Most of the theories and narratives we use to understand social reality assume that the material world is the main shaping influence over that reality—economics with its emphasis on goods; evolution with its emphasis on physical survival; or think even of the recent presidential campaign with its emphasis on jobs as the defining issue in determining how people will vote. I don’t deny the obvious importance of the material dimension of existence, but I find that theories such as these are often blind to the spiritual dimension of social life: by focusing wholly on humans’ desire for things, they fail to perceive the power of humans’ desire for love, community, solidarity, and connection with others, or as I will explain shortly, for “mutual recognition” of our common humanity as authentic Presence.
Where we place our emphasis in interpreting the world is critical to being able to act together to influence historical events in a positive way and help to create a better world—a world more capable of realizing the yearnings of the human soul. Or in other words, our “social theory” is central to our capacity for effective and meaningful social action, in the sense that social theory is really nothing more than a way of seeing, and in order to do the right thing, to devote our energies in the time that we are here to worthwhile projects that are most likely to improve our collective lives and the world that we collectively inhabit, we must learn to see what is going on in front of us in a way that allows us to interpret its social meaning as accurately as possible.
Freud and Melancholia
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
The stakes involved in choosing between different social theories and narratives can be illustrated by a discussion of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—a movie that has received a great deal of attention from critics and moviegoers. In this remarkable film, a woman named Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, gets married in a wedding ceremony that is both extraordinarily opulent (vast sums of money are spent by her brother-in-law to assure that this is the happiest day of her life) and yet profoundly alienating in the sense that virtually all the characters, including Justine’s parents and other family members, are represented as unhappy, selfish, and preoccupied with the details of the wedding ritual over the substance of any profound human bond.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of the guests but somewhat mystically understood by Justine and less mystically and more scientifically so by her brother-in-law, a planet that has been hidden behind the sun has somehow shifted in its alignment and is rapidly heading toward earth. Although Justine is obviously deeply disturbed and disengaged while enduring the experience of her own wedding, she becomes more centered and present in the days following the wedding as the danger of collision with the errant planet—named Melancholia—becomes more likely. In the final scene, as Justine sits holding hands with her frightened sister and innocent young nephew in a hastily constructed “magic cave” that Justine has told the boy will protect them all, it is Justine who seems spiritually prepared for the apocalyptic end that awaits them and all of the world. While during the early part of the film, Justine appeared to be the one doomed to disorientation and debilitating melancholia, at the end it is she who becomes at one with the profound and sudden ending of both the collective life and the collective history and culture of the human experience, of human existence itself.
The theory that has informed most of the reviews ofMelancholia has been quite explicitly Freudian, perhaps because Freud wrote a very famous book called Mourning and Melancholia that addressed the way that loss—in particular unmourned loss—can create a pathological attachment to the lost object that leads one to become in-dwelling and withdrawn, to lose all interest in life, and to become quite literally vitiated of human vitality. This meaning of the word “melancholia,” drawn from Freud’s good work on the subject, has then been projected into the movie, so that Justine is identified as deeply “depressed” by the disturbed nature of her conditioned upbringing, which reaches a kind of apotheosis in the dysfunctional and dysphoric wedding ceremony. This depression is interpreted as a manifestation of her melancholia, her loss of vitality and interest in life. In Freud’s analysis, the failure to work through the experience of loss through the process of mourning both expresses and reinforces an infantile belief on the part of the sufferer that he or she is responsible for the loss of the loved object, and this guilt not only becomes a primary cause of the sufferer’s unrelenting attachment to the lost object, but also engenders an unconscious need for punishment to partially expiate the guilt, or better, to satisfy the guilt fixation.
For the critics who adapt the Freudian way of seeing to the movie, Justine improves at the movie’s climactic ending because that long-deserved punishment has finally arrived in the form of the planetary collision. While the brother-in-law commits suicide and the sister cries, Justine is fully present emotionally and awaits the end with equanimity and perhaps even joy. While not all critics adopt all of the components of the Freudian theory in analyzing the film, there is a consensus that the film is “depressing,” that the characters are dreadful human beings, that Justine is a deeply disturbed woman, and that it portends one eccentric but talented director’s vision of the end of the world.
