Self-Deceptions. On being tolerant — and smug
Die Gazette, Israel, 27 August 2001.
When you are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes any more in the proclaimed ideals, when you encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, you should always counter such claims with a simple, yet intricate question: What is your gadget, your favorite illusionary escape-hatch?
Is the Balkan really an island of primitivism, exempted from this modernization? The case of Muslims as an ethnic, not merely religious, group in Bosnia is exemplary: during the entire history of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was the place of potential tension and dispute, the locale in which the struggle between Serbs and Croats for the dominant role was fought. The problem was that the largest group in Bosnia were neither the Orthodox Serbs nor the Catholic Croats, but Muslims whose ethnic origins were always disputed — are they Serbs or Croats. (This role of Bosnia even left a trace in idiom: in all ex-Yugoslav nations, the expression "So Bosnia is quiet!" was used in order to signal that any threat of a conflict was successfully defused.) In order to forestall this focus of potential (and actual) conflicts, the ruling Communist imposed in the 60s a miraculously simple invention: they proclaimed Muslims an autochthonous ETHNIC community, not just a religious group, so that Muslims were able to avoid the pressure to identify themselves either as Serbs or as Croats. What was so in the beginning a pragmatic political artifice, gradually caught on, Muslims effectively started to perceive themselves as a nation, systematically manufacturing their tradition, etc. However, even today, there remains an element of a reflected choice in their identity: during the post-Yugoslav war in Bosnia, one was ultimately forced to CHOOSE his/her ethnic identity — when a militia stopped a person, asking him/her threateningly "Are you a Serb or a Muslim?", the question did not refer to the inherited ethnic belonging, i.e. there was always in it an echo of "Which side did you choose?" (say, the movie director Emir Kusturica, coming from an ethnically mixed Muslim-Serb family, has chosen the Serb identity).
The more general point to be made here is that the global reflexivization/mediatization generates its own brutal immediacy whose figure was best captured by Etienne Balibar's notion of excessive, non-functional cruelty as a feature of contemporary life: a cruelty whose figures range from "fundamentalist" racist and/or religious slaughter to the "senseless" outbursts of violence performed by adolescents and the homeless in our megalopolises, a violence one is tempted to call Id-Evil, a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological reasons. All the talk about foreigners stealing work from us or about the threat they represent to our Western values should not deceive us: under closer examination, it soon becomes clear that this talk provides a rather superficial secondary rationalization. The answer we ultimately obtain from a skinhead is that it makes him feel good to beat foreigners, that their presence disturbs him… What we encounter here is indeed Id-Evil, i.e., the Evil structured and motivated by the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between the Ego and jouissance, by the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance in the very heart of it. Id-Evil thus stages the most elementary "short-circuit" in the relationship of the subject to the primordially missing object-cause of his desire: what "bothers" us in the "other" (Jew, Japanese, African, Turk) is that he appears to entertain a privileged relationship to the object — the other either possesses the object-treasure, having snatched it away from us (which is why we don't have it), or he poses a threat to our possession of the object. What one should propose here is the ultimate identity of these "useless" and "excessive" outbursts of violent immediacy, which display nothing but a pure and naked ("non-sublimated") hatred of the Otherness, with the global reflexivization of society; perhaps, the ultimate example of this coincidence is the fate of psychoanalytic interpretation. Today, the formations of the Unconscious (from dreams to hysterical symptoms) have definitely lost their innocence and are thoroughly reflexivized: the "free associations" of a typical educated analysand consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of their disturbances, so that one is quite justified in saying that we have not only Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian… interpretations of the symptoms, but symptoms themselves which are Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian…, i.e. whose reality involves implicit reference to some psychoanalytic theory. The unfortunate result of this global reflexivization of the interpretation (everything becomes interpretation, the Unconscious interprets itself) is that the analyst's interpretation itself loses its performative "symbolic efficiency" and leaves the symptom intact in the immediacy of its idiotic jouissance.
What happens in psychoanalytic treatment is strictly homologous to the response of neo-Nazi skinhead who, when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, suddenly starts to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood — the unity of practice and its inherent ideological legitimization disintegrates into raw violence and its impotent, inefficient interpretation. This impotence of interpretation is also one of the necessary obverses of the universalized reflexivity hailed by the risk-society-theorists: it is as if our reflexive power can flourish only insofar as it draws its strength and relies on some minimal "pre-reflexive" substantial support which eludes its grasp, so that its universalization comes at the price of its inefficiency, i.e., by the paradoxical reemergence of the brute Real of "irrational" violence, impermeable and insensitive to reflexive interpretation. So the more today's social theory proclaims the end of Nature and/or Tradition and the rise of the "risk society," the more the implicit reference to "nature" pervades our daily discourse: even when we do not speak of the "end of history," do we not put forward the same message when we claim that we are entering a "post-ideological" pragmatic era, which is another way of claiming that we are entering a post-political order in which the only legitimate conflicts are ethnic/cultural conflicts? Typically, in today's critical and political discourse, the term "worker" disappeared from the vocabulary, substituted and/or obliterated by "immigrants /immigrant workers: Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Mexicans in the USA/" — in this way, the class problematic of workers' exploitation is transformed into the multiculturalist problematic of the "intolerance of the Otherness," etc., and the excessive investment of the multiculturalist liberals in protecting immigrants's ethnic rights clearly draws its energy from the "repressed" class dimension. Although Francis Fukuyama's thesis on the "end of history" quickly fell into disrepute, we still silently presume that the liberal-democratic capitalist global order is somehow the finally-found "natural" social regime, we still implicitly conceive conflicts in the Third World countries as a subspecies of natural catastrophies, as outbursts of quasi-natural violent passions, or as conflicts based on the fanatic identification to one's ethnic roots (and what is "the ethnic" here if not again a codeword for nature?). And, again, the key point is that this all-pervasive renaturalization is strictly correlative to the global reflexivization of our daily lives.
