3 | 2017
Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales

The editors would like to thank the following institutions:

  • The Regional Council of Île de France.
  • The Embassy of India.
  • The Research Commission of the University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité.
  • The Faculty of Law, Social and Political Sciences and the Centre forStudies and Research in Administrative and Political Sciences (CERAP), University of Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité.
  • The Centre for Research on English Studies (CREA) of the University of Paris West Nanterre and the Centre for Research on Space/Writing (CREE) of the University of Paris West Nanterre.
  • The Team of Interdisciplinary Research on Cultural Areas (ERIAC) of the University of Rouen Normandy.
  • and the Society for Activities and Research on the Indian world (SARI).

for their generous support for this project.

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  • Michel Naumann, Ludmila Volná et Geetha Ganapathy-Doré  Introduction

Rewritings of the Jātaka Tales in Colonial and Postcolonial Texts

The Affective Multitude: Towards a Transcultural Meaning of Enlightenment

Jon Solomon


This article proposes to explore a transcultural meaning of « Enlightenment » through an encounter between Madhyamaka Buddhism and contemporary critiques of Kantianism inspired by Object-Oriented Ontology. The concept of « translation-as-Enlightenment » in relation to the affective multitude of existence is explained in relation to ideas about causality, compassion, translation, aesthetics, epistemology and politics.

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1Since the early 19th century, Buddhist realization has been translated into English by the word Enlightenment. At the turn of the millennium, however, this translation no longer seems accurate (Gómez 1996). Although the Sanskrit term does not contain any etymological reference to light, the association between waking up, from which the Sanskrit verb budh draws, and light would certainly not be hard to imagine within the context of agrarian societies before electrification. Yet our purpose is not to dwell on the notion of fidelity. The debt of translation is not compiled simply from accounts of mistranslation, for the act itself is always intrinsically bi-directional, if not multi-directional. Although it would seem that we have had to wait a couple of centuries for a “correct” translation finally to appear, before abandoning « enlightenment » altogether, this essay would like to explore the historical opening created by the implicit equivalency established through translation between a Buddhist notion of awakening and the philosophical and political ideas collectively known as Enlightenment that inaugurate and emblematize modernity. Just as the spiritual connotations of Bodhi can no longer be excluded from free communication with the English word Enlightenment, so the ideals of modern Enlightenment thought can no longer be considered external to Buddhism. Might we not see the mistranslation itself as an historical event, just like Gautama’s awakening and the French Revolution?

2Perhaps this is to say nothing but that we are still awaiting the elaboration of what Enlightenment means for others – in the dual sense intended both by the Mahayana practice of a Bodhisattva and by the inauguration of a single world through colonial encounter (i.e., the event that brings Buddhism and Enlightenment thought into contact).

3An elaboration of this transcultural meaning undoubtedly has to begin with a re-evaluation of what C. B. MacPherson, author of The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962), confidently termed, « the Western democratic ontology » (MacPherson 1973, 24). As Etienne Balibar notes: « According to MacPherson, it is in Hobbes’s philosophy that we find the clearest formulation of these axioms [the classical foundations of possessive individualism]. » In this essay, the aim of which is ontological and anthropological, I would like to focus not on Hobbes but rather on the Kantian part of that legacy. Two centuries before MacPherson, Kant had famously described Enlightenment as a maturation or majoration of the individual, turning it into a kind of developmental state in the natural law of species progress. Here we have the basis for the anthropological project of modernity – a belief that technological progress and aesthetics can be joined together in a single effort to develop, according to hylomorphic presuppositions, the perfect race/species. Within this context, the modern nation-state is a developmental state devoted to the representation, cultivation, and final maturation of specific difference.

4While there exists some debate within Buddhist schools about the gradual nature of the path (Ruegg 1989), the basic premises are reversed with regard to Kant: « buddha nature (tathâgatagarbha) » (emptiness + cognizance) is inherent, and cannot be the object of any developmental technique (although the accumulation of merit and wisdom through practical techniques is in most cases necessary). Buddhism, as I will argue, rejects the anthropological project of modernity. Liberation arises neither from the maturation of the individual nor the perfection of a species (in the image of a higher being), but rather from abandoning the illusion of both individuality and oneness. This is what is called dependent origination (Sanskrit: pratîtyasamutpâda, hereafter abbreviated as DO).

Dependent Origination

5Dependent origination is a theory of causal arising, transformation, and cessation that was expounded by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. « This existing, that comes to be » is the essential formula that describes being as a process of continual mutual co-generation. The paradigmatic cycle is described in terms of the twelve links of existence (1. Ignorance; 2. Formation; 3. Consciousness; 4. Name and form; 5. Perceptual entrances; 6. Contact; 7. Sensation; 8. Craving; 9. Grasping; 10. Becoming; 11. Rebirth; 12. Aging and death.) In terms of form, the twelve links appear to describe a subjective process linked to the birth, life, and death of a conscious, presumably human, being. While some texts, such as Vasubandhu’s 4th or 5th century Treasury of Abhidharma (Abhidharmakośa), speak of « unconditioned » dharmas or phenomena that would not fall under the purview of dependent origination, in this article I will argue for an interpretation more in line with that upheld by the Madhyamaka School of Nagarjuna (c. 150-c. 250 CE), arguing that DO applies to all types of being in the cosmos; it is of the nature of existence. From this perspective, the twelve-link series of DO shows that matter is intrinsically affective, irregardless of any division into subjects and objects. This affective quality is not subjective. Affect concerns the capacity to affect and be affected. The subject is not a cause for affect (not an auto-affective subject), but is rather caught « in-between » (allo-affective), produced by a series of conditions among discontinuous domains that we normally call physical, mental, and back to physical again, ad infinitum. The 12 links of dependent origination are adamant in their refusal to create autonomous spiritual and physical domains, while also refusing the category of a subject, or substratum, to the process.

6The doctrine of dependent origination receives canonical treatment, and critique, in Nagarjuna’s The Stanzas of the Root of the Middle Way (Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ, ca. 150 C.E., abbreviated as MMK). This text, written in verse (a kârikâ) to aid memorization and recitation, consists of a succession of arguments that present the idea, fundamental to the Madhyamaka school, that all things are empty and devoid of intrinsic nature. Causality and classification are the two essential themes that concern the attempt to establish intrinsic existence, and much of the text is devoted to accepting the consequences for taxonomic knowledge in the wake of the definitive refutation of final causality. Causality is what enables taxonomic schemes to assume the pretense of correlate reality. In place of causality, a theory of processual relations is proposed. According to this theory, individuals are the result of a contingent process of dependent origination. Individuals themselves have no essence, and cannot be identified simply by a list of properties. The first result of this displacement is that taxonomic knowledge based on species difference can no longer aspire to any kind of correlational status with regard to reality. In place of correlationism, the Buddhist idea of DO substitutes an operation that is the same in any context or medium, whether psychic or physical – even before this division exists.

7There are strong methodological reasons to believe that DO cannot be thought of as a principle (in which case it would be a thing with its own properties, not aesthetic but ethical, i.e., causes are responsible for effects), but must be understood as a singular operation, specific each time to a singular contextual constellation. Nagarjuna’s Stanzas of the Root of the Middle Way is largely composed of a series of interventions into singular contexts, such as the relation between fire and fuel, seed and plant, mind and object, this life and that life, etc., that demonstrate DO while refuting taxonomic schemes based on causality. In this way, Buddhism displaces the problem of ontology to aesthetics. Were we to begin with the assumption of DO as a principle that precedes the modes of DO, that assumption in itself would constitute a particularly trenchant way of understanding relationship—one that ultimately shares a fundamental affinity with the apprehension of ontological individuality in MacPherson that Buddhism explicitly eschews. As Ruegg observes, even terms like « buddha nature », « do not appear to define a single, constant and unitary core-notion or essence » (Ruegg 1989, 5). Rather than force DO into a nominal category, we want to keep it processual: « DO-ing » rather than « the DO ».

