Towards a mindful cultural commons
Sunday, 18 March 2018 04:08

Towards a mindful cultural commons

Published in Religion

Peter Doran points to the way buddhist concepts are being corrupted by the commodifying pressures of capitalist culture, and outlines the ways in which true mindfulness practices can help us resist the growing demands of the 'attention economy'.

Neoliberal capitalism is an advanced form of symbolic and material power. We are living through a totalitarian moment in the history of dominant capitalism characterized by the unprecedented targeting of our bodies and our attention. This neoliberal moment is calling forth new forms of resistance as individuals and communities seek to roll back the latest stages in the historic processes of enclosure, by embracing the languages of the commons and commoning.

Resistance, appropriate to the productive forms of contemporary power that moves through and is productive of our bodies, minds and places, is no longer limited to the realms of institutional control and ownership but includes the challenge of restoring the mindful commons, free from the colonisation of our attention. Mindfulness, linked to critical engagement and ethics, can embody a phenomenology of the commons.

The rise of the commons and commoning as a series of practices of resistance – involved in reclaiming ecology as a practice of liberation, reclaiming the urban commons, and extending radical democratic control to the realms of the economy – is emerging alongside popular engagement with practices of mindfulness and other forms of mind-body practices such as yoga. These movements are emerging in complex and sometimes antagonistic ways.

Some secular mindfulness practices such as Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapies, for example, are also being absorbed into neoliberal consumerist and institutional logics, stripped of their ethical liberating teachings. Corporations, educational institutions, and governments are absorbing mindfulness techniques into their logics of productivity, resilience and adaptation to unacceptable power structures that conceal their own roles in producing suffering and exploitation. Mindfulness, reduced to an individual therapeutic response to societal or structural sources of exploitation, can serve the neoliberal agenda of devolving responsibility down to the individual.

Both movements – commoning and critical mindfulness practices – are calling forth a new individual and cultural awakening, a making visible that which has been actively concealed and placed at the margins of our attention by acts of cultural and economic enclosure, dis-embedding (market making), dislocation and colonisation (of forests, lands, bodies and subjectivities). These processes have accelerated under the influence of dominant capital or capitalization, which, given its universality, cohesion, expandability, intensity and flexibility – is best understood as a ‘symbolic architecture of social power’.

The attention economy is the new enclosure

Our human capacity for directing our attention, which is a form of productive energy, is emerging as an arena of intense conflict – signalled by the debates about political engagement, fake news, and attempts by corporate and political power to capture our loyalty using online technology and social media. It is also visible in concerns about loneliness, disconnection, depression and mental health, and addiction. These issues are not unrelated to the conditions created in our societies by rampant consumerism, invasive screen-based technologies, and their value systems built around hyper-individualism and the insertion of the profit-oriented market as the chief arbiter of social outcomes. The debate has just begun.

The dawn of the ‘attention economy’ – an era of corporate and political targeting of our attention energy to feed the global processes of capitalization – is invoking new forms of resistance, including critically engaged forms of mindfulness practices – re-embedded in ethical and radical teachings drawing from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist teachings remain a potential and critical resource to throw new light on Western experience and support a transition to sustainable forms of society and prosperity.

Our bodies and our attention are the new realms of enclosure. Modern-day capitalism and its worldwide complex of production and consumption is the primary and most important source of human subjectivity, because subjectivity conditions and participates in the production of all other commodities. We are the product. Subjectivity has become a key commodity – an achievement of a global media, information and entertainment complex – the nature of which is conceived, developed and manufactured as systematically and predictably as the Apple iPhone or any other commodity.

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Mindful and non-violent conscious living are no longer options limited to those with the means to embrace alternative lifestyles, but are moving to the centre of debates about the conditions of a new kind of freedom in an ecologically and socially constrained world: a world where freedom and limits must be reconciled alongside mind and nature.

At the level of the individual, practices of self-regulation aligned with freedom and liberation will be akin to the freedom that accompanies virtuosity, as in excellence in yoga, meditation or forms of discipline in jazz and improvisation that are associated with alternative notions of human joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction.

Two movements have enjoyed a popular surge of interest and participation over the past decade or two. One is the mainly secular mindfulness movement, with roots in Buddhist teachings, which often involves a therapeutic response to the mental pressures associated with modern lifestyles at work, in the market place or at home. The other is the commons or commoning movement.

