the ideas. If that is not the case, I hope you take any criticism as a form of flattery because it does require time etc to engage with the material.

    I quite like the concept of atman as a sort of whack-a-mole game that we need to play together. The use of god or self or relations or emptiness or immanence (and so on…) as a stand-in for atman is a risk.

    As you have made clear in the past it is hard to pin down terminology (Derrida would have us understand that as impossible). But I will make an attempt. I imagine a dualism to be part of a worldview. In some cases those dualisms are formulated which may then fit into an ideology (this would make ideology something like a partial theory of worldview). Most people do not have a conceptual model (ideology) that aligns with/explains their worldview. For example while the neoliberal ideology is dominant, most of its subjects could not explain the ideology. Therefore I would not agree with you that dualisms are a conceptual frame (in the sense of a theory or language game). I assume our worldviews are run through with dualisms but we cannot see/conceptualise all of them. Dualisms like “rationality” are so deep it is rarely conceptualised as such, a dualism like gender was part of worldview well before feminists labelled it.

    An important part of the american neoliberal worldview is american imperialism, the exceptional role of the USA is assumed. This also seems to be assumed in Europe also, it is rare to have europeans understand their role in american empire. After a short conversation about NATO, immigration, Russia and wars in the middle east, an awareness of this role seems to dawn fairly easily.

    A “relationally sensitive” american subject has an opportunity that most of us do not – they can participate in the politics at the center of empire. Given the upcoming election in the US and a real chance of an anti-imperialist orientation gaining some ground and the “political turn” of the podcast, it was surprising not to have this come up. If we are worried about civilisational collapse then the country which is leading the charge toward the cliff has got to put the brakes on.

    There is a risk of the “middle way” being mixed together into a cocktail along with american optimism to give us some watered down moral justification for not taking radical action.

    There were major claims being made about experiencing relationalism and those claims did not seem to hold up when you asked for concrete details – I remember some excuse about lack of time etc. If they are hoping to have a solution for the rest of the world, when they have not been able to make the shift in their own experience, then the connection of preaching unproven but self serving doctrines is very much in line with an american imperialist worldview.

    Best wishes for your health and recovery. I do not know what is wrong and I assume you have kept that private. We are very lucky to have you doing what you are doing and you have undoubtedly made ripples that are far broader than we can imagine.

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    1. Hi Mark,

      I guess I don’t really care much for the interpersonal nonsense that goes on when people identify with a creed. You can bury any concern you might have that I would take a comment of yours personally, especially when you’ve always been very polite and generous in your comments. You remain something of a phantom voice, however, so I can only really treat you as such. I wrote a piece on the oddity of communicating with disembodied voices a while back. I can’t say I like writing/talking to personas, but hey ho, I shall. I do so in a period in which I’m revisiting hermeneutics, which finds agreement with your point on the unconscious nature of dualisms and world-views. In my earlier response, I was writing from a place of concern with what people are conscious of and can speak to, and of those folks who are invested in the examined life, such as Zach and Brooke, and yourself. Within an examined life, we must inevitably come to terms with the world-view we have unwittingly adopted, even as we discover how little we can know.

      Feel free to share your thoughts, I’d only ask you be explicit in the connections you’re making, especially as I often publish a conversation quite some time after recording it and may be clueless as to what’s being referred to, and yes, I’m all too aware of the time it requires to engage seriously with any material; hence, my own tendency to Tweet, Facebook and comment very little. I do appreciate you adding your thoughts though, and your kind words about the podcast and my own efforts.

      Your point on American Imperialism is interesting. I agree with your sentiments there but I should say that these conversations have a time limit and a life of their own. I am, in many ways, a curator, or perhaps a midwife, and although I am obviously doing my part (planning, taking one line of inquiry over another), they end up being unique and different and I’ve given up trying to mould them too forcefully. I also had little desire to focus our conversation on America, as some of my listeners have rightly complained. “What about the world outside the US!” they rightly say. The fact that Zach & Brooke were in Berlin at the time of the conversation and that Zach works for a German think-tank meant that we didn’t have to be US-centric.

      I also think you’ll agree that most Americans are not “relationally sensitive” subjects and are pretty unaware of the world outside of their borders, so to have these two pretty well-versed in philosophy and politics, and Buddhism, and be somewhat familiar with Europe was itself a rare occasion. Perhaps this is another reminder of how few Western Buddhists seriously engage intellectually with concerns outside of Buddhism, let alone bring them to bear on their concepts of spirituality, the practising life and ethical duty towards the world.

      I like your point about the middle way. It has long lent itself to being an excuse for anything goes, but it can also be a simple means for remembering that there is almost always another perspective or consideration to bring into play. For most folks, going beyond a single issue or concern to accepting and acknowledging the existence of dualisms is a major step forwards, with the non- one might even stretch to a third, or more and this is the element of complexity that I kept bringing up in that conversation.
      Zack and Brooke seemed to be missing that naïve American optimism you mention, don’t you think?