8Yet the primary concern of the MMK is to show that even the notion of DO is characterized by emptiness. None of the entities that engage in DO have any intrinsic existence, and DO “itself” is pervaded by emptiness. The basic logical strategy employed amounts to a refusal of any point of contact, or third space “in-between”, two entities that might be thought to be causally or temporally-related. Fire and fuel are interdependent, yet never touch; the act of going appears to lie between the gone and the to-come, yet never occurs. It is a strategy designed to defeat both substantialism and processualism.

9We might venture the thesis that the Madhyamaka project described by Nagarjuna is not designed to be a negation of dependent origination on the basis of emptiness, but rather a displacement of logical truth-claims to the realm of the analogical. I would like to come back to this idea near the end of our discussion.

Aesthetic Causality, Aesthetic Compassion

10One can detect an underlying Kantian tendency in modern commentary on Buddhism, according to which Buddhism is mainly concerned with, and begins, just like Kant, from the question of the limits or conditions of possibility to human access to objects and the objective world. Starting from this position, it becomes possible to claim that humans are a product of biological evolution, and the constraints imposed by biological evolution, such as the development of language and symbolic systems, as well as sensory organs such as eyes, ears and mouths, impose themselves on what humans are capable of knowing. Buddhism, according to this reading, is an epistemological realism. According to this Kantian reading, phrases like the oft-cited line from the Avatamsaka Sutra that say « everything is mind » are understood in what contemporary Speculative Realism calls a « correlationist » manner, like Berkeley’s famous dictum that « things cannot exist without being thought ». Everything is reduced to the question of our access to it, which is hopelessly reliant on flawed sensory relay systems that create the impression of sensory « objects » where there are either none to begin with or else objects vastly divergent from the way in which our epistemological limitations portray them. Modern interpretations of Buddhism have tended to see Buddhist ontology through a Kantian lens, assuming that ontology must be subordinated to epistemology, as it was for Kant.

11Yet the Four Noble Truths, Shakyamuni’s first oral teaching after remaining in silence subsequent to his Enlightenment, do not begin with the question of epistemology. They begin with what might be best termed an aesthetic approach to ontology. The basic ontological premise is impermanence, from which is drawn an aesthetic conclusion for entities-in-and-of-themselves: life is « suffering », in which suffering is defined as the experience of impermanence regardless of emotional content. I’m using the definition of aesthetics that is developed by Steven Shaviro: « Aesthetics is about the singularity and supplementarity of things: it has to do with things insofar as they cannot be cognized or subordinated to concepts and also insofar as they cannot be utilized, or normatively regulated, or defined according to rules » (Shaviro 2014, 53). Shaviro’s Whiteheadian aesthetic refers to something about each and every extant being « for its own sake », something that escapes epistemological limits to perception. Supplementarity arises not from some form of internal lack, but rather from an excess of potentiality. From this perspective, the main form of interaction among entities is aesthetic, i.e., it occurs regardless of whether animal perception and cognition are present or not. Aversion and attraction, which constitute the basis of the Second Noble Truth, reinforce the turn from ontology to aesthetics initiated by the First Noble Truth. Re-reading Buddhism in conjunction with Shaviro’s rejection of Kantianism opens up a way to explain Buddhism without reducing it to Kantianism1.

12A fruitful comparison might be made with contemporary Speculative Realist philosophies such as Graham Harman’s idea of « Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) » and responses to it by contemporaries such as Steven Shaviro and Timothy Morton. Yet it is important to underline from the outset what I take to be a crucial difference: unlike OOO, the Madhyamaka Buddhism of Nagarjuna does not have ontology as its central concern. Although Madhyamaka certainly deals with ontological questions, they are ultimately subordinate to a specific goal: Enlightenment or liberation. Even if it may be construed as an ontology, liberation from ignorance points to another “dimension” that takes priority. While keeping this difference (still-to-be-explained) in mind, we find that Morton and Shaviro’s understanding of OOO’s contribution to a concept of aesthetic causality provides an interesting point of departure from which to consider Buddhist ideas of Enlightenment.

13The key elements to the aesthetic notion of causality advanced by Morton include: irreducible uncertainty (Morton cites examples from quantum physics; Morton 2013, 96); an emphasis on the duration of appearance; indefinite past and futurity (infinite regress or progress; one relation leads to another; Morton 2013, 90); singularity (this not that; Morton 2013, 90); distance (Morton 2013, 73); shape (Morton 2013; 81); and illusion that cannot be identified (Morton 2013; 74). The list that I have composed above drawn from Morton’s text is designed to suggest a sequence among these terms. The first and last, irreducible uncertainty and illusion, are of course integrally related, initiating and ending the chain in non-identity, thereby eliminating LNC (the Law of Noncontradiction) as the exclusive principle of ontology. Morton, followings terms advanced by Priest and Routley (Priest, Routley and Norman, 1989), calls this the « dialetheic (double-truthed) quality of objects » (Morton 2013, 68). The temporality that marks the duration of appearance-disappearance is a processual oscillation between infinite progress and infinite regress. The indefinite futurity cannot be conceived as the totality of all possibilities, for each and every object that composes it is a singularity; nor can it finally be a temporal category at all. Between these singularities lies a distance that can only be understood, in the wake of quantum physics’ demonstration of nonlocality, as discontinuity.

14In the word « shape », I see an imprecise correlate to what is called se () in Chinese Buddhist translations of Sanskrit rûpa. Conventionally translated into English as « form », the Chinese term se refers primarily to color, a meaning that is also covered by the semantic range of the Sanskrit term. This might be seen as a Derridean attempt to conceive of materiality in a differential way, rather than simply in terms of identity and structure. A further connection with Buddhism might be sought in Derrida’s claim (Derrida 2006) that the spectral is associated first and foremost with the question of an afterlife. Inasmuch as it is understood as a space between life and death, Derrida’s spectral afterlife approaches the notion of causality across lives theorized in Tibetan Buddhism as the interstial space of the bardo. Ultimately, this type of cause bears an irreducible strangeness that cannot be finally distinguished from illusion, but is for that reason singular (i.e., this cannot be that).

15Buddhist-inspired interpretations will ultimately find more traction, as Thomas Lamarre has suggested to me, in the recent philosophical debates on the ontological implications of color perception spawned by neurobiological and other scientific research. While the debate pits various forms of objectivism (physicalism, dispostionalism, and primitivism) against different flavors of subjectivism (eliminativism, projectionism, and interactionism), what is really fascinating about color from a philosophical point of view is not simply its amphibological status between the subjective and the objective, but also the important phenomenal differences that distinguish color perception from other human perceptual relay systems. For that reason, the general theoretical interest that Buddhism reserves for color above and beyond the other senses must be explored for its value as a strategic choice. Ultimately, color (as se/rûpa) is to be understood as emblematic of conditioned existence in general. What should probably be of greatest interest here is the singularity of color perception. Among the five senses, color perception occupies a singular position not just because of its difficult amphibological aspect between physical properties, neural relays, and affective resonance, but also because of its irrelevance to considerations of efficient causality normally taken to determine physical properties of an object and the inherent indeterminacy of the correlation between color perception and the physical information that constitutes it as an event (Cf. Al-Saleh 2013). These two qualities (indeterminacy of correlation and irrelevance of efficient causality) make of color perception more than just an exemplary case of DO (Waldron 2006) or an analogy for progressive levels of attainment (Makransky 1997). Color perception is the signature of aesthetic causality.

16Makransky’s discussion of the rupakaya, literally « color body » but generally translated as « physical form », is paradigmatic. Emphasizing the epistemological dimension of the rupakayas, or « physical forms » [of enlightened beings, for instance], Makransky’s account appears to neglect the significance of the modification affect brings to epistemology. Even as the rupakaya is what appears in place of dharmakaya to those without the full realization of a Buddha, it is also a manifestation that occurs precisely for the sake of others. Contemporay theories of color perception reveal that color cannot be simply defined in either an extensional or intensional way. In other words, the taxonomy of generic difference does not apply. Although part of a species-specific faculty, color perception is always singular, not individual/generic. It is not the product of the meeting between an individual object and an individual subject, but a singular interaction of aesthetic causality defined by distance, indeterminacy, strange correlation, and an affective “state” beyond knowledge of « what it is like to be X ».

