Nondualism and Semiotics: Philosophy of Language Between East and West

Even a casual reading of secondary sources on non-Western philosophy is likely to quickly turn up the term “non-dualism” with great rapidity, and in fact, it is hardly a controversial assertion to say that non-duality is perhaps the single most common notion used to distinguish between so-called ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ modes of thinking. While not all ‘Eastern’ schools make use of this term, some do, for example, the term advaita in Sanskrit, and used extensively in Vedantic Hinduism and various schools of Buddhism. Many aspects of non-Western though have been understood by means of this term since, particularly by Western scholars. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the term, developed in the Indian tradition, nevertheless does a good job of describing crucial structural aspects of Taoist and Confucian philosophy (particularly in regard to the use of the term Dao, or ‘the Way’ within these traditions), as well as central aspects of Sufism.

That said, there is also a non-dual tradition in the West, with Plotinus as the clearest example as a thinker who could, and unproblematically be described as non-dual. It is also worth noting that, since the reemergence of the “modern” reading of Plato around 1600’s, Plotinus has been seen as the poor stepchild of philosophy, a mystic in philosopher’s clothing. This is hardly incidental, and there is in fact a possibility that Plotinus and other Westerns, such as the Stoics, were influenced by Indic forms of thinking, including possibly Buddhism, by means of the Greco-Indian states which Alexander the Great left in his wake. That said, the term could also be applied to many other contemporary Western philosophers, such as, to varying degrees, the German Idealists such as Hegel and Schelling, or other thinkers with supposedly mystical leanings, such as Spinoza, or Deleuze.

Before going on, however, it is worth saying more precisely about what this term “non-duality” is generally understood to mean. Most commonly, what is meant is the manner in which the duality between subject and object is somehow undercut or supplanted, but in all rigor, the term is and has been applied to any attempt to get around or undercut binary forms of thinking. The Western parody of Eastern thought as saying a lot of vauge and contradictory words which ultimately come to mean nothing in particular is perhaps useful here, if to deconstruct. For in fact, reading non-Western texts, one often encounters statements that one should, for example, endeavor towards a state that is “neither this nor that,” “both this and that,” and sometimes even “neither this nor that yet also both this and that.” And so, while perhaps the most important binary which non-dual non-Western forms of thinking aim to displace is generally that between subject and object, depending on the text, this could also be extended to binaries such as good and evil, true and false, real and apparent, etc.

One excellent place to start in an invetigation of what is at stake in this process in

David O. Loy’s excellent text Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. Drawing from a wide variety of philosophical sources and traditions, Loy teases the structure of non-dual thinking from these traditions, and works to systematize and classify the ways in which non-duality is used. While Loy does integrate some discussion of post-structuralist theory, particularly that of Derrida, towards the end of his text, I’d like to build upon this, both by recourse to some of the semiotic substratum of post-structuralist analyses, as well as by going outside of philosophy and linguistics in regard to systems theory.

Non-dual modes of argumentation work to undercut a given binary. For example, if I were to say that all objects are “neither true nor false, but both true and false,” one could simply dismiss this as contradictory, as many Westerners in the past have done, or deal with it as a complex semiotic utterance, following in the footsteps of twentieth-century structuralists. In fact, it seems to me that A.J. Greimas, with his semiotic square, nicely describes the manner in which binaries can be seen as composed as a series of options between “A,” “not-A,” “B,” and 

“not-B,” as four primary options in a binary system, with those of “neither-nor and “both-and” as secondary options which occur between any two of the terms described above. The result is his famous semiotic square, which links the Aristotelian logical modalities of contradiction and contrary within binary form, thereby building upon the semiotics of Jakobsen and Saussure, and providing a nice diagram to describe dual or binary linguistic structures, influencing a wide variety of theorists, such as Jacques Lacan and Fredric Jameson.

When non-Western philosophers, or any philosophers at that, indicate that something is “neither this nor that,” they indicate that they are attempting to shift emphasis within the discourse within which they are working to another part of the square, and when they say “both this and that,” likewise. However, when a thinker says that they are attempting to describe something which is “neither this and that as well as both this and that,” they seem to block out the entire square. What then is the effect of this sort of operation?

 Self-Deconstructing Paradoxes: Wilde and Lacan

Take for example, the notion of truth and falsity. To say that something is neither true nor false, but both true and false, is to question the relevancy of the very binary to the case under consideration, and in a sense, reduce the applicability of the binary in question to the realm of poetic usage rather than denotative or logical argumentation. Such a gesture is not all that unsimilar to that of Oscar Wilde, when he famously argued that “All those who tell the truth will ultimately be found out,” or tricky arch-post-structuralist Jaques Lacan when he argued that “truth has the structure of a fiction.” These ingenious linguistic acrobatics are in fact non-dual utterances in disguise as more straightforward types of utterances, because ultimately, these are self-deconstructing statements.

For those with a taste for the vertiginous, it’s worth pursuing these paradoxical statements and how they operate to effectively deconstruct the binaries they utilize. To start with Wilde, if those who tell the truth will ultimately be found out, then those who tell the truth are really liars, which then raises the question of whether or not they are liars in the same way, or differently, than those who lie. The difference, of course, seems to be that those who tell the truth are somehow lying about lying, to themselves or others, while liars are those who at least are telling the truth about their lies to themselves. And so, liars are more truthful, at least to themselves. If they are truly liars, however, they would hardly be truthful about lying, and hence, would likely lie about this, and claim to be telling the truth, at least to others. But a truth teller, then, would be one who, at least to themselves, believes they are telling the truth, at least on the surface. The result is that the split between lying and truth-telling is moved inside the person, for the liar would then be someone who is open, at least to themselves, about the fact that nothing that they say, including statements they make about whether they lie or not, can be trusted, while a truth-teller would be a person who at least believes that what they say is true, as far as they are willing to admit, and hence tell the truth to themselves. The liar, then, is a person who is honest with themselves, and a truth-teller the person who is a liar to themselves, hence, why they will ultimately be found out, not for lying to others, but to themselves.

The result of this is phraseological game is to move the determination of what constitutes a liar and truth teller from the ground of self and other to that within the self, essentially, splitting the self into self and other in relation to others who are also split. The real distinction, then, is between those who try to imagine that they are non-split subjects, and those who admit that they are split. And so, Wilde’s argument is about the structure of subjectivity, even though, on the surface, it seems to be about truth and falsity. What Wilde is doing is shifting one discourse to the other. But by phrasing this in a non-dual fashion, he forces the reader to do the work of the stages, because, at least on the surface, the statement makes no sense. The only way to make sense of the statement is to follow-through with the way it redefines terms performatively, in how they are used. That said, Wilde’s quote is hardly non-sensical, but rather, is completely sensical, but on a terrain which is shifted from the one in which such a statement would be traditionally understood. That is, notions like “truth-telling” and “lying” imply a particular context, namely, that of subjects in relation to others, and the ability to lie, and what that means, namely, a subject who says one thing yet means another. Wilde shifts the context within which the distinction between truth and falsity are understood, which is to say, the form of subjectivity they imply.

And so, the question isn’t really whether or not Wilde’s tactic is sensible, because clearly it is. And in fact, the position articulated in highly compressed and indirect form in this quip is presented in a much more direct and explicated manner in some of his essays, such as “The Truth in Masks” and “The Decay of Lying.” In these articles, Wilde argues that it is only when we realize that openly lying and wearing masks is the only precondition for telling the truth, that we come to understand that there is simply something more honest about admitting our dissimulation. And so, pretending that one can be completely truthful is the deepest form of lie, while admitting the impossibility of complete truthfulness is at least a more honest, more partial form of truth.

And this is in fact what is argued, in simply more condensed form, in his maxim, with the one caveat that this quip doesn’t indicate whether or not liars will perhaps ALSO be found out, which is to say, whether or not they are more or less truthful than so-called truth tellers. But since Wilde doesn’t attack liars, and doesn’t say they will be found out, this is an indication that all truthtellers will be found out, but not all liars. It is the liar, then, who has the possibility of “getting away” with lying. This is not as fully developed a point as he makes in his essays, namely, that lying is more truthful than so-called honesty, because here the issue is whether or not one will be “found out” as a liar. If one is not “found out,” one can still be a liar, after all. Put in the context of his full position, as indicated by the essays, however, we see Wilde’s fuller point.

And that point is the one indicated by Lacan’s statement that “truth has the structure of a fiction,” which is to say, that the more truthful way to indicate something truthful is to use the form of fiction. To use the form of truth, however, is to do so less successfully, and hence, to be less of a truth-teller. This is why Wilde argues that there is a “truth in masks,” and his notion that the decay of lying in contemporary society is actually a terrible thing for society, because the vogue of truth-telling which so worries him in the 1890’s is the most dishonest thing there is. Lacan, however, largely developed his ideas in the period of 1950’s and 60’s, the period of the rise of so-called “postmodernism.” With Andy Warhol as the avatar or early post-modernism par excellence, and a Wildean mask-wearer if there ever was one, Lacan was describing the more generalized condition which Wilde saw in nascent form in his day. Today, perhaps even more than then, the only way to be truthful is to use the form of fiction.

