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Zen And The Art Of Postmodern Philosophy: Two Paths Of Liberation From The Representational Mode Of Thinking

by Carl Olson, New York: State University of New York Press, 2000. 309 pp
reviewed by Robert Magliola, Buddhist - Christian Studies, Honolulu: 2004. Vol. 24 pg. 295

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Carl Olson's Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy compares two paths of liberation from the representational mode of thinking, namely, Zen Buddhism and postmodern philosophy. Olson is to be commended for encouraging this dialogue, especially since professors of religious studies usually marginalize Gallic postmodern thought. He is also to be appreciated for the enormous effort that must have been required to describe so much material. Olson treats Bataille, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Guattari, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Levinas, and Lyotard on the postmodern side; and Dogen, Hakuin, Nishitani, many Chinese Ch'anists, and some Indian Buddhists on the Buddhist side. His method is to arrange the chapters according to topoi such as "Language, Disruption, and Play," "Ways of Thinking," "The Body," and so on, and to treat the pertaining ideas of the individual Buddhist and postmodern book coverauthors insofar as applicable.

Because Olson's book assembles between two covers the names, selected works, and—at least in a general sense—the "key" ideas of the postmodern movement and their grosso modo similarities/dissimilarities via-à-vis Zen Buddhism, I think it serves an undergraduate readership well enough. The problem is that the book too often performs like a crib sheet in the CliffsNotes manner, reducing so-called "key" ideas to misleading clichés. The book is at its best when it gives an author some length of attention, as it does with Dogen. Rather than reduce my review to a series of sound bites (print bites?) corresponding to Olson's, I shall resort to what hermeneuts call an Auerbachian decoupage, that is, a close analysis of several passages that can be taken as indicative of an authors mode in general. I'll address three interpretations from Olson's book, one of Derrida, one of a Chinese kung-an (koan), and one of Lacan.

Within his comparison of Derrida/language/Buddhism, Olson cites (p. 46) a sentence from Derrida's Writing and Difference: "Speech is stolen: since it is stolen from language it is, thus, stolen from itself, that is, from the thief who has always already lost speech as property and initiative." Olson glosses as follows: "Derrida claims that a speaking subject, representing an irreducible secondary status, is no longer the person who speaks because his/her origin is elusive in an already established field of speech." Because of glosses like this, Derrida is all too often subjected to the ridicule of nonspecialists, who exclaim, "Derrida denies that a person can use speech instrumentally? Aren't his lectures the instruments of his own ideas?" Actually in the section Olson quotes, Derrida is appropriating Lacanian thought and mutating it for Derridean purposes. For Derrida, all life is stretched out in time and dicedout in space in such a way that phenomenological self-identity is an illusion. Physical writing is the best metaphor for this, in that written words (even Chinese ideograms) cannot, in the scientific sense, be perceived in one absolute moment: it "takes time" and it "takes space" to recognize a word, that is, "build" a word-meaning. Derrida calls life a "text" or "writing" because life is like writing: life on the phenomenological level appears holistic (much as a word-meaning appears self-identical, i.e., arising all at once), but life is actually a time/space "drift."1

In the sentence Olson quotes, what Derrida means has the following gist: Speech (spoken words) is stolen from language in that it belongs to language as writing and is really writing; and insofar as it is really writing, it is stolen from itself; speech has "always already" been lost to language in that the instrumentality of speech is always undercut by language's nature as writing. Speech is always undercut by an inevitable drift that subverts intentionality and foils our attempts to make speech our absolute "property." This does not mean most of the intention fails to "get through"; it means, rather, that our intention never reaches our "purpose" in any absolute sense.

Olson's next step is to compare his quotation from Derrida to what happens in Case 85 of the Pi-yen-lu (Blue Cliff Record). Olson only paraphrases this kung-an, and omits the last two sentences, but I here supply the case in its entirety: "A monk came to the place of the hermit of T'ung Feng and asked, 'If you suddenly encountered a tiger here, what then?' The hermit made a tiger's roar. The monk then made a gesture of fright. The hermit laughed aloud. The monk said, 'you old thief!' The hermit said, 'What can you do about me?' The monk gave up." Olson claims that "By means of his gesture, the hermit is adroitly able to steal the speech of the monk" (pp. 46, 47) and thus this Ch'an narrative "illustrates" an attitude "similar" to that in the quotation from Derrida. Actually the narrative does nothing of the kind, since the hermit cannot be specifically identified either as Derridean "writing" or as speech stolen from writing. Juggle the case's "representations" as one will, there is no way they correlate here to the point Derrida is making.

