Slavoj Zizek skewers the West

Slavoj Zizek continues his exhilarating onslaught on Western thought, this time through an op-ed column in the New York Times. The occasion for this column is the attempt by China to regulate the reincarnation laws of the Buddhist faith, but Zizek uses this focus on the East to skewer the West. He accomplishes this by (1) showing how Western (Christian) states have regulated religion in a similar way, (2) demonstrating how the Chinese government has taken a uniquely Western approach in controlling Tibet, and (3) arguing that Western intellectual sophistication is just as backwards and absurd as the Chinese government. In the end, Zizek succeeds in critiquing modern American intellectualism, political correctness and the doctrine of toleration, and the general Western conception of “culture.” I highly recommend this column.

I want to point out one passage in particular, which deals with the second point listed above. In this column, Zizek brilliantly attacks capitalism, as he often does in his writings. He does so here by looking at the way China attempts to control Tibet:
In recent years, the Chinese have changed their strategy in Tibet: in addition to military coercion, they increasingly rely on ethnic and economic colonization. Lhasa is transforming into a Chinese version of the capitalist Wild West, with karaoke bars and Disney-like Buddhist theme parks.

In short, the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers terrorizing Buddhist monks conceals a much more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the United States. Beijing finally learned the lesson: what is the oppressive power of secret police forces, camps and Red Guards destroying ancient monuments compared to the power of unbridled capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations?
This is the real evil of capitalism: its subversion of all traditional social relations. I am always surprised by the way traditionalist Christians so eagerly defend capitalism. I receive a continuous stream of pro-capitalistic propaganda from family members who are blind to the way capitalism destroys the very social relations they claim to uphold. Capitalism is certainly not an unqualified evil; but its benefits by no means outweigh its destructive global influence.

One last section from this column deserves mention. Zizek closes with a stinging criticism of Western “tolerance” and cultural appreciation, in which he points out that our sophistication is built on a “proper distance” from one’s cultural that allows us to treat culture like an object. Zizek writes:
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.
Because we think ourselves capable of surveying the world from an Olympian height, we can treat culture like an object for us to appreciate, but not as an identity that really shapes who we are. Culture is a set of practices that we voluntarily enjoy, but which demand nothing from us. We are lords of our own cultural-religious identity. Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity in modern sophisticated America has become just another cultural object from which we are trained to maintain the “proper distance”?

Comments

Brad said…
Because we think ourselves capable of surveying the world from an Olympian height, we ... are lords of our own cultural-religious identity. Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity in modern sophisticated America has become just another cultural object from which we are trained to maintain the “proper distance”?

An amazingly honest confession, David.
D.W. Congdon said…
It's a confession that applies to everyone, including yourself. I'm sure you find some pleasure in identifying the "we" with me, but of course it is a linguistic convention that is inclusive of everyone who reads this.

So let me return the favor: an amazingly honest confession, Brad.
Arni Zachariassen said…
Is the article on-line? You didn't post a link.. Looks fantastic - like most everything Zizek says.
D.W. Congdon said…
Oops. I've added the link. Thanks for catching that.
Lee said…
I don't know what to make of Zizek - of the people I know who've heard of him (admittedly a minority) about half think he's brilliant and the other half think he's a complete charlatan.

However, if he's right, then the urgent question to me is whether there's a "third way" between liberal tolerance/detachment on the one hand and, say, the Taliban or the Red Chinese on the other. I mean, if those are the only options I'd take liberalism and live with the consequences.
John Meunier said…
Every cultural system is an attack on tradition if the tradition is different.

For instance, Christianity is a brutal attack on traditional culture in some parts of Africa. It was certainly seen as an attack on tradition in the Roman Empire.

It is not that tradition is eroded, it is what replaces it that matters.

Isn't it?

(This comment reads more like an assertion than I intend. It is a question.)
jpe said…
As someone with a serious soft spot for nihilism, I simply adore American hyper-capitalism.

Zizek is one of the few that understands that ideological alliances have been stood on their head: that Christians support capitalism and its ruthless power to negate and subsume all meaning into its inescapable dialectics is baffling.
jpe said…
half think he's brilliant and the other half think he's a complete charlatan.

That'll be the impression with any systematic thinker: Zizek has a distinct methodology and set of problematics, and tends to apply them. The original insights are brilliant, but the output can seem like a post-structuralist assembly line. And, he tends to recycle the same material (this Tibet-China thing has been in several books in virtually identical form)

It is not that tradition is eroded, it is what replaces it that matters.

What's truly unique about the Western method of cultural replacement is that it replaces the other culture with a facsimile of itself. (the Chinese, learning this lesson, replace Tibetan monasteries with tourist-trap Potemkin monasteries).

Not only the original is replaced, then, but even the memory of the original is replaced by the copy of itself. It's a far more thorough and devious erasure.
zTransmissions said…
i read this last fall and immediately forwarded it to everyone i know. i had been waiting for someone to be able to articulate my malaise about hypocrisy of euro-american attitudes about these sorts of things. would that i were smart enough to have figured out how to make this deceptively simple argument myself. thanks for your post.