      In the spirit of hermeneutics, what practical understanding are we seeking here?

      P.S. Thanks for the heads up on those links.

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      1. Hi Matthew,

        There is a lot of positive to be said for Zach & Brooke. I guess they get a lot of that feedback because it comes with the x-Buddhist territory. They seemed to appreciate some elbowing at the table too – which was a pleasant aspect of the podcast. Practises for transforming subjective experience into “relational becoming” (my words) is a tall order and I would want to hear more compelling descriptions of the process and experience before becoming a cheerleader.

        If people have practises that have put them at ease with “holding paradox” and working with “multiple paradigms/worldviews” then it would be great if you challenged them more on this. I am suspicious that holding paradox may simply mean the paradox has been transcended by some other dualism of a worldview. There are some good reasons to believe that human brains are not adapted to “hold paradox”, a concrete example is the “Gestalt switch” images – I don’t think we can see both images at the same time. (I am not trying to imply that experience=brain, but brain is one of the conditions)

        I hope we are working toward a “conclusion” as to whether a non-foundational worldview is preferrable. What that means for ethics (and therefore politics) and the types of transformational practises that would allow this to serve an audience beyond a privileged minority.

        Non-philosophy or deconstructionism are perhaps useful for ensuring that foundational claims get the ridicule they deserve. But I think we need some explicitly non-foundational philosophy to provide an epistemology and ontology for coherent/useful practise. Relationalism is an interesting angle but I think it runs into issues with subjective experience. It risks giving people a sophisticated vocabulary for translating the same old worldview into relational terminology. I wonder if radical action is the only credible measure of radical claims.

        Best wishes.

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  5. Hi Matthew. As usual, a super thoughtful, intelligent, and relevant conversation. So much material for thought! If I may add a note on the brief exchange on transcendence that came up. I think it’s important to distinguish between weak and strong transcendence. You critiqued a version of strong transcendence. Zack responded with a version of weak transcendence. A parallel presents itself in debates about rebirth. Biology offers a weak version of rebirth, with its concepts of recycled matter, regeneration, ecosystem cross-fertilization, and so on. People, x-buddhists for instance, often refer to this weak version of rebirth in order to substantiate strong claims that they wish to make–claims about the postmortem survival of consciousness, karmic-entanglement, or something. The strong claim, of course, is not thereby substantiated. And fuzzy thinking wins the day. The matter requires further analysis, but weak transcendence might mean something like “possibility.” Zack referred to the something that arises in the interchange between, say, two individuals in some situation, and the relationality of “the two” itself. That something can be spoken of as transcendent to the already present state of the situation. But that’s a weak sense of transcendence. Maybe this is obvious, but seems necessary to make explicit. (Lots more to say–I just deleted ten minutes’ worth of writing because it gets so complex!) Anyway, I am excited to talk with Brooke and Zack tomorrow at our seminar in Philadelphia. Thanks for your work, Matthew. Keep going…

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    1. Good point, thanks. Transcendence seems to act as a fascinating pointer to quite divergent phenomena. I have enjoyed using it as a referent to a style of human practice in almost opposition to immanence, whilst appreciating what Adrian Ivakhiv stated in an earlier podcast episode on the two being in tension.
      Clearly, we need a sort of immanent revolt against the millennia of transcendent desire so omnipresent in Western societies, and others, yet, it is also clear that transcending moments of apparent stuckness, ill conceived ideological models, educational models, political models, and so on, is captured within the notion that change can happen, and that we can move beyond a current state of affairs, and that imagination (as a sort of transcendent force) is always key in envisioning alternatives.
      I perceive the immanence/transcendence divide as being primarily a concern of ethics and a form of commitment, especially as I am using the term within the practicing life, the intellectual life, and my vision of Buddhism within the life of the podcast, which is seeking an ongoing reckoning with Western Buddhisms’ many faults.
      The shift you describe in writing about a weak form of transcendence in relation to rebirth actually appears to me as a conscious step back from the transcendent mores of full-strength rebirth. A movement thus towards an immanent reading of what might be real. It seems odd to me to think of it in terms of any kind of transcendence. The matter-of-factness of our existence is surely immanent, right?

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      1. My 2c is that when making a claim of immanence you are playing a foundational game. A desire to have a pragmatic concept of “matter-of-factness of our existence” makes sense to me. But if you try to ground a definition of “matter” or “fact” or “existence”, we see a meaningless statement without many other unstable concepts. What is the “matter-of-factness of our existence” today may not be the same as the “matter-of-factness of our existence” tomorrow (e.g. maybe you will find God to replace immanence).