From Hard Binary to Soft

In the examples examined above, the goal of all these modalities is to undermine those who believe in any one particular truth which is exclusive of a multiplicity of truths. None of which is to say that these figures don’t believe in anything. Rather, they believe that truth is local, perspectival, relative to situation, and that any attempt to develop a universal truth beyond this, which holds for all times and all places, is in fact untrue. And in doing so, they shift truth and falsity from a hard binary to a soft one. That is, they move from any notion of absolute right and wrong, to relative right and wrong. Of course, such a move shifts the hard binary from truth and falsity to absolute and relative, or universal and particular, or in the case of Wilde, between the split between self and other and that within oneself.

In a sense, such moves soften one binary at the expense of another. And so, one could make the argument that ultimately, such moves don’t accomplish anything, they simply are a play of smoke and mirrors. That said, Wilde and Lacan manage to shift the framing of a particular issue, in this case, truth and falsity, each in their respective ways. For Lacan, the issue becomes one of structure, while to Wilde, it is the division between selves to that within oneself. And one could easily argue that they are doing two versions of the same thing, for in fact, the “split subject” is essential to the Lacanian project.

And so, while at first it may seem that such paradoxical statements don’t accomplish anything, they do more than they may seem. Firstly, they show why the primary binary under investigation may not be as useful or meaningful as previously thought. As a result, they indicate the need for “soft” rather than “hard” use of this binary distinction, moving from a model based on a firm divide between these notions to one which frames these are something more akin to poles on a continuum, with many shades of gray or intensity between these. Thirdly, the need for such a shift is justified in regard to another binary, often unmentioned, upon which this argument implied by the statement depends. This other set of binaries (ie: split subject, universal and relative, etc.), however, can then be addressed in two ways, depending on the thinker involved. It can be dealt with as the true, deeper, more fundamental grounding binary, and hence, be dealt with in a manner which is “hard,” or, it can be deconstructed in turn, and hence, be shifted to a “soft” determination whose ground lies in some other binary whose “hard” structure is itself also elsewhere.

From what has been said here, then, it seems that there is a distinction not only between a hard and soft way of using a binary, but also of dealing with binaries as such. That is, one can see some binaries as hard, and others as soft, and the line between these as either hard or soft. Or one can see all binaries as ultimately soft, and the binary between binaries and even ways of using them as ultimately soft. The first approach is one which can be seen to selectively deconstruct one binary, and replace it with another, while the second deconstructs all binaries, including those it depends upon to make its arguments.

 Non-Duality as Binaries on “Soft-Serve”

Nonduality is the term used in much of the literature on non-Western forms of arggumentation, and some non-Western philosophy itself, particularly in the Indic tradition, to describe what I’ve here been calling “softness” in relation to binaries. That is, binary distinctions, of whatever sort, are deconstructed, and there is a fundamental skepticism to the use of binary logic and ways of arguing and speaking in general. Of course, the question then becomes what is put in place of the binary logics these modes of thought work to deconstruct.

It is worth noting, however, the degree to which such a position is radical in relation to many of the core doctrines which have shaped the history of what is often thought of as “the West.” During the twentieth century it was often seen as a truism in many Western schools of thought that not only was all language binary, but that all thought with it, and that to try to get around binaries lead to poetry or nonsense at best, and dangerous misuses of language and thought at worst. Entire schools of thought aimed to purge this nonsense and contradiction from philosophy itself. And this effort ultimately came to naught.

This effort and those allied to it, which is to say, those which aimed to reduce the world in a given domain of inquiry to binary terms, not only was defeated in philosophy, but in many fields of culture. To quite a few moments, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics showed that traditional notions of objectivity depended upon notions of observation and subjectivity which were deconstructed by the evidence provided by experiments which would have been used to shore up such a very distinction in the first place. And if the fundamental stuff of the physical world refused to be put in binary boxes which distinguish between subject and object, leading many previously binary-thinking scientists to refer to sub-atomic particles with terms (ie: intention, knowledge) previously reserved for subjects, then could we say that the physical world itself was, like Wilde or Lacan, performatively deconstructing the dual and binary presuppositions of the scientists? Could we then say that the world itself was arguing that this hard binary needed to be softened?

 A Detour via Mathematics

The realm of mathematics and mathematic logic, often considered the realm of pure thought, and hence, the other end of the spectrum of investigation of the world from the realm of matter, suffered a similar fate with the Goedel incompleteness theorum, which shook the foundational beliefs of the mathematical community in the early twentieth century, at nearly the same time as Heisenberg proposed his principle. Godel showed that the foundations of mathematics were fundamentally non-dual, and that any binaries used to make fundamental distinctions which could give rise to dual or binary rules in math, including fundamental definitions of terms and rules, ultimately depended on nondualities.

Goedel’s argument was framed in regard to issues which arose in controversies in the logic of sets, and it is worth pursuing this line of reasoning for its semiotic richness in regard to that just analyzed in Wilde and Lacan. Mathematicians before Goedel had shown that it was possible to convert mathematics into the language of set theory, and by means of this, link many of the issues in symbolic logic with those of mathematics. And so, a number like “five” could then be redefined as the set of all things in the world of which there are things more than “four” yet less than “three,” with each of these other sets defined in relation to the manner in which sets contained other sets. Ultimately, this shifted the focus, at least in regard to numbers, to two very particular sets, namely, those which were empty, and those which had infinite number of things. The mathematcian Gottlob Frege showed how it might be possible to think of the empty set, or the set with zero items in it, as the basis of number, with the set with one element that which contained only the empty set, the set with two elements that which had the empty set and the set containing that within it, or one, thereby allowing one to “count” two levels of sets within it, and so on, thereby generating all the numbers by means of this recursion. The hope here was that Frege had found a way to justify the logical coherence of the very notion of number which was foundational to the ability to do any mathematics at all.

Godel showed that this was ultimately a paradoxical enterprise. Goedel developed another mathematico-logical language, and used it to convey the logical statements about numbers back into numbers. And he then showed that when one reversed the process used by Frege, essentially transforming logic back to numbers from their conversion into logic, that the result was uncertainty and inconsistency in regard to the logical status of the numbers which were produced by the very logical statements used to justify them.

While this is all extremely complicated, the issue can be simplified a bit by returning to sets. Is the empty set, which is to say, a set with no items in it, truly a set? And what about the set of all sets, which is to say, the set that includes all other sets, up to infinity? Both sets are, for various reasons, paradoxical. The classic example is to question whether or not the set of all sets includes itself as a set. If the answer is yes, then it has just shown that it is not the set of all sets, because something must include it in turn, but if the answer is no, then it is not the set of all sets, because there is something it doesn’t include, namely, itself. The same procedure, however, can be done with the set with nothing in it. Does it lack itself? Answering yes is just as problematic as answering no. As a result, neither the set of all sets, nor the set of no sets (the empty set), truly qualify as a set. And so, what then is a set, but the wrapping of two versions of the same paradox, namely, that of inclusion or lack thereof, around each other, and pretending that nothing strange is going on? The situation is quite similar to that indicated by Wilde and Lacan. Either the very definition of set, as that which includes something else, is inherently problematic, as that was between truth and fiction in Lacan and Wilde, or one has to shift how one relates to this notion.

And most of the mathematical community have chosen, in the terms used by Lacan and Wilde, to lie. That is, most mathematicians working in the field today describe themselves as one form or another of Platonist, which is to say, they don’t really question the fact that numbers “are real” in some sense or another. They believe in the truth of numbers, and when they use them, they believe they are “telling the truth” about some very deep aspect of the world. It would, however, be more honest if, as some small group of mathematicians after Godel do, call themselves liars. For in fact, numbers are fictions, if very interesting and useful ones. But they are built upon a fiction. And either this means that one tries to ignore the contradictions at the root of the mathematical enterprise, the Wildean/Lacanian notion of “truth-telling,” which is ultimately a form of lying to oneself, or, one admits that one is telling a lie, and hence, is ultimately more honest.

And more liberated. Because what one does in the process of admitting that one is lying is that one doesn’t have to take one’s particular lies as seriously. One ca shift lies, and play with them. Of course, truth tellers do this all the time, but they don’t want to admit this to themselves, they have to at least pretend, to themselves, that they are honest. But a true liar can lie to themselves and have a great time at it. The question, then, is why, at to what end? Is lying truly better than truth telling, and according to what standard? 

Binaries on “Soft-Serve” and Deconstruction

If both mathematics and physics deconstructed the binary oppositions at the foundations of their enterprises towards the start of the century, against the frenetic protests of those in those fields, and despite the continued disavowal by many of those working in the areas of these fields far from such limit-effects and foundations, then what might this mean for issues of language and thought? The dominant “ideology of thought” of the middle of the century was the notion that the brain was like a computer, and that thought was like a series of binary switches. This was, of course, due to the fact that digital computers were invented mid-century, and they were based upon chips whose logic circuits were themselves binary. This is largely due to the influence of the very same mathematicians and logicians whose developments in logic and set theory produced the crisis of foundations early twentieth century mathematics and physics, as described above.

