Zizek Goes A Googling: Or The Need for a Political Enlightenment

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Video of Slavoj Zizek speaking at Google (which if you know anything of Zizek is quite ludicrous in and of itself).  There's so much in this video, I can't hope to comment on all of it, but there is one passage in particular in this video I think is very intriguing in regards to the topic at hand (namely integral).

I really recommend watching the whole thing which is utterly, bizarrely fascinating and riotously hilarious.

The relevant section I have in mind specifically for this post however begins at 22:45 and continues to around the 36 minute mark.

Let me set a little of the backdrop (covered in the first 20 minutes of the talk).  Zizek is responding to philosophical, cultural, even theological forms of discussion that were/are strong in forms of postmodernism.  What is usually placed under the umbrella of The Other.  The names most associated with this trend are Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida (and their various disciples).

For Levinas in particular The Other (the other human, the other of creation) becomes imbued with almost God-like qualities:  unknowable, mysterious, source of goodness, etc.  To simplify, for Levinas the question is how may I be hospitable, how may I truly be host and receive the gift that is The Other? How may I allow The Other to be Other and not conform The Other to my frames of reference--turning The Other not into a gift but an economic product for consumption?

According to Zizek, this view assumes that we (The Self) and The Other are coherent wholes, even if wounded, humble wholes.  The Other is an Other unto him/herself, whole and complete.  Different, radically different than I.

For Zizek the self is from its inception not whole.  Nor is it made whole by the presence/gift of The Other.

Zizek argues that people in our (what he calls) cynical age no longer believe in anything (meaningful?) and yet do not live in the fullness of non-belief.  Rather, for Zizek, we believe through proxies.

He cites the famous quotation from Golda Meir, former Israeli prime minister. When asked if she believed in God she responded: "I believe in the Jewish people and the Jewish people believe in God."  It's our proxies that believe for us.  And here is where Zizek wants to punch a hole in the "you complete me/you had me at hello" thesis of so much pop postmodernity:  The Other (our proxy for and of our belief) does not totally him or herself believe.   We can not totally rely on them to be our revelation.  As Zizek says, 60-70% of Israelis identify themselves as atheist.  

Zizek inquires: what about the other of The Other?  What about, in other words, the division within The Other?

From here at minute 22 (where I'm starting my post), Zizek launches into a critique of postmodern multiculturalism.  In this regard, though from a very interesting angle (Critical Marxist Theorist), Zizek is pushing in a way towards a post-postmodern expression.

It is not, for Zizek, coming to know each other and our inner depths that matter--whether we come from different cultures or the same culture as different individuals.  Zizek (minute 26) says that there is a limit to our ability to understand The Other.  Up to its limit, it's a worthwhile effort, but there is a limit that we need to go beyond. In integral terms, we call this negating and preserving (or transcending and including).  So Zizek's point is not some right-wing traditionalist criticism of postmodernist multiculturalism en toto, but rather now beginning to objectify that structure of thought, keeping what is of value but no longer being "subject" to its way of thinking.  It's important to remember that for Buber, Levinas, Derrida, etc. they had lived through the colonial period.  They were coming out at the end of modernity, in which all kinds of people had been judged by a unilateral narrative not of their creation (namely the self-described European Enlightenment).  As compared to that scenario, it was altogether right for those thinkers to point to the way in which a culture, a group, a people should name themselves and tell their own story, and for them to be heard.  Whether The Other was woman, queer, The Earth, post-colonial person, indigenous, etc. etc.

But for Zizek that mode has now reached its (il)logical conclusion, its limits have been exposed, and we need to mature into something else.   For Zizek (as a philosophical materialist, though admittedly a rather unique one) this means radically criticizing the notion that truth is in inner feeling or experience--whether personal or cultural.  In integral terms, Zizek is arguing against the left hand quadrants as the primary locus of truth.  

Zizek will push this argument all the way to a critique of mysticism, as the apotheosis of inward understanding.  This critique gets very interesting in relation to integral theory.

The mystical side begins at minute 28.

Zizek comments on The Grey Eminence by Aldous Huxley, a biography of Pere Joseph (aka Francois LeClerq du Tremblay), Cardinal Richelieu's foreign minster during the 30 Years War (1600s).  Pere Joseph during his day job was a ruthless politician, having people tortured and murdered without (it would seem) much concern.  But at night he was a Christian mystic, writing profound (of some of the highest quality) mystical writings in the tradition.

Zizek also tells the little known background story of D.T. Suzuki, one of the original teachers to bring to Zen to the West (the US in particular).  Suzuki, Zizek reminds us, used Zen Buddhism to justify the horribly bloody Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria.  Suzuki wrote of the possibility of a nondual experience, "beyond good and evil", whereby a soldier, in the Pure Witness state, could kill someone else without feeling remorse.

