Slavoj Zizek and Harum Scarum

Hamid Dabashi in Al Jazeera:

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.

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