17Some of the above aspects of aesthetic causality are to be found not in Morton but in the important modifications to the concept brought independently by Shaviro. What he calls « supplementarity » is related to the affective quality that marks every object in its status as a singularity. Affect names the relations among singularities. Knowledge does not have to play any part for a relation to be affective. « [F]ire affects even those aspects of the cotton that it cannot come to “know” » (Shaviro 2014, 106). The move is clearly away from epistemology. « [N]o amount of information can ever exhaust the thing » (Shaviro 2014, 117). « Objects are always more than what they do » (Shaviro 2014, 143-144). In its singularity, every object has an affective component that exceeds knowledge. Arguing at the limits of panpsychism, Shaviro attempts to downplay the importance of cognition while allowing for the existence of other forms of sentience and knowledge. The affective component is both endogenous and exogenous. It concerns both the way in which an object « feels » for itself, and the way in which objects are always « feeling » their relations to other objects. Through readings of contemporary philosophers in the analytical tradition, Shaviro contests Morton’s (and Harman’s) view that the withdrawn quality of objects is implicitly totalizable (Harman’s « vacuum »). He describes it rather as aesthetic. « [C]ausal relations are never complete and never entirely deterministic; they are always partial and indirect » (Shaviro 2014, 144-145). « Where Harman speaks of “touch without touching”, therefore, I would rather designate this causal and affective process positively as contact at a distance » (Shaviro 2104, 147). Aesthetics, for Shaviro, « is the realm of immanent, non-cognitive [affective] contact » (Shaviro 2014, 148).

18Although Nagarjuna would certainly agree that objects do not touch, he also upholds the immanence of dependent origination. Hence, DO speaks of objects without objectivity, relations without substance. But these are « objects » that have the quality of sentience. Standard English translations of Buddhism regularly refer to a technical term, « sentient beings ». In Buswell’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Getz explains: « Sentient beings is a term used to designate the totality of living, conscious beings […] living things […] possessing consciousness » (Getz 2004, 760). Does this mean that beings can be divided into two, or more, classes, those with sentience and those without? How can we be sure that our understanding is not clouded by the opposition between the organic and the inorganic introduced by the life sciences at the end of the 18th century? (Foucault 1973, 232) Based on the fact that Nagarjuna’s MMK explicitly includes all phenomena within the purview of DO, I would like to argue for the most expansive definition possible. My working hypothesis amounts to admitting all forms of arising – physical, mental, etc. – without exception into the field of DO2.

19From that perspective, how shall we understand the ascription of « sentience » to objects? Significantly, the Chinese translations of Buddhism (to which I have recourse in the absence of a knowledge of Sanskrit or Tibetan) never speak of « objects » nor « beings ». There are three Chinese terms used to denote the term normally translated in English as « sentient being ». The first, youqing (有情) refers to « having sentience », but a more common translation of the term qing, glossed here as « sentience », would be affect. To substitute affect for sentience is a move that takes us out of the assumptions of interiority, into the realm of causality. Hence, the second part of my expanded definition of DO, which does not distinguish between different spiritual and physical realms, reinterprets the notion of « sentience » as « affect », thereby enlarging the category to become inclusive of all types of existent being within the realm of DO. Whether animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, all existent being is affective and participates in DO. The second term in Chinese, youqing zhongsheng (有情眾生) adds the words zhongsheng, the « multiplicity (zhong) of births or arisings (sheng) ». The third is an abbreviation, simply zhongsheng. The key elements of these Chinese terms are affect, multiplicity, and birth or arising. As a substitute for « sentient beings », which seems to invite associations with « life » and would thus exclude beings that we consider « inanimate » yet display causal qualities of arising, duration, and cessation, another term is needed. Perhaps we will soon be ready to consider alternate translations, such as « the Affective Multitude ».

20In that case, one might wonder what the liberation of « the Affective Multitude », which composes part of the Bodhisattva vow, would really mean? How does one assist the liberation of a rock, a snake, or a neutrino? Rather than try to answer the question directly, let us pose it in a negative sense: what are the obstacles to liberation? The answer, given by the theory of dependent origination, is ignorance. Ignorance is not a condition relative to knowledge, but relative to dependent origination and emptiness. It is, we might say, relative to an experience akin to what Shaviro describes as an aesthetics of the beautiful as opposed to that of the sublime. « [B]eauty is appropriate to a world of relations […] sublimity is appropriate to a world of substances » (Shaviro 2014, 42). The distinction between beauty and the sublime is ontological, yet can only be seized aesthetically.

21Shaviro pursues this distinction in order to describe a notion of beauty that does not adhere to the formal logic of specific difference. It is « not a genus of which particular beautiful things would be the species » (Shaviro 2014, 149). It is not something individual, but rather singular, and in that singularity, it is the bearer of something universal. Yet this universality is not that of a law, given in advance to cognition. In fact, it doesn’t correspond to any object whatsoever. It is something that occurs only in the circumstances of aesthetic judgment. Shaviro calls the relation between singularity and universality a kind of « short circuit » that bypasses all mediation.

22If the « aesthetic » in this context refers to affect and affectivity, then the « short circuit » that it produces is precisely the moment, in Buddhism, that stops the illusory circulation known as samsara. Hence, the Buddhist aesthetic is also the realm in which compassion emerges. Although compassion is not directly mentioned in the theory of DO, the fact that the Buddha emerged from silence after Enlightenment to begin teaching dependent origination is said to reveal a compassionate motivation. Aesthetic compassion means appreciation, not in the sense of recognition, but rather in the sense of an infinitely amplified analogical relation. If neuroscience suggests that human compassion starts with mirror neurons, this means that compassion itself can never be understood in terms of a closed, mechanically-causal circuit. The operation of mirror neurons is analogical, establishing causality-at-a-distance in a “circuit” that includes corporal discontinuity. The Buddhist notion of compassion takes this discontinuity a step further, breaking the link with species-specific biological faculties, amplifying the short-circuit to include all beings. Compassionate appreciation aims to maximize the potential of amplification by caring for the affective nature of things « in themselves ».

23To say that Buddhist understanding of ignorance and compassion is relative to aesthetic judgment isn’t to say that satori (Enlightenment) can only be realized while drinking ritually-prepared beverages in assiduously-groomed rock gardens. It is rather to understand first that perception and cognition are not the main categories that define causality. Causality defined by emptiness is aesthetic. Second, it is to understand that the view of emptiness alone does not lead to liberation/Enlightenment. It is not enough to use the view of emptiness to “access” the real that is not empirical. Aesthetic causality has to be deployed together with aesthetic compassion. Yet compassion, like ignorance, is not a subjective category. It rather concerns the infinity of the Affective Multitude. Taking a cue from Morton, I might call it compassionate « interobjectivity » (Morton 2013, 64). Aesthetic compassion in addition to aesthetic causality is, in the final analysis, what distinguishes Buddhism from philosophy.

Enlightenment Must Be Defended: critique vs. historicophilosophical fiction

24Speculative theories of aesthetic causality might not explain “why-things-happen”3, but they do have great interest for both transcultural studies and Buddhist studies today. Caution is required, however, in the recuperation of mechanical causality through historical narrative, as seen for instance in Morton’s account of, or story about, aesthetic causality. This story begins with a review of theories of causality since the 17th century that try to eliminate « all but efficient and material causes » (Morton 2013, 81). The knowledge acquired through quantum theory, however, brings back the old category of formal causes. This is a type of causality that admits for action at a distance – or at least rejects the position that causal relations require spatiotemporal continuity. « Aesthetic » means distance, but this is a distance that cannot be measured (according to quantum physics, to measure is to introduce another potentially causal element). Or perhaps a different kind of measure is required. Morton argues for a metaphorical one. In order to explain why, he returns back to the historical narrative, moving chronologically-backwards to the early Renaissance split between logic and rhetoric, separating substance from accident, which ushers in the way for an eliminative materialist strategy that focuses exclusively on efficient and material causes.

