Culture and Passion October 13, 2007Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy.
This article by famed Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says some very interesting things: (1) China recently legislated about who can or cannot be reincarnated in Tibet, so in a roundabout way religion has found its way back into official China. But what kind of religion? The kind that will make the citizens comply, and (2) China has realized that “unbridled capitalism” works better than political force and threats as a deconstruction of traditional values. But more importantly, Zizek does a cultural critique of the West (“the sophisticates”) when we laugh at China regulating the afterlife, and condemn the Taliban for blowing up ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. Zizek, a “Lacanian postmodern” culture critic, sees the Western “sophisticates” as the ones with the problem (even though he includes himself): Our participation in cultural traditions has become precisely that, a cultural phenomenon rather that a phenomenon of passion:
“The significant issue for the West here is not Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to “culture.” All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies. While there are of course many religious believers in the West, especially in the United States, vast numbers of our societal elite follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores of our tradition only out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong: Christmas trees in shopping centers every December; neighborhood Easter egg hunts; Passover dinners celebrated by nonbelieving Jews.
“Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: They dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance.”
So somehow, fundamentalists are more “authentic” than Western “sophisticates”? For one thing, Zizek doesn’t take into consideration that some of us Westerners actually do take our cultures seriously, and think that some secular Western political and, yes, cultural traditions are worth celebrating, teaching, and in some cases dying for. (When I said something similar in a previous blog, a student accused me of being biased. Am I biased? You bet I am, in favor of systems that value human dignity, over systems that don’t.) And the reason why some of us call the fundamentalist mindset medieval is not because they take their beliefs seriously, but because they don’t allow for others to have different beliefs, to the point of beheading the unbelievers. He calls the Chinese attempt to legislate reincarnation a purely political move, which of course it is. But likewise he sees all our respect for other cultures as just a way to manage the political consequences of coexisting different mindsets. Here he forgets that we “sophisticates” actually don’t respect all other cultures, unless we are ethical relativists (and if we are, then we don’t criticize the Taliban, either)—our “culture” teaches us that cultures who respect other cultures are to be respected. Otherwise, they’re fair game for our criticism. So is Zizek sympathizing with terrorists? It looks to me as if this is merely an intellectual (and very witty) exercise, in the old Down-With-Capitalism-and-the-Degenerate-Capitalists vein, flirting with the forbidden: the ways of the fundamentalist terrorist. But what are we then supposed to be passionate about? The Postmodernist doesn’t say…