Does, then, this mean that, today, "nobody believes"? One of the postmodern ironies is the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the "economic infrastructure," the European technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of "ideological superstructure," the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age "Asiatic" thought, which, in its different guises, from the "Western Buddhism" (today's counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to the "Asiatic" Marxism-Leninism) to different "Taos," is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of the global capitalism. Although "Western Buddhism" presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain the inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement. One should mention here the well-known topic of the "future schock," i.e. of how, today, people are no longer psychologically able to cope with the dazzling rhythm of the technological development and the social changes that accompany it — things simply move too fast, before one can accustom oneself to an invention, this invention is already supplanted by a new one, so that one more and more lacks the most elementary "cognitive mapping." The recourse to Taoism or Buddhism offers a way out of this predicament which definitely work better than the desperate escape into old traditions: instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of the technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination — one should, instead, "let oneself go," drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference towards the mad dance of the accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances which do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being… One is almost tempted to resuscitate here the old infamous Marxist cliche of religion as the "opium of the people," as the imaginary supplement of the terrestrial misery: the "Western Buddhist" meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way, for us, to fully participate in the capitalist dynamics, while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. If Max Weber were to live today, he would definitely wrote a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of the Global Capitalism.
And, instead of playing the old game of the aggressive Islamic monotheism against the "gentle" Buddhism, one should rather use the bombing of the Bamiyan status to reflect on a more fundamental deadlock. It is not only that Western Buddhism, this pop-cultural phenomenon preaching inner distance and indifference towards the frantic pace of the market competition, is arguably the most efficient way, for us, to fully participate in the capitalist dynamics, while retaining the appearance of mental sanity — in short, the paradigmatic ideology of late capitalism. One should add that it is no longer possible to oppose this Western Buddhism to its "authentic" Oriental version; the case of Japan delivers here the conclusive evidence. Not only do we have today, among the Japanese top managers, the wide-spread "corporate Zen" phenomenon; in the whole of the last 150 years, Japan's rapid industrialization and militarization, with its ethics of discipline and sacrifice, was sustained by the large majority of Zen thinkers — who, today, knows that D.T.Suzuki himself, the high guru of Zen in the America of the 60s, supported in his youth, in Japan of the 30s, the spirit of utter discipline and militaristic expansion. There is no contradiction here, no manipulative perversion of the authentic compassionate insight: the attitude of total immersion into the self-less "now" of the instant Enlightenment, in which all reflexive distance is lost and "I am what I do," as C.S.Lewis put it, in short: in which absolute discipline coincides with total spontaneity, perfectly legitimizes one subordination to the militaristic social machine. Or, to put it in somewhat simplified terms (which, however, just repeat the central ethical lesson of Bhagavadgita): if the external reality is ultimately just an ephemeral appearance, even the most horrifying crimes eventually DO NOT MATTER.
"Western Buddhism" thus perfectly fits the fetishist mode of ideology in our allegedly "post-ideological" era, as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode, in which the ideological lie which structures our perception of reality is threatened by symptoms qua "returns of the repressed," cracks in the fabric of the ideological lie. Fetish is effectively a kind of envers of the symptom. That is to say, symptom is the exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance, the point at which the repressed truth erupts, while fetish is the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth. Let us take the case of the death of a beloved person: when I "repress" this death, I try not to think about it, but the repressed trauma persists and returns in the symptoms. Say, after my beloved wife dies of the breast cancer, I try to repress this fact by throwing myself into hard work or vivacious social life, but then there is always something which reminds me of her, I cannot escape her ghost haunting me. In the case of a fetish, on the contrary, I "rationally" fully accept this death, I am able to talk about her most painful moments in a cold and clear way, because I cling to the fetish, to some feature that embodies for me the disavowal of this death. In this sense, a fetish can play a very constructive role of allowing us to cope with the harsh reality: fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly "realists," able to accept the way things effectively are — since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to cancel the full impact of reality.
So, when we are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes in the proclaimed ideals, when we encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question: OK, but where is the fetish which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality "the way it is"? "Western Buddhism" is such a fetish: it enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle is — what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.
From: Die Gazette, Israel, 27 August 2001.