Being Buddhist & some thoughts on identity

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The truth is that I must call myself Buddhist for it would be dishonest to do otherwise. I don’t take this word as a label or a badge that I show off proudly; I equally feel no shame in stating that I am such. I imagine that some of you might though and those that have thought about it seriously have elaborate stories for why. I could pretend I am nothing and leave it to others to decide for me what I am or not. Or I could insist on ever better definitions that fit with whatever idea is dominant in my mind, and obsess over them each year in the vain search for the perfect capture, the true me. That’s a popular game at the moment, isn’t it? Really though, it comes down to questions of identity, and truth, which are two concepts continuously under siege in our current age. In modern society, we are asked, after all, to identify with emergent dominant titles, and then posture up and display our credentials to an approving clan: I am a … (fill in the blank), therefore I am absolutely not a … (fill in the blank). Identity politics has made this all worse of course and some have rightly made the connection between its seeping influence across society, and a perennial form of adolescence, and collective narcissism; each of these latter two being wholly concerned with itself, its image, its vision of the world, its pain, and the dramatization of each.

The division between what is real and what is imagined has always been a contentious issue for our species and this divide continues unabated. The Left and the Right in their ideological capture are currently thrashing about with their ideational toys trying to make reality fit their warped visions of the world; each utterly convinced of their truth and the need for the world to adapt to its demands. The performative nature of identity means that games of identity at all levels have become far more contentious, forever problematised, increasingly theatrical, and even violent. You don’t need me to list the growing cases of stupid humans doing stupid things in the name of stupid ideologies, and to repeat how such stupidity has crossed all political divides. One may reflect on where it’s taking us all and my two cents at this point is that it will likely continue to be towards a set of destinations unpredicted by those most vocally caught up in the fervour. Self-obsession and foresight rarely go together after all.

Some of us rightly assume that giving up on the whole game of identity is the quickest way out of the identity trap and a means for escape from the madness made most evident on Twitter and Youtube. Just ignore it they say. But, this is a sort of cop out if we’re honest, and it’s an attempt at transcendence which ultimately fails. The return of an obsession with identity is, if anything, a reminder of the cyclical nature of history and a consequence of our collective struggle with the ongoing process of shuffling into a new century, and the necessary and inevitable challenges of a species in struggle with itself, and its surroundings. It is right that we imagine ourselves anew in cycles of social upheaval and change; it is not great that we continue to blindly do so whilst ignoring history, yet again, but that is clearly asking too much of our imperfect species right now.

After an increasingly therapeutic century, it was perhaps inevitable that we would struggle with the lingering centre of our identity; the question of who we are and what we should be. Coupled with the elaborately constructed individualisation of the last century, we inevitably get an over-focus on ourselves; an idea of ourselves as the locus of meaning, of responsibility, of pleasure, of identity, which is to say a self with an acute case of Narcissus syndrome. From reality TV shows to Youtube ‘stars’ do we not live in the age of peak, unwarranted narcissism? Identity politics is too often not a balance to this excess, a reassertion of us, of community and togetherness, but an elaborate collective manifestation of the same set of dysfunctional urges. It is not just look at me, it’s now look at us, keep looking, keep us in your gaze (for we might disappear if you look away). Don’t look at them, don’t maintain their existence; if you ignore them, they will vanish.  Attention at its most extreme has become a new mythological power; hunted for far and wide, accumulated and guarded jealously. The one dark ring to rule them all…

It is no surprise that our younger members of society would unconsciously plough their natural maturational urges into what makes most sense to them at the time in which they are born and grow, and in a way that will mark them apart from their dysfunctional and forever disappointing forebears. It’s a shame that they have been handed such a mixed bag of tools and that most of these tools were not fully formed and are actually  inadequate for facing the really big challenges of our time. Challenges that have far less to do with identity and far more to do with transcending not only our race, gender, sexual preference and linguistic obsessions, but with maintaining the planet as an inhabitable host for our whole species and its other living beings, which are so desperate for our attention, care, and love. Challenges that concern the elaboration of an economic system fit for purpose in a very different world, necessarily accompanied by a salvageable form of democracy that is robust enough to withstand the rise of China and the inevitable risks to human freedoms that will increase as times get tougher.