        Transcendence is something that you can keep transcending. If you believe in God today that might be transcended by social constructionism tomorrow and so on. While “immanence” can’t be “got under” so I see it as a dangerous term. It potentially puts an end to what I believe needs to be an ongoing process of becoming more human (which implies that “human” is not a stable concept i.e. becoming more human may involve becoming more than human).

        Immanence is a radical idea if you believe in a foundational transcendence. If you are not buying into foundationalism then I doubt the utility of the concept as it risks to give an impression of having solved a problem.

        For example, I think we could make a case for the concept of immanence impacting the SNB community, the result being that some claim a marxist paradigm as being the only solution, because Marx explains the “matter-of-factness of our existence”.

        I don’t think Glenn makes that move, but it seems an inevitable result of playing with immanence. Play with immanence and you will get transcended 😉

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  6. Hi Mark, Just a few thoughts.
    I wholeheartedly agree with your enthusiasm for “relational becoming” as a practice. I think that it may not be so difficult but does bring up fascinating challenges in terms of autonomy, manipulation, group identities, shared intention, and desirable outcomes.
    In terms of holding paradox, I don’t see why that’s such an issue, firstly as a conceptual practice, and secondly as a phenomenological practice of uncoupling from the familiarity with ideational positions, attachment to certain forms of our own identity, and the comfort of holding a given position. I agree that there is plenty of evidence to state that we are not programmed, so to speak, to hold paradox. In fact, if anything, it’s the exact opposite, and hence our tribal instincts and motivated reasoning. There is a need to train such skills and they are as much mental and emotional, but it can be done and could be refined as a set of practices.
    I agree with you on the usage of non-philosophy and deconstructionism in enabling us to experientially come to terms with the non-foundationalism of our subjectivity and the risks of slipping back into old worldviews. This is exciting terrain, at least for me. Though the problem with radical action is who decides which such action is sufficiently and appropriately radical and to what end. I would suggest we need to keep breaking down and breaking up the complacency of the unimaginative reproduction of existing modes of knowledge by encouraging those who are approaching any kind of disruption to received wisdom to keep going and to help challenge each other to keep thinking at the margins, at the edges, and to imagine the world anew without falling for the old transcendent allure. This requires training, support and human interaction, right?

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    1. Hi Matthew,

      If someone is attached to a concept of an authentic self then they may suffer cognitive dissonance when trying to conceptualize the self. If I do X under some circumstance and Y under another circumstance, and I try to understand myself as being X or being Y, then I could perhaps misinterpret this as paradox. Framing the circumstance differently e.g. not believing in an independent authentic self, dissolves the paradox.

      The paradox I am concerned with is something that is logically incoherent, for example doing X and doing Y at the same time (if these are contrary acts). Anti-foundationalism could serve as an example of a paradox, someone with a foundational worldview can claim “the anti-foundational stance is imposing a universal truth of anti-foundationalism, therefore it is paradoxical because it has a foundation”. However from an anti-foundational stance I am not “holding the paradox” it dissolves because I am not interested in developing or promoting a “theory of everything”.

      I am not sure it is desirable to hold paradox. Of course it is better to be able to hold off judgement and not let one’s inability to dissolve a paradox be the reason to come down hard on one or the other side of the paradox. For example, not being able to dissolve the anti-foundational paradox may result in some people adopting a foundational position and being very committed to it, because they want to avoid the cognitive dissonance.

      A more popular example might be the paradox of wave/particle quantum behavior. If we “hold the paradox” then the scientific project ceases. Instead of holding the paradox we have theories like quantum field theory that dissolve that particular paradox.

      If you have a non-foundational stance then it makes no sense to come down hard on one side of a paradox. I also think it makes little sense to have the ambition of indefinitely holding the paradox. It is more interesting to try and dissolve the paradox. It would be important to me if someone could describe a paradox that they hold because it can’t be (or shouldn’t be) “dissolved”.

      To wrap this up: I agree it is a good skill to be able to hold paradox and practises can help. But I’m not sure paradoxes are a “good sign”, it might be better to see a paradox as indicating a problem. Until that problem is “dissolved” then I agree holding the paradox may be the best option. I suspect some people see holding paradox as a sign of achievement rather than a cause for concern.

      Regarding radical action, I was not trying to imply that radical action would necessarily be sufficient or appropriate. I was suggesting that radical claims should lead to radical action (i.e. action that is very different). If someone is making radical claims but that is not associated with radical action, then it raises serious doubt as to whether the claims are actually radical. For example, if I claim “relational becoming” and this is not radically impacting my behavior, then you might be wise to consider my claims as delusional rather than radical. Certainly radical claims have often led to disaster (nuclear weapons come to mind) so I am not saying radical is good. If we are unsure of the result of acting in accordance with our claims then I think we are unsure of the claims and in this case it is not very radical to have “a weird idea I am unsure about”.

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