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Žižek and the Ideology of “Religionless Spirituality”

January 21, 2013 2 comments

Marxist theorist Slavoj Žižek is widely known for his provocative, if sometimes reckless, pronouncements on contemporary culture. He is, of course, less well-known for careful, restrained or “rigorous” analysis. Despite this, there are notable moments in which Žižek is so right-on that one wonders whether even he knows how right he is. In a now often quoted passage from his opening chapter in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (co-authored with RO theologian John Milbank) Žižek writes the following:

“…when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organized religion)… The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.”

While it’s not really clear from the context how this “New Age” insistence on “spirituality without religion” is supposed to be related to “today’s global capitalism”, elsewhere Žižek has offered a slightly more detailed explanation of this same basic idea. In his book On Belief for instance, he notes the irony that today, while “European” technology and capitalism are dominating globally at the level of “economic infrastructure,” at the same time, this New Age, “Asiatic” thought is establishing it’s hegemony at the level of “ideological superstructure.” Žižek explains how this pervasive cultural shift from “institutional religion” to “spiritual experience” is, he thinks, tied to what Alvin Toffler referred to as “Future Shock” – i.e., the inability of those in the West to cope psychologically with the ever-increasing rate of technological progress and it’s resulting social changes. The appropriation of various “Eastern” spiritualities seems to allow Westerners a way out of this dilemma. According to what Žižek calls “Western Buddhism”:

“Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as an expression of the modern logic of domination – one should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference towards the mad dance of this accelerated process.”

Thus, Žižek claims – making only a passing reference to the old Marxian adage about the “opium of the masses” – that the current emphasis on “spirituality without religion” allows Westerners a way to cope with the “mad dance” of late capitalism that traditional religious institutions, especially Christianity, cannot. The unfortunate irony of this situation however, is that though this “religionless spirituality” may appear to us as a form of resistance (e.g., to capitalism, to the ‘status quo,’ to “Western” technological society, etc.), it is, in effect, “the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity”. In other words, in the very act of renouncing control over our circumstances (which often amounts to little more than a renunciation of the right to judge a given situation as objectively unjust), and contenting ourselves with a merely subjective stance of indifference (i.e., “letting oneself go”), we effectively undo any possibility of real resistance, allowing ourselves to become the passive instruments of “the capitalist dynamic.”

It’s important to note that Žižek isn’t criticizing Eastern spirituality as such. He insists, for instance, on a distinction between real, authentic Buddhism – that is, Buddhism as it might be practiced by devout followers – and the decontextualized, and cherry-picked version that figures prominently in the “New Age” pastiche. It’s the latter, rather than the former, that draws his critical ire.

If Žižek’s analysis is able to indicate one possible way in which this so-called New Age ideology functions once it appears, perhaps the work of a growing number of anthropologists and scholars of religion can shed light on how it is able to appear in the first place – i.e., how is it that we have come to inherit as our basic starting point it’s founding assumption: that there is a pure, universal core of “undistorted” spirituality underlying each particular religion’s “manipulation” of it. In my next post, In a future post, I’d like to explore the contention of religious scholars such as S.N. Balagangadhara, Tomoko Masuzawa, Timothy Fitzgerald and a host of others, that the concept of “religion” as a universal, transhistorical, transcultural feature of human life, is not an objective, neutral descriptor of a certain kind of practice, “out there” in the world, but is an invention of early Western modernity which was superimposed upon or borrowed by other cultures through the process of colonization. I will then examine the implications of this work for the kind of “New Age” ideology that Žižek addresses above, in order to show that it’s emphasis on a “religionless spirituality” not only functions as a “supplement” to our capitalist economics (as Žižek claims), but that it is also the logical extension of a particular ideological discourse which has its roots in a long history of colonization, and western imperialism.

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Cornel West on Marx and Engels on Religion.

November 16, 2012 1 comment

The classical Marxist understanding of religion is more subtle than is generally acknowledged. Crude Marxist formulations of religion as the opium of the people in which the religious masses are viewed as passive and ignorant objects upon which monolithic religious institutions impose fantasies of other-worldly fulfillment reveal more about Englightenment prejudices and arrogant self-images of petty bourgeois intellectuals than the nature of religion. Contrary to such widespread crypto-Marxist myths about religion, Marx and Engels understood religion as a profound human response to, and protest against, intolerable conditions. For Marx and Engels, religion constituted alienated forms of human cultural practice under circumstances not of people’s own choosing. On this view, religion as an opium of the people is not a mere political pacification imposed from above but rather a historically circumscribed existential and experiential assertion of being (or somebodiness) by dehumanized historical agents under unexamined socioeconomic conditions.

– Cornel West. Religion and the Left

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OK…So I’m Back.

November 13, 2012 1 comment

After much himming and hawing, and not a little haste, I have decided to reconvene the Grand Ampersand Project. Although, from here on out, I will be primarily focused on Religious Studies, especially the work of Timothy Fitzgerald, Talal Asad, Charels Taylor, William Cavanaugh and John Milbank.

In the interval since this blog was last active, I have begun several separate blog projects. One dedicated to an ongoing discussion of Continental philosophy and political theory, and one dedicated to logic and analytic philosophy. I will be trying to balance the activity of all three of these blogs going forward.