If we stop for a moment, and pay attention, it’s hard not to recognise that we need our greatest minds and talents focussing on far less parochial issues than our current political climate is captured by, though there are glimpses of some change taking place. The next generation, in its reaction against its elders, may end up being one of dedicated pragmatists and realists after this brief utopian woke moment. Though, and this may surprise you if you are caught in our moment, I very much hope they don’t reject the justice and equality obsessions of their older siblings, but merely temper them within a truly global view of activism beyond identities to a reformed global togetherness that is inclusive of the birds and the bees, the trees and rivers, and the older generations, which although forever disappointing to younger generations, cannot be left behind in our global battle with global challenges.

 

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Why state all this? Especially as I have not pondered for so long on the connection between these thoughts on our identitarian age and my odd need to state that I am a Buddhist in this post. Like many, I have felt cautious about claiming a Buddhist identity and for good reason. The statement here though is not really a claim about identity but simply an honest observation of what I am after a series of conversations in recent months demanded I be more explicit with my commitments and claims. As I stated in the Political Turn, I am not a possessor of truth or knowledge, but a participant in these two. I feel no need to own what emerges as an apparent truthful observation that I possess over here, inside, somewhere, someplace. After having made some headway with Buddhist practices over the last decades, I could hardly tell you who or what it is that would possess such knowledge anyway, and where this knowledge would be held. Evidence merely states that I am Buddhist.

I love Buddhism. Really, I adore it. And since going “post-traditional” and dancing in the stark, naked embrace of non-buddhism, I have learnt to love it more. Its grace as an immense field of human practice is so evident. The struggling, striving wonders of men and women attempting to grapple, reason with, and develop practices for coming to terms with, understanding, and ultimately striving to transcend our shared human suffering is a joyful, historical, and thoroughly human event. Even as the excesses of those desires that have emerged in different historical phases and shaped the traditions that follow become clear, discovering Buddhisms’ flaws actually makes its many manifestations far more attractive to me, even as I find so much of it superfluous within this emerging, liberated relationship with its ideas, ideals, and practices.

In more colourful terms, Buddhism to me has become a beast that now knows how to inhabit the space of my home without tearing up the cushions, shitting in the corner, and attacking visitors. It’s been tamed. Not turned into a passive, obedient pet, struggling with its own desire, but rather a wild thing that knows how to respectfully engage with its environment, and leave space for others to live and act differently. It now knows how to play with the other kids without being a prick. The identity is not important, the reality is.

Identity politics, so often being performative, is all about status in a voyeuristic age. Whereas westerners may have once felt special or different in stating “I am a Buddhist”, later stages in Western Buddhism’s development saw practitioners finding the whole show and tell game rather superficial, vain and, in more conscious moments, rather irrelevant to the core concern that captured and maintained the attention of longer-term practitioners; namely, that of the ego, of the self, of the soul, of a fixed, permanent ‘I’ at the core of our being. There is a clear contradiction in claiming an identity whilst working on identity after all.

I am Buddhist, fundamentally, because I am consciously committed to reducing suffering and ignorance, and I recognise the undisputable value of phenomenological, contemplative practice in working towards such an open ended aim, and the essential utility of many Buddhist principles. What’s more, the commitment to reducing these two is a pervasive compulsion that comes naturally to me, and as a desire that drives me instinctively, capturing my deepest concerns. It is also the safest, most reliable ethical means I know of for avoiding my worst instincts and keeping me honest: How am I contributing to suffering and ignorance here and how can I reduce doing so, or stop entirely? This is not a calculating plan, it’s not performative, not designed to boost my social credentials or make me appear as a ‘good’ person, especially because those are things I am actually naturally bad at.

This compulsion is informed by Buddhism but also my own involvement with various forms of the therapeutic enterprise, by having taught a variety of ages for over fifteen years, of looking at the world, of being a parent, a husband, a friend, and a person, like you, that sees how difficult life can be, how suffering is so often hidden in the margins of social interactions, behind the posturing and presentations, identities and roles. Buddhism is one of our greatest collective efforts at answering the question, ‘What is to be done about all the suffering?’ It has a fundamental role at the Great feast for this reason.

At its best, Buddhism is wholly concerned with the aim of tackling individual and collective ignorance and pain and that never-ending dissatisfaction we all try to ignore (choose your favourite translation of dukkha). That is the potential within its ideological apparatus. It can be reset towards such goals, recalibrated so that it is not a mere ideological machine capturing subjects and reforming them in performative acts of sufficient Buddhism. It can be more than the mere reiteration of tradition for tradition’s sake. Those of you that recognise the capture are usually the first to dismiss the title of Buddhist, but if you are like me in your concerns, then you kind of are Buddhist: That’s at least what my friends would say.