Another more mindful world is possible

From the point of view of mindfulness-based paths to enhanced awareness, human beings are not trapped forever in the abstract attitude: another world is possible and it will be accompanied by another set of possible dispositions, characterized by a greater sense of intimacy, compassion and continuity with all beings.

The dissociation of mind from body, of awareness from experience, is the result of habituation – personal and institutional – that can be interrupted and broken through meditative technologies or practices that suspend the flow of discursive thought, can tame the inherent restlessness of the mind, and lead to calm and enhanced awareness or presence.

For those who choose to do so, locating mindfulness practice within an ‘engaged’ Buddhist philosophy or community of practice can uncover both practice-based and conceptual resources for radical critique and revolutionary praxis, peace, and both social and environmental justice.

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Prompted by a political and economic system where the prospects of living fully and in full awareness are limited, mindfulness practitioners, potentially and actually, are reclaiming our right to well-being. As Michel Foucault commented in the spring of 1978, at the conclusion of a period of Zen meditation practice in the Seionji temple in Japan:

if a philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe, or equally, born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe

Mindfulness-based practices, especially those located in or reconnected with their engaged Buddhist origins, can help us reflect on the deep structural or societal causes of dis-ease that have accompanied individuals with the rise of modernity, neoliberal capitalism and life as it is increasingly defined by the extrinsic values of the market place. We are invited and persuaded to internalize a radical and isolated responsibility for our larger fate, and our sense of agency retreats to the realms of ‘self-help’ solutions in the realms of the psyche and the body.

We are the commons

 The second movement involves activist and academic champions of the commons who have begun to respond to neoliberal capitalism and consumerism with a series of critical counter-practices, piloting a radical alternative to the prevailing hyper-individualist and consumerist ethos that recycles biological necessity into commercial capital.

A commons has a number of important characteristics:

- it is a social system with some self-organizing capacity and a commitment to preserving and sharing a local resource and working together with shared values and identity.
- access to the protected resource is organized on an inclusive and equitable basis.
- a commons is often identified with the particular resource that it has evolved to safeguard, use and preserve. In fact, a commons is always more-than-a-resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.
- finally, there is no commons without commoning or the practices that embody the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.

As Ugo Mattei explains:

A phenomenological understanding of the commons forces us to move beyond the reductionist opposition of ‘subject–object,’ which produces the commodification of both. It helps us understand that, unlike private and public goods, commons are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership … It would be reductive to say that we have a common good. We should rather see to what extent we are the commons.

There are a number of core beliefs that seem to be intrinsic to the practice of commoning and the organization of the commons, including:

- for rivalrous resources there is enough for all through sharing (the atmosphere);
- while for non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance (solar energy);
- humans are primarily cooperative;
- knowledge is produced through peer-to-peer networking or collaboration;
- and the vision of society foregrounds a conviction that one’s personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others.

A feature of this contemporary commoning movement is the shift from a view of the commons as a ‘thing’ or even as a set of arrangements to a phenomenological emphasis on the active promotion of commoning as a way of being, doing and seeing the world.

Commoning has been described as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of ‘the economy’, to challenge a dominant understanding that has championed rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.

Commoning shatters these dualisms and reconfigures the role of participants so that we are not simply reduced to the roles of producers or consumers but regarded as participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living entity. The recovery of the commons is a collective act of restorative memory and remembering, practice, and a rendering visible of new possibilities for economic forms in the face of a failed attempt by champions of capitalist power to impose a false arrest on the historical evolution of economic ideas. It involves reviving and re-embedding slow practices in an ethos that is local or situated, entangled in relationships that are human and non-human, and that command an ethics of care, reciprocity and interbeing.

Commoning, then, denotes the continuous making and remaking of the commons through shared practice. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of ‘techno-culture’, but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise.

Pay attention to mindful resistance

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The subject of this article is a call for a political economy of attention: a mindful commons. Its cultivation will demand a network of new conversations and practices, some of them embodied in the technologies of meditation and related mind–body practices. This is an opening contribution about the ground upon which these two movements can meet and how that ground can be cultivated to deepen our critical and collective understanding of the ‘attention economy’ and what’s at stake.

Only what we pay attention to seems real to us. While what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until, perhaps, we are blindsided and events suddenly call out for attention. He adds: ‘Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this “choice” is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.’ Which raises interesting questions about freedom.

