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Roland BenedikterRoland Benedikter is a Member of the Institute for the History of Ideas and Research on Democracy, Innsbruck, Austria. e-mail: See his Official Homepage with independent international voices about his work. Based on a Guest Lecture for Students of The Graduate Institute, Milford, Connecticut, USA, done by phone from the International 25year Conference of The Alternative Nobel Prices / The Right Livelihood Awards in Salzburg, Austria. Salzburg - Milford, 06/11/2005.

Postmodern spirituality

A dialogue in five parts

Part I: The rise of a proto-spirituality in the late works
of some leading postmodern thinkers

Roland Benedikter

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This Paper gives, in the form of a dialogue, an overview over the proto-spirituality emerging in the late works of some of the main postmodern thinkers. The focus is on investigating the tendencies of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Jean Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault and others, to “re-spiritualize” their basic thoughts in the last years of their lives. In their late works, these thinkers searched for the “absolute secret that cannot be brought into language, but must be protected from language” (Derrida), in many cases going back into traditional religions. Or they were searching for the dimension of the “Not-I” (Lyotard) and the “inaudible presence” through the experience of “an ecstasy of the black void” (Lyotard). The following dialogue tries to describe and understand these tendencies, including the desires and fears in their background, pointing at some of the core motivations in the late works of some main postmodern thinkers.

Question: There seems to be a big search today for a new “essentialism” – for a spirituality for today's needs and abilities. That means: For a spirituality that could genuinely come out of the postmodern mind. For a self-critical spirituality for the global civil society. For a rational spirituality that could be an alternative to the beliefs of traditional religions. This search seems to occur not only in spiritually interested academic and alternative circles and movements, but also on a broader scale.

RB: Yes. I observe that too.

Question: And it seems that there are two main questions related to that search.

  • One of the big themes of today's post-9-11-world seems to be the question: What could be, positively speaking, a new essentialism for our science and cognition based society – a spirituality that could finally fulfill the criteria of academic rationality and scrutiny?
  • And the second question is: How to create such a new “essentialism” or philosophical realism? How to move beyond the “postmodern spirituality” that we have had until today, if we can speak of such a thing? The question is basically about the difference between classical religion and postmodern spirituality - but also on how to move forward those forms of individualistic spirituality that we have had until now, and on what would it mean to move beyond. Because in my estimation, postmodern spirituality, until now, doesn't give us enough of a foundation to be able to respond to the kind of world that we're living in, and also to the kinds of concerns that are being raised by the traditionalists. So people who are faced with the dilemma of: “How do I find out what's right or wrong?” are ending up turning back and moving, always more often, to an older and not seldom unsatisfying mode of traditional religion.

RB: What exactly do you mean by “postmodern spirituality”? What is your concept of it?

Question: My concept is, that postmodern spirituality is kind of the individualistic path. You know, it's kind of summed up in the phrase, even though it's not explanatory, but it's still summed up in the phrase, “I'm spiritual but not religious.” It's a desire for transcendence, a desire for the experience of transcendence, for a personal experience of enlightened consciousness or higher consciousness without a traditional moral structure or a sense of obligation that goes with it.

RB: It sounds to me that all this is about experience, not about belief. The search reaches out for something that is an experience, not a belief.

Question: Right.

RB: And it is, as you said, a desire. And so, it must, at least in the first step, remain unfulfilled, by its own logical structure.

Question: Say that again.

RB: If you call it a desire, then it must be unfulfilled.

Question: Yes. It seems to be chronically unfulfilled. That seems to be the very nature of postmodern spirituality.

RB: Yes, I agree. But do you include in your concept of “postmodern spirituality” also people like, let's say Nicanor Perlas, Jakob von Uexküll or Ibrahim Abouleish, who are exponents of the global civil society and try to concretize individual moral intuitions rationally into concrete projects for the progress of society?

Question: I don't think I know enough about them. I think part of what we're responding to here, is a cultural phenomenon more than a clearly outlinable movement — because there are people who are, I mean, even if you look at the Baha'i faith for example, is an example of, you might call that a “postmodern spirituality”.

RB: Yes, now I understand better what you mean with “postmodern spirituality”. You mean a mainstream of today's desire.

Question: Right. I know from your books that you are seeing the conflict between traditional religion, the traditional ways of engaging with the spiritual impulse, and the “postmodern spirituality”, just to use those broad terms in the way that we've been speaking about them, as one of the major, critical conflicts of the early 21st century.

RB: Yes. From my point of view, the conflict between the “renaissance of religion” and the proto-spiritual desires of postmodernity may be the most important inner conflict of the decade in the European-Western hemisphere, but also worldwide in the globalized culture.

Question: Why is that?

RB: Should I try to explain that?

Question: Yes! Go.


RB: I think, overviewing the situation today, we have to recognize: On the one hand we have the so-called “renaissance of religion”, the return of religion on a worldwide scale. You can see it in controversies in America under George W. Bush, you can see it here in Italy where I live in the Silvio Berlusconi era, you saw it when the pope John Paul II. died and his heir, Benedict XVI., was elected, and you see it in Hinduism where people become more aggressive, more militant, more organized. You see it, of course, in Islam. This is a movement, a general movement, of some of the world's most influent religions, that has been going on since 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and since 1991, when communism collapsed. Old ideologies are disappearing, and what replaces them is culture, something invisible, that forms a new center of identity and a new center of gravity for social organisation. And at the core of culture there is always religion. That is true for every culture in the world, be it pre-modern, modern or post-modern (even if in the last case it is more hidden, and often unconscious). So we have seen the return of religion since 1989, when the big polarity between East and West fell. And at the same time, at the other hand we have this kind of growing desire in the post-modern cultures for something that is not religion, but a more direct, more personal broadening of horizons, of consciousness. For some essence you can grasp with your own hands and can hold on. For something, that should be more a personal experience than a religious belief. A psychological or individual growth. For a concrete, meta-rational transformation – but, if possible, firmly grounded on empirical rationality.