While the Freudian interpretation is true to the facts of the movie in the sense that the existing facts can be “seen” in a way that makes them consistent with the theory, the interpretation is in my opinion completely wrong. To my way of seeing, Justine’s reactions to the alienation and dehumanization of her social environment are understandable and even courageous, although because she is presented to us as socially absorbed into this world—as a kind of passively willing participant in her dreadful wedding ceremony—she is far more isolated and far crazier as a result than she would have been had she instead, say, joined the women’s movement or Occupy Wall Street. But considering the pathological social place in which she found herself as a thoroughly isolated woman, it was obvious to me that she was throwing all of herself into her resistance to what was being made of her from the outside. Her recovery during the course of the movie as a result of the approach of the planet, to my eyes, manifested her emergence into mental health, because the arrival of the errant planet would liberate both her and also all of humanity from the social alienation, brutality, and inauthenticity into which our world had fallen. In a beautiful final scene, it is Justine who can reassure her little nephew of his security in the magic cave they construct out of sticks, because this magic cave, in which Justine, her nephew, and her sister hold hands as the end approaches, is a new little world of authenticity and love and spiritual recovery of their simple common humanity. I left the theater with a full heart and a smile that I could not get off of my face, and I felt that my true self—the authentic longings of my soul—had been recognized and confirmed by Justine’s final beauty and presence in the face of death and of the limits of existence itself. We really are here together if only we will embrace one another.
Now, as I say, there is nothing wrong with the Freudian theory, or the related “the movie-is-depressing” theory, on its use of the facts. Exactly the problem of all mistaken but well-articulated theories about the meaning of social events is that they express a way of seeing that fits the facts. What is wrong with these theories is not that they cannot explain things, but rather that they can explain them and that they do so incorrectly. The error in these incorrect or faulty or too-limited ways of seeing is that rather than illuminate the meaning of social events as they actually are, they impose upon these events an order that renders this true meaning invisible.
Marxism as a Way of Seeing
For example, Marxism does a brilliant job of presenting historical events through a theory, a way of seeing, that fits the facts of these events. In Marx’s own works and the many works that have followed in his tradition, we see the myths of various historical periods penetrated by a critical way of seeing that shows the shaping power of underlying economic factors, the hidden organization of society adapted in each epoch to the production and distribution of material goods under conditions of material scarcity. As soon as this organization produces a surplus, it is appropriated by the class of people that has gained power within a particular means of production, generating a struggle for survival between classes that is obscured by universal myths and rationalizations—ideologies—that legitimize the status quo and cover up what’s really going on. In the Marxist framework, its way of seeing, everything is accounted for: economics, law, religion, culture, gender roles, racism, conquest and domination of other cultures, everything.
But Marxism is nevertheless wrong, not because it cannot explain events, but because the superimposition of this way of seeing on historical events is not true to what we might call the social being of the events as they really are, in their being. Yes, there is a formation of classes, there is a competitive division of labor, there is appropriation of the economic surplus in unjust ways, there are masking ideologies that rationalize unjust social relations and transform might into right… but this turns out not to be taking place because of the material struggle for survival but because of a Fear of the Other that has been injected into history and reproduced across generations in ways not reducible to material factors alone, or even primarily. Yet if you come to believe in the Marxist way of seeing, if you are understandably seduced by how brilliantly it fits the facts while appealing to your instinctive sense that the world, as it is, is profoundly unjust, then you will be led in wrong directions by it—for example, you may think that an economic revolution that reorganizes productive relations is the key element to overcoming injustice and fulfilling human possibilities. Since coercion may be involved in such a process, that mistaken way of seeing—adopted with the best of intentions—may lead to tragic and even terrible consequences.
Nothing that I say should be understood to minimize the human suffering manifested in the history of class society—the suffering from poverty, material inequality, exploitation of economic resources and human labor, and the illegitimate hierarchies through which rulers in each historical period have dominated the ruled. Nor do I mean to minimize the human need for food, shelter, and other elements of basic material survival which continue to cause suffering for much of the world’s population—for example, the 2.5 billion people who cannot obtain enough food to receive adequate nutrition each day, according to United Nations estimates. Rather what I am saying is that these forms of material suffering and injustice are manifestations of our historical legacy of our alienation from one another—that the “cause” is to be found in the social-spiritual separation expressive of an underlying failure of mutual recognition that expresses itself existentially as Fear of the Other.
