Sales Pitch: Non-thought and non-practice constitute a set of antidotes to ideological entrapment and identity formation within the social and cultural apparatus of our age, and to the reactionary identities that make up the emotionally charged extremes of today’s dominant identity groups, and is an ideal companion to the practice of coming to inhabit the consequences of anatman, when explored at the Great Feast.
This piece mixes old and new insights in order to elaborate a more explicit understanding of how non-thought (non-contemplation), and non-practice can be a combined practice for working on the self and in a way that fits with well-executed explorations of anatman (no-self, not-self & other takes). This resource engages with the challenge of the social formation of selfhood and acts to resist inculcation into the paradigms of identity that are available to us in the social spaces that we inhabit, from dharma halls to social media tribes, from politics to activism, from intellectual life to practice life. Complex life, complex practice indeed. This piece is followed by a series of posts featuring insights, practice tips and questions for the interested, shaped by my own meddling, drawn from non-philosophy and non-Buddhism.
This first and longest post will also be available as an audio-cast.
To approach Francois Laruelle’s work on non-philosophy is to quickly find yourself in a world of new ideas, absurd linguistic demands, and complex manoeuvres intended to make non-philosophy a practice of itself. Laruelle is constantly striving to put his ideas into practice through his writing and this can make it a rather odd sort of adventure to participate in: His persona and cultural products can appear very slippery as a consequence and difficult to grasp. In a sense, Laruelle is challenging us to practice non-philosophy ourselves through his many works and in doing so discover its liberational capacity and immensely creative potential. In a funny sort of way, his work is an elaborate koan; the form of the writing is the expression of the act it describes. Despite appearances, non-philosophy, or better what emerges from it, is less complicated that it may first appear if we approach it as curious practitioners willing to take his ideas as invitations to enter specific kinds of practice spaces, not of the sort you might get from a koan, but no less enigmatic, or disruptive of our sense of who we are. Though not many of its proponents would likely consider it so explicitly to be a practice that can be harnessed towards the transformation of self, I will suggest otherwise throughout what follows.
For those without PhDs or membership of radical thought groups in Paris, Berlin, Philadelphia or New York, non-philosophy may initially appear as an insurmountable challenge yet many of its ideas are intuitive and will resonate once lifted from the strange codex Laruelle employs to defend his thinking from philosophers and the circular, sometimes insular, nature of philosophy. For those who are philosophically trained, Laruelle may be dismissed as yet another French charlatan producing intolerable prose, or a distraction from far better thought taking place somewhere else, or as a recycler of ideas already present in previous philosophers, and they may be right, but only in part, and as Vicky Pollard, would say, “Yes, but, not but…”. For Buddhists, he may appear as a waste of time, yet another western ‘philosopher’ who spends his days in intellectual masturbation, and whose ideas are of no use to us practical folks. That is one way to view him. In each case, however, to settle on such a reading would be to miss out on a remarkable opportunity that I have yet to find elsewhere.
Laruelle provides a means for picking apart the mechanics of identification with worlds of knowledge and practice. Worlds that end up, almost always it seems, capturing subjectivity and harnessing it to their own ends. So that when insight, freedom, or justice are sought through a given world of knowledge, say Buddhism or Progressivism, the practices and outcomes that result struggle to become other than images of liberation, wisdom, or equality, imagined ideals, if you will. This results in practices of performance in which the fantasy replaces the actual radical potential held within the knowledge world it was drawn from with the fantasy becoming a simulacrum, or in the realm of spirituality and religion, multiple holy simulacra ready to be purchased on the market of salvation as cures for the human condition.