25Morton calls this separation « a massive world-historical event » (Morton 2013, 78). It is impossible for me not to view this term, admittedly marginal to Morton’s principal argument about causality, yet not unrelated, as a manifestation of a tendency critiqued by Foucault in his discussion of Enlightenment.

26Allow me to switch disciplinary registers now and return to Enlightenment history, as explained by Michel Foucault. In thinking about the relation between Buddhism and Enlightenment, it is useful to refer to the gesture engaged by Foucault in his celebrated 1978 address at the Sorbonne published under the title, « What Is Critique? » (Foucault 1996). It may seem that by having introduced into the discussion yet another religion, Buddhism rather than Christianity, I am going to argue simply for a reversal of the historical process of secularization, proposing to revalorize the questions of scriptural truth and salvation through relations of obedience to spiritual authority, that Foucault takes as his point of departure. I will return to this problem below, in a consideration of the context of Buddhist translation and practice, particularly practices of devotion. But first, I would like to tease out several salient points from Foucault’s argument.

27Foucault’s address reads like a programmatic synthesis of one of the most intriguing, yet subterranean, aspects of the French intellectual itinerary emerging in the 1960s. I am not talking about post-structuralism’s flirtation with signifying chains, but rather about a constellation of ideas that essentially join causality (Althusser, Simondon), individuation (Deleuze, Derrida, and Simondon), and figuration (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy) to Foucault’s own emerging interests in biopolitics, racism and the state, and that lead in the direction of a radical departure from the presuppositions of the « Western democratic ontology. »

28In Foucault’s 1978 address, this radical break has as its beginning the attempt to rescue critique from « an inquiry into the legitimacy of the historical modes of knowing » (Foucault 1996, 393). This style of inquiry, typical of the 18th and 19th century conflation of critique with Enlightenment, is « historicophilosophical » (Foucault 1996, 391). Foucault is careful to explain that this amalgam of history and philosophy must not be understood in a cumulative way (philosophy of history or history of philosophy), but rather as a process of creating a story (Foucault 1996, 390), « fabricating as through fiction » (Foucault 1996, 391). How could one not hear, in 1978, an echo of the path-breaking analysis of Romanticism, in which the philosophical project of Kantian subjective freedom is realized precisely through literature, that was accomplished by the deconstructive philosophers Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy in The Literary Absolute published that same year? Their analysis, which complements that of Foucault, essentially defines fiction as the creative power of a subject. They call it « fictioning » in order to highlight its ontogenetic aspect. Fictioning is nothing but the attempt to isolate, identify, and ultimately harness creative power, turning it into the power of identification. The modern fantasy, or philosophical project, is that such creative power supports the notion of an autonomous subject that is self-creative, who is its own origin and destination – « man creating man ». For Foucault, however, this story leads directly to the methodological horror of « Man », a figure composed by an amphibological blurring of the transcendental and the empirical, as he had described fifteen years earlier in The Order of Things.

29Although Foucault cannot miss the opportunity to recall his earlier « archaeological » work, his focus in 1978 is rather on developing an innovative series of methodological moves, moves that lead we might say definitively away from the « Western democratic ontology » and its fictions that so many intellectuals, such as Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe, began to identify, at the end of the 1970s, with the horrors of Nazism. The foundation of the specifically modern story, writes Foucault in a gesture to the Frankfurt School, is that « our [premodern] social and economic organization lacked rationality » (Foucault 1996, 390). Ironically, this story about the intentional insertion of rationality into social organization through a critique of irrational forms, such as absolute kingship, dialectically produced a situation in which power, which had been one of its principal targets, essentially mutates and multiplies, invading the social field. This results in the proliferation of identities against which Foucault has a long and storied history of critique. Foucault is very careful to distinguish a mechanistic model of power, in which subjects operate upon objects, thus mimicking creation, from one that is concerned with what Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) would have called « subjectity » – the comprehensive relation between subject and object that forms each of the two poles (Heidegger 1970, 110). This distinction becomes essential to Foucault’s argument as he prepares to define power in a non-objective way. Critique in the sense that Foucault wants us to understand it is a « different procedure » that begins not with the Kantian epistemological problem of critically delimiting the possibility of positive knowledge, but rather with what he calls, somewhat enigmatically, « power » and « eventialization » (Foucault 1996, 393). What is really at stake in the Foucaultian concept is the singularity of relations, which is always a relation of relations in a metastable environment that is mobile and, those with a Buddhist sensitivity will not fail to remark, « impermanent » (Foucault 1996, 398). While we might today wonder whether power is a term adequate to the task assigned to it by Foucault, the salient point to retain is that in the Foucaultian vocabulary, the term « power » really means the singularity of relations. Along with this redefinition of power according to the notion of « subjectity », Foucault adds another curious term, « eventialization », which is also very much informed by the Heideggerian air of his day. Yet unlike Heidegger, Foucault strictly refuses the search for origins of any kind. In the context of this address, « eventialization » refers neither to the historical point of departure and progressive accumulation of positive knowledge acquired by a subject of reason, nor to the historico-philosophical « forgetting of being » aimed at by Heidegger, but rather to the constant reticulative feedback among cause and effect such that effects are also causes and causes also effects. This displacement of causality is akin to the Madhyamaka displacement of causality by conditions, or relations and processes. Foucault reminds his audience that the deployment « of another type » of theory of causality, one that is in « opposition to a genesis » or theory of origins, « has to do with pure singularities related not to a species or an essence » (Foucault 1996, 396). This is in fact the second time in this short address that Foucault highlights the notion that « pure singularities » are « not the individualization of a species » (Foucault 1996, 395). It is, in other words, a displacement of taxonomy based on causal relations. I think that it would not be much of a risk to suggest that the alternative form of critique proposed by Foucault is covering some of the same ground that was charted by Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989) in the latter’s critique of hylomorphism begun nearly twenty years earlier (but not widely circulated until Deleuze’s interest brought greater attention to Simondon’s work).

30Informed by this perspective, we can begin to connect the dots in Foucault’s address leading from ontology and fictioning back to the problem of the state, which is where the problem of critique as a historico-philosophical gesture is really localized. While postmodernism acquired notoriety for revealing the problems of modern historico-philosophical narratives, biological evolution remains curiously absent from the postmodern acidic reduction of metanarrative. It was really only in Foucault’s work, especially that part conducted between 1976 and 1978, that the connection between biology and politics becomes prominent. In the 1978 address at the Sorbonne, the state is the nexus, or the apex, of the modern historico-philosophical fiction. It encapsulates the demand for rational organization, and in the process of doing so, becomes a form that is representative, in a dual sense, of speciation as individualization. The state not only represents that quality (knowledge of and as individualization) that supposedly distinguishes homo sapiens from other species, it also represents a site at which “decisions” relative to human evolutionary progress – decisive moments of individualization that create and maintain homo sapiens as an exceptional species – are made as the exercise of a self-aware subject, the subject of freedom. In that sense, the state is precisely the place where « our story » is told. What is at stake, however, is not simply national history or civilizational history, but rather the history of (Aristotelian) specific difference, or again, specific difference as history.

The Law of Evolutionary Enlightenment and the Heart of Shame

31Rejection of the neo-Kantian “becoming-majority” of modernity, i.e. rejecting Evolutionary Enlightenment, is one of the main concerns behind Richard Cohen’s riveting study of power relations involved in the constitution of Enlightenment as a transcultural object of discourse in Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, Religion, Modernity (Cohen 2006). Although Foucault is not a major methodological interlocutor in this work, he would nevertheless be completely at home with Cohen’s reading of Enlightenment as the unreserved embrace of the field of relations of relations that, in Cohen’s work, is named « politics » rather than « power ». The essential argument advanced by Cohen is that Enlightenment consists in being indifferent to Enlightenment, yet to « not seek solutions outside the sphere of politics » (Cohen 2006, 189). Anything less would be to engage in an anthropological project, which Cohen facetiously dubs « the scriptural human » (Cohen 2006, 113). This project presumes that « humanity, as a biological species, has always been religious » (Cohen 2006, 137). Hence, Cohen’s « aim in redescribing Buddhism as a discursive formation is to undermine the construction of humanity as a natural class » (Cohen 2006, 148). Cohen’s turn towards « politics » takes aim at the conception of Man through the sciences of biology, philology and economy that Foucault identified in his early work, The Order of Things.