But those who don’t go to the limits of a given discourse seem, in general, to be able to avoid having to deal with many of the effects of such issues. And so, the notion that thought was likely binary, in the model of computers, is still, to this day, often accepted as simple truth. And yet, the very history of the century seems to prove otherwise, just as networked logics of the internet and other forms of computation beyond those of binary computers, from the fundamentally networked structure of the brain to experiments in “artificial neural networks” indicates otherwise.

To give a sense of why it might be possible for those working in computing to more easily ignore foundational issues than those working in set theory, think of a picture frame. So long as one looks at the picture within the frame, one doesn’t have to deal with the fact that the picture is an illusion. This is similar to the border of a television or computer screen, or the “out of frame” of a film image. But as soon as one approaches the frame, the perhaps leaving one eye on the image within the frame, and the other on the frame itself or the space beyond, and one can no longer simply disavow the constructedness of the image, its representational status, its fictive structure. What’s more, it becomes difficult to say whether or not the boundary is itself part of the world, or part of the imaging of the world.

The reason why this example works so nicely is that, as many visual theorists and beyond have argued, the filmic or framed image of any sort is in fact a set. That which is inside the frame is part of the set, that which is outside is beyond, and the frame is the border which performs the action of including some aspects of the world, and excluding others. Deconstructing the binary, focusing one eye on the inside and one on the outside, draws attempt to the frame, and the act of framing.

And this is part of what deconstruction of any binary distinction does. That is, by unravelling any binary, one is not only focused on the untenability of the frame to determine what it seems to, but a certain motion if performed, whereby focus is shifted from one thing to another. And by means of this, the very action of deconstruction, and conversely, of construction, comes into view. The deframing which occurs when one focuses one eye on the inside and the other the outside of an image draws our attention to the original act of framing which often remains hidden, but which this act of deframing draws into the forefront. And so, we are confronted, not with two things, but two actions or processes, framing and deframing, or, framed otherwise, construction and deconstruction.

All of the deconstructions mentioned already here, whether that described by Heisenberg, but seemingly enacted by the quantum structure of “the world” itself, or that of Goedel, or Wilde or Lacan, are deconstructions of a binary which calls attention, in the process of deconstruction, that the construction of the binary in question is itself an action. To return to truth and lies, the issue isn’t so much whether one tells the truth or a lie, or is a truth-teller or liar, but rather, the question of how one deals with these issues. Truth and lies, truth-tellers and liars, cease to be things, and the appearance of thing-ness shifts to that of process, there is only truth-telling and lying, and any sense in which there are “things” known as truth or lies, truth-tellers or liars, all shifts depending on the actions taken in regard to other processes.

Things, then, are recast as processes, just as binaries are recast as continua. None of which is to say that there aren’t binaries and things, but rather, these are seen as derivative of the continua whose intertwining via processes gives rise to them, even as these processes are degrees of intensity of various continua. The world can then be seen, in a sense, as a weaving of such continue in relation to each other, a network, each of which provides context for each other. Things and hard binaries, then, could be seen as simply the most rigid aspects of such a process.

And here it becomes possible to see the manner in which deconstructions of various sorts undercut a particular binary, shift the terrain to the context which implicitly supports this binary, and then either contines to deconstruct, or it stops. Stopping shifts the base binary from one term to another, while continuing ultimately deconstructs everything. And so, the first approach moves the discourse from one sort of absolutism to another, while the latter leaves one in skepticism or nihilism, at least, if one takes these logics to their extreme. Such a binary between options itself binary, or in the terms I’ve been using, “hard.”

The “soft” option is that described in the preceding paragraph, which is a networked option. It is one which views the world as composed of processes which form the contexts of continua whose patterns of intertwinings produced momentary sedimatinations as things, which can then become reified and linked into binaries which seem absolute, but which ultimately will deconstruct if pushed. The question the isn’t, as with a “hard” approach to the world whether or not something is true or false, because everything is then true or false in its way. The question becomes which things to leave hard and which to make softer, and why, in particular contexts. Rather than truth or falsity, with deconstructive unmasking as the tool for destroying the false in the name of the true from within on its own terms, deconstruction becomes a tool to be used to transform things, and reconstruct them, in regard to issues determined at more encompassing contextual levels of scale.

And so, for example, in regard to mathematics, the question is not whether or not numbers are true or false. Of course they are false, like everything else, at least, if one views the world in terms of hard binaries true and false. From such a perspective, then, we can say, that nothing is ultimately true or false, but that everything, in its way, is both truth and false. And so, the language of nondualism, as used in many forms of non-Western thought, seems to often imply these qualifiers that it is worth indicating. That is, the terms “ultimately” and “in its way.” These are, according to logic, the absolute and existential qualifiers, two more of Frege’s inventions in mathematical logic. And they allow it to be seen what non-dual thought works to unravel, which is to say, “hard” use of binaries. Non-dual modes of argumentation are a way of saying that IF one wants to divide the world into two, absolute, exclusive categories, THEN ULTIMATELY, the world will resist, and give you something like NEITHER NOR and BOTH AND. Or at least, this is how non-dual arguments function in many non-Western texts.

 The Issue of Context and Framing

That said, not all non-dual texts, systems, and arguments are the same, for if they were, then Zen Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism, for example, would be identical, and they aren’t. There are two primary differences here, the first of which is the context in which binaries are softened by means of deconstruction. Some contexts are simply more central to our way of relating to the world than others. And so, if one questions the binary between ketchup and mustard, the result is hardly earth shattering. Is this even a binary? Aren’t these more contraries within the category of condiments? Certainly these aren’t contradictories, like ketchup versus non-ketchup. But one could, if one chose, find a way to show that there are forms of condiment which are both ketchup and mustard, but also neither one nor the other. In fact, one could simply make such a hybrid condiment and be done with it. The effect of such a performative deconstruction of the category would be to shift the ground of the issue at hand. Rather than seeing ketchup and mustard as absolutes, as necessary and distinct, they become seen as choices, the results of our actions, and our continual actions, to produce things which fall into these categories. We could, after all, produce the hybrid instead, give it a name, and create a new form of condiment, and this would, ultimately, instantiate some new binaries. But our faith in the necessity of the ketchup-mustard binary would be shaken, and perhaps our very notion of what it means to think about condiments and food. Whether or not this would shake up our way of categorizing the world is another story.

Nevertheless, to shake up any binary distinction is, in a way, to shake up them all, even if to differing degrees. Because if one can deconstruct a binary between any two aspects of the world, whether seemingly necessary (ie: black and white) or randomly assembled (ie: Batman and a fish), and whether by one’s physical action (ie: combining these and producing a hybrid, or finding a hybrid), or rather simply intellectually in one’s head, such an action always shifts the ground to the context of the binary. That is, when we deconstruct the ketchup-mustard binary, we have to focus on the construction of our categories of condiments, and the choices we make in regard to these. Because we have most likely been born into culture with a set of options of condiments, we might imagine that these are necessary and predetermined options, but when someone produces something like “ketuchstard,” we may simply add this to our list of condiments and not think much of it.

Or, our world might shaken. For the addition or subtraction of an element of any category, in the moment when it occurs, brings about a choice in all those involved, namely, whether or not the action is valid. And this draws attention to the context, which is the action of categorization which has been implicit, all along. For when a change is made to the categories in question, the issue is pressed, one must choose to either continue to categorize the world in the same way, or to change.

And in this sense, deconstruction, as much as reconstruction, which is to say, the addition or subtraction of categories, call attemtion to the process of the continual reconstruction of categories by action in the world. There is no category in our world which is not continually being reconstructed by all the agents involved. Whether we think of these agents as humans using language, or the world and scientists producing experiments together, there is a continual process of co-construction, and this process is multi-determined, from many sides. It is never the result of any single binary, but webs of agents. While it is possible to split these networks into binaries, the world seems, at many levels, the attempt to make these ultimate.

For in fact, the world changes, and is composed of agents of many different types, and they network together, and any sense of similarity or difference is ultimately relative to these aspects involved. Any attempt to find potential bases to make sense of this will founder, at least, so long as the world continues to seem to keep producing new things. And there is even reason to believe that the very stuff of the world, down to the realm of quantum foam or the structure of logic and math and words, has an aspect to it which finds final and ultimate reification, thingification, splitting, or binarization somehow against its fundamental structure. It is as if the very stuff of the world, whether considered in the abstract in language or math, or in the material form in physics, doesn’t like any sort of hard binary when taken to the extreme. This is why I feel it is necessary to have a softer view of the world, one in which binaries, including that between a thing and its context, are never taken as ultimate.

Grounding Terms: The Non-Duality of Lacanian Master-Signifiers

All of which is to say, the world we encounter is likely much softer than we realize. It is continually constructed and reconstructed, and each entity within this participates in this continual process of construction and reconstruction. The question then becomes one of choices. Does one want to continue to construct the world in the same way, to keep interpreting it with the same categories, by acting according to the same parameters? None of which is to say that any one aspect of the world can simply change everything. No, we are all connected, and so, one would only introduce the condiment “ketchuard” to the world beyond oneself if one didn’t only make this in one’s own home, and hence, disrupt only one’s own personal way of thinking and acting in relating to condiments, but also, started to produce this on a mass scale, found a way to introduce this notion and/or thing into the world beyond oneself.

