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Culture and Passion October 13, 2007

Posted 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…



1. Huan - October 15, 2007

Interesting connection, I was thinking of fundamentalist Christians for some reason. I definitely agree that theres much benefit to detachment from such traditions. Yet I myself question the motivation of these Islamic extremists, I’ve heard various different views. Some claim that they are purely acting on their religious dedication, some argue terrorist events were meant to take down the dictatorship in power in the middle east. Many speculate that they are seriously angered by western meddling of their countries, which of course connects to the powerful dictatorships. I suppose in the end religious fundamentalism is possibly only a factor to the extremists. I personally don’t see merit in Zizek’s criticism, it does indeed seem to be a “logical mind trick”.

2. Dwight Furrow - October 16, 2007

I don’t know Zizek’s work well so I not sure of the theoretical underpinnings of his article. But I do think he is raising an important issue, that he unfortunately fails to illuminate.

The issue involes two questions. (1) Do substantive, cultural traditions express truths, provide the foundation for social cohesion, and provide adherents with a sense of the meaningfulness of life that is otherwise unavailable to them? And (2) must traditions, in order to perform these functions, be understood as moral absolutes? If the answer to these two questions is yes, and the acid of modernity erodes cultural traditions, then isn’t he right to complain about both Chinese and American attempts to subvert them?

The problem is that he never defends (1) or (2). His notion of “taking seriously” cultural traditions I suspect is a stand in for these premises but this is just a lot of hand waving.

On the other hand, you seem to be suggesting that a commitment to individual liberty and equality is itself a substantive cultural tradition. (i.e. your reference to “our culture”) Are liberty and equality a sufficient basis for culture. I am not convinced and it is one of the failures of liberalism that it has not answered this question.

3. Huan - October 16, 2007

Isn’t the dogmatic absolute features of those cultural traditions the very things that separate them from liberalism? I don’t think liberalism can be called a moral absolute because it is in many ways the very opposite. Moral absolutes seek to exclude, liberalism seeks to include to the most “just” extent. Tradition or not, this is one tradition that seeks to break absolute traditions, and breaking itself would mean the endorsement of absolute traditions.

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