Criticism

I am very late to the non-Buddhism/x-Buddhism party, let alone the post that inspires what I’m about to say. So the following isn’t mean to comment on, one way or the other, that ongoing discourse. Something written on the Speculative Non-Buddhism Blog that I happened to read over this past weekend triggered some other memory in my brain, and I felt compelled to write about it. So here goes.

Back in May 2013, Glenn Wallis listed pieces of advice they’d received regarding the non-Buddhism project, a subtext of which was the advice that they should “do something productive.” I’m paraphrasing here, mostly points #1 and #4 of that piece that call on the non-Buddhists to be “substantive” and “address alternatives.” This sort of reaction to criticism, this advice that one should “do something,” is one I’ve seen in other contexts, and it’s one that always gives me pause.

Criticism is important work. And I want to be very clear on what I mean by criticism here. Criticism can take the form of book reviews or film reviews, a valuation of a particular work’s worth according to some “objective” set of criteria (“this film is technically good in terms of cinematography, etc., but poorly acted”). Criticism can also refer to the kind of feedback one receives in the midst of creating something. This form of feedback is often solicited by the creator and is also directed toward a specific work or text. And there is also social criticism, the kind of criticism that seeks to critically analyze and often deconstruct social and cultural institutions and ideologies. This kind of criticism might show up in other types of criticism (a really good book review might point out the underlying set of assumptions in the work and lead to broader questions about the cultural at large) and it is arguably made up of smaller pieces of criticism (any number of single book or film reviews) but its aims are necessarily broader than a critical analysis of a single text. Indeed, the “text” that is the object of social criticism is society itself, an object that has no boundaries except those that we imagine. It is this type of criticism that I am interested in writing about here.

The argument that one should “do something positive” suggests that the act of criticism is necessarily negative at best, irrelevant at worst. It presumes that the social critic’s purposes are fruitless and not worthwhile. It seems to be saying, “Hey. Get a job.” Or, at the very least, “Hey, get a more productive job.” On this point I think this argument misses the point of doing criticism in the first place, namely to call our attention to the set of unspoken underlying assumptions we make about the world that have actual repercussions in the social realm or public sphere. This is not to say that everyone must do criticism or that all critics are “right” in some sense (or even that all criticism is valid or valuable); it is merely to point out what should be obvious: the grand project of social change needs many actors, some of whom are “out there doing stuff” and some of whom are reflecting and criticizing. Neither is inherently more valuable apart from the value we ascribe to these different roles (which always true of everything, by the way).

Somewhat more importantly, however, I also find the argument that the critic is responsible for coming up with alternatives problematic. It suggests that the one who is pointing out the problem is also the one who should offer a solution to the problem even if the the critic him or herself is not the cause of the problem. At the very least, it deflects responsibility back to the critic when all parties are ultimately responsible. In short, it shifts responsibility from the realm of the social to the realm of the individual.

To take the SNB example: the SNB folks are critiquing a particular type of Buddhism for fostering self-interest, commercialism, group-think, and guru worship (I’m grossly over-simplifying and paraphrasing here, please forgive misrepresentation). Those on the receiving end of this critique then respond by saying, “Well, that’s fine; what’s your solution to these problems?” a response that implicitly accepts the critique as valid. In other words, by not responding with a reasoned argument as to why the critique is wrong, the respondent is implying that it is a valid critique. At this point, rather than offering an alternative, the respondent instead asks (demands really) that those doing the criticism provide answers rather than actually responding to the critique. In this way, responsibility is deflected from the object of critique and all demands for further action rest solely on the critic.

I’d argue that it is not the critic’s job to come up with alternatives. Rather, the critic’s job is criticism. This isn’t to say that the critic shouldn’t offer alternatives; maybe s/he should. But this is not the critic’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of those who have a vested interest in the systems being criticized to come up with alternatives.

And let me be clear here: (1) if the criticism against some forms of x-Buddhism is that they tend toward self-interest, commercialism, group-think, and guru worship; (2) if these tendencies also have a demonstrable correlation with certain forms of abuse (i.e., guru worship leads to abuses of power that lead to the long list of sexual harassment issues in US Buddhist communities); (3) if we can all agree that these tendencies and abuses are things we do not want in our communities and institutions, even if we don’t agree with the x-Buddhism critique; (4) it is in everyone’s self-interest to come up with strategies and solutions to these problems. Complaining that the critic is being too critical misses the point.


Post script: I wrote this post before Glenn Wallis’ (possibly) last post this past Monday. So, yes, clearly, I’ve missed the party. I would encourage you to read some of the back-and-forth on his (and related) blogs. And, for the love of all things, heed his parting advice: “Whatever you chose to do, will you just do it with passion, for fuck’s sake?”

3 Replies to “Criticism”

  1. Hi Scott. I fully agree with you; with, for example:

    I’d argue that it is not the critic’s job to come up with alternatives. Rather, the critic’s job is criticism. This isn’t to say that the critic shouldn’t offer alternatives; maybe s/he should. But this is not the critic’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of those who have a vested interest in the systems being criticized to come up with alternatives.

    About being late to the party–well, it’s just beginning! I just made some punch and spiked it with booze and acid. I also left a bunch of noise-makers for the revelers. So, let the party begin!

    Seriously, one reason that I am going away is that as long as I am shooting off my big mouth, people just listen (or don’t, or just pretend not to). I want people to think through the issues of creation that you talk about in your post. The key work is, as always, think.

    I see you’re at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Please give Richard a warm hello. I’m at a Buddhist-inspired institute, too. Maybe we can compare notes sometime.

    You probably know about these blogs similar to mine, but just in case: The Non-Buddhist, The Faithful Buddhist, and Tutteji Wachtmeister.

    Anyway, good luck with your work.

    –Glenn

    P.S. If my HTML doesn’t work, can you clean it up? Thanks.

  2. It’s been a long time since I’ve had acid-spiked punch. This party’s off to a good start!

    Thanks for the comment. It’s been a good first day back at the blog. I’ll give Richard a hello from you.

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