Slavoj Zizek and Harum Scarum

By saying “Asian values” have corrupted capitalism, Zizek aligns himself with generations of Orientalist thinkers.

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In Gene Nelson’s “Harum Scarum” (1965), featuring Elvis Presley as the Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Tyronne, we meet the action movie star travelling through the Orient while promoting his new film, “Sands of the Desert”. Upon arrival, however, Elvis Presley/Johnny Tyronne is kidnapped by a gang of assassins led by a temptress “Oriental” named Aishah, who wish to hire him to carry out an assassination. Emboldened by proper “Western virtues”, Elvis will do no such thing and manages to sing and dance his way out of the way of the conniving “Orientals”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, made a rather abrupt staccato observation – a hit-and-run strike worthy of an action hero – very much reminiscent of the fate of Elvis Presley and his Oriental sojourn:  

“I think today the world is asking for a real alternative. Would you like to live in a world where the only alternative is either anglo-saxon neoliberalism or Chinese-Singaporean capitalism with Asian values? I claim if we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new type of authoritarian society. Here I see the world historical importance of what is happening today in China. Until now there was one good argument for capitalism: sooner or later it brought a demand for democracy … What I’m afraid of is, with this capitalism with Asian values, we get a capitalism much more efficient and dynamic than our western capitalism. But I don’t share the hope of my liberal friends – give them ten years [and there will be] another Tiananmen Square demonstration – no, the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over.” 

What precisely are these “Asian values,” when uttered by an Eastern European, we Asians of one sort or another may wonder? Did capitalism really have to travel all the way to China and Singapore (as Elvis did to the Orient) to lose all its proper Western virtues (and what exactly might they be) and become corrupted (or indeed carry its destructive forces to its logical conclusions)? So, are we to believe, when it flourishes in “the West”, capitalism flowers in democracy and when it assumes “Asian values” it divorces that virtue and becomes a promiscuous monster?

Elvis Presley indeed. Let us rescue capitalism from that treacherous Aishah and her Asian values and have it go back to his Western virtues.

What Zizek is warning the world against is capitalism with its newly acquired “Asian values”, as distinct from what he calls “our [his] Western capitalism”, he insists, obviously adorned with “Western virtues” – which promiscuity has already resulted in decoupling the happily-ever-after marriage of capitalism and democracy. In other words, capitalism “Western style” brought the world the fruit of democracy, and capitalism with “Asian values” becomes … what, well obviously not democratic, but instead driven to its extreme ends, namely totalitarianism, fascism, coldblooded, cutthroat, capitalism – none of which was evidently in sight at the birthplace of capitalism and democracy: “the West”. The proposition becomes “curiouser and curiouser” – as Alice would say. Is that Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, anticolonial nationalism, Third World Socialism, Satyajit Ray’s realism, Akira Kurosawa’s, Kiarostami’s, perhaps – which “Asian values” have replaced the proper Protestant ethics and corrupted the good old spirit of capitalism – one might wonder, for we Asian followers of Al Jazeera and its featured interviews are at a loss here?

Why is it that the marriage of capitalism to “Asian values”, whatever they are, results in calamity while when it was happily married to “the West”, it had given the world the gift of democracy? Should we think of these “Asian values” as a treacherous harlot, or perhaps a harem full of temptresses (Aishahs to Zizek’s Elvis Presley) who have seduced the poor old capitalism and led him astray to divorce his pious spouse “the West”, and abandon their beloved child – democracy? The metaphor is quite amusing – were it not revealing more than Elvis Presley wished to sing in this particular desert.

Zizek’s pedigree

That “Asian values” (we are on a blind date here for we have no blasted clue what they are) should bring out the worst in capitalism – and thus the “Orientals” who gave birth to these values lacking any decent, emancipatory, liberating thoughts or dreams – is no invention of Zizek. The thought is deeply rooted in European philosophy.

On more than one occasion Emanuel Levinas (1906-1995) – the distinguished Lithuanian phenomenologist – who was no Elvis Presley and positively lacked all manners of antics and theatricalities in his thoughts and manners – went out of his way to dismiss the non-European as non-human. “When I speak of Europe,” he wrote, “I think about the gathering of humanity. Only in the European sense can the world be gathered together … in this sense Buddhism can be said just as well in Greek.”

The problem is that if humanity were to follow Levinas’ decree and gather in Europe to become human they are not welcomed there – and will first have to shave their beards, take certain items of their clothing off, change the colour of their skins, chop off portions of their nose, alter the pigment of their eyes, and Almighty only knows what else to become human. Staying what and who they are, how they were born, they are no human – in the eye of the ethical philosopher who famously sought the sight of the (European) knowing subject in an encounter with “the face of the other”.

