Curator's Note

Buddhist scholarship in India from the second to sixth centuries addresses many key issues that are debated by media scholars today: the relationships between subject and object, form and substrate, and technicity and consciousness. I have discussed them in my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory, “Buddhism and Film Theory,” as well as my most recent monograph, Cinema Illuminating Reality.[1] Here, I focus on one of these relations: the subject-object opposition.

The discussion of how the subject-object divide is produced can be found in the Pāli canon (formalized in 483 BCE or 400 BCE). For the Theravādin Buddhists, such a divide is dismantled and reconstituted from one kṣaṇa (point-instant) to another. What we call our body and its associated milieu are made up of interchanging particles, energies, and affective intensities. When these particles, energies, and intensities interact, vedanās (sensations and affections) arise. These vedanās, in turn, trigger a set of saṅkhāras (Pāli)/saṃskāras (Sanskrit) (dispositions and memories), which produce saññas/saṃjñās (discriminations or perceptions). The subject-object divide, which is a form of discrimination, is, therefore, a papañca (perceptual-conceptual proliferation), not the way it is.[2]

It is tempting to conclude that the subject-object divide does not exist. But as Nāgārjuna (circa 150–250) points out, the argument that the subject-object divide does not exist is already predicated on the existence of such a divide, much like the fact that the negation of its nonexistence is predicated on the existence of nonexistence itself. Therefore, the subject-object divide is neither existent nor nonexistent, neither not existent nor not nonexistent. In other words, whether the subject-object opposition exists or not exists is a matter of perception-conception. Nāgārjuna’s notion is called mādhyamaka (middle way), which refers to the idea that in the way it is, there is no such thing as existence and nonexistence or subject and object.[3]

Yet, in our perceptual-conceptual reality, these dualistic notions still shape our knowledge production. For Asaṅga and his half-brother Vasubandhu (circa fourth-fifth centuries), our memories and dispositions enable our body to perceive and conceptualize and turn what it perceives and conceptualizes into forms, signs, and intentions. Hence, the forms, signs, and intentions that constitute the discrimination between subject and object are manifestations of our memories and dispositions. One set of dispositions underdetermines that perceptions are produced in accordance with the principle of dependent originations. This means that subject and object are interdependently produced, and neither of them has any self-nature. In other words, their positions are constantly changing and have no essential meanings. We can say that these positions exist, though their existence is perceptual-conceptual and entityless. We can say that they do not exist, though their nonexistence is likewise perceptual-conceptual and entityless. In the way it is (ultimate reality), there is neither coming-into-existence (becoming) nor ceasing-to-exist (non-becoming).[4]

As Thích Nhất Hạnh argues, in our perceptual-conceptual reality, consciousness is consciousness of something. Thus, film phenomenology enables us to understand how individuated technical and human bodies interact intersubjectively in a cinematic experience. Yet, if our bodies and their associated milieu are indeed an assemblage of particles, energies, and affective intensities, what we call a being is already a point of convergence of multiple processes of xiangji (相即 or interbecoming).[5] Such an anthropotechnogenetic assemblage can be considered a consciousness as something. Subjectivities and objectivities are relations that are inscribed on the surface of such an assemblage as transient terminals that interrupt and redirect molecular, energetic, and affective flows. This idea is more in line with the thinking of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.[6] In this sense, the cinematographic consciousness is an anthropotechnogenetic one, in which subjectivization-objectivization is a process that is inscribed on molecular, energetic, and affective flows, and neither position has any intrinsic nature.

To say that each being is already a point of convergence of interbeings is not to say that we are all the same. It means that we are ontogenetically diverse and interdependently related. Diversity and interdependency are still manifestations of our memories and dispositions. Yet, the way it is (ultimate reality), once manifested, is our perceptual-conceptual reality. Therefore, the ultimate reality (technicity) and perceptual-conceptual reality (consciousness) are not two different modes of existence but a singular one. The ultimate reality is free of discrimination and nondiscrimination, but in its manifest form, it is ontogenetic diverse with processes of interbecoming. We must therefore become mindful of how discrimination affects each phase of our process of becoming, here and now.




[1] Victor Fan, “Buddhism and Film Theory: Beyond a Legacy,” in The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory, ed. Kyle Stevens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), 166–84; Victor Fan, Cinema Illuminating Reality: Media Philosophy through Buddhism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022).

[2] See, for example, Buddha Gotama, Samyutta Nikaya: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (No place: Theravada Tipitaka Press, 2009).

[3] Nāgārjuna, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, eds. and trans. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura (Boston: Wisdom Publication), 89–98 and 193–206.

[4] Asaṅga, Abhidharmasamuccaya: The Compendium of the Higher Teaching, trans. Sara Boin-Webb from the French translation by Walpola Rahula (Fremont, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 2001); Yen P’ei, Jushe lunsong jiangji [Lectures on the Abhidharmakośakārikā] (Taichung: Zhonghua dadian bianyinhui, 1971), §4 (2:514–25).

[5] Thich, Nhat Hanh. Understanding Our Mind. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 2006.

[6] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Stem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin Books, 1972 [2009].

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