32An important part of this anthropological apparatus can be apprehended in Kant’s response to Frederick the Great’s famous maxim, cited by Kant in his 1784 essay, « An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? »: « Argue », says the sovereign, « as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey! » What interests me here more than the trivialization of debate before the tribunals of power (which the Humanities as a whole endure today more than ever) is the affective element. While erroneous learning and expertise is associated, in Madhyamaka scriptures, with pride, in the Kantian vision of modernity, it is associated with shame. To leave the state of minority is to abandon the shame that comes from reliance upon the guidance of another, as well as the shame that would come from preventing others from realizing this form of mature autonomy. In his brief article, the affective qualities to which Kant refers directly include laziness, cowardice, timidity and fear. Of course Kant does not mention shame directly, precisely because one of the hidden motives behind the text is an attempt to influence power not through a counter-power, but rather through shame4. Shame, which is not explicitly mentioned by Kant, nevertheless figures in the violation of a species-specific nature. Man has a nature, construed in terms of laws. « In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant gave a rigorous formulation of a radically new conception, in which the law is no longer regarded as dependent on the Good, but on the contrary, the Good itself is made to depend on the law […] For the first time we can now speak of THE LAW, regarded as an absolute » (Deleuze 2006, 82). The understated, acidic humor behind Deleuze’s use of capital letters emphasizes the way in which THE LAW naturally takes precedence over mundane sovereignty. And for humans situated within nature, the primary law is that of realizing the proper employment of reason. It is well known that Kant’s views of evolution were somewhat contradictory, providing both a theoretical affirmation of the mutability of species as well as a resounding rejection of mutability on the basis of extant knowledge. By the time Kant is writing, temporal change within and among the species identified in the early part of the 18th century by Linneaus’ taxonomy is part of a burgeoning, pre-Darwinian interest in evolution. It is no surprise that this intellectual ferment percolates into Kant’s writing under the guise of juridical conceptualization. Let us call this the Law of Evolutionary Enlightenment.

33While the measure of progress is not directly mentioned in Kant’s brief essay on Enlightenment, it can be inferred from the passing references to two other main categories in relation to which the human is identified through the logic of specific difference: animals and machines, each of which is seen as being an exemplary instance of immaturity (the animal because it is servile, the machine because it is not autonomous). Domestication and mastery, in other words, is the measure of evolutionary progress. To violate the law of phylogenetic progress towards the accession to majority/maturity is a cause for virtually unforgivable shame. To put it another way, the greatest shame of existence from a Kantian perspective would be extinction. Today, in a moment that some scientists are describing as the sixth great mass extinction (and the first due to human causes), we can observe with no small irony – and grief – that the shame of extinction unfortunately concerns only one’s own species, rather than species in general5.

34Addressed to sovereign power before the public of a nation, Kant’s text aims to present power – the sovereignty of kings – with its potentially greatest shame: to act in way that is contrary to, or suppresses, the natural law of species progress (accession to a state of majority). Sovereign power presents an impediment to the exit from the species of immaturity/minority for Kant to the extent that it interdicts debate, or contains debate within a sphere cordoned off from political decisions that affect the conditions of the social bond(age). Hence, Kant places inestimable value on the public use of reason as the means by which species progress is realized. The support for this public use of reason is found in the figure of the scholar, who speaks through the written word to a national public, against which there is the figure of the civil servant, whose enunciative position is considered by Kant to be essentially private. The public/private distinction advanced by Kant concerns not the distinction between subjective interiority and intersubjectivity, but rather the mediation of the state as a bearer of specific difference. In the language of the state, this is the perspective of progress that benefits all. Although the species concerns humanity as a whole, because humanity-as-a-whole does not account for the inscription of specific difference within humanity, the state becomes the sole effective bearer of humanity’s engagement with specific difference. It is within this context that Kant’s presentation of the role of the national scholar makes it the figure of humanity par excellence. The national philosopher is the one member of the species that is most representative, and bears the greatest burden of exposure to shame.

35To my mind, this notion of a heart-freed-from-shame – which is quite different from a heart- freed-from-pride – speaks to the central, if unacknowledged, role of shame in Enlightenment modernity. It is no coincidence that the most vivid image of shame in political modernity is associated with the status of being in/a minority. The minority is inevitably associated with an obstacle to the realization of ascendant species perfection. To exit from the state of minority/immaturity might thus be seen as one of the gestures of the « immunitarian » side of modernity, a prophylactic against shame.

36It seems to me that what we have here while composing a Buddhist-inspired gloss on Enlightenment modernity is the kernel of the kind of politics of reconciliation in the face of colonial legacy advanced by Naoki Sakai. Calling it a colonial legacy is simply not comprehensive enough to take into account all of the suffering associated with Enlightenment visited upon all kinds of terrestrial beings (not to mention other beings beyond the wafer-thin realm of causality known to us) in the course of global modernity. I have employed the term colonial because it is not only the first in a sequence of terms that appear in the consideration of a transcultural meaning of Enlightenment, but also because it tends to reappear, even after the end of political colonialism, not only in the economic relations among states, but also in the relation between humans and the biosphere. Whereas the first phase of colonialism was territorial, the second phase is decidedly biospheric. A politics of reconciliation, thus, begins with the recognition that an attempt to resolve shame, to free oneself from it, is as equally destructive as the outright denial of shame. The point is not to ascribe guilt and reckon debts. Rather, it is to cherish the common. If there is one good thing about shame, it is that it may serve as a positive motivation to definitively abandon colonial modes of relationship, domestication and mastery, to other beings. By contrast, to free oneself from shame would be tantamount to rejecting the notion of commonality with those other beings essential to any true and lasting reconciliation. Instead, Sakai suggests that shame associated with past injustice be cherished as the basis of a common, shared relation.

37But what kind of commonality is this? In the present we might feel, in fact, an overwhelming sense of insurmountable myriad differences, many of which find strong resonance – we might lazily call it cause – in the past. Yet this kind of reconciliation does not need to wait for the wounds of the past to heal. It does not, in fact, need to wait at all, but, unlike denial or resolution, is rather immediately part of the present. But what kind of present is this? While the wound is not present, the commonality is, but it is not a present that could be accounted for through cumulative addition. This is where the path of the Bodhisattva, who defers Enlightenment for the sake of infinite other beings, is instructive. Here, waiting is displaced from the impossible healing of past wounds that occurred to bodies that no longer exist in that form to the advent of a common body that has no substantial existence yet constitutes a community based on deferral: deference to others in a time deferred not to the future, but to the end of historico-philosophical time – the temporality of specific difference. To rejoin the theme of political Enlightenment, we could do far worse than consult with Etienne Balibar, who writes: « “men” or “subjects” in this sense are never their own contemporaries, are never building a totality or a whole in the present, least of all in an eschatological future present, but must indefinitely wait for one another, wait for the unpredictable event of “their” community, which in turn will acknowledge their non-identical singularity. » (Balibar 2002, 312) This indefinite waiting-for is not waiting for the passage of time, but rather waiting only for each other, thus instantly forming a community whose principle is not identity, but singularity and supplementarity. Needless to say, it is my express intention here to conceive of this community beyond the categories of men and subjects explicitly referenced by Balibar, extending it to the entirety of the Affective Multitude.

Translating Enlightenment

38Let us use this insight to turn our attention to the translation of Enlightenment.

