In the course of commenting on Archbishop Rowan Williams’ position on sharia law in the UK in his latest book, Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek remarks:
[T]he moment a woman wears a veil as the result of her free individual choice, the meaning of her act changes completely: it is no longer a sign of her direct substantial belongingness to the Muslim community, but an expression of her idiosyncratic individuality, of her spiritual quest and her protest against the vulgarity of the commodification of sexuality, or else a political gesture of protest against the West. A choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is one thing to wear a veil because of one’s immediate immersion in a tradition; it is quite another to refuse to wear a veil; and yet another to wear one not out of a sense of belonging, but as an ethico-political choice. This is why, in our secular societies based on “choice,” people who maintain a substantial religious belonging are in a subordinate position: even if they are allowed to practice their beliefs, these beliefs are “tolerated” as their idiosyncratic personal choice or opinion; the moment they present them publicly as what they really are for them, they are accused of “fundamentalism.” What this means is that the “subject of free choice” (in the Western “tolerant” multicultural sense) can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn away from one’s particular lifeworld, of being cut off from one’s roots.
A few questions.
What does ‘culture’ mean in a society that so powerfully valorizes choice per se? If the existence of culture depends upon a fixity of choice, a durability achieved through renunciation and prohibition (can there be a culture without ‘thou shalt nots’?), what remains of culture when society’s shape is determined not be the preservation of memory through the fixing of desire upon common objects of love guarded by interdiction, but by the whims of consumers in the market, the fickleness of mimetic desire, and the dictates of market trends? Does such a society become an amorphous anti-culture (or post-culture?), little more than an agglomeration of swirling patterns of lifestyle consumer choices?
If choice is only permitted under the modality of the meta-choice that affirms and remains subject to a fundamental and primal voluntarism, entailing a rejection of any truly cultural Choice that represents a commitment to a substantial good that claims to trump voluntarism (and thus re-introduce the interdiction that is almost invariably entailed by a social commitment to a form of freedom inseparable from particular ‘goods’, rather than ‘choice’ as such), what becomes of identity?
How does all of this relate to the Christian doctrine of baptism? If, on the one hand, as writers like Peter Leithart and Oliver O’Donovan have observed, infant baptism represents the rejection of the tyranny of modern voluntarism by asserting a Choice that precedes and grounds and defines our choice (our choice ceases to be the ex nihilo self-creating word, but our chosen answer to Another’s prior Choice), baptism has also been clearly associated with the creation of the universal human, ‘unplugged’ from particular social substance, and granted a new choice and freedom with regard to his own being (a theme present in certain Early Church fathers, for instance). How do we maintain both sides of this picture, and yet still maintain the contrast with the voluntaristic ‘freedom’ of the postmodern subject? How do we both resist the reduction of Christianity to merely a given cultural identity among others, or yet another religious lifestyle choice in the postmodern marketplace?