Buddhism and bell hooks: Liberatory Aesthetics and the Radical Subjectivity of No-Self


  • Leah Kalmanson


This article engages bell hooks's concept of “radical black subjectivity” through the lens of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. Relying on the Zen theorist Dōgen and on resources from Japanese aesthetics, I argue that non-attachment to the self clarifies hooks's claim that radical subjectivity unites our capacity for critical resistance with our capacity to appreciate beauty. I frame this argument in terms of hooks's concern that postmodernist identity critiques dismiss the identity claims of disempowered peoples. On the one hand, identity critique has an emotional component, as it involves questioning the self and possibly letting go of aspects of that self in which a person has inevitably made emotional investments. On the other hand, it has an aesthetic component, as it opens a space for the creative crafting and recrafting of identity. Japanese aesthetics emphasizes that all aesthetic appreciation is accompanied by feelings of mournfulness, for the object of aesthetic appreciation is transient. Linking hooks's liberatory aesthetics with the resources of the Japanese tradition suggests that mournfulness in the face of self-loss necessarily accompanies all instances of critical resistance. Thus non-attachment becomes a useful framework in which to understand both the emotional and aesthetic components of empowered identity critique.