39There are several ways to imagine the multiple directionality of translation in the context of « Enlightenment ». Beginning with the initial connection between bodhi and Enlightenment, we might then look at the various ways in which each of the terms has separately been the object of other translational series. For instance, while keeping in mind, on the one hand, the translation of Sanskrit bodhi into sinic characters a millenia ago by terms such as jue2 (), which might be glossed in English as « awareness », and pu2ti2 (菩提), which is a transliteration, we could also turn our attention to the way in which terms such as Enlightenment and Aufklärung, the German term that corresponds to the English word Enlightenment, were translated into sinic characters a millenia later in Meiji Japan, first as bunmei kaika (文明開化), or civilization, and then finally as keimou (啟蒙), or the removal of youthful folly, leading to their widespread circulation in the modernization projects of East Asian populations and states with a linguistic investment in the imperial sinic heritage. The early Meiji translational context (as well as that of the late Qing, grafted onto that of the Meiji), clearly highlights the connection between Enlightenment and evolution as a matricial concept articulating various domains of cultural, biological and technical individuation through the category of species difference.

40Undoubtedly, this connection was not simply a Meiji invention elaborated independently by seminal figures such as Onishi Hajime (1864-1900) and Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), and subsequently taken up in similar fashion by late Qing translator-intellectuals such as Yan Fu (1854-1921), but rather a profound gloss on the nature of modernity. Arguably forming the archaeological principle of modernity’s dichotomous imperial/colonial organization, the juxtaposition of evolution and Enlightenment establishes an equivalence between temporality and subjectivity, placing human history under the sign of infinite evolutionary progress. The temporal scale of « evolutionary species development » is collated with the subjective scale of « (rational) Enlightenment ». Things get tricky, however, when the amalgamation of the two has to be assigned a precise location in an era obsessed with technologies of mapping. For philosophy, this entails the project of trying to locate and identify the seat or ground of Reason. For political economy, this entails the project of designing social institutions that will favor rationalized forms of exchange.

41This is where the role of the modern state, as the representative of a nation, becomes crucial. On the one hand, the state is the site of rational mediation among the members of a polity. As such, the state is the organizational form that distinguishes the society of homo sapiens, the uniquely rational animal, from other species. At the same time, within the species, the ethnic particularity associated especially with the modern state is taken to be analogous to evolutionary specific difference. Ethnicity or culture is to humans what species are to organic life. It is this dual role of the state as the instance of an analogical mediation between evolutionary progress and rationalized relations that confers legitimacy upon the modern nation-state as it goes about enabling capitalist accumulation. Evolution and Enlightenment thus tell the same story, the story of the accumulation of, and by, species difference. The successful species is the one that most efficiently, or rationally, organizes accumulation. Early modern East Asian intellectuals understood this connection – which was hardly « East Asian » but rather global – as they developed a series of strategies, burdened by the premise of the nation-state, to manage the challenge of Evolutionary Enlightenment through the model or schema of cultural translation and exchange.

42There would be much to say about the itinerary of accumulation through specific difference and the articulation of evolution and Enlightenment in the East Asian context, but within the context of this essay, I would like to focus on the implications of the idea of the mediating role of the nation-state. If the modern state is associated with the figure of rationality and progress for the benefit of everyone, that is because it supposedly defines the location at which evolutionary temporality and Enlightenment subjectivity are bound together. It is precisely in that sense that the modern nation-state becomes an anthropological figure of species difference that legimitizes and even glorifies accumulation for its own sake.

43What I find truly fascinating about the mediating role of the nation-state is that its aura of rationality is actually constructed in this way on the basis of a series of analogies.


44Analogy has been proliferating throughout this discussion. In the first place, Enlightenment appears to us as nothing but an analogy. The Madhyamaka project described by Nagarjuna is designed to show that none of the terms of dependent origination, taught by the Buddha himself, have anything other than analogical significance. Madhyamaka distinguishes between two types of truth, so-called conventional truth and ultimate truth. Dependent origination describes a chain of causality that is ascribed to the conventional level. With regard to what Madhyamaka calls « ultimate truth », all descriptions and arguments are themselves finally deceptive, marked by emptiness. Yet the phrase, « everything is emptiness » is impossible to verify, since it will ultimately run onto its own defeasibility. Morton cites Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in support of the notion that emptiness (or causality) is thus metaphorical (Morton 2013, 27). We are left with analogies: emptiness, enlightenment. Yet the level of conventional truth persists. Flowers do not grow in the sky; seeds lead to sprouts. Analogy thus appears both as an essential tool of categorization for a brain ill-equipped to deal with too much information, and as an operation that describes the emptiness of both that brain and all of the objects, each in its own infinitesimally-small, yet-infinitely-large vacuum, to be found within and outside the mind. Analogy thus marks a limit that is both ontological and epistemological. And yet, since analogy is always the expression of a relation whose distance cannot be measured but is withdrawn, it inevitably has a primarily aesthetic, rather than rational, quality.

45It seems to me that what Madhyamaka is really arguing for is an idea that analogy is not just one of the a priori properties of mind, an invaluable and fundamental tool for categorization, but is also an operation that characterizes the relation between epistemology and ontology. The difference between being and thought is not one of kind, but rather one of analogy. But this difference itself cannot be grasped or reflected, it is rather an aesthetic experience of the real.

46Analogy has played a central role in cybernetics and artificial intelligence ever since Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) and then Warren McCulloch (1898-1969) introduced the idea of an analogous relation between the human brain and computing. Yet the analogous relation posited by cybernetics, and taken up by both AI and cognitive science, is based on the premise of identity. According to Sowa and Majumdar, (2003) a series of three propositions have been debated by cognitive scientists concerning the status of analogical reasoning. Although they adopt a conventional dialectic format (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) to describe – and legitimize before their peers – their ideas, the dialectic in question here is merely formal.

47The first stage, which is qualified as a thesis, considers analogy to be a form of mapping between different structures. Both a cat and a car have a structure, and analogy can map from the cat’s eyes to the car’s headlights. The « antithesis » that follows comes from negating the possibility that structure can be separated from mapping (and, one might have added, perception from analogy, as I shall explain in a moment). Among cognitive scientists, this point of view has acquired certain acceptance as part of "high-level perception (HLP)" theories that reject earlier AI notions of cognitive representation. The production of analogical associations is not just a module tacked on to perception, but an integral part of perception’s order at a higher level. Curiously, Sowa and Majumdar do not consider the discontinuity between mapping and structure, but seem content to stick with the conventional idea of analogy as an identification of similarities between structures. (Sowa & Majumdar 2003)).

48From the perspective of Speculative Realism, the first and second stages, thesis and anti-thesis, are still bound to correlationist epistemology and rationally-consistent causality. Yet the epistemological understanding of analogy remains persuasive for many, as a recent work by two psychologists, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (Hofstadter & Sander, 2013), might suggest. While the reference to fire and fuel inevitably raises associations with the kind of ontological concerns that were at the heart of Speculative Realism and the aesthetic liberation of Madhyamaka, the authors essentially remain within the Kantian privileging of epistemology. Analogy is a response to the epistemological limits of human animal perception, one of the principle ways in which our limited brains create categories that permit action in the face of unforeseen circumstance and change. It is only on the basis of this limitation that we can grasp the ontology of appearance and essence. This notion of analogical thought basically amounts to a theory of associationism, which attempts to explain perception of individual entities rather than undifferentiated continual flux on the basis of experiential analogies that develop through the growth of an individual organism. In the final analysis, associationism is also an implicit, causal theory of cognition.

49Perhaps aware that this view of analogical reasoning merely passes the buck down the line, like the « hot potato » of mechanistic causality (Morton 2013, 46), Sowa and Majumdar discern a third view in cognitive science, which they qualify as a « synthesis ». This new step is realized by, « integrat[ing] the structure-building processes of perception with the structure-mapping processes of analogy » (Sowa & Majumdar 2003). Sowa and Majumdar’s « synthesis » relies on the classical assumption that analogy occurs between different structures. But what happens when we look at analogy, as Gilbert Simondon does, as a relation between operations rather than structures? Analogy, in that case, would no longer be limited to « structure-mapping processes », but would also occur within « structure-building processes ». From this perspective, the integration, or « synthesis », of which Sowa and Majumdar speak, would be transductive, not dialectical.

