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Reviewed by:
  • Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy: Two Paths of Liberation from the Representational Mode of Thinking
  • Robert Magliola
Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy: Two Paths of Liberation from the Representational Mode of Thinking. By Carl Olson. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000. 309 pp.

Carl Olson's Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy compares two paths of liberation from the representational mode of thinking, namely, Zen Buddhism and postmodern philosophy. Olson is to be commended for encouraging this dialogue, especially since professors of religious studies usually marginalize Gallic postmodern thought. He is also to be appreciated for the enormous effort that must have been required to describe so much material. Olson treats Bataille, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Guattari, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Levinas, and Lyotard on the postmodern side; and Dogen, Hakuin, Nishitani, many Chinese Ch'anists, and some Indian Buddhists on the Buddhist side. His method is to arrange the chapters according to topoi such as "Language, Disruption, and Play," "Ways of Thinking," "The Body," and so on, and to treat the pertaining ideas of the individual Buddhist and postmodern authors insofar as applicable.

Because Olson's book assembles between two covers the names, selected works, and—at least in a general sense—the "key" ideas of the postmodern movement and their grosso modo similarities/dissimilarities via-à-vis Zen Buddhism, I think it serves an undergraduate readership well enough. The problem is that the book too often performs like a crib sheet in the CliffsNotes manner, reducing so-called "key" ideas to misleading clichés. The book is at its best when it gives an author some length of attention, as it does with Dogen. Rather than reduce my review to a series of sound bites (print bites?) corresponding to Olson's, I shall resort to what hermeneuts call an Auerbachian decoupage, that is, a close analysis of several passages that can be taken as indicative of an author's mode in general. I'll address three interpretations from Olson's book, one of Derrida, one of a Chinese kung-an (koan), and one of Lacan.

Within his comparison of Derrida/language/Buddhism, Olson cites (p. 46) a sentence from Derrida's Writing and Difference: "Speech is stolen: since it is stolen [End Page 295] from language it is, thus, stolen from itself, that is, from the thief who has always already lost speech as property and initiative." Olson glosses as follows: "Derrida claims that a speaking subject, representing an irreducible secondary status, is no longer the person who speaks because his/her origin is elusive in an already established field of speech." Because of glosses like this, Derrida is all too often subjected to the ridicule of nonspecialists, who exclaim, "Derrida denies that a person can use speech instrumentally? Aren't his lectures the instruments of his own ideas?" Actually in the section Olson quotes, Derrida is appropriating Lacanian thought and mutating it for Derridean purposes. For Derrida, all life is stretched out in time and diced-out in space in such a way that phenomenological self-identity is an illusion. Physical writing is the best metaphor for this, in that written words (even Chinese ideograms) cannot, in the scientific sense, be perceived in one absolute moment: it "takes time" and it "takes space" to recognize a word, that is, "build" a word-meaning. Derrida calls life a "text" or "writing" because life is like writing: life on the phenomenological level appears holistic (much as a word-meaning appears self-identical, i.e., arising all at once), but life is actually a time/space "drift."1

In the sentence Olson quotes, what Derrida means has the following gist: Speech (spoken words) is stolen from language in that it belongs to language as writing and is really writing; and insofar as it is really writing, it is stolen from itself; speech has "always already" been lost to language in that the instrumentality of speech is always undercut by language's nature as writing. Speech is always undercut by an inevitable drift that subverts intentionality and foils our attempts to make speech our absolute "property." This does not mean most of the intention...