Zizek will not go down the too easy road of saying:  Christian prayer or Zen Buddhist meditation is therefore nothing but a front for imperialism or political domination.  And yet both things are true.  Both men (Pere Joseph and Suzuki) were deep mystics AND persons who committed/justified horrible, immoral, acts.

For Zizek the implication of all this is that finding meaning in one's inner life is not the way to become the human we need to become, to become requires practicing the politics that are necessary (in Zizek's views revolutionary Marxist praxis) for our world to be transformed.

How would an AQAL integral response to this very important criticism look?

While at first this may appear to be an utterly damning critique of AQAL altogether, I think AQAL has the resources within itself to answer the charge.  I would say however that the theory has not sufficiently dealt with this issue to date.  In that sense, I find Zizek's criticisms instructive and quite helpful.

Mysticism of the kind inscribed by Pere Joseph and D.T. Suzuki has to do with states of consciousness.  In Wilber's framework, states are horizontal to the (vertical) structures of development.

Understood in this sense, mysticism does not guarantee enlightened (vertical) action. Wilber will go farther to say that the mystical traditions themselves did not understand structural stages of development and therefore confused the state-mystical tradition with structural development.  Generally the mystical traditions ended up assuming the social, political, and cultural world in which they arose and potentially cementing it through their mysticism.  In the worst cases, their mystical (and I would argue real) insights allow for an ethical write-off of truly immoral acts.

There are/were counterexamples to this trend--mystics who also pushed for vertical structural transformation (e.g. Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad).  But for now, we'll deal with the ones who confirm Zizek's critique.

We can use (a la Zizek), a Western and an Eastern example.  Mother Theresa and The Dalai Lama.

Mother Theresa was a (to put it very crassly) "state-horizontal" saint.  She however never criticized the political causes of the poverty she healed, she never criticized (and in fact fully supported) the authoritarian structure of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in its denial of responsibility and authority to women.  She never questioned the source of any money sent to her organization.

Similar issues arise with the Dalai Lama--a recognized and legitimate saint.  His presence (via the depths of the states) radiates compassion.  And yet he still sees (as per traditional Tibetan Buddhsim), homosexuality as adding negative karma to one's existence.  

State development does not equal structural development and vice versa.  At least not necessarily.  Said otherwise, the ability to experience deep states of spiritual truth does not automatically lead one to more developed political, social, and ethical action in the world.  It may in some cases, but does not automatically do so. 

Per Zizek's examples, Pere Joseph and Suzuki were both genuine authentic mystics AND were unable to disentangle themselves from modes of political and ethical thought and action that would otherwise seem to go completely against the grain of their respective religions.  

Vice versa, an individual or group may be relatively speaking more morally developed in the vertical structural sense and yet not express the deep abiding calm and peace that comes from the grace of state (horizontal) state transformation.  

In an integral frame, ideally we seek both, but it is worth keeping in mind this paradox.  

It is structural development that drives the ability to take more political and social perspectives, to enlarge the field of one's critical activity.  It is structural development that opens up the possibility of recognizing the (partials) truths of, e.g. feminism, critiques of capitalism, seeing gays and lesbians as full humans with basic rights and responsibilities like anyone else, etc. etc.

Mother Theresa still loved gays and lesbians, just as the Lama has compassion on them, and yet both see their lives as in fundamental ways wrong.

State development does not equal structural development.  At least not necessarily.

In further posts, I hope to explore how the two (a spiritual and if you like political enlightenment) can feasibly be integrated together.  

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  • Comment Link Captain Backslap Thursday, 29 April 2010 00:55 posted by Captain Backslap

    That WAS really interesting. I can never decide what I think of Zizek.

    Man, I'm glad I wasn't in the front row, though.

  • Comment Link MrTeacup Sunday, 02 May 2010 20:17 posted by MrTeacup

    Has AQAL failed to account for this problem? I think Wilber specifically addressed this question in Integral Spirituality, where horizontal and vertical development were differentiated from each other, in the Wilber-Combs lattice. It's been a few years, but as I remember it, Wilber put off the question of how horizontal and vertical fit together. Accepting Zizek's critique, I think we have to say that horizontal development is neither necessary nor sufficient for vertical development, and that spiritual development itself does not confer any kind of privileged position in the world. This would be important to Zizek, because he also wants to avoid any kind of transcendent Guarantor, a Big Other who could validate or authorize our political actions, relieving us of the responsibility.

    When you say Zizek is arguing against the left hand quadrants as the primary locus of truth, I'm reminded of the Lacanian triad of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. Could those be mapped on to UL, LL and right quadrants, respectively? Lacan even uses a strategy which seems similar to integral mathematics, relating each of the terms to each other, where you have Imaginary-Real, Symbolic-Real and Real-Real. So, I think there is some nuance behind Zizek's critique of the truth of inner depths, which is maybe incidental to your larger point, but I thought I'd call out anyway.

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