My job here is not to convince critics that they are wrong or misguided about Laruelle’s project, or should be practising differently. I am concerned primarily with those folks who seek a third way to dichotomies and side-taking, and who feel something is deeply amiss in groups that demand conformity to modes of being that alienate the individual from their own capacity to think, feel and act for themselves. Additionally, my desire is to present non-thought and non-practice as fundamentally concerned with a topic central to practitioners such as Buddhists, philosophers, and spiritual practitioners, and even intelligent activists, namely that of human freedom, with particular attention to an aspect of freedom that has been neglected by these groups. The sort of freedom that is not an end in itself, but rather a practice that can be embodied or incarnated as an ongoing movement through the rich, complex, social and cultural human made world we all inhabit. It is a means for avoiding getting stuck in the way-stations that are endless in a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. I would argue that handled well, non-philosophy acts as an antidote to ideological entrapment more broadly. It doesn’t eliminate it or take us to some land where ideologies no longer reign, but rather provides a set of tools and principles, a style of thought, that creates wiggle room to allow us to become far more creative thinkers, phenomenologically diverse, and liberate us from the allure of becoming Buddha Zombies, Activist Mascots, Parroting Spiritualists, or whatever other identities are currently traded on the market of selves today.
Practised well, such thought provides a form of liberational practice that cannot be found so well articulated in Buddhism and only really echoes quietly in the potential of more radical philosophical, spiritual and religious thought elsewhere. Ultimately, non-philosophy as practice provides the means to allow the spiritual and religious to be reinvigorated with the potential that is inevitably lost when new practices solidify into ideological machines designed to produce subjects that adhere to highly predictable structures of thought, desire, feeling and being. This is the virus that inhibits traditions from practising what they preach; from producing awakened beings, for example, or truly independent minds capable of acting on the world, or birthing genuinely innovative solutions to the endless problems our species faces.
I recognise these are big claims, so I guess I’m going to have to try and illustrate how it all might look, in practice. Shall we toddle on?
Bastardisation & Improper Reading
Some confessions to make
I am not a Laurellian. I have read some of François’s actual writing, primarily Dictionary of non-Philosophy, A Summary of Non-Philosophy, and where I have read more substantially, it’s been works by writers on the man and his ideas. Considering that his dictionary could be seen as a user’s manual, this is not necessarily a problem. Non-philosophy makes far more sense as a practice when you start using it on yourself as opposed to a theoretical cul-de-sac for pondering complex theory in a disembodied realm of ideas. I have read all of Glenn Wallis’s work on the matter very, very carefully.
My first meeting with Laruelle’s work came through the non-Buddhism project that this site has invested much in and gained so much from, and this signals my rather practical take on Laruelle’s work. This links to my claim that it can be and ultimately is a practice that works directly on the self, specifically through the self’s attempts to solidify identity, and being, through allegiance with worldviews, and philosophical, religious or spiritual stances. Ultimately, the elaboration here is reflective of my own ongoing, practice of non-thought and non-practice with this personal practice bent. I am trying to do what Frank did and must therefore think alongside the materials and practices that I have wrestled with. I will not show off the complex coinages that Laruelle is infamous for, such as being-in-one or non-autopositional, unless I can reconfigure the concept in my own words, for I am not a Laurellian and have no desire to reproduce his convoluted prose, or become a member of that club. In doing so, this will be an illustration of my own wrestle with the kinds of practices that this creative thought necessitates before it becomes genuinely useful, transformative, and disruptive.
In taking Laruellian thought as a practice, it inevitably leads to the transformation of the materials we hold sacred and believe to be self-sufficient and complete. These materials include the many beliefs and ideas we hold about a tradition we are explicitly or implicitly part of, our general stance towards the world, our politics or lack thereof, our spiritual or religious path (or lack thereof), and our sense of who we are, are not, or must be. In this sense, non-thought and practice does what many traditions and paths claim in offering a means to think about, engage with, and evaluate the world, but it does so with a dogged commitment to turning the solidification of self in line with those projects on its head. It seeks through its slippery forms of thought to deny us the joy and indulgence of certainty and a final goal. It brings alive the impossibility of taking a break from the world through inhabiting an unreal ideological life form. In this sense, non-practice and thought are driven by an anti-ideological push whilst denying being solidified into an anti-ideological practice. This ambiguity, or seeming impossibility, is merely a necessary condition for this thought to produce something new.