At the same time, when these two tendencies began to move, we experienced a big change in the cultural paradigm of the European-Western world. It was the so-called “postmodern” movement in philosophy, in the social sciences and in academical thinking in general, that rose since the late 1970s, about ten years before the Berlin Wall fell, of whom the big change was made. The “postmodern” thinkers in Europe were people that came out of the revolutionary impulse of 1968: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Helene Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari. They were inspired by a big, overwhelming emphasis of emancipation. If you put it in the guiding principles of the French revolution, the first, grounding emancipative and democratic impulse that stays at the beginning of modern life, you can say that their big intuition was not primarily “freedom”, not primarily “brotherhood” (even if those two principles were very important to them), but “equality”. They all tried to fully establish the principle of equality that was expressed in the French Revolution in the post-war and post-colonial European-Western world. And they tried to do that importing this principle from the political sphere into the educational sphere and into the academic thinking in general - where not equality, but freedom would be the right principle, according to the French revolution. As you remember, the French revolution, and we should never forget that, said: brotherhood should be the guiding principle in the economic sphere of modern society; equality the guiding principle in the political and juridical sphere; and freedom the guiding principle in the educational, cultural and religious sphere. The “postmodern” thinkers coming out of 1968 were concentrated on the principle of equality, because they saw that the society they lived in was unjust. People were not equal and there were strong hierarchies, open hierarchies and hidden hierarchies – just think at the situation in Berkeley and San Francisco at the end of the 1960is, but also, even if in a completely different manner, in Continental Europe. And they thought that changing these hierarchies would change everything. So they took the principle of equality as their “universal key”. And to start the change, they thought, since most of them were students or scholars, you have to start with the single person, with her or his thoughts and feelings: you have to start in the educational and cultural sphere. So they just wanted that everybody was conscious of what equality between people means, and that everybody could feel it and act accordingly.

But how to pursue that goal? To pursue it, they used the method of “deconstruction”. More or less all of them, even if they gave this method different names. They wanted to “deconstruct” the main pillars of hierarchic organisational patterns in the European-Western societies. And the mechanism for doing that was, to put it in a simple image, to import what psychoanalysis does in therapy into the educational system. They tried to import the method of “self-deconstruction” in philosophical discourse, in academic life, in higher education, and to do it there in a slightly different way than psychoanalysis. But basically, it was the same. You just learned from them, and you learn it until today, how to deconstruct yourself. That means: How to see what you are not, what your illusions of yourself are, and how you eventually are made by your parents, your experiences here and there, you education, your friends, the culture you live in, the social class you come from. With one word: You learn to see, and feel, how you are not primarily an independent “I” as you thought, but much more, decisively more a construct of your context. Gaining this insight means, according to the leading postmodern thinkers, “deconstructing” your illusions of yourself (and the world) that you had before this discovery. In the end, as the main result of the postmodern deconstruction method, which lies at the heart of our cultural paradigm since the end of the 1970is until today, you realize that your context: your education, your culture, your class, your unconscious bindings, all this is your self, even if you normally feel that you are something else than all those things. And the result may be, that you become more connected, more tolerant, more self-aware for hidden hierarchies working in your ego generating hierarchies in yourself and in your everyday world, and thus that you pay more attention to equality and justice in your thinking and in your everyday life with other people, who share your moment in time and your destiny of a “constructed” being.

If this is the core goal and method of Postmodernism, than we can assume: The main postmodern thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard or Foucault tried to “deconstruct” virtually everything possible, that means: everything that appears as “something” in the normal mind, such as: your unreflected everyday self, your ego, your “normal” I, the history and societal patterns we are living in, our truth concepts, our “speech acts”, our gender roles and so on. Deconstruct them until they fully reveal themselves as pure social and cultural constructions without any “essence”, without any objective truth. When they reveal their “essencelessness”, we are free to change them at our will. So deconstructing everything means, to leave just nothing “essential” behind. And the logic behind that is: If there is nothing essential, if everything is just a construct, than everything can be changed if people want to change it. And that will equally be an emancipative impulse for society, collective and individual truth systems as for the concepts of “I”. It will, basically, be good for everything. It will move us forward – not in spite, but because we have nothing “essential” or objective left.

So my view point is that in the time we are speaking of - from 1979, the year of Jean-Francois Lyotard's book which gave the movement the name, “The postmodern condition”, until today -, almost everybody has practiced what those people, the likes of Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault or Jean Francois Lyotard, expressed in a very simple philosophical maxime: “Deconstruct yourself: See what you are not. You have to destroy your illusions. To reach progress in society, we have to forget about all essentials, and to see: Everything, including your self, is just a construct by socio-economic and cultural processes. Then we all will live better, and that means: more self-conscious and, eventually, more equal. Even if we will have to pay the price of having nothing 'objective' left on which we could build enduring truths and values, and even if man himself, following this path, must lose his 'essence' than.”

We can sum up that the main postmodern thinkers tried to destroy all illusions by transforming everything into a construct.

