A second reflection on Hannah Arendt’s polis or space of appearance: “The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.” [i] Additional reflections include The Abstraction Factory: Capitalism and Heteromasculinity and Trauma and the Space of Appearance.
A few years ago I attended a training program offered by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) on organizing unions in the workplace. During the workshop, the IWW trainer stated that it was important to select your best workplace leaders in organizing a union and deal with their oppressive behaviors like racism, sexism, transphobia or homophobia as best you can. When I challenged this idea with my experiences of discrimination as a queer worker, I was told that this training was about class struggle, not the divisiveness of identity politics. The mostly white, male, straight workers at the training were unable to see how they enacted their identities in this space of appearance by minimizing the importance of anti-oppression in selecting leaders for workplace organizing. The three queer workers who attended the training that weekend permanently left the local branch of the IWW.
The enactment of identity in the space of appearance prevents human beings from adequately acting and speaking together to effectively build power from below. It carves borders in the social flesh and makes revolutionary direct association impossible. The identity abstractions that separate us from one another in the space of appearance are constructed within the abstract metaframeworks produced by the capitalist economic system. In other words, the economic system produces subject-object consciousness: I own the means of production (subject), you sell your labor to survive (object); I’m white (subject), you’re black (object); I’m male (subject), you’re female (object); I’m straight (subject), you’re queer (object). In a system where all relationships are relationships between things, subject-object consciousness prevents us from making other human beings the end of all our activity. The highly binary, individualistic, essentialist, identity-based and universalizing tendencies of identity abstractions reveal this metaframework of subject-object consciousness produced by capitalism. [ii]
Identities are formed within binary metaframeworks and people internalize them as a portion of their “self.” Identities are then activated as “role enactment,” often in groups that share similar identities. Normative identities like whiteness, maleness and straightness are held in place by carefully constructed ideologies and power relations that produce unequal access to resources and trauma for others who are then forced to enact non-normative counter identities to challenge their oppression. [iv]
“The Great White Assumption” in Theodore W. Allen’s two-volume Invention of the White Race is “the unquestioning, indeed unthinking acceptance of the ‘white’ identity of European-Americans of all classes as a natural attribute rather than a social construct.” He demonstrates how the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).
To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite, in its own class interest, deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for European-American workers, whose class interests differed fundamentally from those of the ruling elite. [v]
The white workers in the IWW space of appearance inhabited the great white assumption (and great male, straight assumption) and could not see how their own identity politics allowed them to turn their back on anti-oppression in workplace organizing. “Conventions accrue, building layer upon layer over time, taking hold in patterns, images, and built environments,” says Chad Kautzer in Radical Philosophy: An Introduction. “They are infused with normalizing discourses that make social patterns and relations of domination seem like natural laws.” [iii] The workers criticized identity politics because they could not see their own identity politics shaping social patterns and relations of domination.
What if we could witness the production of identity abstractions instead of inhabiting them as natural attributes? The Buddha makes this very radical proposition in the Sakunagghi Sutta. This sutta comes from the Theravada Buddhist canon which is organized into three major collections (Tripitaka, “three baskets”): the Vinaya Pitaka (“basket of discipline”), Sutta Pitaka (“basket of teachings”), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (“basket of special teaching”). The Vinaya Pitaka is divided into five sections and this sutta comes from the third section, the Samyutta Nikaya.
Radical Phenomenology in Saffron Robes
“Wander in your proper range,” the Buddha wrote about a territory before the construction of identity in the abstraction factory, “your own ancestral territory: focused on the body in & of itself, focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.” [vi]
As phenomena flows into and within our senses, all we need is bare attention to just what is arising. Phenomena includes forms dancing into the eyes, sounds cascading off the ear drums, aromas wafting in the nasal cavities, flavors lighting up the tongue, tactile sensations activating the body, and thoughts swirling in the mind (thoughts are considered a sense in Buddhism). The ability to approach the world with bare attention to just what is arising is the “proper range” or “ancestoral territory” mapped out in this Sutta.