50Simondon understands analogy as an act that puts into relation two operations, while an operation is the conversion of one structure into another structure. It is this latter conversion that is generally taken to constitute the classic, four-term (A:B is similar to C:D) definition of analogy. This is what Sowa and Majumdar call « the structure-mapping process of analogy ». Yet for Simondon, this type of conversion, which occurs between structures, is only a « resemblance », rather than an « analogy ». A full-fledged concept of analogy, for Simondon, does not focus on the identity of elements within a structure, but rather focuses on the function that relates them. « [S]tructures must be known by the operations that energize them and not the inverse » (Combes 2013, 10). A structure itself is always part of a processual mutation that he calls, after physics and chemistry, « phasing ». Phase shift doesn’t just happen according to properties or characteristics internal to an entity, but rather is the result of a relation between the potentiality of an individual entity to individuate and the metastability of the milieu in which individuation occurs (and « the milieu is not only external to form or structure but also internal to it », Combes 2015, 87). Hence, analogy signals not just a relation between structures but also a relation between operations. The reason why Simondon looks at operations in addition to structures is because of a critical understanding of the limits of the structural model for science. The challenge is that while structure easily lends itself to being an object of positive knowledge, operation can only be known by the discontinuities it negotiates.

51Simondon thus develops an explanation of analogical acts that are based on the « themes of non-deterministic causality and of non-substantial identity » (Bardin 2015, 8). What this allows Simondon to do is to establish a parallel relation between thought and being such that each operates according to the same paradigm of individuation through transductive relation. « Analogical knowledge thus establishes a relation between the operations of individuals existing outside thought and the operations of thought itself. » (Combes 2013, 10). This kind of knowledge enables a means to conceptualize the passage from one domain of being to another « by the transfer of operations from one structure to another » (Combes 2013, 14). The strict parallelism established here also means that no entity is privileged over any other as a vantage point from which to understand existence. LaMarre explains: « And so, in styling both organisms and mechanisms as “objects”, [Simondon] reminds us that these beings or modes of existence are ontologically different in degree (analogous), not ontologically different in kind or nature (substantially) » (LaMarre 2013, 90). On the basis of these two parallel aspects – between epistemological individuation and ontological individuation on the one hand and between organisms and mechanisms on the the other – we can say that the analogical act enjoys a status that is not just epistemological but also ontological. Yet it is not an act that could be attributed to anything other than the entities themselves, each and every instance in their singularity.

52I am not going to be able to do justice to the highly dense and complex nature of Simondon’s attempt to « definit[iv]ely depose “hylomorphic” substantialism from the throne of the whole of occidental metaphysics » (Bardin 2015, 16), but rather hope to call upon it in a minimal way both as a “witness” (to another possibility) and as a guide for the creative resistance to the historico-philosophical theme of specific difference incarnated by, or rationalized by, the state. In that sense, Simondon’s thought appears here in this essay in the form of what Pignarre & Stengers name « yearning » (Pignarre & Stengers 2011, 48). Yearning seeks for transformation beyond specific difference at the same time that it offers protection against the ways in which knowledge is « mobilized » and organized for the sake of accumulation. Yearning seeks, in other words, potentialities that are not mediated by the history of Evolutionary Enlightenment. The way in which I would like to concretize “yearning” in this context concerns the translational encounter. Inspired by Simondon, let us see if the analogical process that is translation can be understood as more than a conversion from one structure to another.


53In order to construct a story about the accumulation of tradition that effaces the repeated indeterminacy of translational practice, it is necessary to pretend that translation is an operation external to quotidian linguistic practice, thus classifying it as “exceptional” and not normal. Naoki Sakai’s theory of translation, about which I have previously written many articles, begins with the assumption that translation names something essential about the indeterminacy inherent in all forms of linguistic practice, no matter what language (as long as it is a language) they occur in. What I would like to do here is to transpose Sakai’s theory of translation into Simondonian terms, to effect as it were an analogical translation, and then suggest that all of this accords perfectly well with elements of Buddhism.

54The connections that I am drawing here require us to distinguish between a metaphorical understanding of translation and an analogical one. Timothy Morton writes, « metaphor is just Greek for translation, since meta means across and –phor means carrying. » (Morton 2013, 70). In Sakai’s theory of translation, this is the epistemological-representationalist view of translation, against which he advances a temporal-practical view. By contrast, an analogical understanding of translation à la Simondon would look at it not as a transferential correspondence between two structures, but as a relation between two operations, each of which is related to the transformation of structure. The distinction between the two enables Sakai to show how translation, or really, the representation rather than the actual practice of translation, is mobilized by the accumulational modern nation-state defined by specific difference.

55Morton asserts that translation is an implicit theory of causality: « Causality is much better thought as translation. » (Morton 2013, 83) This is not a linear process, but reticulative and transductive. « When an iron bar clangs to the floor of a warehouse, it retroactively posits the warehouse flow in a certain way. That’s what translation is. » (Morton 2013, 145). The notion of retroactivity is essential to Sakai’s critique of the epistemological representation of translation:

Only retrospectively and after translation, therefore, can we recognize the initial incommensurability as a gap, crevice, or border between fully constituted entities, spheres, or domains. But when represented as a gap, crevice or border, it is no longer incommensurate… incommensurability is more like feeling that is prior to the explanation of how incommensurability is given rise to and cannot be determined as a represented difference (or species difference in the aborescent schemata of the species and the genus between two subjects or entities). (Sakai 1997, 14).

56The epistemological representation of translation as an encounter between two systematically-defined entities that pre-exist the translational situation transforms incommensurability and discontinuity into a representational form of the commensurable and the continuous. In this sense, the epistemological representation of translation posits an implicit theory of causality that is basically mechanistic. It is not the incommensurability between/within languages that calls forth the need for translation, but rather the structural equivalence between two discrete unities. Against this form of causality, Sakai’s use of the term “feeling” (derived from his earlier study of Ito Jinsai (1627-1705), Norinaga Motoori (1730-1801) and the « stillbirth » of Japanese national language) easily suggests the form of aesthetic causality that we discussed above.

57It will be noticed, of course, that what we have been calling the epistemological representation of translation essentially adopts the analogical form that Simondon calls « resemblance » as opposed to « analogy ». Resemblance, you will remember, exclusively concerns the relation between structures. In the case of translation, this would be the structuralist view of language as a system constituted prior to its deployment. Against this truncated understanding of resemblance (which Simondon associates with early cybernetic theories of information exchange), the analogical perspective promoted by Simondon takes into account not just structures, but also operations (the latter meaning “relational process”). The importance of the attention that Simondon devotes to operation, or relational process, in conjunction with structure is reflected in the way in which Muriel Combes’ begins her seminal work on Simondon. The first chapter, which aims at what is termed « the reality of relation », opens with a section titled, « the operation ». In this section she explains how atomism and hylopmorphism constitute, for Simondon, the primary ontological errors of previous philosophy, which equates being with the givenness of an individual. « [I]n privileging the constituted term, [traditional ontology] has ignored the operation constituting the individual, that is, individuation as process. » (Combes 2013, 2) I do not have time here to explore fully Simondon’s solution to the ontological and epistemological problems called forth by the introduction of operation into structure, but clearly the aim is to develop a science of discontinuous processes that preserves discontinuity without turning it into the commensurable. Andrea Bardin summarizes: « [W]hat Simondon calls “operation” is – in evident consonance with a Bergsonian matrix – an actual process, inaccessible as such to objective knowledge » (Bardin 2015, 7).

58Bardin’s observations about the asymmetry of structure and operation, the former serving as the main object of scientific inquiry since the 17th century while the latter only begins to be possible with the transition to quantum physics, are a pertinent reminder (Bardin 2015, 15 passim) of the practical need for “yearning” and “witness” as we described above. The situation in the disciplines of humanistic knowledge inherited from the colonial/imperial modernity is no better. While inroads against an exclusively structuralist view were made at the end of the 20th century, the WTO’s redefinition of higher education as a « service industry » has exercised an overwhelmingly mitigating effect on attempts to reorganize the disciplinary divisions of the Humanities, inherited from the colonial/imperial modernity, in a way that would account for social phenomenon from the point of view of relations rather than structures (Solomon forthcoming). From the perspective of the Humanities, thus, contemporary restructuring has come to mean much more than just a series of adjustments in the institutional interface between capital and labor. In the circular dynamic unleashed between evaluation and valorization, humanistic knowledge production overwhelmingly returns to what Simondon terms structure through disciplinary divisions that favor pre-constituted objects. A re-structuring, indeed.