The Worldview of Liberal Democracy
Or consider Marxism’s main historical competitor in the last two hundred years and its at least temporary conqueror on the historical stage, liberal individualism and its political corollary, liberal democracy. In liberalism, we are given a way of seeing in which the social world in front of us is perceived as a vast collection of individuals, each pursuing his or her own chosen destiny, each free and equal to all the others, who combine to form collective life through private agreements and through one great public agreement, the social contract that is formed and realized through the act of voting in public elections. Within the liberal worldview, it’s acknowledged that we are each born into families and must be nurtured properly through contact with others in order to achieve our individuation, our unique and sane and mature stature as individual participants in the liberal social order; but the outcome of good-enough child-rearing is self-evidently the production of the separate and free actor, who can believe whatever he or she wishes and do whatever he or she wants, as long as this free action does not involve improper interference with others through improper deception or duress or other forms of coercion. Material inequalities are explained by variations in ability or the luck of the draw, but the main point here is that whatever aspects of social life might be considered unfulfilling or unjust in liberal society can eventually be solved by the system itself: because it is the free choice of the collection of individuals themselves that will determine the existence of this lack of fulfillment or injustice, if they want to they will eventually—actually as soon as possible considering the commonsense challenges that confront human life with limited knowledge—do something about it. If we destroy the planet through nuclear war or environmental destruction, this would not invalidate the liberal worldview—it would simply reveal, with pathos, that human individuals are too burdened with inherent limitations, understood as expressions of evil or ignorance or simply biological or psychological frailties, to make a success of our own destiny as individual beings. The result of the liberal calculus would be simply that we tried and failed, but not that we had the wrong theory, that we were blinded by an incorrect way of seeing what has been going on.
Like Marxism, liberalism fits the facts perfectly; it can account for the feeling of personhood, social formations, economic life, the existence of law and government, the justifications for collective actions of all kinds, including war and environmental destruction, criminal conduct, personal unhappiness, and so on ad infinitum. The problem with liberalism is not that it doesn’t fit the facts, but rather that it does fit the facts, and by doing just this obscures the true reality of the totality of phenomena that it projects itself onto.
We are not actually each individuals thrown amidst a vast collection of other individuals that as a mere collection comprise the social world, the world of social existence, but are rather mutually constituting social beings perpetually knitting each other together through the inter-experience of mutual recognition into a fabric of interrelatedness that is social through and through. The reason that we feel so much like individualized entities is that we have inherited from prior generations a Fear of the Other, a fear of one another, that envelops us in the illusion of separation at a distance. While we can be grateful to liberalism and those who helped to build a world based on it for helping us to overcome the limitations of other earlier ways of seeing that caused often terrible human suffering and social injustice—ways of seeing such as the Divine Right of Kings, the natural superiority of the aristocracy, the superiority of the white race, the superiority of men over women, or of straights over gays—it is important to see that its very completeness as a social theory functions to render invisible the cause of our isolation and despair, our pathological destruction of the natural world, our infliction of starvation on the 25,000 people (many of them children) who die on the planet from lack of food every day, our imminent danger of obliterating each other with nuclear weapons that persists each day, all as if these were inevitable consequences of the way things are and have to be.
A Social-Spiritual Way of Seeing
In this article, as well as in my new book, Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture (Quid Pro Books), from which this piece is adapted, I am offering one expression of a worldwide effort now taking place to bring another theory, another way of seeing, to the forefront of human life. The central aspect of this new postliberal, post-Marxist way of seeing is to begin from the interior of our awareness to grasp the “within” of the intersubjective life-world into which we have been thrown and into which we are, in the words of philosopher Martin Heidegger, always already in-mixed. What we find by this interior-to-interior method—from beginning inside ourselves and from that interior self-transparency going forward by intuition and understanding to the inside of the world we are trying to see—is that human beings actually exist in a psycho-spiritual world in which they seek not primarily food, shelter, or the satisfaction of material needs, but rather the love and recognition of other human beings, and the sense of elevated meaning and purpose that comes from bringing that world of intersubjective connection into being. Of course the satisfaction of material needs is indispensable to our physical survival, but please see that our survival is different from our existence—our survival is the background, the indispensable precondition of our existence, and if it is threatened we can be driven to whatever extreme is necessary to preserve this existence. But our existence itself is a manifestation of our social being that a) is fully present to itself and others, and b) exists only by virtue of our relation to the presence of others as the source of our completion. When I say that we are social beings, therefore, I mean that we do not really exist as individuals except to the extent that our individuality is one pole of our existence in relation to others, and the central longing of our life, immanent within our very existence as social beings, is to be fully recognized by the other in an embrace of love and to recognize that other with the same grace. Insofar as we must maintain the preconditions of our existence, we are motivated by the material need for survival, but our existence itself is animated by the desire to realize ourselves as social beings through connection with others, through the grace of love and mutual recognition.
