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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.

Reading G.A. Cohen’s “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” (Pt.2)

           In the first post of this (hopefully three-part) series on G.A. Cohen’s article On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom I challenged a fairly typical, common-discourse, defense of capitalism against the Marxist claim that under capitalism the working class is forced to sell their labor to those who own the means of production (namely the defense that says they are not forced because they have other options, i.e., poverty, crime, starve to death etc.). This facile, but typical response of course rests on a simplistic misunderstanding of what it is to be forced to do something. I followed Cohen’s reasoning that in ordinary usage, when we say “one is forced to do A, because one has no choice,” this is meant as shorthand for, “one is forced to choose to do A, because one has no reasonable or acceptable alternative.”

           But how does this Marxist claim about working-class unfreedom stand against a more serious criticism: namely real-life examples of individuals whose objective position within the relations of production under capitalism is identical to that of the proletarian, who nevertheless manage to work their way out of the working class to become small business owners or capitalists? Since such cases show that the working class are not relevantly forced to sell their labor – i.e., they have at least one option other than wage labor, beggary, or starvation, which appears perfectly reasonable and acceptable – this seems to form a powerful counterexample to the Marxist thesis. Cohen recognizes this as a powerful case against the Marxist claim about proletarian unfreedom, and even attempts to show how two of the most common arguments against this powerful counterexample fail to recognize the argument’s strength, and thus, ultimately do not work. Read more…

July 4th

On this July fourh, I pray for the day to come when we will turn our swords in for plowshares, and beat our spears into pruning hooks. I pray that, even as we are thankful for what freedoms we do have, we will remember those who’s freedoms have been and continue to be trampled upon, so that we can enjoy the luxury of privelage. That even in thankful humility, we will not forget this deep injustice. I pray too, that rather than looking back, to some supposed time in the past when “freedom was gained,” we will instead realize that freedom has yet to come. I pray that we continue to look to Christ, and to his return, and to the coming of his kingdom. And also that we will not abondon the hard work of paving a path to freedom in which everyone can participate, not through waging wars in third world countries but through sharing our own peace and abundance.

It’s Not Like Anyone is Holding a Gun to Your Head: Reading G.A. Cohen’s “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” (pt. 1)

What does it mean to be forced to do something? In an article entitled “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,” G.A. Cohen argues that in common conversation, to say that someone was forced to do X, implies that they were forced to choose to do X. Similarly, when we say that someone “had no other choice,” this is simply meant as shorthand to say that person “had no other choice worthy of consideration,” or that there were “no reasonable or acceptable alternatives.” Thus to say that “someone was forced to do X, and that they had no other choice,” is simply to say that that person was forced to choose to do X, because they had no other choice worthy of consideration – there simply was no reasonable or acceptable alternative. Let’s refer to this definition of unfreedom as the common sense of unfreedom, since it is, according to Cohen, rooted in our common understanding of what is is to be forced to do something. Read more…

Some Points from Chomsky’s Talk at University of Oregon

In the midst of a global economic crisis, at the heart of which lies the second major failure of American capitalism in less than a century, people have begun to question the confident assumptions that constitute the conventional wisdom about the American economic system. After the $144 billion in tax dollars paid in bailouts to some of the richest corporations in the US (most of which have evaded contributing anything in taxes themselves) people must also begin to seriously criticize the ties between corporations and the government. These ties were the focus of a recent talk given by Noam Chomsky at the University of Oregon, entitled “Global Hegemony: The Facts, The Images”. My girlfriend and I made the two-hour drive down to Eugene to catch the talk, but were disappointed to see the four-city-block-long line of people waiting to be admitted. Across campus we could see that the line for overflow seating was no better. No surprise, we didn’t get in, but we stuck it out and were able to listen on the P.A. System that campus security brought out for those of us who were left outside.

Chomsky’s talk drew attention to the way that the economic interests of a small minority of the population, the extremely wealthy, directly steer the way that policy is made in the U.S., which in turn benefits the rich at the cost of working class. Chomsky began with a critical insight of political economist Adam Smith who, over 200 years ago, noted the tendency of free-market practice to compromise democratic values. It was clear in Smith’s time, as it is clear now, that those who control the majority of society’s wealth (those who he referred to as the “master’s of mankind”) will inevitably gain significant control over legislation, too. And they will pursue this end against the interest of the rest of society. These so-called “masters of mankind” are guided by a principle, dubbed by Smith as their “vile maxim”, which, put simply, says: “all for us, nothing for anyone else.” In Smith’s day the “masters of mankind” included merchants and manufacturers. Today it is primarily financial institutions and multinational corporations. But the principle remains the same. The masters of mankind still pursue their “vile maxim,” without regard to the effects it may have on anyone else. Read more…

3 Part Interview with William T. Cavanaugh

1) THE MYTH OF RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE

2) CONSUMERISM AND SPIRITUALITY

3) THE POST GFC WORLD

I’ve been a huge fan of William T. Cavanaugh’s since I started reading articles of his about three years ago. Admittedly his Myth of Religious Violence was the first full book of his that I picked up (I was stoked to have found it the first week of it’s publication). I talked about that book so much it actually inspired two regulars at my coffee shop to buy copies and now they’re trying to get others in their church to read it.

For about two years now I’ve regularly searched the internet to see if there have been any new audio/video lectures of his being posted. Unfortunately for Cavanaugh fans the pickings are slim for audio/video media featuring Cavanaugh. So I was stoked to see this three-part video interview on the Centre for Public Christianity website. The first video corresponds roughly to the issues he discusses in The Myth of Religious Violence, while the second discusses themes addressed in his Being Consumed. The third video…I haven’t watched it yet. I got too excited that I couldn’t not post these up right away. Now that it’s posted I’ll watch it. You should too!

Chomsky’s Comin’ to Town!

  Noam Chomsky will be making a few appearances at a couple of the colleges around our area next week. He will be giving a lecture entitled “Prospects for Peace in the Middle East,” at 12 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, in the Stoller Center gymnasium on Pacific University’s Forest Grove campus.

That same day he will be in Eugene OR, at the University of Oregon to deliver a talk on “Global Hegemony: The Facts, The Images.” The talk will be at 7 p.m. in Columbia 15.

These talks will be free and are open to the public. And you can bet I’ll be there.