Like the distinction between practice and performance made in the last post, the distinction between Buddhism as capture and Buddhism as liberating force is not so easily identified and rarely recognised by its own practitioners and teachers. My commitment to reducing the I and the S also involves making the ideological, performative nature of contemporary western Buddhism evident, and speaking to it, so that its inherited limitations may not be an obstacle to the great potential within Buddhism to enact itself. For those currently thinking deeply about post-colonialism and whiteness, and western ideological hegemony, this is not me reiterating another manifestation of the ‘West knows best’ and ‘let’s drop all that backwards superstition of those dark folk who corrupted the pure teachings or original secular-scientific-humanist message of old prince Siddhartha’. Such value laden comparisons are uninteresting to me. Recognising how our current age and knowledge must be integrated into how we imagine Buddhism anew is. It is also a non-negotiable inevitability. This is not about better than, purer than, truer than, that last one a game many traditions continue to play anyway (and to their own disadvantage in my humble opinion), but rather the desire to keep returning all practice materials to the Great Feast – a truly democratic space where all of history can have a place in a fair fight. Traditions are welcome to continue as they will, but their contribution at the Feast ceases once they fail to innovate or give birth to revitalised manifestations of their most important insights and practices: There is no resisting change after all.

To me, the personal and the Buddhist are too close to be separated so I am happy to accept the title of Buddhist. I just demand that the kind of Buddhist I am be seated wholeheartedly at the Great Feast where definitions of suffering have come on since Siddharta and Tsongkhapa and our other wonderful forebears in the struggle for greater knowledge and practices. At the Feast, I am sat among great women and men from all over the globe from great varieties of human traditions, experiments, and striving, and there are many answers to what is ignorance, to what is suffering, and to what we should do about each that transcend the limits of Buddhist thought. There at the Feast I am a better Buddhist; no, not better necessarily than other Buddhists. This is not a damn competition! Rather, what is obvious is that we know more than we ever did. This means that we have more resources for both understanding the qualities and range of ignorance and suffering, and far more resources for tackling both in their multiple manifestations. It is also means we all have a duty to do our part to ensure that this knowledge and these practices do not remain as mere materials for the elites, for the privileged, for the few, or that they remain in the hands of those who are drunk on ideology and are likely to give rise to yet new forms of ignorance and suffering. The Great Feast is where we can all get better at the real projects contained in the greatest moments of our human species.

I personally happen to be most interested in those moments where we tried to figure out how to help those caught in the confines of pain and ignorance to see that there are so often ways out of both. For this reason, I am clearly Buddhist.

 

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8 thoughts on “Being Buddhist & some thoughts on identity

  1. Great article, Matt. I have been struggling with this issue as well, namely, should I (or do I) identify as a Buddhist? Briefly, no, I don’t, and now I’ll explain why. It’s a matter of balancing the worthiness and problems of Buddhism in its current state. So what is the state of Buddhism today? We used to expend gigabytes of text poking fun at the [neo]liberal ethos and pompous spiritual posturing of Western ‘boomer’ Buddhism’, aka ’hippie’ Buddhism. That era of Western Buddhism is over. What is quickly superceding hippie Buddhism is the far more dismal nightmare of Buddho-fascism. Buddhism has emerged as just another religion that oppresses, abuses and exploits its own members, excludes the dissenting and divergent, and wages war against any perceived threat to its existence.

    In many Asian Buddhist majority countries, such as Burma and Sri Lanka, Buddhism is dominated by Buddho-fascists, monastics who are tightly integrated with fascist millitary regimes, disdain for human rights, ethno-centrism, ethnic cleansing, civil war and genocide. Even the fascist Modi regime in India, which is Hindu, has embraced Buddhists as part of the fascist coalition that is waging ethnic cleansing of Muslims and tribal peoples. Do I want to be personally associated with a religion that engages in ethnic cleansing and genocide? No, I don’t.

