Posts Tagged ‘New Age’

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.