We can sum up that the main postmodern thinkers, in their common guiding intuition, tried to destroy all illusions by transforming everything into a construct – with the goal to realize fully the principle of equality as the guiding principle of a more open, pluralistic and progressive society. But they did not build anything positive as alternative to the illusions. They did not create a theory, an observation that could explain what your real I or your spirit is. They just tried to destroy your false I. And nothing more. Leaving nothing behind. Nothing in the strict sense of the word. Deconstruction of the false “I”: exactly this was it, what almost everybody did in our European-Western hemisphere in the last decades, consciously or unconsciously. You can say that after 1989-91, and even more intensely after 9-11, you have the return of a very strong religious sense that tends to strengthen the traditional confessional forms of spirituality. This return is, at least in part and in our civilisation, a (regressive) answer to the “nothing” produced by (progressive) postmodernity. It is the desire for a “return of the objective” or the “return of essence” – but in a regressive form, which in many cases has to exchange rationality, equality and critical self-deconstruction with belief, “confidence” and the return of old hierarchies. It is in many cases militant and increasingly linked to a clash of cultures. On the other hand, you have those “postmodern” people today that have practiced “universal deconstruction” for decades. At the treshold of the new millennium, and especially after 9-11, they stood in the world completely free of illusions, if you can say so, but also, at the same time, completely without any objective ground to build on to answer the new needs for orientation, for sense and meaning. What they had achieved, was a “productive void” (Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze). They led you into a realm of “negative” nothingness, like John Cage, into a realm of “deconstructed” I. But they couldn't tell you who you really are, or what the world is. They couldn't give you a vision what to do after 9-11, how to answer 9-11 and how to re-order the world thereafter in a better way. Why? Because: If you do what postmodernism tells you in order to become a better citizen, and take it seriously, if you really practice it, then you go into a state of nothingness that, in the end, as an ontological experience, may seem to many of us already as something semi-spiritual. Please observe: It is not nothingness like in the eastern ways, like in buddhism, for example, but genuine European-Western nothingness. Western nothingness, where, for the first time, you really know that you don't know anything, where you just see everything as a construct and therefore, to a certain extend, as an illusion – even yourself. But, secretely in their hearts, some practicing “Postmodernists”, especially those, who took all this seriously and underwent the process of deconstruction with their whole body, soul and spirit, began to wonder: Could there be some relation between this “negative” western nothingness of postmodernity and the “positive” eastern nothingness, like in Buddhism, for example? Could there be some relation – maybe not looking towards the past, but looking into the future? Even if they are methodologically very different and have completely different cultural backgrounds and histories, both experiences of “nothingness” seem to lead, at least at the beginning and to a certain extend, to similar experiences in making the first steps beyond the normal consciousness.

This is the reason why, if certain contemporary Indian thinkers, for example, look at our postmodern philosophy and culture today from the point of view of their traditions, they usually would say: “What this postmodern culture tries unconsciously to realize with deconstruction is to break through the veil of the Maya. It tries to destroy the illusion of the world and of the normal I. That is the avant-garde of this culture, but this avant-garde is deeply ambivalent. It tries to destroy all illusions; but it does it unconsciously. It does not know what it does. And therefore it knows not how to proceed after coming near the breakthrough.”

If Indian thinkers say that, they seem, from my point of view, to catch something very important, something deeply, deeply at work in the culture of the European-Western world. Positively speaking, it means: We are in the process of coming near a breakthrough that could take us beyond our normal ego, our illusionary self. But it means also: We are just at the point where we have recognized that nothing is, what is seems - but, at the same time, we have nothing essential left in our hands to build on a step further.

Question: All that seems to be a dead end street, where liberatory “nothingness” is unable to go anywhere. That seems, to a certain extend, to be a very difficult and hopeless situation, doesn't it?

RB: In fact, that's what it is. Definitely. But it means also: Today, where “nothing is anything” (Paul Feyerabend) in the postmodern mind, something else can and must be discovered. A third way between the “renaissance of religion” and the “universal void” of postmodern deconstruction. A third way, where those two ways that remain both in many ways unfulfilling or uncompleted, can converge on a higher level. A level which is spiritual, like the “renaissance of religion”, and at the same time rationally self-observing, like postmodernism. What could such a third way be? For the time being, we can say this: It must be (re-)discovered the objective realm not beyond, but in the deconstructed subjective mind. It seems to me that, for a couple of years now, we are exactly in the process that this “third way” wants to emerge genuinely out of the nothingness of the total self-deconstructed subjective mind, which postmodernism has given us. And my conviction is that this could be, in the long run, a more important “spiritual” movement than the return of traditional religions.

Question: And—

RB: Sorry if I take so long, but—

Question: No, no, that's great. It's fascinating because I've often felt that deconstruction was attempting to create from a Western context the sort of same principles that the Buddha would be exploring, you know, about the relationship to mind and so forth. But because it's coming from a materialist sort of rational perspective that doesn't admit anything beyond its narrow realm, I always remained sceptical about the possible outcome.

RB: I understand that. But, at least for the late works of some main postmodern thinkers, it is not true that they remained only materialistic and rational.

Question: You don't think so?

RB: No. Because there were certain developments in those postmodern thinkers, that led them, in their late works, to a sort of proto- or pre- or borderline-spirituality. No matter how you call it. They simply couldn't avoid it.

Question: Okay.

RB: Let me explain that.

Question: Go.


RB: Let me first make clear that I would like to speak here only about those people that usually stand for standard European postmodernism, not about the Americans. These are people like Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Helen Cixous, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, most of them French, but also Jürgen Habermas or Paul Feyerabend, who call themselves rather “mature moderns” than “postmodernists”, but share, as Germans, most of the basical parts of their general theories with their French collegues - such as constructivism, nominalism (communicative idealism), contextualism and pluralism. It's always been said these main “Core European” thinkers in France and Germany, besides that they had some dispute between themselves, commonly rejected any religion and, more than that, any spirituality in general. Why? Because of an at least fivefold anti-“essential” historical impulses in Europe:

  • the counter-reformation in the style of archbishop Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) with an extremely oppressive (radical Augustinian) interpretation of Christianity, which declared virtually every natural behaviour of man as a sin, and was effective for the perception of (catholic) spirituality by large parts of the population in "Core Europe" until the end of 19th century;
  • the liberatory impulse of the French Revolution 1789, which was directed against the pre-modern unity of secular and clerical power;
  • the anti-substantial (but not anti-religious) philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804);
  • the experience with absolutistic ideologies in the first half of the 20th century (1916-1945), especially with the pseudo-spiritual ideologies of national socialism and communism in “Core Europe” (Habermas and Derrida);
  • the anti-hierarchical (and deeply anti-authoritarian) impulse of 1968.

