Neoliberalism’s “Deep Orientalism” and the Refusal of the Sacred Other

Are we, in the unceasing change of all sublunary things, to imagine that the soul….is alone in the world, and without a sympathizing feeling throughout Nature? If self-knowledge prevent this unmeaning blank, is it not a delightful, desirable object? – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures

…there was a time, a long time, when [scientifically certified] knowledge was neither available nor wanted, but when many necessary things were nonetheless known.  Thomas Carlyle, writing…about the twelfth-century monk Jocelyn of Brakelond, had to confront this very question: ‘Does it never give the pause…that men then had a soul, not by hearsay alone, and as a figure of speech; but as a truth that they knew…'” – Wendell Berry, The Presence of Nature in the Natural World

In a recent CounterPunch article John Steppling pointed out that what is happening to the environment cannot be separated from America’s “deep colonial Orientalism” which allows left-leaners, without self-contradiction, to support “greener” more socialist candidates who will “sign off on the coup in Venezuela [which] cannot be separated from the occupation of Afghanistan or the slaughter in Yemen or mass incarceration and a violent militarized police.” Orientalism, which originated in the dualistic “occidental” European mind attempting to cope with the “Orient” as “other,” by now characterizes not only the dominant liberal attitude toward the ethnic, religious, or geographical “other,” but toward “the other” who looks like – and therefore ought to be like – oneself! Its counter-revolutionary thrust is felt in local communities; it works divisively against efforts by some of us to be self-defined and self-determined “at home,” to be decentralized, rooted in place, in family and community, to individuate against the banal totality, to defend that most vulnerable and most local being, the indigenous soul without which the project of returning to local identities, freed from colonialist, top-down identity, is doomed.

This deep Orientalism, still very much a consequence of western academia, and far from having been overcome by multiculturalism and minority studies on college campuses, is ever more entrenched and toxic. The difficulty in addressing it has intensified even since Said wrote Orientalism. The responsibility falls now upon individuals who, in answering the call to downscale, to restore relationships with the long-neglected and long-spurned “back home,” to commit to the circumstances of living in their own face-to-face communities, have moved into a social and economic environment that is now, in effect, (at least in my Utica case) the third world. Here they must face hydra-headed Orientalism not in terms of its influence on U.S. relations with the Arab world, etc., but as it resides in the minds of liberal friends who, mentally united in the neoliberal totality, do not and will not see the ruins – the third world reality – all around them and thus can maintain the illusion that they know what the real political struggle is (i.e., the lesser evilism one).

This struggle for individual identity in the face-to-face world has, as far as I know, no precedent. In the past, those who needed artistic or lifestyle freedom struck out from the local community and its demand for conformity to seek personal identity and fulfillment in the pluralistic, energizing City. Now, at least if we are to honor the fact there must be limits to growth, we need to consider if freedom might be realized at home, back among not only those “assigned” to remain local (mainly by school performance), but those whose professional career brought and/or keep them here. This latter educated group, in particular, while in many cases kindly, philanthropical, and more disposed to be objective towards their adopted community, is thoroughly acculturated in the kind of liberal orientalism I am talking about. In a real way, to seek one’s individual identity in the cramped space of the hometown is to find oneself in the position of antagonist and “other” to the liberal majority consensus.

Understand, and I say this without irony, that my liberal friends are almost awesomely good. For one thing, many of the local liberal professional population of Utica are sustaining patrons of our little coffeeshop business and enthusiastic supporters of our non-profit arts space. They are kind to us personally, and to our family; they are thoughtful and in countless ways demonstrate their caring for us. They are politically active, rather than apathetic, turning out especially during the Trump years to, for instance protest in front of the recently ousted congresswoman’s office every Friday afternoon for close to two years. They are positively “good” in a way that I, honestly, can never hope to be. And so, critical of “liberal bourgeois reality” as I am and, as writer, must be, it is impossible not to feel like a traitor to these excellent people, that is, to feel bad.

Because my creative process tunes me in to an alternative authority for my political perspective, I have no choice but to exist in this most uncomfortable – excruciating, actually – social space wherein my friends are in some sense equally my enemy. But as well, I reject the defensive reduction of “the other” to “wrong” or “bad.” This leaves me with a serious (religious) question: i.e., how can I trust that I – in my individual human embodiment – am good? I believe that the baffling context I describe (and am calling “orientalist”) is the totalitarian effect of liberal,white, bourgeois reality that includes everyone in its assumptions except those automatically marginalized by cultural, racial or class difference. For the rest of us, it being simply “what is,” the context can be experienced consciously if and only if one steps outside of the ever upward and onward liberal plan for progress and betterment, by, for example, making the backward “anti-move” to the local. Since liberal identity depends upon not taking that “non-step,” and as well lacks access to deeper, individual self-knowing by means of (religious) contemplation or art, the liberal must defensively assume, “we are all the same” and “sameness equals goodness.” Thus, I suggest, to be “good” because nature – or faith – made one so is not the same as being good compulsively such that one cannot bear any information that contradicts or disturbs the perilous persona of respectable goodness, or “rightness,” which is also called whiteness.