Non-practice acts against universals. It denies the right of universal truth to establish the boundaries of existence for man. It subsequently denies that any tradition, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, has the right to do so either. In recognising how this is an implicit tendency in all traditions, secular and spiritual, it builds a set of ideational tools for navigating the framework that makes up the tendency. Some have claimed that non-thought is similar to middle-way thinking. This is a mistake both theoretically and practically. To practice the middle way is often to embody aloofness. It concocts delusions of superiority hidden behind the mask of equanimity. Theoretically, it avoids disruption and transformation for a commitment to inhabiting the ground between established orders. It, therefore, contrary to many who claim otherwise, can end up becoming yet another iteration of identity formation on the sly (re-read the sub-heading of this section if that got you riled). Non-thought is inherently disruptive. It is the unwelcome dinner guest that upsets, disturbs and breaks conventions, but brings vigour & transformative possibilities wherever it eats. It is a Tilopian antagonist.
Non-thought asks us to become uncomfortable and inhabit a far more varied terrain than the two pillars of meaning making thrown up by dichotomies; a non- terrain that returns the human to the material world and asks him or her to give up seeking final goals and getting stuck in binaries of thought, feeling and identity. This includes such final ends as awakening, enlightenment, or even the end of suffering. Is this thus an affront to Buddhism? I would suggest it is a challenge instead, to make what is spoken of real. To practice rather than imagine or idealise, and in so doing discover whether such possibilities are actually possible in this human life that you are currently living with its own tides and challenges and material conditions, or a mere fantasy rooted in the forms of ignorance dominant at a given moment in human history and thus perhaps worth discarding. Rather than live within the components of a story in which the world is already made, with conclusions drawn, protagonists assigned; non-practice says do it too and see what happens, and do it within the company of the many and not the few, and with the components that make this life unique in its configurations of connections. In this way, it is an invigoration of ideas, of vision, of possibility, and of practice itself. There is no final goal, but the active creation of invigorated practice that can mutate and end up in multiple destinations.
Why be disrupted? Proposing a practice
Where to start? What would a beginning look like?
There are endless directions that could be taken next. With a background in teaching and coaching, I am driven to inform would be adventurers of the dangers that lie ahead. The work here is not a universal solution to current problems, or the next big thing, or a replacement for current practice. It is also best suited to those with significant practice experience under their belts. Despite being formulated as a practice on the self here, it is not therapeutic, or designed to increase well-being, or make you a nicer person. Embarking on a tour of our pet myths, beliefs and attachments in a disruptive practice is not to be undertaken lightly. Taking ideas and practices seriously is dangerous terrain. Adopting the practice of thinking along with rather from and to is an odd sort of discipline. For those who are fragile, neurotic, or unstable, disrupting the anchors that hold your inner or outer life together would likely be a terrible idea. This will also be true for some of those who may feel relatively stable in themselves. Buddhism has within its resources and history endless stories of the dangers of practice, but within the therapeutic nature of much modern practice, these stories get played down, ignored, or turned into amusing tales or considered premodern myth making. Death, constant change, a lack of a true, stable, forever you; these are extremely disruptive truths that are easier to approach superficially, or within narratives which make them tolerable or pleasant. Touch on their real world consequences, and you can find serious anxiety rear its head, terror in spades, panic and other dark treats we all tend to avoid.
I argue that much that is called practice is actually a form of performance; the idea of the thing is entertained in elaborate rituals that make them far more palatable, and never truly disruptive. We get to return to our day jobs, relationships and Netflix binging after a weekend retreat, meditation session, or talk having used practice for general maintenance. We also have the commercialisation of Buddhism’s core insights into well-being tropes, bliss-making absorption into your inner-self, suspension of thought: not necessarily bad objectives for fragile folks leading miserable lives. But one could argue that this is not exactly what was intended by the great Buddhist masters throughout history in their quest to understand the intrinsic nature of suffering. The commercialisation of Buddhism and religion into spiritual practice is sign of the incredible attachment our species has to transcendence, the first of the topics I will explore.
Anyone approaching Laruelle’s thought must tread carefully. The efforts of Laruelle to think differently become a challenge that we must remain attentive to: Can we think originally ourselves? Can we practice with some trace of originality? Can we accept the challenges that come from disruption to our inner status quo? The ease with which we slip back into parroting lazy forms of thought and emotion is ever present, as is the act of practising the idea of the thing rather than the thing. In practical terms, we must produce the act of non-philosophy without lazily copying or parroting the man’s actions and form. As we should ideally be doing with Buddhism and its practices: keep it fresh, and real to the now that is this iteration of a human existence.