I Denial: The Liberal Utopia
Against the Tartar-Lovers
What is ideology? In January 2010 Jean-François Copé, the parliamentary leader of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, the ruling French party, proposed the draft of a law which bans the full-body veil from French streets and all other public places. This announcement came after an anguished six-month debate on the burqa and its Arab equivalent, the niqab, which cover the woman’s face, except for a small slit for the eyes. All main political parties expressed their rejection of the burqa: the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, said it is “totally opposed to the burqa” which amounted to a “prison for women.” The disagreements are of a purely tactical nature: although President Nicolas Sarkozy opposes an outright ban on the burqa as counter-productive, he called for a “debate on national identity” in October 2009, claiming that the burqa is “against French culture.” The law imposes fines of up to 750 euros on anyone appearing in public “with their face entirely masked”; exemptions permit the wearing of masks on “traditional, festive occasions,” such as carnivals. Stiffer punishments are proposed for men who “force” their wives or daughters to wear full-body veils. The underlying idea is that the burqa or niqab are contrary to French traditions of freedom and laws on women’s rights, or, to quote Copé: “We can measure the modernity of a society by the way it treats and respects women.” The new legislation is thus intended to protect the dignity and security of women—and what could be less problematic than such a struggle against an ideology (and a practice) which subjugates women to the most ruthless male domination?
Problems, however, begin with Sarkozy’s statement that veils are “not welcome” because, in a secular country like France, they intimidate and alienate non-Muslims . . . one cannot but note how the allegedly universalist attack on the burqa on behalf of human rights and women’s dignity ends up as a defense of the particular French way of life. It is, however,
not enough to submit this law to pragmatic criticism, such as the claim that, if implemented, it will only increase the oppression of Muslim women, since they will simply not be allowed to leave home and thus be even more cut off from society, exposed to harsh treatment within forced marriages, etc. (Furthermore, the fine will exacerbate the problems of poverty and joblessness: it will punish the very women who are least likely to have control over their own money.) The problem is a more fundamental one—what makes the whole debate symptomatic is, first, the marginal status of the problem: the whole nation talks about it, while the total number of women wearing both types of full-body veil in France is around 2,000, out of a total French population of adult Muslim women of about 1,500,000. (And, incidentally, most of those women who wear full-length veils are below the age of thirty, with a substantial proportion of them being French women who have converted.) The next curious feature is the ambiguity of the critique of the burqa: it moves at two levels. First, it is presented as a defense of the dignity and freedom of oppressed Muslim women—it is unacceptable that, in a secular France, any woman has to live a hidden life secluded from public space, subordinated to brutal patriarchal authority, and so on. Secondly, however, as a rule the argument then shifts towards the anxieties of non-Muslim French people: faces covered by the burqa do not fit with the coordinates of French culture and identity, they “intimidate and alienate non-Muslims” . . . Some French women have even suggested that they perceive the wearing of a burqa as their own
humiliation, as being brutally excluded, rejected from a social link.
This brings us to the true enigma here: why does the encounter with a face covered by a burqa trigger such anxiety? Is it that a face so covered is no longer the Levinasian face: that Otherness from which the unconditional ethical call emanates? But what if the opposite is the case? From a Freudian perspective, the face is the ultimate mask that conceals the horror of the Neighbor-Thing: the face is what makes the Neighbor le semblable
, a fellow-man with whom we can identify and empathize. (Not to mention the fact that, today, many faces are surgically modified and thus deprived of the last vestiges of natural authenticity.) This, then, is why the covered face causes such anxiety: because it confronts us directly with the abyss of the Other-Thing, with the Neighbor in its uncanny dimension. The very covering-up of the face obliterates a protective shield, so that the Other-Thing stares at us directly (recall that the burqa has a narrow slit for the eyes; we don’t see the eyes, but we know there is a gaze there). Alphonse
Allais presented his own version of Salome’s dance of seven veils: when Salome is completely naked, Herod shouts “Go on! On!”, expecting her to take off also the veil of her skin. We should imagine something similar with the burqa: the opposite of a woman removing her burqa to reveal her face. What if we go a step further and imagine a woman “taking off” the skin of her face itself, so that what we see beneath is precisely an anonymous dark smooth burqa-like surface, with a narrow slit for the gaze? “Love thy neighbor!” means, at its most radical, precisely the impossible = real love for this de-subjectivized subject, for this monstrous dark blot cut with a slit/gaze . . . This is why, in psychoanalytic treatment, the patient does not sit face to face with the analyst: they both stare at a third point, since it is only this suspension of the face which opens up the space for the proper dimension of the Neighbor. And therein also resides the limit of the well-known critico-ideological topic of the society of total control, in which we are constantly tracked and recorded—what eludes the eye of the camera is not some intimate secret but the gaze itself, the object-gaze as the crack/stain in the Other.