Of these four impulses, the experience of the 20th century in Europe: national socialism and communism, remains the most important until today – a core experience for the generation, who grew up with those ideologies and, until today, is still in control of the cultural paradigma. I mean people like Jürgen Habermas or Hans-Otto Apel. Their basic intuition, as of their French colleagues Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard and Kristeva, is anti-essentialistic and anti-substantialistic: because they experienced, what catastrophes can be provoked by “absolute” or pseudo-transcendental ideas. And in fact, there is some truth in this: Those anti-humanistic ideologies were all built on the belief in some strange kind of “absolute” ideas or in a kind of absolutistic pseudo-“spirituality”, on all too “essential” ideas that have turned out to produce inhuman results. That is the main reason why European Postmodernists were, as you say, for a long period of their personal and intellectual lives aggressively anti-essentialistic. From 1979 until 1989-91, and then, even if in a different manner, from 1991 until 1999 and 2000 - the years of the rise of the neo-idealistic and neo-essential global civil society in Seattle and Genova. But after that, and especially after September 11, 2001, their paradigmatic anti-essentialism began to change in some crucial parts. They were, increasingly, searching for some kind of rationally “enlightend” essentialism to add to their nominalistic paradigm. More accurately: for a essentialism that could merge with postmodernism, without changing its basic pilars. And more: For a spiritual realism that could come out of it.

Question: Oh, interesting.

What remains after the deconstruction of everything is the fact that there is a consciousness that does this deconstruction.

RB: Yes. But where to start? They searched for a point to begin with, for an archimedic point. This point of departure had to be empirical, intersubjective and rationally observable, and at the same time it had to allow them to gain access to essentials. So they thought: Back to the roots of experience, in the strictest sense of the word. They thought: Ok, we tried to deconstruct everything - but with which instrument can you do this? You can deconstruct yourself only with your own (active) consciousness and with your own (active) thinking. As a good postmodernist you would recognize that everything, in the end, is an illusion, is just a construct. But to recognize that, logically speaking, there must be one exception. Something must not be a construct, but do the deconstruction of all constructs. And this is the active thinking process. What remains after the deconstruction of everything is the fact that there is a consciousness that does this deconstruction. And this consciousness, as active stream of observing and doing, is not an object that can be deconstructed. It seems to be given for itself. It is, strictly empirically speaking, the “prime mover” (Ayn Rand) before all concepts, mental contents and objects. All concepts, mental contents and objects come after it, because they depend on it, come out of it. That means: There must be a consciousness that is pure activity, pure attention. And this consciousness of pure activity lays before and behind all the constructions of contents and “somethingnesses” that appear in your normal ego-consciousness, which usually identifies itself with them. Again: It is the “prime mover”, so to say.

Therefore, because they slowly begin to become aware of this point, whom they call sometimes the “productive void” (Foucault, Deleuze) before and behind everything, some late postmodernist thinkers show a certain tendency. They follow a certain inductive method: Do not emphasize the ego, because the ego must be part of the realm of the constructions. It must be something like an illusion. Ultimately, depending on his contexts, it consists of nothing in the spheres of nothing. Emphasize instead what remains when your ego and its world have been completely deconstructed: emphasize the active, critical consciousness, which does the deconstruction. Emphasize your active, primordial attention, which is something that observes the ego, but cannot be observed. It does the deconstruction, but cannot be deconstructed. Because deconstructing it everything would disappear, even the process of deconstruction itself.

So there was, certainly more unconsciously than consciously, in the 30 year long development process of universal deconstruction activity done by the postmodern mind, step by step the almost inevitable rise of something you can call the primordial basis (or, to put it again in Ayn Rands words, “the fountainhead”) of something that may neither be part of the deconstructable world, nor of the normal ego. It was the latent, emerging discovery of something behind the normal “I” - of something that must stay, as active stream of consciousness, at its origins. Of something, that is, in its empirical phaenomenology, the “continuous presence of an origin out of itself” (Jean Gebser), even if it is fully rationally and logically operating. And that means: of something “essential”, or even, if you want to call it that way, “spiritual”. Late Postmodernists turn, in different ways, their attention to this sphere of “essence”. Why? Because they must realize by their own rational proceedings of universal deconstruction, that there obviously is a creative force that is not an ego, nothing that could be called “something”, but that at the same time is a fact, which you can, if you are an empirical observer, neither oversee nor neglect. It is the “productive void” that lies behind every mental construct. It is the “productive void” that does the deconstruction, but is not itself part of the universal illusion that can be deconstructed. If you try to deconstruct it, you lose everything.

Thus, late Postmodernists inevitably discovered some new “essence”. And it is an essence that is strictly empirical and rationally mind-based, not speculative.

But at the same time, there was also a very strong speculative search by some of the late postmodernist thinkers for a kind of negative, ecstatic religion. You can see, for example, that Jean Francois Lyotard, when he died in 1998, had written a programmatic, “spiritual” testament: “The soundproof room. The Anti-Aesthetics of Malraux” (Stanford University Press 2001). Already, his books before this one were extremely spiritual (“extreme” is the right word here, as we will have to discover only in the coming years of academic research, we still do not realize it fully so far). But especially in his “testament”, he was in search for some new essence - mainly from a negative point of view, and using a strictly negative methodology of research.

