Complex World Complex Practice

Pollock, Jackson (1912_1956) © Museum of Modern Art, New York Painting 173×264,2 Abstract Art Number 1A, 1948

What are we to make of the times we live in? How are we to approach practice? No, not just meditation, but life as practice, knowing and not knowing as practice, relationship with ideas and concepts as practice. I know a few decent enough answers to these questions, as many of you do too, yet there is something missing in these complex times where the self and politics have nestled inside each other so comfortably, and where the online world has supplanted so much and in some ways reality itself. This nestled space is certainly a practice arena too; one many are absorbed into as their primary source of meaning making in the current cultural ferment and varied expressions of the culture war. Though this idea of war is rather limited and very American and presumably we’ll need a war on war soon. The truth is our current age is marked by many, many intersecting worldviews crashing into each other, and they go beyond the dichotomies evident in the culture war’s excesses. Our age is characterised by complexity and a need for practices that can engage with the complex as the starting point for any serious thought. Simplistic narratives and dichotomies are a distraction from an historical moment which demands so much from us.

The multiplicity of our age & accompanying reality disjuncture represent a picture of the postmodern characteristics of our age. After all, the excesses that characterise this period of human history are rooted in a fascinating conflict between the realities of our material and human worlds, and the hyperreal fantasies that run through the cultural products, practices and visions hyperreal experience give birth to: Fantasies that run all the way from far-right to far-left and all of the dysfunctional stop off points in-between. These worlds do exist, but they consist of alternative realities where the imaginary and the real can be so far apart that they are impossible to square. The ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy, what is desired and what is imminent may be the defining issue of our age and one that shapes the contours our future follows, towards what I suspect will be a new age of harsh pragmatism dominated by the cynical, anti-democratic antics of China, and the West’s slow reaction to them.

One of my reasons for getting off of social media was the well-known role these platforms play in the dysfunctional eruptions of our current ferment and their capacity to distract us from thinking deeply about our current collective state. They pull us further into polarised thinking, and feeling, and this happens even to those of us who dabble ever so lightly, tweet rarely, and glance only occasionally at Facebook or Instagram. It is difficult to avoid becoming a pawn in the role-play that characterises the polarisation evident in many western countries, even if you spend minimal time on social media. I personally hate being a pawn, I despise being enrolled in clubs and events I did not sign up for, and sucked into causes that may be good, or right, but are rooted in the reactive subject or hyperreal fantasies. When I realised I was being dragged into the anti-woke camp (no, not the alt-right), I had to put my foot down and cut the oxygen feed of Twitter, the sugar rush of Facebook, and the less savoury recommendations coming at me from Youtube: I admit it, they caught me off guard in a slow, insipid fashion.

My current discipline involves less than an hour spent on all social media a week and I rarely reach the 60 minute mark. Now, I know many of you love using these platforms still and may even have managed to culture sane, measured and eminently practical relationships with the platforms of your choice. I had in many ways done so myself for years, but I noticed the algorithms messing more and more with the content I was seeing. Intelligent stuff appeared often enough, but more and more of it became reflective of the woke/anti-woke divide: this was manipulation and sign of a drift that was unwelcome. There’s something enraging in realising some slick fuck in Silicon Valley has managed to get his sneaky algorithm to invade your world; my world, my feelings, and thoughts, and conjure up emotions that were uninvited. This might be the new form of the Althusserian policeman beckoning us into ideological performance, not through a call in the street, but rather with a quick Tweet, an innocent looking Instagram post, and a Youtube video clip. Unsurprisingly, Louis Althusser has a thing or two to say about our age that few seem to be picking up on, and one important characteristic of the social media call is just how much people enjoy it: a cunning prison guard it is indeed.

As is the way of these things, the practising life demands a re-evaluation, a return to the world with new tools, sleeves rolled up, and the motivation to resolve the impasse. This is where this post emerges. It is the only one that made it through the struggle. I started off half a dozen pieces for the site, and they all fizzled out, or smacked into brick walls of complexity. Thinking about and alongside our age is really tough and this is the yet that started off this post; we have practices and ways of thinking, but I can’t help but think that they are not truly of this age. Our current moment is so complex that attempting to rise above the dichotomies defining the most visible elements of it is harder than a lot of people realise. You can be an ideologically captured subject and play the woke or anti-woke game, for example, but to transcend this split and do some original thinking is not easy. You can be a Capitalist or an anti-capitalist, Communist or anti-Communist, but those dynamics seem dated somehow, not redundant, but needing of more partners than the usual pairings allow for. You can retreat into a specialist field or side alley of concern, that’s not hard; there’s some reasonably interesting thinking going on down some of those. You can also identify a single or twin aspect of the current cultural climate and analyse it alone, but as soon as you stretch that analysis out of that aspect’s ratio, it proves grossly insufficient, and this might be why so much potentially good thought ends up being so parochial. The themes defining our age are so many, so intertwined, so changeable and so complex it is difficult to get a handle on them and exercise adequate thought, especially as thinking itself has become an overly politicised and symbolic act, a consequence, perhaps, of slippage into dichotomous splits that shut down creativity but provide a certain degree of stability to the identities rooted in them. I fear too much of our current intellectual climate is rooted in poorly recycled theory from the last century and its limits are everywhere you look.

