We enjoy limitless freedom of choice in the West, right? Wrong, says Slavoj Zizek, who takes a sideways glance at the 'truths' we hold dear
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was possible to buy soft-porn postcards of a girl clad in a bikini or wearing a dress; but when you moved the postcard a little bit or looked at it from a slightly different perspective, the dress magically disappeared and you could see the girl's naked body. This is parallax at its purest: the apparent change in an object caused by a shift in the observational position that allows you to see it in a different light. And, perhaps, we need a similar parallax shift to deal with the political and ideological conundrums facing us today.
In Amish communities, there is a practice called rumspringa (from the German herumspringen , to jump around): at 17, Amish children (till then subjected to strict family discipline) are set free, allowed to go out to learn and experience the ways of the world around them - they drive cars, listen to pop music, watch TV, get involved in drinking, drugs and wild sex. After a couple of years, they are expected to decide whether they will become members of the Amish community or leave it and turn into ordinary North American citizens. Far from this allowing the youngsters a truly free choice, giving them a chance to decide based on full knowledge and experience of both sides, such a solution is biased in a most brutal way. It is a fake choice if ever there was one. When, after long years of discipline and fantasising about the transgressive illicit pleasures of the outside "English" world, the adolescent Amish are thrown into it all of a sudden without preparation, they cannot but indulge in extreme transgressive behaviour, "testing it all" and throwing themselves fully into a life of sex, drugs and drinking. And, since they lack any inherent limitations or regulation, such a permissive situation inexorably backfires and generates unbearable anxiety. It is a pretty safe bet that, after a couple of years, they will return to the seclusion of their community. No wonder 90 per cent of Amish children do exactly that.
This is a perfect illustration of the difficulties that accompany the idea of "free choice": while Amish adolescents are formally given a free choice, the conditions they find themselves in while they are making that choice make it unfree. For them to have real free choice, they would have to be properly informed of all the options. But the only way to do this would be to extract them from their embeddedness in the Amish community, to make them "English".
This example clearly demonstrates the limitations of standard liberal attitudes towards Muslim women wearing a veil - Muslim women can wear the veil if it is their free choice and not an option imposed on them by their husbands or families. However, the moment women wear a veil as the result of their free individual choice (for example, for spiritual reasons), the meaning of wearing the veil changes completely: it is no longer a sign of their belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of their idiosyncratic individuality. Similarly, there is a difference between a Chinese farmer who eats Chinese food because his village has been doing so since time immemorial and a citizen of a Western megalopolis who decides to have dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. Such examples show that a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: only the woman who chooses not to wear a veil is really making a choice.
This is why, in our secular societies of choice, people who maintain a substantial religious belonging find themselves in a subordinate position: if they are allowed to practise their belief, this belief is "tolerated" as their idiosyncratic personal choice; the moment they present it publicly as a matter of substantial belonging, they are accused of "fundamentalism".
What this means is that the "subject of free choice" (in the Western "tolerant" multicultural sense) can emerge only as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn out of one's world, being cut off from one's roots.
And is this not how academic freedom functions? Nothing is more conducive to proper integration into the hegemonic ideologico-political community than a "radical" past in which one lived out one's wildest dreams. The latest examples are today's US neoconservatives, a surprising number of whom were Trotskyites in their youth. Were the glorious Parisian May 1968 protests just a collective rumspringa that, in the long term, contributed only to the reproductive capacity of the system?
In the face of calls for modest local "practical" action against the neocons, one is tempted to evoke French philosopher Alain Badiou's provocative thesis: "It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognises as existent."
Better to do nothing than to engage in localised acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly. The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to "be active", to "participate", to mask the Nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time in the effort to "do something" - academics participate in meaningless debates and so forth, and the truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all of this. Those in power often prefer even critical participation to silence - by engaging us in a dialogue, they break our ominous passivity.
This brings us back to parallax: all that is needed is a slight shift in our perspective, and bombarding those in power with impossible subversive (ecological, feminist, anti-racist, anti-globalist...) demands serves only to feed the machine of power. If we shift our perspective slightly, the legal regulations prescribing our duties and guaranteeing our rights can be seen as the expression of a ruthless power whose message to us, its subjects, is: "I can do whatever I want with you."
It was, of course, Kafka who was the master of this parallax shift with regard to the edifice of legal power. Kafka provides a strange, innocent new gaze upon the edifice of the law and practises a parallax shift that exposes the gigantic machinery of obscene jouissance in what previously appeared as the dignified edifice of the legal order.
This parallax structure is best exemplified by a chocolate-flavoured laxative available in the US and publicised with the paradoxical injunction "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!" - in other words, more of the very thing that causes constipation. This structure of the chocolate laxative, of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be seen in every part of today's ideological landscape; it is what makes a figure such as George Soros so ethically repulsive. Soros stands both for the most ruthless financial speculative exploitation and for humanitarian concerns about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy. Soros's daily routine is a lie embodied: half his working time is devoted to financial speculations, and the other half to "humanitarian" activities (providing finances for cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) that ultimately combat the effects of his own speculations. The same Soros who gives millions to projects aimed at encouraging tolerance may have ruined lives through his financial speculations and thus created the conditions for the rise of the very intolerance he is fighting. Consider also the two faces of Bill Gates: a hard businessman buying out competitors, aiming at virtual monopoly, employing all the tricks necessary to achieve his goals... and the greatest philanthropist in the history of mankind who spouts phrases such as: "What does it serve to have computers if people do not have enough to eat and are dying of dysentery?"
Charity and humanitarian help are no longer a sign of personal idiosyncrasy but a key part of the global political game: in a superego-blackmail of gigantic proportions, the developed countries are constantly "helping" the undeveloped (with aid, credits and so on), thereby obfuscating their complicity in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of these countries. So when we are bombarded with heart-warming news about debt cancellation or a big humanitarian campaign to eradicate epidemics, just move the postcard a little and you will glimpse the obscene pornographic figure beneath.
Slavoj Žižek is a senior researcher in the department of philosophy, University of Lubljana, Slovenia, and co-director of the Centre for Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London. This is an edited extract from The Parallax View , published next month by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.