Such an intolerance for contradictory information makes self-policing fairly automatic, a behavioral tendency perhaps handed down from puritan/protestant ancestors to make ourselves guardians of the established order, i.e., to be impeccably, faultlessly good. The reflexive “compliance” of the liberal points to the toxified soul underneath, to the soul-sick suspicion of personal worthlessness, bequeathed in the enlightened rationalist order, that is too painful to face. The result, though long evident in our willingness as a society to condone genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, etc., and accelerated in our day by having been turned into consumers, and adjuncts of technology(i.e., robotization) reflects the devastating loss (for human beings) of metaphysical perspective. More than a spiritual deprivation, which can be addressed, for example by yoga, it is the loss of a spiritual authority that can appeal the verdict of personal worthlessness.

The fact that most people are ignorant of the deeper inward mythic/soul layer allows the toxification to be normalized. It gives over the authority of moral conviction, making way for the dominant nihilism, banality and dormant will that characterize neoliberalism. The Devil could not have come up with a neater trick. Unfortunately for the secular triumphants, there being no such thing as the Devil is no protection against the Evil One’s power, nor from the fact that the evil is unstoppable and cannot be removed except by supranatural means!

To every child born into this brave new world under the smiling, telegenic, liberal demeanor of One-World-Under-Capitalism is delivered the message of essential unworthiness or “wretchedness.” With no genuine, human-supporting culture to protect the child, to filter out the toxic message, it invades every child’s soul. Having by now, as a society, opened the doors wide to the consumerist, techno-worshipping, deeply insulting pseudo-culture, gone is any possibility of a mirror reflecting back an alternative message, i.e., of goodness, of destiny, of the great, if not-yet-known possibility each birth brings into the world. There being, as I’ve said, no countervailing (anarchist) authority, no child is safe.

Even well-meaning parents, themselves struggling under this burden of essential worthlessness, cannot counter the dominant message. This injury, imposed not by an abusive parent but by reality, the hegemonic reality of rationalist supremacism, inescapable and non-contradictable in the secular liberal context, is more insidious than the trauma of early abuse. Psychotherapy, which knows a lot about childhood abuse and spiritual deprivation, cannot apply words to this existential abuse because it cannot make a metaphysical critique. It cannot place itself outside the dominant neoliberal paradigm by standing up not only for the reality of the soul (psyche), but for its authority. To do so would be anarchism and career death. Perhaps the clergy, who are supposed to serve God over “Caesar.” although most of them serve a cautious God who never rocks the boat, are the “professionals” in the best position to stand up for the soul, if they would only take seriously the metaphysical reality they profess.

Thus the toxic culture is replicated in the society, each child-as-immigrant learning to despise her own essential being (i.e, her soul) as she represses her organic sense that something doesn’t “feel right.” She learns early that this is information no adult can bear, that she must, for their sake, be happy (or else be difficult, obstinate, neurotic, and/or in one way or another, “a Problem”) She must carry the information in herself, and protect them from it, i.e., from herself. Having no justification for her feeling, she buries the “toxic waste,” and learns to do what all the others are doing, i.e., to smile, be breezy and clever as much as possible, sarcastic, reflexively mean, ironic once she can manage abstract thought, be consummately good, etc. She learns to arm herself with these tools and to bury that other, contradictory, information coming from “the other.” Here, in fast-motion, is the origin of liberal bourgeois white reality. We are allowed, indeed encouraged, to be self-blaming, but never to be conscious of the deep conviction of toxicity, nor to attain knowledge of our genuine goodness. Most people will not go near the soul-wound because instinctively we know – a knowing deeper than the rejected Christian belief – that there is no savior, no saving grace, no salvation, nothing to hold us from falling into the abyss of the wound.

This deprived, depraved condition we now allow to be “good enough” for human beings. If one manages, through grace, I guess, to become inspired to do battle against this great wrong inflicted upon human beings in the shared neoliberal reality, the fundamental Evil that is the festering firmament out of which Trump and our entire fake political oppositional masquerade have sprung, one faces the strongest “silencing” effect ever devised. To speak on behalf of that which is good in oneself and in the other, to be this kind of “whistleblower,” is to speak religiously, and thus to bring the “religious conversation” out of its secularly imposed ghetto and into shared life. The one who contradicts the toxified sense of worthlessness pariahs herself within her own community, even in her own family, to a degree most of us properly socialized to be members of liberal society and sharing its default “goodness” (i.e., not to be antagonists to it) are unprepared to be. She/he must struggle mightily and creatively to identify herself as “good” against the impeccably seamless, defensive “good” of the liberal orientalist monoculture that is her society. But pariahhood in the cause of the human heart can be borne, and, I suggest, out to be sought by any who truly want to be part of the insurgency of the local and indigenous. The prophets now must return to be prophets in their own lands, and challenge Orientalism at its roots.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: