a zero level that is always already given
February 12, 2013, 9:35 pm
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Rez-de-chaussee is the ground floor of a building in France.  In that country you enter at the rez-de-chaussee, and climb the stairs to la premier etage.  In America, on the other hand, you enter a building from the street directly to the first floor.

Zizek, the Slovakian philosopher, uses these … construction notes, to illustrate a cultural difference between the European and American visions of freedom.

In his metaphor, the French rez-de- chaussee is a sort of ante chamber, outside of time, uncounted, a base of tradition from which we draw the resources needed to live a life of freedom.

Modern, traditionless America, on the other hand,  jumps directly into the deep end – equipped with credentialing and ambition  in lieu of the base of history and tradition that undergird the European way – and thereby finds its own kind of freedom.

Here is Zizek:

The lesson to be learned is that freedom of choice only functions if a complex network of legal, educational, ethical, economic and other conditions is present as the invisible background to the exercise of our freedom. This is why, as a counter to the ideology of choice, countries like Norway should be held up as models: although all the main agents respect a basic social agreement and large social projects are enacted in a spirit of solidarity, social productivity and dynamism are at extraordinary levels, contradicting the common wisdom that such a society should be stagnating.

In Europe, the ground floor of a building is counted as zero, so the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. This trivial difference indicates a profound ideological gap: Europeans are aware that, before counting starts – before decisions or choices are made – there has to be a ground of tradition, a zero level that is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While the US, a land with no proper historical tradition, presumes that one can begin directly with self-legislated freedom – the past is erased. What the US has to learn to take into account is the foundation of the “freedom to choose”.

Slavoj Zizek, Why Obama is more than Bush with a human face, Guardian

picture: the Spanish Steps in Rome


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