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August 13, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Schtitt on Two Worlds (vs. Buddhism)

Although this is primarily my promised discussion about Schtitt and the Two Worlds, I need to detour a bit to get there, specifically, through AA and the intimations of Buddhism in IJ. Here goes -

How can we best survive in a world in which pleasure and horror are often indistinguishable? One of the great contributions of Infinite Jest is to both formulate this question and to provide an insightful array of possible answers, foremost among them what we might call the Gately/AA solution. AA’ers have found that pleasure is a commitment with depressingly diminishing returns (see pp. 345-47), and though Showing Up at Meetings night after night does not rekindle this capacity for pleasure, it provides a routine through which the self can be externalized. No longer is there a screaming Id wracking the body and chaining the soul; instead, the body learns via a controlled program of conditioning to alter its desires, to evacuate them, and to live in an awareness of finitude.

This evacuation of the self and its desires is sometimes seen by readers as a uniquely Buddhist vibe or Zen moment, since the post-AA self is now better imagined as a contrivance of external performances and not the interior, transcendental (if also confused and solipsistic) self. While I like the idea of a post-Cartesian subject being produced by AA, I’m never very comfortable with these readerly evocations of a Buddhist moment; still, it is not bothersome enough to do any more than let it pass without comment. After all, an idea of Buddhism plays a strong cultural role in the U.S.A. self-thinking. Buddhism is conceived as a sort of antidote to the overwhelming stimulation of our hyped-up drive to experience, and a goal of self-repose. Even the most egomaniacal among us have the occasional impulse to negate the I/ego situated as the archimedean center of our western conceptual universe. And through the good workings of Beat poets and Zen centers, Buddhism is now a familiar companion to anti-accumulation tendencies worth encouraging.

What makes me uncomfortable about this is that it removes Buddhism from a rich cultural context of its own, and often a context that is just as lavish, mythological, communal, what-have-you, as the Judeo-Christian traditions that produce our noisome displays, whether that be the horror that is the U.S.A. Christmas or the false prayers that guide our politicians as they drive toward yet another post-imperial adventure.[24] When “we” U.S.A.-types find a “Buddhist vibe” in a text or author, we sometimes run the risk of trivializing the thick reality of a many-thousand-year-old tradition, preferring to stick with a few old standards such as the Four Noble Truths, dukkha, samsara, nirvana, anatta, &c. While these are useful as a language & syntax to help us evoke human experiences of suffering, loss, impermanence, non-being, desire, &c., it isn’t clear to me that these experiences are specifically Buddhist, even if Buddhism has evolved a specific way (or ways) of encountering them, that is, of encountering ourselves.

As I’ve tried to make clear, this doesn’t bother me a lot, it’s just something in the back of my mind, and that helps me to get to the very un-Buddhist moment that is Schtitt’s pontificatious speech on the Two Worlds. (All quotations that follow are from pp. 458-461; because quotes show up italicized on this site, I substitute underlining for the original italics.)

Lamont Chu, a Californian who suffers in the icy November dawn, makes the mistake of responding to Schtitt’s probing with: “I guess we have to learn to adjust to conditions, sir, I believe is what you are saying.” Exactly wrong. Afer a litany of the likely distractions one faces – from uneven surface, to crowd size, a pretty girl, aches and injuries, lighting, smell, &c. – Schtitt says this:

Adjust. Adjust? Stay the same. No? Is not stay the same? Is it cold? Is it wind? Cold and wind is the world. Outside, yes? On the tennis court you the player: this is not where there is cold wind. I am saying. Different world inside. World built inside cold outside world of wind breaks the wind, shelters the player, you, if you stay the same, stay inside.

Think of it this way. There are a vast, even infinite, number of possible conditions. No single person can learn to properly compensate for each of them, nor is successful play a matter of being “the best adjuster.” Even if one were fundamentally an adjuster, one would be making these adjustments on the fly, based on fallible predictions. There is a much better way, and that is to eliminate one’s dependence on the role of chance by finding what is fundamentally stable – the actor who is to engage the situation. A stable actor can “break the wind” and finds shelter and safety.

Not ever I think this adjusting. To what, this adjusting. This world inside is the same, always, if you stay there. This is what we are making, no? New type citizen. Not of cold and wind outside. Citizens of this sheltering second world we are working to show you every dawn, no? To make your introduction.

