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Hegel on Buddhism, Timothy Morton

The spell is diminished only where the subject, in Hegel's language, is "involved"
- Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

When Adorno castigates the materialistic consumption of an easily available form of Zen as a "corny exoticism," the decoration of a vacuously uncritical form of modern subjectivity (Negative Dialectics 68), he may not be aware of the extent to which traditional (non-Western) Buddhists may already agree with him. And when he describes genuine self-reflection, the subject meditating upon "its real captivity," he does not note that this is indeed a more genuine form of Buddhist meditation. Moreover, when Adorno approvingly cites the notion of Hegelian "involvement," he appears not to be aware of the irony that such an idea has links to Hegel's encounters with Buddhism (68). Buddhism, then, seems to be on both sides of the equation. How might one begin to account for such a state of affairs? Adorno has Heidegger in his sights, with his (for Adorno) paradoxically reifying view of Being and his concomitant later interest in Zen. Adorno tacks closely to the passage in Hegel's Logic where Buddhism is discussed (119-20). Adorno's argument—that Heidegger reifies modern subjectivity much as a quiescent Zen produces a fascist modern subject—would have been even more effective had he been aware of some of the historical and philosophical determinants of reified nothingness. Moreover, this would have enabled an intensification of Adorno's already intensely dialectical account of nothingness and nihilism towards the end of Negative Dialectics, which he associates explicitly with the thought of Schopenhauer (376-81). In a book committed to thought's encounter with what it is not, myopic Western eyes might at least have caught a glimpse of Mahayana Buddhism in the Romantic period. Adorno needed only to have read Hegel on Buddhism more closely. And far from finding models for fascist subjectivity, Adorno would have discovered in Hegel himself a weak, sickly, feminine being, the castoff of a relentless dialectic, the very type of Adorno's own remorseless assault on modern positivity. For in Hegel, Buddhism is the abject body that must be expelled for true subject-object relations to commence. And ironically enough, Buddhism itself would probably agree.

Hegel on Buddhism
Timothy Morton, University of California, Davis

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