Sunday, 3 February 2008

A discussion with Ken Knabb

The reflections on 2007 that I sent to Ken Knabb on 18 January 2008 led to a discussion between us. The following are the texts of our postings to date.

1) Ken Knabb to Wayne Spencer, 18 January 2008

Thanks for your message. I did not mind its lengthiness since it was all very interesting and well thought out and expressed. I suggest that you add it to your blog, slightly revised so as to refer to me in the third person (or if you prefer, left as is and presented as a "Letter to Ken Knabb"). It raises a lot of key issues on a lot of fronts, and might well help to sort out your relations with various people you know or have collaborated with in some of the projects you discuss.

Regarding your remarks on my post-Notice activities, you are no doubt partially right. On the other hand, I'm not sure that this is an either-or question. Meditation can indeed have some of the dubious aspects you mention, but it can also (or even at the same time) be a worthwhile venture for its own sake. Ditto folk music, rock climbing, or just about any other sort of art, sport, "spiritual" path, etc. It is possible to criticize such activities insofar as they contain illusions about themselves, but exclusively stressing such critiques sometimes becomes rather silly when the critiquers find that they have painted themselves into a corner where they hesitate to engage in anything whatsoever because virtually any sort of activity could be seen as representing some sort of compromise or cooption. I have indeed to some extent "stepped back from a critical examination of the development of contemporary alienation (and the resistance to it)", mostly because many of the manifestations of such resistance have never interested me. Rather than burn myself out arguing about things that I find obnoxious or boring, I find it more pleasant to do (and talk about) things that I find engaging.

Anyway, I encourage you to continue in this exploratory, experimental mode, and to communicate your findings ever more aggressively (via blogs, forums, emails, print publications, film, etc.) without being discouraged by initially disappointing responses.

Incidentally, what is your blog URL? I'm not sure you ever told me about it. (You might want to consider shifting to a website, which is scarcely any more complicated than a blog, but is suitable for more sustained texts as opposed to daily brief comments.)

2) Wayne Spencer to Ken Knabb, 20 January 2008

Thank you for your message.

I not wish to deny that there are pleasures and benefits to be found in meditation and the other activities you mentioned. However, I think we must be keenly aware that contemporary spectacular society increasingly secures the acquiescence of ordinary people (including, of course, ourselves) less through crude repressions than by means of the pleasures it fosters and delivers. If we are not to enter the spectacle of decomposition as one more voice condemning the dominant society in abstraction while at the same time extolling one or another consumable niche, we surely must be critical of our own pleasures and the pleasures of others. We should acknowledge that any pleasure that is consistent with the persistence of spectacular society is in all probability at least partly spectacular in nature; and, in that spirit, we should seek out and expose the alienated origins (or distortions) of the tastes we pleasurably indulge. Equally, we should not deny or conceal the awareness that such pleasures are inadequate, that the multiple confinements to which our pleasures are inevitably subject within a society of separation render them more or less paltry, especially when the possibilities of the epoch are considered.

What I have in mind is thus a balance between taking such pleasure as we can, if only to keep ourselves from depression, isolation and madness, and feeling and manifesting contempt and dissatisfaction toward those same pleasures.

Even if you take the view that you are pursuing a particular activity for its intrinsic rewards and not because one or other of the competing spectacles of consumable satisfaction has cultivated a taste for it, it is hardly likely that everyone else in the social environment in which that activity is conducted (such as a monastery or temple) is equally free of illusion. One outcome of your own participation in the activity will therefore be to support and advance the illusions indulged in by others. Is that not another good reason for making a clear and public statement of the ideologies that surround and suffuse the milieu, even if you feel you steer clear of them personally?

Be cruel with your pleasures and with everything that would keep them where they are, as it were.

For myself, one of the objectives I contemplate for my text on Berlin is precisely to attack the pleasures I take during my visits to the city.

You mentioned that you have never been interested in many of the manifestations of resistance to contemporary alienation. What actions do you have in mind here?

I think I shall take up your suggestion of adding my last message to you to my blog. The blog can be found at

3) Ken Knabb to Wayne Spencer, 21 January 2008

I understand the points you are making and agree with them to a certain extent. But I believe that if you stick too narrowly to these notions you will arrive at nothing but a very silly and pointless souring of everything you do. Strictly speaking, your points could apply to virtually anything — enjoying food and drink, making love, taking a walk in the woods, relaxing, dancing, humming a tune, playing a game, etc., etc. All of these things are indeed “allowed” by the current social system and could be said to “support” or “reinforce” it insofar as they help keep people physically and mentally functional, help prevent them from going insane or committing suicide, make the society seem somewhat more tolerable, take up time that might otherwise be devoted to radical activity, etc. Does that mean that each time you sit down to a meal with some friends you should remind them that what they are about to do is not revolutionary, and urge them to guard against the possibility that the pleasure of the food and socializing may tend to make them feel a little less angry and alienated? When I sing folk songs with some friends, would you suggest that I preface each song with a grim acknowledgment that singing it is “consistent with the persistence of spectacular society” and “at least partly spectacular in nature”?