“I often say,” Levinas said (not once or twice, but “often”), “although it is a dangerous thing to say publicly, that humanity consists of the Bible and the Greeks. All the rest can be translated: all the rest – all the exotic – is dance.”

So these “Asian values” that Zizek has in mind might perhaps have something to do with our habitual Asian dancing moves – the way his European predecessor thought of all we have ever thought or done. Though one may remain baffled as to why this “is a dangerous thing to say publicly” – what Levinas was wont of saying frequently.

“I always say,” again Levinas confesses that he is quite fond of thinking this way, “but under my breath,” he stipulates, “that the Bible and the Greeks present the only serious issues in human life; everything else is dancing. There is no racism intended.”

Of course no racism was intended – and no racism was taken, sir. This is just a pure phenomenological truth that we Asians like to dance a lot and become human only to the degree by which we can come close to the Bible and the Greeks. But the question remains: do we, sir, stop dancing when we pick up your Bible and befriend the Greeks – can we manage to sit still and perhaps learn a thing or two to correct our Asian ways?

Geography and history be damned – the Bible came into being in Asia, the Greeks and their philosophies were known in Asia centuries before “Europe” was invented as a civilisational category – in the mind of the ethical philosopher we poor Asian folks become alien to what we have in fact produced and what we have known.

Why (we might, caught as we are in our “Asian values” wonder) would a philosopher single out to denounce non-European thinking as not just irrelevant, but in fact non-human? Why just privileging the European (and their take on the Bible) as the only thing that matter – as the only thing human?

There is now an entire industry dedicated to dissecting Heidegger’s philosophy not as incidental but in fact as definitive to Nazism – and rightly so. But re-read these sentences: is Levinas any less integral to Zionism than Heidegger was to Nazism? Is it strange, with that kind of philosophical imprimatur from probably the most prominent Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century that Israelis do not consider Palestinians human? Even after the horrors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Levinas, in a famous radio interview, refused even to acknowledge Palestinians as human enough to be his “other”. He said his definition of the other was “completely different” – and concluded that: “There are people who are wrong.” In his thinking Levinas looked at Palestinians and with them at Arabs, Muslims, the whole world outside Europe and their take on the Hebrew Bible through the gun barrel of the Israeli soldiers: a moving target, a dancing duck.  

From Zizek to Levinas to Kant

Even Levinas should not be singled out, as the origin of this illustrious record of dislodging humanity at large from the fold of “the West” as the single site of what it means to be human. “What trifling grotesqueries do the verbose and studied compliments of the Chinese contain!” That is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the father of the European Enlightenment. Kant insists: “Even their paintings [that is Chinese painting] are grotesque and portray strange and unnatural figures such as are encountered nowhere in the world. They also have the venerable grotesqueries because they are of very ancient custom, and no nation in the world has more of these than this one.” When Zizek says capitalism is now corrupted with “Asian values” and is no longer conducive to democracy the way “our [his] Western capitalism” maybe he had these “grotesqueries” of Kantian vintage in mind. One never knows.

Kant was not particular about the Chinese, to be sure. He was quite ecumenical and cosmopolitan in this regard: “All these savages” – here he is talking about Native Americans – “have little feeling for the beautiful in moral understanding, and the generous forgiveness of an injury, which is at once noble and beautiful, is completely unknown as a virtue among the savages, but rather is disdained as a miserable cowardice.”

Similar sentiments are also applicable to Indians and the rest of humanity – though minus Africa, where people of that particular continent have an exclusive claim on stupidity for Kant. Regarding an African who might have said something worthy of Kant’s regards, the father of the European Enlightenment states: “And it might be that there were something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”

The only way that some “Orientals” were to approximate humanity was if they were to become like Europeans – for which Kant volunteered Arabs as Spaniards, Persians as French, and Japanese as Englishmen.

The point here is not to give a litany of colourful skeletons hiding in the closets of European philosophy, or to reduce that multifaceted philosophical tradition to these unsavoury revelations, or to dismiss the entirety of a philosophical heritage based on these scattered comments. European philosophy, like any other philosophy the world over issued from the vantage point of power and hubris (including the philosophical heritage of empires of Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, Chinese, Indians, etc), ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Nor is the point to cater to a vulgar nativism, which has been one particularly unfortunate byproduct of Edward Said’s Orientalism. From within European philosophy itself, much critical and emancipatory reactions to such racist proclivities have been widely evident. The point, rather, is to mark the historic enabling of any philosophical legacy by the imperial power of denying it to others. What unites Kant, Levinas, and Zizek (among many others) is that their self-universalising philosophies are invariably predicated on denying others the capacity to think critically or creatively by way of enabling, authorising, and empowering themselves to think for the world.