And this is where the silliness of such an example shows its force. For changing the way people view condiments is a minor change, but it does give people, if in form rather than content, a reminder of the fact that the world changes, isn’t as “hard” as it seems, and that even if any one individual can’t change the world, that collectively and in relation to the non-human aspects of the world, there is a lot which seems quite malleable, despite the fact that our own need for security seems to want to forget that fact.

But as soon as one goes for a more momentous notion, such as “truth” or “god” or “the self,” people get all up in arms. Not all terms are created equal in all discourses, and not all terms are defended in words and deed with equal ferocity. Ketchup and mustard have their defenders, but few would likely kill to prevent ketchuard from becoming “a thing,” but people get quite excited when you go for a term which grounds their ways of thinking and acting in the world.

These “grounding terms” are what Lacan calls “master signifiers,” and for Lacan, they are places in which a culture stores the non-duality at the core of a given discourse. That is, the discourse of a given religion using has certain grounding terms, such as “God” or “revealed truth,” just as the discourse of scientific inquiry, to choose another very non-arbitrary example, has its own grounding terms, notions such as “objectivity” and “reproducible data.” Each of these notions depend upon binaries which are treated as “hard” by the discourse in question, and these “hard” binaries are then used to organize others which are dealt with in softer fashion. And so, in science, some terms are negotiable, and no-one cries all that much when a shift is made between one term and another, but if one questions the very notion of objectivity, the ability to “do science” itself seems shaken. The same with religion. If one questions whether or not a given scripture is revealed or not, one may not only be questioning the stability of that particular scripture within the network of terms and practices, agents and objects, contexts and processes which is that religion, but also, if that scripture plays a grounding function in regard to that religion, then perhaps the entire relation of that religion to scripture as such. That is, the question becomes something like, hard or soft? And in a more general sense, in regard to the way in which that entire discourse relates to the contexts which ground it as such. 

The World on Soft-Serve

And this is why ultimately the issue that is being raised here is one of values. A “soft” worldview is one in which anything can be deconstructed, and should be, if it gets in the way of, well, a soft set of values. Such a soft set of values can be constructedly, softly, in contrast to those which are hard. That is, instead of the hard distinction between “good” and “evil,” one ends up in a world of continua, of “better” and “worse,” and these are themselves determined in relation to the contexts in question. That is to say, better and worse are always ever determined locally, relativistically. But there is a basic, overall frame that unites these many standards, and that is the notion that hardness is ultimately worse. This isn’t to say that some uses of hardness may not be helpful in particular situations, but rather, that when the use of hardness becomes hard itself, that there is likely a problem.

This issue of values then helps to determine that which is deconstructed and/or reconstructed within a given situation. Hard binaries are deconstructed, and the point of this is to call attention to the fact that the world doesn’t need to be this way. Granted, some aspects of the world will likely resist being deconstructed more than others, but this is because no entity is a hard and fast island, cut off firmly from the world around it. Rather, all is intertwined, networked. And it is only those hard and firm distinctions which create the fiction of isolated entities which choose to try to ignore this fact. The world ultimately resists this, and crises are the result. These crises can be opportunities to soften things up a bit, but they can also simply be painful parts of the continual process to attempt to hide all softeness, and make things hard again 

There is then an ethics of softness, just as there is one of hardness. Hardness aims at control, protection, territory, boundary policing, and maintenance of the status quo, while softness is all about flexibility and local responsiveness. The former is top down, the latter is bottom up, the former is about being “right” no matter the cost, while the latter is about what works, the former is about extremes, while the latter is about the middle way.

The Middle Way and the Deconstructive Abyss

It should come as no surprise that I bring up “the middle way” here, for this is the path described by the Buddha, as one of his most deconstructive disciples, the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. Many throughout history have questioned whether or not Nagarjuna was a nihilist, because in fact, he deconstructed the very terms whereby the Buddhist enterprise justified its own worldview. Give him any term, and he’d deconstruct it, in a manner quite similar to that described above, and with almost Greimasian precision. He called one of his primary texts, however, Seventy Verses on the Middle Way. And he said his goal was to avoid the extremes of eternalism and anihiliationism, or absolutism and nihilism.

Of course, the difficult question is what remains if one deconstructs everything. In a sense, the answer is everything and nothing. For if everything is deconstructed, then one returns, in a sense, to where one began, one’s progress is a circle, only everything looks different. If one deconstructs even the very terms one uses to articulate one’s deconstructions (for example, truth and lies, or hard and soft), one is left with the world from which one began, before one began to pull the thread and deconstruct the “sweater” of one’s surroundings, the network of terms and processes, things and contexts, which are in so many ways, one’s world.

But the difference is that now everything looks tentative. For one realizes that nothing has to remain the way it is, everything has at least some degree of leeway, which is the degree to which one contributes to the continued categorization and action, construction and reconstruction, of the webs of context within which one is always already situated as an interpreter and actor in one’s world.

Nagarjuna describes this with his notion of shunyata, or “emptiness.” He argues that everything is empty, and the term here is often also translated as void or illusory, but the word origin can be traced to the manner in which something such as a bowl or vase is “hollow,” which is to say, it appears as full, but ultimately, there’s nothing there but void. That said, bowls are extremely useful, and the void within them is only ever in relation to that which is not void, that which surrounds it. And this is why Nagarjuna appends his notion with that of svabhava, often translated as “own-being” or “essence,” and this set of terms is often used together in the tradition influenced by Nagarjuna, to argue that everything is ultimately empty of own-being, or fixed essence. This is framed by Nagarjuna as simply a deepening of the notion, presented by the historical Buddha (at least to the best of our knowledge) of pratitya-samutpada, or dependent origination. That is, everything is networked, conntected to everything else. And so, nothing is truly ever what is seems, because it is always the result of causes and supports, contexts and processes. And so, it can be deconstructed.

Until, that is, one gets to the whole. And just as was described before in regard to mathematics, the issue is ultimately how one relates to the whole, which is to say, the “big picture.” Whether one does this implicitly or explicitely, this is a question of values. What sort of “big picture” does one want? Deconstruction, and non-dual language in general, always refracts the discourse away from the binary in question, and to the context which grounds the binary, and in a way which calls attention to the processes of reconstruction which are often hidden in the way such a binary often serves to structure action and interpretation in a continual way in the present, often in a way which appears isolated from context and necessary. In fact, binaries often appear so necessary that they disappear from view, like when one looks at the world through a set of glasses and forgets they are there.

But deconstruction and reconstruction call attention to the fact that the world can always be, at least to some degree or another, be constructed differently. But there do seem to be aspects of the world which, despite this, seem to resist more than others. For example, it’s hard to get around the fact that aspects of the world deconstruct and reconstruct. But if one deals with these softly as well, one is much less likely to be shocked and surprised by the world, because one expects this to happen.

For in fact, a soft world is simply better, at least, from a soft-perspective on things. Those advocates of a hard world would likely say the same. Each can only ever be judged according to what they produce. Our current world system is quite hard, being based upon armies that protect boundaries and fortunes from the impoverished who seem to vote the same people into office anyway so that all can get the same products we all want. But it does seem to me that our world could benefit from a bit more softness. This is, however, an admittedly soft way of looking at things.

Values, which is to say, how one frames one’s relation to a given context or whole, are never able to be coherent, at least, not in a binary way. For values are about what one wishes to see, they are about the way the future influences the past and vice-versa in their way of framing the present. The very notions of binarity, like before and after, now and not-now, begin to breakdown. Because values are about what we wish would be true. They are virtual, in regard to what is actual. They are about hopes and fears, dreams and fantasies, rather than the way the world “actually” is. Nevertheless, they frame this actuality, and alter the way we act in the world, and so, change the way the world “actually” becomes.

And this is why I feel that a softer world would be better. Because framed between the hard options of all or none, having and not-having, full and empty, I think the world would be better off with some, rather than a firm divide between haves and have nots. I think the world works better when there is a distribution of resources, potential, and ability to determine what is considered right and wrong, true and false. The only justification I can have for these notions is by my interpretations of the past, present, and potential future, but these framings have not ultimate justification, because, ultimately, justification is a dual game, and I’ve decided I prefer to play that game soft.

Because the alternative is adhering fervently to a set of binaries, and defending them at all cost. Or, to follow the logic of deconstruction, once started, to its logical end. And here it becomes possible to see the manner in which hard fullness is not the only hard option, but also hard emptiness. A true skeptic, one who believes in nothing, and is a nihilist, is one who adheres to emptiness for its own sake, who deconstructs everything, world be damned, and leaves nothing to take its place. Such a person ends where they began, for the world reappears as it was, if fully deconstructed, but not it seems not only reconstructible, but meaningless.

This is the hard empty, and in its way, is just as dangerous, and perhaps moreso, than the hard full. Between the absolutist and the nihilist is only what they hold on to, the full or the empty, but not the form of their holding, which is hard to the core. And this is why the followers of Nagarjuna argue strongly against nihilism, and the fact that their deconstructive method leads to anything like nihilism. For they argue that nihilism is what happens when one turns emptiness, or shunyata, into a thing itself. The middle way deconstructs everything, and gets everything back as potential, as an option, and avoids the fanatical purity of the nihilist, who leaves nothing for anyone, and tries to destroy for its own sake.