And correlate they would have to, because case 85 belongs to that mode of kungan that uses representational language to provoke the disciple into the sudden flash of enlightened performance. See S. Heine and D. Wright, The Koan (Oxford University Press, 2000) for several essays showing that most kung-an are not instruments designed to "nullify" rationality; rather, at the moment of enlightenment the specifically representational "solution" to the kung-an coincides with its enlightened performance.2 Thus when Olson describes the kung-an as "nonsensical words" (p. 43), he is attributing an "absurdity" (p. 42) that is most often not the case/Case.

There are always many ways to manipulate a kung-an while still correlating to its verbal senses, since to "fix" a "solution" in advance would be to vitiate how a kungan works, viz., through improvised give-and-take between master and disciple. However, the canonical kung-an are often used, in a Zen-lecture setting, to demonstrate a particular Buddhist teaching.3 In this vein, I propose the viability of the following reading: It is the tiger's roar that the hermit steals, in order to teach the monk that all phenomenal forms are interchangeable since all phenomena are really empty (of self-identity); this emptiness is, of course, simultaneously the Buddha-nature when accessed by the enlightened "Buddha-gaze." There is a whole category of kung-an that teaches this truth by playing with exchanges of identity. As a common Ch'an phrase declares, "Every voice is the voice of Buddha, every form is the Buddhaform." The monk first does not understand but then "gets it," declaring "You old thief!" The monk has passed a gate, but he fails to pass the second gate. When the hermit goes on to ask, "What can you do about me?" he is signaling he is now the tiger. The monk is supposed to become the thief in turn, by roaring back, but instead he gives up.

Given that Olson wants to show how Zen surpasses postmodernism, he has at least two choices: he can emphasize the opposition between Buddhism and postmodernism on key points, or he can emphasize possible Buddhist appropriations of postmodernism for the good of both. Olson almost always chooses the first course and I almost always choose the second. Olson would do well to remember that Zen characteristically appropriates for itself the structure of its interlocutor. For example, when Olson tells us Michel Foucault focuses on "the interrelationships of power, knowledge and the human body" (p. 78), it seems to me that Buddhism can appropriate this Foucauldian scenario to explain the "Three Poisons" in contemporary terms, and thus better expose their clandestine operation in American society today.

When discussing the Lacanian "gaze," Olson grants that Lacan "wants to demonstrate the intersubjective nature of desire" (p. 3), and also that the Lacanian self "never attains wholeness, and there is no hope that it ever will gain integral wholeness" (p. 130), but what does Olson do with this schema? He comments, "From the Zen Buddhist perspective, this represents a condition of unenlightenment for the individual" (p. 130). Why not, instead, appropriate how Lacan organizes the "intersubjective nature of desire"? Lacan conceives of it as a necessarily empty chain of signifiers, an ongoing series of displacements. Lacan demonstrates its workings in his seminar on Poe's short story, "The Purloined Letter."4 Opportunely, it can be coopted for our case 85, the Hermit and the Monk.

In Poe's story, the queen, while necessarily remaining in the presence of the king, must dispose of the letter, which she cannot let him notice. To avoid arousing the king's suspicion, she hides it by not hiding it: she "displaces" it by casually leaving it in full public view. The king thus ignores it but the minister has seen all that has transpired. While the queen is watching but the king is not, the minister displaces (steals) the letter, replacing it with another having the same appearance. The minister, now having power over the queen, "displaces" it to his own house. The queen recruits the police prefect to find the letter: he cannot, but shrewd Detective Dupin insinuates himself into the minister's home, finds the letter "openly" hidden in full view, and, stealing it back, displaces it with a like-looking letter.

Lacan exposes a triadic repetitive pattern with three loci: the "blind," the displacer who does not know s/he is seen, and the thief (who knows to imitate displacement). Lacan applies it to the two consecutive scenes. First scene: king (blind), queen (naïve displacer), minister (thief). Second scene: prefect (blind), minister (naive displacer), Dupin (thief). Arguing that the interchangeability of the content is crucial here, since only the repeating intersubjective pattern (and not its semantic signifieds) is of psychological import, Lacan interprets the "empty" chain of signifiers as really reflecting the relations of unconscious (and empty) desire.