    Western Buddhism is in a different but no better state. Western Buddhism has emerged as, on the one hand, a somnambulant horde of anxious people escaping the vacuousness and alienation of late techno-capitalism; and on the other hand, a cadre of teachers, lamas and gurus who exploit their members’ desire for escapism and paternalistic protection. What results from this mix is the widespread abuse of Buddhist practitioners: sexual assault and rape; verbal, emotional and spiritual abuse; physical beating and exploitative labour practices; ploys for power and demands for the subservience of the membership; financial exploitation of the membership and total disregard for civil law and ethical oversight. Do I want to be personally associated with this kind of violence, abuse and exploitation? No, I don’t.

    Wow, so many Buddhist practices. Which Buddhist practices should I engage in? Ethnic cleansing and genocide? Rape and sexual assault? Exploiting hapless adherents for power and money? So many Buddhist practices, where do I begin?

    Buddhism, both East and West, has emerged as authoritarian Buddho-fascism, and that has to do with the structure of Buddhism itself. Buddhism cannot propagte itself unless it is attached to an authoritarian regime. We know this from the history of Buddhism as well as its current Buddho-fascist form. But the doctrines and practices of Buddhism are intrinsically authoritarian, claiming to be the sole arbiter of enlightenment, salvation from suffering, truth and transcendence. You must practice Buddhism exactly as Buddhaghosa or Tsongkapa or Dogen dictated in their respective scriptures or you will continue to suffer and fail at ultimate enlightenment. All other systems of practice and truth are misguided and false.

    And as you rightly point out, there is no real difference between the right-wing and left-wing of the culture wars. My experience in both forms of Western Buddhism is that it doesn’t matter what kind of Buddhism you practice; they’re all oppressive, abusive and exclusionist. Buddho-fascism is emerging in both the leftist wing of Buddhism and the orthodox-traditionalist wing. Leftist Buddhism is engrossed in the culture wars. It has become a cauldron of ethno-centrism, hatred, and the abuse and exclusion of anyone who doesn’t think like they do. Buddho-Marxism wields the dual-authoritarianism of Buddhist and Marxist political orthodoxy. Leftist Buddhism is impervious to valid critique, evinces insufferable self-righteousness, exploits its membership for power and money. And its leaders have also engaged in the verbal and sexual assult of practitioners. The orthodox-traditionalist right wing of Buddhism is where the most grotesque forms of sexual assault, abuse and exploitation have occurred. Point out these facts to either wing of Western Buddhism, and you are dismissed as a racially-privileged neoliberal Westerner who has no right to assert any critique.

    Buddhism is pretty much the same everywhere you go. It doesn’t matter what sangha you belong to, what tradition you practice in, whether its ‘boomer’ Buddhism or ‘millennial’ Buddhism, Asian or Western, leftist or rightist. It’s all Buddhist authoritarianism in one form or another.

    Even Non-Buddhism falls into this trap: everything YOU practice is X-Buddhism, which is ignorant, specious, and a laughing-stock. WE practice Non-Buddhism which is the only kind of Buddhism that is true, real, educated and not a joke. Just like all other forms of X-Buddhism, Non-Buddhism is driven by the authoritarian imperative to tell you what to think and what not to think, what is real or true and what is not, and if you disagree, you’re an idiot.

    Again, so many Buddhist practices—where do I start?

    So what do I practice or identify with, if anything? And how do I locate myself in this territory? As a practitioner of dharma. What is dharma? Dharma, translated from the Sanskrit, means law, or the ‘natural order of things’. More simply, dharma is wisdom. And the sources of wisdom that I draw from are yes, Buddhism, but also yoga, paganism and other spiritual traditions, science, social science and the humanities, ecology and natural systems theory. Moreover, dharma is the wisdom that I have gained from my own life: recovery wisdom, queer wisdom, trans wisdom, the wisdom I gathered from decades of community organizing and art creation, from fellow artists and activists of all persuasions. I see dharma as an open-ended search for wisdom wherever it appears, for truth that is not only convincing, but also applicable to my very real human life.

    The last and best bit of wisdom I got from Buddhism is this: the doctrine of Buddha Nature, which I interpret for myself thusly: your own awakened consciousness is a greater source of enlightenment than any Buddhist teaching or practice.

    If I am a Buddhist, I follow a different buddha. I don’t follow Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, and I don’t follow ‘Buddhism’, whatever institutional forms that might take. I follow my own buddha nature, my own awakened consciousness. Buddha pointed the way, but ultimately the journey is our own, leading us to places he could not foretell.

