Secular Buddhism IV: Latour and Anti-Groups

One of the noteworthy aspects of the contemporary Buddhist world is the ways in which strategic shifts in claims to authority have been made. More traditional sources of authority, such as monastic status and seniority, and academic training, have been increasingly displaced by claims based on meditative experience. This rather anarchic situation seems already, however, to be shifting to claims of authority based on formal, but non-monastic training. These shifts have not taken place without contestation, however. Nor have any previous claims to authority disappeared. This leads to increasingly complex arrangements of participants/contestants.

The work of Bruno Latour on group formation is helpful in thinking about these shifts—at least I found it helpful. Specifically, his “list of traces left by the formation of groups.” (Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, 2005: 30–34. My thanks to my friend Wendi Adamek for calling my attention back to Latour.) Latour lists four such traces: spokespersons, defining anti-groups, defining groups, second-order spokespersons.

All four of these “traces” are important as aspects of the ongoing process of group formation in contemporary Buddhism. We focus here on the second, defining anti-groups, since the process of displacing existing forms of authority, whether monastic or academic, necessitates defining them as the anti-group. While much Secular Buddhist rhetoric includes claims of opposing authority, because it is decadent, abusive or oppressive, these claims cloak a strategy of claiming authority for oneself.

In order to form a new group, or re-form an old one, Latour highlights the role of defining anti-groups, that is, pointing out what one is not. This negative self-definition is well known, and functions in many different dimensions of life. It is, for example, a common strategy in uniting a group to create a “common enemy.” As diffuse as a collection of individuals or of groups may be, they can be brought into alignment by all opposing the same thing.

The anti-group for Secular Buddhism is variously identified. Some authors have used the phrase “traditional Buddhism,” though this is applied as much to the forms that developed in Europe and America in the twentieth century, i.e., “your father’s Buddhism,” as it is to Asian antecedents. Another phrase employed in this oppositional rhetoric is that used by Winton Higgins (“The Coming of Secular Buddhism: A Synoptic View,” JGB, 13): “ancestral Buddhism.” One of his assertions highlights the role of such categories as semiotic opposites, rather than as empirically descriptive. Higgins says at one point: “For most Asian Buddhists, both those who have stayed at home and those who have migrated to the West and joined ethnic diasporas, ancestral Buddhist life and observance persevere largely untouched by modern innovations.” This description is inaccurate for both groups—those who stayed home and those who migrated. The image serves, however, the longstanding modernist rhetoric of opposition between the passive, unchanging, pastoral, feminine, and conservative East, and the active, progressive, industrial, masculine, and modernizing West. Such representations are not only inaccurate, but are self-serving, patronizing and offensive.

These categories—such as traditional, or ancestral—constitute part of a pattern of rhetorical oppositions, ones used not as empirically informed sociological or historical descriptors. Instead, that pattern is the process is that of creating the anti-group. Whatever it is called, the anti-group carries the burden of projection, which is the psychological dynamic involved. That is, like Jung’s concept of the Shadow, or Said’s concept of the exotic Other, the negative qualities, characteristics, practices one wishes to assert are not one’s own are then projected onto the other. “We don’t have authority structures, those people do.” The scapegoat is the well-known image that portrays this practice, and consequently these categories are often simply the negative inversion of how one wants to see oneself.

Understanding this structure of oppositional rhetorics is important for understanding why someone can critique aspects of Secular Buddhism without automatically, therefore, supporting all that is wrong and bad—whether that is called traditional or ancestral Buddhism.

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One thought on “Secular Buddhism IV: Latour and Anti-Groups

  1. This is great! Sounds like Latour’s framework could cast a lot of light here. I hope you expand on the other three trace-forms.

    Reflecting, I wonder to what extent “traditional vs modern Buddhism” is used unconsciously/covertly to mean simply “Asians vs whites are the ultimate living authorities.” One would have to analyze a representative sample of pop-Buddhist writing to answer that, but off hand I suspect it might explain a lot.

    For instance, this might help understand the early-90s moral panic around white teachers of Vajrayana, which led to an effective ban on modernized Vajrayana. That has served various political agendas of both conservative Tibetans and white Buddhist power-wielders.

    The workings of Vajrayana teacher-student relationships may make white lamas an intolerable ambiguity when viewed in racial terms. That is: is a white lama “traditional” or “modern”? Each lama is, individually, the ultimate religious authority for his or her students; there is, according to theory, no hierarchy. [Tibetan practice is another matter.] In racial terms, that makes a white lama “modern” by definition. On the other hand, every lama defers to his or her own teacher(s), and if they are Asian, that makes the white lama “traditional.”

    Interestingly, this racial sense of “modern vs traditional” has nothing to do with the content of what the teacher teachers. However, thinking through various specific cases, it seems to capture some of the deep unease many Westerners seem to feel around the very possibility of white lamas.

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