Now, there is an easy route through this landscape of complexity for the disinterested. Buddhism provides a model of practice that you might pick up. It is that of the renunciate. Renounce away and enjoy your freedom. Turn away from the internet, ignore the News on your TV, leave the newspaper on its stand and micro-manage your conversational life: problem solved. You can do it if that’s your pull. If not, or if such an approach doesn’t work for you as it doesn’t for me, then you will need some practices if you are to avoid being dragged into the dysfunctional mess we call public discourse. You will need to find ways to think clearly, start from where you are, and return to the Great Feast instead of the fast food truck of whatever ideology you tend to be drawn towards. It requires a good deal of discipline for the pull is very strong and the mutating nature of our moment means the new is forever novel and attempting to pull us back in through the triggers of outrage, insider/outsider divides and the need to be right. We might say that reality is becoming increasingly socially-mediafied.

A non- practice might be useful here. After all, it is all about finding the sweet spot in your relationship with ideologies, beliefs, practices and traditions of thought. It provides us with tools for navigating major meaning making practices without being sucked into the whirlpool of decision or being blinded by sufficiency, or finally chucking the whole thing out in disgust. It suggests committing to the discipline of modes of thinking that disrupt the mimicry of received wisdom and unquestioned superiority, wherever it emanates from. As we are still struggling to accept our earth bound lives, transcendent thought, by its very nature, should be regarded with suspicion. I am attracted to earth bound thought and the process of thinking as ecological itself, rooted in organic matter, awash with the elements, tides and weather patterns and forever branching out beyond the confines of narrow environmental enclosures: much of our current age is marked by zooified thinking practices. Mining ecology and its expanding conceptual resources will likely be a major route out of the limits of 20th century thinking though one essential concern will be to avoid romanticism and mystifying the natural environment. Each aspect of thought must be relational: the tendency to turn interconnectedness into a theory of unity and spiritual oneness must be included in an inter-relational practice so that it doesn’t merely produce a new dichotomy. All of this is understood as practice, not the adoption of replacement, ready-made packages of concepts, beliefs and conclusions. That would merely be an ideological replacement in which someone else has done all the hard work for you. Avoiding final resting places is key for it itself is yet another attempt to seek final conclusions, or an end point. Finally there is doubt. Scepticism is one side of this too, yet it is often a transactional practice based on preserving one’s intellectual limits. Doubt is recognition of just how ignorant we are, not as a value judgement, but as a confession, an acknowledgement of limits, and as a reappraisal of our epistemological confines as a species. In an age of social media, the self has become a trophy to present to a limitless public and claims of knowledge are displays on a hyperreal stage of show and tell. Everything is performance, the enacting of an idealised image of self. Admitting you don’t know is so uncool. Perhaps this is why it is a truly revolutionary act today.

Look, this is a string of thoughts gravitating towards opinion. It can be approached as if you were dining at the Great Feast. At each point of the text you could analyse, unpack, deconstruct; you could trace the history of each idea and place it within your favourite interpretive framework’s vision, value system and moral mores. That’s all good, but you can attempt something else too. You can add, instead of subtract. Take what’s said and add it to the pot that you’re cooking in, chuck in your fave ideology, stir them together well, let them simmer, see what comes out. You can add in some extra flavouring too; an extra pinch of historical salt and pepper for context, a nuance of spice for an unexpected perspective, extra idea veg to open up a whole new world of flavours beyond the dull black and white dichotomy you dine on most often. Put together a meal that is rich and varied and provides many nutrients. You see, we all dine on dichotomies, but it’s so old hat, and has increasingly become like American fast-food. We need relational thought to open up the menu and provide much needed nutrition in a landscape of puerile practice.

I am going to explore these three ways of avoiding dichotomous thinking. They’re not mine, but I like them. I am no expert on them, but I use them a lot. To me doubt, non-thought, and ecological thought are methods or modes for getting towards 21st century thinking, which of course is recycling what’s gone before, but don’t let that spoil the idea that we might do something new with it. It’s nice to imagine that part of a well-lived life must carry work forward, or go beyond the limits of our forbears even if we forever fail miserably at it. A post for each item will follow. Please be patient, if my health holds up, they’ll be out nice and quick, otherwise it’s anybody’s guess. 

8 thoughts on “Complex World Complex Practice

  1. I think that if you’re interested in avoiding dichotomous thinking you need to draw on the major concept in the Buddhist tradition that I don’t see mentioned here at all: the Middle Way. Why is it that so many Buddhists ignore it completely, or take it for granted, when it’s so obviously relevant to the problems of the present? I’ve done a lot of work on the Middle Way over the past 20 years, both within and beyond Buddhism, and founded the Middle Way Society to pursue it with others: see http://www.middlewaysociety.org for more details.