As for ”clear and public statements”, I have made a number of relatively sharp critiques of the limitations of Buddhist ideas and practices (notably my two leaflets re engaged Buddhism, but also scattered remarks in “The Joy of Revolution,” The Realization and Suppression of Religion, my autobiography and elsewhere re the downsides of religion, the limits of nonviolence, etc.). Many of the people I have practiced Zen with over the years are well aware of my views, and some of them share them to some extent even if they do not fully grasp the whole situationist perspective. In any case, I don’t go there to discuss politics but to take part in the practice, which involves paying wholehearted attention to whatever it is we’re doing at the moment, however seemingly “paltry” and insignificant. Our present-day lives obviously fall far short of what they could be in a more sanely organized society, but I think it is missing the point to conclude that we should constantly “manifest contempt and dissatisfaction” toward the pleasures available to us now. A postrevolutionary society, if we are ever lucky enough arrive at one, will not be some nonstop orgasm. Its pleasures will still consist largely of simple little things like a kiss, a smile, a song, a cup of tea, a breath of fresh air, though such things will be multiplied and enrichened by the radically different social context in which they occur.

Just as I have no significant problem with many of these limited activities, I also have no problem if someone makes a more aggressive and explicit critique of them. I think that’s fine, I’m all for it if you happen to be particularly moved to do so. But you have to bear in mind that this sort of thing gets awfully old awfully fast. I disrupted a couple of poetry readings back in 1970 (the Gary Snyder reading and also the Ode on the Absence of Real Poetry Here This Afternoon that I read at an open reading), but I have not done so since then. If the issue comes up, I may tell someone that I like this or that poem but that on the whole I see certain limitations in poetry, and perhaps mention my Snyder disruption or the situationist ideas about the realization and suppression of art. I still feel very good about having done that Snyder disruption because it represented a personal turning point for me as well as a challenge for others — as I said in the autobiography, I believe that at that moment I was in a sense being more truly creative and “poetic” than Snyder was. But if I had continued to show up at every local poetry reading with substantially the same critique it would soon have become completely boring for me as well as for everyone else, and would have been unlikely to inspire any interest at all. You have to keep moving.

In this regard, I encourage you to approach Berlin with an open mind — ready indeed to call attention to its problems, but also ready to appreciate whatever you may discover that is new and unexpected. I will have no interest in reading a thousandth version of how alienated modern cities are, but I will read with interest a candid account of your experiences and experiments there, which will naturally include, but hopefully not be dominated by, your awareness of the city’s problematic aspects.

To sum up, if you feel deeply MOVED to express critiques of the illusions or limitations involved in this or that activity, by all means do so. But I think that people who DWELL on such things rarely accomplish anything but souring their own lives and boring everyone else.

4) Wayne Spencer to Ken Knabb, 30 January 2008

Thank you for the copy of your latest contribution to our discussion.

I agree with you that a narrow and mechanistic approach to questioning our pleasures would be self-defeating, ineffective and absurd. That is not what I am proposing. I am not suggesting that every pleasurable act should be prefaced or accompanied by public denunciation. Rather, I think that a suitable balance must be struck between the quiet indulgence in what we enjoy or need to survive and both:

(i) a subjective awareness, however intermittent or belated, of the limitations of what we are engaged in and the wider ideological delusions surrounding it; and

(ii) from time to time, appropriate, well-timed and well-placed public actions against those limitations and delusions.

Such a way of proceeding would have several aims. It would seek periodically to reconnect us with the dissatisfaction with concrete everyday life that should lie at the root of the desire and motivation for revolutionary change. It would prompt us periodically to confront at least a part of the shifting complex of external thoughts, tastes, desires and associated complacencies that we, in common with everyone else, adopt or absorb from fragments of the global spectacle and which tends to maintain us as producers and consumers of the commodity society. It would also, perhaps, prompt us to keep our theory more abreast of broad contemporary developments that affect the alienation of ourselves and others.

I agree that it is hardly plausible (or even desirable) to think that any post-revolutionary society will be perpetually orgasmic in nature. And far be it from me to disparage the pleasures of tea-drinking, whether before or after the revolution. However, the apparently basic pleasures you list do not exist in isolation. In practice, they are pursued and experienced as part of diverse ideologies of pleasure. I regard a critique of those surrounding ideologies as a central task of revolutionary theory.

Of course, I am aware of the criticism of Buddhist ideas and practices that you have expressed, and I am not suggesting that you have been wholly uncritical. One thing you do not seem to have developed, however, is an account of how those ideas and practices are being carried along by important changes within commodity society. In your Remarks on Contradiction and its Failure you went beyond the criticism of the particular ideas and practices that you and your colleagues were then concerned with and sought to show how those ideological phenomena pertained to “a wider and yet nonetheless delimited social stratum”. I may be mistaken, but it strikes me that you have not attempted anything analogous in relation to the social (including ideological) bases of contemporary Western Buddhism and other meditational practices.

For myself, my plan is not to write a candid account of my experiences and experiments in Berlin, although I recognise that that would have some value. Rather, I have it in mind to look in more general terms at some of the milieu and activities with which people like me are associated, as well as at some of the changes that Berlin has experienced since 1989.