    Moreover, we are the buddhas for this age. Gautama Buddha didn’t have to deal with catastrophic climate change or mass extinction, or mass migration, or nuclear war, or global trade, or the Internet, or smart phones, or AI, or any of the very complex and intractable situations that we have to cope with today. We have to deal with this, and thus we are the wisest and most knowledgeable buddhas to steer humanity through these situations.

    “Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, Christian, Hindu nor Muslim. It is not the monopoly of anybody. Sectarian labels are a hindrance to the independent understanding of Truth, and they produce harmful prejudices in people’s minds. ” – Ven. Walpola Rahula

    No guru, no method, no teacher. —Van Morrison.

    No gods, no masters. —Anarchist slogan.

    P. S. Matt, I know you hate excessively long comments on your site. My apologies. But you gave me an opportunity to say something I’ve been thinking for a long time.

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    1. At the risk of encouraging more from you, I have to ask whether this would not be a more suitable post for your own website Shaun? It’s got a sort of psychotic feel to it; are you aware of this? I am always impressed by those who get away with speaking in first person assertions; I wonder where the confidence comes from and how anyone can tolerate conversations in this vain. Here’s me wondering how I can possibly know anything at all and pondering the almost impossible origins of ideas which infiltrate my imagination, and you’ve rewritten history and overwritten reality with a stark and vicious vision encased in the darkest of tones.

      To be honest, I think you may have allowed your vision of Buddhism to become somewhat warped here. The nightmare vision you conjure up is not something I would wish to be part of if I were in your shoes either, but to plaster such a horrendous net over the whole thing seems drastic and extreme to say the least. That dark elements exist and all the other bad stuff you write of in places and often hidden is undoubtedly true, but let’s not lose ourselves in the indulgence of righteous new visions that merely replace one form of projection and delusion with another. If this is how you see it, perhaps you really should leave the whole thing behind; it certainly can’t be good for you.

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  2. Re-posting from Facebook as promised…

    As stated the critique put forward here responds to certain aspects of this post specifically, my reading of which is informed various statements you have made scattered across your podcasts. I am prepared to accept that I may be misreading you on some level Matthew, so feel free to simply engage with the aspects of my my critique that you think are relevant and or worthwhile for you to engage, and point out and/or dismiss those characterizations you think are uncharitable. 🙂

    Firstly, let me just state that *as a socialist* I have issues with aspects of identity politics in over emphasis on language games, moralism, and tendency to sometimes foreclose collectivization across lines of difference through over-investment in ones identity position as such. I also agree to you that here, ‘identity politics’ and neo-liberal conceptions of the individual, and the performance of ones individuality on online platforms are problematical entangled.

    That said I think to dismiss ‘identity politics’ wholesale, and all that the term represents as you seem to be doing here is I think somewhat problematic. Regardless of the problems with ‘identity politics’ nevertheless the term also flags a real awareness of how different identity groups suffer under different forms of oppression within contemporary society. To dismiss ‘identity politics’ out of hand runs the risk of also dismiss these forms of oppression and peoples fight against them.

    Let me draw your attention to a few paragraphs from the post as diving off points:

    “It’s a shame that they have been handed such a mixed bag of tools and that most of these tools were not fully formed and are actually inadequate for facing the really big challenges of our time. Challenges that have far less to do with identity and far more to do with transcending not only our race, gender, sexual preference and linguistic obsessions, but with maintaining the planet as an inhabitable host for our whole species and its other living beings, which are so desperate for our attention, care, and love.”

    When you make this statement are you not somewhat dismissing the *reality* of the ‘challenges’ faced by black folks, or indigenous folks, who are actively subject to police brutality, and over incarceration, and excluded from the same socio-economic opportunities etc as white folks?

    I would also question the assumption that issues such as climate justice, and the politics of race, again in the case lets take Indigenous sovereignty are inherently separate issues. For example in Australia where I live, Indigenous folks have been fighting for environmental issues since since colonization, and in recent decades have continued to lead this fight. For them ‘country’ (and its health and well being) are tied up identity, and their capacity to continue to live on their lands and practice the land management practices — that are in turn tied up with ritual practice and myth — that they have practiced for millennia.

    And another passage: “Some of us *rightly* assume that giving up on the whole game of identity is the quickest way out of the identity trap and a means for escape from the madness made most evident on Twitter and Youtube.”