Taken to the level of an overall social theory, this way of seeing—a way of seeing that bridges the interior of the social person to the interior of that person’s surrounding (or historical) group—produces some core insights about social life that shape the perspective in the essays in Another Way of Seeing on law, politics, public policy, and culture. Let me summarize the first two of these insights here.
First, we are all animated by the desire for mutual recognition, for a transparent connection to others in which we become fully present to each other, anchored in each other’s gaze in much the way that the German theologian Martin Buber described in his book I and Thou. I aspire to see you and to exist in relation to you not as a mere “you over there,” as a mere passing or glancing presence going by, but as a full presence both there and here, the very completion of myself insofar as we emerge into a We that is neither fleeting nor in danger of dissolving back into reciprocal solitudes corroded by mistrust and fear. The We is not a fusion or erasure of the individual person, but a realization or completion of the social person in authentic reciprocity.
Second, the world that we have been born into and have inherited is primarily characterized by the denial of this desire for mutual recognition, in the sense that we are primarily in flight from each other and experience each other as a threat. But the threat that we experience is not of “destruction” in the Darwinian or even Marxist sense of a struggle for material resources, but rather the threat of nonrecognition or ontological humiliation. When we pass each other with blank gazes on the street, punctuated by furtive steals of a passing look, our entire existential state as social beings is revealed to us—namely, that we are each, or both, encapsulated in solitude because we are pulled outward and toward each other by the desire for mutual recognition (the furtive glances toward each other that we each experience as compulsory), and at the same time feel compelled to deny this desire and look away, “keep our distance,” because of the immanent anxiety that the other will not reciprocate this desire for mutual recognition. This denial of our core need and desire as social beings for essential authentic reciprocity, for love in its deepest sense of essential affirmation and sight, is actually what creates the massive material injustice that Marxism and its allied ways of seeing correctly name and analyze—it is our social alienation taken as a collective totality that creates and reproduces the worldwide socioeconomic system.
Were the populations of the world not infected with this legacy of fear of nonrecognition and humiliation by the Other, we would really without great difficulty solve the material problems that generate so much unnecessary suffering and pain. In other words, the world is the way it is not because people want power or wealth or control over material things, but because they cannot experience their deeper longing for love, for authentic vulnerability and recognition, and for the coming-into-presence that would be the healing of this legacy and the transcendence of it. It is our alienation that causes material injustice rather than the converse, and it is in giving birth to a new politics that overcomes our alienation that we will overcome material inequality and injustice. But such a new form of politics can emerge only from a new way of seeing that makes our social-spiritual alienation visible in perception, thought, and reflection.
The Divided Self
Take a moment to consider the roles and masks that we feel compelled first to don and then to permanently inhabit—think of the newscaster, the weatherman, the president of the United States, this man dressed in one uniform or that woman dressed in another, the father, the therapist, the lawyer, and so forth. Although of course we can embody these roles in a way that is infused with our authentic presence, insofar as we are alienated from each other, or in a kind of flight from each other’s recognition, these roles become artificial holograms of being, pseudo-manifestations of our sociality in which we seek to master and deflect the other’s presence by “playing the role” from a conditioned outside that we are continually monitoring from within with an anxiety signal when we veer from it. In this mode of what the psychiatrist R.D. Laing called the “divided self,” we deny our own desire for authentic intersubjective connection by throwing up the role or mask that we have been over a lifetime coerced into identifying with on pain of loss of what social connection there is, while threatening the other with a comparable erasure should he or she seek to become present as a Thou. Why do we constantly threaten each other so? Because any other course of action requires a vulnerability to the other that risks the ontological humiliation of not being recognized, of not being loved and accepted and affirmed in our existence when we are utterly laid bare as longing for that recognition and love and affirmation before the other’s power to grant it or withhold it.