This helps explain why after the development of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school of philosophy, another came about, often called the Yogachara school, which argued that the flip side of emptiness was in fact a new sort of fullness but one which was permeated by emptiness. This was a fullness which had all as potential, but nothing as necessary. This is a world which sees everything as virtual, and sees that as an opportunity to produce a better world.

And this is why one sees the discussion of compassion within all these forms of Buddhism, and in a manner which is ultimately not deconstructed, or rather, which is continually deconstructed and reconstructed anew. For complete deconstruction, taken in a sense which is hard, leads one to nihilism. And this means that truly anything is possible, but nothing worthwhile more than anything else. There is no reason, no argument, no justification, nothing to value.

The form of Buddhism in which one sees this tendency manifested the most strongly is Zen. Zen, or Cha’an Buddhism in the Chinese original, is nondualism taken to the extreme. And yet, it is not, at least according to someone like Nagarjuna, truly non-dual about its nondualism, for it adheres to this with a fanatical rigidity. And so, Zen verges on nihilism, on deconstructive fury for its own sake, that which Freud called “the death drive.” Zen is often described as wordless transmission of enlightenment. But any attempt to describe this is foreclosed, and with words, arguments, scriptures, the Buddha, and all guidelines for action seen as deconstructed, Zen becomes fully irrational, a relation between student and teacher, monastic institution and lineage and adherent, which is beyond words, concepts, explanation, justification, and values. After all the emphasis upon moral codes within Buddhism in history, Zen deconstructs these, and spontaneity returns with full force. Teachers hit, burp, scream senselessly, or use nonsequiturs or “contradictory” or seemingly irrational stories as teaching tools.

And sometimes, the results are wonderful, and if the teacher is truly compassionate, and the monastic tradition and context “soft” enough, I have no doubt that this radical use of deconstructive embrace of emptiness can truly be reconstructive and liberating. But there is so little to hang on to, so little grounding, that it is so easy to slip into nihilism. It hardly surprises me, then, that Zen has a history of being embraced by warriors, including the samurai, and there are whole traditions of Zen swordsmanship and archery. These emphasize the deconstruction and reconstruction of the preconceived categories that limit the warrior. There is a softening, but for ultimately hard ends, namely, warfare.

Zen can be a completely peaceful way of dealing with the world, and often is, but it also has this history. The reason, I believe, is because it leaves itself so little ground to stand upon, because it embraces emptiness to strongly, and takes its non-dualism in a nearly dual or hard manner, which is to say, to an extreme. Zen can be compassionate, but it also doesn’t have to be, and this becomes a question of values. Since that is largely foreclosed by Zen, I will say no more about this other than, well, Zen is Zen.

Contextual Nondualism 

None of which is to say that other forms of Buddhism are necessarily better in this regard. I believe firmly that the difference between softness and hardness, which is ultimately one of values, lies in what one does, in the processes of action and interpretation, construction and deconstrution, and ultimately, reconstruction, and not in the things which remain behind, like words or objects. The meaning is always determined by context, and context is itself, ultimately, non-dual, at least, when taken to the extreme. That is, any attempt to ground any particular mode of action by recourse to context will ultimately trigger recourse to the context of that context, on to infinity. And at the limit, the issue becomes one of values, of desire and hope, of the relation of the virtual to the actual, of potential to the concrete. What sort of world does one wish to have, and what might be ways, based on past actions, to help bring that about?

If extreme nihilism is one danger, then the other is absolutism. And many, many forms of non-Western thought are quite selective in the way they deconstruct. If Zen seems to deconstruct nearly everything, and leave little left secure, most other forms of Buddhism, Vedanta, Taoism, Cofucianism, leave certain key terms standing, and these then serve to orient and ground things. Cofucianism embraces “the Way,” but refuses to question the value of the family and filial piety. Taoism is much more extreme in its universalization of “the Way,” and hence, has often been accused of nihilism, or of saying “nothing,” as has Zen. It is perhaps not incidental, then, that Taoist notions were appropriated by the Legalist theorists in China, the Machiavelli’s thousands of years before the Italian was born, and Taoist notions were used to imagine ways for rulers to deconstruct and reconstruct the reifications of their opposition so as to undercut them. Sun Tzu’s famous Art of War uses Taoist inspired notions, and has influenced generals and warriors for literally thousands of years.

Likewise, while the Bhagavad Gita was one of Gandhi’s primary sources of inspiration, it also was massively influential on some of the Nazi war criminals who committed some of the greatest atrocities of the century. This is because, as with Zen, the Gita is fundamentally an “a-moral” text. This is not to say that it is immoral, but rather, that it urges, at points at least, that one should throw away any and all restrictions in one’s devotion to Krishna, which is ultimately, a representation of a principle of non-duality. The moral advice to Arjuna, the primary character in this work, is not to stop fighting, but return to it, and is not to overturn social hierarchy, but support it. There is a tension, however, because the text at some points advocates a support for the traditions of Vedic culture at that time (ie: revenge those who killed your family), while at others, it hints that devotion to Krishna is more important, and this implies a fundamentally deconstructive and reconstructive, context based approach to ethics. Without anything more to guide this, however, this can be interpreted as ‘anything goes,’ so long as there is “no karmic debt” incurred, which is to say, so long as one does engage in actions for their karmic reward, nor for the pleasure or pain they may bring.

This has been used to justify some very, very disturbing actions, and to provide a means from detaching from them. Deconstruction can be used, after all, to deconstruct and reconstruct things in a way which is very rigid, possessive, absolutist, and destructive. Deconstruction knows not compassion by itself, nor does reconstruction, for ultimately, the question is “for what,” which is to say, a question of values. If the value structure, the context which ground the others, is nihilist or absolutist, then no matter how much deconstruction and reconstruction, it is done for “hard” rather than “soft” ends, and any softness is ultimately relative.

Capitalism, after all, is today a massive machine for the deconstruction of past certainties, leading some critics to describe it as a machine for “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization.” Destruction and reconstruction in its own image is in fact precisely what capitalism does. Devourer of worlds, few terms could ever describe contemporary multinational, tenticular capital better, the “vampire squid on the face of humanity” which sucks the world dry for its own ends, for hoarded piles of numbers in bank accounts as goods for their own sake, no matter the cost. Even the productions of goods are merely a means to an end, what it really is about is having more digits in the bank account.

And to what end? Capitalism defers questions of values, because ultimately, it is nihilist. And so, it appears revolutionary, and may have local liberatory effects from various solidifications which have become restrictive. But in the long run, its goal is to harden things into so may mirror image copies of its own image, and turn the whole world into fuel. And when it has does this, it will eat its own body, and today, the crises of capital are the spasms of the world system eating itself. None of which is to say that capital will ever collapse, it has shown time and again, it is far too slippery for this. No, it recalibrates at the last minute, but with each recalibration, it tries to give away as little as possible to those who need it the most, all in the aim of its own hoarding and growth.

Traditionalist reifications are one extreme, and hyperviolent nihilism, either in traditional form, as seen in particularist aggressors throughout history, or in its much more sly, nihilist postmodern forms in capitalism, are the dangers. But between absolutism and nihilism, lies the middle way. Taoist philosophy and Zen tend towards nihilism and complete nonduality, while more ritualized worldviews, such as many forms of Confucianism, or the devotional strands of Buddhism (ie: Pure Land Buddhism) and Hinduism, tend to reify and limit the ways in which nonduality allows for flexibility. What has allowed all of these systems to evolve in regard to the needs of the people involved is that the deconstruction and reconstruction of grounding terms allows these worldviews to change. Nondualism can either help or hinder this.

And while many of these worldviews have non-dual aspects, there are ways in which this nonduality is contained. It is these non-deconstructed moments which indicate the aspects of these worldviews which are non-negotiable. Compassion, for example, for the Mahayana. And this is justified by recourse to the fact that deconstruction is seen as a dispersive strategy, and it is, but this is to miss the fact that dispersal can be put towards non-dispersive ends. And so, throughout its history, the dissolution of the traditional aristocracy and its wealth by Buddhist calls of compassion have lead to the accumulation of fantastic wealth by Buddhist monasteries, and these destabilized these societies so much, particularly in Gupta India and T’ang China, that they had a hand in bringing down these empires themselves.

Any discourse can be misapplied, and any discourse can have its non-dual “soft” aspects linked up to others which are either hard, or used in “hard” ways. No term is more or less hard or soft than any other, it’s always in the way the term is used in context. Likewise, no particular action is good or bad on its own, or even meaningful, it is all about the contexts and processes which endow an action with meaning, relevance, causes, and effects. 

And this is why the middle way can never be a single discourse, and even calling it this is only ever a placeholder for a practice which must be continually vigilant, to maintain the ultimate softness of its ends. Because the world has a tendency to harden and soften which seems to feed on whichever is predominant in a given situation. Hardening and softening seem to self-potentiate. Growth spurts become rallies, and collapses can drag their contexts with them. 