In his last years of life, Lyotard tried to find, as he says in “The soundproof room”, “the realm beyond the I”, the “Not-I”. He tried to find it through a method, that he called a “negative ecstasy” of the mind, an “ecstasy of the black void”. He hoped, that a spiritual experience could come out of that experience. It is no accident that “The soundproof room” is about the negative aesthetics of the romantic French poet André Malraux. Lyotard says that he hopes that the negative ecstasy of sickness, of mental illness or loss of normal consciousness could possibly bring us into a new, altered and possibly higher state of consciousness. In his testament, at the end of his life, in the final stadium of cancer, looking back, he speaks of his universal abhorrence towards contemporary culture, which appears to him as a kind of sacrilege. Remember, that he himself, as the “father” of postmodernism, helped decisively to create this very culture! And, outlining the necessary, desirable step in the future, he tell us: You should try to leave your normal consciousness and come near to “the other”. You should enter into an ecstasy of fear, into an ecstasy of negative feelings, into something like a sickness of the normal “I”, into a state of consciousness where you are completely overwhelmed by “Not-I”-experiences: an ecstasy of pain, for example. And if you do that, if you enter into such a state of mind where your normal I disappears, then you will see that there is another I, another dimension of being. And this dimension will be decisive for giving birth to a new self. A self that is, in a certain sense, more than your normal, “postmodern” self. A self, that is not “I”, but, as he calls it, the experience of the “Not-I”. This dimension will be something else. It will open up a space and time for you, where a different, a possibly higher aesthetic reigns. It will open your eyes for the unthinkable, even if only negatively. And then, everything will be transformed. But into what? And you, what will you be then?

Question: Is it —

RB: Jean-Francois Lyotard explicitly tells us in his testament: “You should try some mechanisms.” He calls the common basis of those mechanisms the “pain of thinking”. That's his central term: the pain of thinking. Enter the pain of thinking, enter it fully and with your whole heart, and the ecstasy of the negative, as he calls it: the “ecstasy of the black void”, will help you do destroy your normal “I”. This will enable you to reach your “other” self: an “I” which he calls the “Not-I”. That is what he says in some of his last words.

This effort was extremely serious. And we can say that if the whole postmodern core process unconsciously tries to destroy the “veil of the Maya” and break through the illusions constructed by your own consciousness, then, out of that, at a certain point it comes almost as a necessity that you try to go one step beyond. A step beyond the point of destroying the normal “I”, and to discover the realm of the “productive void”, of the “Not-I”. But, in the end, you see that most of the main postmodern thinkers can't do all that positively. They are simply not able to go beyond the borderline of the subject, who reveals himself as a construct, in a positive manner. They can just evoke the borderline negatively. Not less, not more. As it is shown in the late work of Jean Francois Lyotard.

At the same time, you have Jacques Derrida, in his last works, but especially in his biographical investigation done by himself in the best film about him, “Derrida is elsewhere” (1999). This film was made by a arab woman, Safaa Fathy. Here, Derrida speaks of himself as a double personality: as of his false, and as of his “other”, his truer self. The true Derrida is not the one who speaks, he is “elsewhere”. Derrida tells us that he, in reality, is a “Maran”. He says: There is no ego, I have never seen one. But I myself am an “I” beyond time and space, a self that is not fully here, where the normal “I” is. My true self is a self that is, at the same time when I am speaking here, elsewhere. And he calls that self the “Maran”. At one point he even says: “I feel not only as a Maran, but sometimes as a Meta-Maran”. But what is a Maran? If this has been his main identification in his last years, as he says, if this was, as he put it, his “obsession over all the last years” – what is then a “Maran”?

Derrida: "That's what I am. An intellectual protector of the absolute secret. I protect it from being violated by language."

A Maran is, as Derrida explains, a well educated, intellectually outstanding Spanish Jew in the 14th century, who is forced to practice in his everyday life Christianity - in order to be able to be assimilated and to live like every citizen in a normal, peaceful way. But in a second, secret life at his home, when he is alone with himself, this Spanish Jew practices the Kabbala, his real religion. Derrida says, he had always been, for centuries now (!), something like a Jewish-Arab Maran. In the outside world, he had to practice a thinking that had to be compatible with today's materialism. But when he was alone in his real inner self, he was a French-Arabic Jew, and he felt a strong affinity to Jewish religion. And he says very openly: In my true identity, I am, and I was always for my whole life, a “protector of the absolute secret”. That's what I am. An intellectual protector of the absolute secret. I protect it from being violated by language, by interpretation, by ideology – showing that every language act is only a construct that can be deconstructed, but that is not able to fully reach the essence which it wants to represent. The essence is more than the word, and the word can never reach it. Therefore, no speech act can fully grasp the sense it wants to express. Because the absolute secret, that is no thing that can be represented “by names”. Therefore, you have to protect it from representation. Like the Maran protects his religion. You can find something similar in one of Derridas late works, “A Silkworm of one's own” (Stanford University Press 2001) or in “Circumfession”. In these works, he speaks openly about the intertwined relations between the normal ego and the “other” self. And, at the same time, he speaks openly of why the whole truth can never be “circumfessed” by your normal consciousness here and now – and why every attempt to try it must be called “totalitarism”. But that does not mean that the truth does not exist. You just cannot speak directly of it. You just have to evoke it negatively. “The other” (or God, as I would add) cannot be represented. That is, by the whole nature of “the other”, the worst thing you can try to do. The Maran is the person, who teaches the secret, and who, at the same time, teaches how to protect it and let it not slip into words. Totalitarism is the attempt of representation of the absolute secret (Derrida, but also Lyotard in “Le differend. Phrases in dispute”, University of Minnesota Press 1988). You have to protect the secret from that, at all costs. And I myself, says Derrida, “I have discovered, over the years, a secret in my inner self, which is bigger than I am – and which I cannot reach with my normal self.” That's why he became a Maran. He had to become a Maran. There was no other choice.

Question: Uh huh, interesting.

