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. »
The author of this article, 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). This quite helpfully explains his viewpoint before you delve into his tortuous reasoning adorned with beautifully labyrinthine English vocabularies.
Don’t get me wrong. This article is very thought-provoking, and definitely worth reading. Before we Chinese and Asian bow down to repent and recognize our Asian values as despicable, Dabashi helps us to see that this western intellectual pride has a long legacy among the European philosophical elites.
He found Žižek’s pedigree first of all in Emanuel Levinas (1906-1995) – the distinguished Lithuanian phenomenologist of Jewish ancestry. Levinas’ baffling dismissal of the non-European as non-human is no less controversial than Žižek given his Oriental ethnicity/political identification and Other ethics. Contrary to his phenomenological ethics that famously sought the sight of the (European) knowing subject in an encounter with « the face of the other », Levinas wrote:
« When I speak of Europe, 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. »
« I often say, 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. »
If Levinas is not enough « vintage West » to convince you of this racist strand of Western philosophy, then Edward Saïd ‘s Orientalism should help us to trace the roots of this intelligentsia virus back to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the father of the European Enlightenment.
« 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. »
Kant does not hate the Chinese in particular. Dabashi tries to convince us that he was quite ecumenical and cosmopolitan in this regard with this following Kantian citation:
« All these savages [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. »
More than that. For Kant, people of the African continent deserve an exclusive claim on stupidity. Regarding an African who might have said something worthy of Kant’s regards, the father of the European Enlightenment states:
Dabashi remarks on behalf of Kant:
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.
Dabashi concludes that the Žižek faulty ideology that « capitalism in the West it begat democracy and went wayward with Asian values » 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).
The New York Times seems to champion this rude proposition with an recent article that relegates the cause of the exacerbated disturbance in the Arab Spring to its lack of leading thinkers or intellectuals – contrary to all other revolutions:
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.
Dabashi is apparently not happy with this analysis as he raises a a few objections.
He challenges that if Žižek and Michael Moore can be rightly called the intellectual hero of #Occupy Wall Street, then where were they during the 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? « 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 » Dabashi is convinced that some Westerners need to deal with their myopia, for like all other revolutionary uprisings, « the Arab Spring is generating its own thinkers » (but we cannot name one yet).
He also questions how those thinkers and commentators can idealize the West as if the Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and Spain, Totalitarianism in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe (Zizek’s own backyard) were not European in their own roots?
He also rejects Max Weber’s thesis that capitalism has its very inception in the Protestant ethics and argues for capitalism’s inherent aterritorial disposition (but he does not provide an argument).
Reminiscent of what the french structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss had attempted discretely in his anthropological classic « Tristes Tropiques (憂鬱的熱帶), in conclusion Dabashi calls for a cosmopolitan vista of intellectual equality and of anthentic liberating ideas, instead of continual mind-boggling ethnicisation of the global calamity called capitalism, for
[t]hat world… 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.
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 ».
As I said, this article has from head to foot the proclivity to be thought-provoking, and I think it’s now we Chinese people’s turn to do some reflective work- on what exactly these Asian values are and how they have ruined the happy-ever-after marriage between capitalism and democracy [slash] Protestant ethics- with its forceful espousal to autocracy and Procrustean ethics perhaps?
- Zizek and Al Jazeera (slog.thestranger.com)
- Slavoj Zizek: The marriage between capitalism and democracy is over (dandelionsalad.wordpress.com)
China’s Strange Interest In Leo Strauss And Other Western … (this is a must read if you want to go further than Dabashi’s wrecked colonialist thesis)