The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism took its name from a joke by Slavoj Zizek in a 2012 lecture he gave at The European Graduate School in Leuk-Stadt, Switzerland. It was my attempt at an immersive, interactive critique of the co-opting of Buddhist or pan-Asian metaphysics in service of techno-apologist, neoliberal ideology.
Performance and Installation
As a transmedia, non-linear, and multilocal installation, it was necessary to offer several points of entry into the The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism experience. The simplest of these consisted of flyers in the style of a “learn meditation to improve your life” seminar. These were posted around the neighborhood where The Taoist Ethic’s final performance piece would take place.
The flyers refer back to one of the points made in Zizek’s lecture:
Although Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics (allowing us to uncouple, to retain inner peace and so on…) it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.
I’m always the attentive reader of the different posters announcing: “Come to our transcendental meditation course! Not only will we help you to reduce stress, but after our course you will be able to function even better in the market!”
Thus marketing and meditation, nondualist metaphysics and contemporary acquisitiveness are bound up in a single message. Perhaps the marriage owes more to Veblen than even Zizek realizes, a state of being where spiritual election finds its outer expression in beauty, wealth, and the envy of others.
Further marketing campaigns may easily be imagined: promotional websites, webinars, pamphleteering, “and so on and so on…”
In the interest of hinting at these expanded possibilities, we produced two short “guided meditation” videos, intended to shepherd the participant a little further down the path from mere Buddhism, Silicon Valley style, to the furthest synthesis of transcendent tantric amorality. These videos encouraged viewers to visualize the poor and suffering collateral objects (humans) of the technoindustrial system, to dwell with the gruesomeness of their plight, and to strive for equanimity in the face of such injustice.
On one hand, this recalls Buddhist meditations on images of graphic bodily injury, the meditator in the charnel grounds who assaults his or her senses with the ugly reality of physical impermanence in order to sever denial of mortality, and strive after non-grasping.
On the other hand, these videos are intended to hail the psychedelic new age philosophy that pervades West Coast techno-utopianism, wherein the subject and object are in fact identical, but two facets of a single whole, whose separateness is only a condition of the imperfect ego. Or, as one cabal of millionaire pop-gurus once put it:
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism culminated in an installation and performance piece at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Four altars are arranged in the round to suggest the four cardinal directions and the fylfot icon of the Process Church of the Final Judgement. Funereal flowers flank each individual altar, upon which are heaped iconic candies (Twizzlers, gummi bears, mint milanos), and votive candles.
Altarpieces close this sacred circle, portraying in triptych the likes of: Elon Musk, Carly Fiorina, the Unabomber, Timothy Leary, Douglas Rushkoff, Donna Haraway, and white nationalist hacker “weev.” These are rendered in photocopy, a transitionary technology between old and new media, occupying a middle ground reflective of the Buddhist belief that man occupies a middle ground between the divine and demonic—likewise playing with the idea of duplication and reproduction, which is extended by digital media, but carries with it the suggestion of decomposition (as in fleshly) that is absent in digital media.
The inner core of sacred circle of these altar: mats bearing the image of young victims of Bhopal, a “dissected” iPhone, a young Chinese girl picking through a mountain of e-waste, and tumorous third-world peasants. These mats form the space reserved for seated meditation, and are intended to satirically recall the rug upon which is held the tantric feast, whose images of flayed human and animal anatomies reminds the practitioner of the frailty and conditional quality of the flesh.
Entrants were then led in guided meditation, in the style of the YouTube videos, interspersed with readings from our prophets of transcendent amorality: Charles Manson, Aleister Crowley, and the 11th Century Tibetan Yogini Machig Labdrön.
You are everyone. You are the air, the trees, the green things that give us air. You are the bottom of the ocean and the highest of the sky, You are nothing and everything. No one ever died, you are all death, you are all the graves, past and present, future there’s no such thing, there’s only now, you are now,. No one has ever been here, no one will ever be here. There’s no one here at all. There’s only reflections of the stars that are in eternity, forever. God, love, truth, yourself, it’s inside of you, it’s inside of everyone.
Gods and demons as designated by worldly people are well known to all worldly people. What is called a god is anything that appears objectively to worldly people as nice, pleasing, uplifting or inspiring. Whatever appears objectively to the mind as ugly and unpleasant, or in a frightening, life-threatening form, is called a demon. In short, whatever helps is called a god, and whatever harms is called a demon. These are labels used by worldly people based merely on good and bad, or help and harm.