No, the middle way is never a thing, it is a desire, one which must continually be recreated anew, continually reconstructed in regard to the contexts. One must continually weigh the relation between the situation in front of one and the contexts and processes of its construction and reconstruction, and attempt to find the soft-path. There are no guarantees. Softness is an ethics, not a thing. Likewise, no discourse is ever completely soft, but only so in context, and always only ever softening or hardening, along with all its aspects. Between hard and dissolving, softness is the middle way.

The one form of Buddhism I find most interesting in this respect is Tibetan Buddhism, and I have and will deal with this form of nonduality extensively elsewhere. What I find most interesting is that Tibetan Buddhism builds upon the Yogachara insight that emptiness is the foundation for creation, and by means of this, it softened the traditions of the Boen religion in Tibet, and the warrior ethos of its people, and created a society which was Buddhist to the core. That said, this was able to reify and hierarchize, to solidify.

What’s more, for all the talk of nonduality between subject and object within many, many non-Western philosophies, there is often a subtle emphasis upon the interior world. That is, one changes, through meditation, the way one sees the world, and this changes the way one acts. But there is rarely an emphasis upon direct revolutionary action, of changing the world itself. While some non-Western theorists urge this, such as Mozi in ancient China, by and large, change happens inside one, because one breaks down the barrier between consciousness and world, leaving only consciousness (Yogachara has been called the “Mind-Only” school, and has much in common with Vedantic Hinduism in this respect).

But if one were to truly take this argument to its conclusion, if the mind is everything, the world is also the mind. The binary would fully deconstruct. And so, to change the mind, one must change the world, not merely the mind. Now, many forms of Buddhism do change the world, and the institutions of Buddhist monasticism are evidence of this. But this reworking of the outside world isn’t oriented about a better outside world, but only a better inside world, and optimizing the outer world to help cultivate the latter.

And so, when the Dalai Lama says that the “East” has provided, in the form of Tibetan Buddhism, an inner science which can liberate the inner world, and the West the ideals of democracy and science and revolution which can change the outside world, I think his notion here should be taken seriously. The Dalai Lama has said that his worldview is Marxist, but not in the sense of the Chinese or the Soviets.

There must be a middle way between internal liberation and external liberation. And I feel that the non-dual insights of non-Western thought can be essential help the West get beyond its reification of the individual as the standard of all knowledge and action, as evidenced in various ways in materialist science and scientism, binary notions of thought and language, or capitalist possessivism. But likewise, Buddhism and attempts at inner liberation, such as psychoanlaysis and therapy in the West, need to question their own reifications and binaries as well. But not towards nihilist ends any more than absolutist. Rather, the question is, what are our values? And why? What can help us give rise to a better world?

And as I would argue, how could we become soft, to find the middle way, between hardness and dissolution? I believe that strategic use of nondualism can help this happen. And I think that a general orientation towards the nondual ground of any dualism is an essential part of this process. But if this becomes an end in itself, it can too be destructive. In the language of the Tibetan tradition, there is need for emptiness and compassion, for these are two sides of the same, and the resulting interpenetration keeps the process moving and quasi-stable, metastable. It keeps it readjusting to produce optimal softness.

Feeding Back Nonduality, From Virtual to Vajrayana 

I’d like to end on a discussion of feedback in living systems, and how this relates to non-dualism. All complex adaptive systems in the world make use of feedback to modulate their relation to their contexts. While a thermostate isn’t complex, it certainly is a simple feedback mechanism, for it adjusts the temperature of a house to keep it in an optimal middle zone. And it does this by means of feedback, which is to say, the temperature itself comes to factor in the setting of the processes which impact the temperature. Temperature enters more than once into the equation, which is why, in terms of mathematics, feedback tends to show up in equations in the form of exponents, leading these equations to be called “non-linear,” because they tend to give rise to curves rather than straightlines, and often “organic” seeming structures, rather than simplistic mecanical ones. Complex adaptive systems occur when these feedback processes take on a “life” of their own, such as the manner in which a whirlpool engages in constant feedback with aspects of its elements and environment. Living organisms are what happens when this becomes relatively self-sustaining. The evolution of life, consciouness, self-consciousness, and all we know, love, and value is the result of feedback building upon itself, and doing so non-linearly.

Studying the world, it becomes possible to learn what develops life and all that makes it good, and to try to experiment further to increase the quality and quantity of the this goodness the most sustainably and complexly for the greatest number. Scientists have studied these sorts of systems rather extensively, and seem to indicate that diversity, distributedness, feedback in various forms, and energetic flows which are meta-stable, just a little more than the system can handle, tend to maximize growth, in all senses of these terms, and in relatively sustainable ways. When any of these predominate, however, the system leaves the middle way between the many strands of these networks of factors, and imbalances are generally the result.

It is for these reasons that I think these are some very real values which can help us link any particular with the whole. So long as we don’t reify these, and keep using them softly, keeping the eye on the middle way, in all senses of this term, even up to and including questioning any and all aspects of this process. With one exception. Namely, that that which leads to life, and which makes it better, needs to be the source of our value. And ultimately, in a sense, this is always the case, all values, and even the ability to value, come from life. But we often take particular aspects of life and raise them beyond life. Even Buddhahood, or revolution, can become idols which interfere with any ability to give rise to these very things. And this tends to occur when we reify one aspect of the world as more valuable than the value which is within any and all, and which can give rise to the best within any and all, so long as it keeps its eyes always on the attempt to do what is best, not only in regard to itself, but the any and all.

Such an ethics is nondual. It doesn’t dispense with the self, because it is impossible to make the world any better if one simply dispenses with oneself and one’s own needs. But it attempts to continually deconstruct and reconstruct the terms of any situation in regard to an attempt to situate it in regard to the values of the whole. And the whole is always beyond, always only present in part, always, in a sense, soft. Not empty or full, not here or there, not present or beyond, not changing or the same, but fundamentally, nondual. But this nonduality cannot reify itself into something or nothing, it must be kept moving, and this is why nonduality is only ever a reification of what nonduality is actually about. There is no word for this, and yet, contra Zen silence, there are many. And each is better than others in regard to a particular situation. Of course, this is what a Zen koan seeks to indicate, but by dispensing with explanation, my sense is that it leans too much to the side of emptitess, without emphasizing the fact that people tend to need something to hang on to as well, some luminosity and compassion, creation and recreation, in addition to mere emptiness and deconstruction.

From these notions it becomes possible to tie nondualism, along with deconstruction and reconstruction, back into not only the semiotic issues described at the start of this essay, but also the issue of life, which is to say, the world from which semiotics like those of language emerged. In living systems, feedback is how the a system alters the way it relates the balance within itself to that which it maintains with its environment.

Feedback shows up in mathematical equations generally as exponents, and in the graphs which equations produce by the ways in which complex systems, such as those which are alive, tend to be described more by non-linear, curved trajectories, rather than the straight-line paths which tend to better describe mechanical systems. Of course, put enough mechanical systems into play with each other, and the results can quickly go non-linear, and in fact, mathematically speaking, the famous “three body problem,” quite a famous problem in the history of mathematical physics, finally showed that it only takes three linear systems to produce one non-linear one, which is to say, a system whose behavior cannot be predicted in advance from the parameters which composed it.

It doesn’t take all that much for the basic stuff of the world to ‘go off’ track and lead to unexpected results. In fact, all it takes is three things interacting, in the context of a fourth which provides a flow of energy, and things are likely to get out of hand. Two things, however, so long as they are mechanical and predictable, even when in an environment which provides a similar flow of energy, are predictable and non-linear. Binaries tend to reproduce themselves, and so do triads when anchored by binaries. But when triads arise in the realm of fourthness, they tend to produce the unexpected, and binaries may try to rein things in, back to neat triads or even neater binaries or unities, but rarely are able to do so fully. 

If one examines individual equations or graphs, separate from the systems in question, however, one only sees exponents or curves. And when the curves hit an inflection point, one only sees singularities. When mathematics and geometry take an approach which filters out context, the role that feedback plays in generating these factors becomes obscured, and is often only restored by relinking what reifying approaches segmented.

The same can be said with language. Individual words reify, as do binary distinctions. But humans only use individual words and binary distinctions in relatively artificial situations, removed from the ebb and flow of sentences in motion. And yet, these hypostatizations are privileged by so many philosophers and linguistics as paradigmatic examples of how language produces meaning. The individual signifier, for example, in the history of linguistics, and its accompanying signified. Of course the world will seem reified and binary when viewed from such a perspective.

However, when context and process and pragmatics are restored, as so many post-structuralist and other critics did with the structuralist linguistics which dominated mid-century, the rigidity begins to vanish. And in hindsight, it becomes evident that structuralism was a Manichean ideology which reflected a Manichean time, the time of the Cold-War, as well as of the binary computer. But even beyond the Internet, by means of artificial neural networks and many other advances in so-called “soft”-computing, even models of computation are beginning to go non-binary. In fact, binary computation is now, in hindsight, seeming so limited, restricted, and such a limitation on where the future of computing might go. The brain as well, is a fundamentally networked structure. Why then would we think that thought or language would be binary, linear, or composed of reified building blocks which are assembled like machine parts?