RB: Yes, indeed. Unfortunately, many don't know these developments, because the late works of most leading Postmodernists have not been studied with enough attention yet. And our universities continue to tell us that Derrida was only a nominalist (which for a long period of his life he was, actually), and that he was just a very sophisticated materialist (which he was, either). But I talked to him personally, and it became clear to me that he was a deeply convinced, how do you say, Arab-Jewish thinker. The research about this aspect of his complex and ambivalent work is only at the beginnings. Recently, one of his closest friends, French feminist philosopher Helene Cixous, of Jewish-Arab origins like him, has written one of the first deeper investigating books about Derrida's life and work as a “Maran” through his Jewish heritage: “Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint” (Columbia University Press 2004).

Something similar is eventually true for Michel Foucault, even though he had other origins and different philosophical tendencies than Lyotard and Derrida. But the direction he takes in his late works, is basically the same: proceed from rationality to a kind of meta-rationality, following merely negative paths of exploration. The rationality remains, but there is something else added. Let me just mention one example. Some of his last “mantras” of investigation, that you see return - visibly or invisibly - on every page of his late works (the third period, the so called “Care of the Self” period from the late 1970is until his death in 1984) were: “If only the thinking could think itself. And if only it could think, at the same time, what lies in its shadow”. If you pursue the deeper sense, that is evoked with these words, you find something similar that you can find in Lyotard and in Derrida: A breaking through from the contents of thought to the pure act of thinking behind any specific thoughts, and a breaking through from a rationality “of the first grade” that first thinks, and than thinks about what it has thought, to a rationality “of the second grade” that enables itself to observe objectively its own thoughts in the very moment they occur. But who can observe the thoughts of the “I” in the same moment, when they happen? Only the “other self”, the “witness”, as the traditions of the philosophia perennis usually call it. There is no other possibility than that. And discovering this in a very rational and empirical way, is a concrete experience of spirituality. It is the conception of a “other” self, that begins to observe the thought-producing “normal” self synchronically, not any longer only diachronically like in the classical modern rationality. I repeat: From my point of view, there is no other possibility than this interpretation. Only the “other” self, the witness, can observe the thoughts in the same moment in which they are occurring, and see at the same time, what lies in their shadow – see, what their essence is not as a content, but as an act. Only the witness can perform the act so intensely desired by the late Foucault: “The thinking that is thinking itself”.

Question: That's interesting, because it's such a misconception of Derrida, what is said about him in the academic paradigm discourse of today. It's interesting, I know Foucault's work much — probably most of all the postmodern thinkers - and I've looking at his life. His own life seemed to be a constant struggle to find the beyond, to find this other realm and going through the extremes in order to try to derange his senses to get beyond himself. And it always struck me about, I don't know, the arrogance of the Western mind, that all these people didn't think, they didn't seem to think of this in any kind of religious or spiritual terms whatsoever. But Foucault was compelled to do it. And even though there's a lot of horrible and even unethical behaviour that he was engaging in, the spirit was what he was engaging in the end. There's something very, very deep that was moving him, that he was struggling to find. That is my impression.

RB: Yes. That is my impression, too. But it is valid, in my view, not for the whole work of Focuault, but foremost for Foucault in his last years, for the Foucault already infected with HIV/AIDS. And even if there are still strong controversies about that, I am convinced that this impression is at least partially right. It hits something that is really there, but has not been fully expressed by Foucault. Why? Because he was not able to express it, as it should be expressed. Remember, Foucault also often speaks in his works of the “white room of the man” – here you have something similar, that comes close to a meta-rational or “essential” intuition, near to the “absolute secret” of Derrida. Even if it is a different concept, there is something in it that has the same intuition. And this intuition is valid also for Lyotard in his late works.

But, to sum up these phaenomena in the late Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault, the decisive point is that their search remains deeply, deeply ambivalent. You just have to consider all these thinkers, and also the female thinkers like Helene Cixous, my favorite female thinker, and other women, but also those postmodern men like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, you just have to consider them as symptoms. They are, in the end, nothing else than creators, but symptoms for a “borderline” state of mind that is emerging in many who live in the Western-European hemisphere today. The postmodern thinkers, the philosophers are just symptoms of the much broader evolution of postmodern culture, of postmodern desire. They are not doing anything special, the are not inventing something new. But they are just expressing in their late works, what many of us feel and do — the struggle of transformation that many of us are going through, and what our whole culture invisibly is starting to go through.

Question: Yes.

RB: But you don't have to think that these philosophers succeeded in their desire. They ultimetaly did not find the “other side”. They did not find the realm of the “essentials” or of spirituality, as it has to be found. The postmodern thinkers did not fully discover the objective realm in the subjective mind. Not in a clear, rational, direct way, building everything on the individual moral intuition as the ultimate place of empirical encounter between the subjective and the objective - as todays global civil society wants to outline it. But some of those postmodern thinkers, in their last years were, in a very complex way, trying to enlarge the normal consciousness we have.

Question: Yes.

RB: And doing this, they responded to a general movement in our culture. This consciousness of our postmodern culture, indeed, is always coming closer to nothingness, into something that can deal with nothingness, that begins to use for its purposes. Our “normal consciousness”, indeed, is coming closer to nothingness every day - in ourselves, but also in the cultural paradigm. To a kind of horrible nothingness (as the late Lyotard experiences it), but at the same time to a possibly most beautiful and productive nothingness (as Derrida and Cixous, partially also Foucault try to show it to us). A cultural and individual nothingness or “productive void”, where no ideologies and no fixed thoughts remain. But only free acts of a permanently moving mind, which observes itself and its creative gestures synchronically with every step it takes. And this is something that you have to admire to a certain extent.

Question: Yes, now I do.

RB: It is ambivalent, but it contains the potential and power of progress. The universal deconstruction of postmodermism has the potential to discover something out of the nothing. And this discovery may be an alternative to the going back into confessional, traditional belief of the world wide “renaissance of religion”. Postmodernity, in a certain sense, is the creation of a productive void, in which you have to discover your “other” I as the primordial act behind all the contents. You cannot make an object out of that act, because he himself is the only thing that is “objective” in your thinking and being. The discovery of that dimension seems more productive to me, even if it is much more painful and individually much more dangerous, than the regression into confessional, mythological, collective religion, where personal, direct experience is, at least in many cases, excluded or not seen as decisive.


