The problem of ideology in my writing (My conversion to liberation theology #6)

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool - by Andy Miah, 17 March 2008 (Slavoj_Zizek_in_Liverpool.jpg) (CC BY-SA 2.0 []), via Flickr
Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool – by Andy Miah, 17 March 2008 (Slavoj_Zizek_in_Liverpool.jpg) (CC BY-SA 2.0 []), via Flickr
This is the sixth in a series of posts testifying about my conversion to liberation theology. For previous posts, here are the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth.

I promised that I’d write about Eastern Catholicism and my turn to liberation theology, but there’s actually something I need to expand on before I get there. I said in my last post that what happened after the Umbrella Movement was that I became paralyzed in my writing. The problem, as my friend Sam Rocha informed me, was that I had been caught in ‘ideology.’ He said that I didn’t have a theory of ideology and should read the critical theorist Slavoj Žižek to get a clue. I resented it at the time, especially because Žižek is a bit of an academic joke. But in hindsight, I am grateful.

Actually, with the perspective of some distance, this was a much more critical moment than I think I have been able to admit. When I was in graduate school, I had just thought that ideology was a set of abstract idea to which you would be foolish to give your allegiance. Using Milbank, I had even argued in the conclusion of my dissertation that this meant that ideological entrenchment was a bad thing because it limited the kind of good politics that you could do in the world to create harmonious communion.

But what I began to understand from Žižek was that ideology was a very subtle force in the contemporary world. In fact, it takes some psychoanalysis to understand. It turns out that what is ideological is not really just that you give your allegiance to a set of ideas that might turn out to be wrong. Instead, your entire being becomes constituted by that set of ideas. You do that not because you are stupid, but because there’s some beautiful future that you want to create and of which you want to be a part. In so doing, you give your life over to what Žižek (but really Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst influencing Žižek) calls the big other, which is often your own projection of a master that you serve in order to bring this beautiful future into being.

I began to see the operation of ideology everywhere. Suddenly, the world began to look a little different, and a little scarier. It’s not actually composed of all these parishes that are supposed to live out a kind of harmonious communion. Instead, quite like what Freud describes in Civilization and Its Discontents, what looks like ‘harmonious communion’ may really be more of an attempt to suppress the person. Of course, Freud also says that civilization would cease to function if that suppression didn’t happen, as everyone would be literally killing and raping people (not that they are not doing that already, as the #MeToo movement shows).

But around this time, I also started teaching cultural geography in Vancouver. The text I knew I had to assign was Michel de Certeau SJ’s Practice of Everyday Life, a book that I had been told by an editor to use for my first peer-reviewed article in geography. The general idea there is that is a difference between the words strategies and tactics. A strategy, de Certeau says, is what a system does from the top down to make a world, but a tactic is what people do to create their own senses of place. Oftentimes, researchers will focus so much on the strategies of institutions, which de Certeau explicitly says is tied back to Freud’s sense of civilization, and forget that there are actually people trying to make their everyday lives work.

But as I taught the course, I read The Practice of Everyday Life and de Certeau’s other work in a much deeper way. The first thing I learned from this exercise is that de Certeau is not really interested in the conscious tactics of people living their everyday lives, but more in terms of the unconscious and subconscious myths and stories that might inform what they do in relation to the systems that are suppressing them. Oftentimes, they are not practicing resistance. Instead, they are usually poaching from it by borrowing words, getting jobs, and building their lives around state, market, and civil society institutions in order to make their own lives work, even while preserving their own myths, legends, superstitions, and stories, as he puts it. What this means is that it is true on the one hand that ideology is everywhere. But it is also the case that people make use of those ideologies for all kinds of purposes too, such that the purpose of the ideologies seldom matches what is going on down on the ground. He uses the French word la perruque to describe this; the closest equivalent, as I understand it, is procrastination because when you are working in a system that depends on your labor for it to function, you begin to interrupt its operation when you go on Facebook or (as de Certeau romantically puts it) take a break from working to write a love letter to your lover. Oddly enough, this was close to what I was finding in Žižek too. This is no surprise because one of Žižek’s heroes was Lacan, with whom de Certeau also studied.

But the second more striking thing is that de Certeau was a lifelong Jesuit, and he had been involved in some of the work of liberation theology in Latin America before moving back to Paris in 1968 to join in the student strikes. As I look back, de Certeau’s work took on a new light for me in the wake of the Umbrella Movement because I was also reading Paulo Freire at the time, thanks to Sam Rocha putting it into my head that I should read it because he was teaching it.

In fact, I had written about Freire for an Asian American studies job application for Northwestern University, which was a big part of (as I am told) how I ended up teaching there the next year. If de Certeau’s stuff was about the unconscious manifesting into action (and Žižek’s too), Freire was about helping not only researchers, but just people themselves realize what they are doing, to which institutions they are relating, and how their consciousness has been shaped. Using the words they use – their own myths, legends, and superstitions, if you will – they would be able to act in the world for their own liberation. The word for this was conscientization, which was also used by Archbishop Hélder Câmara, the Latin American bishops who met at Medellín in 1968, and in the reflections from that meeting by theologians that we now know as doing liberation theology: Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, the Boff brothers, Jon Sobrino, and so on and so forth.

Now the ground is set for my realization that I had converted to liberation theology. The surprise, as I will show next, is that the path toward that conversion was largely through Eastern Catholicism.

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