Corporatist Spirituality: Certainly not Us vs. Them

Almost all of the fifteen minutes of attention that has been paid to the phrase “corporatist spirituality” has been focused on the use of spirituality by profit-making corporations, such as Google. This is important, and reflects the kind of critique that Zizek has made of contemporary Buddhism. There is, however, another aspect of the concept that I intended when I employed the phrase in forwarding the YouTube clip of Mindfulness 2.0 to Glenn Wallis, but which was perhaps not adequately highlighted in my own previous post on the topic.

The aspect that has not received adequate attention is that spirituality is also employed by Buddhist institutions, whether incorporated as profit-making or not. Given that awakening, or “enlightenment,” is an ever-receding goal (always just over the horizon; and note that in most Buddhist traditions it was not considered to be within the possible attainment by a layperson: cf. Jayarava’s comments just below “The Romance of Buddhism” in his post, Commodification and the Buddhadharma), its offer serves as an enticement to unending participation in training programs, workshops, intensives, and the like.

This is not a general damning of all forms of present-day Buddhism. Certainly many make offers based on a more limited goal of training, or of maintaining one’s practice, while for many adherents, ongoing participation results from the value of being part of the social life of a group. However, to the extent that “spirituality” (a ha! now the scare quotes appear) is used as a means of drawing what ought to be considered customers and instilling a dependency (as distinct from commitment), then it is serving the “corporatist” ends of the institution.

Even more fundamentally, however, I would also want to suggest this as part of a more general hermeneutic of suspicion directed toward the diffuse and incoherent concept “spirituality.” (The only discussion of spirituality that I’ve come across that makes sense to me is that given by Patricia Churchland in her Touching a Nerve, p. 61.) To the extent that the idea is rooted in Western religio-philosophic thought, it is based on a dualism between matter and spirit. With this basis, one might think that the idea of spirituality would be particularly problematic for Buddhists. Not only is the tradition not founded on a dualism between matter and spirit, but many contemporary Buddhists (of all x-stripes) proudly declaim their adherence to non-duality (which functions simply in most cases as yet another “view”). Though there are, of course other dualisms that can be identified in the tradition, I would suspect that any reading of Buddhist sources that appears to support the dualism between matter and spirit involves an uncritical use of the jargon of popular religious culture.

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3 thoughts on “Corporatist Spirituality: Certainly not Us vs. Them

  1. Coincidentally I’m in the middle of reading Touching a Nerve. Which I’m finding quite a good read, but a little unsophisticated in it’s approach to spirituality. I find Justin Barrett and Robert McCauley more satisfying. They take an evolutionary approach to religious belief and argue, like Thomas Metzinger, that it follows naturally from the way our brains process the kinds of experience we have. Which is not to say that what comes naturally is true or real. But it takes almost no effort to believe in the supernatural, and considerable effort to not believe. Which is why most people in the world are believers and atheists are a minority.

    As you probably know I’ve also commented on the matter/spirit duality and it’s role in “spirituality”, especially related to afterlife beliefs. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/metaphors-and-materialism.html (In this I was influenced by Metzinger).

  2. Hi Richard,
    Do you know this project? http://freq.uenci.es/seek/
    I’m not sure I’m reading you right but there already is quite a lot of reflection on the category of spirituality in the sociology of religion that reflects the critical perspective you seek. In fact, I think it fair to say that reflections on spirituality in the sociology of religion started from a hermeneutic of dismissal (even more than suspicion). The classic, of course, being Bellah’s Sheilaism. Right now, I’m in Boulder, CO doing a little fieldwork on Integral Buddhism. If ever there was a sitting duck for a corporatist spirituality critique here you have it. But, there’s more to spirituality than corporate spirituality. Paying attention to specific formations in their social and historic context is more productive and I think where the sociology of religion has landed right now.(Thinking here of the work of Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge and Ann Taves).
    Cheers, Ann

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