Schtitt contrasts the (first) world of becoming with the (second) world of being. The former is in constant change and flux, and produces nothing but uncertainty and chaos. The latter is permament, impermeable, impregnable. It can be trusted. Its reality is assured. The becoming-self is in constant danger of non-being, subject as it is to the blowing winds and asphalt cracks of fortune. However, access to the second world, what Schtitt calls citizenship, is not guaranteed. The self that is the self-same must be produced, not simply discovered; it is not an a priori self. Schtitt’s self is therefore decidely post-Cartesian in being an effect of some self-posited activity, but it is also decidely un-Buddhist in being a substantial thing at the core of the self. (It is, perhaps, more closely aligned to the self-posited “I” of Johann Gottlieb Fichte [25]).

Second world without cold or purple dots of bright for you is 23.8 meters, 8 I think .2 meters. Yes? In that world is joy because there is shelter of something else, of purpose past sluggish self and complaints about uncomfort. I am speaking to not just Lamont Chu of the temperance world. You have a chance to occur, playing. No? To make for you this second world that is always the same: there is in this world you, and in the hand a tool, there is a ball, there is opponent with his tool, and always only two of you, you and this other, inside the lines, with always a purpose to keep this world alive, yes?

The second world is not an arid desert of the self, but a site of joy and purpose and activity. It is attunement with nature – nature here understood not as the array of elements and change but as one’s own essence. Attunement to essence does not imply a single state, a static existence in which victory is assured. Rather, it is the background condition under which it is possible to play, to be a willing, volitional existent, to be a cause rather than merely an effect. In addition, the second world has another great benefit: it is not simply the capacity of a free self-conscious existent, it is also the very condition of inter-subjective awareness. Within the lines of the second world is an opponent, an other, who provides both resistance and reassurance to the self. Post-Cartesian philosophers call this the “struggle for mutual recognition”, which is a battle performed in both love and desire. I see myself in the other, yet to secure the certainty of my own existence, I must also subordinate the other who threatens me with death & defeat. (Better this take place on a tennis court, presumably, than on the terrain of the O.U.S./Steeply vs. A.F.R./Marathe conflict, which is perfectly reasonable in the Arizona desert, but the true casualties have not yet been counted.)

This second world inside the lines. Yes? Is this adjusting? This is not adjusting. This is not adjusting to ignore cold and wind and tired. Not ignoring “as if.” Is no cold. Is no wind. No cold wind where you occur. No? Not “adjust to conditions.” Make this second world inside the world: here there are no conditions.

Learning to occur, taking up residence inside the sheltering second world, is not a means of pretending or ignoring. It is a genuine negation of the idea of conditions, a full-on rejection of the Buddhist idea of dependent-origination (the view that the universe is a transtemporal web of cause and effect) and an affirmation that the will and the self exist/subsist on their own supports. Note the precise contrast between this view and the Gately/AA view. In both cases, repetition leads to externalization and evacuation. In the AA, quasi-Buddhist view, evacuating the self leads to an awareness of emptiness and dependent origination. In the Schtitt, post-Cartesian view, evacuating the self of its dependence on conditions does not lead to emptiness, but rather to a new fullness of being, of being a self, and rejecting a false world (of powerlessness and pleasure and horror) for a true one.

Schtitt goes on to describe the months he spent living inside the tennis court lines at his Gymanasium Kaiserslautern, and suggests that ETA students could do no better than to follow his example – sleeping bags, meals brought, a bucket for hygiene (oh, what an image – and presumably Clenette H. would be the one to run these buckets back and forth, so we should be cautious in considering this such a good idea).

Or else leave here into large external world where is cold and pain without purpose or tool, eyelash in eye and pretty girl – not worry anymore about how to occur.

To be or not to be, hasn’t that been the question? And if the Hamlet motif is indeed the driving force in the novel, then perhaps the Schtitt-self is as thematically and philosophically important as the Gately-self. They give different answers. Schtitt offers being, and Gately offers non-being. I think there are reasons that what I’m calling a Schtitt-self is perhaps slightly less appealing – again, the attractiveness of a post-pleasure emptiness is deeply insinuated in our U.S.A. culture as a polar opposite to the horror that is our external world. (As for myself, I am attracted to the idea that I can eat my cake and have it, too. First, sink deeply into the pleasure of Too Much Fun and then renounce it when pleasure turns to Spiderous horror, trading it for the empty no-self that helps to cure us from the residual effects of our desire.) And yet another concern about the Schtitt-self is our worry that Schtitt is (some sort of) fascist, and that the new citizens of the second world can be mobilized for anti-human projects. We must beware, of course, of simply asserting the triumph of the will.

