Homo Ludens – finding the beach beneath the streets

Note: for unknown reasons, our computer is not allowing us to include apostrophes in text on the website, so we have replaced all apostrophes with a *. Sorry for the inconvenience:

Reclaiming our glorious birthright as homo ludens (that is, the understanding of humanity as inherently playful) is predicated on what Raoul Vaneigem termed the Revolution of Everyday Life. In a broad sense, the first and last step of this transition is akin to satori, an act of realization that “breaks the spell” as CrimethINC and, earlier, G.I. Gurdjieff would say. The “spell” prevents us from recognizing the difference between being a consumer (be it of commodities or ideas) and anything else; it is, essentially, a state of dreamless sleep. This sleep state is characterized by a passive acceptance of the sense that what is presented to us by culture (or, perhaps more accurately stated, the Culture Industry) is insufficient yet seemingly totalizing in scope. Its self-appointed and self-evident status as the total sum of possibilities is a direct indication not of the world as it is, but of the dominance of a resilient and flexible perspective. As such, the problem is perception. However, we must be wary of our susceptibility to seductions promising the attainment of this shift in perception quickly, for the necessary realization will not come easily, nor can it even resemble anything we perceive now. Metaphorically, it is not simply rearranging the deck chairs; the shift is a new mode of transportation entirely. It will be unrecognizable; it will be too much; it will be your own.

At the heart of the consumerist perspective is the normalization of vicarious living. Described in terms of merely surviving as opposed to actually living, the normalization of vicarious living demands that one*s existence is understood in terms of an array of prefabricated images of life instead of the chaotic potentiality that resides therein. Ideologies and theologies (the difference merely being stylistic in terms of fashion and architecture), along with defeatist-receptive apathy and “caring” consumerism, generate these images which largely obstruct the imagination and defang the will. As desires outside of this perspective are understood as “impossible” to a worldview that prohibits the contexts for their realization, we are forced to a new order of mentation — be it dada epistemology, guerrilla ontology, or the suppression and realization of art. Larry Law puts an essential aspect of this maneuver eloquently: “theory is when you have ideas, ideology is when ideas have you.” This is not to say that we must throw the bathtub out with the bath-water. Ideology-mongering is out, but the eruption of glorious chaos is in.

Speaking pragmatically, and in large measure, for the sake of mental traveling, the question at the origin of the rainbow, which is also its end, is thus: “Does breaking the spell come gradually or all at once?” Standard hagiographies of Zen Buddhism (known as Ch*an Buddhism in China) cite the Chinese peasant Huineng as the sixth and final Patriarch of the tradition. While largely premised on a revisionist history of Buddhism, the details of his appointment to such a position informs the question at the heart of this essay, namely, how do we break the spell? Joining the monastery as an illiterate peasant, Huiheng was ostensibly an outsider from Buddhism despite his enthusiasms for the Dharma, that is, the way of the Buddha. Untrained and uncouth, Huineng*s presence at the monastery was tolerated, but by no means was he accepted as worthy of leadership as bestowed by the Dharma transmission from the ailing Fifth Patriarch. When the Fifth Patriarch announced that his successor would be determined by the man who composed the most illuminated poetic verse, only the head monk Shenxiu attempted, as all of the other monks deferred to his apparent wisdom. Indeed his verse was great, for its confirmed the truisms that one must embody to achieve enlightenment; however, it did not evidence the illumination necessary for the position of Patriarch. Upon seeing Shenxiu*s verse, Huineng immediately understood its failing — it had valorized the finger pointing to the moon instead of the moon itself; put differently, he mistook the map for the territory, to use Korzybski*s terminology; he did not have the theory, the theory had him. He wrote:

The body is the bodhi tree. The mind is like a bright mirror stand. Be always diligent in cleaning it. Do not let it attract any dust.

While Shenxiu properly diagnosed and explicated the essential issue at the heart of Zen, he could not see past his devotion to the images, symbols, and methods that composed his Zen lifeworld. Having little exposure to such distractions, Huineng responded without hesitation:

Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree. The bright mirror is also not a stand. Fundamentally there is not a single thing. Where could any dust be attracted?

Following Hakim Bey*s conception of “Immediatism,” Huineng*s response was “immediate” — both in the sense of being directly apprehended and without mediation. In wildness is the preservation of the world. Within his lifetime, Huineng*s immediate or “Sudden Enlightenment” approach to Zen would become ossified as the Southern School and it would remain at odds with the gradual approach that defined the Northern Schools. The split has begotten more schisms and the disputes persist to the present.

Based upon the aforementioned history, we can only answer the question posed at the outset of this essay in a paradoxical affirmative. Yes — breaking the spell comes gradually, *and* it comes all at once; or, stated differently, we can answer the question posed at the outset of this essay not by choosing one or the other, but by saying simply yes — yes to both, yes to everything. Breaking the spell, the revolutionary of everyday life, finding the beach beneath the streets, developing class/ecological/gender consciousness, etc. — these are the metaphorical and theoretical orientations that can guide us to the death we all deserve. Terminological telos-babel aside, let these poisoned antidotes of inspiration stain your finger; let us look no further than long days and even longer nights of insurrectory conviviality for such unmediated pleasure.

Breaking the spell is not something that can be accomplished once and for all. The dream of finality is the barren image of liberation. We should celebrate the privilege of scars, the ever-present necessity of the impossible.

Contact the author at Corvid College SF www.corvidcollegesf.com