    The assumption that people can just or should want to ‘transcend identity’ also strikes me as highly questionable. To continue with race as an example, while socially constructed, it is nevertheless the product of specific social and historical circumstances and is *real* or *actual*. People cannot simply choose not to identify with race as such, it is a social construct that has real effects — it is etched on bodies and organizes social life. It is imposed from without through social practices and institutions, as much as it is enacted from by the subject. Even if someone would want to ‘transcend’ their racial identity as such, they would still have it re-inscribed upon them from without.

    The writing of Frantz Fanon, comes to mind, who as a proto post-colonial and critical race theorist and a existentialist and psychoanalyst, was committed to both engaging with and articulating his identity as a black man and his desire to transcend it to be just a man (in a existentialist sense), in at least the sense of wanting to overcoming being simply a black man in relation to or for the white man in a colonial society. His writing articulates this intractable conflict in ways that I really cannot to justice here. I would highly recommend it if you haven’t read it.

    Nevertheless, I think this kind broad dismissal of ‘identity politics’ out of hand runs the risk of being reactionary, if it dismisses the real forms of oppression and struggles for justice that underpin it (I am not sure if this is your intention or not). I would suggest that if you are willing to engage •critically and creatively• here, there is a more nuanced and critical understanding that we can develop collectively of theses issues.

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    1. Hi Richard,
      This is clearly a huge topic and my post is not focused on politics specifically but considers it in light of identity more broadly, Buddhism, and my own reflections: It’s a real blog post in this regard and less of an essay or article, which are usually what I write here.
      I claim no special insight or knowledge regarding politics so my comments should be taken lightly and I would only suggest that we keep context explicit. I mention identity politics and identity more broadly because they are relevant to themes at play in the podcast. I am reluctant to go too far down the rabbit hole on this topic without there being any explicit value as the weeds are many and my other demands are always at the door! Is there much use in you and me discussing these topics? I’ve no idea. That said, I am happy to state a couple of my broad views on politics and the current climate we inhabit. I have spoken of my political commitments in more detail on the Political Turn so to that episode of the podcast one must turn if there are doubts that linger or a need to check in on what my affiliations and commitments are after this exchange.
      For me, the whole range of discourse, topics, questions, issues and debates we could spend hours and days discussing all need to be prioritized: What’s most important? Where must we invest our energies? What’s the bigger picture here? What is lost in the focus on identities and their grievances? It’s not that I’m against Identity Politics per sè rather I believe it is too often a distraction from what really matters and is the cause of failure for the saner political options available. In this regard, I may be a political utilitarian; though I haven’t thought about this enough to say whether I would commit to such a position, or not. My general political stance currently is Social-Democracy, though I would like to see a more genuine and complete manifestation of it take place in the countries I care most about.
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      One chief concern that I express in this post is that identity politics lends itself too quickly to the personal and the therapeutic. Broad political action requires self-sacrifice and commitment and this can only be achieved by a broad coalition of folks willing to prioritize and commit to a vision that will capture enough of a given nation to bring a group to power. You know this I’m sure. It’s hard to argue that an over-focus on identity politics hasn’t led to an immense amount of resentment in the US, UK and much of the rest of Europe (you’ll have to tell me how things stand in your part of the world) and the loss of many working class and middle-class voters from left-wing parties. It’s crazy, for example, that the Tories will most likely win in the UK election until you look at what the Left symbolizes to the poor, working classes, and working middle-class voters, who are deeply, deeply resentful of being told they are racist, islamaphobic, violent, ignorant, white supremacist… (add in whatever other token term you prefer). This is a long topic where much could be said (the weeds are approaching), but the Left’s rhetoric has been deeply rooted in identity politics and inclusiveness of very specific groups at the exclusion of others; much of which is actually their traditional voter base. By the way, Italy tried a similar strategy, and we got Salvini, who will very likely return to power in the next election despite the fantasies of the PD. I need say little about Trump. The Left in these countries tend towards fragmentation and identity politics has worsened this process to the point where the Left in the UK, US & Italy may have lost the capacity to win a general election for the foreseeable future: I hope I’m wrong about this.
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      Rather than dismiss specific cases of suffering, I would simply want to return them, whenever possible, to a broader coalition of political action that always seek to invest in a vision for the many and lean heavier on facts than ideology. Proponents of Identity Politics often appear to support this view, but the reality is too often something entirely different, highly ideological and blind to the concerns of many of the non-preferred groups that are suffering too. My critique is really of the fashion of ID politics and its pop culture manifestations. I wouldn’t even call the ongoing fight for racial justice identity politics. The right to equality in many sense means you are forgotten. To be a society free of homophobia means that no one really cares if you’re gay or not, the same goes for skin tone. Identity Politics is too often a fetishisation of difference.
      Obviously, I would wholeheartedly support indigenous folks in the fight you speak of. My view is that a decent Left would be fighting alongside them towards a national commitment to the issues they are raising that would ideally be integrated into a nuanced, balanced vision of the role and purpose of society, the economy, and the national identity even. The bigger issue though, to which I am speaking, remains. We desperately need large scale visions that are utilitarian, pragmatic and a response to the best knowledge we have in the face of national and global problems. Identity Politics is too often a distraction from this, parochial and performative.
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      The point on transcendence is of a specific political, social game that is very popular at present. I’m speaking to the pop culture manifestation of identity obsession, not to traditional political fights that have been going on for decades or hundreds of years. There is a lot of presumptuous claims on the part of proponents of identity politics that keep being revealed to be out of touch with reality and very much ideological. More weeds here. I think that folks working on consciousness can get to the point of consciously choosing to prioritize one aspect of identify over another. That is a potential within contemplative practices. As I mention above, integration, rather than separation, appears far healthier to my eyes and the experience I have had. The separation out of those identities into ever refined categories is fascinating, but ultimately not helpful in forming broader political coalitions capable of winning elections and combating national and global challenges. What you mention about Frantz Fanon sounds right up my street. There are, after all, layers of suffering in many aspects of identity.

