November 05, 2010

Star Wars, Virtual Capitalism, and Western Buddhism

What is Western Buddhism and why is it so damn popular—and important?  Pop culture critical theorist Slavoj Žižek offers some possible answers in his article "Revenge of Global Finance" in In These Times.  The article was published in 2005, but the bank failures of '08 and the following recession have imbued the insights presented in the article with a palpable potency.  Filtering both the Star Wars and global capitalist universes through Buddhist thought, Žižek explores how Western Buddhism might serve as the perfect ideological supplement to our current, distinctly Western predicament—for better or worse.

The ultimate postmodern irony is today’s strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.

Buddhism may provide a system of thought whereby we can participate fully in the global economy while maintaining a sort of inner distance and, hence, sanity.

Just as Buddhism serves global finance, so might global finance serve Buddhist practice.  Žižek considers how a comprehension of the reality of global capitalism could act as a "first step toward awakening":

Perhaps our traditional viewpoint of the world was based on naive notions of a substantial, external reality composed of fixed objects, while the hitherto unknown dynamic of “virtual capitalism” confronts us with the illusory nature of reality. What better proof of the non-substantial nature of reality than a gigantic fortune that can dissolve into nothing in a couple of hours due to a sudden false rumor?

Read the full article and see how Star Wars (sort of) fits into all this.

Image courtesy of Corbis.

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coyotefish's picture

That is a lame and silly article that attempts to have Buddhism be a way to sidestep the reality of much of the brutal onslaught on people and life that global capitalism has become. From mountain tops being ripped apart and cast into the valleys, poisoning the water and the land and the people; from a Gulf of Mexico now so wounded it will never recover; from thousands displaced from their traditional lands and ways of life; the list goes on and on, all over the world - this is not virtual, or illusory, or a theater of shadows.

Global capitalism is now an insane, out of control machine whose cost in lives and the health of communities and the planet is soon to be surpassing the mad totalitarian regimes of Mao and Stalin together. Production and consumption are valued more than life, profits more than people or sentient beings. To claim what Slavoj Žižek does, that Buddhism sees capitalism (and all reality) as a virtuality and that Buddhism allows us to disappear into some meditation, some trance, to keep our hands clean and keep our distance... is to misunderstand Buddhism and claim - once again - special revelation for Christianity.

This is nonsense. He spins a thin fabric out of a few threads, and makes claims that deny the engaged nature of Buddhism with the world. Buddhism acknowledges the reality of suffering. Buddhism elevates moral principles of compassion and concern for life and lives above those of indifference and brutality - just like Christianity.

Ultimately, he misses the point. He says, "the exuberance of global financial wealth is illusory, divorced from the objective reality" and goes on to say that if there is no objective reality then it is all a big shadow play that we need not engage with. The concept that 'reality' is inter- and intra-subjective in Buddhist ontology makes no claims about its effects. It is still 'real', and we still have to live in it and with it. To claim that Buddhism says otherwise is just plain wrong.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Interesting notion, but spins (globally) out of control, leaving behind in its dust the original concern of Shakyamuni Buddha: the human being him- or herself.