Today, I’m thinking about two things: the meditating intellectual, and truth-telling in the fantasy that is art.

Recent thinkers have begun to treat the project of philosophy, too, as a sort of fantasy in which it may be possible to be truthful.  Philosophy, then, does not discover concepts that correspond to reality.  In that sense, one does not have to critically dismantle philosophers because one rejects their image of truth.  No such image exists, yet there is truth telling in the philosophy.  Skepticism, after all, only makes sense, after a certain point, if one clings to the conviction that truth can be decisively formulated.  Recent cultural criticism (and the point Cornel West makes is that philosophy today needs to look at itself as a critical enterprise not a quest for truth) revives the ‘what if’ – as if, after a bout of severe skepticism, intuition and imagination are viable again.  Likewise, literature, in all genres, is explicitly a work of fantasy, and the level of its truth-telling does not correspond to the level of its realism.

Ordinary life and its structures, too, are fantasies.  Our fantasies are political.  As Slavoj Zizek has argued, the surface of ordinary life masquerades as ‘natural’ but is a skein of political fantasies.  Thus, art is not categorically different from ordinary life, in that one is fantasy and the other real.  Art, instead, is a site where the “fantasmatic kernel” of politically constituted identity can manifest its contradictions.  From Zizek’s perspective, one of these contradictions is that we are all perverts in that the “I” identifies with the law (language) that cuts it off from its heterogeneous, phenomenal being.  A Marxist and a Hegelian, Zizek’s position on language and figuration is Lacanian – in Lacan’s famous formulation, the unconscious is structured like a language. In other words, the unconscious is not a repository of the primordial or the real, not some deep inchoate essence, but is formed around the “lack” in language, or formed around (or as) figures or tropes like metaphor.  In a sense, language is desire, but a desire for precisely that from which it cuts off the linguistic subject.  Language is desire, because desire is lack. {needs more} Put differently, language can never deliver us the phenomenological fullness of the real, and so it has to be understood as tropological, or political in the sense that it offers wholly mediated desires and wholly mediated simulations of real.  Its power is arbitrary… and the classic move of arbitrary power is to seduce one into thinking that one’s participation in political systems – one’s actual actions within ideological systems – are just posturings.  Cornel West describes this as patriarchal nihilism.  One believes that one has to cooperate with unjust and corrupt systems, complicit with oppressive authority, because such systems are obviously political conventions, while deep down one has a pure nature.  One does as the Romans do.  One accepts the need to ground power on violence.  For Zizek, inasmuch as one is an “I”, that linguistic self is one hundred percent constituted in an arbitrary, provisional system.  To tie the “I” to a notion of pure nature is a dangerous and hypocritical – worse, an uncritical ­– move.

This is where we really do run across the problem of the meditating intellectual.  From Zizek’s point of view, the cut between language and phenomenological profusion cannot be reversed.  In fact – because the deepest, most dangerous ideological illusion is that one has an apolitical, authentic nature – the cut should be deepened.  In some ways, the meditating intellectual has to agree.  The point cannot be to grasp at a metaphysical, essential self.  This privileged place of self is nothing but the essence of bourgeois self-exemption – an essence uncontaminated by, and not implicated in, the suffering of the disenfranchised and the marginalized.  This apolitical self need not be disturbed by the suffering that forms the ground of the utopian figurations of language. If a world of suffering surrounds, and extends from, the world of metaphysical ideals in which I participate, even if I know I cannot truly identify with the metaphysical ideal itself (because I see clearly that it is a politics – founded on corrupt, contingent, worldly practices), I can nevertheless reassure myself that my soul is unconditioned.

For this reason, the meditating intellectual sets his mind on the particulars of suffering as the condition of being in the world.  To the meditating intellectual, the so-called self is the deepest point of language, and thus the ever-ready escape from a world of fact too painful to admit into one’s daily attention.  To get on with day to day life, one has to screen out a pervasive suffering that is, after all, everyday.  If one focuses on suffering, the logic goes, one will not be able to function.  One will drown.  One watches the evening news, because one wants to be seriously engaged in adult reality, but somehow the news manages to keep the suffering tied to local concerns in distant places [see Favret]; the news frames and narrativizes sociopolitical events from an ‘objective’ or normative perspective.  [Hence, I might be informed that the Indian military is ‘cracking down’ on Maoist guerillas or terrorists, and come away with the impression that democracy is being protected from totalitarian communism, when in fact the Maoists of India are tribal groups resisting the totalitarian terror of corporatism, not democracy]. One watches the news from the deepest metaphysical point of language, a place of mastery from which one’s self-centered life seems even more justified.  The news makes the self feel real.