59With regard to Sakai’s theory of translation, a point of conjuncture with Simondon’s notion of operation can be seen in Sakai’s understanding of the position of the translator. If, as Combes claims, « being can be adequately known only from its middle, by seizing it at its center (by way of the operation of individuation and not on the basis of the term of this operation) » (Combes 2013, 2-3), then it makes perfect sense to examine the role of the translator situated between the two audiences for whom translation is necessary. Yet as Sakai observes at the beginning of his discussion of the position of the translator: « As long as the position of the translator is set aside and viewed to be secondary [with regard to linguistic practice in general] […] two different language communities [will inevitably be] posited as separate from one another in the representation of translation, and […] translation [will be] understood to be a transfer of a message from one clearly circumscribed language community into another distinctively enclosed language community » (Sakai 1997, 5-6). The way in which Sakai overcomes this problem hinges upon distinguishing a moment that is distinct from the structure of communicational transfer. The name for this moment is address (Sakai 1997, 4). As a performative, address names the instantiation of a relation (between addressor and addressee) that occurs prior to, and without any guarantee of, the informational exchange that characterizes communication. To summarize, address thus names an operation in the Simondonian sense, « inaccessible as such to objective knowledge », to be judged rather by its performative, individuating effects.

60From this perspective, while there is strictly speaking no meaning to be transferred, and no communities organized around the taxonomy of individual-species-genus between which to effectuate a transfer, the process of translation itself is precisely a practice of Enlightenment.


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1 Michel Bitbol’s attempt, « to implement », between Kant and Nagarjuna, « the idea of dependent arising of philosophical positions » (Bitbol 2006, 131), by « emphasizing […] the mutual alterations […] two philosophical positions may undergo by the very fact of their being compared » (Bitbol 2006, 137), shares important affinities and differences with my project here. A starting point of affinity lies in the attempt to think relation from the point of view of the relation itself, “before” (or simultaneously with) the establishment of the two terms that ostensibly constitute the relation. In our estimation, however, Bitbol runs into trouble with his Weismannian paradigm of germinal individuation by linear descent with modification, which locates the site of generative potentiality within the structure of species difference: « After all, in order to produce an offspring, one must unite two individuals with compatible genotypes. » (Bitbol 2006, 125). This perspective repeats the assumptions of germinal transmission of genetic material, leaving aside the challenges posed by endosymbiosis (Cf. Parisi 2007). Hence, it is no surprise to find out that the part of the common discovered by this methodology is deterministic: « one feels as if a sort of Indo-European common epistemological framework had been disclosed by a pluralistic comparison » (Bitbol 2006, 138). Pertinent to our discussion below of color perception, Bitbol’s account, while respectful of the mutual constitution of faculties and objects, neglects to mention the indeterminacy of correlation that distinguishes the phenomenal experience of color vision from other human senses. Nevertheless, Bitbol’s conclusion (« the true specificity of Nâgârjuna, with respect to Kant and to any theory of knowledge, […] [can be seen in] […] Nâgârjuna[’s insistence] on “what it is like to be” » Bitbol 2006, 146) completely accords with the notion of aesthetic causality and aesthetic compassion advanced here.

2 Canonical support for this non-mainstream view might be found, as Thomas Doctor indicates to me, in The Noble Sutra on Maitreya’s Setting Out (Maitreyaprastāna-sūtra): « Perceiving sentient beings and phenomena as being distinct is a fault for a bodhisattva ». The statement appears on p. 284b in the Tibetan translation of the Arya-maitreyaprasthāna-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra (Tib. phags pa byams pa jug pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen poi mdo) contained in sDe dge edition of the Tibetan canon. English translation by Thomas Doctor.

3 Nathan Brown has written a scathing critique of Morton and Harman (Brown 2013). Browns valuable comments about paying attention to controversies in other disciplines (such as quantum physics) have to be measured against a lack of attention to Mortons use of OOO as a cross-disciplinary experiment. Intellectual work in the humanities is never simply about the rectification of error, but is always about social relations. And thats precisely where the disciplinary divisions become meaningful in a different way, because they are thought to correspond, in some general way, to divisions among global populations. This correspondence is what might be called the apparatus of area. Brown teaches (like Morton), after all, in a department whose name, « English », isnt simply a self-evident, self-contained notion. What a pity that Browns apparent interest in Marx didnt lead him to reflect, as it once did for Gayatri Spivak, on the disciplinary – hence, social – conditions of knowledge production. It might have helped him avoid the implicit identification with neoliberal marketization of academic research and personal branding that runs throughout the article. What really irks Brown, in the end, is that a competitors products are gaining market share and consumers – potentially his consumers – are getting duped. In full consumer-resentment mode, Brown not only has to remind his readers that the « snake oil salesman » (Morton) occupies a highly coveted chair, he also takes a swipe at undiscerning academic consumers chasing the latest « flavor of the month ». And its no surprise that its all in the name of protecting the youth: those « trying to find an initial foothold in philosophy and theory ». After all, youth are one of the backbones of the consumer economy. As for Browns critique of Harman, I think its probably pretty unfair to base it on just one passage, but since I’m not a philosopher, Ill leave it to those guys in the snake pit to fight it out.

4 This is the same strategy that will be employed in the anti-colonial struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, but without the Kantian valorization of domestication.

5 The intrinsic relation between Enlightenment and extinction is at the center of Ray Brassier’s recent Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Hampshire & New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2007). The main target of Brassier’s dogged pursuit of the implications of extinction is the entirety of « post-Kantian philosophy », for which it is always impossible to think a world, or a universe, devoid of meaningful relation to human consciousness. Yet Brassier’s work is ultimately disappointing for the same reason that it commands interest. While devoted adherence to the eradication of meaning and being effectively « indexes the autonomy of the object in its capacity to transform thought itself into a thing » (Brassier 2007, 229), i.e., to operate analogically, it remains for that very reason incapable of taking up the possibility of liberation without conceptual thought. Brassier makes an Heraculean effort to arrive at the consequences of extinction, only to be held in check by conceptual thought: while Brassier does not buy immediately into the « horror » (Brassier 2007, 238) evinced by philosophy at the extinction of conceptual thought, his final injunction to « recognize […] that philosophy is […] the organon of extinction » (Brassier 2007, 239) leaves philosophy, now fossilized, intact. If the « subject of philosophy must also recognize that he or she is already dead » (Brassier 2007, 239), philosophy is nothing but a death grip, in which the philosopher and the philosophized exercise equal hold on the other.
Buddhist metaphysics has always taken its point of departure from cosmic disintegration, but steadfastly refuses to turn that into a resource for the will to know. Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798) vividly describes what happens when emptiness is pursued without compassion: « There are many people who have an intellectual understanding of emptiness […] yet who can still be seen to end up reborn as demons […] reborn in the realm of the Lord of Death » (Jigme Lingpa
et al. 2006, 36).

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Jon Solomon, « The Affective Multitude: Towards a Transcultural Meaning of Enlightenment » dans « Indian Birth and Western Rebirths of the Jātaka Tales », « Lectures du monde anglophone », n° 3, 2017 Licence Creative Commons
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Quelques mots à propos de :  Jon Solomon

Lyon 3 Jean Moulin University
Born in the United States and trained at Cornell University, Jon Solomon has lived in East Asia for twenty-five years, North America for twenty-three, and Western Europe for five years. He is competent in Chinese, French, English and Japanese, and holds a permanent position as Professeur des universités at Université Jean Moulin, Lyon, France. He is a practitioner in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, enjoys the hobbies of backpacking, rangefinder photography, and the community of indie music in Taiwan.
His on-going intellectual project brings the theme of translation into the discussion about biopolitics as a privileged place for understanding and transforming the relations between anthropological difference and capitalist accumulation.