Question: Right, I've found it fascinating. And I think that they're pioneers in this, coming from a Western standpoint. Now why do you think that these postmodernist thinkers weren't able to find what they were searching for? Why is that? Is it based on the philosophical sort of assumptions they were making? Why is it that they couldn't find what they were looking for?

RB: There are complex reasons for that. First, one reason may be this: All the main postmodern thinkers, whom I mentioned, wanted to make in the first place the active, rational consciousness that everybody of us has, more conscious of itself. Make it more conscious not after its acts have occurred, like in modernity (Hegel), but in the very moment these acts are occurring. That is postmodern philosophy at its best. Postmodernism wanted to take us from a first kind of self-observation of the modern mind, which functioned as a diachronic self-observation (first I think and then I look at what I thought), to a second kind of self-observation, which should function synchronically (I think and I observe what I am thinking in the very moment it is occuring). The first (modernity) is basically a state of mind where the normal ego and its thinking believe that they are one and the same; the ego identifies with the contents of his thoughts. The second (postmodernity) should be a state of mind where the normal ego and those thoughts, it is identifying with, are additionally being observed by the witness, in the same moment when the ego thinks. Or, as Derrida expressed it in the second half of 1999 with an example in a talk transmitted from his writing room to a conference where I was present: “I give you an example, what deconstruction is. Take this. I watch tv, and I watch myself watching tv. That is deconstruction. That is the whole thing, nothing else.” It is, as I would interpret these words, a kind of synchronicity between the ego and the witness. That exactly would be the fulfilled postmodern deconstruction. In his last interview for “le Monde” in summer 2004, Derrida said something similar, pointing at the double structure of every mature postmodern consciousness. He said: “I am convinced that some traces of my work will last, and, at the very same time, and that is decisive, I swear you, I am convinced that exactly nothing of it will remain.” In this double sense of a - more or less - conscious synchronicity of ego and witness, fulfilled deconstruction would be, in my view, at least potentially a higher, more evolved form of enlightenment (Aufklärung). But it is, at the same time, also more closely tied to “more evolved” forms of danger, of accidents, of disorder. That is the very nature of the whole proceeding.

Question: Exactly.

RB: Postmodernism means: Deconstruct everything that you normally identify with. Deconstruct what you thought was yourself. And what comes out of this proceeding is a total deconstruction of yourself, that leaves nothing behind than a pure activity of “conscious consciousness”, which observes its own movement in every moment. It is a consciousness that observes itself in the moment when it is happening, when it thinks. It is a thinking that is thinking itself, if you want to put it in Foucault's terms. It is thinking that becomes aware of itself. That is, as it is presented by those postmodern thinkers I mentioned, something proto-spiritual, in my view. It is, at least in its hidden ambition, rationality becoming “essential” - without losing itself in the process. But the problem is, that all this, in most cases remains a desire, and does not become a reality for postmodern thinkers. In most cases, their experience of “the other” seems more like, as Bob Dylan called it some years ago, a “time out of mind” (1997). It becomes nothing stable, but more a kind of short peak experience. It is a short experience that thinking, when it goes beyond the identification with thoughts, when it comes near to the fountainhead of inspiration, of concept building, that thinking is a reality in the kósmos – a subjective-objective reality in synchronicity. That can become clear, at least to a certain extend, when you “watch tv and watch yourself watching tv”. And in fact, you can read, as I said, the late Derrida, and you will discover that he writes about subjective-objective experiences. But in the end, for most postmodern thinkers, all this remains more a desire than a conscious reality.

Question: That's my impression, too. Exactly. A walk on the borderline between desire for “the other” and real evolution of consciousness.

RB: And the second reason is that all these people were, even in their last period, unconscious or insecure about what they really did. Lyotard and Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze - they tried to understand what the “silent presence”, the “inaudible presence that is permanently vanishing” (Lyotard) may be in its own, true nature. And they tried it starting from a psycho-analytical standpoint. And therefore they were always interpreting it with psych-analytical concepts, thus always falling back into some kind of psycho-analytical reduction of what their “essential” experiences really were. Psycho-analytical concepts, even if they are immensely precious, are not made for “essential”, subjective-objective experiences. They are made for something else, for other purposes. And so the postmodern thinkers failed in the interpretation of their own doing, of their own tendencies. Here, you have two main reasons why the main postmodern thinkers in their late works only approach the borderline, but they never really cross this line.

Question: Yes, it's like an inbuilt limit. You always approach, but it never gets there.

RB: I think, many of us know that feeling of ambivalence. Because many of us, if we want to admit it or not, have the same troubles as these postmodern thinkers. For many of us, “essentials” remain a permanent borderline desire – “so near, and so far away” (Wim Wenders). You are moving towards the borderline, near the “productive void”. That, in many cases, is painful. But you feel, it will finally may let you make an important discovery, maybe even a break through. You feel, the direction, even the solution is there, in the neighbourhood of fulfilled, active nothingness of your deconstructed mind. You feel it clearly, and therefore you want go through the auto-deconstruction of your normal ego. And sometimes it can happen, for seconds, if you are lucky. But it is just an accident. Normally, if you want to go into an “essential” experience, you have first pass through katharsis, what the Greeks called katharsis: through a process of purification / deconstruction of the soul, which is painful and fulfilling at the same time. It is a transformation in most cases, connected with some kind of dissolution of the normal I, or with some kind of discovery that you normally would reject, that you don't like. And these postmodern thinkers are directly, with all their inner movement and their deconstructive powers, trying to approach this kathartic point where something else emerges out of the spheres of annihilation, of the “inaudible presence” (Lyotard) of the void. But then, they never seem to be able to go beyond, and to stay in the realm of essential experience - of the thinking that observes objectively its own subjective acts. That's the point. They reach the borderline. But they cannot cross it properly.