This brings us to the proper base (almost in the military sense of the term) of ideology. When we read an abstract “ideological” proclamation we are well aware that “real people” do not experience it abstractly: in order to pass from abstract propositions to people’s “real lives,” it is necessary to add the unfathomable density of a lifeworld context. Ideology is not constituted by abstract propositions in themselves, rather, ideology is itself this very texture of the lifeworld which “schematizes” the propositions, rendering them “livable.” Take military ideology for instance: it becomes “livable” only against the background of the obscene unwritten rules and rituals (marching chants, fragging, sexual innuendo . . .) in which it is embedded. Which is why, if there is an ideological experience at its purest, at its zero-level, then it occurs the moment we adopt an attitude of ironic distance, laughing at the follies in which we are ready to believe—it is at this moment of liberating laughter, when we look down on the absurdity of our faith, that we become pure subjects of ideology, that ideology exerts its strongest hold over us.1
This is also why, if one wants to observe contemporary ideology at work, all one need do is watch a few of Michael Palin’s travel programs on the BBC: their
underlying attitude of adopting a benevolent ironic distance towards different customs, taking pleasure in observing local peculiarities while filtering out the really traumatic data, amounts to postmodern racism at its most essential. When we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa, with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying ideological
message is something like: “Don’t think, don’t politicize, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!” Rousseau already understood perfectly the falsity of multiculturalist admirers of foreign cultures when, in Emile
, he warned of the “philosopher who loves Tartars in order to be dispensed from loving his neighbors.”2
So, when we talk about “objective spirit” (the substance of mores) as the complex web of unwritten rules which determine what we can say/see/do, we should complicate further Foucault’s description of a discursive episteme
: “objective spirit” also and above all determines that which we know but about which we have to talk and act as if we do not know, and that which we do not know but about which we have to talk and act as if we do know. It determines, in short, what we have to know but have to pretend we do not know. The rise of so-called ethnic and religious fundamentalism is a rebellion against this thick network of mores which anchors our freedoms in a liberal society. What is feared is not the uncertainties of freedom and permissiveness, but, on the contrary, the oppressive web of new regulations.3
So where is ideology? When we are dealing with a problem which is undoubtedly real, the ideological designation-perception introduces its invisible mystification. For example, tolerance designates a real problem—when I criticize it, I am, as a rule, asked: “But how can you be in favor of intolerance towards foreigners, of misogyny, of homophobia?”
Therein resides the catch: of course I am not against tolerance per se; what I oppose is the (contemporary and automatic) perception of racism as a problem of intolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle? The source of this culturalization is defeat, the failure of directly political solutions such as the social-democratic welfare state or various socialist projects: “tolerance” has become their post-political ersatz
. (The same goes for “harassment”: in today’s ideological space, very real forms of harassment such as rape are intertwined with the narcissistic notion of the individual who experiences the close proximity of others as an intrusion into his or her private space.) “Ideology” is, in this precise sense, a notion which, while designating a real problem, blurs a crucial line of separation.
This is also why Lacan claims: “I am not even saying ‘politics is the unconscious,’ but only ‘the unconscious is politics.’” The difference is crucial here. In the first case, the unconscious is elevated into the “big Other”: it is posited as a substance which really dominates and regulates political activity, as in the claim that “the true driving force of our political activity is not ideology or interest, but rather unconscious libidinal motivations.” In the second case, the big Other itself loses its substantial character, it is no longer “the
Unconscious,” for it transforms into a fragile inconsistent field overdetermined by political struggles. During a public debate at the New York Public Library a few years ago, Bernard-Henri Lévy made a pathetic case for liberal tolerance (“Would you not like to live in a society where you can make fun of the predominant religion without the fear of being killed for it? Where women are free to dress the way they like and choose a man they love?” and so on), while I made a similarly pathetic case for communism (“With the growing food crisis, the ecological crisis, the uncertainties about how to deal with questions such as intellectual property and biogenetics, with the erection of new walls between countries and within each country, is there not a need to find a new form of collective action which radically differs from market as well as from state administration?”). The irony of the situation was that, the case having been stated in these abstract terms, we could not but agree with each other. Lévy, a hard-line liberal anti-communist proponent of the free market, ironically remarked that, in this sense, even he was for communism . . . This sense of mutual understanding was proof that we were both knee-deep in ideology: “ideology” is precisely such a reduction
to the simplified “essence” that conveniently forgets the “background noise” which provides the density of its actual meaning. Such an erasure of the “background noise” is the very core of utopian dreaming.