But what are some of the implications of this for semiotic theory, and the study of language? If exponents are the ways in which feedback shows up in mathematical equations, and curves, including those points where a curve curves into itself into a point, is how feedback shows up in geometry, nonduality is how it shows up in language.

For example, let’s return for moment to the issue of the “set of all sets,” and the related notion of “the empty set.” These notions were fundamental in the self-deconstruction of the notion of the set, and with it number and axiom, which were part of the foundations of mathematical logic at the early part of the century. If we consider a set as a word, however, and we think of what it includes, namely, an element, as a set as well, then it becomes possible to see this in binary terms. That is, a set is something which includes an element, that is its definition, and this process of inclusion is binary, in that an element is either included, or it is not. And so, something either is an element, or it is not, “E” or “not E.” The notion of a “set” is a meta-category which includes E, and excludes non-E. The set of all sets is that which both includes E and not E, while the empty set is that which includes neither.

And so, when a Yogachara thinker argues that any entity is both itself in a relative way, and yet ultimately void, and hence, is in a state of thusness which is both an entity and void, yet also neither, this is a mode of arguing which is not all that different from that presented by the foundations crisis of mathematics at the turn of the century. The difference, of course, is that the foundations crisis wanted to avoid this sort of deconstruction, while Yogachara embraces the deconstruction of Nagarjuna and his Madhyamaka school of “emptiness.” And yet, it also goes through these, because it affirms the notion that everything is ultimately void, but not relatively so. The question then becomes referred to context, and the values that allow one to articulate the local and the global in relation to these values, which for Yogachara, entail the path to liberation and the attempt to foster compassion beyond the self/other duality.

In the process, any particular reification is seen as ultimately tentative in relation to the contexts and processes of its production, and the particular choice of any entity is linked into modulation with larger wholes. And as such, none of which is going on is dealt with as ultimate or reified. Every aspect is rather composed of networks of others, and the linkages between and within any of these are up for grabs.

To say that something is “neither nor yet and both and yet neither of these” is to deconstruct the binary in relation to the contexts and processes of its production. And yet, this is always within a network of other notions. Deconstructing a binary can lead to its replacement by another, or by its use in a much more tentative way, or by the reconstruction of the whole landscape of terms around it. What a nondual argument does, however, by deconstructing terms, is to put them into play, to engage in a process of unmooring them from their contexts, and ultimately, referring them to the contexts and processes around it. Nonduality makes us aware, in and through binaries and the reifications that go with them (ie: this thing is this, and not that), that there are networks of other possibilities, and perhaps infinite ones, within any reification, around that reification, in the linkages between, and at multiple levels of scale. This is suchness, the mixture of emptiness and fullness, which the Tibetan Buddhist refer to as vajra being, the being which refracts everything and nothing, which is the very substance of everything, that which has its true essence obscured by anything in particular, but which has the potential to become anything and everything, depending on the contexts and processes in which it is transformed.

To continue with the Tibetan Vajrayana approach for a moment, only emptiness, which is to say, the deconstruction of refications, binaries, and other solidfied formations tied to these can reveal the potential luminosity of the Vajra-being, the essence of liberation and pure potential, within the very fabric of the world. And only emptiness can make sure that this potential doesn’t solidify again in turn. And yet, to reify emptiness is to miss out on all the potential for growth and transformation, in relation to which empiness is only the pathway. Emptiness is a means, not an end, and what it is a means towards is liberation, not merely of the self, or the inner world, but also the outer world, and others. This is true compassion, to liberate oneself through ones world, and one’s world through oneself, self for others and others for self, world for self and self for world. Getting stuck in either fullness or emptiness, deconstruction or reification, is ultimately a strategy which misses the power of the soft, or, to use the vajra term, the adamantine that is harder than all that is hard. Because true softness can cut through the hardest of rigidities and reveal the massive potentials lurking within, and help unleash them for a better world.

And this is why, I believe, Yogachara and the schools which flow from it, such as the Tibetan schools, are on to something fundamental about how the mixture of emptiness and luminosity, the vajra of vajrayana Buddhism, produces a seed of liberation which can bloom anywhere, within the subject or object, and ultimately anywhere. This seed, spoken of in Yogachara as the buddha-emgbryo or buddha-womb (the word is the same in sanskrit, tathagatagarbha), is the seed of liberation which is everything, and can be developed into pure liberation. And yet, most of us don’t see this, and this is why the world manifests normally as distinct, reified, binary things. But once we liberate how we see the world, by means of the liberation from fixations which the crucible of emptiness, of deconstruction provides, we see that anything and everything is possible. This is why in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, one starts tantric meditations from pure emptiness, creates a visualization of a quality one wants to foster in one’s life, then breaks this down and dissolves this back into emptiness. The goal is to both further one’s detachment from the reifications of one’s everyday world, yet also increase one’s sense of freedom and possibility in relation to it. This is a virtual reality practice in reimagining reality.

The issue I have with this, however, is that it remains all within the self. Since all is mind to Yogachara, changing one’s mind is changing the world. But if one doesn’t change the world, one can only go so far with changing one’s mind. And this is why, I believe, there are limitations to the forms of liberation which are available here. That is, Vajarayana, as powerful as it is, doesn’t deal with what it may take to recreate the world beyond the mind. One could, of course, argue that the Buddhist community is precisely what the world turned into a mandala, or sacred diagram of a Buddhaverse, might look like. And yet, this is a vision of the world based on what liberation of the mind within that particular socio-historical context would look like if the world were then recreated on this image at a particular moment in its historical and social context. I find myself wondering, what might this look like if then this process were reapplied recursively, and back to the world?

 This bright, luminous potential is what Gilles Deleuze calls the virtual, and what, in my philosophy of networks, I call the matrix of emergence. It is that which is beyond any one, and yet that of which any one is an aspect, and so, it is ultimately, oneand. When matrix, or emergence, is reified, it give rise to rigid structures, but the potential for emergence remains within these, waiting to be unleashed by less rigid forms of networking. First there must be deconstruction of reifications to allow this potential to emerge. But there there also must be reconstruction, so as to foster more sustainable complex, which is to say, more robust, more emergently emergent, forms of emergence.

Feedback is one of the primary ways in which this happens. Feedback is the process whereby systems readjust their relation with the world so as to emerge more robustly. It is only when systems are reified from the world around them that they cease to engage in feedback, and this results in rigidified ways of acting which leads to crisis either within, without, but often, in mirrored forms, both. Feedback is non-dual, for it describes the manner in which boundaries are crossed, for feedback in relation to interior or external distinctions. It doesn’t nullify distinctions, but it perpetually readjusts them in relation to contexts and processes beyond them, yet which provide meaning for them. These contexts and processes evaluate and boundaries and reifications in regard to the values of the system in question, which are those which determine its actions. Reifications, boundaries, linkages between these, and the readjustments of the processes which determine, maintain, transform, and modulate these is what feedback mediates. Feedback is in fact the process which links these all together, hence, is a crucial part of the process of emergence.

Nondual modes of argumentation are attempts to loosen binary systems from within them. When they do not disappear, yet remain, this means that an attempt is being made by the discourse in question to both maintain and dissolve a distinction, which is to say, to modulate the way a particular distinction plays out in its processes of linking and delinking from particular micro and macro formations within various contexts and processes. That is, the larger contexts and processes at work are attempting to maintain relatively dynamic and fluid relations between parts of the system in question.

We see this in living systems all the time. For example, the mouth is both inside and outside of the body. And the body goes through great efforts to maintain this state of both and and neither nor. Continual processes of feedback are needed to make sure that the mouth both is and is not either within nor without the body. And so, the body feeds back on itself to maintain conditions which aren’t too wet, nor too try, not too much of this enzyme or that. Too much of either extreme, and the mouth would stabilize on one side of the the binary or the other. And that would prevent it doing what it needs to do, which is to say, abide in between, taking the middle path.

Linguistically, this is difficult to describe, because individual words tend to reify, and so do binary distinctions. But the mouth existed long before language even evolved. Feedback precedes language. And non-duality is simply the way in which some of its aspects show up in particular ways of using language, and in particular, those in which there is an attempt to keep some binaries in place, yet in a situation which modulates its relation in between that of others. And so, a person who lives in a world of objects, yet continually questions their very fabric and relation to others, is a person who lives in a world of objects, and yet which lives in a world in no objects and all objects. Which is another way of saying, they exist in a relation of feedback between the processes within and beyond them which give rise to these objects, maintain and transform them, such that all of these are seen as tentative.

Language is ill-equipped to describe these states, and particularly from within reified perspectives. The discourse of mathematics, for example, has a very, very specific set of filters through which it sees the world, and so when it comes upon sites of feedback within those aspects of the world it is attempting to describe, it hits limit effects. Like the manner in which a microphone will screech if there is too much feedback, or a house will overheat if there is too little, feedback is needed to keep systems going. And yet, from within particularly limited perspectives, it may not register as what it is. In fact, it often shows up as a gap or disturbance within what otherwise seemed orderly, such as exponents in otherwise linear equations, or curves in their graphs. These ‘messy’ points are points of junction between systems, and hence, are points of instability within attempts to order their interactions. And ultimately, any stability we see in our world is the result of some process of trying to make order out of disorder. Realizing that the word is much more complex is what getting beneath surface manifestations is all about.

