Postmodern Spiritual Practices


Paul Allen Miller

“The true human body is the bones and marrow of the realm beyond consciousness and unconsciousness. Just raising this up is the study of the way.”
Dogen (1200–1253 CE)

From the introduction ("Remaking the Soul"):

The soul, such as we still manipulate it and such as we are still encumbered
by it, the notion, the image of the soul that we have -— and which was not stirred up out of the succession of all the waves of our traditional heritage -— the soul that is our concern in the Christian tradition, this soul has as an apparatus, as an armature, as a metallic stem in its interior, the by-product of Socrates’ madness for immortality. We live with it still.
(Lacan 1991: 125)

At a minimum, you know what I am talking about and put yourself in accord with it as best as you are able, with this economy I mean, from Socrates to Freud and beyond, all the way to us (understood and not).
(Derrida 1980: 45)

The “essay”  -— which must be understood as the attempt to modify oneself in the game of truth and not as a simple appropriation of others for purposes of communication -— is the living body of philosophy, if at least it is still now what it was in the past, that is to say an “askesis,” an exercise of the self, in thought.

(Foucault 1984a: 15)

This book argues that a key element of postmodern French intellectual life has been the understanding of classical antiquity and its relationship to postmodern philosophical inquiry. In it I concentrate on the works of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.  It would, of course, have been possible to choose others. The extent of the influence of antiquity on such luminaries of French postmodern thought as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, and Emmanuel Levinas remains all but unexplored, while more work remains to be done on the feminists: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. Yet Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault remain not only three of the most influential exponents of French postmodern thought in the Anglo-American world, but also, as our three opening quotations indicate, they demonstrate a substantial continuity of concern in their approach to the ancient world in general and to Platonic philosophy in particular.

As we shall see, despite their well-known philosophical and theoretical differences, they all three turn to the ancient world not only to examine what Charles Taylor terms “the sources of the self” (1989), but also to find ways to historicize and modify it. This genealogy of modern forms of subjectivation in all three cases aims at the potential deconstruction and hence transformation of the structures of power, desire, and inscription out of which the modern subject is fashioned. And thus, while Foucault alone makes explicit use of the terminology, I will argue that all three present the encounter with antiquity as a form of “spiritual practice,” and that the Platonic dialogues come to serve as the foremost emblem of that psychic labor. Moreover, inasmuch as all three conceive the subject, not as a freestanding entity, but as a knot or fold in a complex web of language, power, writing, and the law, then the ethical and spiritual work that begins under the aegis of Plato is for all three of necessity, though to different degrees and with different emphases, always already political. They demand a rethinking of the subject’s relation to power, pleasure, and the institutions that seek to regulate and produce them: a genealogy of the subject of democracy, law, and the market so that a new politics, a new ethics, a new economy of desire, a new relation to the body and pleasure may be thought (Derrida 1994: 127–29; Foucault 1976: 208–10; Žižek 1991: 154–69). The stakes, then, of these three thinkers’ encounter with the Platonic dialogues and the issues that surround them, I would submit, are of central importance not only to an understanding of postwar French intellectual culture and the interpretation of Plato, but also to the most basic ethical and political concerns facing us today. In a world in which religious fundamentalism has become increasingly the ideological correlate of a world seen purely as a collection of instruments for advantage, in which ecological disaster threatens, and in which the commodification of daily life has become the answer to the problem of desire, the question of the self’s relation to itself, and thence to the good, has never been more urgent.


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I will argue that all three present the encounter with antiquity as a form of “spiritual practice.”

Alleluia brother, a man after my own spirituality.

Yes this is interesting. I've downloaded the script and will comment when time allows.


For now I have a vague idea what the Lacan quote from the intro section is about:

 this soul has as an apparatus, as an armature, as a metallic stem in its interior, the by-product of Socrates’ madness for immortality. We live with it still.  (Lacan 1991: 125)


My guess is that L. is talking about Freud's Death drive here. Following Zizek's interpretation, the death drive is that which continues to operate when the original impulse that created the movement is long gone. Something like Derrida's crossed out word or 'specter'. Or like the Living Dead from Romero's horror movies:

Makes me wanna take a look at Derrida's 'economic' book about the specters of marx. Thanks for inspiration, dear IPS fellows.

I've read the first chapter and would love to read on. Miller's got an excellent view on the impact of cultural translation of french pomo thinkers, and grounds these theorists in their own understanding of the antique classics. Also I appreciate the full-length bibliography which put some more debt on my Amazon credit card.


I'd like to share some free associations on the 'zombie' or 'metallic stem of the soul' theme:

- structures speaking through people, not people through structures (see Carpenter's 'They live'!)

- mean green meme evil deconstructionists running amok, not noticing what they are doing anymore

- like spectres, the zombies do not know that they are dead already. If they realized it, they would crumble into dust like Dorian Gray. they are just shadows, dark and hollow

- modernity, differentiation of sense and labour, absurdity, DaDa, losing the ground, spinning wheels

- the death drive is the negative of the cosmic imprint that Wilber speaks about. you know, like red is the Grand Canyon and so on. Then Derrida's zombies are the green shadow, or maybe the shadow of every color, rainbow shadow???

- Cancer. unlimited blind growth against all odds.

- systems failure, error 404 this link is not working anymore.

- machines coming alive and taking over the world, Matrix-Style. Skynet, Terminator etc.


just some unready ideas, of course


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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

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