Taoism, Theories, Translation
This is one of my favorite sections of the Dao De Jing (verse 19, trans. Jonathan Star, with a few alterations made by myself):
and the people will benefit a hundredfold
Abandon the rule of charity
and the people will recover
their familial affections
Abandon book learning
Discard the rules of behavior
and the people will have no worries
Abandon plots and schemes
and the people will not become thieves
These lessons are mere elaborations
The essence of my teachings is this:
See without embellishment
Cast off self-concern
Don’t give in to desire
Then there’s this, from the preceding section:
Only when the family loses its harmony
do we hear of “dutiful sons”
Only when the state is in chaos
do we hear of “loyal minsters”
What I find most pleasing about these passages are that they almost seem designed to alienate contemporary readers formed by Western intellectual culture (starting with and perpetually returning to the Greeks) as well as those formed by traditional Western (Judeo-Christian) morality, which are often antagonistic to each other. One so disposed can find ‘amorality,’ ‘relativism,’ ‘anti-intellectualism,’ ‘paternalism,’ ‘idealism,’ ‘conservativism,’ here, among other cliches that are nevertheless capable of starting vicious arguments, in both universities and on television.
But Chinese, and Classical Chinese especially, are not languages that lend themselves well to analysis in the manner of Indo-European languages, where individual terms have relatively stable definitions that are specified by context. A Chinese character by itself is a mutable symbol that can be used in too many different ways at different levels of precision or cultural reference to ever be assumed as always already plugged into a determinate semantic structure. I am not familiar with how structuralist semiotics have been incorporated into Chinese thought (only that they have been), but on the surface it seems like an impossible match, as both enunciation and written character are always deconstructing themselves; ‘gaps’ in signification are internal to the basic ‘function’ of the individual characters and sounds, there is simply no space for the illusion that meaning can be scientifically graphed. The same signifiers (spoken Mandarin has only a few hundred distinct syllables and only around four tonal variations) can mean completely different things depending on context, which is further complicated, much more so than in English, by references to legends and classical texts (it’s one of the most idiomatic languages I’ve ever encountered). Another difficulty is that modern Chinese characters maintain a continuity with their classical, more explicitly pictorial ancestors, which may contradict the Saussurean thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign relation to its referent. But I digress — I am only an amateur enthusiast of Chinese language and philosophy, so apologies for any errors.
It’s clear even in the worst English translation that every line of the Dao De Jing rejects the Law, including its most sacred manifestations – the Dao urges an abandonment of moral law, of ethical law, of natural law, of familial law (the last is more scandalous in relation to Chinese cultural history). But this ‘rejection’ of normality is never posed in a directly oppositional way — that is, there is no opposing perspective held up in contrast to some particular law, which after all would only be another law. The Dao takes the Law (the set of all laws) as a singular entity — the only singular entity — and suggests that Daoist harmony is a function neither of the One nor its absence: ‘loyal ministers’ only appear when the state is in chaos, or it is only necessary to bestow patriotic honors when order has been threatened. The Law produces its own adversaries, and thus its own chaos. This ‘dialectic’ — reassuring perhaps to critical philosophy but horrifying when transported from the halls of rational debate to the field of international conflict and violent revolution — is nothing more than a description of the ordinary functioning of the state, its relationship to its so-called ‘enemies’ (incidentally, I’ve only read a smidgen of Heidegger, the Western philosopher apparently most attuned to the Daoist tradition, and didn’t like it for various reasons, though I expected to — if anyone wants to teach me why, I’d appreciate it). It’s telling that the most optimistic reading of the dialectic — whether Kojeve/Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ or the Marx-derived socialist utopia — is culmination in a perfect state hegemony. The pessimistic reading is endless war (Zizek’s reading of Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge as acceptance of this ‘play of opposites’ is an example, the never-ending analysis of Lacan is another). Negative Dialectics, unfortunately, is still on my never-ending reading list.
A point of major potential confusion revolves around the role of ‘desire’ in Daoist philosophy. As inheritors of the French Theory tradition will know, ‘desire’ is a recently rehabilitated term, used by these writers to signify revolutionary spirit, the state’s repressed other in the form of the people. It is usually positioned, citing a perverse marriage of Nietzsche and Marx, as opposed to its more traditional figurations, as metaphysical Evil (Christianity) or as simply ‘dangerous,’ to be controlled and regulated by the state economy (Hobbes, Smith), both of which operate under the definition of desire as the result of lack (absence of the Good, absence of sovereign order, empirical scarcity). Deleuze/Guattari, after/with Foucault, give the newer interpretation of desire its fullest conceptualization, as a product of ‘assemblages’ — desire as desiring-production, a ‘factory’ model of positive rather than negative desire. This formulation does away with chicken-or-egg questions of whether desire or the state (also: id or superego) is ‘originary’ in some metaphysical sense. Instead, desire is immanent to its own production: foundational to human experience after all, but as an actual and contingent process of (bio-political, psychological) shaping, not as an abstract, original, homogenous force or entity.