Adapting the Lacanian model to Case 85, I would suggest the following. It is a Zen truism that enlightenment recognizes and then realizes tamha ("thirst," desire) as really the emptiness that is the Buddha-nature. I would suggest that in Case 85, the hermit succeeds in teaching the monk to pass through the first gate, that is, to move from naïve displacement to a recognition of empty pattern ("interchangeability"), but not the second gate, realization of empty pattern (whereby "interchangeability" is embodied). First scene: tiger (blind), monk (naïve displacer—he displaces the fear of the tiger's roar onto the fear of the hermit's harmless roar), hermit (thief —steals the tiger's roar and diagnoses the monk's 5 naïve displacement). Second scene: the monk recognizes the pattern, so he screams out, "You old thief!" but the Monk does not know how to occupy the third locus, that is, to become a holy thief of emptiness himself.

In his introductory and concluding chapters, Olson engages several fellow-interpreters publishing at the Buddhist/postmodern intersection, including Dilworth, Glass, Loy, and myself. The critiques he delivers verge on the irresponsible. In my case, he claims that in Derrida on the Mend I simply assert a "direct equivalence between différance and emptiness" (Olson p. 211, also p. 20), whereas my book makes clear that "the Derridean alternately celebrates and anguishes" because he does not have the Nagarjunist's "prajna-knowing" nor the "security which comes with liberation." Derridean deconstruction demonstrates that the logical arguments in support of the principle of identity collapse against/upon themselves (Nagarjuna performs a similar deconstruction in his Mulamadhyamakarikas), and the outcome of this deconstruction is philosophically conductive to that "differential" condition which is "devoidness." But Derrida can only access devoidness "self-consciously and piecemeal,"6 because he does not realize Sunyata by way of Buddhism's enlightened cognition.7

Olson goes on to say my "use of the term logocentric with Zen Buddhism represents a misunderstanding of Zen philosophy" (p. 211). Olson does not understand that for Derrida "logocentrism" means any formation that presents itself as enough of a unity that it claims to "frame" or "exhaust" all of its alleged content. Logocentrism does not necessarily mean "expressed in written or oral words." And because as human beings we naturally depend on logocentrism, and necessarily deconstruction so much depends on it, deconstruction should always be accompanied by an ongoing deconstruction of itself. Olson alludes (p. 20) to my claim that Nagarjuna's version of the Middle Path surpasses Derrida in that it has a better way of justifying the provisional validity of logocentrism, but Olson does not explain my argument. Though there is no space to discuss the matter here, much of my scholarship (in English and in Chinese) has been devoted to explaining how the Madhyamaka's Two Truths at once both deconstruct and legitimate logocentrism.

My work addresses two interwoven strands in Zen: the "centric" and the "differential." My case for the dominance of the centric strand "for quite some time now [in history]" 8 does not depend, as Olson says it does, on Suzuki (whose description of Zen experience I cite as one contemporary example), but on the consensus among Buddhologists that Yogacaric influence (not necessarily from the Lankavatara Sutra) is stronger in Ch'an/Zen than the Madhyamikan influence.'' Zen often presents itself in terms of "oneness" and "True Mind," formulations having their provenance in Yogacaric trisvabhava theory. Contrarily, the Madhyamaka finds that "oneness" and "True Mind" are "frame-concepts" and "frame-experiences" and must be cut off, too.

It may surprise the reader that I wish to close this review with an earnest recommendation that Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy be purchased and read. But I do so recommend, so long as the reader also knows to branch out from the book to its sources. As deconstructionists say, "The web always extends beyond its builder."


1. For sources in Derrida plus discussion, see my Derrida on the Mend (Purdue University Press., 1984; paperback rpt. 2000), pp. 21-48. For my refutation of H. Coward and C. W. Huntington on this and analogous issues, see my On Deconstructing Life-Worlds: Buddhism, Christianity, Culture (Scholars Press, 1997; Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 141-154.
2. In The Koan, see in particular G. V. S. Hori, p. 294.
3. See Hori, p. 296.
4. For Lacan's seminar, see The Purloined Poe, ed. J. Muller and W. Richardson (Johns Hopkins, 1988).
5. Derrida on the Mend, p. 126; see also On Deconstructing Life-Worlds, pp. 143, 150.
6. Derrida on the Mend, p. 126.
7. Madhyamaka much emphasizes the cognitive side of enlightenment: apropos, see also my long essay in Jin Park, ed., Buddhisms and Deconstructions (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming).
8. Derrida on the Mend, p. 97.
9. See On Deconstructing Life-Worlds, pp. 145, 148, 154, 168-172.


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