Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Narcissistic Carnival: Marxism as Spiritual Bypassing

Having read the transcript of Žižek's talk at OWS several times, and having listened to it several times (stirring), I think I discern the outlines of how he will, if true to form, eventually wash his hands of the affair.

Just as the protesters in the UK recently were at some point accused of not being well organized enough, so will the OWS protesters fall afoul of a critique from Žižek. But who critiques the critiquer?

I think I can discern the form of Žižek's critique: it will be an accusation of narcissism. The seeds have already been planted:

There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember: carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after. When we will have to return to normal life. Will there be any changes then...

Now before I talk about narcissism per se I want to talk about the accusation of narcissism, which I find identical to a certain Buddhist critique of a certain pathologized version of spirituality called “Western Buddhism”—now not only by Žižek, but also by many others. So it's a relevant detour.

The accusation is often made from a standpoint that seems to be “above” or “beyond” “mere” immersion in affect, which is judged beforehand as bad.  Narcissism is said to be bad self-reflection, like a self-swallowing snake (Hegel's phobic image of the Buddhist meditator, ironically lifted from Hinduism: the image of baby Krishna sucking his toe).

What if we were to turn the tables here and do a Hegelian analysis of the subject position from which the accusation is staged?

I want to take a detour through a phenomenon well known to people who change their religion, for instance Christians who become Buddhists. The Buddhists who are psychotherapists or are in some kind of therapy are often accused of not being proper Buddhists. Since the self is an illusion, why care for it?

Well the technical answer is, that you make the accusation itself from the very point of view of a “self,” even though you say there is no self. This is similar to the eliminativist materialist position (which also uses Buddhism, viz. Metzinger). The assertion that there is no self is made by something that for all intents and purposes walks and quacks like a self. Metzinger would be annoyed if I pointed this out? I rest my case.

“Wherever you go, there you are” (Buckaroo Banzai, Husserlian philosopher of the 1980s).

Moreover it is the non-therapy Buddhists who are making a mistake. They are doing what is known as spiritual bypassing. This is when you have a lot of pain, and you just try to yank yourself out of it into some transcendental sphere, and think you've become a proper Buddhist. But eventually you have a lot of problems in your life, that are not solved by your self-yanking. So you may become disillusioned.

Becoming a Buddha definitely means transcending the human. But to know how to do that, you have to be a human first. My teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche talks about the importance of attaining a “healthy human being level” before you jump. So while he pokes fun at what he calls the “California practitioner,” who has figured out how to have a good time as a human, it seems necessary that we pass through a Californian stage in the dialectic.

The accusation of narcissistic pleasure seeking comes from a place of wounded narcissism. The false jump into Buddhism seeks to skip the painful step of facing that wound.

Which brings me back to Žižek's accusation of narcissism. Is it perhaps the case that a certain kind of Marxist is guilty of doing exactly what the fundamentalist Buddhist is doing—jumping over a necessary dialectical step?

Might this be because in essence there is nothing wrong with narcissism? If I had a dollar for every time a narcissistically wounded person accused someone else of narcissism ...

Narcissism just is an ego-syntonic feedback to yourself. If this feedback gets disrupted or wounded, you can easily develop syndromes such as borderline personality disorder, psychopathic personality disorder, or yes, indeed, narcissistic personality disorder. There is a difference between a personality disorder and mere narcissism.

The Tibetan for narcissism is champa: it just means kindness and it starts with yourself. Monks are taught to give a ball to themselves by passing it from one hand to the other. Eventually they are ready to die for the other. Take it away Jacques:

There is not narcissism and non-narcissism. There are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming and hospitable narcissism. One that is much more open to the experience of the Other as Other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the Other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance. The relation to the Other, even if it remains asymmetrical, open, without possible reappropriation, must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of one's self for love to be possible. Love is narcissistic...

In a larger view, is this one significant reason why revolutions often fail—why they can devolve into endless cycles of recrimination and pathologization?

So let's cut the carnival some fucking slack.


Dominic said...

Oh, I love that Derrida interview, especially the bit you quoted. The book of interviews, Points, is one of my favourite things of his in general.

I've been thinking a bit about this question recently, about the importance of affect - not only anger, but also jubilation, personal and interpersonal and collective affirmation, all the "strokes" and feelgood stuff (just corrected a type where that came out as "feelgod", hah!) - in political movements like OWS. From my very limited experience of being around such things, it tends to leave me cold, or I tend to want to withdraw from it and retain a certain coolness.

I often find public expressions of that kind of emotional affirmation embarrassing or annoying; there's a lot of it on (particularly American) feminist blogs, for instance, where commenters seem to oscillate between what seems to me like ritualistic exchanges of strokes and morally one-upping each other: narcissism and narcissistic woundedness often walk hand in hand. I feel a powerful urge to just *get out* of those libidinal circuits, to find a position outside the fray.

But then, such blogs are also about community-building, and gathering the mutual support and courage to engage in public activism that can be far beyond anything I think I have the nerve for. And the level of misogynistic barracking women come in for online, especially feminist activist bloggers, is such that kindly gestures and ego strokes may sometimes be very necessary to the maintenance of will and well-being. I don't know. It's not an idiom I feel fluent in, and I don't think it's always perfectly benign; but it may just be that I'm rather hung-up and intolerant...

zareen said...

Here I am, like a good guitarist, riffing, riffing, riffing...

ARP said...

I have heard the critique in everyday ways -"that persona is bad because they are narcissist"

that position that demonises narcissism is, as I infer from your post, a slave morality.

Having never read Zizek - (Lacan was trying enough) - I just have a gut feeling that someone should tell Zizek to shut up.

Zizek shut up. If Hugo Chavez can handle it, Slavoj you would love it.

OWS - the ghost of a laughing Hakim Bey having his fun in Rio de Janeiro Carnival that we would all really like. - granted though I do write from Sydney Australia.

I dig your work Timothy. Cheers.

Dominic - as Massumi would've said "Affect Affects" -keep cool. ps what Ego?