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Dissolving the Ampersand…

July 3, 2012 1 comment

What have been the most central topics of interest for me have also tended to be very disparate and unrelated. The whole idea behind the “grand ampersand” was that I would bring these different spheres of interest together, under one umbrella. But if the name “the grand ampersand” invokes some king of intellectual synthesis or dialogue between, say, formal logic, continental philosophy, vegetarianism, Christian political theology, and marxist-socialist political theories, then perhaps a better name would have been “the grand disjunction” (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way, does it?).

In light of this, I’ve decided to break up the blog into multiple different blogs, one to discuss political theory, another, for analytic philosophy, and another for theological topics. The primary motivation for this is the sheer chaos of information that potential new readers are likely to meet when coming across this site. Hopefully this move will not only lead to more interest (and therefore more discussion), but also inspire more of a drive to write on my part.

I’ll be posting the links to the new blogs in a subsequent enry, as well as in the margin (to the right).

-Thanks!

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Compiling a “Political Theology” Reading List

June 19, 2012 Leave a comment

In order to better acquaint myself with the certain current trends in theology, I am compiling a list of books to serve as a kind of crash course in political theology. As is common when anticipating a coming break from school, I have deluded myself into thinking any of my free time will be spent on reading non-school related books. With any luck, the following list will serve to indulge my fantasy:

1. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology

2. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

3. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

4. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory

5. Talal Assad, Formations of the Secular

6. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory

7. William T. Cavanaugh,Torture and Eucharist

8. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

…. Any thoughts? What books am I missing?

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Continental Philosophy, Difficulty and Obscurantism

June 3, 2012 5 comments

One of the more well-known and oft-repeated accusations against ‘continental’ thinkers by those in the analytic tradition is that of “deliberate obscurantism”. As far as I can tell the accusation is basically that the notoriously difficult prose of thinkers like Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, et al, is intended to create an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the meaning of the text. The accusation implicitly equates this with intellectual dishonesty: First, in that it allows the author to avoid criticism (Foucault and Searle alike find Derrida guilty on this count, referring to his rhetoric as a “terrorism of obscurantism”). Second, in that it mystifies the thinker, creating the illusion that his work is more substantial than it actually is. On this latter point, I admit that Slavoj Zizek has often been an object of fascination for me, despite (and perhaps because) I don’t fully understand him (In an ironic way, Zizek himself becomes a kind of “sublime object”)

That this criticism can be extended to the entirety of “continental” (read: non-analytic) philosophy is unlikely. Nevertheless, something like a “deliberate obscurantism” seems to be a more or less explicit aim in the work of Kierkegaard. In both the preface and the epilogue to Fear and Trembling, he draws a comparison between the world of commerce and the world of ideas, referring to an incident in which some spice-merchants deliberately sunk some of their goods at sea in order to inflate the value of the goods back home. Kierkegaard maintains that, “we need something similar in the world of spirit”. Kierkegaard clearly perceives a decline in the value of faith among his contemporaries, which is related to the ease and simplicity with which the concept is commonly associated. In other words, because everyone assumes faith is easy, it is cheap; and because it is cheap it is of little value. His aim throughoutFear and Trembling is to cause the reader to question her assumptions about the ease of faith. He seeks to make faith more difficult and so to make it more valuable. Not only is this difficulty present in his exegesis of the story of Abraham, but it is also accomplished at different levels of the text in, for example, his use of pseudonyms, multiple beginnings, “attunements”, and prologues, mysterious epigraphs, and odd chapter titles. All of this is intended to create difficulty for the reader, to arouse his audience from complacency.

Perhaps, if there is any “deliberate obscurantism” in the works of other “continental” philosophers it is not so simply a matter of intellectual dishonesty. Perhaps, if the difficulty is calculated as it is in Kierkegaard, then it serves a purpose – like pointing to a kind of truth that would simply be lost on a facile, reductive explanation. (If this is the case, then it’s too bad that Derrida’s counter-accusation of superficiality on the part of Searle was not more aptly directed at, say, Dennet or the Churchlands. At least Searle doesn’t just ignore problems because they’re difficult).

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A Thinking Reed on David Clough’s “On Animals: Systematic Theology”

April 2, 2012 4 comments

Lee M. over at A Thinking Reed has been posting his reflections as he works through David Clough’s new book On Animals: A Systematic Theology. The book promises to be a very exciting moment in the area of animal theology. It is the first work exclusively dedicated to the development of the doctrinal issues underpinning the Christian-theological understanding of non-human animals. The ultimate aim of this book, of course, is to provide an adequate theological foundation for a Christian ethics of human-animal relations (which task Clough will take up in the second volume). But rather than develop doctrinal issues as he goes, Clough has decided to dedicate an entire volume to doctrine first. He takes up the consideration of animals under the theological headings of Creation, Reconciliation, and Redemption respectively. Here are the links to Lee’s discussion (enjoy):

          1) Reading David Clough’s On Animals.

          2) On Animals: Creation.

          3) On Animals: Reconciliation.

          4) On Animals: Redemption.

I look forward to reading the book myself, but with financial constraints and a price tag of $116.25 I think I’ll have to wait awhile.