That world, however, is coming to an end – and folks like Zizek have no blasted clue how to read the change. They write a piece for London Review of Books denouncing anything from the Arab Spring to European uprisings in Spain and Greece as pointless one day, and next day they pop up in the Zuccotti Park in Wall Street reading redundant and silly stories about a Walt Disney cat falling from the precipice and not noticing it – that cat is in fact Zizek himself and his brand of philosophy – all it has to do is just look down and it is no more.

Can the Arabs think?

That when capitalism is with “the West” it begat democracy and when it went wayward with “Asian values” it became positively promiscuous is predicated on the idea that “Orientals” (a la Kant and Levinas’ reading of them) are incapable of thinking on their own feet (for they are black and too busy dancing), produce ideas – rebellious, principled, and defiant ideas – a proposition that has now found its way from the hidden pages of European philosophy to the leading articles in North American newspapers. The New York Times, for example, believes that – contrary to all other revolutions – there are no thinkers for the Arab Spring:

It has not yet yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues – from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Hevel – helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.

The immediate thought that might occur to a groovy “Oriental” is just a sense of wonder: we now have had even longer years of recent uprising in Europe, from workers in Greece to the Indignados in Spain to students and looters in the UK – a succession of uprisings that in fact predates the Arab Spring – and who exactly, prithee, is the leading “intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward.” Zizek? What about in the US – people have been revolting against the bailing out of banks long before the Occupy Wall Street began in Fall 2011. Exactly which prominent US intellectual does the New York Times have in mind that Arabs have failed to match? Michael Moore? Michael Moore and Zizek are perfectly fine activists who can go to Al Jazeera or the Keith Olbermann show and express solidarity with a social uprising. But in what way have the Arabs failed to match these or any other thinker, activist, public intellectual?   

What appears to the New York Times as an absence of leading Arab intellectuals deeply engaged with their revolutions is not just a projection of ignorance. It is a confusion of the order of things. There is nothing the matter with the Arab Spring – or the European Summer, or the American Fall for that matter. This is a winter of global discontent that the New York Times fails to read and thus asks flawed questions, putting the proverbial cart of these revolts before the horse.

Like all other revolutionary uprisings, the Arab Spring is generating its own thinkers. Marx did not cause the revolutions of 1848, the revolutions of 1848 created Marx, as did the American Revolution Thomas Paine, the Russian revolution Lenin, etc. The hands of the New York Times are too far away even from the Zuccotti Park under its own nose let alone from the pulse of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square to know where its thinking takes place – precisely as Zizek pathologises “Asian values” with having exacerbated the disease of capitalism so that his body-philosophy can be cleansed for renewed thinking – having disqualified “Asians” from any such emancipatory ideas – not in opposition to the delusion of “the West”, but in apposition to the emerging world they are helping shape.

Overthrowing the regime of knowledge

When people from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another cry “people demand the overthrow of the regime”, they mean more than just their political regime. They also mean the regime of knowledge that does not see from pogroms to the Holocaust as equally embedded in “Western values”, does not see Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and Spain, Totalitarianism in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe (Zizek’s own backyard), horrid racism across the European history, and all other sorts of diseases spreading from one end of Europe to another as coterminous with capitalism while married to the West – and cherry picks democracy as their only offspring, and when aterritorial capitalism wreaks havoc like a bubonic plague around the globe he looks for an flu strain he calls “Asian values”.

Orientalising capitalism retroactively Westernises an authenticity, for it that is entirely antithetical to its globalising proclivity from the get go. Zizek seeing its demise in its Orientalisation reflects back on Max Weber’s attempt to seek its origin in the Protestant ethics – from Weber to Zizek missing entirely on the aterritorial disposition of capitalism in its very inception.

Far more important than any ethnicisation of a global calamity called capitalism is the vista of liberating ideas that accompany – not lead – these uprisings in successive seasons of our discontent. Here, fortunately, East and West, or being Asian, African, Latin American, European, or American no longer makes any difference. The divisive world of “the West and the rest” no longer exists. We are on the verge of a new dispensation, a new world we are about to discover. In the making of that future, we, ordinary folks the world over, may occasionally look back at these prominent European philosophers – from Kant to Levinas to Zizek – without any rancour or jest and simply ask ourselves if, with that depth of dismissal and denigration – categorically pathologising humanity at large outside their European tunnel vision – they have anything to say about the liberating vistas of the emerging world. As a philosopher Zizek is the very last whimper of that bang called “the West” that had frightened the world out of the necessary confidence to generate any idea they never dreamt in their philosophies – for to them whatever we say is “grotesquery,” whatever we do is “dancing”, for we are (and in that emancipatory acclamation Zizek is welcome to join us) “quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what we say is stupid”.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his most recent books is Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.