While we hold to our beliefs about free will, we are equally conscious of our struggles to direct our attention. As Wallace observes:

We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called ‘free’ if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to inform us that our behaviour isn’t always guided by free will – it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.

Attention is now regarded as an essential part of practices of consumption, entertainment and media culture, as it has become intensely valued both as capital and as a scarce commodity. That innate tendency towards ‘absence’ from our moment-to-moment experience has become an open door for a highly sophisticated series of social and corporate technologies designed to target and capitalize our attention energy. Indeed, in the context of post-industrial society, attention is now regarded as a currency with greater value than that which circulates in our banks, one that is now the single most important determinant of business success.

Attention has a profound impact on character and ethical behaviour, and our capacity to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. While a gift for sustained attention can be seen as a fixed deposit, a capacity one inherited or not, the contemporary mindfulness movement and associated spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, are associated with forms of training to enhance the capacity for attention in attempts to interrupt patterns of conditioned behaviour and cultivate a genuine quality of freedom and spaciousness around our capacity to see, our capacity for awareness. There are great similarities between the practices and dispositions of commoning and the mindfulness movement, especially for those who wish to inform their activism and powers of resistance to contemporary capitalist culture.

Peter Doran is the author of A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons, 2017, Routledge.

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result
Sunday, 18 March 2018 04:08

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result

Published in Films

Dennis Broe discerns a renewal of energy in the tired old formulae of the horror film, as film-makers draw on the horrors of everyday life under an ever more destructive, greedier capitalism.

Any assessment of the best films of 2016, as critics around this time of the year are wont to do, has to take account of the new power of traditional genres to illuminate contemporary truths.

I’m talking particularly about the Korean horror film the Last Train To Busan, a zombie thriller whose subtext is the horror of neoliberal life and its stifling of all collective feeling; The Witch, as good a film as has ever been made about the way a particular brand of fervent Puritanism continues to inflect and infect the American psyche; and the upcoming Brimstone, a Dutch film set in the American West which uses elements of horror in its perennial battle between a woman’s desire and a stifling and violent macho culture, justified under a kind of religious and military fanaticism that predominates in the history of the Western.

This is not even to mention Don’t Breathe where the horror of the contemporary American urban nightmare of under or non-funded inner cities is metastasized into a battle in Detroit between urban raiders taking advantage of the situation and a Iraqi war vet whose sadism is the detritus of the US Middle East colonial wars, and the related reviving of the disaster genre, distant cousin to horror, in the blockbuster crossing of it with the contemporary social problem film in Deepwater Horizon, so that just when British Petroleum thought it was safe to go back into the world’s waters we have the nightmare they inflicted on Louisiana retold as a corporate disaster on the scale of Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.

It really is not surprising that in today’s world horror is a genre that draws directors. What is different is that, globally, a good number of these films are moving beyond the splatter aspect of the genre and into more sophisticated dystopian imaginings of contemporary events. Where horror in the first decade of the millennium was defined by the Hollywood splat pack epitomized by Saw where sadistic effect is piled upon sadistic effect in a reflexivity or consciousness about the genre that substituted gore for the comic sophistication of Wes Craven’s Scream, and by reactionary pieces such as Hostel where the other of the American empire, the strangeness of life outside the neo-liberal order, was villainized. The one film worth remembering from the whole lot was Cabin Fever which cast a negative light on the now no longer innocent band of privileged teens previously in the genre only victims but in this film also victimizers.

Humanity does appear to be at an impasse in a number of areas. There seems to be no real will to stop global warming as energy companies become more and more vicious in their pursuit of profit, seen currently in the unleashing of dogs on peaceful protestors in land of the Lakota. There are more and more areas of the globe simply written off as no longer profit centers and with people in those areas being offered only right-wing demagoguery or Trumpisms as an alternative. And finally, neoliberal governing mechanisms, nominally called democratic, everywhere being exposed as simply under the command of a global oligarchy with the processes incapable of producing anything like true representatives of the people. 58% of the electorate in the US viewed unfavourable the two puerile mouthpieces who recently contested the presidency.

In this increasingly catastrophic world, along comes the most important representative of the new political horror Korea with the resplendent Last Train to Busan, a zombie film for the neoliberal age. It is unlike The Walking Dead, whose subtext is simply how to manage the empire in the wake of its personal catastrophe of 9/11 – how much violence does one use to subdue the world’s population of zombies who are sleepwalking through existence? Here, the film’s virus that causes the zombie breakout throughout the world, and specifically on a single train, is tied to nuclear radiation leaks, recalling nearby Fukushima, the winds from which must have affected the neighbouring island of Korea.