This leads me to five additional core insights produced by the spiritual way of seeing that I am proposing:
1) The denial of the desire for mutual recognition is not merely something that is transmitted between two persons—between you and me as we pass each other on the street—but is rather a vast, rotating social field, in which every furtive glance and blank gaze and nonpresent (elusive) role-performance is taken as what’s real by each of us as we experience it. Or to put this slightly differently, every such act of flight from each other, every false way of being designed to conceal our true longing, is coupled with an implicit meta-statement that “this is who I really am” and “this is who you must recognize me as and who you really should and must be yourself.” Pre-reflectively and more or less instantly, we are each perpetually internalizing the social reality and necessity of what the other is transmitting to us, and we then—in what I am calling a “rotating” fashion—re-externalize toward others as real what we have internalized from the others passing us or surrounding us emerging in and out of our social field, from infancy forward, because the social field of the whole of existence, of the life-world in which we coexist, forms a mutually influencing circle that is our conditioning. I call this aspect of our social reality the “circle of collective denial” that keeps us spiritually imprisoned in our separation, a circle that each of us co-creates because as social beings actually constituted by each other, we cannot but externalize what we have internalized even as we long to and struggle to transcend it.
2) Seen in this light, all of social life as we have inherited it thus far is a legacy of social alienation that separates us, rotating through the circle of collective denial and manifested in an infinite number of historical forms, but that we are constantly simultaneously seeking to transcend in the fullness of mutual recognition, in the simple completion of love that every newborn child anticipates at birth and manifests in the pure joyful, anticipatory presence in his or her eyes. History is, therefore, not a straight developmental process, but rather a spiral of social being, in which up to this time the desire for mutual recognition has occasionally broken through the constraints of denial of that desire that seek to contain it, erupting into social movements that ricochet across the globe often very rapidly in a great spirit of hope and optimism. At these moments the spiral whirls upward and forward and a true revolution of our social existence becomes possible, the word “revolve” referring in reality to the turning outward of our withdrawn state toward finally grounding each other in the fullness of our reciprocal presence. And at every moment, in every interaction and social encounter, this breakthrough subtends the moment as a potentiality. But the weight of the past, and its claim on our loyalty to past patterns of safer and more impoverished forms of recognition, also at every moment work to keep us sealed in what I elsewhere have called “The Pact of the Withdrawn Selves.” We have formed vast hierarchies of disciplinary control of our social presence that we call the class system, or the legal system, or family values, or an infinity of other macro and micro examples from the schools to corporations, whose limiting, unconscious spiritual aim is to contain the impulse toward the social fulfillment of mutual recognition and the vulnerability and threat of humiliation attendant to it.
3) Insofar as we each experience this internal conflict between the desire for mutual recognition and the need to deny this very desire, for fear of nonrecognition by the other and the vulnerability attendant to it, we collectively conspire to form imaginary group identities that simultaneously provide us with a sense of substitute connection or community and serve to reinforce our collective denial—or better, to seal off our longing for the authentic mutuality of I and Thou in community by an allegiance to an imaginary community that both substitutes for and encloses/represses that authentic longing. Here I am speaking of the “inflated balloon” variety of patriotism, nationalism, ethnic purity, sexual or gender identity, profession-ism—really any form of imaginary group cohesion that conceals—or more accurately, reveals by concealing—an inner absence of presence, a hole at the center of the imaginary group’s collective being.
In my book The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning, in the essay entitled “The Meaning of the Holocaust: Social Alienation and the Infliction of Human Suffering,” I show the way this type of imaginary identity emerged within Nazi Germany as an inflation of an illusory imago of community concealing an inner terror of humiliation, the goal of which was precisely to conceal the vulnerability to that anticipated threat that existedinside the puffed-up, grandiose Nazi imago of unity and connection. And I show in historical context how each person given over to the illusory bond of the imago makes allegiance to this false unity compulsory on all others, in the service of sealing off the deeper longing for and fear of true recognition—in such a manner that no one is allowed to see the bond’s illusory nature because it is manifested as “real.” Even more, when the collective imago is inflated to this extent, it is also manifested as “perfect” to prevent any challenge to it—not to maintain the validity of the imago as such, but to seal off the vulnerability to the longing that underlies it. While the Nazi situation was the extreme and perhaps limiting example of what I am describing, this impoverishment of social being is manifested also in the way, say, boys in my childhood behaved in the locker room in aspiring to their male identities, or the way the corporate lawyer carries his briefcase and speaks too loud at the meeting (“We lawyers” speak as if we’re in charge)—in other words, in all forms of false social unity in which we as social persons co-construct a carapace or shell of ungrounded or artificial social connection that both covers over and seals off the true being that underlies and also unconsciously observes and monitors it.