At the end of verse 19, the character for desire, yu, refers to a kind of basic, fundamental longing, differing from occasional wants or basic biological needs in that it cannot be satisfied by any object. It is a conjunction of the radicals gu (deep crevasse, gorge, etc., according to Star’s research associated with “the cutting of a deep ravine by the constant flow of water”) and qian (to lack, particularly in the sense of breath and money). Desire here is a formed sense of absence, a product of habit, something like the cycle of an addiction and similar to the psychoanalytic concept of psychic lack as caused by fundamental trauma. It is differentiated from the very similar character, also pronounced yu, which is modified by the inclusion of the radical xin (heart), indicating an emotional desire, usually more momentary and a product of passion and circumstance, close perhaps in meaning to enthusiasm. One is conceived as the cause of a kind of false identity and one is not necessarily associated with identity at all. In the Dao, desire of the first type, while not ‘abstractly negated’ as unnatural, is codeterminate with the state, and immanent to its own repression. That is, it is always repressed, always embattled, always striving against domination by an other, or it is nothing. There is no ‘healthy’ form of this desire; if pursued, it cannot help but lead to suffering, destruction, and oppression. The Daoist’s answer to Deleuze/Guattari’s question in Anti-Oedipus on the mystery of fascism, “Why does desire desire its own repression, how can it desire its own repression?” might be similar to their own: that fascism is a state/subject-formation (these are inseparable) which produces and feeds off of just this sort of reactionary, perpetually wounded desire (Nietzschean ressentiment). For Deleuze/Guattari, “Desire is never either a ‘natural’ or a ‘spontaneous’ determination . . . never a ‘natural reality,’” but results from “a highly developed, engineered montage rich in interactions.” Technical/cinematic language aside, this is in line with the Daoist conception of nature, which has never rejected science (discounting internecine conflicts — there has never been an ‘official body’ of Daoist thought and practice to stage an official rejection), only the attempt to represent it within a unified field theory in the European sense (it has never rejected alchemy either). Daoism also does not oppose desire in the same ascetic way as in Buddhism — its ideal figure is not the monk or Zen priest silently at war with his ‘illusions,’ but the free wanderer, the nomad sans attachments.
If Deleuze/Guattari and the Dao have bequeathed a common legacy to thought, it is the ability to at least conceptually differentiate between the affective dimension or representation of a behavior and its place within a real mode of existence; not just to think its ‘structure’ (for this already presupposes too much) but, for lack of a better term, its way of being, that which exceeds any name. “The Dao that can be named is not the true Dao” (verse 1). Though Daoism is often taken to be a philosophy of craftsmanship — a sort of apolitical religion of the handiwork or hobby, spawning such pop ‘how to’ manuals as ‘The Dao of Cooking,’ or ‘The Dao of the Dance,’ the Daoist cannot be primarily called a craftsman (D/G’s philosophy is sometimes dismissed as ‘philosophy for artists’ along these same grounds). Properly stated, the Dao‘s perspective on activity of any kind is to minimize the extent to which it exists ‘for itself.’ “A knower of the Truth does what is called for, then stops” (verse 30). Because it is a philosophy without a unifying system or method (the source of its ‘mysticism’), it follows that all discursive systems are irreducible to all others. The rules of a game exist in order to perpetuate its internal unity. Like any student, the Daoist learns the rules (the established method assigned to an activity), but not in order to become the Master of the game, a dubious distinction only achieved through a kind of total submission or immanence with the rules over the activity itself. Not to play by the rules or resist them, but to exceed them through to the completion of the activity they regulate, evacuating its artificial unity, the vanishing of action (and knowledge) into air.
My interest in taking the Dao De Jing to France was to get to this point, the irreducibility of theoretical systems to each other and their inability to become equivalent to the reality they take as their object, despite apparent points of conjuncture. Any similarities are in appearance or effect only, never construction, though these are often confused. Their shared recognition of this fact, a simple observation about the world, is the only reason I am able to compare D/G’s work with the Dao De Jing at all, two textual bodies of entirely different origins and interests. Even though I think (the entity known as) Laozi and Deleuze can at least make sense together as fellow travelers — indeed, D/G favorably reference the Dao in A Thousand Plateaus — enough difficulties in translation exist, particularly around such terms as ‘nature,’ ‘desire,’ ‘state,’ and ‘family,’ that a great deal of cross-cultural ‘misunderstanding’ would have to be painfully worked through to reach a state of ‘legitimate’ coherence. But what would be the point of that?
Here are some propositions:
1. No two systems can ever be reduced to equivalence without falsification.
2. Immanence to a system (which is only its rules) is a plane of infinite circularity that can only maintain itself in protected conditions.