Yet, perhaps we ought not too quickly jettison our capacity to occur. If properly conceived, this capacity does not abandon us to an existence that is tenuous and anxious. Instead, it situates that existence on a firm ground of self-knowledge that is not dependent on the vagaries of the conditions, of the brutally false first world. If Schtitt is right, this is the only world in which we can: play.

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7 Comments

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  1. infinitedetox / Aug 13 2009 9:25 pm

    Awesome post. I’m with you 100% about the dangers of trivializing entire religious traditions when we have these sorts of conversations, and I’m glad you brought that up.

    This provides a really useful framework for thinking about the differences between the guiding philosophies of the Ennet House and ETA.

  2. Daryl Houston / Aug 14 2009 6:20 am

    What you say about evacuating the self reminds me of a character in The Broom of the System (which I’m rereading in parallel with IJ). Norman Bombardini, a grotesquely fat man who has just failed in the Weight Watchers program and lost his wife as a result, pontificates on the philosophical underpinnings of Weight Watchers. He says that it’s based on the whole self/other, yin-yang thing, and that WW encourages you to make room for the other, which brings fullness of life, etc., by reducing your own mass. Bombardini decides to go the opposite path, planning to fill his world and fulfill himself by literally consuming (ie, eating) everything. There’s more nuance to it than I’m providing here.

    Thanks for this analysis. This is a section I had a little trouble with, which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it — just that I had some trouble wrapping my head around what Schtitt and, later, Hal were getting at.

  3. Professor Of Pop / Sep 6 2009 11:12 am

    I like David Chadwick’s distinction between buddhism (whatever *that* means) as purification and buddhism as transformation. Pure ain’t never gonna ‘appen. Chadwick goes the correct route, in my view, and in doing negates some of your questions, I do believe!

  4. Professor Of Pop / Sep 6 2009 11:14 am

    One might even argue that the search for purification is a preventative measure, conscious or otherwise, to ward off the threat to the ego that is transformation.

  5. Professor Of Pop / Sep 6 2009 11:28 am

    In my view Leonard Cohen understands this material as well as anyone. You *never* get your act together. Unless you can find a way to get it together by not minding that you haven’t. (I’m Your Man, the dvd, he talks about this.) The moment of transformation cannot last. How could it, if the central proposition of the practice is that everything is always changing? So it’s “one mistake after another” as a zen teacher once said. Compared to Cohen, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Madonna, and that guy from the Beastie Boys, etc. are mostly lightweights when it comes to this stuff, and much of the nonsense in people’s heads concerning buddhism comes from pop culture’s misunderstanding of it.

    • infinitetasks / Sep 8 2009 4:34 pm

      Hey Prof, thanks for chiming in! Not sure that my questions are negated, as you say. Chadwick’s distinction (which you adopt here and clarify ina lovely manner) is a learnéd one, but does not obviously apply to pop-cultural touch points that “put nonsense in people’s heads,” as you say. All I’ve argued, perhaps, is that the nonsense is not such a terrible thing, if it provides (1) a moment in which the western I/ego is placed into question, and (2) a companion to anti-accumulation strategies. By saying it’s not such a terrible thing doesn’t mean I see it as a particularly special thing, either, since as I said, it annoys me to see it.

      Probably more important is that I am not that interested in these “Buddhist moments” qua Buddhism, since they seem to have little to do with the non-European cultural tradition which is Buddhism and more to do with perceptions of Buddhism. For that reason, I think folks would be better off talking about “Stoic” moments or “Transcendentalist” moments than “Zen” ones. But then, the cultural cache just isn’t there (which is why I conclude, ultimately, that this whole thing only bothers me a bit, and not a lot).

  6. Professor Of Pop / Sep 14 2009 11:33 am

    Yes zen means nothing, pun intended, and stoic or existentialist are nearer the mark in my world.

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