16. Hear me, ye people of sighing! The sorrows of pain and regret Are left to the dead and the dying, The folk that not know me as yet.
17. These are dead, these fellows; they feel not. We are not for the poor and sad: the lords of the earth are our kinsfolk.
18. Is a God to live in a dog? No! but the highest are of us. They shall rejoice, our chosen: who sorroweth is not of us.
19. Beauty and strength, leaping laughter and delicious languor, force and fire, are of us.
20. We have nothing with the outcast and the unfit: let them die in their misery. For they feel not. Compassion is the vice of kings: stamp down the wretched & the weak: this is the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world. Think not, o king, upon that lie: That Thou Must Die: verily thou shalt not die, but live. Now let it be understood: If the body of the King dissolve, he shall remain in pure ecstasy for ever.
The fact that some of these passages reflected greater dialectical sophistication than others was intentional. If we truly embrace nonduality, then there is little difference between sophistry and wisdom. The words of Manson and the words of Machig are equal to those of Musk or Morozov. All preferences are indications of failure to grasp the essential quality of being: nothingness.
When the night ended, the candles were snuffed and finger cymbals chimed to close the magic circle that began with the first flyers. If compressed, one could have experienced the full immersive experience of The Taoist Spirit in less time than it took to read this synopsis (and far less than it will take to read the following analysis). Within the hour, the altars had been swept to the curb and candy dispersed to the last straggling visitors. At last, The Taoist Spirit might even be considered a failure, for its mere indexical hailing of immersive satire is, in fact, part of those conditions which Zizek blames for the rise of the neoliberal Buddhist dispensation:
Things simply move too fast before we can accustom ourselves to it, so that we forever lack so-called cognitive mapping. I claim that the recourse to Taoism or Buddhism offers a [false] way out of this predicament. Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of progress, the idea is that rather we should renounce the very endeavor to control what goes on, rejecting it as an expression of the modern logic of domination.
Bulldozing the Orchid
My goal with The Taoist Ethic was to conceive of an immersive transmedia ecosystem which the public could explore at any pace and in any direction they chose, but which always resulted in their first-hand experience of Buddhist metaphysics, as divorced from Buddhist ethics.
The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism (the corporate mindfulness program in general) is therefore a trailhead into experiencing those species of Buddhist metaphysics that either ignore, or wholly transcend, conventionally conceived Buddhist ethics. This is the ‘Left Hand Path,’ advocated by fringe sects of Vajrayana Buddhism, and the Satanic Christianity of the Process Church.
That is, a metaphysic wherein distinctions of good and evil are rejected prior to their being transcended. Where indulgence and amorality are see as means of passing beyond the veil of duality that characterizes illusory, incarnate life. Where, in the words of novelist Vladimir Bartol (another Slovenian, incidentally) “Nothing is true and everything is permitted.”
So goes the moral logic of the piece: If you truly embrace tantra, though your entry was through techno capitalism, you must accept the moral equivalence of radical techno-hostility. Likewise, by entering into what is, in its purest epistemic distillation, an amoral matrix of non-belief, you must embrace with ambivalence the suffering of “innocents” as the play of mara, that is, of illusion and conditioned phenomenal appearance. The generic Eastern metaphysics of the tyrannically optimistic techno-capitalist class reduces itself to a radical, primary amorality, all to the echoing peals of distant Mephistophelean laughter.
The piece offers an ironic endorsement of Rushkoff’s digiphrenic diagnosis, drawing paranoid and occult conclusions from a panoply of closely, partially and barely-related symbols. It does so primarily to resist the epistemic violence of the “convincing argument,” the foreclosure of knowledge implicit in pointed argumentation (aesthetic and ironic/humorous considerations provide the remaining motivations). This resistance is part and parcel of the anti-teleological thrust of digital media, and its post-linear narrative outcroppings. Definitive statements contradict the digital humanist ethic, which is the mission of the Organic Cyborg Conspiracy project, as they actually tend to abort action on one hand, while fostering an ends-justifying-means ethic on the other. The tensions presented in the installation are therefore intended to stay unresolved.
The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism premiered at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus Brooklyn on May 26, 2015, as part of An Evening of Non-Linear Narrative, hosted by Dr. Douglas Rushkoff.