The Sutta opens with the story of a quail and hawk who enter into competition with one another. Both creatures leave their proper range and enter into combat and both end up maimed, the quail in the claws of the hawk, and the hawk with a broken breast. The Buddha uses the Pali word mara to describe the dangers of leaving ancestral territory. Mara, a mythological figure personifying death, is the insidious, impulsive, grasping tendency of every normal human being.” [vii]
Like the quail and the hawk, we unconsciously allow the phenomena flowing into our senses to morph into needless conceptual proliferation. We surrender ancestral territory to longing and discontent, likes and dislikes, good and bad, and right and wrong. Phenomena arrives with an agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, enticing quality that sparks the production of identity abstractions in our minds tethered to a sense-of-self shaped by ideologies and power relations, or reactions to them.
In this Sutta the Buddha holds out the possibility of living from a place of ancestral territory, resting in just what is arising in the senses. The Pali word for this refuge is satipatthana, our natural human capacity to be attentive to whatever is appearing in our being in an open, clear, nonintrusive manner. [viii]
It is important to root this Sutta in the biological processes involved in experiencing phenomena in the senses. In his book Conscilience, Edward O. Wilson describes what happens when the color red dances into our eyes. Wilson is a biologist and the author of two Pulitzer prize winning books, On Human Nature and The Ants.
When we see and speak of color, for example, visual information passes from the cones and interneurons of the retina through the thalamus to the visual cortex at the rear of the brain. After the information is codified and integrated anew at each step, through patterns of neuron firing, it then spreads forward to the speech centers of the lateral cortex. As a result, we first see red and then say “red”. Thinking about the phenomenon consists of adding more and more connections of pattern and meaning, and thus activating additional areas of the brain. The more novel and complicated the connections, the greater the amount of this spreading activation. The better the connections are learned by such experience, the more they are put on autopilot. [ix]
The place of bare attention to just what is arising in the senses is described as “The All” in the Sabba Sutta: “Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas.” This is the proper range before conceptual proliferation ejects us from an awareness of the present moment. “It might be assumed that we are always aware of the present,” writes Theravada Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, “but this is a mirage.”
In ordinary consciousness the mind begins a cognitive process with some impression given in the present, but it does not stay with it. Instead it uses the immediate impression as a springboard for building blocks of mental constructs which remove it from the sheer facticity of the datum. The cognitive process is generally interpretive. The mind perceives its object free from conceptualization only briefly. Then, immediately after grasping the initial impression, it launches on a course of ideation by which it seeks to interpret the object to itself, to make it intelligible in terms of its own categories and assumptions. To bring this about the mind posits concepts, joins the concepts into constructs — sets of mutually corroborative concepts — then weaves the constructs together into complex interpretive schemes. In the end the original direct experience has been overrun by ideation and the presented object appears only dimly through dense layers of ideas and views, like the moon through a layer of clouds.” [x]
Like the experience of phenomena in the senses, we can also root conceptual proliferation in biological processes. Biologist Edward O. Wilson goes on to write:
As energy enters the human being through the five senses, physical processes similar to seeing a red object multiply and combine to produce the mind. Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions…Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of vast numbers of such coding networks. Many are linked by the synchronized firing of the nerve cells at forty cycles per second, allowing the simultaneous internal mapping of multiple sensory impressions. Some of the impressions are real, fed by ongoing stimulation from outside the nervous system, while others are recalled from the memory banks of the cortex. All together they create scenarios that flow realistically back and forth through time. The scenarios are a virtual reality. They can either closely match pieces of the external world or depart indefinitely far from it. They recreate the past and cast up alternative futures that serve as choices for future thought and bodily action…The mind is a self-organizing republic of scenarios that individually germinate, grow, evolve, disappear, and occasionally linger to spawn additional thought and physical activity…As the scenarios of consciousness fly by, driven by stimuli and drawing upon memories of prior scenarios, they are weighted and modified by emotion. What is emotion? It is the modification of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity. [xi]
The Buddha taught meditation practices to help us learn to live from the place of ancestral territory, resting in just what is arising in the senses. For example, by actively following the tactile sensations of the breath flowing in and out of our nostrils, we can experience just what is arising in the senses and witness the grasp of conceptual proliferation on our ordinary consciousness.