What this “background noise” conveys is—more often than not—the obscenity of the barbarian violence which sustains the public face of law and order. This is why Benjamin’s thesis, that every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism, has a precise impact on the very notion of being civilized: “to be civilized means to know one is potentially a barbarian.”4
Every civilization which disavows its barbarian potential has already capitulated to barbarism. This is how one should read the report about a weird confrontation in Vienna in 1938, when the SS arrived to search Freud’s apartment: the aged and dignified Freud standing face to face with a young SS thug is a metaphor of what was best in the old European culture confronting the worst of the newly emerging barbarism. One should nonetheless remember that the SS perceived and legitimized themselves as the defenders of European culture and its spiritual values against the barbarism of modernity, with its focus on money and sex—a barbarism which, for the Nazis, was epitomized by the name “Freud.” This suggests that we should push Benjamin’s claim a step further: what if culture itself is nothing but a halt, a break, a respite, in the pursuit of barbarity? This, perhaps, is one of the ways to read Paul Celan’s succinct paraphrase of Brecht:
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much [implicitly] told?5
Parenthetically, the continuous rumors regarding wild orgies at the top of the KGB in Stalinist Russia, and even the personal characterizations of its various leaders (Yagoda, Yezhov, Beria) as voracious sexual perverts, may or may not have been true, but even if they were correct, they clearly contain a fantasmatic core, which imagines a site of extreme debauchery as the hidden truth, the obscene Other Scene, of the official Bolshevik asceticism. One should always be aware that such hidden truth is the inherent obverse of the official ideology and, as such, no less fantasmatic.
This brings us to the limit of liberal interpretations of Stalinism, which becomes palpable when liberal critics tackle the motivations of the Stalinist: they dismiss Stalinist ideology as a mere cynical and deceptive mask, and locate beneath it a brutal, egotistic individual who cares only about power and pleasure. In this way, the “pre-ideological” utilitarian individual is posited as the true figure beneath the ideological mask. The presupposition is here that the Stalinist subject related in a purely external-instrumental way towards his language, disposing of another code (the pre-ideological utilitarian one) which enabled him to be fully aware of his true motivations. But, what if—cynical though the Stalinists’ use of official jargon was—they did not dispose of any such alternative language to articulate their truth? Is it not this properly Stalinist madness which is obliterated by the liberal critics, ensuring that we remain safely moored in the commonsense image of a human being? 6
The gap between the official text of the Law and its obscene supplement is not limited to Western cultures; in Hindu culture, it occurs as the opposition between vaidika
(the Vedic corpus) and tantrika
—tantra being the obscene (secret) supplement to the Vedas, the unwritten (or secret, non-canonic) core of the public teaching of the Vedas, a publicly disavowed but necessary element. No wonder that tantra is so popular today in the West: it offers the ultimate “spiritual logic of late capitalism”7
uniting spirituality and earthly pleasures, transcendence and material benefits, divine experience and unlimited shopping. It propagates the permanent transgression of all rules, the violation of all taboos, instant gratification as the path to enlightenment; it overcomes old-fashioned “binary” thought, the dualism of mind and body, in claiming that the body at its most material (the site of sex and lust) is
the royal path to spiritual awakening. Bliss comes from “saying yes
” to all bodily needs, not from denying them: spiritual perfection comes from the insight that we already are
divine and perfect, not that we have to achieve this through effort and discipline. The body is not something to be cultivated or crafted into an expression of spiritual truths, rather it is immediately the “temple for expressing divinity.” We should note in passing here the opposition to Tarkovsky’s spiritual materialism that I have often touched on elsewhere: for Tarkovsky, the very material process of corruption
(decay, decomposition, rotting, inertia) is spiritual, ...