4) Accompanying the giving over of our social being, in alienation, to the false group is always what is commonly called the demonization of the Other, in which the always-experienced threat of dissolution of the false group, which is at every moment unstable because it is in fact illusory and sustained by the requirement of compulsory allegiance only, is channeled into a projection out on to some Other that supposedly is the true source of the threat to the group’s artificial unity. Whether it is the Jews, the gays, the blacks, the women, the students, the unions, or, to use the Dr. Seuss example that I use in one of the essays in my book, the people who butter their toast on the bottom instead of the top, these Others are sacrificed not because they are actual human beings who are rejected and expelled for their true nature, but because they are turned into carriers of the threat that inhabits and corrodes the false group itself, the threat of its own unmasking. The false group, an illusory unity of communion, always defends itself against exposure by pretending that some projected Other is a threat to its solidity and infinite continuation, when the true threat is exposure of the underlying vulnerability to a longing too painful to acknowledge. The choice of the particular carrier of this threat is always shaped by historical conditions—like the legacy of anti-Semitism in Germany in the case of the Nazis—but the underlying dynamic is a characteristic of social alienation itself: an imaginary group cannot sustain itself without a demonized Other because it must by its very nature as imaginary, as illusory, as false, have a projected outlet to enable it to continually master and conceal its own artificiality.
5) Finally, and this is of central importance to the optimism and moral direction—let me call it the moral optimism—that I hope comes through in what I write here, this entire description of the process of social alienation that accounts for so much human suffering is at every moment countered by the desire to transcend it, by the inherent goodness of every human being that codetermines and transcends the way each of us manifests our presence in every moment of our existence. Here again please recall the presence of every newborn child during the first years of life, the full presence of the child’s radiance and life-force as it is manifested in the child’s whole way of being, in the full eyes, in the spontaneity of its gestures and reaching out, in the search for the other’s loving gaze and embrace and its willingness to make whatever meaningful sounds we make (“language”) to be with us. This new-born being we always remain, underneath the legacy of our alienated conditioning. What my friend Michael Lerner and I (and now many others) call “spiritual activism” is collective activism for social change that seeks through practical, present-day actions to make manifest our deep longing for spiritual connection and to partially realize that connection through a new form of spiritual politics. For example, the Network of Spiritual Progressives that I am a part of aspires to and presses for universal health care not simply because we need doctors to care for our bodies, but because universal health care is a necessary manifestation of our universal longing to recognize and care for each other’s well-being and that of each other’s families and loved ones, as well as to be similarly cared for ourselves: health care means caring about each other’s health. Social Security is important not simply because older people need financial help as they age, but as a manifestation of intergenerational love and solidarity that elevates the communal self-presence of the entire society. In these senses, as I say in the early essays on law in Another Way of Seeing, I embrace Martin Luther King’s definition of justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”
As I hope the last two brief examples demonstrate, the theory of social being and social existence that I am summarizing here is therefore not a theory that is “merely psychological” and divorced from the real world’s problems and struggles. It is as fully engaged with the socio-economic and political struggles of the world as, say, Marxism itself. What is different about it is that it is based on a way of seeing human reality—in every social interaction between two people and in the unfolding and development of human groups as a whole—that places the spiritual dimension of social existence at the center of our understanding of social phenomena and at the center of our effort to transcend the problems that continue to limit and constrain us. While these problems certainly also have a material and economic dimension to them—the reality of children dying of starvation around the world, the lack of adequate food and housing for so many in the United States and around the world, and the vulnerability of the large majority of the world’s population to having to face such material and economic difficulties mean that it is obvious that the material dimension of existence and the risk of scarcity impinges immensely on human life—this material, economic dimension is a context of the body rather than an essence of the consciousness-in-action that is social-being-in-the-world. Social existence is constituted out of the spirituality of social consciousness-in-the world, within the intersubjective flow of recognition, of love and the denial of love; and as much as the survival and well-being of the physical body is central to the context of the unfolding of this social inter-experience, across history and in the present moment, any theory or way of seeing that focuses primarily on this material element as the central descriptive or explanatory factor is missing the essence of social being itself as a manifestation of the human spirit and its struggle to fully realize itself, always in social form.