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      1. Hegel’s dialectic is historicist: it projects the dialectical process onto the development of history as a whole. However, as Popper pointed out, dialectic is much more helpfully applied to judgement at an individual level. In his case that was scientific judgement, but I’d extend that to all judgement, and connect it with lots of helpful new evidence from cognitive psychology, neuroscience etc. If we take an absolute view of something, that creates a dualism, because all possible views of it are reduced to our absolute view and its (unthinkable) negation. The process of reaching a third option is the process of being able to get beyond that absolute opposition in a particular case, and thus of being able to address conditions better. The Buddha’s early life illustrates that process, as do the two mules in that series of pictures. It can be described as dialectic, but not as Hegelian dialectic.

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  2. How would you put all that in your own words? I don’t put great stock in the Buddha did this or said that. I’ve found Laruelle’s take on non- thought to be really useful in challenging thought as an ideological apparatus and to me a a lot of Buddhist thought merely becomes that. So, if you don’t mind me asking, how does Robert practice transcending, or escaping dualisms?

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    1. I’m not appealing to the Buddha or any other figure – they’re just illustrations and ways in for people. I don’t think the Middle Way is even necessarily Buddhist – it’s just a practical approach that works in the widest analysis. I don’t think it’s helpful to try and ‘escape’ thought – it’s the false dichotomies between thought and feeling, reason and emotion etc that are the problem.

      If you want a specific example of the application of the Middle Way in judgement, think about the handling of a distraction in meditation. On the one hand you want to continue meditating, and on the other you keep wanting to think about something else – there’s a conflict. To overcome the conflict it’s necessary to reframe or recontextualise the assumptions that are creating it and address the conditions on both sides of it. Any meditator will be aware that just repressing the hindrance doesn’t work – it pops up again. Instead, one can recontextualise using body awareness, for instance, and connect that to the wider context of the meditation. The hindrance has to be accepted in order to reach a third view that includes what the hindrance is telling you.

      There are lots of other explanations and examples in the introductory videos on https://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/

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  3. Hi Matthew,
    Lovely post. Everything you say resonates, not only the content but also the fact that you have chosen to illustrate your thoughts with paintings. I too have for the most part cut myself off from the internet and it’s vices. I give it about two hours a week , mostly to download academic books I could never afford to buy, check out some of the contemporary artists I admire, and read at the small amount of philosophical/Buddhist/ political sites I still admire and follow.

    Getting back to painting after a five year hiatus helped. When you have something in the studio from the day before, waiting to be continued, completed or assessed, that imperative overcomes the blandishments of the virtual world and it’s dubious advantages. I find myself running up the stairs in anticipation, much as I did in my youth.

    The five years that I was away from painting coincided with my discovery of SNB and Glenn’s work. It gave me an impetus to question my practice, philosophical, meditative and visual, and to find a way to separate the dross from the gold. I am eternally grateful for that. But it was a relief to step back. Strangely, I have continued to write but now find I am content to do it for my own sake. So too with painting. I no longer have the ambition to find venues to exbibit my work, mostly because the emphasis now is on having an online presence and a knack for self promotion, both of which I can do without.

    I too have come to the conclusion that, broadly, the vast, interconnected complexity of the conceptual/social/ecological nexus which is the condition for the human is best approached from a systems/complexity standpoint. One of the things this means is that the transcendental a priori for the possibility of human thought – Kant’s categories- must now be extended to incorporate the whole of the social/ecological nexus. That goes a long way to undermining Kant’s idealist solution to the apparent infinite regress of the transcendental subject. That regress ends not in an invariant transcendent Subject who looks, speaks and practices in a suspiciously white, male, eurocentric and universalist mode, but in an immanent and historically variable subject with a small “s”. Strangely, this small “s” which each of us uniquely expresses, is conditioned on the vast openness of the chaos-mos. The cosmos we inhabit is, in other words, a local one co-constituted and persisting only a a while before it disappears again into the void which birthed it. Long enough, though, to fall in love with what or who-ever we have had the courage to deeply engage.

    All of which is inspired by Donna Haraway’s marvellous “companion Species Manifesto” which I recommend to you.Anyway, sorry for going on. Just wanted to express my appreciation for what you are doing these days.

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    1. Thanks Patrick. There’s a lot in there. You raise an important point in describing your passionate return to painting: The internet kills genuine passion and exchanges it for quick fix emotional hits. This could be yet another characteristic of the hyperreal. It’s like fast food, reality TV, superhero movies. They all produce superficial kicks.

      I’m afraid my ignorance regarding philosophy means I can’t make complete sense of the bit about Kant. I’ve avoided Kant for over a decade and will probably continue. I do know that universal, cosmos, and any over all-encompassing vision of man and/or the world has not made much sense to me for the last two decades. Global, national, local: those are the levels I can relate to.
      Anyway, be nice to see some of your art.

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