Many, many distractions will arise. A torrent of thoughts and plans and images and aches and pains. It does not matter. Recognize that you’ve lost touch with an awareness of the breath [just what is arising] and simply come back. If you have to begin again and again and again in the course of one sitting, that’s the practice. That’s what meditation is. [xi]
Freedom from Identity Abstractions
The ability to rest in just what is arising in the senses and to witness the process of conceptual proliferation provides insight into how identity abstractions like whiteness, maleness and straightness are constructed in a long historical process of conceptual proliferation. It provides a foundation for understanding Karl Marx’s idea that direct seeing is a prerequisite for direct association.
The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vica versa…the senses and minds of other men have become my own appropriation. Besides these direct organs, therefore, social organs develop in the form of society; thus, for instance, activity in direct association with others, etc, has become an organ for expressing my own life; and the mode of appropriating human life…man is not lost in his object only when the object becomes for him a human object…This is possible only when the object becomes for him a social object, he himself for himself a social being, just as society becomes a being for his in this object. [xii]
Freedom from the enactment of identity ultimately happens with the transcendence of private property because identity abstractions are constructed within the abstract metaframeworks produced by the capitalist economic system. The highly binary, individualistic, essentialist, identity-based and universalizing tendencies of identity abstractions that assemble through conceptual proliferation reveal this metaframework of subject-object consciousness produced by capitalism.
Direct seeing is the basis upon which human beings can adequately act and speak together to effectively build power from below. “The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians,” writes Marx about direct seeing, “they relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing…the senses and minds of other men have become my own appropriation.” Marx posits a space of appearance where direct seeing allows other human beings to become our own appropriation. When identity abstractions cloud the space of appearance, they prevent us from making other human beings the end of all of our activity.
The class reductionist approach of the workers attending the IWW training was made possible because they could not see how their identity abstractions allowed them to turn their back on anti-oppression in workplace organizing. Because they were enacting white, male straight privilege in the space of appearance, they could not be in solidarity with the real struggles of black and queer workers. Their identity politics made direct seeing impossible.
Revolutionary direct association flows from direct seeing. All attempts at revolutionary direct association in the space of appearance without direct seeing will fail. The ability to rest in just what is arising in the senses and witness the process of conceptual proliferation provides insight into the development of identity abstractions in the long historical process of conceptual proliferation and to understand how social patterns and relations of domination come to feel like natural laws. The ability to rest in just what is arising gives people with normative be in solidarity with people with non-normative identities as they challenge the white supremacy and heteropatriarchy that binds with private property to produce unequal access to resources and personal trauma.
Learning to live from the place of ancestral territory, resting in just what is arising in the senses, creates a space of rebellion against the mechanisms that harden identity abstractions within the process of conceptual proliferation. It creates the prerequisite of direct seeing and the possibility of revolutionary direct association in the space of appearance. It opens up a space to queer the identity abstractions that prevent us from adequately mediating together as a species.
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[i] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, pgs. 198–199.
[ii] Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History, pgs. 170 to 173
[iii] Fritz William Yarrison, “Normative Vs. Counter-Normative Identities: The Structural Identity Model,” pg. 1
[iv] Jeffery Perry, “The Invention of the White Race,” CounterPunch
[v] Chad Kautzer, Radical Philosophy: An Introduction, Paradigm Publishers, 2015, p. 80
[vi] Sakunagghi Sutta, translated from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
[vii] Glenn Wallis, Basic Teachings of the Buddha, pg. 72
[viii] Ibid., pg. 73
[ix] Edward O. Wilson, Conscilience, pg. 117a
[x] Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path Way to the End of Suffering, pg. 76–77
[xi] Edward O. Wilson, Conscilience, pgs. 119–120, 123
[xii] Sharon Salzberg, Insight Meditation, pgs. 34–35
[xiii] Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.