Real-Life Applications of Spiritual-Political Theory
In my upcoming book, which will be published this May, I expand on how the theories I have just laid out can be applied to particular circumstances: law and justice; politics as the human co-creation of the world through elections and other forms of group formation; public policy in the context of how to think about war and peace, gay rights and sexual identity, the labor movement and social change, and the spiritual foundations of science; and finally the meaning of cultural phenomena, from the work of one great philosopher influential to me (Jean-Paul Sartre), to baseball, to photography, to living with illness as a cultural reality. The essays, in other words, are applications of the theory to a wide variety of real-life examples rather than explications of the theory itself. It is in the nature of the intersubjective, spiritual-political theory that I am proposing that its truth-value to you depends upon whether you can recognize it as true rather than any analytical proof or capacity to explain diverse facts that is the measure of the truth of more scientific ways of seeing and thinking.
All phenomenological or descriptive theory depends not upon a theory’s ability to explain facts from premises or theoretical postulates, but rather upon its self-evidence, upon its capacity to produce an experience of recognition in the reader. Since the theory itself begins with a social-spiritual understanding of the very thing that the theory is addressing and talking about, the only claim to validity that it can make upon the reader is the extent to which the reader can recognize it as adequate to fullyreveal what is being described. While a descriptive theory can be true even if nobody understands it or recognizes it as true, it can become a valid form of social knowledge only through its capacity to generate an experience of recognition in a reader who him- or herself shares the very being of the “object of the investigation,” of the thing being talked about.
That is why, in both The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning and Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture, I have written essays about very practical matters like (in the former) a bank teller caught in a corporate hierarchy, the relationship between imaginary forms of community and the holocaust, the limitations of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the relationship of the 60s to the rise of Ronald Reagan, the meaning of a Maalox commercial—and in Spiritual Activism, the constitution and the legal system, John Kerry’s and Barack Obama’s “presence” (or the lack of it), the war in Iraq, sexual fear and gay marriage, opening day at a Giants-Dodgers game. Each essay is meant to illuminate a world that I “see” through the lens of the theory—the way of perceiving and then thinking and describing—that I have presented in summary form above.
In the two books taken together, I am seeking to trace the historical development of the vicissitudes of mutual recognition—its social flow and blockage in the context of a quite volatile, ongoing, historically specific struggle of hope against fear—as this struggle has unfolded from the 1950s through the present moment in 2012, from JFK through Barack Obama as embodied expressions of precisely these spiritual-political flows-in-tension as they have been manifested through political leaders, and in the area of public policy from, for example, the rise of creationism as part of the New Right to the emergence of other more emancipatory spiritual approaches to science some twenty years later and the relationship of both (as reaction-formation in the case of creationism, as continuation of the liberatory impulse in the case of the sacred biologists) to the breakthrough of recognition that actually was the 1960s.
In my lifetime, it has been primarily the movements of the 1960s that have generated the upward spiral of hope and authentic mutual recognition in the historical process, just as the 1930s did so for the generation that preceded mine. During the period from roughly 1965-1974, a parallel awareness emerged in the United States and ricocheted across the world very rapidly, a propulsion of spiritual presence that provided people like me with a new ground to stand our lives on. For precisely this reason, because of the threat posed to traditional and more alienated forms of connection that nevertheless were also conditions of social membership and spiritual safety, the 1960s and the parallel ontological universe it gave birth to also have generated a powerful defensive social reaction—in Freudian terms, the reaction that the superego, in defense of the ego, always has to the transcendent longings of the id. Within the social-spiritual way of seeing the world, the upward movement of history is carried forward by such breakthroughs, or to recall the Doors, by breaking on through to the other side of the system of blocked connection. And these breakthroughs are never fully forgotten in historical consciousness, even as they are resisted through coerced deference to artificial conditioning, disciplinary observation, cooptation, flight into irony, and direct violence, among other expressions of the legacy of our alienation from our true loving selves.
My work is an effort to help preserve the spiritual insight afforded to my generation by an upsurge of the human spirit more powerful than the force, existing not in Them but within each of us, that is trying to contain it. One expression of that spiritual upsurge, that outbreak of social connection, is the way of seeing social being and historical social life that I try to give voice to here. Like Marxism and liberalism, I believe that the descriptions in my work fit the facts of the realities they describe, but in a way that I hope is truer to the social reality that they describe because of the inclusion of the spiritual-political dimension that the 1960s made visible in my lifetime and that may prefigure the kind of seeing and thinking that will provide a basis for the next movement upward to change the world.
Peter Gabel, “A Spiritual Way of Seeing,” in Tikkun, Volume 28, no. 2, pp. 17-22. Copyright, 2013, Tikkun Magazine. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press.