The meditating intellectual watches the news with the awareness that what gives the “I” its feeling of reality is exactly what is creating the suffering in the world, and thus, as Father Zosima would have it, one realizes that one is entirely implicated.  Nevertheless, Zizek sees meditation (with Hegel) as escapist navel-gazing, a focusing of one’s politically contingent linguistic awareness on the metaphysical point of language.  Nor is Zizek wrong.  Meditation of this kind (that is, of a certain kind) is at best self-compassion or self-pity.  However, eastern philosophy, because of its interest in compassion that is both intellectual and spontaneous (even if it starts out more one than the other), designates two kinds of meditation: analytic meditation and direct meditation on emptiness.  Analytic meditation is a systematic critical process of cognizing the un-findability of the self.  Such meditation deplores the sham of transcendence and the shallow mysticism of immanence.  When the linguistic or discursive mind has become completely convinced that the self cannot be found in any practical sense, that mind no longer has a safe shelter from which to hide itself from the practical reality of suffering that has no utopian redemption or justification.  In short, compassion is experienced.  This is compassion in the sense of ‘shared suffering’ – an experience of materiality with no bounded center.

So, this is where the meditating intellectual does part ways from Zizek.  Here, ‘true’ nature is experienced, but not as self or as metaphysical vanishing point.  When all fictive and figurative sites for the indwelling of the self are dissolved under critical analysis, the emptiness of self and the active experience of compassion are one and the same thing.  It is as though the metaphysical or discursive bounds set on sensitivity-as-matter are suddenly removed.  One way of picturing this is through the model proposed by Foucault in his discussion of biopower, a model picked up by Giorgio Agamben.  In this quasi-mythic account of the formation of the liberal humanist subject, one looks back to classical Greece, where an epistemic shift took place.  The pantheistic natural universe, filled with an anima mundi fancifully translated into a pantheon of gods, was shut down.  With the concept of citizenship, and the formation of nation-states, zoe (natural sweetness) became private property.  That is, the civilized nation-state found a way to harness the power of violence in ways that a ‘primitive’ culture that believes in its inseparability from nature never could.  If one disturbs a tree, a rock, a river, or a (cove), one does violence to the living spirit of nature, and thus must expect to suffer consequences.  As Bruno Latour explains, indigenous cultures are not incorrect in believing that to change cultural convention is to directly affect nature.  “Moderns,” according to Latour, pretend that nature and culture are distinct, but to do this, we must “purify” both, or imagine pure cultural objects and pure natural objects, concealing from ourselves the fact that objects are networks of relation.  That is, we conceal mediation and present purification.  Thus Latour argues, “we have never been modern,” because this separation of culture and nature is a false pretense we self-consciously labor to keep up.

Foucault traces this denial of the web of relations to the classical concepts of “bios” and “zoe.”  Bios is “a way of life” or the discursive, rational agency that makes one a legal entity protected by the legal codes of the state.  The point of bios, ostensibly, is to protect the zoe (or unfabricated, natural sweetness) at the core of conventional citizen.  Legal citizenship has thus been called a “state of exclusion” from nature, which is set off in a “state of exception” (Agamben).  That which is “excepted” is excepted from the law, or unprotected by the law.  In this formulation, zoe is not natural sweetness, but “bare life,” or sheer, inanimate, indifferent otherness.  This “bare life” may be inanimate (or lacking in legal entity), but it is filled with raw force, the raw force that threatens the walled bounds of the nation state and of the private citizen.  Hence, this bare life, shorn of relationship, divested of the ontological status (entity) that persists in pantheism, is not only unprotected by the law but is a proper object of violence.  It (nature) should be exploited and mastered. Problematically, any life form that exists without bios (outside the codes of legal citizenship) exists in a state of exception and thus invites rational violence.  As Agamben has argued, modern states have found ways to keep its own citizens in states of exception, through the manufacture of states of crisis.

Now, for Zizek, bios is all that is available to us as linguistic selves.  It is simply impossible to dissolve under critical analysis the conviction of discursive or bounded agency, and thus impossible to experience the return of phenomenological heterogeneity.  Now we have to see why this is a problem for Cornel West, too, even though he is a religious thinker, and a “blues man” who takes very seriously the possibility (and necessity) of undoing closure so that one feels, as suffering, the heterogeneity of the world.  This is where the problem of Wordsworth and the meditating intellectual reaches its highest pitch.

