Saturday, October 15, 2011

Marxism as Spiritual Bypassing

Timothy Morton
  U.C. Davis

Having read the transcript of Žižek's talk at OWS several times, and having listened to it (stirring in the main), 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 the 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).
What if we were to turn the tables a little here and do a Hegelian reading of the subject position from which the accusation is staged?
   In order to do this, I want to take another 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 is just 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 Derrida:
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 slack.


  1. Thanks, Tim, this was really helpful, and most likely prescient w/r/t Zizek. Unfortunately.

  2. Follow up on this comment by Zizek:

    "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."

    That carnivals are so fun, and so easy -- just get some people together and make some music, chant ("the human microphone" is hugely bonding / entraining), march together and boom, joy explodes out all over the crowd -- says a lot about humans. About our evolution and about how our "normal lives" are organized so that joy is so rare, that we have to get a permit to have them if they have a political sense. But you can buy a ticket to a carnival (we call them sporting events or concerts) if someone can figure out how to commodify the joy.

    A little rushed, but I hope you see where I'm going with this.

  3. Wonderful post: I wonder if Hans Blumenberg's re-consideration of Dasein-as-care in 'Care Crosses the River' could, err, bridge some of these issues? Is care (Cura) inherently narcissistic? But/and do you hold it against her, when she's such a beautiful embodiment of caring?

  4. Professor Morton..
    Thanks, you helped organize my thoughts concerning Zizek's talk at OWS. Zizek is very good at describing what ails society, but his solutions seem draconian to me. Your review of narcissism was well done, some thing I will remember and go back to.