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  3. Thanks for the Matt. That really helps to clarify your position via a vis these issues.

    I think some of the more off hand remarks you have made wherein these issues have been referenced in passing led me to be somewhat unclear about where you stood in this regard.

    Just a couple of quick thoughts…

    I entirely agree about the issues with over-determination of identity (in terms o for example race, gender, sexuality etc) can and has, to use my terms, “foreclosed collectivization across lines of difference through over-investment in ones identity position as such.” Especially in how it forecloses the formation of “class consciousness” (just to flag my Marxist bona-fides), in that class as such, as an expression of the relations of production within capitalism, is I would argue, properly understood not as an identity position as such. And I agree that this is a real issue in terms of the left making real political in roads. It is also worth noting that this problem is being negotiated on the left, from more vulgar Marxist attempts that try to dismiss identity positions as being very much entirely secondary, or irrelevant, to more nuanced forms of intersectionalism as espoused by folks like Angela Davis.

    In regard to your statement — “To be a society free of homophobia means that no one really cares if you’re gay or not, the same goes for skin tone. Identity Politics is too often a fetishisation of difference.” Part of my point in quoting Fanon in the previous post was to emphasize how the tension exists between, to use Fanon’s terms, being a black man, and being a man (here using this term, as per his times, and existentialist influences in the sense of being undetermined form without). While I agree that as you say identity politics often fetishizes difference in arguably problematic ways, as I was saying in my previous post, the assumption that we can just move beyond these identity formations without ongoing negotiation and potential conflict strikes me as questionable. For those that occupy subaltern positions, those positions are often reinforced by hegemonic institutions and norms, from without, as much as they are within. As Fanon articulates in his work so eloquently deconstructing from an identity position that has been and continues to be defined from without *by the colonial gaze as it were*, is a process of individual and collective struggle and exploration both internally, and with the world as it is.

    In a close aside… As briefly mentioned within our DM exchange, I wonder to what degree Buddhist notions of no-self can be employed productively here? In thinking identity in ways that are productive and not reactionary, as is often the case. No-self and its different interpretations within the Buddhist tradition strike me as interest resources, that could be employed alongside Western conceptions of the subject, from those of existentialism as per Fanon et al, to performative notions from feminist thinkers like Butler, or the models of contemporary psychology with its notions of neuroplasticity, habit and behavior etc etc.

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    1. Hi Richard, There are some interesting points you raise in this last comment. As I hinted at, I have been thinking about wiring something on anatman. I could be an opportunity to respond to some of the points that arose in our exchange, and here, especially on the juxtaposition between identity formation in a social world, and the potential of concepts like no-self, or not-self shorn of Buddhist pretexts. It’s a delicate topic, but worth exploring within a post-traditional and post-suffficiency lens. I think I’ll give it a go as a partial response to your comments so shall say no more here.

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