But this requires a perspective which can link what others tend to reify. That is why my approach, the networkological approach, takes networks as its model, for what I am trying to do by means of this is to deal with what it truly means to understand relation. And from what I can tell, this means to also be related to the worlds within and without which reifications tend to obscure.

Grounding terms, the terms within discourses which localize the contradictions of that discourse, are those which, for Lacan and other linguists, describe what is both within those discourses yet beyond them. God is a notion which is everywhere in religious discourse, but if you try to use only religious discourse to justify why the world needs a notion like God, the result will either be tautology or contradiction, which is to say, one either will produce circular arguments, or have to go beyond religious discourse to justify religious discourse. Mathematics ran into the same problem with set theory at the start of the century, as the set of all sets, a quantitative attempt to formulate something “like” God, could either justify itself completely circularly, and hence produce no justification, or not at all. Justification, after all, is a form of linkage whereby one entity grounds itself in another which serves as its context. Math tried to ground itself in logic, and then Godel showed that if the results were ultimately problematic, that this was simply a shift in terrain. The problem remains the same. One has to deal with questions of value sooner or later.

The choice of grounding terms, which is to say, the terms within a discourse which one deconstructs less than the others, and hence, which anchor the others in networks of structure of usage, definition, categorization, and so on, are choices which underlie the values which make that discourse work. And ultimately, these are chosen because these terms allow for forms of action, since the use of words are themselves forms of action, which sync up ways of speaking and writing and non-linguistic forms of acting. If the resonance works well enough, the grounding terms are seen as grounded, which is to say, “justified.” The process we call reasoning and argumentation is simply a part of this ultimately only semi-linguistic process, one which is both within and outside of language, as well as neither nor. That is to say, there is a relation of feedback on both sides of the boundary between language and its others, because that boundary is continually being renegotiated and recreated. It hasn’t outlived its usefulness, so we keep that boundary around, and yet, we need to keep our relation to it relatively fluid. When we get too close to the boundary from within the domains which it allows to function, we get something like the effect of a microphone too close to speaker, and yet, if the microphone is too far away, the speaker won’t be able to modulate what they sound like in when reproduced. Feedback must always be optimal, it must be in-between, because it serves to maintain that which the in-between allows to manifest.

Mathematics, from a set theoretical perspective, exists in the in-between which set theory describes by means of the notion of inclusion, the enabling parentheses which allows set theory to function. Likewise, it is the fact that words both are and aren’t things that allows words to do what they do so well, which is to say, to represent the world without being the world, while being related to the world in a way which is relatively fluid.

If Western forms of thought assume the self-other binary, most non-Western schools have assumed the isolated, monadic individual as the foundation of all knowledge and action, since the birth of capitalism and modern science. We are living in a moment, however, in which our very capitalist modes of production and the very science we have given rise to are producing formations which are calling this model into question. It is has perhaps outlived some of its usefulness. We are starting to see feedback and limit effects which are screaming for a remodulation from within. Of course, perhaps this has always been, to some extent or another, the case. Individualism, private property, the nation-state, these reifications have always been hyperviolent and overrigid. But the limitations are now starting to be dismantled, along with binary structures in a more general way, by even the powers that be as they search for more flexible formations. The modern Western individual is beginging to unravel.

This is an opportunity, a moment of feedback in which is may be possible to remodulate things. To learn from earlier formations, like pre-modern Western formations, as well as the models which have prevailed in non-Western formations, which never reified the individual as extremely as in the West. That said, these non-Western societies have tended to reify social hierarchy much moreso than the West, and many of the philosophies in question have been much more focused on liberating the inner world rather than the outer, which is the reverse from capitalism. Both sides can learn from each other.

The trick, of course, is to not get stuck in the frenzy of deconstruction any more than the reification of the old ways, or the slick postmodern capitalist synthetic hybrid which deconstructs traditional reifications, only to reconstruct things at higher levels of complexity for equally rigid ends, and in a perpetual yet ultimately self-defeating cycle thereof.

From a networkological perspective, these all these are networks composed of networks. Any reification, or any binary linkage of these, is ultimately a network, within contexts composed of other networks, and at multiple level of scale. And the stuff of which these networks is composed, is matrix, oneand, or emergence, that which is both itself and beyond, and not anything in particular, for it is the stuff of which any particular thing is an aspect or grasping. It is fundamentally non-dual, for it feedsback into itself, which is to say, it contains itself infinitely, yet more intensely in some particular manifestatios in which it is more intensely networked with aspects of itself, thereby giving rise to the greater potential for more intense forms of networking. Energy is simply one aspect thereof, as is matter, space, time, subject, and object. And so, the networkological project is grounded in a non-dual manner, even if it makes use of particular reifications strategically to intervene in contemporary debates. Such an approach, called “skillful means” by the Buddhists, links construction to deconstruction to a goal and ethics of robust emergence, emergent emergence, which is for any and all, beyond subject and object, me and world, for it is that from which we come, and yet more abundantly. It is identification with the Deleuzian virtual, as a social and personal praxis of liberation.

Such an approach finds its only justification in what it desires in the world, in relation to what it desires to see, yet in regard to the context beyond all context, the non-dual context which is the only possible grounding for any aspect of the world, and for which even a notion like matrix, or emergence is merely yet one more partial reification. All of which raises the quesiton, of course, of what we want the world to become, in regard to this potential of what it has been, in relation to where we are from within this. All of which is to say, we need to engage in feedback, but massively so, such that any and all reifications are seen as tentative in regard to the widest possible context, which modulates the relation of any and all to each and all. And since this is ultimately that of which each and all are refractions, which it to say, empty of particular being but having the potential for any and all, if only relationally in regard to the whole and the potentials it has in relation to each, such that the question becomes what we want to become. And it would see that liberation from limitations, more free from reification, but in a manner which is sustainable and ever more intensly liberatory, would be that which is at least resonant with not only the structure of each and all, but also, with liberation from reification. There is a form of circularity here, of course, but with a difference, and that difference is what makes the difference, for it is difference as such, in and beyond any particular difference. For more on these notions, see my essay on “the widest possible context.”

From the perspective of Buddhism, however, this would be the realm of suchness, of the pure intepenetration of luminosity and void, and yet, beyond the realm of mind alone, but beyond the duality of subject and object, which is to say, a Marxist Buddhism, one which aims to recreate the world in the image of liberation, and recreate the mind in the image of liberated world. Such a notion is necessarily local, for it refracts the notion of liberation in relation to any and all in a way in which the parts and wholes exceed each other infinitely in their mutual emergence.

Language and mathematics, subject and object, these are so many reifications of the fundamental fabric of what is, the refractions of which give rise to the world we know. Reification of this process into reflections of the same give rise to rigidity, and yet, this is only ever local. The question is how to help the world emergence from its reifications without getting stuck in new ones, and yet also without fully dissolving in dissolution. The middle path, liberatory emergence, and fundamentlal non-duality, in and beyond all dualities and reifications, which ultimately, are necessary, if in soft form, for any and all emergence to arise in the first place, and to be able, by means of feedback, to emerge from itself in the process. From such a perspective, feedback can become seen beyond the reifications which shatter it into aspects which are ultimately less than comprehensible. Only from such a perspective does both duality, and non-duality, appear as aspects of each other, which is to say, the contexts of the largest possible context, and that of each and all, the matrix and fabric of the oneand, that emergence of which any and all are a part.

~ by chris on May 29, 2013.

3 Responses to “Nondualism and Semiotics: Philosophy of Language Between East and West”

  1. fantastic post! truly outstanding. thank you for this.

  2. I will be posting a bit of a response to this over at the new website (the old one being Archive Fire). Although I won’t be able to add much since you seem to have nailed it.

    I have tended to think of the deconstructive turn (which was really a creeping awareness from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Derrida and Rorty) as the advent and of nihilism. The dissolution/death of absolute Truth/Gods and certainty. And I think nihilism is only a problem when we get caught in the performative contradiction of taking up the belief that the cosmos is meaningless and beyond belief. Meaning exists because we generate it, only there is no ‘outside’ symbolic legitimator (master principle) granting stability. Language and meaning is an emergent development based on pure causality and consequential action not some absolute value pre-existing its enaction.

    That said, what is to be done generally (practically and existentially) after we finish grieving the death of absolute values and begin investigating the material-energetic matrix (networks within networks) from which we come and within which we subsist and operate? The post-nihilistic orientation attempts to take the ‘middle way’ by acknowledging the undeniably effectual life of thought and language and meaning while also operationalizing an awareness of their instability and undecidability in order to reorganize cognition towards becoming more attentive and response-able [praxis] to tangible ecological realities – as a return to the world-Flesh?

    Anyhow, that’s basically what I’m working on with my fellow post-nihilists over at the new site. AND your post here is a fantastic reminder of what is as stake in thinking it through, so, again, thank you!

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