The penetration of nature by these deadly manmade energy sources is forecast in a truly frightening and wondrous opening where a deer, become roadkill by a pig farmer, rises reborn as a creature of the dead, as so much of nature is now stillborn. On the train we witness the force of the zombies penetrating every strata of society, but two business types stand out.

The lead character is a financial manager, on the train with the daughter he often neglects, who is reborn as a human being in the course of helping others in combatting the outbreak. In contrast the most vicious of the zombie-battlers is a corporate CEO who sacrifices everyone in his single minded desire to stay alive, utterly devoid of all fellow feeling, as accurate a depiction of the neoliberal ethos as has been rendered on screen.

The train hurtles toward Busan, the site of one of the major battles of the Korean War, and it is here in the finale that the human survivors of the zombie attack are met with a line of soldiers recalling the primal trauma on the island of a war inflicted on it by the great powers. Though the city has been remade as a global production capital, Busan for Koreans still bears the scars of those never healed wounds.

The film is in the line of two earlier Korean horror-disaster films, The Host, concerning a seaside city menaced by a aqueous monster begot in the labs of the still occupying American army and Snowpiercer, a dystopian fable about the wages of climate change which this film acknowledges by the former film’s lead appearing on the zombie train, broken down and in tatters, muttering over and over “We’re all dead.”

Busan is contemporaneous with another Korean horror film, The Stranger, where horrible murders in a village are tied to a Japanese recluse who haunts the countryside long after the end of the brutal Japanese colonial period.

Why the mastery of these genres in contemporary Korea? For one, the Korean cinema is duplicating its role as trendsetter in Asian television by challenging Western distribution in Asia with extravagant genre films with a regional bent. But the force and vociferousness of these generic creations owes much to the horrors in Korean history – the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the South Korean dictatorship, and the current inability to reunite the island – and the willingness of Korean directors to transmute this tragedy into a form in the horror and disaster film in which it can be contemplated. This has energized genres that had atrophied, partly from becoming too shielded from the social world.

And Hollywood is following suit. Don’t Breathe utilizes the ravaging of Detroit as subtext for its intimate horror, inside the last house inhabited on a block destroyed by the city’s debt, which has been foisted on it by its banks. The film recalls Wes Craven’s resplendent People Under the Stairs of a quarter of a century ago when the devastation wrecked on the inner city of Philadelphia is seen from the inside by its black inhabitants as fueled in a horror mansion by a sado-masochistic Caucasian Mommy and Daddy who torture the neighborhoods downcast.

Craven in his social attitudes follows a line in the horror film that dates back to WW2 impresario Val Lewton whose nine horror films, including Cat People, a branding of the Serbian female other and The Leopard Man, which materializes the horror of Latino treatment in the US, together present a savage critique of American normalcy. Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow in its treatment of Haitian voodoo as desperate cry of a former colonial downcast people recalls directly Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie where the horror of a Caribbean island is tied to its history as a sugarcane plantation.

Don’t Breathe, in the Lewton/Craven line is a well-drawn, basically single set-piece where the trauma inflicted on the city is reflected in equal measure by the young housebreakers who are attempting to flee and the blind war vet who has lost his daughter, but who reenacts his pain in the most violent of ways, a reversal of Audrey Hepburn’s victimized blind woman in Wait Until Dark.

The new and important wrinkle in all of these films is the contemporary social setting that grounds the film and lets in and references directly the horrors of the modern global capitalist world. Thus in Don’t Breathe we get a montage of the deserted houses on the same block as the one the intruders are attacking. This element of social reality is even more strongly at play in Deepwater in the interpolation of an almost fetishistic recreation of life on board the Deepwater Horizon just before and after the disaster, including featuring and naming the members of the crew who will become victims of BP’s drive for profits, as a cagily evil John Malkovich, instead of his usual over-the-top villainous persona, refuses safety tests and pushes the drilling that results in the spill. Just as Don’t Breathe cuts to a variety of shots of devastated Detroit, so too Deepwater contains a series of shots which describe the awesome destruction, a true attack on nature, of deepwater drilling where the earth is pounded in ways it cannot sustain.

These films constitute a global change in renewing tired generic formulas by investing in them the horrors of daily life under an ever more destructive and ever greedier capitalism.