A good example of immanence with rules is provided by Slavoj Zizek, famed proseletyzer of Lacanian psychoanalysis as cultural critique. Never mind whether or not his version of Lacan is equal to Lacan, never mind whether he has a TOE (Theory of Everything) or merely a very dogmatic method, any interview, taped or transcribed, will quickly reveal his inability to think outside his own highly idiosyncratic, circular logic. He is, as they say, always ‘on.’ Importing a term from our Daoism foray, he is a ‘craftsman’ of his own theory, like the Zen archer he has learned to ‘be the target,’ but always the same target, stuck on the same tree. He is incapable of learning anything genuinely new; it will only appear as fresh datum to be framed by the Zizekian gaze. As with anyone who truly becomes their desire, it is like a game of chicken between Zizek and external reality, one he can only win if he keeps his interactions on the level of a discourse that is organized by his theory. Hence, the curious experience of Zizek’s audience: either you worship the words of the Master, who claims legitimacy from an even higher Master, or you stop paying attention. As long as he never gives an inch to the terminology of another system, he can never be caught out. If he does, he invites disaster. Because his theoretical language is so alien to any theory generated from the actual situations he typically chooses to address (pop culture and politics), he is only capable of arguing by an analogy that he can never justify. And since he is unwilling to adjust his theory to fit the situation, it will never be justified by any new development short of Zizek getting elected Big Brother.
(my suspicion is that this attitude is related to a theoretical assumption that not even the far more responsible Badiou is free of, something I think they get from Lacan, who made the leap thanks to structuralist semiotics: the importing of this set theory idea into psychological and social theory, the assumption that a language or an ideology is supposed by anyone except a few European intellectuals to be the equivalent of a system like mathematical or symbolic logic, to the point where one can take analogical ‘formulas’ like ‘the symbolic order determines the limits of the possible’ and ‘resistance is demanding the impossible’ as structurally determined imperatives for real action against or within real social arrangements. A theory that grounds itself on continually representing the fundamental incompleteness of itself and its objects is not, to put it lightly, immune to fascism. The result is these metaphysical schemas that equate capitalism with ‘the horizon of possibility’ and themselves as impossible revolutionaries, which is basically just taking capitalist fantasies at face value.)
Deleuze once wrote that, “encounters between independent thinkers always occur in a blind zone,” and we might add that immanence to a system granted total explanatory power over reality gives them a rationale and justification for their mutual ignorance. It does not seem to me that ‘self-awareness’ or theoretical humility amounts to a defense against this tendency; I’d argue instead that it simply exacerbates the problem. Is it not the case that when two adherents of different masters meet, any discursive ‘understanding’ they may reach is based either on a superficial understanding of their own position or on a few similar-seeming terms that must first be contractually emptied of their content — not an opening to understanding but the closure of an agreement? There seems to be only one other way: a shared political objective, only possible because it is not yet available for ‘rigorous’ definition. If we seriously adopt a materialist theory of mind and history, we are forced to acknowledge that a mind trained into its culture by its own thought will have literally shaped itself to a high degree of intensity — for that person to ‘change their mind’ in any significant way would literally involve their becoming a different person. This is why conversations between very different minds are useful to onlookers, not because these individuals are painstakingly working out the solution of a compromise between different modes of thought, but for the opposite reason: because if they are both intelligent and interested in logical consistency they will do nothing but talk past each other. From this mutual incomprehension, a good listener can draw analogies, locate the zones of deafness toward the other, and free oneself from specious ‘agreement’ with either via the gaps in both (the Zizek/Ernesto Laclau/Judith Butler debate is an excellent example — never have I read self-identified leftists misunderstand each other at such length and with such vigor so many points).
For agreement to be more than a simulacrum, the proposed point of similarity has to have a relationship to material reality — the ‘shared world’ cannot be discursive only. You will never find Allah and God just lumped together for example, despite the fact that they appear to occupy the same structural position. Nor can ‘the world’ ever be completely represented, nor is it important that it be, save for those who want to own it. In Bill Readings’ book The University in Ruins, he identifies the ways in which the corporate ideology of ‘excellence,’ an vacuous management term used by corporations to discipline the various agencies under their control, the definition of an empty contract, is used to incorporate higher education more completely into the logic of capital. No one, after all, can argue against ‘excellence.’ The concept, in other words, becomes a tool for eliminating the power of reference and verification by appearing to eliminate the need for them (see Jean Baudrillard for more details). Concepts like ‘Good,’ ‘Evil,’ ‘desire,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘production,’ are far from immune to this process of epistemic decay. This is not a call for ‘more debate.’ ‘new concepts,’ or another limp affirmation of disagreement; if anything it’s more of a wish that more of my fellow chatterers could learn to read the moment beyond which furthering one’s argument is not a good in itself (that silence too can be ‘productive’), and while there may be much wrong with an argument, there is never anything ‘impossible’ or unexplainable about the situation that produced it. This situation is itself the problem.
Questions for later:
When does a theory subvert the desire of its speaker?
Why do intelligent people still find metaphysics relevant?
Under what conditions can speculative political/social theory assist in actual politics?
Is there a way besides Deleuzian ‘concept creation’ (besides constantly coming up with new terminology) to keep useful ideas from becoming the property of celebrities?
What is the difference between speculative media theory and the first draft of a corporate business plan?
P.S. here’s a fun parody of Mr. Z.