West sees the Romantic project as an experience of time as loss, with failure and disappointment at its core. This sense of loss and failure is brought on by a desire to “have the whole thing” (West).  For West, this quest for wholeness is unphilosophical, because philosophy is concerned with learning how to die in the here and now as a psychological entity, or as a classical subject, and so the philosophical act, as an act of death, implies not grasping truth. As West puts it, “you die without being able to have the whole in the language of romantic discourse.” For West, this is all to the good, as the whole one might seek to grasp is the metaphysical abstraction (dominant discourse) instituted (for Marx) by intellectuals as mouthpieces of the ruling class.  (Who owns the means of material production determines cultural and intellectual production).  For West, time is gift and giver, not loss, because it represents not an opportunity to grasp or master life in its totality, but an opportunity to “ride on the dissonance” and contribute as a loving, contingent being to the experience of a non-metaphysical, historical process of struggle:

The Blues . . . begins with catastrophe, begins with the Angel of History in Benjamin’s theses . . . begins with the pile of wreckage, one pile on another; the Blues is personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. . .

One can appreciate how for West it is vital to cut through transcendence and immanence (what he calls the classical aesthetic and the normative gaze) and engage with the “funk” of life.  It is in this sense that Sartre spoke of “dirty hands,” and in this regard that Latour critiques the simultaneously “immanent and transcendent God” of modern religion, a spirit of interrelation thus wholly evacuated from the daily world.  Like Latour, West critiques the collusion of classical aesthetics and science that has made philosophy a “normative” project:

 I believe Theodore Adorno was right when he said the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.  That gives it an existential emphasis, you see, so that we’re talking about truth as a way of life as opposed to truth as a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.

For West, an ardent defender of democracy, as a heterogeneous potential that has yet to exist except in the margins of official history, “America is a romantic project, a paradisal city on the hill. [This idea that we had it all or could ever have it all has got to go.]”

But this notion of paradise is, perhaps, not so easily dismissed, nor is the romantic project.  Again, one has to remember the Spinozist distinction (as articulated by Coleridge) between natura naturans and natura naturata.  The former, as “naturing nature” is zoe-as-natural-sweetness, or nature-without-object.  The latter is “natured nature” or zoe-as-bare-life as seen through the objectifying gaze of bios or scientific reason.  If natura naturans has not been wholly banished from existence by the act of the biopolitical state, a state that makes it possible to exert power over life, then it must be accessible to the senses, and how can this natural sweetness be experienced except as interrelation?  How can this experience of compassion, one that makes the awareness of suffering possible rather than putting it under morally vacuous erasure, not be called blissful or paradisal?  When West asserts his agreement with Martin Luther King that we should be “love struck” by one another in our heterogeneous rather than homogenous ethnic and cultural cosmopolitanism, and when he says there is a place for pleasure, “intellectual pleasure,” and the “orgiastic,” I hear Shelley, Keats, and Blake.  And, yes, Wordsworth.

What I want to argue is that there is at least a Wordworth who is a meditative Wordsworth, and a largely overlooked Wordsworth.  The meditative Wordsworth is a meditative intellectual in that though he understands direct meditation on emptiness recognizes that analytic meditation is at least equally important.  The self can tend to reappropriate the experience of no-self-as-compassion as its experience, its moment of transcendence; thus, analytic meditation is necessary as an antidote, because it constantly reopens the inappropriable horizon on heterogeneous matter.  Perhaps the romantic project does register the failure of analytic meditation ever to finally remedy the “egotistical sublime,” but there is a Wordsworth in the meditative intellectual tradition, a Wordsworth who speaks quite clearly of matter as active and visitational, and a Wordsworth, who, like Emily Dickinson, seems to be involved first and foremost in describing the experience of active compassion as natura naturans or as natural sweetness.  I want to look at this Wordsworth because this is where I think we can find the richest account of aesthetic experience, and where we can see how our own intellectual stances may limit or shape our aesthetic experience.  It is here that we come right up against the orthodoxy of critical tradition.

If Wordsworth’s explicit concern with meditation has been overlooked, it is because the reading of Wordsworth has not been considered in its full context.  One of the main reasons for this loss of context (despite historicization) is a silent bias (or orthodoxy) in enlightenment reason itself, which aligns itself with ‘science’ in actively dismissing spiritual experience.  But critical intellectual practice is by no means obligated to segregate itself from the spiritual, even if only a few recent intellectuals (Bergson, James, Whitehead, Einstein, Deleuze,[1] West, Morton[2]) serve as counter-models.


[1] Some might argue, Derrida.

[2] Morton deserves more attention because, though he is a romanticist, like West he views the romantic project as a pursuit of illusory holism.

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