Question: Right. Is the kind of nothingness, you spoke of, the same as in the Eastern ways?

The productive void of postmodernity may be a door to nothingness. That is my thesis.

RB: Yes and no. It is not the kind of nothingness that, for example, Ken Wilber or Andrew Cohen mean. But it's some kind of a productive void. You just have to call it a void, not nothingness in the sense of the eastern traditions. But the productive void of postmodernity may be a door to nothingness. That is my thesis. But the inbuilt nihilism and materialism of the main postmodern thinkers made it impossible for them to use the productive void in this sense. They could not pass through this door to go beyond it.

Question: Yes, it's much more nihilistic than what you are saying that Wilber or Cohen would call, you know, nothing, or nothingness.

RB: But if you go to that point, if you do it consistently, radically, if you deconstruct everything, then it starts to transform itself into something else.

Question: Right, I agree with you. But the icons of postmodernism never went that far. Because there seems to be still a sort of nostalgia around the normal self, the normal ego itself. There isn't a sense for where is the point it wants to go with its transformation. There's such an ambivalence about whether or not this is a positive transformation. There is a compulsion to go into this direction, and yet there is, I think, a disconnection from where that compulsion is coming from. And so therefore, for the late postmodernists, it becomes a very ambivalent enterprise, because for them, consciously and conceptually, there maybe isn't anything other than a normal ego or a normal self. And so you are always in danger to actually destroying yourself in this process. So it's a very strange thing, because the Postmodernists don't seem to have anything else in their belief structure, or understanding of themselves to go one step farther.

RB: Yes, you are probably right. But there is one more point, which is important here. Ask yourself one decisive question. Ask yourself what remains if your normal ego is deconstructed totally, and that really means: if it is destroyed. What remains?

Question: My self. I mean,

RB: So, would you say that of the experience of annihilation could emerge the possibility to discover your real self?

Question: Yes, exactly.

RB: The decisive point, to me, seems to be: It must emerge, at this point. Because, in the end, you have no other choice. You have no other chance.

Question: Exactly.

RB: You will become totally mad, if you lose your normal ego, or totally high. How do you experience it? How do you call it? You will be desperate. You will be extremely depressed. Or you discover something else that has a higher status than everything you destroyed with your deconstruction. There is no other possibility. You have no third choice.

Question: Right. So it's fascinating, because there's an interesting book out of MIT Press, from Varela, and a few others who are Buddhists. It's called “The Embodied Mind”, which you may have seen. They were writing about the deconstruction that has happened ipso facto through cognitive psychology. It wasn't that the cognitive psychologists were looking to deconstruct themselves in a way that the post-modern deconstructionists were. But by the fact of finding no self within the brain and finding that there was nothing there, in quote “nothing” there in all the cognitive science experiments, apparently many of them became deeply depressed — deeply, deeply depressed. And they asked themselves: Where can we find something?

RB: Yes. It's the same thing for postmodernism, more or less. When you take postmodernism seriously, when you do it consistently, not just playing around with it as a kind of snobbism or intellectual game, but doing it seriously in your own consciousness and in your real life, applying it concretely, then you just have to be deeply depressed - or you find the “other” self. You have no third choice. When there are two ways, but no third, and you must decide to take only one of them, we call that with the Greeks a “crisis”. And this crisis could be the right thing for our present time, who knows? Because, as Hegel said: the “world process that goes through man”, is made of such crises and subjective-objective paradoxies. That is, how it has to be, as it seems.

Question: Right.

RB: But I have a third point to make. A third reason to mention, why late postmodernism has developed that specific kind of pre-, semi- or borderline-spirituality. You should never forget that many of the main representatives of postmodernism are, as I said, not only of “Core European” (German or French), but also of Jewish-Arab origins, or are strongly influenced by them. And so, when they reach the borderline, when they come into the neighborhood of “essential” experience of “the other”, or spiritual experience, they feel always near to their origin of spiritual departure. So, being a mix of French (or German) and Jewish-Arabic, a certain mechanism comes into action. Derrida, Cixous, and Levinas have this kind of sacred prohibition to make something representative out of the experience of “the other”. They don't have to create an image of “the other” and the “inaudible, silent presence”. Levinas and Derrida say it explicitly: When there is the experience of “the other” coming out of the productive void of the ego, when you have the possibility to observe your own thoughts in the very subjective-objective process of their genesis — when you become aware that “not you”, that “the other” is thinking this consciousness of yours, as Hegel said, in this very moment you have to take a step back, because you cannot create an image of “the other”. You can and should not give it a name. You don't have to think to represent all this in mental thoughts (cf., for example, Jean Francois Lyotard, Heidegger and “the Jews”, University of Minnesota Press 1990). This is a very strong, even in many cases pre-rational reason, why those thinkers have created “essentials” in their intellectual life, but declined to include them actively into their intellectual works. It is completely understandable, and maybe it is far better than re-creating mythical images of the “other” realms of reality, as some of the modernists were doing in their last years.

Question: Right. Well, I always find it funny that these highly intelligent people, when it comes to reach for essence or spirituality, they all of a sudden identify “the other” with the idea of an image of God, a personal God that's from pre-modern times. That is what comes to them, and then they feel: Well we can't do that. And they're right. They're right about that, but it's funny that sort of notion of what god is. It's so impoverished actually, or so primitive.

RB: You're right. In my opinion, the postmodernists, in many cases, have a primitive - or over-intellectualized - conception not only of God, but also of Jewish religion. Jewish religion says much more, and is far more sophisticated, as they could grasp from their deconstructivistic - and often materialistic - standpoint. Therefore, there concept of Jewish heritage and religion is representative only for their own interests and intellectual possibilities, not for Jewish heritage and religion as such and as a whole.


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